Slavoj Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual
LASER_WOLF Feb 7th, 2017 582 Never
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- SLAVOJ ZIZEK
- THE REALITY OF THE VIRTUAL
- Today, everybody is talking about virtual reality but I think, frankly, that virtual reality is rather miserable idea. It simply means "let us reproduce, in an artificial digital medium, our experience of reality."I think that a much more interesting notion, crucial to understand what goes on today, is the opposite: not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual.
- That is to say: reality - by this I mean efficacity, effectiveness,real effects - produced,generated, by something,which does not yet fully exist;which is not yet fully actual. In what sense can wetalk about this? Huh! In many, maybe even too many senses.
- At least in three senses: If we take, as the starting point, the well-known lacanian triad of imaginary, symbolic and real. We have, put in simple terms, imaginary virtual, symbolic virtual and real virtual. First, a little bit about the first two of them, less important, and then of coursethe big topic: the real.
- Imaginary virtual: what it is? Isn't it clear, if we look atour most common daily experience of ourselves and of others, that how when we deal with another person, phenomenologically - that is to say,the way we immediately experience them -we erase, abstract from the image of the other person,our partner...certain features, which are simply too embarrassingto be kept in mind all the time?! Like, I talk to you: of course rationally I know you are defecating,you are sweating, not to mention other things, but quite literally, when I interact with you this is not part of the image I have of you. So, when I deal with you, I'm basically not dealing with the real of you. I'm dealing with the virtual image of you. And this image has reality, in the sense that it, none of the less, structures the way I am dealing with you. And then this idealization is crucial. The negative proof,a wonderful one, would have been letters between James Joyce and his wife Nora. where, as far as I know, they went very, very far, almost to the end, into accepting each other in the vulgar reality of bodies. Like, all the sounds, the bad smells, etc. That was even part of their sexual interaction. It's incredible. I admire this in Joyce. So... OK. This would be the first elementary level: imaginary virtual, in the sense of the virtual image which determines how we interact with other people. Virtual image in the sense of: although we interact with real people,we erase, we behave as if whole strata of the other personare not there.
- Second level, alreadythe more complex one: symbolic virtual. It's elementary. Let's think about an experience, known well to all of us, of experiencing authority. Let us say, paternal authority. Isn't it clear, that this authority, in order to be operative, in order to be experienced...precisely there's the nice paradox, in order to be experienced as actual, effective authority,it has to remain virtual.Virtual in the sense of a threat. If authority is enacted too directly,it is, paradoxically,experienced as a sign of impotence.Concretely: father who truly is an authority doesn't have to beat you, or to shout at you, etc. It's just this look,a threatening look, and you obey. If your father looses his nerves and smacks you, starts to shout etc., it can be physically painful, but let's admit it, there is always an aspect of something ridiculous impotent. There's something of a furious outburst of a puppet, of a clown image. Again, this is then one clear example of how symbolic authority, in order to be operative, that's the paradox, I want to emphasize, has to remain virtual. So it's not just"it is actual already as virtual. "No! It's actual ONLY as virtual. If it's fully actualized, as the realized threat, father beats you, shouts at you...it's self-destructive. It undermines itself as authority. Another example of how the virtual dimensionis operative at the symbolic level would have been beliefs. Are we aware to what extent our beliefs today are virtual? By virtual I mean, in this case, attributed to others, presupposed. They don't actually exist, they are virtual, in the sense that nobody really has to believe, we only have to presuppose another person to believe. Elementary example which I'm almost embarrassed to mention: if you are a father or motherof small children, Christmas. Of course, if somebodyasks you,"do you really believein Santa Claus Christmas," you would say,"No, I just pretend," because of the children,which..." not to disappoint them, "but then,we know how the game goes on and on. If you ask the children,they say, "No, we just playthat we are naive,"not to disappoint our parents" and to make it sure that we get the presents," etc. etc. But it's not only the children. It's even with our political life, I'm tempted to claim. Now with our so called -wrongly so called, I claim, because we believe more than ever -in our so called"cynically era", for example, I don'tthink anyone believes in democracy, but nonetheless we want to maintain appearances. There is, to say...There is some purely virtual entity, whom we do not wan tto disappoint,who has to be kept innocent, ignorant, because of whom we have to pretend. So the paradox is that although nobody effectively believes, it is enough that everybody presupposes someone else to believe and the belief is actual. It structures reality. It functions. Again, the paradox is here then similar as the one of authority. It's not only that a belief,which is a virtual belief, not belief of an actual person, but always attributed to other, let's call it, along Lacanian lines,"the subject supposed to believe". It's not only that a belief, alreadyas virtual, as nearly presupposed, already is actual. I'm tempted to claim that many of our daily believes, in order to function socially as believes, have to remain virtualin this sense. Because if we believe too immediately, then I think it's, again,self-destructive for an ideology. We no longer appear normal subjects, we appear idiots. Like, we all know how it is when we encounter somebody,who takes too directly his or hers religious believes, or political believes. There is something monstrous about somebodywho directly identifies with it. It is as if he or she is no longer a real person. It is as if he or she turns into a kind of a puppet.
- So, I hope now these two levels are relatively clear; the first two levels of virtuality: imaginary virtuality, symbolic virtuality. But now, of course,the true treasure is waiting for us: real virtuality.
- So, the real virtual. Well, the problem here, the catch, of course, is the notion of the real. So, this may appear void, but we have to go again through the triad "imaginary-symbolic-real". because, when Lacan defines this triadas the triad of a knot, it means that they are literally interwoven in the sense that the entire triad is reflected into each of the terms, which means, to put it blindly, that there is, again, imaginary real, symbolic real and real real.
- What would be the imaginary real? Images, but images which are so strong, so traumatic, that they are real. Too strong to be perceived, but still images. Simply think about incredible, breath-taking catastrophes, think about monsters, think about precisely whatin SF or horror is called The Thing. Think about movies like Alien, these terrifying creatures, too strong to be directly confronted, but nonetheless it's imaginary, because it's an image which is too strong to be confronted. Even if you cannot confront it, we are still moving at the imaginary level. That would be theimaginary real.
- Then, the symbolic real. It's simply...for example, scientific discourse, scientific formulas, like quantum physics. Why is this real? For a simple reason. The meaning of definition of the real for Lacan, is, that which resists symbolization, inclusion into our universe of meaning. And isn't it that precisely which happens for example with quantum physics? What is quantum physics?Formulas which work, experimentally confirmed,etc., etc., but we cannot translate them into our daily experience of ordinary reality. As we all know, this is what is so traumatic about quantum physics: we literally cannot understand it. Not in the sense that we, common people,idiots, cannot understand it, only a couple of scientists can: even they cannot. In what sense? In the sense that it just works, but if you try to build a consistent ontology out of it, again, you get meaningless results; you get time running backwards, you get parallel universes, or whatever. In other works, you get things which simply are meaningless with regard to our ordinary notion of reality. So this would be symbolic real. Symbolic - obviously the symbolic, formulas, few signifiers -they function, it's a functioning machine, but meaningless. We cannot make any senseout of it. We cannot relate it to our experience. Which is why we try so desperately to do it. Which is why we try to invent metaphorsto imagine quantum universe. But it cannot be done.
- Then, finally we arecoming to the real real,which it's precisely not what is usually identified as the real. This would have been the first real, the imaginary real, too traumatic image. What then is this famous real real, the very core of the real? Let me approach it at two levels.
- The first level is still relativelyclose to the symbolic order. It would have been...all that accompanies the symbolic level at as its obscene shadow. Think about...army units. How they function? You have discipline, symbolic machine, symbolic order, drill, etc. But as we all know,this is sustained by a kind of obscene, shadowy realityof - among other things -so called "marching chants". In every movie about the marines you hear them, these songs which are extremely interesting -songs that soldiers sing by their training, marching -because they are characterizedby meaningless rhymes, combined with sadistic, or sexually perverse, obscenities. One example that I remember, I think it is from An Officer and a Gentleman, the movie, where marines are singing something like:"I don't know but I was told that Eskimo pussies are rather cold." The enigma is, again, why does the military discourse need this? So this would be one level, this shadowy virtual reality of affects which has to accompany the official discourse.
- But let's move a little bit deeper. Let's think about...well, one of the great achievements of Western Civilization, a movie like The Sound of Music. Officially, as we all know, it's a story about small, anti-fascist, democraticAustrians,- at the political level, that is to say -I will leave out all the singing aspect -small, honest, democratic Austrians, fighting, resisting the Nazi occupation of Austria in . But! Look at the movie really closely. Look at its texture,and you will discover a quite different reality, a kind of a virtual reality of the officially depicted narrative reality. If you look at how Austriansare depicted in the movie, you will discover- to cut a long story short -that they are precisely depicted as a kind of a small-is-beautiful provincial fascists. Their idiocy is emphasized, these local folkloric dresses, etc. They're presented directly as anti-intellectual, rooted in narrowlife world, etc. Now, look at how the occupying, invading Nazists are presented. They're not mostly soldiers, but managers, bureaucrats, exquisitely dressed, with short mustaches, smoking expensive cigarettes, etc. In other words, almost a caricatureof cosmopolitan, decadent, corrupted Jew. So, that's my point: at the level of simplen arrative reality we get one message, democratic resistance to Nazism. But at the level of- let's call it - virtual textureall these micro signs, maybe we could even call it writing, we get practically the opposite message, which is: "Honest fascists resisting decadent Jewish, cosmopolitan, takeover. "And incidentally maybe this is at least one of the reasons why this movie was so extremely popular. While officially agreeing with our democratic ideology, it, at the same time, addresses our secret fascist dreams. But let's take a more serious example: Robert Altman's masterpiece, Shortcuts. Again, at the narrative level we get a simple story,or rather - stories, parallel stories, depicting desperate everydaylife of LA middle classes, It's the portrait of today's alienation, solitude, etc. But again, the very textureof the film, I claim, is a much more optimistic one. It's a kind of celebration of this magic of contingent encounters, generatings, unexpected effects of meaning. So I think that...In a similar way to how we should read The Sound of Music, it is wrong to read Shortcuts simply as kind of social critical piece, there is another much more optimistic, life asserting even, letter.
- So, to provide the formula of this 'real virtual'. Let me refer to recent paradoxical statement by none other than Donald Rumsfeld. I think that this statement was an important contribution to contemporary American philosophical debate. This happened in March , just before the war on Iraq, where Rumsfeld elaborated the relationship between 'known' and 'unknown'. First, he said, there are 'known knowns'. There are things we know that we know. Like, we knew at that point that Saddam was the president of Iraq. OK, everything clear. Then, he went on,there are 'known unknowns'. There are things that we know that we don't know. The idea was, for example, we know that we don't know how many weapons of mass destruction Saddam has. OK, now we know he had none. It doesn't matter. At that point it appeared like this. Then there is 'the unknown unknown', things we don't know that we don't know, things which are so foreign and so unimaginable that we even don't know that we don't know. For example, maybe Saddam had some unimaginable, totally unexpected weapon. And here unfortunatelyRumsfeld stopped. because I thinkhe should have go on. making the next step to the fourth category, fourth variation, which is missing, which is: not the 'known unknowns', but the 'unknown knowns'. Things we don't know we know them. We know them, they are part of our identity,they determine our activity, but we don't know that we know them! This is what,in psychoanalysis, of course,is called unconscious. Unconscious fantasies, unconscious prejudices, etc., etc. And I think that this level is crucial. To refer to previous two examples from movies: in The Sound of Music,what we directly know is that it's a movie about antifascist resistance of modest, honest Austrians. What we don't know that we know is that it's also the opposite: that it's the movie about fascists resisting the Jewish takeover. And the tragedy of today's American politics, I think, is that precisely they are not aware of these 'unknown knowns', which is why there was a deep truth in one of the statements of that unfortunate Iraqi minister of information. We were all laughing at him during the last Iraqi war, because of his ridiculous statements, denying the obvious, but at one point, I claim, what he told was absolutely true. When, towards the end of the war, he was asked, "Is it true that Americans already control,"American forces, part of the Baghdad airport?", he said: "Not true. Americans don't control even themselves." Perfect truth. Why? Because they don't know what they know. And this - what you don't knowthat you know -controls you, but you don'tcontrol it. OK.
- So now we come to the really real, real core of the real, much more fundamental than the symbolic real, but which, paradoxically, is at the same time the most virtual real. It is what? Let us think about attractors in mathematics or in physics. For example, you have small pieces of iron and you throw them around a magnetic field. They are dispersed, following a certain shape, infinitely approaching this shape, but this shape, of course, is not existing itself. It's just something that you can abstract, isolate from the dispersion of the small pieces of iron. That's the idea of 'virtual real'. It's a shape - this is the realof this field,but it doesn't existin itself. It's just an abstract form, which structures the disposition of actually existing elements around it.
- Now, what has this to do with psychoanalytic problematic, or, even more, with political problematic? My idea is: a lot. Let's think about the precise status of trauma in psychoanalysis. It is similar to this non-existing attractor. That is to say, more closely: Freud shifted his position, as we all know, with regard to trauma, he shifted his position in a way which is, strangely enough, parallel to the shift in Einstein's theory of relativity, the shift from special to general theory of relativity. This shift in theory of relativityconcerns the reference to the curved space,curvature of space. As most of us, I hope, know, for Einstein, first, in a first approach, it was the presence of the density of matter, of stuff, which curved the space. Space was originally perceived as empty space, abstractly was symmetrical, non-curved, then the presence of stuffcurves it. But then, in a second step, Einstein accomplished a wonderful reversal. He just termed the terms around. It was not the presence of matter, of stuff, which curves the space, it was, on the contrary, the curvature of the space which was primordial. And what we perceive as matteris just kind of a reified, fetishist misperception of a purely formal curvature of the space. And I claim it's exactly like this in the psychoanalytic notion of trauma. In a first approach Freud imagined trauma as some kind of dense, raw presence, presence of some real which brutally intrudes into our symbolic space and curves it. Quite literally. Let's imagine that I have my well-balanced symbolic space,then something traumatic happens to me: I'm raped, I witness a terrifying event, I'm tortured, whatever. And because of the traumatic impact of this event my symbolic space gets curved. Some things can no longer be symbolized, the function of those symbol has to be taken over with other symbols. There is a kind of imbalance. There is a gap in my symbolic space. This would be the first approach. But then Freud noticed some strange things. What things? Let's recall his best known analysis of Wolfman. The traumatic scene there, of course, is the small child, Wolfman, witnessing the parental coitus a terbo. But let's look at it in a much more precise way. What effectively happens there? It's not that this was simply a trauma. As a small, -year and the half old child, Wolfman did not find anything traumatic in this scene. He just perceived it and stored it. It was - years later, when Wolfman started to develop his theories, infantile theories of sexuality,and because he was not able to account for sexuality, in other words, because the symbolic spaceof his sexual theories was curved, it is only at this point tha the resuscitated the traumatic scene. So... I think, in clear parallel to Einstein, we can see how here it's the other way around. The primordial fact is not some brutal intrusion of the real,of a traumatic real. The primordial fact,and also the primordial real, is a purely formal imbalance. The symbolic space is curved, it's cut across by antagonism, imbalanced, etc. and to account for this you need reference to some real. Which is, of course,the real. The real in the sense of the traumatic appearance. It's a lure here. A trap.
- So what does this notion of the virtual real, as trauma, trauma as virtual, what does this notion mean for politics? Can this serve us - we want to analyze political, ideological phenomena? Of course. Let's just recall how antisemitism functions. In it's fascist version, antisemitism,or rather the figure of the Jew, the Jewish plot, is precisely an external trauma which brutally intrudes, disturbing social balance. Curving, as it were, the social space. Society was supposed to be harmonious, balanced, then Jews intervened, distort it. It's, as it were, natural order. But of course, here at least,we should be Marxists, and turn things around. It's not that there is disorder,antagonism,disintegration, class struggle, because of the Jews. Class struggle, or more generally,social antagonism, comes first. That is to say: social spaceis in itself already curved, imbalanced. And in order to imaginarily, in an imaginary way, account for it, we invent the figure of the Jew. That is to say, we project the cause of it into the figure of the Jew.
- Even at the more fundamental level,of today's economic constellation, I think that this notion of the real as virtual can help us to critically reject, a category which is more and more popular with politically correct, post-colonial authors, the notion of so-called alternate or alternative modernity. The idea is, to put it simply, the following one. Of course there are inconsistencies, antagonisms, repressive potentials in the notion of modernity,which ultimately means, of course,capitalism as the force of modernity, but, so the story goes, this antagonistic, represive elements are not part of the very concept of modernity, but are only limited to the Anglo-Saxon, West European model of modernization. Why then should not there not be other alternate modernities, where you can have modernization, but without this alienating effects which characterize Western European process of modernization. Without socially disruptive processes, without alienation, without exploitation, without ecological catastrophes,etc., etc. And then, of course, it's free for grab. Anybody can have his own modernity. You can say we can have Latin American modernity, as alternate modernity, we can have African modernity, we can have Asian modernity, whatever. So what is the problem with this approach, which is basically an approach of historicist nominalism? Because the under lined logic is that in famous...pseudo the constructionist logics of"There is no modernity as such." "There are only particular modernities." "Like West European, Latin American,African, etc." Of course this is true. The problem is elsewhere. The problem is that through this nominalist reduction, again, by claiming that only particular modernities effectively exist, the sight of antagonism is reducedto only one particular modernity. It is no longer modernity as suchwhich is characterized by antagonism, imbalance. Imbalance is dismissed as just pertaining with certain species of, particular species of modernity. And what is problematic with this? Well...To put it very simply: did we not have already in the early th century, in the first part of the th century, one big, well-known project of alternate modernity? It was called fascism.
- Fascism was precisely the first big attemptto build an alternate modernity. That is to say, to have the process of modernization, industrial development etc. but without paying the priceof alienation, social disintegration, etc. What should we then oppose to this model? We should oppose to it the idea that some antagonism,we can call it by different names, traditional Marxist would have called it"class struggle", Frankfurt school would have call it "dialectic of enlightenment", but the idea being that there is some antagonistic potential in the very project of capitalist modernity. That is to say that all these phenomena that we deploy, wars, violences, concentration camps, new fundamentalism, you name it, that all this is not simply regression,or as Habermas would have put it, a sign of modernity as an unfinished project, but is part of the very project of modernity. This is what gets lost.
- Which is why I think that although it wants to be historicist, critical, this idea of reducing the antagonistic aspects of modernity, to just one particular form of modernity, is deeply ideological. Because it saves unblemished the general notion of modernization. What we should insist on is on the contrary, as I've just said, that there is an antagonism inherent to the very universal notion of modernity, and, now I'm coming to my point, so that the particular speciesof modernity are not just examples or exemplifications of their universal genus, of their universal notion,but they are, in a way,reactions to it,they fight it.Modernity, as a universal notion, names a certain dead-lock, a certain antagonism, and particular, really existing forms of modernity,are attempts to resolve this deadlock, to solve the problem. Liberal capitalism, as one form of modernity, wants to solve the deadlock of modernity in a certain way, through market freedoms etc., fascist modernization in a different way, Latin American modernization in a different way.
- So what's properly dialectical here? It's, again, this very reversal of the usual constellation. It's not that struggleis at the level of the particular content, while universally it's just some kind of neutral empty container, so that universal means some encompassing global notion, and then, within this notion, particular forms struggle, like fascist modernization against liberal modernization etc. etc. No! The sight of the struggle is universal antagonism itself. And all particular actually existing modernisms are attempts to cover up, resolve this problem. So, again, we should remember this that the sight of antagonism is universality.
- What has this to do with'virtual as real'? Ah, precisely this sight of universality as the sight of antagonism is virtual. In what sense? In the sense that there is no universal modernization. It's just a certain virtual constellation of a certain antagonism. All that exists...Nominalists are here right. All that effectively existsare just particular forms of modernization. There is no modernity as such. There only is Anglo-Saxon, Latin-American, African etc., fascist modernity. But in order to grasp the very dynamic of this particular forms, one has to refer them to this...their absent cause, to the big antagonism, to which they react. So, again, this would have been another example of how the notion of virtual as real is operative, of how it is a necessary notion if we are to grasp the concrete social dynamic, especially of today's global capitalism.
- So the conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the category of the real is ultimately a purely formal category. It's not a category of some formless content disturbing order, it's a pure structural gap. It's an entirely non-substantial category. It's...If we may put it in these terms, it's a difference, but a pure difference. A pure difference in the sense that it's a difference which is paradoxically prior to what it is the difference between. So it's not simplythat we have two terms and there is a difference between the two terms. Paradoxically, the two positive terms appear afterwards as attempts to dominate, cover up the tension etc. of this difference.
- Again, how can this be? Another simple example, just to illustrate this logic: the political distinction...I know, it's half forgotten today, nobody wants to hear about it, but nonetheless, the distinction betweenLeft and Right. The first thing that strikes the eye about this distinction, if we take it seriously, is thatit's not just a distinction within a certain social cowl. It's not that, in a certain society, if we take into account all political forces, we can say:"These are right-wing forces, these are left-wing forces," and then all the intermediate phenomena, "in between, center, center-left,center-right, whatever you want." It's different. It is that...if you ask a right-winger, how is the entire social field structured, you will get a totally different answer than if you ask a left-winger,or, for that matter,if you ask a centrist. To simplify it: a right-winger will tell you that society is an organic, harmonious unity, at least the traditional right-winger, and that left radicals are external intruders. What is anathema for radical conservative is the idea that there is an antagonism, an imbalance inscribed into the very heart of the social edifice. For a left-winger, the struggle is admitted as central. So, again, the point is that there is no neutral way to define the difference between Left and Right. In itself it's a void. It's just that youcan approach it either from the leftist or from the rightist point of view.
- And incidentally, for Lacan, it's exactly in the same way that also sexual difference functions. Sexual difference is not a difference between the two species of humanity in general, but it's the...From the male perspective sexual difference itself appears in a different way that from the feminine perspective. So, again, difference paradoxically comes first.
- Crucial, philosophically,is this, let's call it pure formalism. And against the reproach that we are dealing here with some kind of idealism. Isn't matter in it's positive, inert presence, primordial?I think that we should reject this reproach and precisely insist on this notion of...how should I call it?...purely formal materialism. Materialism as materialism of the difference. The minimal feature of materialism being that there is a pure difference. That there is a crack, an antagonism in within the order of the One. That the primordial fact is pure, self difference. I'm very precise here. Self difference, and not any kind of this mythological polar opposites, feminine-masculine, light-darkness, yin-yang, etc. I think that here radical materialism should be even critical towards Deleuze, Gilles Deleuze, who blights to assert some kind of primordial multitude, as the ultimate ontological fact. From the radical prospect that I'm advocating, multitude already is an effect of the inconsistency of The One with itself, of the fact that The One cannot coincide with itself. Or, to put it in a slightlydifferent way, we do not have some primordial polarity, like masculine-feminine, light-darkness, and then we can play all these New Age, agnostic games of how win our era, we put too much accent on one pole, and we have to reestablishthe balance, like we are too rational, masculine, let's put more accent on the feminine, emotional side, whatever...No, it's more radical! It's as if, as Lacan puts it, the binary signifieris primordially repressed,which means, the second element is always missing, and this lack of the counterpoint -we have one, but we don't have the accompanying other -and this original imbalance then sets in motion the generation of multiplicity. Again, an extremely simple example from one of the early movies by Woody Allen, I think it's Love and War, a kind of a parody on Tolstoy,where, again, the whole movie topic focuses on topic of Tolstoy. So, of course, our first enigma is here: "Where is Dostoyevsky?", The Other, natural supplement to Tolstoy. There is no Dostoyevsky,so what happens in the movie, as a kind a return of the repressed, is tha tin one wonderful short scene,when two main characters talk with each other, all the big titles of Dostoyevsky's novels emerge. Like, "do you know what happened with that Idiot?" "Ah, you mean the one ofthe Karamazov brothers?" "Yes." -"He did his crime,it was punished." "Then he went underground,turned into a gambler", etc. etc. The lesson of this is ontological lesson: is: one cannot coincide with itself, pure difference, because of this pure difference as a secondary effect the multitude explodes.
- So, again...Against the usual reproach is this not idealism. I would say that today it is rather idealism which is materialist. Today's opposition, I'm tempted to claim,between materialism and idealismis that today's idealism,or rather spiritualism, clings to this famous density, inertia of experience, of matter, of earth...of the stuff.
- No wonder that the greatest,arguably, spiritual movie director,the Russian, Tarkovsky,was at the same time practically obsessed bythe topic of inertia of matter,density of matter,matter in decay. In his films, when heroesare praying,they don't pray looking upwards.They pray by sometimes literallyimmersing their heads into mud,with close contact with earth. So I think, the thing to do today is to oppose to this kind of spiritual materialism, the pure formalism of true radical materialism,which is...Why, for me, quantum physics is ultimately a deeply materialist theory, where you don't need any positivity of matter. You can do everything with purely formal oscillations etc.
- So, again, back to this central insight that difference comes first. Difference... How to think a difference, which is priorto the elements it is the difference of? Immanuel Kant, already in his early writings, introduces here a crucial distinction. A very strange, but clear distinction. A distinction between a negative judgment and indefinite judgment. That is to say, as Kant puts it, it is not the same thing to say: "You aren't human" and to say"You are inhuman". If I say "You aren't human", it simply means you are external to humanity, you are animal, divine, whatever. It's outside. But if I say, as Kant puts it, if I do not simply negate a predicate, but if I affirm a non-predicate...So again, if I don't say simply"You aren't human", but if I say"You are inhuman", it means non-humanity, an excess over humanity, but an excess which is inherent to humanity itself. To give you another example, which will make it clear, there's this thing about Steven King's horror novels, the well known category of the undead. We can feel the difference. If I say,"You aren't dead". It's not the same as saying"You are undead". If I say you aren't dead, it simply means you are alive, and nothing more, nothing mysterious. But, as every reader of horror novels knows, if I say,"You are undead", it meansyou are the living dead, you are alive precisely as dead.
- Immanuel Kant's point is that human freedom has exactly such a status. It's something which is neither nature -animals are not free, they are enslaved to their instincts -nor culture - culture is already: symbolic law, symbolic regulation. But, the conclusion to be drawnfrom Kant,and consequently from Freudand Lacan, is that what cultural symbolic prohibitionstry to regulate -to master, to dominate,to domesticate, whatever you want -is not directly nature, natural instincts, but it's this zero-level inhuman excess, to use Lacan's Pan: the extimate kernel of humanity. The in-human dimensionin exactly the same sense, in which we talk about the undead -not in-human as external to humanity, but a monstrous excess, or some radical wild freedom,which is inherent tohumanity itself.
- So again we have this paradox, that the difference between nature and culture, is a level of its own. Is neither nature, nor culture, it's some kind of crazy excess. So what would then a politics of pure difference be? Well, first, per negationem -what it would not be? It would definitely not be what emerges today more and moreas the ultimate horizon of the political, the so-called "identity politics", or more broadly, the politics of recognizing the differences, of tolerating the differences. What is for me problematic in this multicultural, at least tolerant politics etc. It's not just the vulgar fact that they effectively, even if they deny it, neglect economic struggle. It's the very logic of the struggle. The logic of multicultural struggle, of anti-racist struggle, of struggle against sexism, is again the logic of recognizing differences.
- For example: in anti-sexist struggle,the goal, of course, is not,even for radical feminists -I don't know - to kill,to annihilate men. It's to establish an open field within which both sexes, all different sexual positions, sexual identities, cultural identities inclusive, will be allowed to thrive freely, so that one will not articulate itselfat the expense of others.
- Again, in the anti-racist strugglethe ultimate horizon is that of opening up the space for differences: each ethnic group, religious group,cultural group, way of life group, should have the freedomto freely deploy, articulate it's potentials, it's position. But this conceptual field, the field of openness towards the other, of tolerating, allowing for differences, as the ultimate ethical horizon, this, I claim, should not,cannot be, our ultimate horizon.
- Because we can immediately see that...to use the simplified example -class struggle. My God, the ultimate goal of the class struggle is not for proletarians to allow the bourgeoisie, and bourgeoisie to allow proletariansto freely deploy their own potentials etc. It's an antagonistic struggle. The goal is not to let the multitude be. The goal is to annihilate the enemy. It's a totally different logic. It's the logic of animosity,it's the logic of antagonistic struggle. Which also involves a totally different notion of universality. The notion of universality here is no longer universality as the encompassing medium,container of the pluralityof positions -sexual positions, cultural positions,whatever. No! Universality is here the universality of struggle itself. There is also a central paradox to this struggling position. The position of struggle does not mean the position of a particular identity and the abandonment of the universal notion of truth. The abandonment of the universal notion of truth goes very well with multi-culturalese politics where we can say:" Everybody has the right"to narrate it's own version of truth. There is no global truth. "No! Our position should be:there is universal truth. There always is one universal truth of a certain situation. But this truth is accessible only from a specific, partial, engaged,engaged in the struggle, standpoint. So it's not that we arrive at the universal truth by abstracting from our particula rengagement, from our particular interests,the idea being: each of us has it's own interests, positions, but the truth of a situation emerges when we can step, as it were,outside ourselves and look at the situation more objectively,the way it really is. No, on the contrary! We should fully assume the paradoxof universal truth being accessible only through a partial, engaged position. This, I think, is more precious than ever to maintain today.
- And this is the reason why, at the social level, I think,we should cling to the notion of collective as it was till now practice in three forms: messianic religious collectives, revolutionary parties,and psycho-analytic communities.They both share...sorry, all three of them, they share precisely this same notion of universality accessible only through an engaged,struggling, subjective position. This politics of pure differenceis opposed today by another, I would call it, politics of the real, but the real of the super-ego, in precisely the sense I already talked about, that is to say: super-ego injunction, the obscene virtual super-ego injunction to enjoy. So how does this super-ego injunction function today, in the hegemonic mode of social identification?To put it in extremely simplified terms: the old functioning of ethics was that of moderation. The ultimate task of ethics was to moderate it, like - do it, but not excessively. Eat, drink - not too much. Sex - not too much. It was the ethics of the proper measure. Today, I claim, a different kindof ethics is emerging. An ethics which, on the one hand, allows you limitless consumption, no moderation, go to the end - but why? Because the object in itselfis already deprived of its dangerous substance,as it were. The whole series of products that we find today on the market -decaffeinated coffee, beer without alcohol, sugar without sugar etc. -that is to say the product where you get the effect but deprived of its potentialy dangerous substance.
- So that today the injunctionis no longer"Drink coffee, but moderately", it is:"Have as much coffee as you want,"because coffee is already,in itself, decaffeinated coffee." Maybe the best - slightly tasteless, but what the hell, why not? -metaphor for this product is something that I saw- years ago in Los Angeles. It's the paradox of a chocolate laxative. Of course, chocolate being that which gives you constipation. With the publicity, I remember it:"Still constipated? Not a problem, eat more of our chocolate!" So that's the paradox, that the chocolate is already its own remedy in a kind of almost Hegelian direct coincidence of the opposites.
- So, why is this interesting? Precisely because, I claim, it's not limited only to phenomena of commodities. What interests me is how we can locate the same logic also, the same paradoxical logic of an product being its own counter-effect, already and also within the social field.
- For example, let's take the big topic of tolerance. What does it mean? I claim it has precisely the structure of chocolate laxative. That is to say, tolerance is a mode of appearance of its own opposite, of intolerance. Because, what does it mean, tolerance, today? It means tolerate the differences,which, again,means "don't harass me". Tolerance means: "Tolerate me",means "Don't harass me". What does it mean,"Don't harass me"? It means precisely"Don't come too close to me". If you come too close to me with your excessive enjoyment, you disturb me, you harass me. So we have then this idea that practically everything appear form of harassment. I look at you, it's potentially sexual harassment. I speak too loudly, it's verbal harassment, whatever. Everything, every over-proximityof another human being can be potentially a form of harassment. And I think that this fearof harassment is preciselly fundamental form of intolerance, today.
- And so, again, I claim that when we talk about tolerance today, it means precisely tolerance as avoiding harassment, which means intolerance. It means let's tolerate each other, again,which means let's keepat a proper distance from each other. Yet another chocolate laxative phenomenon isn't it the way we dea lwith wealth today? The exemplary figure today for me hereis somebody like George Soros. Half the day he engages in the most ruthless financial exploitations, ruining the lives of hundreds,of thousands, even millions. The other half he just gives part of it back. So the morning is chocolate, the afternoon is laxative. Like, you know, involving all these human aid programs, etc.,political, democratization, etc. etc.
- So again, instead of simply not engage in ruthless speculation, he does it, but then includes counter-action. And even more radically,is it not exactly the same with war today? I think that Ulrich Beck,the German sociologist,was well justified in inventingthe term "militarist pacifism",or "humanitarian militarism".What goes on today where all the wars are declared as wars for peace. It's not only that their ultimate goal is defined as to bring peace, into Iraq, to remove the threat of war, etc. etc. It's even more radically. It is that the war operation itself resembles more and morea kind of humanitarian intervention to help the people there. If you read, for example,the recent justification of attack on Iraq.It's not so much that Iraq was attacked in order to remove the threat to the Western nation of Saddam. It was in order to help the Iraqi people etc. etc. No wonder then that...the ultimate chocolate laxative...No wonder that...The concentration camps.
- As Giorgio Agamben claims,the typical, exemplary case of a th century collective, has precisely these both aspects. Again, chocolate laxative structure, the aspect of isolating the enemy -Guantanamo or whatever -and the aspect of concentrating people in order to give them,to provide them with humanitarian aid.
- So, what this meansare two things. First, I don't think that it is justified to talk today about consumption -we live in a society of consumption, etc. On the contrary, I claim.We consume less than ever, if consuming means taking the risk, really opening yourself. Which is why, incidentally,we are so afraid of smoking. I claim it's not simply medical results etc. What is so terrifying in smoking is somebody really consuming the smoke with all the dangers this involves. I think that the true consumers today are drug-addicts, chain-smokers, etc. And they are the figures of horror today, if anything. Again, the structure is that of chocolate laxative,which is why we are or looking even at this level for products which would be already a kind of decaffeinated coffee. Which is why I think marijuanais so popular. Because it's kind of decaffeinated opium, de facto. Opium without opium. You can have it, but deprived of its dangerous substance.
- So, to conclude this brief reflection, I would say that today the fundamental, as it were,ethical injunction, the injunction society bombards us with, is no longer the injunction to control yourself, to repress your strivings or whatever. It's on the contrary, the injunction to enjoy it, to go to the end. This is what we feel guilty about today. And this, I think, also changes fundamentally the role of psychoanalysis. It does not make it outdated, it's more actual than ever,only its function fundamentally changed.
- In the good all days,or so it appeared, now it's clear that it never was simply like that, the idea was the following one. Let's say you are sexually frustrated, because you internalized some paternal or other prohibitions, you cannot enjoy sex, and the function of psychoanalysis is to relieve you, release you of the pressure of these internalized prohibitions, so you can let yourself go,you can enjoy. In other words, you feel guilty if you transgressed social prohibitionsin order to enjoy. Today it's almost the opposite.You feel guilty, if you cannot make it, if you cannot enjoy. And we shouldn't take here enjoyment just in the immediate sense of sex, sure pleasure of drinking, whatever. It can be enjoyment of power, social success, professional success, it can be even spiritual enjoyment, in the New Age sense,Gnostic sense of realizing your ego etc. etc.
- What we are getting today is that you feel guilty if in this sense you cannot enjoy yourself. So this brings us, I claim, to a double function of psychoanalys is today.
- A. It's message is not "relax, get rid of prohibitions".It's message is, as Alain Badiou put it in wonderful terms,"you should learn to becomea pitiless censor of yourself."The role of pychoanalys is today. It's not to enable you to enjoy,but to open up a space in which you are allowed not to enjoy. That's the fundamental messageof psychoanalysis today. You are not obliged to enjoy. You are allowednot to enjoy. Which, of course, is not the same as saying you are prohibited to enjoy. Just: you are allowednot to enjoy. This confronts us furthermore with the paradoxes of today's superego. Which is how, on the one hand,permissivity ends up in its opposite. Like: today the injunctionis "enjoy",the result is more prohibitions, regulations than ever. You can enjoy yourself, but in order to enjoy yourself properly, you are ordered to - what -not to eat too much,to engage in jogging, to take care of your fitness,not to smoke, etc. etc. Just look around and I think that there is nothing more miserable today than those younger couples or peoplewho organize their life in order to enjoy themselves. The regulation is total.
- On the other hand,we have the opposite paradox, which is that the so-called"newly emerging fundamentalism"is not here in order to introducesome new stability,to give you firm ethical foundationin today's world where there are no firm stable values etc.,but on the contrary, I claim,it is here to open up as a kind of a false space of freedom. I'm referring here, of course,implicitlyto Lacan's famous reversal of the Dostoyevsky motto. it is not that if God doesn't exist, everything is permitted, but if God doesn't exist, everything is prohibited.This is the lesson of the hedonistic yuppies. And the opposite lesson, no less crucial:if God exists,then everything is permitted. Which means: if you can justify your role as that of being the instrument of the divine will,in other words - you hear voices,you have the contact with the guy up there,either George Bushor Osama bin Laden -as many people noticed: this is what they have in common,they both hear directly from up there -then you can do whatever you want -you can do terrorist acts,bomb countries, etc. etc.
- So here we see how difficult it is to orient ourselves in today's constellation where there is a certain urge to false freedom,inherent to the system itself. Which is why, I claim,the main task todayis to reinvent utopia, a space of utopia. What do you mean by this? It's not, of course, the old fashioned utopia,which is the utopia of imagining ideal world about which we know in advance that it will never be realized. The big models here are, of course:Plato's Republic,Thomas Moore Utopia,and - we should not forget -Marquis de Sade:Philosophy in the Boudoir. That's the classical utopia. Then we have, what I'm tempted to call,the capitalist utopia. This unbridled solicitation of new and new desires,which can go pretty far. Like today I learned thatin the United States, they are, in some communities, seriously considering the idea that necrophiliacs,those who want to play sexual games with corpses, dead bodies, are seriously deprived. So isn't it the duty of our societyto provide them with corpses? Can it be done in some wayso that people sign voluntarily in the same way that you sign that if you die, your heart,your organs can be used,that your body can be used to be delivered to necrophiliacs etc. etc. The problem here is that,radical as this may appear,there is something ridiculously benign about it,about this capitalist utopia. You can go to the end, basically nothing happens. But we have a third utopia,which is, again,neither this classical utopia of imagining an alternative universe, not even dreaming about really realizing it,then the capitalist utopia of ever new desires,extreme forms of satisfying your desires, there is a third mode which,I would say it precisely -the real,the real core of utopia. I think a truly radical utopiais not an exercise in free imagination. Like, you sit down,don't have anything wiser to do than to imagine possible ideal worlds. It's something that you do literally as out of an inner urge. You have to invent something new when you cannot do it otherwise. True utopia for me is not a matter of the future, it's something to be immediately enacted, when there is no other way. Utopia in this sense simply means: do what appears, within the given symbolic coordinates, as impossible. Take the risk, change the very coordinates. And I'm not talking here about something crazy. Even big classical well-known,even some times conservative acts,have this utopian dimension. Like, to take a ridiculous example,thirty years ago, remember Richard Nixon's trip to China. There was almost a utopian dimension to it. Why? Because he did what was appeared as impossible. China was portrayed as the ultimate evil super power. With Soviet Union there was detente, not with China. That act changed the entire coordinates. It did the impossible. This is what we need more than ever today. Because ultimately, I claim, the true utopia today is not a different order. It's the idea that the existing order can function indefinitely. The true utopia, I claim,was not communism,which disintegrated in 89', it was the utopia of the 90s. The idea, elaborated, among others,by Francis Fukuyama, that we discovered the final social form -liberal capitalist democracy -that we cannot go further.That it's just a question of making it little more tolerant, spread it all around the world, but that we have the formula. And I think that if there is a symbolic meaning to September 11th, is that the time of that utopia is over. The real of history is back. Which is why today the urge is not to be terrorized by the so-called"post-political politics" which tells us:"ideological times are over," all you can do is just to play the realistic game"of accepting the trends" etc. etc. We should dare to enact the impossible. We should rediscover how to not imagine, but enact utopia. The point is not again about planning utopias, the point is about practicing them. And I think this is not a question of should we do it or should we simply persist in the existing order. It's much more radical. It's a matter for survival. The future will be utopian,or there will be none.
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