Slavoj Žižek: Am I a Philosopher?

[Delivered at International Žižek Studies Conference on May 27th 2016.]


In his per­spicu­ous review of the volume Repeat­ing Žižek, ded­ic­ated to my work, Jamil Khader notes how some con­trib­ut­ors inter­rog­ate

“Žižek’s cre­den­tials as a philo­sopher, espe­cially in rela­tion to Badiou’s cri­tique of Lacan’s anti-philo­soph­ical pos­i­tion. Hamza points out, in fact, that philo­soph­ers who are Žižekian are always reminded that com­pared to Žižek, ‘it is not a dif­fi­cult task to be a fol­lower of Badiou, or a Badi­ous­ian in philo­sophy, due to his very-well-struc­tured sys­tem.’ To this extent, Noys cau­tiously reit­er­ates Badiou’s claim that Žižek is ‘not exactly in the field of philo­sophy,’ only to pro­poses that Žižek is a ‘reader of philo­sophy,’ someone who offers not a philo­sophy but a method. Bruno Bos­teels makes this case against a Žižekian philo­sophy more force­fully. He claims that after his inter­na­tional career took off, Žižek has been strug­gling very hard to dis­as­so­ci­ate him­self from the field of cul­tural stud­ies, in which his work was ini­tially received and ‘mis­recog­nized,’ and to reclaim his name as a philo­sopher. Bos­teels writes: ‘Thus, whereas Badiou after the com­ple­tion of Being and Event speaks from within the bas­tion of a clas­sic­ally or neo­clas­sic­ally styled philo­sophy, wav­ing the ban­ner of Pla­ton­ism with suf­fi­cient self-con­fid­ence to accept the chal­lenge of an anti­philo­sopher such as Lacan, Žižek is still at pains to down­play the late Lacan’s anti­philo­soph­ical pro­voca­tions for the sake of gain­ing respect­ab­il­ity as a philo­sopher.’ For Bos­teels, this seems to offer a seam­less explan­a­tion of Žižek’s ‘pro­ver­bial nervous­ness.’ His tics simply betray an anxi­ety about being excluded from pres­ti­gi­ous insti­tu­tional appar­at­uses and depart­ments of philo­sophy, whether in Slov­e­nia, Bri­tain or France. As such, he per­forms the role of the hys­teric to the master’s dis­course of a stoic­ally unfazed Badiou.”

I find these cri­tiques of my work prob­lem­atic on more than one count, even if I dis­count the – to put it mildly – very prob­lem­atic “ground­ing” of my bod­ily tics (incid­ent­ally, the res­ult of an organic dis­ease for which I am tak­ing medi­cines!) in my anxi­ety about being excluded from aca­demic appar­at­uses and not recog­nized as a “ser­i­ous” philo­sopher. (Can one even ima­gine the Polit­ic­ally Cor­rect out­cry if another thinker – who is, say, a les­bian fem­in­ist – were to be “ana­lyzed” at such a level?)
First, I DO pro­pose a kind of “onto­logy”: my work is not just a decon­struct­ive reflec­tion on the incon­sist­en­cies of other philo­sophies, it DOES out­line a cer­tain “struc­ture of real­ity.” Or, to put it in bru­tally-sim­pli­fied Kan­tian terms: the last hori­zon of my work is not the mul­tiple nar­rat­ive of cog­nit­ive fail­ures against the back­ground of the inac­cess­ible Real. The move “bey­ond the tran­scend­ental” is out­lined in the first part of my Abso­lute Recoil where I deploy in detail the basic dia­lect­ical move, that of the reversal of epi­stem­o­lo­gical obstacle into onto­lo­gical impossib­il­ity that char­ac­ter­izes the Thing itself: the very fail­ure of my effort to grasp the Thing has to be (re)conceived as a fea­ture of the Thing, as an impossib­il­ity inscribed into the very heart of the Real. (Another move in this dir­ec­tion is my elab­or­a­tion of the quasi-onto­logy of “less than noth­ing” in my read­ing of the onto­lo­gical implic­a­tions of quan­tum phys­ics.)

But the heart of the prob­lem lies else­where: in the applic­a­tion on philo­sophy of the oppos­i­tion between the Mas­ter and the Hys­teric – to cut a long story short, if we identify true philo­sophy with a stoic­ally unfazed master’s dis­course, then philo­soph­ers like Kant and Hegel are no longer philo­soph­ers. After Kant, “clas­sic­ally or neo­clas­sic­ally styled philo­sophy,” i.e., philo­sophy as a “world view,” as a great ren­der­ing of the basic struc­ture of entire real­ity, is simply no longer pos­sible. With Kant’s crit­ical turn, think­ing is “not exactly in the field of philo­sophy,” it offers “not a philo­sophy but a method”: philo­sophy turns self-reflex­ive, a dis­course examin­ing its own con­di­tions of pos­sib­il­ity – or, more pre­cisely, of its own impossib­il­ity. Meta­phys­ics (the descrip­tion of the hier­archic rational struc­ture of the uni­verse) gets neces­sar­ily caught in anti­nom­ies, illu­sions are unavoid­ably needed to fill in the gaps in the struc­ture – in short, with Kant, philo­sophy is no longer a Master’s dis­course, its entire edi­fice gets tra­versed by a bar of imman­ent impossib­il­ity, fail­ure, and incon­sist­ency. With Hegel, things go even fur­ther: far from return­ing to pre-crit­ical rational meta­phys­ics (as Kan­tians accuse it), the whole of Hegel­ian dia­lectics is a kind of hys­ter­ical under­min­ing of the Mas­ter (the reason Lacan called Hegel “the most sub­lime of all hys­ter­ics”), the imman­ent self-destruc­tion and self-over­com­ing of every meta­phys­ical claim. In short, Hegel’s “sys­tem” is noth­ing but a sys­tem­atic tour through the fail­ures of philo­soph­ical pro­jects. In this sense, all of Ger­man Ideal­ism is an exer­cise in “anti-philo­sophy”: already Kant’s crit­ical thought is not dir­ectly philo­sophy but a pro­leg­om­ena to future philo­sophy, a ques­tion­ing of the con­di­tions of (im)possibility of philo­sophy; Fichte no longer calls his think­ing philo­sophy but Wis­senschaftslehre (“the teach­ing on sci­en­ti­fic know­ledge”); and Hegel claims his thought is no longer a mere philo-sophy (love of wis­dom) but true wis­dom (know­ledge) itself. This is why Hegel is “the most sub­lime of all hys­ter­ics”: one should bear in mind that, for Lacan, only hys­teria pro­duces new know­ledge (in con­trast to uni­vers­ity dis­course which just repro­duces it).

— In his two great manus­cripts pub­lished posthum­ously, Ini­ti­ation a la philo­sophie pour les non-philo­sophes (1976) and Etre marx­iste en philo­sophie (1978), Althusser (among other things) out­lines a spe­cific the­ory of philo­sophy which over­laps neither with his early “the­or­eti­cist” con­cept of philo­sophy as “The­ory of the­or­et­ical prac­tice” nor with his later notion of philo­sophy as “class struggle in the­ory”; while closer to the second notion, it serves as a kind of medi­ator between the two. Althusser’s start­ing point is the omni-pres­ence of ideo­logy, of ideo­lo­gical abstrac­tions which always struc­ture our approach to every­day life and real­ity; this ideo­logy has two level, the “spon­tan­eous” every­day tex­ture of impli­cit mean­ings and the organ­ized reli­gion or myth­o­logy which organ­ized a sys­tem­atic sys­tem of these mean­ings. Then, in Ancient Greece, some­thing new and unex­pec­ted happened: the rise of sci­ence in the guise of math­em­at­ics. Math­em­at­ics deals with pure abstract num­bers deprived of all mythic ref­er­ence, it is a game of axioms and rule in which no cos­mic mean­ing res­on­ates, there are no sac­red, lucky or damned num­bers. Pre­cisely as such, math­em­at­ics is sub­vers­ive, it threatens the homo­gen­eity of the uni­verse of cos­mic mean­ing, its homo­gen­eity and sta­bil­ity. A weird incid­ent that happened on a depart­ing AA flight from Phil­adelphia to Syra­cuse on May 7 2016 indic­ates that this fear of math­em­at­ics per­sists even today. An eco­nom­ics pro­fessor was solv­ing a dif­fer­en­tial equa­tion on a piece of paper, and a lady pas­sen­ger seat­ing at his side thought he might be a ter­ror­ist because of what he was writ­ing, so she passed a note to a flight-attend­ant, claim­ing that she is too ill to take the flight. The plane returned to the gate, the lady was taken from the plane and voiced her sus­pi­cion to the ground per­son­nel; secur­ity mem­bers then took off the plane the eco­nom­ics pro­fessor and ques­tioned him…

The true break hap­pens here, not between mythic ideo­logy and philo­sophy but between the mythic uni­verse and sci­ence – and the func­tion of philo­sophy is pre­cisely to con­tain this threat. Form­ally, philo­sophy also breaks with the mythic uni­verse and obeys the rules of sci­ence (rational argu­ment­a­tion, think­ing in abstract con­cep­tual terms, etc.), but its func­tion is to re-inscribe sci­en­ti­fic pro­ced­ure into the reli­gious uni­verse of cos­mic mean­ing. To put it in mock­ingly-Hegel­ian terms, if sci­ence is a neg­a­tion of reli­gion, philo­sophy is a neg­a­tion of neg­a­tion, i.e., it endeavors to re-assert reli­gious mean­ing within the space (and with the means of) rational argu­ment­a­tion: “All of Plato – the the­ory of ideas, the oppos­i­tion of know­ledge and opin­ion, and so on – is based on the break that the first sci­ence’ rep­res­ents. In a sense, this is because all of Plato is an attempt to con­trol and in a way to ‘sub­late’ this break, in a pro­foundly invent­ive but also pro­foundly react­ive dia­lectic. Philo­sophy, in its ideal­ist Pla­ton­ist mat­rix, is thus a react­ive inven­tion: the dis­place­ment of (the ideo­lo­gical func­tions of) reli­gion onto the plane of pure (abstract) ration­al­ity. It draws from these sci­ences its ‘form, the abstrac­tion of its cat­egor­ies, and the demon­strat­ive­ness of its reas­on­ing,’ as a pure reas­on­ing dir­ectly car­ried out on ‘abstract’ objects, but its func­tion is an ideo­lo­gical one, a man­date and a ser­vice del­eg­ated, expli­citly or oth­er­wise, by the dom­in­ant class.” [1]

Here is the link with Althusser’s second defin­i­tion of philo­sophy as class struggle in the­ory: this pres­sure to con­tain the sci­en­ti­fic threat, to re-assert the all-encom­passing reli­gious world-view, is not groun­ded in some kind of dis­em­bod­ied tend­ency for mean­ing­ful total­iz­a­tion of our exper­i­ence but is a pres­sure exer­ted as part of the class struggle in order to guar­an­tee the hege­mony of the rul­ing class ideo­logy. All great philo­soph­ers after Plato repeat this ges­ture of con­tain­ment, from Descartes (who lim­its the domain of sci­ence to mater­ial world) and Kant (who lim­its the domain of sci­ence to phe­nom­enal world in order to open up the space for reli­gion and eth­ics) to today’s neo-Kan­tian the­or­ists of com­mu­nic­a­tion who exempt com­mu­nic­a­tion from sci­en­ti­fic ration­al­ity. Against this pre­dom­in­ant ideal­ist form of philo­sophy (Plato –Aris­totle – Acquinas – Descartes – Kant – Hegel…), Althusser asserts the sub­ter­ranean tra­di­tion of mater­i­al­ist coun­ter-philo­sophy from early Greek mater­i­al­ist and Epi­cur­eans (who assert the mater­ial world of con­tin­gent encoun­ters) through Spinoza and even Heide­g­ger. Isn’t one of the great epis­odes in this struggle Cantor’s pro­foundly mater­i­al­ist re-con­cep­tu­al­iz­a­tion of the infin­ite? His basic premise is the mul­ti­pli­city of infin­it­ies which can­not be total­ized into an all-encom­passing One. The great mater­i­al­ist break­through of Can­tor con­cerns the status of infin­ite num­bers (and it is pre­cisely because this break­through was mater­i­al­ist that it caused so many psychic trau­mas to Can­tor, a devout Cath­olic): prior to Can­tor, the Infin­ite was linked to the One, the con­cep­tual form of God in reli­gion and meta­phys­ics, while with Can­tor, the Infin­ite enters the domain of the Mul­tiple – it implies the actual exist­ence of infin­ite mul­ti­pli­cit­ies, as well as the infin­ite num­ber of dif­fer­ent infin­it­ies.

But is Pla­ton­ism really a reac­tion to the sub­vers­ive abstrac­tion of math­em­at­ical sci­ence? Is it not also (or mainly) a reac­tion to other tend­en­cies like soph­ist philo­soph­ers or pre-Pla­tonic mater­i­al­ism? Moreover, did the ideo­lo­gical recu­per­a­tion of math­em­at­ics not began prior to Plato, with Pythagoreans who imbued num­bers with cos­mic mean­ing? It is worth men­tion­ing here the con­tinu­ous dia­logue between Alain Badiou and Bar­bara Cas­sin which can be best char­ac­ter­ized as the new ver­sion of the ancient dia­logue between Plato and the soph­ists: the Pla­ton­ist Badiou against Cassin’s insist­ence on the irre­duct­ib­il­ity of the soph­ists’ rup­ture. From the strict Hegel­ian stand­point, Cas­sin is right against Badiou in her insist­ence on the irre­du­cible char­ac­ter of the sophist’s pos­i­tion: the self-ref­er­en­tial play of the sym­bolic pro­cess has no external sup­port which would allow us to draw a line, within the lan­guage games, between truth and fals­ity. Soph­ists are the irre­du­cible “van­ish­ing medi­at­ors” between mythos and logos, between the tra­di­tional mythic uni­verse and philo­soph­ical ration­al­ity and, as such, a per­man­ent threat to philo­sophy – why? They broke down the mythic unity of words and things, play­fully assert­ing the gap that sep­ar­ates words from things; and philo­sophy proper can only be under­stood as a reac­tion to the soph­ists, as an attempt to close the gap opened up by the soph­ists, to provide a found­a­tion of truth for words, to return to mythos in the new con­di­tions of ration­al­ity. This is where one should loc­ate Plato: he first tried to provide this found­a­tion by his teach­ing on ideas, and when, in Par­men­ides, he was forced to admit the fra­gil­ity of this found­a­tion, he engaged in a long struggle to re-assert a clear line of sep­ar­a­tion between soph­ist­ics and truth. (The oppos­i­tion between soph­ists and Plato is also con­noted by the oppos­i­tion between demo­cracy and cor­por­ate organic order: soph­ists are clearly demo­cratic, teach­ing the art of sedu­cing and con­vin­cing the crowd, while Plato out­lines a hier­archic cor­por­ate order in which every indi­vidual is at his/her proper place, allow­ing for no pos­i­tion of sin­gu­lar uni­ver­sal­ity.) The irony of the his­tory of philo­sophy is that the line of philo­soph­ers who struggle against the soph­ists’ tempta­tion fin­ishes with Hegel, the “last philo­sopher” who, in a way, is also the ulti­mate soph­ist, assert­ing self-ref­er­en­tial play with no external sup­port of its truth: for Hegel, there is truth, but it is imman­ent to the sym­bolic pro­cess – the truth is meas­ured not by an external stand­ard, but by the “prag­matic con­tra­dic­tion,” the inner (in)consistency of the dis­curs­ive pro­cess, by the gap between the enun­ci­ated con­tent and its pos­i­tion of enun­ci­ation.

Is the way Althusser relates to philo­sophy not one of the clearest cases of the gap that sep­ar­ates the pos­i­tion of enun­ci­ation from the enun­ci­ated (con­tent)? At the level of the enun­ci­ated con­tent, he is all mod­esty: he strongly opposes the ideal­ist philo­soph­ical pre­ten­sion to grasp the struc­ture of the entire uni­verse, to “know it all,” to render the abso­lute truth (or the truth of the Abso­lute). Against this ideal­ist pre­ten­sion, he praises accept­ing lim­its, open­ness to con­tin­gent encoun­ters, etc., which char­ac­ter­ize the mater­i­al­ist under­cur­rent from Epi­curus through Spinoza up to Heide­g­ger (although one might add here that it is dif­fi­cult to ima­gine a more “arrog­ant” philo­sopher than Spinoza whose Eth­ics claims to render the inner work­ing of God-Nature – if noth­ing else, it can be shown that Spinoza is here much more “arrog­ant” than Hegel…).

“Ideal­ist philo­soph­ers speak for every­one and in everyone’s stead. They think, in fact, that they are in pos­ses­sion of the Truth about everything. Mater­i­al­ist philo­soph­ers are much less talk­at­ive: they know how to shut up and listen to people. They do not think that they are privy to the Truth about everything. They know that they can become philo­soph­ers only gradu­ally, mod­estly, and that their philo­sophy will come to them from out­side. So they shut up and listen.” [2]

How­ever, what Althusser effect­ively does when talk­ing about philo­sophy, his “pro­cess of enun­ci­ation,” his approach to philo­sophy, we can eas­ily dis­cern in it the exact oppos­ite of what he char­ac­ter­izes as a mater­i­al­ist approach: bru­tally sim­pli­fied uni­ver­sal state­ments which pre­tend to define the uni­ver­sal key fea­tures of philo­sophy, with no mod­est pro­visos. Philo­sophy as such is class struggle in the­ory, the eternal battle of two lines, “ideal­ist” and “mater­i­al­ist”; it func­tions as an empty repe­ti­tion of the line of demarc­a­tion idealism/materialism which pro­duces noth­ing new; etc. etc. In short, Althusser acts as a supreme Judge impos­ing his Meas­ure onto the wealth of philo­sophies. No won­der, then, that Althusser is so adam­antly anti-Hegel­ian: Althusser’s oppos­ite is here Hegel whose enun­ci­ated (con­tent) may appear “arrog­ant” (“abso­lute Know­ing,” etc.), but whose actual approach is much more rad­ic­ally “mod­est,” “decon­struct­ing” every pre­tense to dir­ectly reach the Abso­lute, demon­strat­ing how each of such claims fails due to its imman­ent incon­sist­en­cies. The extreme case of this Althusser’s “arrog­ance” is his treat­ment of digitalization/computerization of our lives which he bru­tally reduces to tech­no­cratic ideal­ism: when bour­geoisie loses its abil­ity to gen­er­ate ideal­ist philo­soph­ical sys­tems that guar­an­tee the hege­mony of its ideo­logy, it begins to rely on the appar­ently non-ideo­lo­gical “auto­mat­ism of com­puters and tech­no­crats,” to the “neut­ral” expert know­ledge to which our lives should be entrus­ted:

“In a time in which the bour­geoisie has even given up on pro­du­cing its eternal philo­soph­ical sys­tems, on the pro­spects and guar­an­tees that ideas can provide it with, and in which it has entrus­ted its des­tiny to the auto­mat­ism of com­puters and tech­no­crats; in a time in which it is incap­able of pro­pos­ing a viable, con­ceiv­able future to the world, the pro­let­ariat can rise to the chal­lenge; it can breathe new life into philo­sophy and, in order to lib­er­ate men and women from class dom­in­a­tion, make it ‘an arm for the revolu­tion’.” 3“In a time in which the bour­geoisie has even given up on pro­du­cing its eternal philo­soph­ical sys­tems, on the pro­spects and guar­an­tees that ideas can provide it with, and in which it has entrus­ted its des­tiny to the auto­mat­ism of com­puters and tech­no­crats; in a time in which it is incap­able of pro­pos­ing a viable, con­ceiv­able future to the world, the pro­let­ariat can rise to the chal­lenge; it can breathe new life into philo­sophy and, in order to lib­er­ate men and women from class dom­in­a­tion, make it ‘an arm for the revolu­tion’.” [3]

Sounds nice, although a bit naïve: today, when sci­ence seems fully incor­por­ated into cap­it­al­ism, the stand­ard situ­ation in which the task of philo­sophy is to con­tain the sub­vers­ive poten­tial of sci­ences seems almost inver­ted, so that philo­sophy itself becomes a tool against tech­no­cratic dom­in­a­tion… How­ever, the very con­junc­tion “com­puters and tech­no­crats” should imme­di­ately make us sus­pi­cious: as if the two are syn­onym­ous, as if there is no poten­tial ten­sion between the two, as if (as it should be abund­antly clear from today’s fero­cious struggles for the con­trol of cyber­space) cyber­space is not one of the priv­ileged ter­rains of class struggle today when state appar­at­uses and cor­por­a­tions des­per­ately try to con­tain the mon­ster they them­selves helped to unleash: “Althusser mis­un­der­stands the nature and trans­form­at­ive poten­tial – the pro­let­ar­iz­a­tion, per­haps – of com­pu­ta­tion and com­puter sci­ence. In so doing he appears ignor­ant of the strength of the sci­en­ti­fic tools for rethink­ing and res­ist­ing tech­no­cratic rule.” [4] In ignor­ing all these ambi­gu­ities and ten­sions, in bru­tally impos­ing a sim­ple uni­ver­sal scheme, it is Althusser who acts like the worst ideal­ist philo­sopher – con­sequently, it is Althusser who should have fol­lowed his mater­i­al­ist for­mula and “shut up and listen.”

— Lacan begins the elev­enth week of his sem­inar Les non-dupes errent (1973-4) with a straight ques­tion dir­ec­ted back at him­self: “what was it that Lacan, who is here present, inven­ted?” He answers the ques­tion “like that, to get things going: objet a.” So it’s not “desire is the desire of the Other,” “the uncon­scious is struc­tured like a lan­guage,” “there is no sexual rela­tion­ship,” or another from the list of usual sus­pects: Lacan imme­di­ately emphas­izes that his choice is not just one among the pos­sible ones but THE choice. Objet a has a long his­tory in Lacan’s teach­ing, it pre­cedes for dec­ades Lacan’s sys­tem­atic ref­er­ences to the ana­lysis of com­mod­it­ies in Marx’s Cap­ital. But it is undoubtedly this ref­er­ence to Marx, espe­cially to Marx’s notion of sur­plus-value /Mehr­wert/, that enabled Lacan to deploy his “mature” notion of objet a as sur­plus-enjoy­ment (plus-de-jouir, Mehrlust): the pre­dom­in­ant motif which per­meates all Lacan’s ref­er­ences to Marx’s ana­lysis of com­mod­it­ies is the struc­tural homo­logy between Marx’s sur­plus-value and what Lacan’s bap­tized sur­plus-enjoy­ment, the phe­nomenon called by Freud Lust­gewinn, a “gain of pleas­ure,” which does not des­ig­nate a sim­ple step­ping up of pleas­ure but the addi­tional pleas­ure provided by the very formal detours in the subject’s effort to attain pleas­ure. Think about Brecht’s Me-Ti which, in its retell­ing of the his­tory of revolu­tion­ary move­ments in Europe, trans­poses them into an ima­gin­ary China (Trot­sky becomes To-tsi, etc.): our re-trans­la­tion of pseudo-Chinese names back into their European ori­ginal (“Aha, To-tsi is Trot­sky!”) makes the text much more pleas­ur­able – just ima­gine how much Me-Ti would have lost if it were to be writ­ten as a dir­ect report on European his­tory. Or – the most ele­ment­ary example – how much a pro­cess of seduc­tion gains with its intric­ate innu­en­dos, false deni­als, etc.: these detours are not just cul­tural com­plic­a­tions or sub­lim­a­tions cir­cu­lat­ing around some hard­core Real – this hard­core Real is ret­ro­act­ively con­sti­tuted through sec­ond­ary detours, “in itself” it remains a fic­tion.

In the same way that, in libid­inal eco­nomy, there is no “pure” pleas­ure prin­ciple undis­turbed by the per­versit­ies of com­pul­sion-to-repeat – per­versit­ies which can­not be accoun­ted for in the terms of the pleas­ure prin­ciple -, in the sphere of the exchange of com­mod­it­ies, there is no dir­ect closed circle of exchan­ging a com­mod­ity for money in order to buy another com­mod­ity, a circle not yet cor­roded by the per­verse logic of buy­ing and selling com­mod­it­ies in order to get more money, the logic in which money is no longer just a medi­ator in the exchange of com­mod­it­ies but becomes an end-in-itself. The only real­ity is the real­ity of spend­ing money in order to get more money, and what Marx calls C-M-C, the closed exchange of a com­mod­ity for money in order to buy another com­mod­ity, is ulti­mately a fic­tion whose func­tion it is to provide a “nat­ural” found­a­tion of the pro­cess of exchange (“It’s not just about money and more money, the whole point of exchange is to sat­isfy con­crete human needs!”). – The basic libid­inal mech­an­ism here is that of what Freud called Lust­gewinn, the “gain of pleas­ure”. The pro­cess of the “gain-of-pleas­ure” oper­ates through repe­ti­tion: one mis­ses the goal and one repeats the move­ment, try­ing again and again, so that the true aim is no longer the inten­ded goal but the repet­it­ive move­ment of attempt­ing to reach it itself. In can also put it in the terms of form and con­tent where “form” stands for the form, the mode, of approach­ing the desired con­tent: while the desired con­tent (object) prom­ises to provide pleas­ure, a sur­plus-enjoy­ment is gained by the very form (pro­ced­ure) of pur­su­ing the goal. Here is the clas­sic example of how oral drive func­tions: while the goal of suck­ing a breast is to get fed by milk, the libid­inal gain is provided by the repet­it­ive move­ment of suck­ing which thus becomes an end-in-itself. Is some­thing sim­ilar not going on in a (dubi­ous) story about Robe­s­pi­erre often men­tioned by the crit­ics of Jac­obin­ism? When one of Robespierre’s allies was accused of act­ing in an ille­git­im­ate way, he deman­ded (to the sur­prise of those close to him) that the charges be taken ser­i­ously and pro­posed the imme­di­ate con­sti­tu­tion of a spe­cial com­mis­sion to exam­ine the alleg­a­tions; when one of his friends expressed his worry about the fate of the accused (what if he is found guilty? Will this not be bad news for the Jac­obins?), Robe­s­pi­erre calmly smiled back: “Don’t worry about that, some­how we’ll save the accused… but now we have the com­mis­sion!” The com­mis­sion which will remain at the dis­posal of the Jac­obins to purge their enemies – this was for Robe­s­pi­erre the true gain in what appeared as a con­ces­sion to the enemies. Another fig­ure of Lust­gewinn is the reversal that char­ac­ter­izes hys­teria: renun­ci­ation to pleas­ure reverts into pleas­ure of/in renun­ci­ation, repres­sion of desire reverts into desire of repres­sion, etc. In all these cases, gain occurs at a “per­form­at­ive” level: it is gen­er­ated by the very per­form­ance of work­ing towards a goal, not by reach­ing the goal.

We also encoun­ter Mehr­genuss in the basic para­dox of the PC asser­tion of iden­tity: the more mar­ginal and excluded one is, the more one is allowed to assert eth­nic iden­tity and exclus­ive way of life. This is how the Polit­ic­ally Cor­rect land­scape is struc­tured: people far from the West­ern world are allowed to fully assert their par­tic­u­lar eth­nic iden­tity without being pro­claimed essen­tial­ist racist iden­tit­ari­ans (nat­ive Amer­ic­ans, blacks…); the closer one gets to the notori­ous white het­ero­sexual males, the more prob­lem­atic this asser­tion is: Asi­ans are still OK, Itali­ans and Irish maybe, with Ger­mans and Scand­inavi­ans it is already prob­lem­atic… How­ever, such a pro­hib­i­tion of assert­ing the par­tic­u­lar iden­tity of White Men (as the model of oppres­sion of oth­ers), although it presents itself as the admis­sion of their guilt, non­ethe­less con­fers on them a cent­ral pos­i­tion: this very pro­hib­i­tion to assert their par­tic­u­lar iden­tity makes them into the uni­ver­sal-neut­ral medium, the place from which the truth about the oth­ers’ oppres­sion is access­ible. This cent­ral pos­i­tion is the Mehr­genuss, the pleas­ure gen­er­ated by the renun­ci­ation to iden­tity. If we in the West really want to over­come racism, the first thing to do is to leave behind this Polit­ic­ally Cor­rect pro­cess of end­less self-culp­ab­il­iz­a­tion. Although Pas­cal Bruckner’s cri­tique of today’s Left often approaches the ridicule, this doesn’t pre­vent him from occa­sion­ally gen­er­at­ing per­tin­ent insights – one can­not but agree with him when he detects in the European Polit­ic­ally Cor­rect self-fla­gel­la­tion the inver­ted cling­ing to one’s superi­or­ity. Whenever the West is attacked, its first reac­tion is not aggress­ive defence but self-prob­ing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ulti­mately to be blamed for the evils of the world, the Third World cata­strophes and ter­ror­ist viol­ence are merely reac­tions to our crimes… the pos­it­ive form of the White Man’s Burden (respons­ib­il­ity for civil­iz­ing the col­on­ized bar­bar­i­ans) is thus merely replaced by its neg­at­ive form (the burden of white man’s guilt): if we can no longer be the bene­vol­ent mas­ters of the Third World, we can at least be the priv­ileged source of evil, pat­ron­iz­ingly depriving them of their respons­ib­il­ity for their fate (if a Third World coun­try engages in ter­rible crimes, it is never their full respons­ib­il­ity, but always an after-effect of col­on­iz­a­tion: they merely imit­ate what the colo­nial mas­ters were doing, etc.). This priv­ilege is the Mehr­genuss earned by self-culp­ab­il­iz­a­tion.

One of the most deplor­able by-products of the wave of refugees that entered Europe in the Win­ter of 2015-16 was the explo­sion of mor­al­ist out­rage among many Left lib­er­als: “Europe is betray­ing its leg­acy of uni­ver­sal freedom and solid­ar­ity! It lost its moral com­pass! It treats war refugees like infes­ted intruders, pre­vent­ing their entry with barbed wire, lock­ing them up in con­cen­tra­tion camps!” Such abstract empathy, com­bined with calls to open up the bor­ders uncon­di­tion­ally, deserves the great Hegel­ian les­son of the Beau­ti­ful Soul: when someone is paint­ing a pic­ture of Europe’s over­all and utmost moral degen­er­a­tion, the ques­tion to be raised is in what way such a stance is com­pli­cit in what it cri­ti­cizes, in what way those who feel super­ior to the cor­rup­ted world secretly par­ti­cip­at­ing in it. No won­der that, with the excep­tion of human­it­arian appeals to com­pas­sion and solid­ar­ity, the effects of such com­pas­sion­ate self-fla­gel­la­tion are null… But what if the authors of such appeals knew very well that they con­trib­ute noth­ing to the ter­rible plight of the refugees, that the ulti­mate effect of their inter­ven­tions is just to feed the anti-immig­rant resent­ment? What if secretly they know very well that what they demand will never hap­pen since it would trig­ger an instant pop­u­list revolt in Europe? Why, then, are they doing it? There is only one con­sist­ent answer: the true aim of their activ­ity is not really to help the refugees but the Lust­gewinn brought about by their accus­a­tions, the feel­ing of their own moral superi­or­ity over oth­ers – the more refugees are rejec­ted, the more anti-immig­rant pop­u­lism grows, the more these Beau­ti­ful Souls feel vin­dic­ated: “You see, the hor­ror goes on, we are right!”…
More pre­cisely, one has to dis­tin­guish here between pleas­ure and enjoy­ment: what Lacan calls “enjoy­ment (jouis­sance)” is a deadly excess over pleas­ure, its place is bey­ond the pleas­ure-prin­ciple. In other words, the term plus-de-jouir (sur­plus- or excess-enjoy­ment) is a ple­onasm, since enjoy­ment is in itself excess­ive, in con­trast to pleas­ure which is by defin­i­tion mod­er­ate, reg­u­lated by a proper meas­ure. We thus have two extremes: on the one hand the enlightened hedon­ist who care­fully cal­cu­lates his pleas­ures to pro­long his fun and avoid get­ting hurt, on the other hand the jouis­seur proper ready to con­sum­mate his very exist­ence in the deadly excess of enjoy­ment – or, in the terms of our soci­ety, on the one hand the con­sumer­ist cal­cu­lat­ing his pleas­ures, well-pro­tec­ted from all kinds of har­ass­ments and other health threats, on the other hand the drug addict (or smoker or…) bent on self-destruc­tion. Enjoy­ment is what serves noth­ing, and the great effort of the con­tem­por­ary hedon­ist-util­it­arian “per­missive” soci­ety is to incor­por­ate this un(ac)countable excess into the field of (ac)counting. One should thus reject the com­mon sense opin­ion accord­ing to which in a hedon­ist-con­sumer­ist soci­ety we all enjoy: the basic strategy of enlightened con­sumer­ist hedon­ism is on the con­trary to deprive enjoy­ment of its excess­ive dimen­sion, of its dis­turb­ing sur­plus, of the fact that it serves noth­ing. Enjoy­ment is tol­er­ated, soli­cited even, but on con­di­tion that it is healthy, that it doesn’t threaten our psychic or bio­lo­gical sta­bil­ity: chocol­ate yes, but fat free, coke yes, but diet, cof­fee yes, but without caf­feine, beer yes, but without alco­hol, may­on­naise yes, but without cho­les­terol, sex yes, but safe sex… We are here in the domain of what Lacan calls the dis­course of Uni­vers­ity, as opposed to the dis­course of the Mas­ter: a Mas­ter goes to the end in his con­sum­ma­tion, he is not con­strained by petty util­it­arian con­sid­er­a­tions (which is why there is a cer­tain formal homo­logy between the tra­di­tional aris­to­cratic mas­ter and a drug-addict focused on his deadly enjoy­ment), while the consumerist’s pleas­ures are reg­u­lated by sci­en­ti­fic know­ledge propag­ated by the uni­vers­ity dis­course. The decaf­fein­ated enjoy­ment we thus obtain is a semb­lance of enjoy­ment, not its Real, and it is in this sense that Lacan talks about the imit­a­tion of enjoy­ment in the dis­course of Uni­vers­ity. The pro­to­type of this dis­course is the mul­ti­pli­city of reports in pop­ular magazines which advoc­ate sex as good for health: sexual act works like jog­ging, strengthens the heart, relaxes our ten­sions, even kiss­ing is good for our health.

Now we can see clearly the link between Lust­gewinn and sur­plus-value: with Lust­gewinn, the aim of the pro­cess is not its offi­cial goal (sat­is­fac­tion of a need), but the expan­ded self-repro­duc­tion of the pro­cess itself – say, the true aim of suck­ing the mother’s breast is not to get fed by milk but the pleas­ure brought by the activ­ity of suck­ing itself – and in an exactly homo­log­ous way, with sur­plus-value, the true aim of the pro­cess of exchange is not the appro­pri­ation of a com­mod­ity that would sat­isfy a need of mine but the expan­ded self-repro­duc­tion of the cap­ital itself.

— For Lacan, mod­ern sci­ence is defined by two con­com­it­ant fore­clos­ures: the fore­clos­ure of sub­ject and the fore­clos­ure of truth as cause. A sci­en­ti­fic text is enounced from a de-sub­ject­iv­ized “empty” loc­a­tion, it allows for no ref­er­ences to its sub­ject of enun­ci­ation, it is sup­posed to deliver the imper­sonal truth which can be repeatedly demon­strated, “any­one can see and say it,” i.e., the truth should be in no way affected by its place of enun­ci­ation. We can already see the link with the Cartesian cogito: is the “empty” enun­ci­ator of sci­en­ti­fic state­ments not the sub­ject of thought reduced to a van­ish­ing punc­tu­al­ity, deprived of all its prop­er­ties? This same fea­ture also accounts for the fore­clos­ure of truth as cause: when I com­mit a slip of the tongue and say some­thing other than what I wanted to say, and this other mes­sage tells the truth about me that I am often not ready to recog­nize, then one can also say that in my slips the truth itself spoke, sub­vert­ing what I wanted to say. There is truth (a truth about my desire) in such slips even if they con­tain fac­tual inex­actitude — say, an extremely sim­ple example, when the mod­er­ator of a debate, instead of say­ing “I am thereby open­ing the ses­sion!” says “I am thereby clos­ing the ses­sion!” he obvi­ously indic­ates that he is bored and con­siders the debate worth­less… “Truth” (of my sub­ject­ive pos­i­tion) is the cause of such slips; when it oper­ates, the sub­ject is dir­ectly inscribed into its speech, dis­turb­ing the smooth flow of “object­ive” know­ledge.

How, then, can Lacan claim that the sub­ject of psy­cho­ana­lysis – the divided sub­ject, the sub­ject tra­versed by neg­at­iv­ity – is the sub­ject of mod­ern sci­ence (and the Cartesian cogito)? Is it not that, by way of fore­clos­ing truth and sub­ject, mod­ern sci­ence also ignores neg­at­iv­ity? Is sci­ence not a rad­ical attempt to con­struct a (lit­er­ally) truth­less dis­course of know­ledge? Mod­ern sci­ence breaks with the tra­di­tional uni­verse held together by a deeper mean­ing (like a har­mony of cos­mic prin­ciples – yin-yang, etc.), a uni­verse which forms a tele­olo­gic­ally-ordered Whole of a mul­ti­pli­city of hier­arch­ic­ally ordered spheres, a Whole in which everything serves a higher pur­pose. In philo­soph­ical tra­di­tion, the big vestige of the tra­di­tional view is Aris­totle: the Aris­totelian Reason is organic-tele­olo­gical, in clear con­trast to the rad­ical con­tin­gency of mod­ern sci­ence. No won­der today’s Cath­olic Church attacks Dar­win­ism as “irra­tional” on behalf of the Aris­totelian notion of Reason: the “reason” of which Church speaks is a Reason for which Darwin’s the­ory of evol­u­tion (and, ulti­mately, mod­ern sci­ence itself, for which the asser­tion of the con­tin­gency of the uni­verse, the break with the Aris­totelian tele­ology, is a con­stitutive axiom) is “irra­tional.” uni­verse as a har­mo­ni­ous Whole in which everything serves a higher pur­pose.
Freud’s arch-oppon­ent Jung is on the side of this tra­di­tional uni­verse: his approach to psychic phe­nom­ena is effect­ively that of “depth-psy­cho­logy,” his vis­ion is the one of a closed world sus­tained by deeper archetypal mean­ings, a world per­meated by spir­itual forces which oper­ate at a level “deeper” than that of “mech­an­ical” sci­ences, a level at which there are no con­tin­gen­cies, where ordin­ary occur­rences par­take in a pro­found spir­itual mean­ing to be unearthed by self-explor­a­tion – life has a spir­itual pur­pose bey­ond mater­ial goals, and our task is to dis­cover and ful­fill our deep innate poten­tial by way of enga­ging in a jour­ney of inner trans­form­a­tion which brings us in con­tact with the mys­tical heart of all reli­gions, a jour­ney to meet the self and at the same time to meet the divine. Reject­ing (what he per­ceived as) Freud’s sci­en­ti­fic object­iv­ism, Jung thus advoc­ates a ver­sion of pan­the­ism which iden­ti­fies indi­vidual human life with the uni­verse as a whole.

In clear con­trast to Jung, Freud emphas­izes the lack of any har­mony between a human being and its environs, any cor­res­pond­ence between human micro­cosm and nat­ural mac­ro­cosm, accept­ing without any reserve the fact of a con­tin­gent mean­ing­less uni­verse. Therein resides Freud’s achieve­ment: psy­cho­ana­lysis is not a return to a new kind of pre­mod­ern her­men­eut­ics in search of the unknown deep lay­ers of mean­ing which reg­u­late the appar­ently mean­ing­less flow of our lives, it is not a new ver­sion of the ancient inter­pret­a­tion of dreams search­ing for deeper mes­sages hid­den in them; our psychic life is thor­oughly open to unex­pec­ted trau­matic encoun­ters, its uncon­scious pro­cesses are a domain of con­tin­gent sig­ni­fy­ing dis­place­ments; there is no inner truth in the core of our being, only a cob­web of pro­ton pseudos, prim­or­dial lies called “fun­da­mental fantas­ies”; the task of psy­cho­ana­lytic pro­cess is not to recon­cile ourselves with the fant­as­matic core of our being but to “tra­verse” it, to acquire a dis­tance towards it… This brief descrip­tion makes it clear how psy­cho­ana­lysis relates to mod­ern sci­ence: it tries to re/subjectivize the uni­verse of sci­ence, to dis­cern the con­tours of a sub­ject that fits mod­ern sci­ence, a sub­ject that fully par­ti­cip­ates in the con­tin­gent and mean­ing­less “grey world” of sci­ences.

— Although cap­it­al­ism is intim­ately linked to the rise of mod­ern sci­ence, its ideo­lo­gico-polit­ical and eco­nomic organ­iz­a­tion (lib­eral egot­ist indi­vidu­als pur­su­ing their interests, their messy inter­ac­tion secretly reg­u­lated by the big Other of the Mar­ket) sig­nals a return to pre­mod­ern uni­verse… Was Kant’s goal not to do exactly this? He wanted to elab­or­ate an ethico-polit­ical edi­fice that would be at the level of mod­ern sci­ence? But did Kant effect­ively achieve this, but his the­or­et­ical edi­fice was a com­prom­ise. Did he not openly said that his goal is to limit know­ledge in order to make space for belief? And are Haber­masi­ans not doing the same when they exempt inter­sub­jectiv­ity from the domain of object­ive sci­ence? Which, then, is the ethico-polit­ical space that fits mod­ern sci­ence, Kant’s or a new one to be inven­ted (for example, the one pro­posed by brain sci­ent­ists like Patri­cia and Paul Church­land)? What if the two are neces­sar­ily non-syn­chron­ous, i.e., what if mod­ern­ity itself needs a pre-mod­ern ethico-polit­ical found­a­tion, what if it can­not stand on its own, what if the fully actu­al­ized mod­ern­ity is an exem­plary ideo­lo­gical myth?

— Nature itself is today in dis­order, not because it over­whelms our cog­nit­ive capa­cit­ies but primar­ily because we are not able to mas­ter the effects of our own inter­ven­tions into its course – who knows what the ulti­mate con­sequences of our bio­gen­etic engin­eer­ing or of global warm­ing will be? The sur­prise comes from ourselves, it con­cerns the opa­city of how we ourselves fit into the pic­ture: the impen­et­rable stain in the pic­ture is not some cos­mic mys­tery like a mys­ter­i­ous explo­sion of a super­nova, the stain are we ourselves, our col­lect­ive activ­ity. It is against this back­ground that one should under­stand Jac­ques-Alain Miller’s thesis: “Il y’a un grand desordre dans le reel.” [5] “There is a great dis­order in the real.” That’s how Miller char­ac­ter­izes the way real­ity appears to us in our time in which we exper­i­ence the full impact of two fun­da­mental agents, mod­ern sci­ence and cap­it­al­ism. Nature as the real in which everything, from stars to the sun, always returns to its proper place, as the realm of large reli­able cycles and of stable laws reg­u­lat­ing them, is being replaced by a thor­oughly con­tin­gent real, real out­side the Law, real that is per­man­ently revo­lu­tion­iz­ing its own rules, real that res­ists any inclu­sion into a total­ized World (uni­verse of mean­ing), which is why Badiou char­ac­ter­ized cap­it­al­ism as the first world-less civil­iz­a­tion.

How should we react to this con­stel­la­tion? Should we assume a defens­ive approach and search for a new limit, a return to (or, rather, the inven­tion of) some new bal­ance? This is what bioeth­ics endeavors to do with regard to bio­tech­no­logy, this is why the two form a couple: bio­tech­no­logy pur­sues new pos­sib­il­it­ies of sci­en­ti­fic inter­ven­tions (genetic manip­u­la­tions, clon­ing…), and bioeth­ics endeavors to impose moral lim­it­a­tions on what bio­tech­no­logy enables us to do. As such, bioeth­ics is not imman­ent to sci­en­ti­fic prac­tice: it inter­ve­nes into this prac­tice from out­side, impos­ing external mor­al­ity onto it. But is bioeth­ics not pre­cisely the betrayal of the eth­ics imman­ent to sci­en­ti­fic endeavor, the eth­ics of “do not com­prom­ise your sci­en­ti­fic desire, fol­low inex­or­ably its path”? A new limit is also what the slo­gan of the Porto Allegro pro­test­ers “a new world is pos­sible” basic­ally amounts to, and even eco­logy offers itself at this point as the pro­vider of a new limit (“we can­not go fur­ther in our exploit­a­tion of nature, nature will not tol­er­ate it, it will col­lapse…”). Or should we fol­low the above-men­tioned oppos­ite path (of Deleuze and Negri, among oth­ers) and posit that cap­it­al­ist dis­order is still too much order, obey­ing the cap­it­al­ist law of the sur­plus-value appro­pri­ation, so that the task is not to limit it but to push it bey­ond its lim­it­a­tion? In other words, should we risk here also a para­phrase of Mao’s well-known motto: there is dis­order in the real, so the situ­ation is excel­lent? Per­haps, the path to fol­low is this one, although not in exactly the sense advoc­ated by Deleuze and Negri in their cel­eb­ra­tion of de-ter­rit­ori­al­iz­a­tion? Miller claims that the pure law­less Real res­ists sym­bolic grasp, so that we should always be aware that our attempts to con­cep­tu­al­ize it are mere semb­lances, defens­ive elubric­a­tions – but what if there is still an under­ly­ing order that gen­er­ates this dis­order, a mat­rix that provides its coordin­ates? This is what also accounts for the repet­it­ive same­ness of the cap­it­al­ist dynam­ics: more than things change, more everything remains the same. And this is also why the obverse of the breath-tak­ing cap­it­al­ist dynam­ics is a clearly recog­niz­able order of hier­archic dom­in­a­tion.

“This is some­thing indic­ated by Lacan’s examples to illus­trate the return of the real in the same place. His examples are the annual return of the sea­sons, the spec­tacle of the skies and the heav­enly bod­ies. You could say… based on examples from all antiquity: Chinese rituals of course used math­em­at­ical cal­cu­la­tions of the pos­i­tion of the heav­enly bod­ies, etc. You could say that in this epoch the real as nature had the func­tion of the Other of the Other, that is, that the real was itself the guar­an­tee of the sym­bolic order. The agit­a­tion, the rhet­or­ical agit­a­tion of the sig­ni­fier in human speech was framed by a weft of sig­ni­fi­ers fixed like the heav­enly bod­ies. Nature – this is its very defin­i­tion – is defined by being ordered, that is, by the con­duct of the sym­bolic and the real, to such an extent that accord­ing to the most ancient tra­di­tions all human order should imit­ate nat­ural order. /…/

The real inven­ted by Lacan is not the real of sci­ence, it is a con­tin­gent real, ran­dom, in as much as the nat­ural law of the rela­tion between the sexes is lack­ing. It is a hole in the know­ledge included in the real. Lacan made use of the lan­guage of math­em­at­ics – the best sup­port for sci­ence. In the for­mu­las of sexuation, for example, he tried to grasp the dead-ends of sexu­al­ity in a weft of math­em­at­ical logic. This was like a heroic attempt to make psy­cho­ana­lysis into a sci­ence of the real in the way that logic is. But that can’t be done without impris­on­ing jouis­sance in the phal­lic func­tion, in a sym­bol; it implies a sym­bol­iz­a­tion of the real, it implies refer­ring to the bin­ary man-woman as if liv­ing beings could be par­ti­tioned so neatly, when we already see in the real of the 21st cen­tury a grow­ing dis­order of sexuation. This is already a sec­ond­ary con­struc­tion that inter­ve­nes after the ini­tial impact of the body and lalangue, which con­sti­tutes a real without law, without logical rule. Logic is only intro­duced after­wards, with the eluc­ub­ra­tion, the fantasy, the sub­ject sup­posed to know, and with psy­cho­ana­lysis. Until now, under the inspir­a­tion of the 20th cen­tury, our clin­ical cases as we recount them have been logical-clin­ical con­struc­tions under trans­fer­ence. But the cause-effect rela­tion is a sci­en­ti­fic pre­ju­dice sup­por­ted by the sub­ject sup­posed to know. The cause-effect rela­tion is not valid at the level of the real without law, it is not valid except with a rup­ture between cause and effect. Lacan said it as a joke: if one under­stands how an inter­pret­a­tion works, it is not an ana­lytic inter­pret­a­tion. In psy­cho­ana­lysis as Lacan invites us to prac­tice it, we exper­i­ence the rup­ture of the cause-effect link, the opa­city of the link, and this is why we speak of the uncon­scious. I am going to say it in another way: psy­cho­ana­lysis takes place at the level of the repressed and of the inter­pret­a­tion of the repressed thanks to the sub­ject sup­posed to know.

But in the 21st Cen­tury it is a ques­tion of psy­cho­ana­lysis explor­ing another dimen­sion, that of the defence against the real without law and without mean­ing. Lacan indic­ates this dir­ec­tion with his notion of the real, as Freud does with his myth­o­lo­gical con­cept of the drive. The Lacanian uncon­scious, that of the latest Lacan, is at the level of the real, let us say for con­veni­ence, below the Freu­dian uncon­scious. There­fore, in order to enter into the 21st cen­tury, our clinic will have to be centred on dis­mant­ling the defence, dis­or­der­ing the defence against the real. The trans­fer­en­tial uncon­scious in ana­lysis is already a defence against the real. And in the trans­fer­en­tial uncon­scious there is still an inten­tion, a want­ing to say, a want­ing you to tell me. When in fact the real uncon­scious is not inten­tional: it is encountered under the mod­al­ity of ‘that’s it’, which you could say is like our ‘amen’.

Vari­ous ques­tions will be opened up for us at the next Con­gress: the redefin­i­tion of the desire of the ana­lyst, which is not a pure desire, as Lacan says, not a pure infin­ity of met­onymy but – this is how it appears to us – the desire to reach the real, to reduce the other to its real, and to lib­er­ate it of mean­ing. I would add that Lacan inven­ted a way of rep­res­ent­ing the real with the Bor­romean knot. We will ask ourselves how valid this rep­res­ent­a­tion is, of what use it is to us now. Lacan made use of the knot to arrive at this irre­medi­able zone of exist­ence where one can go no fur­ther with two. The pas­sion for the Bor­romean knot led Lacan to the same zone as Oed­ipus at Colo­nus, where one finds the abso­lute absence of char­ity, of fra­tern­ity, of any human sen­ti­ment: this is where the search for the real stripped of mean­ing leads us.”

Many things are very prob­lem­atic in the quoted pas­sages. Prob­lems begin with the notion of Real as Nature in its reg­u­lar­ity, as that which always returns at its place – as it was noted by Lacan, already for ancient Aztecs and other civil­iz­a­tions of Sac­ri­fice, the nat­ural Real was not simply a reg­u­lar­ity that noth­ing can per­turb. Ancient Aztecs organ­ized human sac­ri­fices to guar­an­tee – what? Not a spe­cial favor of Gods but the very reg­u­lar­ity of Nature at its most ele­ment­ary: human lives have to be sac­ri­ficed so that Nature will rotate in its reg­u­lar way, so that sun will raise in the morn­ing, etc. In short, the Real of the nat­ural Order where “everything returns at its own place” needs a sym­bolic inter­ven­tion, it has to be guar­an­teed by rituals. There is a key pas­sage from this Real sus­tained by sym­bolic sac­ri­fice to the Real of mod­ern sci­ence, the New­to­nian real of nat­ural laws, of the net­work of causes and effects – it is only THIS Real that func­tions in itself, without the help of any sym­bolic inter­ven­tion:

“With the infin­ite uni­verse of math­em­at­ical phys­ics nature dis­ap­pears; it becomes solely a moral instance. With the philo­soph­ers of the 18th Cen­tury, with the infin­ite uni­verse nature dis­ap­pears and the real begins to be unveiled. / Fine, but I have been ask­ing myself about the for­mula there is a know­ledge in the real. It would be a tempta­tion to say that the uncon­scious is at this level. On the con­trary, the sup­pos­i­tion of a know­ledge in the real appears to me to be an ulti­mate veil that needs to be lif­ted. If there is a know­ledge in the real there is a reg­u­lar­ity, and sci­en­ti­fic know­ledge allows pre­dic­tion, it is so proud of pre­dic­tion, in so far as this demon­strates the exist­ence of laws. And it does not require a divine utter­ance of these laws for them to remain valid. It is by way of this idea of laws that the old idea of nature has been pre­served in the very expres­sion the laws of nature.”

Miller pro­ceeds here all too fast: the break between tra­di­tional Nature and Nature of mod­ern sci­ence is more rad­ical. In con­trast to tra­di­tional Nature whose reg­u­lar rhythm is sup­posed to point towards a deeper cos­mic sexu­al­ized mean­ing (day and night as the reg­u­lar exchange of mas­cu­line and fem­in­ine prin­ciples, etc.), sci­en­ti­fic laws of nature are them­selves con­tin­gent, there is no deeper mean­ing­ful neces­sity sus­tain­ing them, they are, to quote Miller, dis­covered pre­cisely “under the mod­al­ity of ‘that’s it’, which you could say is like our ‘amen’”.

Fur­ther­more, Miller’s search for the “pure” Real out­side the Sym­bolic, a Real not yet stained by it, that he attrib­utes to Lacan has to be aban­doned as a Deleuzian blind alley – in a very Deleuzian way (repeat­ing lit­er­ally a for­mula from Anti-Oed­ipus), Miller speaks of the “true” pre-Oed­ipal Uncon­scious “beneath” the Freu­dian one, as if we first have the “pure” pre-Oed­ipal move­ment of drives, the dir­ect inter­pen­et­ra­tion of sig­ni­fy­ing mater­ial and jouis­sance bap­tized by Lacan lalangue, and it is only in a (logical, if not tem­por­ary) after­ward that this flux is “ordained” by sym­bolic eluc­ub­ra­tions, forced into the sym­bolic strait­jacket of bin­ary logic, of paternal Law and cas­tra­tion that sus­tain sexual dif­fer­ence as the norm­at­ive struc­ture of two sexual iden­tit­ies, mas­cu­line and fem­in­ine. Accord­ing to Miller, even Lacan’s “for­mu­las of sexuation” fall into this cat­egory of sym­bolic eluc­ub­ra­tions that obfus­cate the “pure” Real out­side the Law. Today, how­ever, things are chan­ging, we “see in the real of the 21st cen­tury a grow­ing dis­order of sexuation,” new forms of sexu­al­ity are emer­ging which under­mine “the bin­ary man-woman as if liv­ing beings could be par­ti­tioned so neatly” . . .

From a strict Lacanian stand­point, some­thing is ter­ribly wrong with this line of reas­on­ing: Miller passes dir­ectly from the Real as Nature (which fol­lows its reg­u­lar rhythm or its laws) to the pure law­less Real – what goes miss­ing here is the Lacanian Real itself, the Real which is noth­ing but a dead­lock of sym­bol­iz­a­tion or form­al­iz­a­tion (“Le reel est un impasse de form­al­iz­a­tion,” as Lacan put it in his Sem­inar XX), the Real which is an imman­ent impossib­il­ity of the sym­bolic, a purely formal obstacle that thwarts/distorts the sym­bolic from within, the Real of an ant­ag­on­ism inscribed into the heart of the sym­bolic, the self-lim­it­a­tion of sym­bolic. This impasse is not caused by an external real, as Miller implies when he qual­i­fies Lacan’s for­mu­las of sexuation as eluc­ub­ra­tion on the real: sym­bolic inter­pret­a­tions of sexual dif­fer­ence are such eluc­ub­ra­tions, but not the Real of the dif­fer­ence itself. Sexual dif­fer­ence is not binary/differential, it is an ant­ag­on­ism that bin­ary sym­bolic dif­fer­ence try to “nor­mal­ize” by way of trans­lat­ing it into sym­bolic oppos­i­tions. (And, in a strictly homo­log­ous way, class ant­ag­on­ism is not a sym­bolic eluc­ub­ra­tion on the law­less real of social life but the name of the ant­ag­on­ism obfus­cated by ideo­lo­gico-polit­ical form­a­tions. In equat­ing cap­it­al­ism with the Real out­side the Law (out­side cas­tra­tion), Miller takes cap­it­al­ism at its own ideo­logy, ignor­ing Lacan who saw clearly the ant­ag­on­ism masked by cap­it­al­ist per­ver­sion. The vis­ion of today’s soci­ety as a cap­it­al­ist Real out­side sym­bolic law is a dis­avowal of ant­ag­on­ism, not a primary fact.)

— Deleuze often var­ies the motif of how, in becom­ing posthu­man, we should learn to prac­tice “a per­cep­tion as it was before men (or after). . . released from their human coordin­ates”:[6] those who fully endorse the Niet­z­schean “return of the same” are strong enough to sus­tain the vis­ion of the “iri­des­cent chaos of a world before man.”[7] The stand­ard real­ist approach aims at describ­ing the world, real­ity, the way it exists out there, inde­pend­ently of us, observing sub­jects.

But we, sub­jects, are ourselves part of the world, so the con­sequent real­ism should include us in the real­ity we are describ­ing, so that our real­ist approach should include describ­ing ourselves “from the out­side,” inde­pend­ently of ourselves, as if we are observing ourselves through inhu­man eyes. What this inclu­sion-of-ourselves amounts to is not naive real­ism but some­thing much more uncanny, a rad­ical shift in the sub­ject­ive atti­tude by means of which we become strangers to ourselves.

Although Deleuze here resorts openly to Kant’s lan­guage, talk­ing about the dir­ect access to “things (the way they are) in them­selves,” his point is pre­cisely that one should sub­tract the oppos­i­tion between phe­nom­ena and things-in-them­selves, between the phe­nom­enal and the nou­menal level, from its Kan­tian func­tion­ing, where nou­mena are tran­scend­ent things that forever elude our grasp. What Deleuze refers to as “things in them­selves” is in a way even more phe­nom­enal, than our shared phe­nom­enal real­ity: it is the impossible phe­nomenon, the phe­nomenon that is excluded from our sym­bol­ic­ally con­sti­tuted real­ity. The gap that sep­ar­ates us from nou­mena is thus primar­ily not epi­stem­o­lo­gical, but prac­tico-eth­ical and libid­inal: there is no “true real­ity” behind or beneath phe­nom­ena, nou­mena are phe­nom­enal things which are “too strong,” too intens(iv)e, for our per­cep­tual appar­atus attuned to con­sti­tuted real­ity-epi­stem­o­lo­gical fail­ure is a sec­ond­ary effect of libid­inal ter­ror; that is, the under­ly­ing logic is a reversal of Kant’s “You can, because you must!”: “You can­not (know nou­mena), because you must not!” Ima­gine someone being forced to wit­ness a ter­ri­fy­ing tor­ture: in a way, the mon­stros­ity of what he saw would make this an exper­i­ence of the nou­menal impossible-real that would shat­ter the coordin­ates of our com­mon real­ity. (The same holds for wit­ness­ing an intense sexual activ­ity.) In this sense, if we were to dis­cover films shot in a con­cen­tra­tion camp among the Musul­mannen, show­ing scenes from their daily life, how they are sys­tem­at­ic­ally mis­treated and deprived of all dig­nity, we would have “seen too much,” the pro­hib­ited, we would have entered a for­bid­den ter­rit­ory of what should have remained unseen. (One can well under­stand Claude Lan­zmann, who said that if he were to stumble upon such a film, he would des­troy it imme­di­ately.) This is also what makes it so unbear­able to wit­ness the last moments of people who know they are shortly going to die and are in this sense already liv­ing-dead-again, ima­gine that we would have dis­covered, among the ruins of the Twin Towers, a video cam­era which magic­ally sur­vived the crash intact and is full of shots of what went on among the pas­sen­gers of the plane in the minutes before it crashed into one of the towers. In all these cases, it is that, effect­ively, we would have seen things as they are “in them­selvers,” out­side human coordin­ates, out­side our human real­ity-we would have seen the world with inhu­man eyes. (Maybe the US author­it­ies do pos­sess such shots and, for under­stand­able reas­ons, are keep­ing them secret.) The les­son is here pro­foundly Hegel­ian: the dif­fer­ence between the phe­nom­enal and the nou­menal has to be reflected/transposed back into the phe­nom­enal, as the split between the “gentri­fied” nor­mal phe­nomenon and the “impossible” phe­nomenon.

The gap between $ and life-enjoy­ment (whose most ele­ment­ary form is the cir­cu­lar move­ment of drives) implies that sub­ject stands for death in life, that it stands at a dis­tance towards life, for its denat­ur­al­iz­a­tion, and what this denat­ur­al­iz­a­tion of life means is that the will to live is not, as a long line of thinkers from Aris­totle to Spinoza pre­sumed, a spon­tan­eous nat­ural impetus (or conatus) but some­thing towards which the sub­ject already enter­tains a min­imal dis­tance:

“sub­ject and its life do not form an organic unity. Instead this inner­most drive is felt as an external com­pul­sion, as a for­eign ele­ment in which one has become entangled. Which is why it can appear as a ter­rible bother and a drudgery, a series of chores to be car­ried out: think­ing, speak­ing, trav­el­ing, work­ing, cop­u­lat­ing, and so on-I-’d rather not. Life does not imme­di­ately identify with itself, but is some­thing sep­ar­ated from the sub­ject that is com­pelled to live it. . . . For the human being, life does not present itself as a self-evid­ent inner power but as a com­mand­ment and a duty. Freud writes, “To tol­er­ate life remains, after all, the first duty of all liv­ing beings.” This should be read lit­er­ally: to live is not a nat­ural and spon­tan­eous energeia but a duty, a super­ego imper­at­ive, even the most fun­da­mental one. Vital­ism is the for­mula of the super­ego.” (Aaron Schuster, The Trouble With Pleas­ure: Deleuze and Psy­cho­ana­lysis (Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 2016), p. 39.

Inso­far as to live means to fol­low a super­ego injunc­tion, and inso­far as super­ego is an agency which oper­ates bey­ond the pleas­ure prin­ciple (even if we under­stand super­ego in Laçants sense, as the imper­at­ive “Enjoy!,” enjoy­ment is to be opposed here to pleas­ure), life itself func­tions bey­ond the pleas­ure prin­ciple-but how, pre­cisely? In Lacanese, the Freu­dian pleas­ure prin­ciple is “non-All”: there is noth­ing out­side it, no external lim­its, and yet it is not all, it can break down. Deleuze drew the ulti­mate con­sequence of this notion of death drive: death drive is “the tran­scend­ental con­di­tions of the pleas­ure prin­ciple,” it accounts for “how the psyche is con­sti­tuted such that it can be ruled by pleas­ure and unpleas­ure (with the twist in the story being that what makes pos­sible the pleas­ure prin­cipled reign also under­mines it from within)”: (The Trouble With Pleas­ure: Deleuze and Psy­cho­ana­lysis, p. 32.)

The death drive is “bey­ond” the pleas­ure prin­ciple, but again this does not mean that it is loc­ated some­where else. The death drive is not a sep­ar­ate power that fights against or opposes life, but rather what de-nat­ur­al­izes or de-vital­izes the flux of life. It takes away the self-evid­ence of that power­ful com­pass of nature, the ori­ent­a­tion provided by feel­ings of pleas­ure and pain. If the uncon­scious is the dis­tor­tion, the glitch, the devi­ation of con­scious­ness, the death drive is the skew of Eros, the twist that makes of life not a dir­ect expres­sion of vital forces but the devi­ation of the neg­at­ive: instead of a per­sever­ance in being a “fail­ing not to be.” (The Trouble With Pleas­ure: Deleuze and Psy­cho­ana­lysis, p. 33.)

So it is not that sub­ject is secretly dom­in­ated by some per­verse tend­ency to sab­ot­age its pleas­ures; the point is that, in order for the sub­ject to search for pleas­ures and avoid unpleas­ures, it already has to stand at a cer­tain dis­tance towards life, and this dis­tance itself has to be inscribed into the func­tion­ing of the pleas­ure prin­ciple as its incom­plete­ness, as its incon­sist­ency. Nowhere is this imman­ent incon­sist­ency of the pleas­ure prin­ciple more clearly dis­played than in the work of Mar­quis de Sade in which full pleas­ure in life over­laps with the most rig­or­ous Kan­tian eth­ics. 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 mech­an­ical exer­cise. Sade thus con­sequently deployed the inher­ent poten­tial of the Kan­tian philo­soph­ical revolu­tion-but how, pre­cisely? 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” in “Kant with Sade” 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 someone asserts of his lust­ful inclin­a­tion that, when the desired object and oppor­tun­ity are present, it is quite irres­ist­ible to him; ask him whether, if a gal­lows were erec­ted in front of the house where he finds this oppor­tun­ity and he would be hanged on it imme­di­ately after grat­i­fy­ing his lust, he would not then con­trol his inclin­a­tion. One need not con­jec­ture very long what he would reply.

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, and his “pas­sion” is stricto sensu eth­ical.

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 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). Why does cliterodec­tomy cause such con­sterna­tion? Because it provides a clear case of how even the most bru­tal depriva­tion of the means of pleas­ure (cut­ting of clit­oris) can func­tion as a means of gen­er­at­ing spe­cific jouis­sance. What is so dis­turb­ing about cliterodec­tomy is not the extremely bru­tal nature of this oper­a­tion and its obvi­ous role as an instru­ment of male dom­in­a­tion; nor is it the fact that some women at least value their social accept­ance so much that they are ready to accept cliterodec­tomy as a moment of their full entrance into soci­ety. The truly dis­turb­ing thing is that they may enjoy it.

A recent pub­li­city spot for upper-class eco-friendly tour­ism pro­poses that what we should be doing is “explor­ing ways of blend­ing lux­ury and sus­tain­ab­il­ity,” and it clearly des­ig­nates its address­ees: “For hedon­ists with a con­science.” There is noth­ing truly para­dox­ical in this link between appar­ent oppos­ites: “hedon­ist with a con­science” is one of the must suc­cinct defin­i­tions of the pre­dom­in­ant type of sub­jectiv­ity we are inter­pel­lated into today. In this type, pleas­ure prin­ciple and real­ity prin­ciple are har­mo­ni­ously blen­ded, and what is excluded from this space of “hedon­ism with con­science” is not only jouis­sance itself in its excess­ive char­ac­ter, but also the eth­ical dimen­sion proper, duty in its Kan­tian, uncon­di­tional sense. In short, what is excluded is the domain des­ig­nated by Lacan -’s for­mula Kant avec Sade, the uncanny domain in which desire and law coin­cide, in which the ulti­mate cat­egor­ical imper­at­ive is “do not com­prom­ise your desire.”

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 Derry 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? Dudith 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 in some kind of pre­sub­ject­ive psychic appar­atus.[8] 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?

This redoub­ling of the body into the com­mon mor­tal body and the eth­er­eal undead body brings us to the crux of the mat­ter: the dis­tinc­tion between the two deaths, the bio­lo­gical death of the com­mon mor­tal body and the death of the other “undead” body: it is clear that what Sade aims at in his notion of a rad­ical Crime is the murder of this second body. Sade deploys this dis­tinc­tion in the long philo­soph­ical dis­ser­ta­tion delivered to Juli­ette by Pope Pius VI, part of book 5 of Juli­ette:

there is noth­ing wrong with rape, tor­ture, murder, and so on, since these con­form to the viol­ence that is the way of the uni­verse. To act in accord­ance with nature means to act­ively take part in its orgy of destruc­tion. The trouble is that man’s capa­city for crime is highly lim­ited, and his atro­cit­ies no mat­ter how debauched ulti­mately out­rage noth­ing. This is a depress­ing thought for the lib­ertine. The human being, along with all organic life and even inor­ganic mat­ter, is caught in an end­less cycle of death and rebirth, gen­er­a­tion and cor­rup­tion, so that “there is indeed no real death,” only a per­man­ent trans­form­a­tion and recyc­ling of mat­ter accord­ing to the imman­ent laws of “the three king­doms,” animal, veget­able, and min­eral. Destruc­tion may accel­er­ate this pro­cess, but it can­not stop it. The true crime would be the one that no longer oper­ates within the three king­doms but anni­hil­ates them alto­gether, that puts a stop to the eternal cycle of gen­er­a­tion and cor­rup­tion and by doing so returns to Nature her abso­lute priv­ilege of con­tin­gent cre­ation, of cast­ing the dice anew. (The Trouble With Pleas­ure: Deleuze and Psy­cho­ana­lysis, pp. 39-40.)

What, then, at a strict the­or­et­ical level, is wrong with this dream of the “second death” as a rad­ical pure neg­a­tion which puts a stop to the life-cycle itelf? In a superb dis­play of his genius, Lacan provides a sim­ple answer: “It is just that, being a psy­cho­ana­lyst, I can see that the second death is prior to the first, and not after, as de Sade dreams it.” (The only prob­lem­atic part of this state­ment is the qual­i­fi­caion “being a psychoanalyst”-a Hegel­ian philo­sopher can also see this quite clearly.) In what pre­cise sense are we to under­stand this pri­or­ity of the second death-the rad­ical anni­hil­a­tion of the entire life-cycle of gen­er­a­tion and cor­rup­tion-over the first death which remains a moment of this cycle? Schuster points the way: “Sade believes that there exists a well- estab­lished second nature that oper­ates accord­ing to imman­ent laws. Against this onto­lo­gic­ally con­sist­ent realm he can only dream of an abso­lute Crime that would abol­ish the three king­doms and attain the pure dis­order of primary nature.” (The Trouble With Pleas­ure: Deleuze and Psy­cho­ana­lysis, pp. 41-42.) In short, what Sade doesn’t see is that there is no big Other, no Nature as an onto­lo­gic­ally con­sist­ent realm-nature is already in itself incon­sist­ent, unbal­anced, destabil­ized by ant­ag­on­isms. The total neg­a­tion ima­gined by Sade thus doesn’t come at the end, as a threat or pro­spect of rad­ical destruc­tion, it comes at the begin­ning, it always-already happened, it stands for the zero-level start­ing point out of which the fragile/inconsistent real­ity emerges. In other words, what is miss­ing in the notion of Nature as a body reg­u­lated by fixed laws is simply sub­ject itseLf : in Hege­l­ese, the Sadean Nature remains a Sub­stance, Sade con­tin­ues to grasp real­ity only as Sub­stance and not also as Sub­ject, where “sub­ject” does not stand for another onto­lo­gical level dif­fer­ent from Sub­stance but for the imman­ent incom­plete­ness-incon­sist­ency-ant­ag­on­ism of Sub­stance itself. And, inso­far as the Freu­dian name for this rad­ical neg­at­iv­ity is death drive, Schuster is right to point out how, para­dox­ic­ally, what Sade mis­ses in his cel­eb­ra­tion of the ulti­mate Crime of rad­ical destruc­tion of all life is pre­cisely the death drive:

for all its wan­ton­ness and havoc the Sadeian will-to-extinc­tion is premised on a fet­ish­istic denial of the death drive. The sad­ist makes him­self into the ser­vant of uni­ver­sal extinc­tion pre­cisely in order to avoid the dead­lock of sub­jectiv­ity, the “vir­tual extinc­tion” that splits the life of the sub­ject from within. The Sadeian lib­ertine expels this neg­at­iv­ity out­side him­self in order to be able to slav­ishly devote him­self to it; the apo­ca­lyptic vis­ion of an abso­lute Crime thus func­tions as a screen against a more intract­able internal split. What the florid ima­gin­a­tion of the sad­ist masks is the fact that the Other is barred, incon­sist­ent, lack­ing, that it can­not be served for it presents no law to obey, not even the wild law of its accel­er­at­ing auto-destruc­tion. There is no nature to be fol­lowed, rivaled or out­done, and it is this void or lack, the non-exist­ence of the Other, that is incom­par­ably more viol­ent than even the most destruct­ive fant­asm of the death drive. Or as Lacan argues, Sade is right if we just turn around his evil thought: sub­jectiv­ity is the cata­strophe it fan­tas­izes about, the death bey­ond death, the “second death.” While the sad­ist dreams of viol­ently for­cing a cata­clysm that will wipe the slate clean, what he does not want to know is that this unpre­ced­en­ted calam­ity has already taken place. Every sub­ject is the end of the world, or rather this impossibly explos­ive end that is equally a “fresh start,” the unabol­ish­able chance of the dice throw. (The Trouble With Pleas­ure: Deleuze and Psy­cho­ana­lysis, pp. 41-42.)

It was already Kant who had char­ac­ter­ized free autonom­ous act as an act which can­not be accoun­ted for in the terms of nat­ural caus­al­ity, of the tex­ture of causes and effects: a free act occurs as its own cause, it opens up a new causal chain from its zero-point. So inso­far as “second death” is the inter­rup­tion of the nat­ural life-cycle of gen­er­a­tion and cor­rup­tion, no rad­ical anni­hil­a­tion of the entire nat­ural order is needed for this-an autonom­ous free act already sus­pends nat­ural caus­al­ity, and sub­ject as $ already is this cut in the nat­ural cir­cuit, the self-sab­ot­age of nat­ural goals. The mys­tical name for this end of the world is “night of the world,” and the philo­soph­ical name, rad­ical neg­at­iv­ity as the core of sub­jectiv­ity. And, to quote Mal­larmé, a throw of the dice will never abol­ish the haz­ard, i.e., the abyss of neg­at­iv­ity remains forever the unsub­lat­able back­ground of sub­ject­ive cre­ativ­ity. We may even risk here an ironic ver­sion of Gandhi’s fam­ous motto “be your­self the change you want to see in the world”: the sub­ject is itself the cata­strophe it fears and tries to avoid. And is the les­son of Flegel’s ana­lysis of the French revolu­tion­ary ter­ror not exactly the same (which is why the par­al­lel between Sade’s abso­lute crime and revolu­tion­ary ter­ror is well groun­ded)? Indi­vidu­als threatened by the Ter­ror have to grasp that this external threat of anni­hil­a­tion is noth­ing but the externalized/fetishized image of the rad­ical neg­at­iv­ity of self-con­scious­ness-once they grasp this, they pass from revolu­tion­ary Ter­ror to the inner force of the moral Law.

So when Malabou claims that the post-trau­matic sub­ject can­not be accoun­ted for in the Freu­dian terms of the repe­ti­tion of a past trauma (since the trau­matic shock erases all traces of the past), she remains all too fixed on the trau­matic con­tent and for­gets to include in the series of past trau­matic memor­ies the very eras­ure of the sub­stan­tial con­tent, the very sub­trac­tion of the empty form from its con­tent. In other words, pre­cisely inso­far as it erases the entire sub­stan­tial con­tent, the trau­matic shock repeats the past, i.e., the past trau­matic loss of sub­stance which is con­stitutive of the very dimen­sion of sub­jectiv­ity. What is repeated here is not some ancient con­tent, but the very ges­ture of eras­ing all sub­stan­tial, con­tent. This is why, when one sub­mits a human sub­ject to a trau­matic intru­sion, the out­come is the empty form of the “liv­ing- dead” sub­ject, but when one does the same to an animal, the res­ult is simply total dev­ast­a­tion: what remains after the viol­ent trau­matic intru­sion onto a human sub­ject which erases all its sub­stan­tial con­tent is the pure form of sub­jectiv­ity, the form which already must have been there. It is in this pre­cise sense that sub­jectiv­ity and mor­tal­ity are closely linked, although in a sense that totally dif­fers from the stand­ard Fleide­g­gerian topic of finitude. In his rejec­tion of the thought of finitude, Badiou asser­ted that death is some­thing that hap­pens to you; it is not the imman­ent unfold­ing of some lin­ear pro­gramme. Even if we say that human life can­not go bey­ond a hun­dred and twenty years, for bio­lo­gical, genetic etc. reas­ons, death as death is always some­thing that hap­pens to you. One great thinker on death is La Pal­ice. A truth we get from La Pal­ice is that “a quarter an hour before his death, he was still alive.” That isn’t at all absurd or naïve. It means that “a quarter an hour before death” he wasn’t what Fleide­g­ger sees as “a quarter hour before death”-he wasn’t “a-being-toward-death” ever since his birth. “A quarter of an hour before his death” he was alive, and death hap­pens to him. And I would main­tain that death always comes from the out­side. Spinoza said some­thing excel­lent on that score: “Noth­ing can be des­troyed except by an external cause.” . . . This means that death is in a pos­i­tion of rad­ical exter­i­or­ity: we would not even say that a human real­ity, a Dasein, is mor­tal. Because “mor­tal” means to say that it con­tains the vir­tu­al­ity of death in an imman­ent fash­ion. In truth, all that is is [9] gen­er­ic­ally immor­tal, and then death inter­ve­nes.[9]
 
Cru­cial here is the men­tion of Spinoza, and here one should oppose Spinoza to Fle­gel: while for Spinoza, every destruc­tion comes from out­side, thwart­ing every organism’s imman­ent tend­ency to repro­duce and expand its life power, for Fle­gel, neg­a­tion is imman­ent, inscribed into the inner­most iden­tity of every liv­ing being, so that every destruc­tion is ulti­mately self-destruc­tion. To avoid mis­un­der­stand­ing, Fle­gel would have agreed that there is no deeper mean­ing in death, that death comes as a rad­ic­ally external mean­ing­less con­tin­gency-but it is pre­cisely as such that it cor­rodes from within the very core of human iden­tity and its uni­verse of mean­ing. Fur­ther­more, like Badiou, Hegel asserts infinity/immortality, but for him, immor­tal­ity emerges pre­cisely through “tar­ry­ing with the neg­at­ive,” through its imman­ent ove­com­ing: only a being which is not con­strained by its mor­tal­ity can relate to its death “as such.” This over­com­ing is para­dox­ic­ally a form of “death in life”: a human being over­comes its mor­tal­ity through gain­ing a dis­tance towards its life-sub­stance (for example, through its read­i­ness to risk its life for some spir­itual cause). Hegel’s name for this dimen­sion is neg­at­iv­ity, and Freud’s name is death-drive. Immor­tal­ity is death in life, a deadly force that acquires con­trol over the liv­ing sub­stance, or, as Paul would have put it, Spirit is the death of flesh.

One should strictly oppose here sub­jectiv­ity and the soul of liv­ing beings: “The Notion is not merely soul, but free sub­ject­ive Notion that is for itself and there­fore pos­sesses per­son­al­ity-the prac­tical, object­ive Notion determ­ined in and for itself which, as per­son, is impen­et­rable atomic sub­jectiv­ity. … It con­tains all determ­in­ate­ness within it.” [10] The dis­tinc­tion between Soul and Sub­ject is cru­cial here: Soul is the Aris­totelian imman­ent ideal form/principle of an organ­ism, the imma­ter­ial “life force” that keeps it alive and united, while sub­ject is anti­soul, the point of neg­at­ive self-relat­ing which reduces the indi­vidual to the abyss of a sin­gu­lar­ity at a dis­tance from the liv­ing sub­stance that sus­tains it. That’s why, for Hegel, a notion comes to exist as such, “for itself,” in its oppos­i­tion to its empir­ical instan­ti­ations, only inso­far as it is loc­ated in an “impen­et­rable atomic sub­jectiv­ity.” His point here is not a com­mon­sense vul­gar­ity accord­ing to which in order for uni­ver­sal thoughts to exist, there has to be an empir­ical sub­ject that does the think­ing (therein resides the end­lessly bor­ing motif of the crit­ics of Hegel from young Marx onwards: “thoughts don’t think them­selves, only con­crete liv­ing sub­jects can think. . .”). While Hegel is fully aware of this depend­ence of thoughts on a think­ing sub­ject, his point is a more pre­cise one: what kind of sub­ject can do this “abstract” think­ing (in the com­mon sense of the term: think­ing of formal thoughts pur­i­fied of their empir­ical wealth-say, think­ing of a “horse” in abstrac­tion from the wealth of con­tent of empir­ical horses)? His answer is: a sub­ject which is itself “abstract,” deprived of the wealth of empir­ical fea­tures, reduced to its “impen­et­rable atomic” sin­gu­lar­ity. This may sound weird and coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive: is Notion in its uni­ver­sal­ity not the very oppos­ite of atomic impen­et­rab­il­ity? How­ever, “abstrac­tion” can be per­formed in two ways (or, rather, in two dir­ec­tions): eras­ure of all par­tic­u­lar fea­tures in order to obtain the abstract form (say, the uni­ver­sal “horse” as such), end eras­ure of all par­tic­u­lar fea­tures (qual­it­ies) in order to obtain the pure sin­gu­lar­ity of the thing in ques­tion (a pure “this” or X without prop­er­ties), and Hegel’s point is that sub­jectiv­ity emerges when such sin­gu­lar­ity becomes “for itself”: a sub­ject is for itself the abyss of a pure X at a dis­tance from all its prop­er­ties. Both “abstrac­tions” are strictly cor­rel­at­ive: uni­ver­sal form can emerge as such only in an entity which is for itself reduced to the impen­et­rable abyss of pure sin­gu­lar­ity. More pre­cisely, the impen­et­rable atomic sin­gu­lar­ity is not some­thing external to the Notion, it is Notion itself in its “oppos­i­tional determ­in­a­tion,” Notion as actu­ally exist­ing sin­gu­lar­ity-in this sense Hegel wrote that Self is a pure Notion. The Cartesian name for this sin­gu­lar­ity is cogito: the Self reduced to the evan­es­cent punc­tu­al­ity of the act of think­ing.

When Badiou opposes the life of a human animal ori­ented towards “ser­vi­cing of the goods” and the life defined by the fidel­ity to an Event, one should raise the key ques­tion: how should animal life be trans­formed so that it can sus­tain the con­sequences of an Event, i.e., what hap­pens to a human animal when it turns into a sub­ject? The Hegelo-Lacanian reply is here: death drive, i.e., human animal has to integ­rate the dimen­sion of death, it has to become a “liv­ing dead,” at a dis­tance from life. In other words, the even­tual level does not simply add itself to animal life as another dimen­sion, its arrival dis­torts, trans­forms animal life at its inner­most. -At this point, one has to make a choice between ideal­ism and mater­i­al­ism: is the dis­tor­tion of the human animal the effect of an Event, the way an Event inscribes itself into the order of animal life (ideal­ist ver­sion), or does the dis­tor­tion of the human animal come first, open­ing up the space for the pos­sible emer­gence of an Event (mater­i­al­ist ver­sion)?

The axiom of the philo­sophy of finitude is that one can­not escape finitude/mortality as the unsur­pass­able hori­zon of our exist­ence; Lacan’s axiom is that, no mat­ter how much one tries, one can­not escape immor­tal­ity. But what if this choice is false-what if finitude and immor­tal­ity, like lack and excess, also form a par­al­lax couple, what if they are the same from a dif­fer­ent point of view? What if immor­tal­ity is an object that is a remainder/excess over finitude, what if finitude is an attempt to escape from the excess of immor­tal­ity? What if Kierkegaard was right here, but for the wrong reason, when he also under­stood the claim that we, humans, are just mor­tal beings who dis­ap­pear after their bio­lo­gical death as an easy way to escape the eth­ical respons­ib­il­ity that comes with the immor­tal soul? He was right for the wrong reason inso­far as he equated immor­tal­ity with the divine and eth­ical part of a human being-but there is another immor­tal­ity. What Can­tor did for infin­ity, we should do for immor­tal­ity, and assert the mul­ti­pli­city of immor­tal­it­ies: the Badi­ouian noble immortality/infinity of the deploy­ment of an Event (as opposed to the finitude of a human animal) comes after a more basic form of immor­tal­ity which resides in 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 (recall the Sadean fig­ure of the young girl sus­tain­ing end­less humi­li­ations and mutil­a­tions from her depraved tor­turer and some­how mys­ter­i­ously sur­viv­ing it all intact, in the same way Tom and Derry and other car­toon her­oes sur­vive all their ridicu­lous ordeals intact). In this form, the com­ical and the dis­gust­ingly-ter­ri­fy­ing (recall dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the “undead”-zombies, vam­pires, etc.-in pop­ular cul­ture) are inex­tric­ably con­nec­ted. The same immor­tal­ity under­lies the intu­ition of some­thing indes­truct­ible in a truly rad­ical Evil. In the clas­sic Ger­man poem about two naughty chil­dren, Wil­helm Busch’s “Max und Mor­itz” (first pub­lished in 1865), the two chil­dren are con­stantly act­ing in a dis­grace­ful way against respec­ted author­it­ies, until, finally, they both fall into a wheat mill and come out cut into tiny grains-but when these grains fall on the floor, they form a shape of the two boys: “Rick­er­acke! Rick­er­acke! / Geht die Mühle mit Geknacke. / Hier kann man sie noch erblicken, / Fein ges­chro­ten und in Stücken.” In the ori­ginal illus­tra­tion, their shapes are obscenely sneer­ing, per­sist­ing in their evil even after their death. . . Adorno was right when he wrote that when one encoun­ters a truly evil per­son, it is dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that this per­son can die. We are of course not immor­tal, we all (will) die-the “immor­tal­ity” of the death drive is not a bio­lo­gical fact but a psychic stance of “per­sist­ing bey­ond life and death,” of a read­i­ness to go on bey­ond the lim­its of life, of a per­ver­ted life-force which bears wit­ness to a “deranged rela­tion­ship towards life.” Lacan’s name for this derange­ment is, of course, jouis­sance, excess­ive enjoy­ment, whose pur­suit can make us neg­lect or even self-sab­ot­age our vital needs and interests. At this pre­cise point, Lacan rad­ic­ally dif­fers from the thinkers of finitude for whom a human being is a being-towards-death, relat­ing to its own finitude and unavoid­able death: it is only through the inter­ven­tion of jouis­sance that a human animal becomes prop­erly mor­tal, relat­ing to the pro­spect of its own extinc­tion. Lacan notes apro­pos of the “life and death dia­logue” how “it only acquires the char­ac­ter of a drama from the moment when enjoy­ment [jouiss­sance] inter­ve­nes. The vital point. . . is the deranged rela­tion­ship to one’s own body called enjoy­ment”: [11]

If an animal is eat­ing [stuff­ing itself: bouffe] reg­u­larly, it is clear that this hap­pens because it doesn’t know the enjoy­ment of hun­ger. The one who speaks—this is what psy­cho­ana­lysus teaches us—colors with enjoy­ment all its [vital] needs, that is to say, that by means of which it defends itself against death. [12]

One should take here “enjoy­ment of hun­ger” quite lit­er­ally: what if, as part of a com­plex ritual, hun­ger itself becomes libid­in­ally inves­ted? What if, in a typ­ical reversal, pre­par­a­tion to eat provides more pleas­ure than the act of eat­ing itself? Robert Brandom uses the same example of hun­ger to illus­trate the struc­ture of what he calls “erotic aware­ness”:

Erotic aware­ness has a tri­part­ite struc­ture, epi­tom­ized by the rela­tions between hun­ger, eat­ing, and food. Hun­ger is a desire, a kind of atti­tude. It imme­di­ately impels hungry anim­als to respond to some objects by treat­ing them as food, that is, by eat­ing them. Food is accord­ingly a sig­ni­fic­ance that objects can have to anim­als cap­able of hun­ger. It is some­thing things can be for desir­ing anim­als. Eat­ing is the activ­ity of tak­ing or treat­ing some­thing as food.[13]

It is But does this struc­ture really deserve to be called “erotic”? Doesn’t erot­i­cism proper emerge only when the aim of our activ­ity doesn’t dir­ectly over­lap with its goal—in the case of hun­ger, when post­pon­ing the act of eat­ing itself brings pleas­ure? To put it another way, when Brandom writes: “That prac­tical iden­ti­fic­a­tion, through risk and sac­ri­fice, with one ele­ment of what he is for him­self at once expresses and con­sti­tutes the Mas­ter as in him­self a geistig, norm­at­ive being, and not just a desir­ing, nat­ural one,” should we not raise the obvi­ous ques­tion: but what if this “ele­ment” is (an object of) desire itself? What if someone is ready to risk and sac­ri­fice everything for his/her desire, includ­ing all his/her nat­ural interests? Therein resides the point of Lacan’s “Kant avec Sade.”



Notes

[1] Alberto Toscano, “The Detour of Abstrac­tion,” in Dia­crit­ics, 2015, Vol.43 (No2): Other Althusser, p. 78.
[2] Quoted from Dia­crit­ics, 2015, Vol.43 (No2): Other Althusser, p.85.
[3] Quoted from op.cit., p. 93.
[4] Jason Barker, “Are We (Still) Liv­ing in a Com­puter Sim­u­la­tion?”, in op.cit., p.94.
[5] Jaques-Alain Miller, “Un reel pour le XXIe siecle,” in Un reel pour le XXIe siecle, Paris: Scilicet 2013.  Eng­lish trans­la­tion avail­able at http://www.congresamp2014.com/en/template.php?file=Textos/Presentation-du-theme_Jacques-Alain-Miller.html.
[6] Gilles Deleuze, L’image‐mouvement (Paris: Minuit, 1983), 122.
[7] Ibid.,81.
[8] See But­ler, The Psychic Life of Power, 28–29
[9] Alain Badiou, “Badiou: Down with Death!,” Verso Books blog, August 18, 2015, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2176‐badiou‐down‐with‐death.
[10] Hegel’s Sci­ence of Logic, 824.
[11] Jac­ques Lacan, Le sémin­aire, livre XIX: . . . ou pire (Paris: Seuil, 2011), 43.
[12] Ibid., 54.
[13] Brandom, “A Spirit of Trust,” quoted from http://www.pitt.edu/~brandom/spirit_of_trust_2014.html.







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Reading Žižek – Where to Start?

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