Slavoj Zizek: Radical Evil as a Freudian Category



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From Political Evil…

When one talks about the political evils of the XXth century, one usually brings them together under the heading of the “totalitarian” radical Evil. However, the first thing one cannot but take note of apropos the Stalinist discourse is how it is not prohibited in the same way as Nazism: even if we are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, one finds Ostalgie acceptable: “Goodbye Lenin” is tolerated, “Goodbye Hitler” not – why? Already at the anecdotal level, the difference between the Fascist and the Stalinist universe is obvious; say, in the Stalinist show trials, the accused has to publicly confess his crimes and to give an account of how he came to commit them – in start contrast to Nazism, in which it would be meaningless to demand from a Jew the confession that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. This difference points towards the different attitude towards Enlightenment: Stalinism still conceives itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, within which truth is accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved he is, which is why he is subjectively responsible for his crimes, in contrast to the Nazis, for whom the guilt of the Jews is a direct fact of their very biological constitution – one does not have to prove that they are guilty, they are guilty solely by being Jews. For this same reason, on Stalin’s birthday, the prisoners were sending telegrams to Stalin, wishing him all the best and the success of Socialism, even from the darkest gulags like Norilsk or Vorkuta, while one cannot even imagine Jews from Auschwitz sending Hitler a telegram for his birthday… Crazy and tasteless as this may sound, this last distinction bears witness to the fact that the opposition between Stalinism and Nazism was the opposition between civilization and barbarism: Stalinism still did not cut the last threat that linked it to civilization. This is why the biggest war of the XXth century, the World War II, was the war in which Stalinist Communist AND capitalist democracies fought together against Fascism.

Since the Fascist fixation on Blut und Boden is perceived as its original sin, one should start with a simple observation: we are so used to the syntagm “Blut und Boden” that we tend to forget the split signalled by the “und”. The relationship between the two is that of what Deleuze called “disjunctive synthesis” – what better proof than Jews themselves who are precisely the people of Blut ohne Boden, supplementing the lack of land with the excessive investment into blood relations? It is as if the first and foremost effect of migration is to foreground even more the blood relations, thus violating the basic territorial definition of a modern state: the member of a state is not defined by his/her “blood” (ethnic identity), but by being fully acknowledged as residing in the state’s territory – and the state’s unity was historically established precisely by the violent erasure of local blood links. In this sense, the modern state as such is the outcome of an “inner migration,” of the transubstantiation of one’s identity: even if, physically, one does not change one’s dwelling, one is deprived of a particular identity with its local color – or, to put it again in Deleuze’s terms, state’s territory is by definition that of a reterritorialized deterritorialization. And, perhaps, as was made clear in Fascism, violence explodes precisely when one tries to deny the gap and bring together the two dimensions of blood AND soil into a harmonious unity; this bringing-together accounts for the “innocent” tautological formulas of today’s neoracists: le Pen’s entire program can be summed up in “France to the French!” (and this allows us to generate further formulas: “Germany to Germans!”, etc.) – “We do not want anything foreign, we want only what is ours!”…

The first thing that such a “fundamentalist” view cannot see is how a foreign gaze is inscribed into the very establishment of “our” identity. Say, Argentinean identity formed itself in the middle of 19th century, when its main mythical motifs were established (the gaucho melancholy, etc.); however, all these motifs were already formulated in the memoirs European travelers a couple of decades earlier – what this means is that, from the very beginning, the Argentinean ideological self-identity relied on an alienating identification with the Other’s gaze. The same holds even more for modern Greece: Athens were in 1800 a provincial peasant village of 10.000 inhabitants, they were not even the first capital of independent Greece. It was under the pressure of Western powers (mostly Germany and England) that the capital was moved to Athens where a series of neoclassic government buildings were constructed by Western architects; it was also the Westerners, fascinated by the Antiquity, who installed in Greeks the sense of continuity with Ancient Greece. Modern Greece thus literally arose as the materialization of the Other’s fantasy, and, since the right of fantasy is the fundamental right, should one not draw from it the extremely non-PC conclusion that not only should Germany and England return to Greece the ancient monuments they plundered and which are now displayed in the Pergamon Museum and the British Museum – Greeks should even voluntarily offer to Germany and Greece whatever old monuments they still possess, since these monuments only have value for the Western ideological fantasy.

The second thing that such a “fundamentalist” view cannot see is its own split nature, the gap that separates the explicit ideological text from its obscene undertext. In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by the US soldiers, rendered public at the end of April 2004, George Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of the soldiers were isolated crimes which do not reflect what America stands and fights for, the values of democracy, freedom and personal dignity. However, what about the clear contrast between the “standard” way prisoners were tortured in the previous Saddam’s regime and the US Army tortures? In the previous regime, the accent was on direct brutal infliction of pain, while the US soldiers focused on psychological humiliation. Furthermore, recording the humiliation with a camera, with the perpetrators included into the picture, their faces stupidly smiling side by side with the twisted naked bodies of the prisoners, is an integral part of the process, in start contrast with the secrecy of the Saddam tortures. When I saw the well-known photo of a naked prisoner with a black hood covering his head, electric cables attached to his limbs, standing on a chair in a ridiculous theatrical pose, my first reaction was that this was a shot of some latest performance art show in Lower Manhattan. The very positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant, which cannot but bring to our mind the whole scope of American performance art and “theatre of cruelty,” the photos of Mapplethorpe, the weird scenes in David Lynch’s films…

To anyone acquainted with the reality of the US way of life, the photos immediately brought to mind the obscene underside of the US popular culture – the initiatic rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. Do we not see similar photos in regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an army unit or in a high school campus, where the initiatic ritual went overboard and soldiers or students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures (like penetrating their anal opening with a beer bottle in front of their peers), to suffer being pierced by needles…

Recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, a court-martial drama about two US marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers; the military prosecutor claims that the act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defense (composed of Tom Cruise and Demi Moore – how could they fail?) succeeds in proving that the defendants followed the so-called “Code Red,” the unwritten rule of a military community which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who has broken the ethical standards of the Marines. Such a code condones an act of transgression, it is “illegal,” yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group. It has to remain under cover of the night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public, everyone pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. While violating the explicit rules of community, such a code represents the “spirit of community” at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on individuals to enact group identification.

Are thus the Abu Ghraib tortures not part of the Code Red rules? Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people: in being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture, they got the taste of its obscene underside which forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy, and freedom. No wonder, then, that it is gradually becoming clear how the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not a limited case, but part of a widespread practice.

In a recent debate about the fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC, one of the arguments for the ethico-legal acceptability of their status was that “they are those who were missed by the bombs”: since they were the target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate military operation, one cannot condemn their fate when they were taken prisoners after the combat – whatever their situation, it is better, less severe, than being dead… This reasoning tells more than it intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that they are now cases of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts. If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space “between the two deaths,” occupying the position of homo sacer, legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status) while biologically still alive, the US authorities which treat them in this way are also in a kind of in-between legal status which forms the counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, their acts are no longer covered and constrained by the law – they operate in an empty space that is still within the domain of the law. And the recent disclosures about Abu Ghraib only display the full consequences of locating prisoners into this place “between the two deaths.”

Bush was thus wrong: what we are getting when we see the photos of the humiliated Iraqi prisoners on our screens and front pages, is precisely a direct insight into the “American values,” into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the US way of life. These photos therefore put into an adequate perspective Samuel Huntington’s well-known thesis on the ongoing “clash of civilizations”: the clash between the Arab and the American civilization is not a clash between barbarism and respect for human dignity, but a clash between anonymous brutal torture and torture as a mediatic spectacle in which the victims’ bodies serve as the anonymous background for the stupidly smiling “innocent American” faces of the torturers themselves. At the same time, one has here a proof of how, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, every clash of civilizations is the clash of the underlying barbarisms.

And, finally, the third thing the anti-fundamentalist humanitarianism itself doesn’t see is its own politicization. Rony Brauman who, on behalf of the Red Cross, coordinated the help to Sarajevo, made a pertinent observation about how the very presentation of the crisis of Sarajevo as “humanitarian,” the very recasting of the political-military conflict into the humanitarian terms, was sustained by an eminently political choice, that of, basically, taking the Serb side in the conflict. Especially ominous and manipulative was here the role of Mitterand:

The celebration of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. /…/ It was apparently not possible, for Francois Mitterand, to express his analysis of the war in Yugoslavia. With the strictly humanitarian response, he discovered an unexpected source of communication or, more precisely, of cosmetics, which is a little bit the same thing. /…/ Mitterand remained in favor of the maintenance of Yugoslavia within its borders and was persuaded that only a strong Serbian power was in the position to guarantee a certain stability in this explosive region. This position rapidly became unacceptable in the eyes of the French people. All the bustling activity and the humanitarian discourse permitted him to reaffirm the unfailing commitment of France to the Rights of Man in the end, and to mimic an opposition to Greater Serbian fascism, all in giving it free rein. ((Rony Bauman, “From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004), p. 398-99 and 416.))

From this specific insight, one should move to the general level and render problematic the very depoliticized humanitarian politics of “Human Rights” as the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political purposes. Such humanitarianism presents itself as something of an antipolitics – a pure defense of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defense of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations or instantiations of collective power against individuals. However, the question is: what kind of politicization those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose. Do they stand for a different formulation of justice or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects? Say, it is clear that the US overthrowing of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in the terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, not only was motivated by other politico-economic interests (oil), but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions (Western liberal democracy, guarantee of private property, the inclusion into the global market economy, etc.) that should open up the perspective of freedom to the Iraqi people. The purely humanitarian anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus effectively amounts to the implicit prohibition of elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

And, at an even more general level, one should problematize the very opposition between the universal (pre-political) Human Rights which belong to every human being “as such,” and specific political rights of a citizen, member of a particular political community; in this sense, Etienne Balibar argues for the “reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between ‘man’ and ‘citizen’” which proceeds by “explaining how man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man.” ((Etienne Balibar, “Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?”, op.cit., p. 320-321.)) Balibar refers here to Hannah Arendt’s insight apropos he XXth century phenomenon of refugees: “The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human.” ((Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Meridian 1958, p. 297.)) This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a human being reduced to “bare life”: in a properly Hegelian paradoxical dialectics of universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of his particular socio-political identity which accounts for his determinate citizenship, that he, in one and the same move, is no longer recognized and/or treated as human. In short, the paradox is that one is deprived of human rights precisely when one is effectively, in one’s social reality, reduced to a human being “in general,” without citizenship, profession, etc., that is to say, precisely when one effectively becomes the ideal BEARER of “universal human rights” (which belong to me “independently of” my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity…).

We thus arrived at a standard “postmodern,” “anti-essentialist” position, a kind of political version of Foucault’s notion of sex as generated by a multitude of the practices of sexuality: “man,” the bearer of Human Rights, is generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship – is, however, this enough? What if one should rather endorse the paradox of the inhumanity of human being deprived of citizenship, and posit the “inhuman” pure man as a necessary excess of humanity over itself, its “indivisible remainder,” a kind of Kantian limit-concept of the phenomenal notion of humanity? So that, in exactly the same way in Kant’s philosophy the sublime Noumenal, when we come too close to it, appears as pure horror, man “as such,” deprived of all phenomenal qualifications, appears as an inhuman monster, something like Kafka’s odradek.

Jacques Rancière ((Jacques Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004), p. 297-310.)) clearly outlined the “ontological trap” into which the Foucauldian-Agambenian notion of “biopolitics” as the culmination of the entire Western thought ends up getting caught: concentration camps appear as a kind of “ontological destiny: each of us would be in the situation of the refugee in a camp. Any difference grows faint between democracy and totalitarianism and any political practice proves to be already ensnared in the biopolitical trap.” When, in a shift from Foucault, Agamben identifies sovereign power and biopolitics (in today’s generalized state of exception, the two overlap), he thus precludes the very possibility of the emergence of political subjectivity.

Rancière proposes a very elegant and precise solution of the antinomy between Human Rights (belonging to “man as such”) and the politicization of citizens: while Human Rights cannot be posited as an unhistorical “essentialist” Beyond with regard to the contingent sphere of political struggles, as universal “natural rights of man” exempted from history, they also should not be dismissed as a reified fetish which is a product of concrete historical processes of the politicization of citizens. The gap between the universality of Human Rights and the political rights of citizens is thus not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere; it, rather, “separates the whole of the community from itself”, as Rancière put it in a precise Hegelian way. Far from being pre-political, “universal Human Rights” designate the precise space of politicization proper: what they amount to is the right to universality as such, the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself – precisely insofar as it is the “surnumerary” one, the “part with no part,” the one without a proper place in the social edifice – as an agent of universality of the Social as such. The paradox is thus a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity: at the very moment when we try to conceive political rights of citizens without the reference to universal “meta-political” Human Rights, we lose politics itself, i.e., we reduce politics to a “post-political” play of negotiation of particular interests. – What, then, happens to Human Rights when they are reduced to the rights of homo sacer, of those excluded from the political community, reduced to “bare life” – i.e., when they become of no use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, are treated as inhuman? Rancière proposes here an extremely salient dialectical reversal:

/…/ when they are of no use, you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. It is in this way, as the result of this process, that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right. For all this, they are not void. Political names and political places never become merely void. The void is filled by somebody or something else. /…/ if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact Human Rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the “right to humanitarian interference” – a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organizations themselves. The “right to humanitarian interference” might be described as a sort of “return to sender”: the disused rights that had been send to the rightless are sent back to the senders. ((Rancière, op.cit., p. 307-309.))

The reference to Lacan’s formula of communication (in which the sender gets back from the receiver-addressee his own message in its inverted, i.e. true, form) is here up to the point: in the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World its own message in its true form. And the moment Human Rights are thus depoliticized, the discourse dealing with them has to change to ethics: reference to the pre-political opposition of Good and Evil has to be mobilized. Today’s “new reign of ethics”, clearly discernible in, say, Michael Ignatieff’s work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization, of denying to the victimized other political subjectivization. No wonder, then, that the advocates of such humanitarianism like to refer to the notion of a transpolitical radical Evil.

… to Radical Evil

Those who perceive shoah as the ultimate manifestation of radical Evil seem to obtain an argument in Lacan’s thesis on “Kant avec Sade.” “Kant avec Sade” effectively names the ultimate paradox of modern ethics, positing the sign of equation between the two radical opposites: the sublime disinterested ethical attitude is somehow identical to, or overlaps with, the unrestrained indulgence in pleasurable violence. A lot is at stake here: is there a line from the Kantian ethics to the cold-blooded Auschwitz killing machine? Are concentration camps and killing as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason? Is there at least a legitimate lineage from Sade to Fascist torturing, as is implied by Pasolini’s film version of 120 Days in Sodom, which transposes it into the dark days of Mussolini’s Salo Republic?

The link between Sade and Kant was first developed by Adorno and Horkheimer in the famous Excursion II (“Juliette or Enlightenment and Morals”) of Dialectics of Enlightenment: A/H’s fundamental thesis is that “the work of Marquis de Sade displays the ‘Reason which is not led by another agency’, that is to say, the bourgeois subject, liberated from a state of not yet being mature.” ((Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklaerung, Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag 1971, p. 79.)) Some fifteen years later, Jacques Lacan (without knowing about A/H’s version) also developed the notion that Sade is the truth of Kant, first in his Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1958-59), ((See especially chapter VI of Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre VII: L’éthique de la psychanalyse, Paris: Seuil 1986.)) and then in the écrit “Kant with Sade” of 1963. ((Jacques Lacan, “Kant avec Sade,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil 1966, p. 765-790.))

A/H locate Sade in the long tradition of the orgiastic-carnivalesque reversal of the established order: the moment when the hierarchical rules are suspended and “everything is permitted.” This primordial jouissance recaptured by the sacred orgies is, of course, the retroactive projection of the human alienated state: it never existed prior to its loss. The point, of course, is that Sade announces the moment when, with the emergence of bourgeois Enlightenment, pleasure itself loses its sacred/transgressive character and is reduced to a rationalized instrumental activity. That is to say, according to A/H, the greatness of Sade is that, on behalf of the full assertion of earthly pleasures, he not only rejects any metaphysical moralism, but also fully acknowledges the price one has to pay for it: the radical intellectualization-instrumentalization-regimentation of the (sexual) activity intended to bring pleasure. Here we encounter the content later baptized by Marcuse “repressive desublimation”: after all the barriers of sublimation, of cultural transformation of sexual activity, are abolished, what we get is not raw, brutal, passionate satisfying animal sex, but, on the contrary, a fully regimented, intellectualized activity comparable to a well-planned sporting match. The Sadean hero is not a brute animal beast, but a pale, cold-blooded intellectual much more alienated from the true pleasure of the flesh than is the prudish, inhibited lover, a man of reason enslaved to the amor intellectualis diaboli - what gives pleasure to him (or her) is not sexuality as such but the activity of outstripping rational civilization by its own means, i.e. by way of thinking (and practicing) to the end the consequences of its logic. So, far from being an entity of full, earthly passion, the Sadean hero is fundamentally apathetic, reducing sexuality to a mechanical planned procedure deprived of the last vestiges of spontaneous pleasure or sentimentality. What Sade heroically takes into account is that pure bodily sensual pleasure and spiritual love are not simply opposed, but dialectically intertwined: there is something deeply “spiritual,” spectral, sublime, about a really passionate sensual lust, and vice versa (as the mystical experience teaches us), so that the thorough “desublimation” of sexuality also thoroughly intellectualizes it, changing an intense pathetic bodily experience into a cold, apathetic mechanic exercise.

How, then, does Lacan stand in regard to the A/H version of “Kant with Sade” (i.e. of Sade as the truth of Kantian ethics)? For Lacan also, Sade consequently deployed the inherent potential of the Kantian philosophical revolution, although Lacan gives to this a somewhat different twist – his point is that Sade honestly externalizes the Voice of Conscience (which, in Kant, attests the subject’s full ethical autonomy, i.e. is self-posited/imposed by the subject) in the Executioner who terrorizes/tortures the victim… The first association here is, of course: what’s all the fuss about? Today, in our postidealist Freudian era, doesn’t everybody know what the point of the “with” is – the truth of Kant’s ethical rigorism is the sadism of the Law, i.e. the Kantian Law is a superego agency that sadistically enjoys the subject’s deadlock, his inability to meet its inexorable demands, like the proverbial teacher who tortures pupils with impossible tasks and secretly savors their failings? Lacan’s point, however, is the exact opposite of this first association: it is not Kant who was a closet sadist, it is Sade who is a closet Kantian. That is to say, what one should bear in mind is that the focus of Lacan is always Kant, not Sade: what he is interested in are the ultimate consequences and disavowed premises of the Kantian ethical revolution. In other words, Lacan does not try to make the usual “reductionist” point that every ethical act, as pure and disinterested as it may appear, is always grounded in some “pathological” motivation (the agent’s own long-term interest, the admiration of his peers, up to the “negative” satisfaction provided by the suffering and extortion often demanded by ethical acts); the focus of Lacan’s interest rather resides in the paradoxical reversal by means of which desire itself (i.e. acting upon one’s desire, not compromising it) can no longer be grounded in any “pathological” interests or motivations and thus meets the criteria of the Kantian ethical act, so that “following one’s desire” overlaps with “doing one’s duty.” Suffice it to recall Kant’s own famous example from his Critique of Practical Reason:

Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passions if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer may be. ((Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 30.))

Lacan’s counterargument here is that we certainly DO have to guess what his answer may be: what if we encounter a subject (as we regularily do in psychoanalysis) who can only fully enjoy a night of passion if some form of “gallows” is threatening him, i.e. if, by doing it, he is violating some prohibition? Mario Monicelli’s Casanova ’70 (1965) with Virna Lisi and Marcello Mastroianni hinges on this very point: the hero can only retain his sexual potency if doing “it” involves some kind of danger. At the film’s end, when he is on the verge of marrying his beloved, he wants at least to violate the prohibition of premarital sex by sleeping with her the night before the wedding – however, his bride unknowingly spoils even this minimal pleasure by arranging with the priest for special permission for the two of them to sleep together the night before, so that the act is deprived of its transgressive sting. What can he do now? In the last shot of the film, we see him crawling on the narrow porch on the outside of the high-rise building, giving himself the difficult task of entering the girl’s bedroom in the most dangerous way, in a desperate attempt to link sexual gratification to mortal danger… So, Lacan’s point is that if gratifying sexual passion involves the suspension of even the most elementary “egotistic” interests, if this gratification is clearly located “beyond the pleasure principle,” then, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, we are dealing with an ethical act, then his “passion” is stricto sensu ethical. ((” /…/ if, as Kant claims, no other thing but the moral law can induce us to put aside all our pathological interests and accept our death, then the case of someone who spends a night with a lady even though he knows that he will pay for it with his life, is the case of the moral law.”(Alenka Zupancic, “The Subject of the Law,” in Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. by Slavoj Zizek, Durham: Duke UP 1998, p. 89). ))

Kant gets involved into a difficult predicament when he distinguishes between the “ordinary” evil (the violation of morality on behalf of some “pathological” motivation, like greed, lust, ambition, etc.), the “radical” evil, and the “diabolical” evil. It may seem that we are dealing with a simple linear graduation: “normal” evil, more “radical” evil, and, finally, the unthinkable “diabolical” evil. However, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that the three species are not at the same level, i.e., that Kant confuses different principles of classification. “Radical” evil does not designate a specific type of evil acts, but an a priori propensity of the human nature (to act egotistically, to give preference to pathological motivations over universal ethical duty) which opens up the very space for “normal” evil acts, i.e., which roots them in human nature. In contrast to it, “diabolical” evil does designate a specific type of evil acts: acts which are not motivated by any pathological motivation, but are done “just for the sake of it,” elevating evil itself into an apriori non-pathological motivation – something akin to Poe’s “imp of perversity.” While Kant claims that “diabolical evil” cannot actually occur (it is not possible for a human being to elevate evil itself into a universal ethical norm), he nonetheles asserts that one should posit it as an abstract possibility. Interestingly enough, the concrete case he mentions (in Part I of his Metaphysics of Mores) is that of the judicial regicide, the murder of a king executed as a punishment pronounced by a court: Kant’s claim is that, in contrast to a simple rebellion in which the mob kills only the person of a king, the judicial process which condemns to death the king (this embodiment of the rule of law) destroys from within the very form of the (rule of) law, turning it into a terrifying travesty – which is why, as Kant put it, such an act is an “indelible crime” which cannot ever be pardoned. However, in a second step, Kant desperately argues that in the two historical cases of such an act (under Cromwell and in the 1973 France), we were dealing just with a mob taking revenge… Why this oscillation and classificatory confusion in Kant? Because, if he were to assert the actual possibility of “diabolical evil,” he would found it impossible to distinguish it from the Good – since both acts would be non-pathologically motivated, the travesty of justice would become indistinguishable from justice itself.

Lacan’s further point is that this covert Sadean dimension of an “ethical (sexual) passion” is not read into Kant by our eccentric interpretation, but is inherent to the Kantian theoretical edifice. If we put aside the body of “circumstantial evidence” for it (isn’t Kant’s infamous definition of marriage – “the contract between two adults of the opposite sex about the mutual use of each other’s sexual organs” – thoroughly Sadean, since it reduces the Other, the subject’s sexual partner, to a partial object, to his/her bodily organ which provides pleasure, ignoring him/her as the Whole of a human Person?), the crucial clue that allows us to discern the contours of “Sade in Kant” is the way Kant conceptualizes the relationship between sentiments (feelings) and the moral Law. Although Kant insists on the absolute gap between pathological sentiments and the pure form of moral Law, there is one a priori sentiment that the subject necessarily experiences when confronted with the injunction of the moral Law, the pain of humiliation (because of man’s hurt pride, due to the “radical Evil” of human nature); for Lacan, this Kantian privileging of pain as the only a priori sentiment is strictly correlative to de Sade’s notion of pain (torturing and humiliating the other, being tortured and humiliated by him) as the privileged way of access to sexual jouissance (Sade’s argument, of course, is that pain is to be given priority over pleasure on account of its greater longevity – pleasures are passing, while pain can last almost indefinitely). This link can be further substantiated by what Lacan calls the Sadean fundamental fantasy: the fantasy of another, ethereal body of the victim, which can be tortured indefinitely and nonetheless magically retains its beauty (see the standard Sadean figure of a young girl sustaining endless humiliations and mutilations from her deprived torturer and somehow mysteriously surviving it all intact, in the same way Tom and Jerry and other cartoon heroes survive all their ridiculous ordeals intact). Doesn’t this fantasy provide the libidinal foundation of the Kantian postulate of the immortality of the soul endlessly striving to achieve ethical perfection, i.e., is not the fantasmatic “truth” of the immortality of the soul its exact opposite, the immortality of the body, its ability to sustain endless pain and humiliation? Judith Butler pointed out that the Foucauldian “body” as the site of resistance is none other than the Freudian “psyche”: paradoxically, “body” is Foucault’s name for the psychic apparatus insofar as it resists the soul’s domination. That is to say, when, in his well-known definition of the soul as the “prison of the body,” Foucault turns around the standard Platonic-Christian definition of the body as the “prison of the soul,” what he calls “body” is not simply the biological body, but is effectively already caught into some kind of pre-subjective psychic apparatus. ((Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997, p. 28-29. )) Consequently, don’t we encounter in Kant a secret homologous inversion, only in the opposite direction, of the relationship between body and soul: what Kant calls “immortality of the soul” is effectively the immortality of the other, ethereal, “undead” body?

A look at Wagnerian heroes can be of some help here: from their first paradigmatic case, The Flying Dutchman, they are possessed by the unconditional passion for dying, for finding ultimate peace and redemption in death. Their predicament is that, some time in the past, they have committed some unspeakable evil deed, so that they are condemned to pay the price for it not by death, but by being condemned to a life of eternal suffering, of helplessly wandering around, unable to fulfill their symbolic function. This gives us a clue to the exemplary Wagnerian song, which, precisely, is the complaint (Klage) of the hero, displaying his horror at being condemned to a life of eternal suffering, to err around or dwell as the “undead” monster, longing for peace in death (from its first example, Dutchman’s great introductory monologue, to the lament of the dying Tristan and the two great complaints of the suffering Amfortas).

Wagner’s solution to Freud’s antagonism of Eros and Thanatos is thus the identity of the two poles: love itself culminates in death, its true object is death, the longing for the beloved is the longing for death. Is, then, this urge which haunts the Wagnerian hero what Freud called the “death drive”, Todestrieb? It is precisely the reference to Wagner which enables us to see how the Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, for the return to the inorganic absence of any life-tension. Death drive does NOT reside in Wagner’s heroes’ longing to die, to find peace in death: it is, on the contrary, the very opposite of dying – a name for the “undead” eternal life itself, for the horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain. The final passing-away of the Wagnerian hero (the death of the Dutchman, Wotan, Tristan, Amfortas) is therefore the moment of their liberation from the clutches of the death drive. Tristan in Act III is not desperate because of his fear of dying: what makes him desperate is that, without Isolde, he cannot die and is condemned to eternal longing – he anxiously awaits her arrival so as to be able to die. The prospect he dreads is not that of dying without Isolde (the standard complaint of a lover), but rather that of the endless life without her… The paradox of the Freudian “death drive” is therefore that it is Freud’s name for its very opposite, for the way immortality appears within psychoanalysis, for an uncanny EXCESS of life, for an “undead” urge which persist beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death, of generation and corruption. The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never “just life”: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things. Such a striving to experience life at its excessive fullest is what Wagner’s operas are about. This excess inscribes itself into the human body in the guise of a wound which makes the subject “undead,” depriving him of the capacity to die (apart from Tristan’s and Amfortas’ wound, there is, of course, THE wound, the one from Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”): when this wound is healed, the hero can die in peace.

At the end of the day what this means is that there is absolutely no link or continuity between the philosophical topic of radical Evil (and its Freudian version, the death drive), and the “totalitarian” excesses of the XXth century. It is significant how, apropos of the holocaust, Primo Levi reproduces the old paradox of prohibiting the impossible: “Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened” ((Primo Levi, If This Is a Man – The Truce, London: Abacus 1987, p. 395.)) - do we not hear here the old inversion of Kant’s “You can, because you must!”, namely “You cannot, because you must not!”, which abounds in today’s religious resistance to genetic manipulations: “One cannot reduce the human spirit to the genes, which is why one should not do it!” What, however, nonetheless distinguishes Levi from the fashionable elevation of the holocaust into an untouchable transcendent Evil is that, at this very point, he introduces the distinction (on which Lacan relies all the time) between understanding and knowledge – he pursues: “We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs /…/. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again.” ((Levi, op.cit., p. 396.)) For this reason, one should turn around the standard notion of holocaust as the historical actualization of “radical (or, rather, diabolical) Evil”: Auschwitz is the ultimate argument AGAINST the romanticized notion of “diabolical Evil,” of the evil hero who elevates Evil into an a priori principle. As Hannah Arendt was right to emphasize, the unbearable horror of Auschwitz resides in the fact that its perpetrators were NOT Byronesque figures who asserted, like Milton’s Satan, “Let Evil be my Good!” – the true cause for alarm resides in the unbridgeable GAP between the horror of what went on and the “human, all too human” character of its perpetrators.

Notes:

[1] Rony Bauman, "From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism," South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004), p. 398-99 and 416.

[2] Etienne Balibar, "Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?", op.cit., p. 320-321.

[3] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Meridian 1958, p. 297.

[4] Jacques Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004), p. 297-310.

[5] Rancière, op.cit., p. 307-309.

[6] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklaerung, Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag 1971, p. 79.

[7] See especially chapter VI of Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre VII: L'éthique de la psychanalyse, Paris: Seuil 1986.

[8] Jacques Lacan, "Kant avec Sade," in Écrits, Paris: Seuil 1966, p. 765-790.

[9] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 30.

[10] " /.../ if, as Kant claims, no other thing but the moral law can induce us to put aside all our pathological interests and accept our death, then the case of someone who spends a night with a lady even though he knows that he will pay for it with his life, is the case of the moral law."(Alenka Zupancic, "The Subject of the Law," in Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. by Slavoj Zizek, Durham: Duke UP 1998, p. 89).

[11] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997, p. 28-29.

[12] Primo Levi, If This Is a Man - The Truce, London: Abacus 1987, p. 395.

[13] Levi, op.cit., p. 396.


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