Friday, May 31, 2013

Sometimes When You Stare Into the Abyss, the Abyss Stares Back at You

This brings us to the true enigma: why does the encounter with a face covered by burka trigger such anxiety? Is it then, that a face covered by burka is no longer the Levinasian face, the Otherness from which the unconditional ethical call emanates? But what if the case is the opposite one? From a Freudian perspective, face is the ultimate mask that conceals the horror of the Neighbor-Thing: face is what makes the Neighbor le semblable, a fellow-man with whom we can identify and empathize. (Not to mention the fact that today, many faces are surgically changed and thus deprived of the last vestiges of natural authenticity.) This then, is why a covered face causes such anxiety: because it confronts us directly with the abyss of the Other-Thing, with the Neighbor in its uncanny dimension. The very covering-up of the face obliterates a protective shield, so that the Other-Thing stares at us directly (recall that burka has a narrow slip for the eyes: we don’t see the eyes, but we know there is a gaze there). Alphonse Allais presented his own version of Salome’s dance of seven veils: when Salome is completely naked, Herod shouts “Go on! On!”, expecting her to take off also the veil of her skin. We should imagine something similar with burka: the opposite of a woman taking off her burka and revealing her natural face. What if we go a step further and imagine a woman “taking off” the skin of her face itself, so that what we see beneath her face is precisely an anonymous dark smooth burka-like surface with a narrow slit for the gaze? “Love thy neighbor!” means, at its most radical, precisely the impossible=real love for this de-subjectivized subject, for this monstrous dark blot cut with a slit/gaze… This is why, in the psychoanalytic treatment, the patient is not sitting face to face to the analyst: they both stare at a third point, since it is only this suspension of the face which opens up the space for the proper dimension of the Neighbor. And therein also resides the limit of the well-known critico-ideological topic of the society of total control where we are all the time tracked and recorded – what eludes the eye of the camera is not some intimate secret but the gaze itself, the object-gaze as the crack/stain in the Other.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Neighbor in Burka"

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Feminine Existence

Today, the media constantly bombard us with requests to choose, addressing us as subjects supposed to know what we really want (which book, clothes, TV program, place of holiday . . .)—“press A, if you want this, press B, if you want that,” or, to quote the motto of the recent “reflective” TV publicity campaign for advertisement itself, “Advertisement—the right to choose.” However, at a more fundamental level, the new media deprive the subject radically of the knowledge of what he wants: They address a thoroughly malleable subject who has constantly to be told what he wants, i.e., the very evocation of a choice to be made performatively creates the need for the object of choice. One should bear in mind here that the main function of the Master is to tell the subject what he wants—the need for the Master arises in answer to the subject’s confusion, insofar as he does not know what he wants. What, then, happens in the situation of the decline of the Master, when the subject himself is constantly bombarded with the request to give a sign as to what he wants? The exact opposite of what one would expect: It is when there is no one here to tell you what you really want, when all the burden of the choice is on you, that the big Other dominates you completely, and the choice effectively disappears, i.e., is replaced by its mere semblance. One is tempted to paraphrase here Lacan’s well- known reversal of Dostoyevski (“If there is no God, nothing is permitted at all”): If no forced choice confines the field of free choice, the very freedom of choice disappears.

This suspension of the function of the (symbolic) Master is the crucial feature of the Real whose contours loom at the horizon of the cyberspace universe: the moment of implosion when humanity will attend the limit impossible to transgress, the moment at which the coordinates of our societal life-world will be dissolved. At this moment, distances will be suspended (I will be able to communicate instantly through teleconferences with anywhere on the globe); all information, from texts to music to video, will be instantly available on my interface. However, the obverse of this suspension of the distance which separates me from a far-away foreigner is that, due to the gradual disappearance of contact with “real” bodily others, a neighbor will no longer be a neighbor, since he or she will be progressively replaced by a screen specter; the general availability will induce unbearable claustrophobia; the excess of choice will be experienced as the impossibility to choose; the universal direct participatory community will exclude all the more forcefully those who are prevented from participating in it. The vision of cyberspace opening up a future of unending possibilities of limitless change, of new multiple sex organs, etc., etc., conceals its exact opposite: an unheard-of imposition of radical closure. This, then, is the Real awaiting us, and all endeavors to symbolize this real, from utopian (the New Age or “deconstructionist” celebrations of the liberating potentials of cyberspace), to the blackest dystopian ones (the prospect of the total control by a God-like computerized network . . .), are just this, i.e., so many attempts to avoid the true “end of history,” the paradox of an infinity far more suffocating than any actual confinement. Is therefore one of the possible reactions to the excessive filling-in of the voids in cyber- space not the informational anorexia, the desperate refusal to accept informations?
- Slavoj Zizek, "What can Psychoanalyses Tell Us About Cyberspace?"

Friday, May 24, 2013

More Mortifying Love...

From here, we can also elaborate a critique of the philosophy of finitude which predominates today. The idea is that, against the big metaphysical constructs, one should humbly accept our finitude as our ultimate horizon: there is no absolute Truth, all we can do is accept the contingency of our existence, the unsurpassable character of our being-thrown into a situation, the basic lack of any absolute point of reference, the playfulness of our predicament… However, the first thing that strikes the eye is here the utmost seriousness of this philosophy of finitude, its all-pervasive pathos which runs against the expected playfulness: the ultimate tone of the philosophy of finitude is that of ultra-serious heroic confrontation of one’s destiny – no wonder that the philosopher of finitude par excellence, Heidegger, is also the philosopher who utterly lacks any sense of humor.

There is, unfortunately, also a Lacanian version of the philosophy of finitude: when, in a tragic tone, one is informed that one has to renounce the impossible striving for full jouissance and accept "symbolic castration," the ultimate constraint of our existence: as soon as we enter symbolic order, all jouissance has to pass through the mortification of the symbolic medium, every attainable object is already a displacement of the impossible-real object of desire which is constitutively lost...) Arguably, Kierkeggard relied so much on humor precisely because he insisted on the relationship to the Absolute and rejected the limitation to finitude. - So what is it that this emphasis on finitude as the ultimate horizon of our existence misses? How can we assert it in a materialist way, without any resort to spiritual transcendence? The answer is, precisely, objet petit a as the "undead" ("non-castrated") remainder which persists in its obscene immortality. No wonder the Wagnerian heroes want so desperately to die: they want to get rid of this obscene immortal supplement which stands for libido as an organ, for drive at its most radical, i.e., death drive. In other words, the properly Freudian paradox is that what explodes the constraints of our finitude is death drive itself. And it is here, in Freudian meta-psychology, that one should look for what one is tempted to call materialist theology.
- Salvoj Zizek, "Religion Between Knowledge and Joissance"

Thursday, May 23, 2013

THAT IS Borderline Hysterical!

That is the vicious circle of hysteria: on the one hand, hysteria is secondary, a reaction against interpellation, a failed interpellation, a rejection of the identity imposed on the subject by the predominant form of interpellation, a questioning of this identity ('Am I really what you're saying I am?'); at another, more fundamental level, however, hysteria is primary, it articulates the radical, constitutive uncertainty as to what, as an object, I am for the other; and the symbolic identity conferred on me by interpellation is a response, a way out of the deadlock of hysteria. In other words, one could say that hysteria expresses the feminine subject's refusal of the predominant patriarchal symbolic order, the questioning of the authority of the Name-of-the-Father; however, one should simultaneously assert that this symbolic paternal authority itself emerges in order to render invisible, to 'gentrify', the impasse of hysteria. Or--to put it even more pointedly--it is not that "Woman doesn't exist' because, on account of patriarchal 'repression' she is not allowed to express herself freely and constitute her full symbolic identity, but, rather, the other way around--patriarchal symbolic authority emerges in order to 'gentrify' the scandal of 'Woman doesn't exist', to constrain the feminine subject to a determinate place in the symbolic structure. [....] Lacan's 'Woman doesn't exist' means that, precisely, 'woman' cannot be constructed: 'woman' is an entity whose symbolic construction necessarliy fails, in opposition to 'man', who does exist--that is, who can be constructed (in the logical sense of the term, since there is a limit, an exception, which allows for this construction). Lacan's point, of course, is that this 'less' is 'more': the claim that 'woman' cannot be constructed equals the claim that the status of the subject is feminine--that which eludes logical construction, the reef of impossibility at which symbolic construction fails, is precisely the subject qua $, the lack of the signifying chain.
- Slavoj Žižek, "The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters" (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The preceding citations were from the 2007 edition pp. 163-165.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Red Rosa

Red Rosa now has vanished too. (...)
She told the poor what life is about,
And so the rich have rubbed her out.
May she rest in peace.
-Brecht/Weill, "Berliner Requiem"
The Requiem's second and third numbers ("Ballad of the Drowned Girl" and "Marterl") were meant to commemorate the murder of the socialist antiwar activist Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 by a right-wing paramilitary squad, who threw her body into Berlin's Landwehr Canal. Weill's Song-Album for voice and piano (published in 1929) includes a version of "Marterl" which refers to "red Rosa," but in Das Berliner Requiem he substituted Brecht's verse about "Johanna Beck," probably to appease the censors. The fourth and fifth numbers denounce the motive for creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; Brecht views the soldier not as a hero, but as the murder victim of the state.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Just Charming

A really plain woman is one who, however beautiful, neglects to charm.

- Edgar Saltus

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Anamorphic Visions

And, back to sexual difference, I am tempted to risk the hypothesis that, perhaps, the same logic of zero-institution should be applied not only to the unity of a society, but also to its antagonistic split: what if sexual difference is ultimately a kind of zero-institution of the social split of the humankind, the naturalized minimal zero-difference, a split that, prior to signalling any determinate social difference, signals this difference as such? The struggle for hegemony is then, again, the struggle for how this zero-difference will be overdetermined by other particular social differences. It is against this background that one should read an important, although usually overlooked, feature of Lacan's schema of the signifier: Lacan replaces the standard Saussurean scheme (above the bar the word "arbre," and beneath it the drawing of a tree) with, above the bar, two words one along the other, "homme" and "femme," and, beneath the bar, two identical drawings of a door. In order to emphasize the differential character of the signifier, Lacan first replaces Saussure's single scheme with a signifier's couple, with the opposition man/woman, with the sexual difference; but the true surprise resides in the fact that, at the level of the imaginary referent, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE (we do not get some graphic index of the sexual difference, the simplified drawing of a man and a woman, as is usually the case in most of today's restrooms, but THE SAME door reproduced twice). Is it possible to state in clearer terms that sexual difference does not designate any biological opposition grounded in "real" properties, but a purely symbolic opposition to which nothing corresponds in the designated objects — nothing but the Real of some undefined X which cannot ever be captured by the image of the signified?

Back to Levi-Strauss's example of the two drawings of the village: it is here that one can see it what precise sense the Real intervenes through anamorphosis. We have first the "actual," "objective," arrangement of the houses, and then its two different symbolizations which both distort in an amamorphic way the actual arrangement. However, the "real" is here not the actual arrangement, but the traumatic core of the social antagonism which distorts the tribe members' view of the actual antagonism. The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphically distorted. (And, incidentally, this three-levels dispositif is strictly homologous to Freud's three-levels dispositif of the interpretation of dreams: the real kernel of the dream is not the dream's latent thought which is displaced/translated into the explicit texture of the dream, but the unconscious desire which inscribes itself through the very distortion of the latent thought into the explicit texture.)

And the same goes for today's art scene: in it, the Real does NOT return primarily in the guise of the shocking brutal intrusion of excremental objects, mutilated corpses, shit, etc. These objects are, for sure, out of place — but in order for them to be out of place, the (empty) place must already be here, and this place is rendered by the "minimalist" art, starting from Malevitch. Therein resides the complicity between the two opposed icons of high modernism, Kazimir Malevitch's "The Black Square on the White Surface" and Marcel Duchamp's display of ready-made objects as works of art. The underlying notion of Malevitch's elevation of an everyday common object into the work of art is that being a work of art is not an inherent property of the object; it is the artist himself who, by preempting the (or, rather, ANY) object and locating it at a certain place, makes it the work of art — being a work of art is not a question of "why," but "where." And what Malevitch's minimalist disposition does is simply to render — to isolate — this place as such, the empty place (or frame) with the proto-magic property of transforming any object that finds itself within its scope into the work of art. In short, there is no Duchamp without Malevitch: only after the art practice isolates the frame/place as such, emptied of all its content, can one indulge in the ready-made procedure. Before Malevitch, a urinal would have remained just a urinal, even if it were to be displayed in the most distinguished gallery.
- Zizek, "The Matrix or Two Sides of a Perversion"

Sunday, May 5, 2013

G_d's Lonely Man

Who goes across those waters
On which the Moon ne'er shone,
With the passenger he came for
As in a dream moved on?

Cypress and yews o'ershadow
The verge on either side,
Within whose boughs for ever
The winds of woe abide.

And all the air is haunted
With a wail that seems to flow
From the living lips of Sorrow
As the ages come and go.

The boatman, dumb and hoary,
Pulls with a steady pull,
And the dead man seems to listen
To voices beautiful.

And it may be the weird River
Has sights we cannot see,
And the far shore burns its signals
Of eerie mystery.

And Charon knows each signal —
Above the River's rim
The spectral lights that glimmer
Are pilot-stars for him.

Ay me! he knows the water
As few, few boatmen know;
'Tis not the first he's taking
Down where we all must go!
- Robert Crawford, "Charon"

Friday, May 3, 2013

Standin' in De Nile


On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon;
but the water was brackish.

On the golden sand
we wrote her name;
but the sea-breeze blew
and the writing vanished.

With what spirit, what heart,
what desire and passion
we lived our life: a mistake!
So we changed our life.
-Giorgos Seferis, "Strophe" (1931)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Echoes of Narcissus

She saw him in his present misery,
Whom, spight of all her wrongs, she griev'd to see.
She answer'd sadly to the lover's moan,
Sigh'd back his sighs, and groan'd to ev'ry groan:
"Ah youth! belov'd in vain," Narcissus cries;
"Ah youth! belov'd in vain," the nymph replies.
"Farewel," says he; the parting sound scarce fell
From his faint lips, but she reply'd, "farewel."
Then on th' wholsome earth he gasping lyes,
'Till death shuts up those self-admiring eyes.
To the cold shades his flitting ghost retires,
And in the Stygian waves it self admires.
-Ovid, "Metamorphoses"