Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, cultural critic, and Lacanian psychoanalyst. A prolific writer and lecturer, he is best known for his seemingly endless supply of brilliant and provocative insights into contemporary politics and culture.from JSTOR Daily
From his home in Ljubljana, Žižek was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about how we should best understand his ideas. In the wide-ranging style that he has come to be known for, I also learned why he cannot resist a dirty joke, why the task of philosophy is to corrupt the youth, and why the man once dubbed “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” is aiming at something much more modest.
Mike Bulajewski: What is the best text to read to understand your work?
Slavoj Žižek: Although there are a couple of candidates to understand the philosophical background, maybe the first book of my colleague and friend Alenka Zupančič on Lacan and Kant, Ethics of the Real, comes pretty close to the top.
But it depends which type of writing you mean because obviously in the last decade or so I’ve written two types of things: on the one hand, these more philosophical books, usually about Hegel, post-Hegelian thought, Heidegger, the transcendental approach to philosophy, brain sciences, and so on. On the other hand, more politically engaged work. First, I think that my philosophical books are much superior. My more political writings like The Courage of Hopelessness, Against the Double Blackmail, and so on, these are things that I myself don’t fully trust. I think I’m writing them just to say something that I always expect somebody else should have said. Like, why are others who are more professional not doing it?
Of philosophical books, I think it’s the one that comes after Less Than Nothing: Absolute Recoil. I think this is the ultimate statement of my philosophical position up until now. Now I’m trying to catch up with that one because I’m always obsessed by the idea that the essential insight skipped me, that I didn’t catch it. My big trauma was finishing that mega book Less Than Nothing. It’s over 1,000 pages, but immediately after finishing it I was afraid I didn’t catch the basic thought, so I tried to do it in Absolute Recoil. But it’s a more difficult book.
What do you think is the most misunderstood concept in your work? Do you think there’s something that we, the readers, don’t want to understand?
It’s not so much a concept as maybe a topic. I think that my philosophical books are not even so widely read, and they are usually misunderstood. What I aim at is a very precise intervention. We are in a certain very interesting philosophical moment where the deconstructive approach, which in different versions was predominant in the last couple of centuries, is gradually disappearing. Then we have—how should I call it—the new positivism, brain sciences, even quantum physics—these scientific ways to reply to philosophical questions. Stephen Hawking said in one of his later books that today, philosophy is dead, science is approaching even basic philosophical questions, and he was right in some sense. Today, if you ask, “Is our universe finite or infinite? Do we have an immortal soul or not? Are we free or not?” People look to answers for these questions in evolutionary biology, brain sciences, quantum physics—not in philosophy.
So, between these two extremes, is there a place for philosophy proper? Not just this deconstructionist, historicist reflection asking, “What is the social context or the discursive context of a work,” but also not a naïve realism, let’s look at reality how it is, and so on. Usually this basic thrust of my work is not understood. So, for me, it is quite comical how I am often for the same work attacked by both sides attributing to me the opposite position. For some Habermasian theorists of discourse, I am a naïve psychoanalytic positivist. For brain scientists, I am a still naïve European metaphysician or whatever.
But now we come to the interesting part. In my political writings, I noticed, the same is happening. You remember, maybe you caught an echo of the ridiculous exchange I had a few months ago with Jordan Peterson. You know what I find so comical there? On the one hand, politically correct, transgender, #MeToo people attacked me for being—I don’t know—anti-politically correct, anti-gay basically, even a Trump supporter, alt-right guy or whatever. Many of them—especially after my criticism of some of the aspects of #MeToo and the transgender movement—see me as an enemy. But the large majority of partisans of Jordan Peterson who reacted to my two short texts attacked me as a pure example of deconstructionism, cultural Marxism, and so on. What was really interesting about their reactions to my work was how, for the same text, I am often attacked by both sides. My old political book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, I find it quite funny… My Arab friends accused me of being too sympathetic to Zionism and that I am spreading some Zionist lies there and so on. An Egyptian friend told me there was an attack on my book in Al Achram, the main Egyptian daily, almost two decades ago, attacking me as the most perfidious Zionist propaganda. On the other hand, Jerusalem Post, the main center-right daily in Israel, attacked me as the most dangerous version of new anti-Semitism.
“I follow here Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that if, for the same text, you are attacked by both sides, it’s usually one of the few reliable signs that you are in the right.”So, this is what I find superficially interesting in reactions to my work. I think it is a sad proof that people are not really reading it and following the line of argument, they just look for some short passages and quotes which can be read in their way. But I am not a pessimist because of this. I follow here Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that if, for the same text, you are attacked by both sides, it’s usually one of the few reliable signs that you are in the right.
Is there something symptomatic about that? In the sense that between two sides, pro- and anti-Zionism, they’re trying to reassert the parameters of the discourse or the debate. It’s O.K. to be on either side at some level, but to occupy some kind of third position is most destructive, or controversial, position. Are we locked in these debates?
Yes, these are false debates, that’s my thesis. For example, look at transgender political correctness and #MeToo. You would have thought that the only choice is either morally conservative common-sense criticism of politically correct transgender “excesses” or fully supporting transgenderism. My position here is, of course, not to criticize #MeToo or the transgender position from the right-wing or conservative attitude, but from the progressive way. My reproach to the #MeToo movement is not that they are too crazy, too moralist—no! It is that their moral puritanism and fanaticism is really not radical enough.
For me, advocates of political correctness are of course basically right. Women are oppressed, there is racism, and so on. But the way they approach it doesn’t work. I am not advocating some third space of a compromise. I am saying the way these problems are approached is, in its entirety, both poles, is wrong. Let me give you an example which is often considered problematic. There is a big debate now, and it is a totally justified debate: how do you do dating, seduction, after #MeToo? What are the new rules? As you probably know, I’ve written about it.
One of the rules people try to emphasize is the right to say no at any moment. Like, let’s say you, as a woman, you are seduced, you say yes. Then in the middle of sexual activity you discover your partner is rough, inconsiderate, there’s something vulgar about him or you become aware that your yes was an enforced yes. You have the right to withdraw. But a new form of extremely humiliating violence, not physical violence but mental violence, is opened up if we just follow this rule. Let’s say a guy is seducing a girl. She says yes sincerely; it is not an enforced yes. And when she gets fully excited and so on, all red in the face, the guy says, “Sorry, I have the right to withdraw, I changed my mind.”
My point here is not that sometimes no doesn’t mean no. It always means no. I’m just saying that sexuality is a complex domain with implied meanings, ambiguities. You cannot translate it into rules. And that is my basic reproach to the way I read their proposals. The #MeToo new seduction rules precisely are under the spell of a certain legalism. They think the solution is to explicate the rules. The problem cannot be solved at this level. That’s all that I wanted to say.
I’m not downplaying violence. My obsession—and I think it is a big legacy of critique of ideology of the last centuries, is how a certain rule, slogan or practice which may appear to open up the space for new freedom, emancipation, nonetheless can be misused or has potentially dangerous consequences. As I said viciously at some point, I don’t bring clear answers; I like to complicate things. Usually people say a philosopher when you are confused should bring clarity. I say no! We think we see things clearly in daily life; I long to confuse things.
You mentioned Jordan Peterson, and he is influenced by Carl Jung. Do you have any comments about psychoanalysis in general? Because at least in the United States, we probably are primarily influenced from Anna Freud’s ego psychology? Carl Jung is influential in some ways, partly through the New Age movement…
Don’t underestimate Jung’s influence. In most countries, Freud is seriously debated, but more in literary criticism, maybe in psychology, philosophy, and theoretical circles. But Jung’s work is much more popular. His books are best sellers. For example, after the fall of communism in Russia, ex-Soviet Union, forget about Freud, I was told that Jung was selling hundreds of thousands, even millions of copies, and so on. And of course, here, O.K., we don’t have time to go into detail, but I claim here I am an old-fashioned Stalinist. Jung is a wrong way. Jung is a New Age obscurantist reinscription of Freud. But, you know, in my debate with Jordan Peterson, I totally ignored the Jungian aspect.
Where I see red (as they say) is how Peterson makes a sudden jump from criticism of #MeToo and of transgender politics to his obsession with the terror of cultural Marxism in a totally illegitimate way. All of a sudden he mobilizes one of the basic ideological motifs of new conservatives in Europe, which is that after the fall of Stalin, after the revolution failed in Western Europe in 1920s, some mysterious Communist center decided we cannot destroy the West directly, we must first destroy it morally, its Christian ethical foundations, so through the Frankfurt School and so on, they mobilized the cultural Left. And they see all these phenomena—radical feminism, transgenderism, and so on—as the final outcomes of so-called cultural Marxism and its bent to destroy the West. Now, I consider this a total nonsense which is even factually inaccurate.
It is interesting to reread texts by Horkheimer, Adorno, and other great names of the Frankfurt School. For example, one should reread today Horkheimer’s text from late 30s “Authority and Family,” where Horkheimer does not simply condemn the patriarchal family, but emphasizes how in today’s capitalist society, patriarchal society is very ambiguous. Yes, it is the model of oppression and so on, but at the same time without paternal authority, a child cannot develop an autonomous moral stance which would enable him to gain some kind of ethical autonomy to critically oppose society. So, for Horkheimer and later Adorno, things are clear. A society without paternal authority is a society of youth gangs, of young people who elevate peer values, who are not able to take a critical stance toward society, and so on. It’s ridiculous how inaccurate this image is that paints the terror of cultural Marxism.
My view here is exactly the opposite. What people like Jordan Peterson call cultural Marxism is precisely, as I put it a little bit aggressively, one of the last bourgeois defenses against Marxism. It is falsely radical. I’m not saying that Bernie Sanders is a Marxist. He is just a relative moderate measured by the standards of half a century ago, but he is maybe the first serious American social democrat in the last decades. But did you notice how there were immediate clashes between him and transgender and #MeToo people? Once he said in a famous statement—that’s why I like Bernie Sanders—that it’s not enough for a woman to say, “I’m a Latina, vote for me.” We should also ask, “O.K., nice, but what’s your program?” Just for saying that he was attacked for white supremacism. This is why I think that this so-called cultural Left is one of the main culprits for democratic defeat, the price left-liberals paid for their obsession with these cultural issues. My god, you remember a year and a half ago, if you opened up the New York Times, you’d have thought the main problem is what type of toilet we should have. Then you get Trump!“I don’t want to be respected as a person. I don’t care how you call me, Slavoj or an idiot, whatever. I want you to focus on my work.”Can you comment on your style? From various things I’ve heard you say, you’re uncomfortable being treated as an intellectual authority, as a type of a father figure. There’s the dirty jokes, you’ve said you don’t like the formal titles of “Professor Žižek?”
But I take my work seriously. I don’t want to be treated with respect because I think there is always a hidden aggression with respect. At least in my universe, and maybe I live in a wrong universe, this type of respect always subtly implies that you don’t take someone’s work totally seriously. I don’t want to be respected as a person. I don’t care how you call me, Slavoj or an idiot, whatever. I want you to focus on my work.
Here, I am a little bit divided. You know where maybe you can catch me? On the one hand I say that I want you to focus on my work. But in my work and maybe even more so in my speech, there is obviously some kind of compulsion to be amusing and to attract attention. So yes, I have a problem. This is why I more and more like writing and not public speeches and talking. Because in writing, you can focus on what it is all about. And I will tell you something that will surprise you. The best lesson that I had in the last decades is how my philosophical books, which are considered unreadable, too long, too difficult, often sell better than my political books. Isn’t this wonderful?
The lesson is we shouldn’t underestimate the public. It’s not true what some pessimists say, that people are idiots, you should write short books, just reporting or giving practical advice—no. There still is a serious intellectual public around. That’s what gives me hope.
We often expect intellectuals to conform to a certain image of seriousness when they appear in public, and obviously you don’t do those kinds of things, and maybe you even undermine this image. Does that limit your influence?
Yes, I agree with you. It’s a very nice insight. You can say up to a point that what some people take my so-called popularity as basically a subtle argument against me. People say, “He’s funny, go listen to him, but don’t take him too seriously.” And this sometimes hurts me a little bit because people really often ignore what I want to say. For example, the point of madness was reached here—maybe you read it—John Gray’s review of Less Than Nothing in the New York Review of Books. It’s a complex book on Hegel. I made this test with my friends who had only read Gray’s review. I asked them what was their impression of the book? What do I claim in the book? They didn’t have any idea. The review just focuses on some details which are politically problematic, excesses, and so on. But my God, I wrote a book on Hegel. What do I say in it? It is totally ignored. But on the other hand, I think I shouldn’t complain too much here, because, you know, this happens to philosophers. It is happening with Heidegger, with the Frankfurt School, with Lacan, and so on. One simply has to resign to it and accept it. Philosophers are here mostly to be misunderstood.
Does the darkness of your work come through more in your movies, the Pervert’s Guide to…?
I never thought about it, but can I tell you another secret here? Sophie Fiennes was very friendly with me and we did the two movies together, but do you know that I hated making them? It is so traumatic for me to perform in front of a camera, especially to be treated as an actor. Like once I was improvising something for 20 minutes, and then Sophie Fiennes told me, “It was excellent, Slavoj, but there was some problem with the sound. Could you do it again?” She is my friend but at that point I was ready to kill her! You know, who cares about the fucking sound, my God. I was successfully developing a line of thought; I was improvising; I wasn’t acting in the sense of following a script, and now let’s go back and do it again? It was a nightmare.
But the tone comes through. The movies have a certain ominous quality.
You are right here, and you know what is important here? This is maybe one of the existential wagers of my work, to use this fashionable term. To be a radical leftist, you don’t have to be some kind of a stupid optimist, where you believe that, if not for capitalism and oppression, people would be happy, and we are building a new society, and so on. No! In my last theoretical book, Incontinence of the Void, I go openly into how, at a different level, if there will be something like communism, maybe people will be much unhappier. Life will be much more tragic. I don’t think we should confuse happiness and these psychological categories with progressive politics.
I wrote something published in The Philosophical Salon attacking happiness studies, and I go to the end there. I claim that happiness is not an ethical category; it is a category of compromise. To be happy, you have to be hypocritical and stupid. I’m getting more and more dark here. I think that—if I may use this bombastic category—creativity is something that does not make you happy. It is something very traumatic and painful. It is the same with love: There is no happy love, not in the sense that it always goes wrong, but if you remember how it is being really passionately in love, my God! Your peace of life is ruined; everything is thrown out of balance, and this intensity is what matters. There is nothing happy about it.
You write in Incontinence of the Void: “Only hysteria produces new knowledge, in contrast to the University discourse, which simply reproduces it.” How should we think about this statement in relation to what you are trying to achieve with your work?
I’m not new here. I’m repeating Lacan here, Freud already. The target there, if you remember correctly, is perversion. My old animosity to May ‘68, where the idea is perverts are radical. They even quote Freud, who wrote that hysterics are ambiguous, since they just provoke the master with a secret call for a new, more authentic master, while perverts go to the end. And here I think we should totally change the coordinates. No! Perverts are constitutive of power. Every power needs a secret pervert underground, backside.
But now we have Trump, and Trump is on the side of perversion, no? He seems to revel in transgressing norms.
Up to a point, yes. Who for me is the symptom of Trump? Steve Bannon. If you look at his economic proposals, he says something that is usually attributed to the Left and that no social democracy today dares to do: raise the taxes to 50% for the rich, big public works, and so on. And that’s the general tragedy of our time, that Left moderates have become the cultural Left and the new populist Right is taking over even many of the old social democratic motifs. Social democracy in Europe, even more than in the U.S., is disappearing. That’s why I think people like Bernie Sanders are important.“People often identified me as a hysteric with my outbursts. O.K., why not? I am hysterical.”As some intelligent observers wrote, Sanders succeeded in mobilizing for the Left many people who would have otherwise voted for Trump. But on the other hand, when you ask about Trump as perversion, yes, I agree with you, especially in this sense—here I am a classical moralist. For me the new motto of the Left should be, “We are the Moral Majority.” What I mean is this: Look at Trump’s speech and how the level of public discourse has degraded. Things he says publicly were unthinkable two, three decades ago. And it’s not just the United States. We in Europe are no better. I really think we live in a time of let’s call it ideological regression. History is not necessarily progressive. This is what Hitler did with fascism. Things that were already part of public life but strictly limited to crazy conversation in some small cafeteria where you talk all the obscenities becomes part of public speech. Again, it is happening also in Europe.
O.K., going back to “Only hysteria produces new knowledge…”
Remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, society confers on you a certain identity. You are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. The basic hysterical gesture is to raise a question and doubt your identity. “You’re saying I’m this, but why am I this? What makes me this?” Feminism begins with this hysterical question. Male patriarchal ideology constrains women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, “But am I really that?” Or to use the old Juliet question from Romeo and Juliet, “Am I that name?” Like, “Why am I that?” So hysteria is this basic doubting of your identity.
People often identified me as a hysteric with my outbursts. O.K., why not? I am hysterical. But you know what gave me hope? Lacan beautifully designated Hegel as “le plus sublime des hysteriques,” the most sublime of all hysterics, because dialectics is precisely this reflexive self-questioning, questioning of every position. That’s why Hegel was aware of the feminine dimension. In his reading of Antigone, he said that woman is the eternal irony of human history, precisely through these ironic questions. I experienced this a couple of times—this is primitive sexual difference, but I think there is a moment of truth here—that when I am talking with a woman, sometimes I get engaged into my reflections and, all of a sudden, I get caught into my own game of taking myself too seriously. And then I see in the woman, my partner in conversation, a kind of a silent mocking gaze—like, “What, are you bullshitting me?” No direct brutal irony, just a silent gaze which destroys you.
Your work has sometimes been criticized as not systematic. Is that intentional? You mentioned previously that, as a philosopher, what you’re trying to do is not to clarify, so much as to problematize.
At the same time, I must say that although I like to use jokes and stories, I do try to put things clearly. But I am here in good company. Take Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, maybe the greatest philosophical work of all time. It was often reproached for the same reason: that it is not clear what Hegel’s position is, that he just seems to jump from one position to another, ironically subverting it, and so on. In a way, from the very beginning, from Socratic questioning, philosophy is this. Without this hysterical questioning of authority, there is no philosophy, which is why, as my friend Alain Badiou recently put it, it is not an accident that Socrates was condemned to death for corrupting the youth. Philosophy has done this from the very beginning. The best definition of philosophy is “corrupting the young,” in the sense of awakening them from an existing dogmatic worldview. This corrupting is more complex today, because constant self-doubt, questioning, and irony is the predominant attitude. Today, official ideology is not telling you, “Be a faithful Christian,” but some sort of post-modernist ideal, “Be true to yourself, change yourself, renovate yourself, doubt everything.” So now the way we corrupt young people is getting more complex.
You are often described as a very provocative thinker, but this seems overstated to me. Do you think you are in fact not provocative at all?
That’s a really nice insight. I really like it. I’m always telling people who claim, “You know you are talking madness, you cannot mean it seriously.” Whenever they say something like that, I immediately explain it in a way which makes it almost common sense, and I’m not saying anything big or revolutionary. I’m saying that today we need a little bit more radical politics, but like, social democracy. I’m very much against all this Nietzschean “against good and evil” ideas. I’m for kind of a common morality. There are no big provocations here.
Even in philosophy, I’m not claiming I’m bringing out something radically new. I’m just trying to explain what I see already there in Hegel. But I will tell you something else I liked in what you said, and that’s my maybe silent hope. Do you know that all big ruptures, or most of them, in the history of thought, occurred as a return to some origins? I always quote Martin Luther. His aim was not to be a revolutionary; his aim was to return to the true Christian message, against the Pope and so on. In this way, he did perform one of the greatest intellectual revolutions where everything changed and so on. I think it is a necessary illusion, paradoxically. To do something really new, maybe the illusion is necessary that you are really just returning to some more authentic past. It must be misperceived as being already there. And I will take the ultimate example here: As many people noticed, it is clear that when Jacques Lacan talks about the return to Freud, well, this Freud is to a large extent something that he rediscovered in Freud, but it is more that he filled in Freud’s gaps and so on. We should never forget that Lacan, who confused everything and brought a revolution to psychoanalysis, perceived himself just as someone who returned to Freud. That’s why I like this idea. For me, true revolutionaries always had a conservative side.
I will give you another example which maybe you will like. At the beginning of modernity, all those apparent radicals, empiricists, whatever, they really didn’t get it. One of the guys who really got what modernity is about is Blaise Pascal. But his problem was not, “Let’s break with the past,” but precisely how to remain orthodox Christian in the new conditions of science and modernity. As such, he understood much better what was emerging with modern science than all those scientific empiricist enthusiasts or whatever. What may appear as a conservative move is something that enables you to see things that others may not see.
Another example which has always fascinated me: the passage from silent to sound cinema. Those who resisted it spontaneously—from the Russian avant garde up to Charlie Chaplin—they perceived much more clearly the uncanny dimensions of what was happening there. As I developed in my books, for almost 10 years Chaplin resisted making a full sound movie, no? An early movie to use sound, City Lights, just uses music. Then in Modern Times, you hear sounds and human speech, but it is always sound which is part of the narrative. For example, you hear human speech if it is the voice of a radio shown in the movie. Only with The Great Dictator do you have speaking actors. But who is the agent of sound? Hitler, with this wild shouting. So Chaplin as a conservative saw this threatening, living-dead, destabilizing dimension of the voice, while those idiotic proponents of sound cinema perceived the situation in stupid realist terms, “Fine, now that we have also sound, we can reproduce reality in a more realist convincing way.”
That’s why I don’t like a guy like Ray Kurzweil. In his idea of Singularity, he misses something. It’s so simple, like, yes, we will all become part of the singularity. He doesn’t even address the key questions: How will this change our identity? He kids there. He thinks all these great things will happen, but we will somehow remain the same human beings, just with additional abilities.
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
Friday, June 29, 2018
Getting a Grip on Slavoj Žižek (with Slavoj Žižek)
The Greatest President, Ever!
A couple of decades ago, a charming publicity spot for a beer was shown on British TV. Its first part staged the well-known fairytale anecdote: a girl walks along a stream, sees a frog, takes it gently into her lap, kisses it, and, of course, the ugly frog miraculously turns into a beautiful young man. However, the story wasn't over yet: the young man casts a covetous glance at the girl, draws her towards himself, kisses her – and she turns into a bottle of beer which the man holds triumphantly in his hand.- David Lynch
"I hate Donald Trump's policies but it's true – he could go down as one of history's greatest presidents"
This month, Steve Bannon said his political ideal would be the unity of both right and left populism against the old political establishment. One should never forget that our true enemy is the global capitalist establishment and not the new populist right
For the woman, the point is that her love and affection (signalled by the kiss) turn a frog into a beautiful man, a full phallic presence; for the man, it is to reduce the woman to what Freud called a partial object, the true cause of his desire.
So we have either a woman with a frog or a man with a bottle of beer - what we can never obtain is the “natural” couple of the beautiful woman and man. Why not? Because the fantasmatic (imagined but impossible) support of this “ideal couple” would have been the inconsistent figure of a frog embracing a bottle of beer.
This same tasteless fantasy offers a model for Donald Trump’s politics. After the Singapore meeting with Kim Jong-un, where Trump declared his intention to invite Kim to the White House, I am haunted by a dream – not the noble Martin Luther King one but a much more weird one (which will be much more easy to realise than Luther’s dream).
Trump already revealed his love for military parades and proposed to organise one in Washington, but normal Americans seem not to like the idea – so what if his new friend Kim gives him a helping hand? What if he returns the invitation and prepares a spectacle for Trump at the big stadium in Pyongyang, with hundreds of thousands of well-trained North Koreans waving colourful flags to form gigantic moving images of Kim and Trump smiling?
Is this not the shared fantasy that underlies the Trump-Kim link, the frog-like Trump embracing the can-of-beer-like Kim?
Another case in the same series: in a CNN interview this month, Steve Bannon declared his political ideal to be the unity of both right and left populism against the old political establishment. He praised the coalition of the right-wing Northern League and the left-wing populist Five Star movement which now rules Italy as the model for the world to follow, and as the proof that the politics is moving beyond left and right – again, the fantasy is that of a frog-like alt-right embracing the Sanders movement and turning it into a bottle of beer.
The stake of this (politically and aesthetically) disgusting idea is, of course, to obfuscate the basic social antagonism, which is why it is condemned to fail – although it could cause a lot of misfortunes before its final failure.
While any pact between Sanders and Bannon is excluded for obvious reasons, a key element of the left’s strategy should be to ruthlessly exploit division in the enemy camp and fight for Bannon followers. To cut a long story short, there is no victory of the left without the broad alliance of all anti-establishment forces.
One should never forget that our true enemy is the global capitalist establishment and not the new populist right which is merely a reaction to its impasses. If we forget this, then the left will simply disappear from the map, as is already happening with the moderate, social democratic left in much of Europe (Germany and France as two of the most obvious examples.) Slawomir Sierakowski put it best: “As left-wing parties have collapsed, the sole option remaining for voters is conservatism or right-wing populism.”
This is the reason why, to the consternation of many of my friends (who, of course, are now no longer my friends), I claimed after the US 2016 presidential elections that Trump’s victory was better than Clinton’s for the future of progressive forces. Trump is a dangerous scum, of course, but his election may open possibilities and move the liberal left pole to a new more radical position.
I was surprised to learn that David Lynch adopted the same position in an interview this week. Lynch (who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary!) said that Trump “could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.”
While Trump may not be doing a good job himself, Lynch thinks, he is opening up a space where other outsiders might. “Our so-called leaders can’t take the country forward, can’t get anything done. Like children, they are. Trump has shown all this.”
Will the left gather the strength to use this opening, or will it continue to defend the status quo? The left’s answer to Trump’s fantasy of a frog embracing a bottle of beer should be to discard the frog and provide good beer for everyone.
Monday, June 25, 2018
Meet the New Boss
Today, in our era of over-sensitivity to ‘harassment’ by the Other, it is becoming more and more common to complain about ‘ethical violence’, i.e., to submit to criticism ethical injunctions which ‘terrorize’ us with the brutal imposition of their universality. The (not so) secret model is here an ‘ethics without violence’, freely (re)negotiated – the highest Cultural Critique meets here unexpectedly the lowest denominator of pop psychology. John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, deployed in a series of Oprah Winfrey shows a vulgarized version of narrativist-deconstructionist psychoanalysis: since we ultimately ‘are’ the stories we tell about ourselves, the solution to a psychic deadlock resides in a creative ‘positive’ rewriting of the narrative of our past. What he had in mind is not only the standard cognitive therapy of changing negative ‘false beliefs’ about oneself into a more positive attitude of assurance that one is loved by others and capable of creative achievements, but a more ‘radical’, pseudo-Freudian notion of regressing to the scene of the primordial traumatic wound. That is to say, Gray accepts the psychoanalytic notion of a hard kernel of some early childhood traumatic experience that forever marked the subject’s further development, giving it a pathological spin. What he proposes is that, after regressing to his primal traumatic scene and thus directly confronting it, the subject should, under the therapist’s guidance, ‘rewrite’ this scene, this ultimate fantasmatic framework of his subjectivity, in a more ‘positive’, benign, and productive narrative. For instance, if your primordial traumatic scene that persisted in your unconscious, deforming and inhibiting your creative attitude, was that of your father shouting at you ‘‘You are worthless! I despise you! Nothing will come of you!’’, you should rewrite the scene with a benevolent father kindly smiling at you and telling you ‘‘You’re OK! I trust you fully!’’… (In one of the Oprah Winfrey shows, Gray directly enacted this ‘rewriting-the-past experience’ with a woman who, at the end, gratefully embraced him, crying with joy that she was no longer haunted by her father’s despising attitude towards her.)-Slavoj Zizek, "The Structure of Domination Today: A Lacanian View"
To play this game to the end, when Wolfman ‘regressed’ to the traumatic scene that determined his further psychic development -witnessing the parental coitus a tergo -, would the solution be to rewrite this scene in such a way that what Wolfman effectively sees is merely his parents lying on the bed, father reading a newspaper and mother a sentimental novel? Ridiculous as this procedure may appear let us not forget that it also has its PC-version, that of the ethnic, sexual, etc., minorities rewriting their past in a more positive, self-asserting vein (African-Americans claiming that long before European modernity, ancient African empires already had highly developed science and technology, etc.,). Along the same lines one can even imagine a rewriting of the Decalogue itself: is some given command too severe? Let us regress to the scene on Mount Sinai and rewrite it: adultery – yes, if it is sincere and serves the goal of your profound self-realization. What disappears in this total openness of the past to its subsequent retroactive rewriting are not primarily the ‘hard facts’ but the Real of a traumatic encounter whose structuring role in the subject’s psychic economy forever resists its symbolic rewriting.
The ultimate irony is that this ‘critique of ethical violence’ is sometimes even linked to the Nietzschean motif of moral norms as imposed by the weak on the strong, thwarting their life-assertiveness: ‘moral sensitivity’, bad conscience, guiltfeeling, as internalized resistance to the heroic assertion of Life. For Nietzsche, such ‘moral sensitivity’ culminates in the contemporary Last Man who fears excessive intensity of life as something that may disturb his search for ‘happiness’ without stress, and who, for this very reason, rejects ‘cruel’ imposed moral norms as a threat to his fragile balance… What gets lost in this ‘critique of ethical violence’ is precisely the most precious and revolutionary aspect of the Jewish legacy. Let us not forget that, in the Jewish tradition, the divine Mosaic law is experienced as something externally violently imposed, contingent and traumatic – in short, as an impossible/real Thing that ‘makes the law.’ What is arguably the ultimate scene of religious-ideological interpellation – the pronouncement of the Decalogue on the Mt. Sinai – is the very opposite of something that emerges ‘organically’ as the outcome of the path of self-knowing and self-realization: the pronouncement of the Decalogue is ethical violence at its purest. The Judeo-Christian tradition is thus to be strictly opposed to the New Age gnostic problematic of self-realization or self-fulfilment: when the Old Testament enjoins you to love and respect your neighbor, the reference is not to your imaginary semblable/double, but to the neighbor qua traumatic Thing. In contrast to the New Age attitude, which ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbor to my mirror-image or to a means on the path to my self-realization (as in Jungian psychology in which other persons around me are ultimately reduced to the externalizations/projections of the different disavowed aspects of my personality), Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my Neighbor – the Neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me.
The Jewish commandment which prohibits images of God is the obverse of the statement that relating to one’s neighbor is the ONLY terrain of religious practice, where the divine dimension is present in our lives – ‘‘no images of God’’ does not point towards a gnostic experience of the divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image; on the contrary, it designates a kind of ethical hic Rhodus, hic salta: you want to be religious? OK, prove it HERE, in the ‘‘works of love,’’ in the way you relate to your neighbors… We have here a nice case of the Hegelian reversal of reflexive determination into determinate reflection: instead of saying ‘‘God is love,’’ we should say ‘‘love is divine’’ (and, of course, the point is not to conceive of this reversal as the standard humanist platitude). It is for this precise reason that Christianity, far from standing for a regression towards an image of God, only draws the consequence from Jewish iconoclasm by asserting the identity of God and man.
If, then, the modern topic of human rights is ultimately grounded in this Jewish notion of the Neighbor as the abyss of Otherness, how did we reach the weird contemporary negative link between the Decalogue (the traumatically imposed divine Commandments) and human rights? That is to say, within our post-political liberal-permissive society, human rights are ultimately, in their innermost, simply rights to violate the ten Commandments. ‘‘The right to privacy’’ – the right to adultery, done in secret, when no one sees me or has the right to probe into my life. ‘‘The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property’’ – the right to steal (to exploit others). ‘‘Freedom of the press and the expression of opinion’’ – the right to lie. ‘‘The right of free citizens to possess weapons’’ – the right to kill. And, ultimately, ‘‘freedom of religious belief” – the right to celebrate false gods.1 Of course, human rights do not directly condone the violation of the Commandments – the point is just that they keep open a marginal ‘grey zone’ which should remain out of reach of (religious or secular) power: in this shady zone, I can violate the commandments, and if power probes into it, catching me with my pants down and trying to prevent my violations, I can cry ‘‘Assault on my basic human rights!’’ The point is thus that it is structurally impossible, for Power, to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the ‘misuse’, while not infringing upon the proper use of Rights, i.e., the use that does NOT violate the Commandments… The first step in this direction was accomplished by the Christian notion of grace. In Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, just before the final pardon, Tito himself exasperates at the proliferation of treasons which oblige him to proliferate acts of clemency:The very moment that I absolve one criminal, I discover another. /…/ I believe the stars conspire to oblige me, in spite of myself, to become cruel. No: they shall not have this satisfaction. My virtue has already pledged itself to continue the contest. Let us see, which is more constant, the treachery of others or my mercy. /…/ Let it be known to Rome that I am the same and that I know all, absolve everyone, and forget everything.One can almost hear Tito complaining: ‘‘Uno per volta, per carita!’’ – ‘‘Please, not so fast, one after the other, in the line for mercy!’’ Living up to his task Tito forgets everyone, but those whom he pardons are condemned to remember forever:SEXTUS: It is true, you pardon me, Emperor; but my heart will not absolve me; it will lament the error until it no longer has memory.This couplet from the finale blurts out the obscene secret of clemenza: the pardon does not really abolish the debt, it rather makes it infinite – we are FOREVER indebted to the person who pardoned us. No wonder Tito prefers repentance to fidelity: in fidelity to the Master, I follow him out of respect, while in repentance, what attached me to the Master is the infinite indelible guilt. In this, Tito is a thoroughly Christian master, the practician of a logic which culminates today in the new capitalist ethics, where the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is, today, part of the game as a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. In a superego-blackmail of gigantic proportions, the developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ the undeveloped (with aid, credits, etc.), thereby avoiding the key issue, namely, their COMPLICITY in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped. Which discursive shift underlies this new form of domination?
TITUS: The true repentance of which you are capable is worth more than constant fidelity.
Lacan provides the answer in L’envers de la psychanalyse, Seminar XVII (1969-1970) on the four discourses, his response to the events of 1968. The guiding premise is best captured as Lacan’s reversal of the well-known anti-structuralist graffiti from the Paris walls of 1968 ‘‘Structures do not walk on the streets!’’ – if anything, this Seminar endeavors to demonstrate how structures DO walk on the streets, i.e., how structural shifts CAN account for the social outbursts like that of 1968. Instead of the one symbolic Order with its set of a priori rules which guarantee social cohesion, we get the matrix of passages from one discourse to another: Lacan’s interest is focused on the passage from the discourse of the Master to the discourse of university as the hegemonic discourse in contemporary society. No wonder that the revolt was located in the universities: as such, it merely signaled the shift to the new forms of domination in which scientific discourse legitimizes relations of domination. Lacan’s underlying premise is skeptical-conservative – Lacan’s diagnosis is best captured by his famous retort to the student revolutionaries: ‘‘As hysterics, you demand a new master. You will get it!’’ This passage can also be conceived in more general terms, as the passage from the pre-revolutionary ancien regime to the post-revolutionary new Master who does not want to admit that he is one, but proposes himself as a mere ‘servant’ of the People – in Nietzsche’s terms, it is simply the passage from the Master’s ethics to slave morality, and this fact, perhaps, provides a new approach to Nietzsche: when Nietzsche scornfully dismisses ‘slave morality’ he is not attacking lower classes as such but rather the new masters who are no longer ready to assume the title of the Master – ‘slave’ is Nietzsche’s term for a fake master.
The starting point of the matrix of the four discourses is Lacan’s well-known ‘definition’ of the signifier: a signifier is that which ‘‘represents the subject for another signifier’’ – how are we to read this obviously circular definition? The old-style hospital bed has at its feet, out of the patient’s sight, a small display board on which different charts and documents are stuck specifying the patient’s temperature, blood pressure, medication, etc. This display represents the patient – for whom? Not simply and directly for other subjects (say, for the nurses and doctors who regularly check this panel), but primarily for other signifiers, for the symbolic network of medical knowledge in which the data on the panel have to be inserted in order to obtain their meaning. One can easily imagine a computerized system where the reading of the data on the panel proceeds automatically, so that what the doctor obtains and reads are not these data but directly the conclusions which, according to the system of medical knowledge, follow from these and other data… The conclusion to be drawn from this definition of the signifier is that, in what I say, in my symbolic representation, there is always a kind of surplus with regard to the concrete, flesh-and-blood addressee(s) of my speech, which is why even a letter which fails to reach its concrete addressee in a way does arrive at its true destination which is the big Other, the symbolic system of ‘other signifiers’. One of the direct materializations of this excess is the symptom: a cyphered message whose addressee is not another human being (when I inscribe into my body a symptom which divulges the innermost secret of my desire, no human being is intended to read it directly), and which nonetheless has accomplished its function the moment it was produced, since it did reach the big Other, its true addressee.2
Lacan’s scheme of the four discourses articulates the four subjective positions within a discursive social link which logically follow from the formula of the signifier (which is why psychosis is excluded: it designates the very breakdown of the symbolic social link). The whole construction is based on the fact of symbolic reduplicatio, the redoubling of an entity into itself and the place it occupies in the structure, as in Mallarme’s rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu, or Malevitch’ black square on white surface, both displaying an effort to formulate place as such or, rather, the minimal difference between the place as an element which precedes the difference between elements. Reduplicatio means that an element never ‘fits’ its place: I am never fully what my symbolic mandate tells me that I am. For that reason, the discourse of the Master is the necessary starting point, insofar as in it, an entity and its place DO coincide: the Master-Signifier effectively occupies the place of the ‘agent’ which is that of the master; the objet a occupies the place of ‘production’, which is that of the inassimilable excess, etc. And it is the redoubling, the gap between the element and the place, which then sets the process in motion: a master hystericizes himself by starting to question what effectively makes him a master, etc. So, on the basis of the discourse of the Master, one can then proceed to generate the three other discourses by way of successively putting the other three elements at the place of the Master: in the university discourse, it is Knowledge which occupies the agent’s (Master’s) place, turning the subject ($) into that which is ‘produced’, into its inassimilable excess- remainder; in hysteria, the true ‘master’, the agent who effectively terrorizes the Master himself, is the hysterical subject with her incessant questioning of the Master’s position; etc. So, first, – the discourse of the Master provides the basic matrix: a subject is represented by the signifier for another signifier (for the chain or the field of ‘ordinary’ signifiers); the remainder – the ‘bone in the throat’ – which resists this symbolic representation, emerges (is ‘produced’) as objet petit a, and the subject endeavors to ‘normalize’ his relationship towards this excess via fantasmatic formations (which is why the lower level of the formula of the Master’s discourse renders the matheme of fantasy $ – a).
In an apparent contradiction of this determination, Lacan often claims that the discourse of the Master is the only discourse which excludes the dimension of fantasy – how are we to understand this? The illusion of the gesture of the Master consists in the complete coincidence between the level of the enunciation (the subjective position from which I am speaking) and the level of the enunciated content, i.e., what characterizes the Master is a speech-act which wholly absorbs me, in which ‘‘I am what I say,’’ in short, a fully realized, self-contained, performative. Such an ideal coincidence, of course, precludes the dimension of fantasy since fantasy emerges precisely in order to fill in the gap between the enunciated content and its underlying position of enunciation: fantasy is an answer to the question ‘‘You are telling me all this, but why? What do you really want by telling me this?’’ The fact that the dimension of fantasy nonetheless persists simply signals the ultimate unavoidable failure of the Master’s discourse. Suffice it to recall the proverbial highly placed manager who, from time to time, feels compelled to visit prostitutes in order to engage in masochist rituals in which he is ‘treated as a mere object’: the semblance of his active public existence in which he gives orders to his subordinates and runs their lives (the upper level of the Master’s discourse: S1-S2) is sustained by the fantasies of being turned into a passive object of other’s enjoyment (the lower level: $ – a). In Kant’s philosophy, the faculty of desire is ‘pathological’, dependent on contingent objects, so there can be no ‘pure faculty of desiring’, no ‘critique of pure desire’, while for Lacan, psychoanalysis precisely IS a kind of ‘critique of PURE desire.’ In other words, desire DOES have a non-pathological (‘a priori’) object-cause: the objet petit a, the object which overlaps with its own lack.
What is a Master-Signifier? In the very last pages of his monumental Second World War, Winston Churchill ponders the enigma of a political decision: after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists…) propose their multiple, elaborated and refined analyses, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude, where for every reason for there are two reasons against, and vice versa, into a simple ‘‘Yes’’ or ‘‘No’’ – we shall attack, we continue to wait… This gesture which can never be fully grounded in reasons is that of a Master. The Master’s discourse thus relies on the gap between S2 and S1, between the chain of ‘ordinary’ signifiers and the ‘excessive’ Master-Signifier. Suffice it to recall military ranks, namely the curious fact that they do not overlap with the position within the military hierarchy of command: from the rank of an officer – lieutenant, colonel, general… one cannot directly derive his place in the hierarchical chain of command (a batallion commander, commander of an army group). Originally, of course, ranks were directly grounded in a certain position of command – however, the curious fact is precisely the way they came to redouble the designation of this position, so that today one says ‘‘General Michael Rose, commander of the UNPROFOR forces in Bosnia.’’ Why this redoubling, why do we not abolish ranks and simply designate an officer by his position in the chain of command? Only the Chinese army in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution abolished ranks and used only the position in the chain of command. This necessity of redoubling is the very necessity of adding a Master-Signifier to the ‘ordinary’ signifier which designates one’s place in the social hierarchy. This same gap is also exemplified by the two names of the same person. The pope is at the same time Karol Wojtyla and John Paul II: the first name stands for the ‘real’ person, while the second name designates this same person as the ‘infallible’ embodiment of the Institution of Church – while the poor Karol can get drunk and babble stupidities, when John Paul speaks, it is the divine spirit itself which speaks through him.
One can see, now, in what precise sense one is to conceive Lacan’s thesis according to which, what is ‘primordially repressed’ is the binary signifier (that of Vorstellungs-Reprasentanz): what the symbolic order precludes is the full harmonious presence of the couple of Master-signifiers, S1 – S2 as yin-yang or any other two symmetrical ‘fundamental principles.’ The fact that ‘‘there is no sexual relationship’’ means precisely that the secondary signifier (that of the Woman) is ‘primordially repressed’, and what we get in the place of this repression, what fills in its gap, is the multitude of ‘returns of the repressed’, the series of ‘ordinary’ signifiers. In Woody Allen’s Tolstoj-parody War and Love, the first association that automatically pops up, of course, is: ‘‘If Tolstoj, where then is Dostoevskij?’’ In the film, Dostoevskij (the ‘binary signifier’ to Tolstoj) remains ‘repressed’ – however, the price paid for this is that a conversation in the middle of the film as it were accidentally includes the titles of all main Dostoevskij’s novels: ‘‘Is that man still in the underground?’’ ‘‘You mean one of the Karamazov brothers?’’ ‘‘Yes, that idiot!’’ ‘‘Well, he did commit his crime and was punished for it!’’ ‘‘I know, he was a gambler who always risked too much!’’ etc. Here we encounter the ‘return of the repressed’, i.e., the series of signifiers which fills in the gap of the repressed binary signifier ‘Dostoevskij’. This is why the standard deconstructionist criticism according to which Lacan’s theory of sexual difference falls into the trap of ‘binary logic’ totally misses the point: Lacan’s la femme n’existe pas aims precisely at undermining the ‘binary’ polar couple of Masculine and Feminine – the original split is not between the One and the Other, but is strictly inherent to the One, it is the split between the One and its empty place of inscription (this is how one should read Kafka’s famous statement that the Messiah will come one day after his arrival). This is also how one should conceive the link between the split inherent to the One and the explosion of the multiple: the multiple is not the primordial ontological fact; the ‘transcendental’ genesis of the multiple resides in the lack of the binary signifier, i.e., the multiple emerges as the series of attempts to fill in the gap of the missing binary signifier.
There is thus no reason to be dismissive of the discourse of the Master, to identify it too hastily with ‘authoritarian repression’: the Master’s gesture is the founding gesture of every social link. Let us imagine a confused situation of social disintegration, in which the cohesive power of ideology loses its efficiency: in such a situation, the Master is the one who invents a new signifier, the famous ‘quilting point’, which again stabilizes the situation and makes it readable; the university discourse which then elaborates the network of Knowledge which sustains this readability by definition presupposes and relies on the initial gesture of the Master. The Master adds no new positive content – he merely adds a signifier which all of a sudden turns disorder into order, into ‘new harmony’, as Rimbaud would have put it. Think about anti-Semitism in Germany of the 1920s: people experienced themselves as disoriented, thrown into undeserved military defeat, economic crisis which melted away their life-savings, political inefficiency, moral degeneration… and the Nazis provided a single agent which accounted for it all – the Jew, the Jewish plot. Therein resides the magic of a Master: although there is nothing new at the level of positive content, ‘nothing is quite the same’ after he pronounces his Word.
The difference between S1 and S2 is thus not the difference of two opposed poles within the same field, but, rather, the cut within this field – the cut at the level at which the process occurs – inherent to one term. Topologically, we get the same term at two surfaces. In other words, the original couple is not that of two signifiers, but that of the signifier and its reduplicatio, i.e., the minimal difference between a signifier and the place of its inscription, between one and zero. How, then, do Si and S2 relate? Did we not oscillate between two opposed versions: in the first version, the binary signifier, the symmetric counterpart of S1, is ‘primordially repressed’, and it is in order to supplement the void of this repression that the chain of S2 emerges, i.e., the original fact is the couple of S1 and the Void at the place of its counterpart, and the chain of S2 is secondary; in the second version, in the account of the emergence of S1 as the ‘enigmatic term’, the empty signifier, the primordial fact is, on the contrary, S2, the signifying chain in its incompleteness, and it is in order to fill in the void of this incompleteness that S1 intervenes. How are the two versions to be coordinated? Is the ultimate fact the vicious circle of their mutual implication?
The university discourse is enunciated from the position of ‘neutral’ Knowledge; it addresses the remainder of the real (say, in the case of pedagogical knowledge, the ‘raw, uncultivated child’), turning it into the subject ($). The ‘truth’ of the university discourse, hidden beneath the bar, of course, is power, i.e., the Master-Signifier: the constitutive lie of the university discourse is that it disavows its performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things. What one should avoid here is the Foucauldian misreading: the produced subject is not simply the subjectivity which arises as the result of the disciplinary application of knowledge-power, but its remainder, that which eludes the grasp of knowledge- power. ‘Production’ (the fourth term in the matrix of discourses) does not stand simply for the result of the discursive operation, but rather for its ‘indivisible remainder’, for the excess which resists being included in the discursive network, i.e., for what the discourse itself produces as the foreign body in its very heart.
Perhaps the exemplary case of the Master’s position which underlies the university discourse is the way in which medical discourse functions in our everyday lives: at the surface level, we are dealing with pure objective knowledge which desubjectivizes the subject-patient, reducing him to an object of research, of diagnosis and treatment; however, beneath it, one can easily discern a worried hystericized subject, obsessed with anxiety, addressing the doctor as his Master and asking for reassurance from him. (And one is tempted to claim that the resistance of doctors to be treated just like other scientists resides in their awareness that their position is still that of the Master,3 which is why we do not expect from the doctor just to tell us the bare (objective) truth: he is expected to tell us the bad news only insofar as our knowledge of our bad condition will somehow help us to cope with it – if it would make things only worse, he is expected to withhold it from the patient). At a more common level, suffice it to recall the market expert who advocates strong budgetary measures (cutting welfare expenses, etc.) as a necessity imposed by his neutral expertise devoid of any ideological biases: what he conceals is the series of power- relations (from the active role of state apparatuses to ideological beliefs) which sustain the ‘neutral’ functioning of the market mechanism.
In the hysterical link, the $ over a stands for the subject who is divided, traumatized, by what as an object she is for the Other, by the role she plays in Other’s desire: ‘‘Why am I what you’re saying that I am?’’, or, to quote Shakespeare’s Juliet, ‘‘Why am I that name?’’ This, for Lacan, is the primordial situation of a small child, thrown into a cobweb of libidinal investments: he or she is somehow aware of being the focus of others’ libidinal investments, but cannot grasp WHAT others see in her – what she expects from the Other-Master is knowledge about what she is as object (the lower level of the formula). Racine’s Phedre is hysterical insofar as she resists the role of the object of exchange between men by way of incestuously violating the proper order of generations (falling in love with her stepson). Her passion for Hyppolite does not aim at its direct realization-satisfaction, but rather at the very act of its confession to Hyppolite, who is thus forced to play the double role of Phedre’s object of desire and of her symbolic Other (the addressee to whom she confesses her desire). When Hyppolite learns from Phedre that he is the cause of her consuming passion, he is shocked – this knowledge possesses a clear ‘castrating’ dimension, it hystericizes him: ‘‘Why me? What kind of object am I that I can have this effect on her? What does she see in me?’’ What produces the unbearable castrating effect is not the fact of being deprived of ‘it’, but, on the contrary, the fact of clearly ‘possessing it’: the hysteric is horrified at being ‘reduced to an object’, that is to say, at being invested with the agalma which makes him or her the object of other’s desire.
In contrast to hysteria, the pervert knows perfectly what he is for the Other: a knowledge supports his position as the object of Other’s (divided subject’s) jouissance. For that reason, the formula of the discourse of perversion is the same as that of the analyst’s discourse: Lacan defines perversion as inverted fantasy, i.e., his formula of perversion is a – $, which is precisely the upper level of the analyst’s discourse. The difference between the social link of perversion and that of analysis is grounded in the radical ambiguity of objet petit a in Lacan, which stands simultaneously for the imaginary fantasmatic lure/screen and for that which this lure is obfuscating, for the void behind the lure.
So, when we pass from perversion to the analytic social link, the agent (analyst) reduces himself to the void which provokes the subject into confronting the truth of his desire. Knowledge in the position of ‘truth’ below the bar under the ‘agent’, of course, refers to the supposed knowledge of the analyst, and, simultaneously, signals that the knowledge gained here will not be the neutral ‘objective’ knowledge of scientific adequacy, but the knowledge which concerns the subject (analysant) in the truth of his subjective position. (Recall, again, Lacan’s outrageous statements that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is true, his jealousy is still pathological; along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls…), their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological – because it represses the true reason WHY the Nazis NEEDED anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. So, in the case of anti-Semitism, knowledge about what the Jews ‘really are’ is a fake, irrelevant, while the only knowledge at the place of truth is the knowledge about why a Nazi NEEDS a figure of the Jew to sustain his ideological edifice.) In this precise sense, what the discourse of the analyst ‘produces’ is the Master-Signifier, the ‘swerve’ of the patient’s knowledge, the surplus-element which situates the patient’s knowledge at the level of truth: after the Master-Signifier is produced, even if nothing changes at the level of knowledge, the ‘same’ knowledge as before starts to function in a different mode. The Master-Signifier is the unconscious ‘sinthome’, the cipher of enjoyment, to which the subject was unknowingly subjected. – The crucial point not to be missed here is how this late lacanian identification of the subjective position of the analyst as that of objet petit a involves an act of radical self-criticism: earlier, in the 50s, Lacan conceived the analyst not as the small other (a), but, on the contrary, as a kind of stand-in for the big Other (A, the anonymous symbolic order). At this level, the function of the analyst was to frustrate the subject’s imaginary misrecog- nitions and to make them accept their proper symbolic place within the circuit of symbolic exchange, the place which effectively (and unbeknownst to them) determines their symbolic identity. Later, however, the analyst stands precisely for the ultimate inconsistency and failure of the big Other, i.e., for the symbolic order’s inability to guarantee the subject’s symbolic identity.
So, if a political Leader says ‘‘I am your Master, let my will be done!,’’ this direct assertion of authority is hystericized when the subject starts to doubt his qualification to act as a Leader (‘‘Am I really their Master? What is in me that legitimizes me to act like that?’’); it can be masked in the guise of the university discourse (‘‘In asking you to do this, I merely follow the insight into objective historical necessity, so I am not your Leader, but merely your servant who enables you to act for your own good…’’); or, the subject can act as a blank, suspending his symbolic efficiency and thus compelling his Other to become aware of how he was experiencing another subject as a Leader only because he was treating him as one. – It should be clear, from this brief description, how the position of the ‘agent’ in each of the four discourses involves a specific mode of subjectivity: the Master is the subject who is fully engaged in his (speech) act, who, in a way, ‘is his word’, whose word displays an immediate performative efficiency; the agent of the university discourse is, on the contrary, fundamentally disengaged: he posits himself as the self-erasing observer (and executor) of ‘objective laws’ accessible to neutral knowledge (in clinical terms, his position is closest to that of the pervert). The hysterical subject is the subject whose very existence involves radical doubt and questioning, his entire being is sustained by the uncertainty as to what he is for the Other; insofar as the subject exists only as an answer to the enigma of the Other’s desire, the hysterical subject is the subject par excellence. Again, in clear contrast to it, the analyst stands for the paradox of the desubjectivized subject, of the subject who fully assumed what Lacan calls ‘subjective destitution’, i.e., who breaks out of the vicious cycle of intersubjective dialectics of desire and turns into an acephalous being of pure drive.
As to the political reading of the matrix, it is such that each of the discourses clearly designates a political link: the Master’s discourse – the elementary mode of political authority sustained by fantasy; the University discourse – the post-political ‘expert’ rule; hysterical discourse – the logic of protest and ‘resistance’, of demands which, according to Lacan’s formula, really want to be rejected because ‘‘ce n’est pas fa” (because, if fully met, the literal satisfaction of the demand robs it of its metaphoric universal dimension – the demand for X ‘really was not about X ’ ); the analyst ’ s discourse – the radical revolutionary-emancipatory politics in which the agent is a, the symptomal point, the ‘part of no part , of the situation, with knowledge at the place of truth (i.e., articulating the agent ’ s position of enunciation and thus regaining the explosive effect of truth), $ the addressee of the agent, the ex-master who is now hystericized, since the agent questions his position by way of ‘producing , deploying openly, explicating as such, the Master-Signifier and thus rendering it inoperable (as in the paradox of the ‘states which are essentially by-products : once it is questioned, authority loses its self-evidence). – How, then, within this frame, are we to read more closely the university discourse?
In the University discourse, is not the upper level (S2 – a) that of biopolitics (in the sense deployed from Foucault to Agamben)? Of the expert knowledge dealing with its object which is a – not subjects, but individuals reduced to bare life? And does the lower level of the formula not designate what Eric Santner called the ‘crisis of investiture’, i.e., the impossibility of the subject to relate to Si, to identify with a Master-Signifier, to assume the imposed symbolic mandate?4 The usual notion of the relationship between excess-enjoyment and symbolic identification is that symbolic identity is what we get in exchange for being deprived of enjoyment; what happens in today’s society, with its decline of the Master-Signifier and the rise of consumption, is the exact obverse: the basic fact is the loss of symbolic identity, what Eric Santner called the ‘‘crisis of investiture,’’ and what we get in exchange for this loss is that we are all bombarded with forms and gadgets of enjoyment…
The key point here is that the expert rule of ‘biopolitics’ is grounded in and conditioned by the crisis of investiture; this crisis generated the ‘post-metaphysical’ survivalist stance of the Last Men, which ends up in an anemic spectacle of life dragging on as its own shadow. – Another aspect of the same shift is the rise of the term of ‘ideology’ in the very epoch of the dissolution of the hegemonic role of the Master discourse. In its classic Althusserian formulation, ideology is characterized in the terms of the interpellation by the Master-signifier, i.e., as the version of the Master’s discourse; however, talk of ‘ideology’ began in the late Napoleonic period, i.e., in the very historical moment when the Master’s discourse started to loose its hold – one should thus say that one starts to speak about ‘ideology’ at the very instant when ideology started to loose its immediate ‘natural’ character and to be experienced as something artificial, no longer substantial but, precisely, a ‘mere ideology’. It is the same as with the Oedipus complex, whose very theorization by Freud was conditioned by the crisis and decline of Oedipus in social reality.
However, the ‘object’ of the discourse of the University has two aspects which cannot but appear as belonging to two opposite ideological spaces: that of the reduction of humans to bare life, to homo sacer as the malleable object of the expert caretaker of knowledge; and that of respect for the vulnerable Other carried to the extreme, the attitude of narcissistic subjectivity which experiences itself as vulnerable, constantly exposed to a multitude of potential ‘harassments’. Is there a stronger contrast than the one between the respect for the Other’s vulnerability and the reduction of the Other to ‘mere life’ regulated by administrative knowledge? But what if these two stances nonetheless grow out of the same root, what if they are the two aspects of one and the same underlying attitude, what if they coincide in what one is tempted to designate as the contemporary case of the Hegelian ‘infinite judgement’ which asserts the identity of opposites? What the two poles share is precisely the underlying refusal of any higher Causes, the notion that the ultimate goal of our lives is life itself. Nowhere is the complicity of these two levels clearer as in the case of the opposition to the death penalty – no wonder, since (violently putting another human being to) death is, quite logically, the ultimate traumatic point of biopolitics, the politics of the administration of life. To put it in Foucauldian terms, is the abolition of the death penalty not part of a certain ‘biopolitics’ which considers crime as the result of social, psychological, ideological, etc., circumstances: the notion of the morally/legally responsible subject is an ideological fiction whose function is to cover up the network of power relations, individuals are not responsible for the crimes they commit, so they should not be punished? Is, however, the obverse of this thesis not that those who control the circumstances control the people? No wonder the two strongest industrial complexes are today the military and the medical, that of destroying and that of prolonging life.
The ultimate example of this ambiguity is arguably the chocolate laxative available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction ‘‘Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!’’, i.e., eat the very thing that causes constipation. Do we not find here a weird version of Wagner’s famous ‘‘Only the spear which caused the wound can heal it’’ from Parsifal? And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs, free sex, smoking…) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today’s ‘biopolitics’. Solutions are desperately sought which would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. The main contender is ‘safe sex’ – a term which makes one appreciative of the truth of the old saying ‘‘Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?’’. The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of de-caf coffee, to invent ‘opium without opium’: no wonder marihuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it – it already IS a kind of ‘opium without opium’.
This structure of the ‘chocolate laxative’, of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today’s ideological landscape. There are two topics which determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude towards Others: the respect of Otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment – in short, the Other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the Other is not really Other… In strict homology with the paradoxical structure of chocolate laxative, tolerance coincides with its opposite: my duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, not to intrude into his/her space – in short, that I should respect his/her INTOLERANCE towards my over-proximity. This is what is emerging more and more as the central ‘human right’ in late-capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, i.e., to be kept at a safe distance from others. A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK IF it is counteracted with charitable activities – first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy. And the same goes for war, for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is OK insofar as it really serves to bring about peace, democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. And does the same not hold more and more even for democracy and human rights? Human rights are OK if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent state of emergency, democracy is OK if it is cleansed of its populist ‘excesses’ and limited to those ‘mature’ enough to practice it.
This brings us to the link between S2 and the agency of the superego: superego is not directly S2; it is rather the Si of the S2 itself, the dimension of an unconditional injunction that is inherent to knowledge itself. Recall the health information we are bombarded with all the time: ‘‘Smoking is dangerous! To much fat may cause a heart attack! Regular exercise leads to a longer life!’’ etc. – it is impossible not to hear beneath it the unconditional injunction ‘‘You should enjoy a long and healthy life!’’… Hegel successfully resisted this danger: his theory of monarchy is the ultimate proof that he occupied the unique position in between the discourses of the Master and the University: while rejecting the abolition of the Master, aware of the necessity of the Master’s exceptional position as the safeguard against the terror of Knowledge, he no longer succumbed to its charisma, but reduced it to the stupidity of an empty signifying function.
The modern Master justifies himself through his expert knowledge: one does not become a Master through birth or mere symbolic investiture, one should rather earn this status through education and qualification – in this simple and literal sense, modern power is knowledge, grounded in knowledge. The passage from Master to University discourse means that the State itself emerges as the new Master, the State run by qualified expertise of bureaucracy. And Hegel, from his position in between this shift, was able to perceive what remains hidden before and after, as it is clear from his deduction of the necessity of the monarch in a rational state – a monarch reduced to a pure signifying function, deprived of any actual power. Hegel was thus aware of the necessity to maintain the gap between S1 and S2: if this gap gets obliterated, we get the ‘totalitarian’ bureaucracy as S2.
The University discourse as the hegemonic discourse of modernity has two forms of existence in which its inner tension (‘contradiction’) is externalized: capitalism, its logic of the integrated excess, of the system reproducing itself through constant self-revolutionizing, and bureaucratic ‘totalitarianism’ which is conceptualized in different guises as the rule of technology, instrumental reason, biopolitics, as the ‘administered world’ – how, precisely, do these two aspects relate to each other? That is to say, one should not succumb to the temptation of reducing capitalism to a mere form of appearance of the more fundamental ontological attitude of technological domination; one should rather insist, in the Marxian mode, that the capitalist logic of integrating the surplus into the functioning of the system is the fundamental fact. Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’ was the capitalist logic of self-propelling productivity liberated from its capitalist form, which is why it failed: Stalinism was the symptom of capitalism. Stalinism involved the matrix of general intellect, of the planned transparency of social life, of total productive mobilization – and its violent purges and paranoia were a kind of a ‘return of the repressed’, the ‘irrationality’ inherent to the project of a totally organized ‘administered society’.
NotesI owe this point to Ken Rinehard, UCLA.
Lacan’s formula of signifier (a signifier represents the subject for all other signifiers) thus displays a structural homology with the Marxian formula of a commodity as also involving a dyad: the use-value of a commodity represents the value of another commodity. Even the variations in Lacan’s formula can be systematized with reference to Marx’s four forms of the expression of value (see Part 1 of For They Know Not What They Do). Along these lines, it is crucial that Lacan determines the surplus-remainder of this process, objet petit a, as surplus-enjoyment (plus-de-jouir), in explicit reference to the Marxian surplus-value.
See Jean Clavreuil, L’ordre medical, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975.
See Eric Santner, My Own Private Germany, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
"The Children of the Undocumented are Being Abused!"
When today’s Left bombards the capitalist system with demands that it obviously cannot fulfill (Full employment! Retain the welfare state! Full rights for immigrants!), it is basically playing a game of hysterical provocation, of addressing the Master with a demand which will be impossible for him to meet, and will thus expose his impotence. The problem with this strategy, however, is not only that the system cannot meet these demands, but that, in addition, those who voice them do not really want them to be realized.— Slavoj Žižek, “Happiness after September 11″ (from Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 75-77.)
For example, when ‘radical’ academics demand full rights for immigrants and opening of the borders, are they aware that the direct implementation of this demand would, for obvious reasons, inundate developed Western countries with millions of newcomers, thus provoking a violent working-class racist backlash which would then endanger the privileged position of these very academics? Of course they are, but they count on the fact that their demand will not be met – in this way, they can hypocritically retain their clear radical conscience while continuing to enjoy their privileged position
The gesture is that of calling the other’s bluff, counting on the fact that what the other really fears is that one will fully comply with his or her demand. And would not the same gesture also throw our radical academics into a panic? Here the old ‘68 motto ‘Soyons réalistes demandons l’impossible!’ acquires a new cynical and sinister meaning which, perhaps, reveals its truth:‘Let’s be realists: we, the academic Left, want to appear critical, while fully enjoying the privileges the system offers us. So let’s bombard the system with impossible demands: we all know that these demands won’t be met, so we can be sure that nothing will actually change, and we’ll maintain our privileged status!’
Sunday, June 24, 2018
Saturday, June 23, 2018
Cleansing the Canon - On the Quixotic University Practices of the 1960+s, Revisited
I know who I am," replied Don Quixote, "and I know that I may be not only those I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies, since my achievements surpass all that they have done all together and each of them on his own account."- Miguel de Cervantes, "Don Quixote" (Ch V/ VI)
With this talk and more of the same kind they reached the village just as night was beginning to fall, but the peasant waited until it was a little later that the belaboured gentleman might not be seen riding in such a miserable trim. When it was what seemed to him the proper time he entered the village and went to Don Quixote's house, which he found all in confusion, and there were the curate and the village barber, who were great friends of Don Quixote, and his housekeeper was saying to them in a loud voice, "What does your worship think can have befallen my master, Senor Licentiate Pero Perez?" for so the curate was called; "it is three days now since anything has been seen of him, or the hack, or the buckler, lance, or armour. Miserable me! I am certain of it, and it is as true as that I was born to die, that these accursed books of chivalry he has, and has got into the way of reading so constantly, have upset his reason; for now I remember having often heard him saying to himself that he would turn knight-errant and go all over the world in quest of adventures. To the devil and Barabbas with such books, that have brought to ruin in this way the finest understanding there was in all La Mancha!"
The niece said the same, and, more: "You must know, Master Nicholas"—for that was the name of the barber—"it was often my uncle's way to stay two days and nights together poring over these unholy books of misventures, after which he would fling the book away and snatch up his sword and fall to slashing the walls; and when he was tired out he would say he had killed four giants like four towers; and the sweat that flowed from him when he was weary he said was the blood of the wounds he had received in battle; and then he would drink a great jug of cold water and become calm and quiet, saying that this water was a most precious potion which the sage Esquife, a great magician and friend of his, had brought him. But I take all the blame upon myself for never having told your worships of my uncle's vagaries, that you might put a stop to them before things had come to this pass, and burn all these accursed books—for he has a great number—that richly deserve to be burned like heretics."
"So say I too," said the curate, "and by my faith to-morrow shall not pass without public judgment upon them, and may they be condemned to the flames lest they lead those that read to behave as my good friend seems to have behaved."
All this the peasant heard, and from it he understood at last what was the matter with his neighbour, so he began calling aloud, "Open, your worships, to Senor Baldwin and to Senor the Marquis of Mantua, who comes badly wounded, and to Senor Abindarraez, the Moor, whom the valiant Rodrigo de Narvaez, the Alcaide of Antequera, brings captive."
At these words they all hurried out, and when they recognised their friend, master, and uncle, who had not yet dismounted from the ass because he could not, they ran to embrace him.
"Hold!" said he, "for I am badly wounded through my horse's fault; carry me to bed, and if possible send for the wise Urganda to cure and see to my wounds."
"See there! plague on it!" cried the housekeeper at this: "did not my heart tell the truth as to which foot my master went lame of? To bed with your worship at once, and we will contrive to cure you here without fetching that Hurgada. A curse I say once more, and a hundred times more, on those books of chivalry that have brought your worship to such a pass."
They carried him to bed at once, and after searching for his wounds could find none, but he said they were all bruises from having had a severe fall with his horse Rocinante when in combat with ten giants, the biggest and the boldest to be found on earth.
"So, so!" said the curate, "are there giants in the dance? By the sign of the Cross I will burn them to-morrow before the day over."
They put a host of questions to Don Quixote, but his only answer to all was—give him something to eat, and leave him to sleep, for that was what he needed most. They did so, and the curate questioned the peasant at great length as to how he had found Don Quixote. He told him, and the nonsense he had talked when found and on the way home, all which made the licentiate the more eager to do what he did the next day, which was to summon his friend the barber, Master Nicholas, and go with him to Don Quixote's house.
OF THE DIVERTING AND IMPORTANT SCRUTINY WHICH THE CURATE AND THE BARBER MADE IN THE LIBRARY OF OUR INGENIOUS GENTLEMAN
He was still sleeping; so the curate asked the niece for the keys of the room where the books, the authors of all the mischief, were, and right willingly she gave them. They all went in, the housekeeper with them, and found more than a hundred volumes of big books very well bound, and some other small ones. The moment the housekeeper saw them she turned about and ran out of the room, and came back immediately with a saucer of holy water and a sprinkler, saying, "Here, your worship, senor licentiate, sprinkle this room; don't leave any magician of the many there are in these books to bewitch us in revenge for our design of banishing them from the world."
The simplicity of the housekeeper made the licentiate laugh, and he directed the barber to give him the books one by one to see what they were about, as there might be some to be found among them that did not deserve the penalty of fire.
"No," said the niece, "there is no reason for showing mercy to any of them; they have every one of them done mischief; better fling them out of the window into the court and make a pile of them and set fire to them; or else carry them into the yard, and there a bonfire can be made without the smoke giving any annoyance." The housekeeper said the same, so eager were they both for the slaughter of those innocents, but the curate would not agree to it without first reading at any rate the titles.
The first that Master Nicholas put into his hand was "The four books of Amadis of Gaul." "This seems a mysterious thing," said the curate, "for, as I have heard say, this was the first book of chivalry printed in Spain, and from this all the others derive their birth and origin; so it seems to me that we ought inexorably to condemn it to the flames as the founder of so vile a sect."
"Nay, sir," said the barber, "I too, have heard say that this is the best of all the books of this kind that have been written, and so, as something singular in its line, it ought to be pardoned."
"True," said the curate; "and for that reason let its life be spared for the present. Let us see that other which is next to it."
"It is," said the barber, "the 'Sergas de Esplandian,' the lawful son of Amadis of Gaul."
"Then verily," said the curate, "the merit of the father must not be put down to the account of the son. Take it, mistress housekeeper; open the window and fling it into the yard and lay the foundation of the pile for the bonfire we are to make."
The housekeeper obeyed with great satisfaction, and the worthy "Esplandian" went flying into the yard to await with all patience the fire that was in store for him.
"Proceed," said the curate.
"This that comes next," said the barber, "is 'Amadis of Greece,' and, indeed, I believe all those on this side are of the same Amadis lineage."
"Then to the yard with the whole of them," said the curate; "for to have the burning of Queen Pintiquiniestra, and the shepherd Darinel and his eclogues, and the bedevilled and involved discourses of his author, I would burn with them the father who begot me if he were going about in the guise of a knight-errant."
"I am of the same mind," said the barber.
"And so am I," added the niece.
"In that case," said the housekeeper, "here, into the yard with them!"
They were handed to her, and as there were many of them, she spared herself the staircase, and flung them down out of the window.
"Who is that tub there?" said the curate.
"This," said the barber, "is 'Don Olivante de Laura.'"
"The author of that book," said the curate, "was the same that wrote 'The Garden of Flowers,' and truly there is no deciding which of the two books is the more truthful, or, to put it better, the less lying; all I can say is, send this one into the yard for a swaggering fool."
"This that follows is 'Florismarte of Hircania,'" said the barber.
"Senor Florismarte here?" said the curate; "then by my faith he must take up his quarters in the yard, in spite of his marvellous birth and visionary adventures, for the stiffness and dryness of his style deserve nothing else; into the yard with him and the other, mistress housekeeper."
"With all my heart, senor," said she, and executed the order with great delight.
"This," said the barber, "is The Knight Platir.'"
"An old book that," said the curate, "but I find no reason for clemency in it; send it after the others without appeal;" which was done.
Another book was opened, and they saw it was entitled, "The Knight of the Cross."
"For the sake of the holy name this book has," said the curate, "its ignorance might be excused; but then, they say, 'behind the cross there's the devil; to the fire with it."
Taking down another book, the barber said, "This is 'The Mirror of Chivalry.'"
"I know his worship," said the curate; "that is where Senor Reinaldos of Montalvan figures with his friends and comrades, greater thieves than Cacus, and the Twelve Peers of France with the veracious historian Turpin; however, I am not for condemning them to more than perpetual banishment, because, at any rate, they have some share in the invention of the famous Matteo Boiardo, whence too the Christian poet Ludovico Ariosto wove his web, to whom, if I find him here, and speaking any language but his own, I shall show no respect whatever; but if he speaks his own tongue I will put him upon my head."
"Well, I have him in Italian," said the barber, "but I do not understand him."
"Nor would it be well that you should understand him," said the curate, "and on that score we might have excused the Captain if he had not brought him into Spain and turned him into Castilian. He robbed him of a great deal of his natural force, and so do all those who try to turn books written in verse into another language, for, with all the pains they take and all the cleverness they show, they never can reach the level of the originals as they were first produced. In short, I say that this book, and all that may be found treating of those French affairs, should be thrown into or deposited in some dry well, until after more consideration it is settled what is to be done with them; excepting always one 'Bernardo del Carpio' that is going about, and another called 'Roncesvalles;' for these, if they come into my hands, shall pass at once into those of the housekeeper, and from hers into the fire without any reprieve."
To all this the barber gave his assent, and looked upon it as right and proper, being persuaded that the curate was so staunch to the Faith and loyal to the Truth that he would not for the world say anything opposed to them. Opening another book he saw it was "Palmerin de Oliva," and beside it was another called "Palmerin of England," seeing which the licentiate said, "Let the Olive be made firewood of at once and burned until no ashes even are left; and let that Palm of England be kept and preserved as a thing that stands alone, and let such another case be made for it as that which Alexander found among the spoils of Darius and set aside for the safe keeping of the works of the poet Homer. This book, gossip, is of authority for two reasons, first because it is very good, and secondly because it is said to have been written by a wise and witty king of Portugal. All the adventures at the Castle of Miraguarda are excellent and of admirable contrivance, and the language is polished and clear, studying and observing the style befitting the speaker with propriety and judgment. So then, provided it seems good to you, Master Nicholas, I say let this and 'Amadis of Gaul' be remitted the penalty of fire, and as for all the rest, let them perish without further question or query."
"Nay, gossip," said the barber, "for this that I have here is the famous 'Don Belianis.'"
"Well," said the curate, "that and the second, third, and fourth parts all stand in need of a little rhubarb to purge their excess of bile, and they must be cleared of all that stuff about the Castle of Fame and other greater affectations, to which end let them be allowed the over-seas term, and, according as they mend, so shall mercy or justice be meted out to them; and in the mean time, gossip, do you keep them in your house and let no one read them."
"With all my heart," said the barber; and not caring to tire himself with reading more books of chivalry, he told the housekeeper to take all the big ones and throw them into the yard. It was not said to one dull or deaf, but to one who enjoyed burning them more than weaving the broadest and finest web that could be; and seizing about eight at a time, she flung them out of the window.
In carrying so many together she let one fall at the feet of the barber, who took it up, curious to know whose it was, and found it said, "History of the Famous Knight, Tirante el Blanco."
"God bless me!" said the curate with a shout, "'Tirante el Blanco' here! Hand it over, gossip, for in it I reckon I have found a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation. Here is Don Kyrieleison of Montalvan, a valiant knight, and his brother Thomas of Montalvan, and the knight Fonseca, with the battle the bold Tirante fought with the mastiff, and the witticisms of the damsel Placerdemivida, and the loves and wiles of the widow Reposada, and the empress in love with the squire Hipolito—in truth, gossip, by right of its style it is the best book in the world. Here knights eat and sleep, and die in their beds, and make their wills before dying, and a great deal more of which there is nothing in all the other books. Nevertheless, I say he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to the galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true."
"As you will," said the barber; "but what are we to do with these little books that are left?"
"These must be, not chivalry, but poetry," said the curate; and opening one he saw it was the "Diana" of Jorge de Montemayor, and, supposing all the others to be of the same sort, "these," he said, "do not deserve to be burned like the others, for they neither do nor can do the mischief the books of chivalry have done, being books of entertainment that can hurt no one."
"Ah, senor!" said the niece, "your worship had better order these to be burned as well as the others; for it would be no wonder if, after being cured of his chivalry disorder, my uncle, by reading these, took a fancy to turn shepherd and range the woods and fields singing and piping; or, what would be still worse, to turn poet, which they say is an incurable and infectious malady."
"The damsel is right," said the curate, "and it will be well to put this stumbling-block and temptation out of our friend's way. To begin, then, with the 'Diana' of Montemayor. I am of opinion it should not be burned, but that it should be cleared of all that about the sage Felicia and the magic water, and of almost all the longer pieces of verse: let it keep, and welcome, its prose and the honour of being the first of books of the kind."
"This that comes next," said the barber, "is the 'Diana,' entitled the 'Second Part, by the Salamancan,' and this other has the same title, and its author is Gil Polo."
"As for that of the Salamancan," replied the curate, "let it go to swell the number of the condemned in the yard, and let Gil Polo's be preserved as if it came from Apollo himself: but get on, gossip, and make haste, for it is growing late."
"This book," said the barber, opening another, "is the ten books of the 'Fortune of Love,' written by Antonio de Lofraso, a Sardinian poet."
"By the orders I have received," said the curate, "since Apollo has been Apollo, and the Muses have been Muses, and poets have been poets, so droll and absurd a book as this has never been written, and in its way it is the best and the most singular of all of this species that have as yet appeared, and he who has not read it may be sure he has never read what is delightful. Give it here, gossip, for I make more account of having found it than if they had given me a cassock of Florence stuff."
He put it aside with extreme satisfaction, and the barber went on, "These that come next are 'The Shepherd of Iberia,' 'Nymphs of Henares,' and 'The Enlightenment of Jealousy.'"
"Then all we have to do," said the curate, "is to hand them over to the secular arm of the housekeeper, and ask me not why, or we shall never have done."
"This next is the 'Pastor de Filida.'"
"No Pastor that," said the curate, "but a highly polished courtier; let it be preserved as a precious jewel."
"This large one here," said the barber, "is called 'The Treasury of various Poems.'"
"If there were not so many of them," said the curate, "they would be more relished: this book must be weeded and cleansed of certain vulgarities which it has with its excellences; let it be preserved because the author is a friend of mine, and out of respect for other more heroic and loftier works that he has written."
"This," continued the barber, "is the 'Cancionero' of Lopez de Maldonado."
"The author of that book, too," said the curate, "is a great friend of mine, and his verses from his own mouth are the admiration of all who hear them, for such is the sweetness of his voice that he enchants when he chants them: it gives rather too much of its eclogues, but what is good was never yet plentiful: let it be kept with those that have been set apart. But what book is that next it?"
"The 'Galatea' of Miguel de Cervantes," said the barber.
"That Cervantes has been for many years a great friend of mine, and to my knowledge he has had more experience in reverses than in verses. His book has some good invention in it, it presents us with something but brings nothing to a conclusion: we must wait for the Second Part it promises: perhaps with amendment it may succeed in winning the full measure of grace that is now denied it; and in the mean time do you, senor gossip, keep it shut up in your own quarters."
"Very good," said the barber; "and here come three together, the 'Araucana' of Don Alonso de Ercilla, the 'Austriada' of Juan Rufo, Justice of Cordova, and the 'Montserrate' of Christobal de Virues, the Valencian poet."
"These three books," said the curate, "are the best that have been written in Castilian in heroic verse, and they may compare with the most famous of Italy; let them be preserved as the richest treasures of poetry that Spain possesses."
The curate was tired and would not look into any more books, and so he decided that, "contents uncertified," all the rest should be burned; but just then the barber held open one, called "The Tears of Angelica."
"I should have shed tears myself," said the curate when he heard the title, "had I ordered that book to be burned, for its author was one of the famous poets of the world, not to say of Spain, and was very happy in the translation of some of Ovid's fables."
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