Slavoj Zizek: Love beyond Law

The Lacanian Subject not only provides an excellent introduction into the fundamental coordinates of Jacques Lacan's conceptual network; it also proposes original solutions to (or at least clarifications of) some of the crucial dilemmas left open by Lacan's work. The principal two among them are the notion of "love beyond Law" mentioned by Lacan in the very last page of his Seminar XI, 1 and the no less enigmatic thesis of the late Lacan according to which, at the end of psychoanalytic treatment, the subject becomes its own cause. Since these two points run against the predominant doxa on Lacan (love as a narcissistic misrecognition which obscures the truth of desire; the irreducibly decentred status of the subject), it is well worth the while to elaborate them.

"Love beyond Law" involves a "feminine" sublimation of drives into love. As Bruce Fink emphasizes again and again, love is here no longer merely a narcissistic (mis)recognition to be opposed to desire as the subject's 'truth' but a unique case of direct asexual sublimation (integration into the order of the signifier) of drives, of their jouissance, in the guise of the asexual Thing (music, religion, etc.) experienced in the ecstatic surrender. 2 What one should bear in mind apropos of this love beyond Law, this direct asexual sublimation of drive, is that it is inherently nonsensical, beyond meaning: meaning can only take place within the (symbolic) Law; the moment we trespass the domain of Law, meaning changes into enjoy-meant, jouis-sense.3

Insofar as, according to Lacan, at the conclusion of psychoanalytic treatment, the subject assumes the drive beyond fantasy and beyond (the Law of) desire, this problematic also compels us to confront the question of the conclusion of treatment in all its urgency. If we discard the discredited standard formulas ("reintegration into the symbolic space", etc.), only two options remain open: desire or drive. That is to say, either we conceive the conclusion of treatment as the assertion of the subject's radical openness to the enigma of the Other's desire no longer veiled by fantasmatic formations, or we risk the step beyond desire itself and adopt the position of the saint who is no longer bothered by the Other's desire as its decentred cause. In the case of the saint, the subject, in an unheard-of way, "causes itself", becomes its own cause. Its cause is no longer decentred, i.e., the enigma of the Other's desire no longer has any hold over it. How are we to understand this strange reversal on which Fink is quite justified to insist? In principle, things are clear enough: by way of positing itself as its own cause, the subject fully assumes the fact that the object-cause of its desire is not a cause that precedes its effects but is retroactively posited by the network of its effects: an event is never simply in itself traumatic, it only becomes a trauma retroactively, by being 'secreted' from the subject's symbolic space as its inassimilable point of reference. In this precise sense, the subject "causes itself" by way of retroactively positing that X which acts as the object-cause of its desire. This loop is constitutive of the subject. That is, an entity that does not 'cause itself' is precisely not a subject but an object. 4 However, one should avoid conceiving this assumption as a kind of symbolic integration of the decentred Real, whereby the subject 'symbolizes', assumes as an act of its free choice, the imposed trauma of the contingent encounter with the Real. One should always bear in mind that the status of the subject as such is hysterical: the subject 'is' only insofar as it confronts the enigma of Che vuoi? - "What do you want?" - insofar as the Other's desire remains impenetrable, insofar as the subject doesn't know what kind of object it is for the Other. Suspending this decentring of the cause is thus strictly equivalent to what Lacan called "subjective destitution", the de- hystericization by means of which the subject loses its status as subject.

The most elementary matrix of fantasy, of its temporal loop, is that of the "impossible" gaze by means of which the subject is present at the act of his/her own conception. What is at stake in it is the enigma of the Other's desire: by means of the fantasy-formation, the subject provides an answer to the question, 'What am I for my parents, for their desire?' and thus endeavours to arrive at the 'deeper meaning' of his or her existence, to discern the Fate involved in it. The reassuring lesson of fantasy is that "I was brought about with a special purpose".5 Consequently, when, at the end of psychoanalytic treatment, I "traverse my fundamental fantasy", the point of it is not that, instead of being bothered by the enigma of the Other's desire, of what I am for the others, I "subjectivize" my fate in the sense of its symbolization, of recognizing myself in a symbolic network or narrative for which I am fully responsible, but rather that I fully assume the uttermost contingency of my being. The subject becomes 'cause of itself' in the sense of no longer looking for a guarantee of his or her existence in another's desire.

Another way to put it is to say that the "subjective destitution" changes the register from desire to drive. Desire is historical and subjectivized, always and by definition unsatisfied, metonymical, shifting from one object to another, since I do not actually desire what I want. What I actually desire is to sustain desire itself, to postpone the dreaded moment of its satisfaction. Drive, on the other hand, involves a kind of inert satisfaction which always finds its way. Drive is non-subjectivized ("acephalic"); perhaps its paradigmatic expressions are the repulsive private rituals (sniffing one's own sweat, sticking one's finger into one's nose, etc.) that bring us intense satisfaction without our being aware of it-or, insofar as we are aware of it, without our being able to do anything to prevent it.

In Andersen's fairy tale The Red Shoes, an impoverished young woman puts on a pair of magical shoes and almost dies when her feet won't stop dancing. She is only saved when an executioner cuts off her feet with his axe. Her still-shod feet dance on, whereas she is given wooden feet and finds peace in religion. These shoes stand for drive at its purest: an 'undead' partial object that functions as a kind of impersonal willing: 'it wants', it persists in its repetitive movement (of dancing), it follows its path and exacts its satisfaction at any price, irrespective of the subject's well-being. This drive is that which is 'in the subject more than herself': although the subject cannot ever 'subjectivize' it, assume it as 'her own' by way of saying 'It is I who want to do this!' it nonetheless operates in her very kernel. 6 As Fink's book reminds us, Lacan's wager is that it is possible to sublimate this dull satisfaction. This is what, ultimately, art and religion are about.

This paper was first published in the Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 1 (1996), 160-61, as a review of Bruce Fink's The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).


1 See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 263-76.

2 See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73 (Encore), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 64-89.

3 It is at this point that Peter Dews' attempt to enlist the Lacanian problematic of 'love beyond Law' into his project of the 'return to meaning' (see his The Limits of Disenchantment, London and New York: Verso, 1996) falls short: it has to overlook the radical incompatibility of 'love beyond Law' and the field of meaning - i.e., the fact that within the Lacanian conceptual edifice, 'love beyond Law' entails the eclipse of meaning in jouis-sense.

4 As to this paradoxical status of trauma, see Slavoj Zizek, Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London and New York: Verso, 1994), 29-53.

5 We can see, now, in what precise sense a pervert lives his fantasy: in clear contrast to the hysteric (neurotic), the pervert doesn't have any doubt as to what he is for the big Other's desire: he is the instrument of the Other's enjoyment. A simple, but nonetheless poignant, expression of this perverse attitude is found in Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire, when the devout Eric Liddel explains his fast running which brought him a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics: "God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."

6 One should mention here Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, a suicidal variation of the same motif. At the end of the film, the shoes the young ballerina is wearing also take on a life of their own. However, since there is no one there to cut her legs off the shoes carry the ballerina out onto a high balcony from which she is forced to leap onto the railroad tracks where she is hit by a train. The crucial thing this cinematic version adds to Andersen's fairy tale is the opposition between the 'partial drive' embodied in the shoes and the normal sexual desire, i.e., the girl's sexual interest in her partner.

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