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The Limits of the Semiotic Approach to Psychoanalysis - Slavoj Žižek

1. Le point de capiton

Lacan’s best-known proposition is surely the famous ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, which is usually understood as pointing toward a semiotic reinterpretation of psychoanalytical theory and practice.

The aim of the present paper is to demonstrate that, contrary to this widely assumed proposition, Lacan’s theory, at least in its last period, is far from endorsing any such linguistic reductionism: his central effort is precisely to articulate the different modes of the real kernel (das Ding, objet petit a) which presents an irreducible obstacle to the movement of symbolization. We will try to exemplify this deadlock of symbolization by some ideological and artistic phenomena. Let’s begin on the opposite end: with the elementary semiotic operation as it is articulated by Lacan – that of the point de capiton. Lacan introduces this concept in his Seminar III, with regard to the first act of Athalie by Racine: in response to the lamentations of Abner about the sad fate which awaits the partisans of God under the reign of Athalia, Jehoiada replies with these famous lines:

He who can still the raging seas
can also thwart the wicked in their plots.
In respectful submission to His holy will,
I fear God, dear Abner, and have no other fear.

This brings about a true conversion of Abner: from an impatient zealot [zélé], and precisely for that reason uncertain, these words create a calm believer [fldélé] assured of himself and of a greater divine power. But how does this evocation of the ‘fear of God’ succeed in effecting such a miraculous conversion? Before his conversion, Abner sees in the earthly world only a multitude of dangers that fill him with fear, and he waits for the opposite pole, that of God and his representatives, to lend him their help and allow him to overcome the many difficulties of this world. Faced with this opposition between the earthly realm of dangers, uncertainty, fear, etc., and the divine realm of peace, love and assurance, Jehoiada does not simply try to convince Abner that divine forces are, despite everything, powerful enough to have the upper hand over earthly disarray; he appeases his fears in a quite different way: by presenting him with their very opposite – God – as a more frightening thing than all earthly fears. And – this is the ‘miracle’ of the point de capiton – this supplemental fear, the fear of God, retroactively changes the character of all other fears. It:

transforms, from one minute to the next, all fears into perfect courage. All fears – I have no other fear – are exchanged for what is called the fear of God.

The common Marxist formula – religious consolation as compensation for or, more precisely, an ‘imaginary supplement’ to earthly misery – should thus be taken literally. In this case we are dealing with a dual imaginary relation between the earthly below and the celestial beyond, without the intervention of the moment of symbolic ‘mediation’. The religious operation would consist, according to this conception, in compensating us for earthly horrors and uncertainties by the beatitude that awaits us in the other world – all the famous formulas of Feuerbach on the divine beyond as an inverted, specular image of earthly misery. For this operation to work, a third moment must intervene, which somehow ‘mediates’ between the two, opposite poles. Behind the multitude of earthly horrors, the infinitely more frightening horror of God’s anger must show through, so that earthly horrors take on a new dimension and become so many manifestations of divine anger. One has the same operation, for example, in Fascism: what does Hitler do in Mein Kampf to explain to the Germans the misfortunes of this epoch (e.g., economic crisis, moral ‘decadence’, etc.)? Behind the multitude of these miseries he constructs a new terrifying subject, a unique cause of evil: the Jew. The so-called ‘Jewish plot’ explains everything, so that all earthly miseries – from the economic crisis to the family crisis – become manifestations of the ‘Jewish plot’: the Jew is thus Hitler’s point de capiton. The ‘Dreyfus Affair’ develops the effect of this ‘miraculous curve’ of the discursive field, produced by the intervention of the point de capiton, in a paradigmatic fashion. Its role in French and European political history already resembles that of a point de capiton, for it restructured the entire field and released, directly or indirectly, a whole series of displacements which even today determine the political scene: for example, the final separation of Church and State in bourgeois democracies, the socialist collaboration in bourgeois government and the split of social democracy into Socialism and Communism.

One could also point to the birth of Zionism and the elevation of anti- Semitism to this key moment of ‘right wing populism’. But here we will only try to indicate the decisive turn in its unfolding: an intervention which produced a judicial row concerning the equity and legality of a verdict, the stake of a political battle which shook national life in its entirety. This turning point is not to be sought, as one usually believes, in the famous J’accuse that appeared in the Aurore, 13 January 1898, where Emile Zola took up once again all the arguments for Dreyfus’s defence and denounced the corruption of official circles. Zola’s intervention remained in the cadre of bourgeois liberalism, that of the defence of liberties and rights of the citizen, etc. The real upset took place in the second half of the year 1898. On 30 August, Lieutenant Colonel Henry, the new Chief of the Second Bureau, was arrested. He was suspected of having forged one of the secret documents on the basis of which Dreyfus had been condemned for high treason. The next day, Henry committed suicide with a razor in his cell. This news provoked a shock in public opinion. If Henry confessed his guilt – and what other meaning could one give to his suicide? – the act of accusation against Dreyfus must, in its entirety, lack solidity. Everyone expected a retrial and the acquittal of Dreyfus. For the moment, let us repeat the poetic description of Ernest Nolte:

Then in the midst of the confusion and consternation, a newspaper article appeared which altered the situation. Its author was Maurras, a thirty-year-old writer hitherto known only in limited circles. The article was entitled ‘The first blood’. It looked at things in a way which no one had thought or dared to look.

What did Maurras do? He did not present any supplementary evidence, nor did he refute any fact. He simply produced a global reinterpretation of the whole ‘affair’ which cast it in a different light. He made a heroic victim of Lieutenant Colonel Henry, who had preferred patriotic duty to abstract ‘justice’. That is to say, Henry, after having seen how the Jewish ‘Syndicate of Treason’ exploited an insignificant judicial error in order to denigrate and undermine the foundation of French life for the purpose of breaking the force of the Army, did not hesitate to commit a small patriotic falsity in order to stop this race towards the precipice. The true stake in the ‘affair’ is no longer the fairness of a sentence but the shock, the degeneration of the vital French power from the Jewish financiers who hid behind corrupt liberalism, freedom of the press, autonomy of justice, etc.

As a result, its true victim is not Dreyfus but Henry himself, the solitary patriot who risked everything for the salvation of France and on whom his superiors, at the decisive moment, turned their backs: the ‘first blood’ spilled by the Jewish plot. Maurras’ intervention altered the situation: the right wing united its forces, and ‘patriotic’ unity rapidly took the upper hand over the disarray. He provoked this upset by creating triumph, the myth of the ‘first victim’, from the very elements which, before his intervention, roused disorientation and amazement (the falsification of documents, the inequity of the sentence, etc.), and which he was far from contesting. It is not surprising that up until his death he considered this article as the best work of his life. The elementary operation of the point de capiton should be sought in this ‘miraculous’ turn, in this quid pro quo by means of which what was previously the very source of disarray becomes proof and testimony of a triumph – as in the first act of Athalie where the intervention of ‘supplementary fear’, that of God, suddenly changes all other fears into their opposites. Here we are dealing with the act of ‘creation’ in its strictest sense: the act which turns chaos into a ‘new harmony’ and suddenly makes ‘comprehensible’ what was up to then only a senseless and even terrifying disturbance. It is impossible not to recall Christianity – not so much the act of God that made an ordered world out of chaos, but rather this decisive turning from which the definitive form of Christian religion, the form that showed its worth in our tradition, resulted. This is, of course, the Paulinian cut. St Paul centred the whole Christian edifice precisely on the point which previously appeared, to Christ’s disciples, as a horrifying trauma, ‘impossible’, nonsymbolizable, non-integrable in their field of signification: his shameful death on the cross between two bandits. St Paul made of this final defeat of his earthly mission which annihilated the hope of deliverance (of Jews from the Roman domination) the very act of salvation. By his death Christ has redeemed, saved humankind.

2. Tautology and its Forbidden

Further light can be shed on the logic of this operation by a small detour through the detective story. What is its principal charm apropos of the relationship between law and its transgression, the criminal adventure? We have on one side the reign of law, tranquillity, certainty, but also the triteness, the boredom of everyday life, and on the other side crime as – Brecht was already saying it – the only possible adventure in the bourgeois world. Detective stories, however, effect a terrific twist in this relationship, one already uncovered by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel against so universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach departure and rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions ... When the detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves’ kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure, while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.

The fundamental operation of the detective story thus consists in presenting the detective himself – the one who works for the defence of the law, in the name of the law, in order to restore the reign of the law – as the greatest adventurer, as a person in comparison to whom it is the criminals themselves who appear like indolent, petit-bourgeois conservatives ... This is a truly miraculous trick: there are, of course, a great number of transgressions of the law, crimes, adventures that break the monotony of everyday loyal and tranquil life, but the only true transgression, the only true adventure, the one which changes all the other adventures into petit-bourgeois prudence, is the adventure of civilization, of the defence of the law itself. And it is the same with Lacan. For him also, the greatest transgression, the most traumatic, the most senseless thing, is law itself: the mad, superegotistical law which both inflicts and commands jouissance. We do not have on one side a plurality of transgressions, perversions, aggressivities, etc., and on the other side a universal law which regulates, normalizes the cul-de-sac of transgressions and makes possible the pacific co-existence of subjects. The maddest thing is the other side of the appeasing law itself, the law as a misunderstood, dumb injunction to jouissance. We can say that law divides itself necessarily into an appeasing law and a mad law. Thus the opposition between the law and its transgressions repeats itself within law itself. Here we have the same operation as the one in Athalie: in Chesterton, law appears, in the face of ordinary criminal transgressions, as the only true transgression; in Athalie, God appears, in face of earthly fears, as the only thing which is really to be feared. God thus divides himself into an appeasing God, a God of love, tranquillity and grace, and into a fierce, enraged God, the one who provokes in humans the most terrible fear. This turn, this point of reversal where the law itself appears as the only true transgression, corresponds exactly to what one calls, in Hegelian terminology, the ‘negation of the negation’. First, we have the simple opposition between a position and its negation, in our case between the positive, appeasing law, and the multitude of its particular transgressions, crimes.

The ‘negation of the negation’ is the moment when one notices that the only true transgression, the only true negativity, is that of the law itself which changes all of the ordinary, criminal transgressions, into indolent positivity. That is why Lacanian theory is irreducible to any variant of transgressism, of anti-Oedipism, etc. The only true anti-Oedipism is Oedipus himself, his superegotistical reverse ... One can follow this ‘Hegelian’ economy up to Lacan’s organizing decisions. The dissolution of the École freudienne de Paris and the constitution of the Cause freudienne could have given the impression of a liberating act – an end to the bureaucratization and regimentation of the school. From now on, one would worry only about the Cause itself, liberated from all the earthly hindrances ... But, very quickly, it can be observed that this act enhanced the restoration of an École de la Cause elle-même, much more severe than all the other schools, just as surpassing earthly fears by divine love implicates the fear of God, something more terrible than all earthly fears. The most appropriate form to indicate this curve of the point de capiton, of the ‘negation of the negation’, in ordinary language is, paradoxically, that of the tautology: Taw is law’, ‘God is God’. Here the tautology functions precisely in the Hegelian sense, as one’s identity which reveals the supreme contradiction. In the tautology ‘God is God’, the first ‘God’ is the one of tranquillity, grace and love, while the second ‘God’ is the one of an unsustainable rage and ferocity. Likewise, the tautology Taw is law’ shows the illegal and illegitimate character of the establishment of the reign of the law. Blaise Pascal was probably the first to detect this subversive content of the tautology Taw is law’:

Custom is the whole of equity for the sole reason that it is accepted. That is the mystic basis of its authority. Anyone who tries to bring it back to its first principle destroys it. Nothing is so defective as those laws which correct defects. Anyone obeying them because they are just is obeying an imaginary justice, not the essence of the law, which is completely self-contained: it is law and nothing more ... That is why the wisest of legislators used to say that men must often be deceived for their own good, and another sound politician: When he asks about the truth that is to bring him freedom, it is a good thing that he should be deceived. The truth about the usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.

There is no need to emphasize the scandalous character of these propositions: they subvert the foundations of power, of its authority, at the very moment when they give the impression of supporting them. The illegitimate violence by which law sustains itself must be concealed at any price, because this concealment is the positive condition of the functioning of law. Law functions only insofar as its subjects are fooled, insofar as they experience the authority of law as ‘authentic and eternal’ and do not realize ‘the truth about the usurpation’. That is why Kant is forced, in his Metaphysics of Morals, to forbid any question concerning the origins of legal power: it is by means of precisely such questioning that the stain of this illegitimate violence appears which always soils, like original sin, the purity of the reign of law. It is not surprising, then, that in Kant this prohibition assumes the paradoxical form well known in psychoanalysis: it forbids something which is at the same time given as impossible:

A people should not inquire with any practical aim in view into the origin of the supreme authority to which it is subject, that is, a subject ought not to reason subtly for the sake of action about the origin of this authority, as a right that can still be called into question with regard to the obedience he owes it ... [F]or a people already subject to civil law these subtle reasonings are altogether pointless and, moreover, threaten a state with danger. It is futile to inquire into the historical documentation of the mechanism of government, that is, one cannot reach back to the time at which civil society began ... But it is culpable to undertake this inquiry with a view to possibly changing by force the constitution that now exists.

Notice here that one cannot go back to the origin of law because one must not do it. The Kantian formula of duty is well-known: ‘You can because you must [Du kannst, denn du sollst].’ This so-called prohibition is an exact inversion of this famous formula: ‘You cannot because you must not/ The elementary model of such a prohibition is, of course, that of incest. It is, nevertheless, not foreign to philosophical discourse, as could be demonstrated by a whole series of examples, up to the famous proposition which concludes Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ One must ask a totally naïve question here: if one declares that one cannot, at any rate, say anything about the ineffable, why add again the totally redundant statement that one must not say anything about it, that one must be quiet? Where does such a fear of not saying too much about the inexpressible come from? The paradox of this ‘nothing’, of this pure semblance, is, of course, the very paradox of the object-cause of desire in the Lacanian sense of the objet petit a.

3. Kant with Sade

‘At the beginning’ of law, there is a transgression, a certain reality of violence, which coincides with the very act of the establishment of law. The whole of classical politico-philosophical thought rests on the refusal of an overturning of law; this is why one must read ‘Kant with Sade’. Even though Kant was unable to articulate the lack in the Other ( ), he did nonetheless – taking Jacques-Alain Miller’s formulation – formulate the B barré under the form of inaccessibility, of the absolute transcendence of the supreme Good [le Bon suprême] as the only object and legitimate, non-pathological motivation of our moral activity. Every given, determined, represented object which functions as a motivation of our will is already pathological in the Kantian sense: an empirical object, related to the conditions of our finished experience and not having an a priori necessity. That is why the only legitimate motivation of our will remains the very form of law, the universal form of the moral maxim. The fundamental thesis of Lacan is that this impossible object is nevertheless given to us in a specific experience, that of the objet petit a, object-cause of desire, which is not ‘pathological’, which does not reduce itself to an object of need or demand. And that is why Sade is to be taken as the truth of Kant. This object whose experience is eluded by Kant appears precisely in Sade’s work under the appearance of the hangman, the executioner, the agent who practises his sadistic activity on the victim. The Sadean executioner has nothing to do with pleasure. His activity is therefore ethical in the strictest sense: beyond each ‘pathological’ motivation, he simply fulfils his duty, as is demonstrated by the lack of wit in Sade’s work. The executioner always works for the Other’s jouissance and not for his own. He thus becomes an instrument solely of the will of the Other. In the Sadean scene, near to the executioner and his victim, there is always a third, the Other for which the sadist practises his activity, the Other whose pure form is that of the voice of a law which addresses itself to the subject in the second person, with the imperative ‘Fulfil your duty!’ The greatness of Kantian ethics is thus to have formulated for the first time the ‘beyond of the pleasure principle’. Kant’s categorical imperative is a superegotistical law which goes against the subject’s wellbeing. Or, more precisely, it is totally indifferent to his well-being, which, from the view-point of the ‘pleasure principle’ as it prolongs the ‘reality principle’, is totally non-economical and non-economizable, senseless. Moral law is a fierce order which does not admit excuses – ‘you can because you must’ – and which in this way acquires an air of mischievous neutrality, of mean indifference. According to Lacan, Kant ignores the other side of this neutrality of moral law, its meanness and obscenity, its mischievousness which goes back to the jouissance behind law’s command; Lacan relates this suppression to the fact that Kant avoids the split of the subject (subject of enunciation/subject of the enunciated) implied in moral law. That is the meaning of Lacan’s criticism of the Kantian example of the deposit [dépôt] and the depositary [dépositaire].9 The subject of enunciation is here reduced to the subject of the enunciated, and the depositary to his function as depositary: Kant presupposes that we are dealing with a trustee ‘doing his duty’, with a subject who lets himself be taken without remainder into the abstract determination of being the depositary.

A brief Lacanian joke goes in the same direction: ‘My fiancée never misses the rendezvous, because as soon as she misses it, she would no longer be my fiancée.’ Here too, the fiancée is reduced to her function of fiancée. Hegel had already detected the terrorist potential of this reduction of the subject to an abstract determination. The presupposition of revolutionary terror is precisely that the subject lets themselves be reduced to their determination as Citizen who is ‘doing their duty’, which brings about the liquidation of subjects who are not doing their duty. Therefore, Jacobinical terror is really the consequence of Kantian ethics. It is the same with the command of real socialism: All people support the Party.’ Such a proposition is not an empirical declaration and as such refutable; it functions, on the contrary, performatively, as the definition of the true People, of the People who live ‘up to their duty’. The true People are those who support the Party. The logic is thus exactly the same as that of the joke about the fiancée: All the people support the Party because the constituents of the People who agitate against the Party have in that way excluded themselves from the community of the People.’ One is dealing after all with what Lacan, in his first seminars, called ‘foundational speech’, the symbolic mandate, etc. (the ‘you are my fiancée, my depositary, the citizen ...’). This should be read again from the perspective of the ulterior conceptualization of the S1 the master-signifier. The wager of Lacanian criticism is that there is always an excess in the subject who takes on themselves the symbolic mandate, who agrees to incarnate an S1, a side which does not let itself be taken into the S1, the mandate. This excess is precisely the side of the objet. As long as they escape being caught in the signifier, the mandate which is conferred on them by the socio-symbolic tie, the subject of enunciation functions as an object. That, then, is the split between the subject of the enunciated and the subject of enunciation of law. Behind the S1 – law in its neutral, pacifying, solemn and sublime form – there is always the presence of the object which reveals mischievousness, meanness and obscenity. Another well-known example illustrates perfectly this split of the subject of law. In response to the question of explorers researching cannibalism, the native answers: ‘No, there aren’t any more cannibals in our region. Yesterday, we ate the last one.’ At the level of the subject of the enunciated, there are no more cannibals, and the subject of enunciation is precisely this ‘we’ who have eaten the last cannibal. That, then, is the intrusion of the ‘subject of enunciation’ of law, elided by Kant: this obscene agent who ate the last cannibal in order to ensure the order of law. Now we can specify the status of paradoxical prohibition which concerns the question of the origin of law, of legal power. It aims at the object of law in the sense of its ‘subject of enunciation’, of the subject who becomes the obscene and fierce agent-instrument of law.

4. Kant with McCullough

This is precisely what Kant misses, this philosopher of unconditional Duty, the greatest of obsessions of the history of philosophy. But what Kant did not understand is realized by the vulgar, sentimental literature, the kitsch, of today. This is not surprising if one realises that it is precisely in the universe of such literature that the tradition of amour courtois has survived, whose fundamental trait consists in considering the love of the Lady as a supreme Duty. Let us take an exemplary case of this genre, An Indecent Obsession by Colleen McCullough (a novel completely unreadable and for that reason, published in France in the collection J’ai lu), the story of a nurse in charge of psychiatric patients in a small hospital in the Pacific around the end of the Second World War, divided between her professional duty and her love for one of her patients. At the end of the book, she perceives things concerning her desire, gives up love and goes back to her duty. At first glance, then, this is the most insipid moralism: the victory of duty over passionate love, the renunciation of ‘pathological’ love in the name of duty. The presentation of her motives for this renunciation is nevertheless a little more delicate. Here are the last sentences of the novel:

She had a duty here ... This wasn’t just a job – her heart was in it, fathoms deep in it! This was what she truly wanted ... Nurse Langtry began to walk again, briskly and without any fear, understanding herself at last. And understanding that duty, the most indecent of all obsessions, was only another name for love.

One is dealing then with a true dialectical Hegelian twist: the opposition of love and duty is surpassed when one feels duty itself to be the ‘other name for love’. By means of this reversal – the ‘negation of the negation’ – duty, at first the negation of love, coincides with supreme love which abolishes all other ‘pathological’ loves, or, in order to express oneself in Lacanian terms, it functions as the point de capiton in relation to all other ‘ordinary’ loves. The tension between duty and love, between the purity of duty and indecency (the pathological obscenity of love/passion), is resolved at the moment when one has experienced the radically obscene character of duty itself. The essential part rests in this change of place of the ‘indecent obsession’ in relation to the opposition between duty and love. Initially, it is duty that appears as pure, universal, contrary to the pathological, particular, indecent, love/passion. It is then duty itself which is revealed as being ‘the most indecent of all obsessions’. That is the Hegelian logic of ‘reconciliation’ between the Universal and the Particular. The most radical, absolute Particularity is indeed that of the Universal itself as far as it has a negative rapport of exclusion towards the Particular: in other words, inasmuch as it opposes itself to the Particular and excludes the wealth of its concrete content. And that is how one should also take the Lacanian thesis according to which Good is only the mask of radical, absolute Evil, the mask of ‘indecent obsession’ by das Ding, the atrocious-obscene thing.

Behind Good, there is radical Evil; Supreme Good is the other name for an Evil which does not have a particular, ‘pathological’ status. Insofar as it obsesses us in an indecent, obscene way, das Ding makes it possible for us to untie ourselves, to free ourselves from our ‘pathological’ attachment to particular, earthly objects. The ‘Good’ is only one way to keep the distance towards this evil Thing, the distance which makes it bearable. That is what Kant did not understand, unlike the kitsch literature of our century: this other, obscene side of Duty itself. And that is why it was only possible for him to evoke the concept of das Ding in its negative form, as an absurd (im)possibility – in his treatise on negative grandiosities, for example, apropos of the difference between logical contradiction and real opposition. Contradiction is a logical relationship that does not have a real existence while, in the real opposition, the two poles are equally positive. In other words, their relationship is not that of something and its lack but indeed that of the two positive givens which constitute the opposition. For example – an example which is not accidental at all, insofar as it shows directly the level at which we are, namely that of enjoyment, the pleasure principle – enjoyment and pain: ‘Enjoyment and pain are opposed to each other not as profit and lack of profit (+ and 0), but as profit and loss (+ and -): that is, one is opposed to the other not merely as its contradictory [contradictorie s. logice oppositum] but also as its contrary [contrarie s. realiter oppositum].’ Enjoyment and pain are then like poles of a real opposition, in themselves positive facts. One is negative only in relation to the other, while Good and Evil are contradictory, their rapport being that of + and 0. That is why Evil is not a positive entity. It is only the lack, the absence of Good. It would be an absurdity to want to take the negative pole of a contradiction as something positive, thus, ‘to think of a particular sort of object and to call them negative things’. Furthermore, das Ding, in its Lacanian conceptualization, is precisely such a negative thing, a paradoxical Thing which is only the positivization of a lack, of a hole in the symbolic Other.

Das Ding as an ‘incarnated Evil’ is indeed an irreducible object at the level of the pleasure principle, of the opposition between pleasure and pain. In other words, it is a ‘non-pathological’ object in the strict sense, also the unthinkable paradox of the ‘critical’ step for Kant, for which reason he is to be thought along ‘with Sade’. 5. The ‘Totalitarian Object’ Now, here is our fundamental thesis: the advent of contemporary ‘totalitarianism’ introduces a decisive cut in this – let’s say – classical conjuncture, a cut which corresponds precisely to the passage from Kant to Sade. In ‘totalitarianism’, this illegal agent-instrument of the law, the Sadean executioner, is no longer hidden. He appears as such – for example, in the shape of the Party, as an agent-instrument of historical will. The Stalinist Party is quite literally an executor of great creations: executor of the creation of Communism, the greatest of all creations. That is the meaning of Stalin’s famous proposition: ‘We are, us, Communists, people of a different sort. We are carved out of a different material.’ This ‘different material’ (the right stuff, one could say) is precisely the incarnation, the apparition of the objet. Here, one should return to the Lacanian definition of the structure of perversion as an inverted effect of the fantasy. It is the subject who determines himself as object, in his encounter with the division of subjectivity. The formula for fantasy is written as ʂ ◊ a. In other words, the barred subject is divided in its encounter with the object-cause of its desire. The sadist inverts this structure, which gives a ◊ ʂ. In a way, he avoids this division by occupying the place of the object himself, of the agent-executor, before his victim, the divided-hystericized subject: for example, the Stalinist before the ‘traitor’, the hysterical petit-bourgeois who did not want completely to renounce his subjectivity, who continues to ‘desire in vain’ (Lacan).

In the same passage, Lacan returns to his ‘Kant with Sade’ in order to recall that ‘the sadist himself occupies the place of the object, but without knowing it, to the benefit of another, for whose jouissance he exercises his action as sadistic pervert’. The Other of ‘totalitarianism’ – for example, the ‘inevitable necessity of laws of historical development’ to which the Sadean figure of the great Other refers itself, for which the Stalinist executor practises his act – would then be conceived as a new version of the ‘Supreme- Being-in-Evilness [Être-Suprême-en-Méchanceté]’. It is this radical objectiviza-tion-instrumentization of his own subjective position which confers on the Stalinist, beyond the deceptive appearance of a cynical detachment, his unshakeable conviction of only being the instrument of the production of historical necessity. The Stalinist Party, this ‘historical subject’, is thus the exact opposite of a subject. The distinctive trait of the ‘totalitarian subject’ is to be sought precisely in this radical refusal of subjectivity in the sense of, the hysterical-bourgeois subject, by means of the radical instrumentalization of the subject in relation to the Other. By making himself the transparent instrument of the Will of the Other, the subject tries to avoid his constitutive division, for which he pays through the total alienation of his jouissance. If the advent of the bourgeois subject is defined by his right to free jouissance, the ‘totalitarian’ subject shows this freedom as belonging to the Other, the ‘Supreme-Being-in-Evilness’. One could then conceptualize the difference between the classical, pre-liberal Master and the totalitarian Leader as that between S1 and objet petit a. The authority of the classical Master is that of a certain S1, a signifier-without-signified, an auto-referential signifier which incarnates the performative function of the word. The ‘liberalism’ of the Enlightenment wants to do without this instance of ‘irrational’ authority. Its project is that of an authority founded entirely in effective ‘savoir(-faire)’. In this frame, the Master reappears as the totalitarian Leader. Excluded like Sl, he takes the shape of the object-incarnation of an S1 (for example the ‘objective knowledge of the laws of history’), instrument of the superegotistical Will which takes on itself the ‘responsibility’ of producing historical necessity in its cannibalistic cruelty. The formula, the matheme of the ‘totalitarian subject’, would thus be S2la, the semblance of a neutral ‘objective’ knowledge, under which the obscene object-agent of a superegotistical Will hides.

6. The King and his Bureaucracy

Hegel was probably the last classical thinker to have developed, in his Philosophy of Right, the necessary function of a purely formal symbolic point, of an unfounded, ‘irrational’ authority. Constitutional monarchy is a rational Whole, at whose head there is a strictly ‘irrational’ moment: the person of the monarch. The essential thing, here, is the irreducible abyss between the organically articulated rational Whole of the constitution of the State, and the ‘irrationality’ of the person who incarnates supreme Power, by which the Power receives the form of subjectivity. To the reproach that the destiny of the State is abandoned here to the eventuality of the psychic disposition of the monarch (to his wisdom, honesty, courage, etc.), Hegel replies:

But this objection is based on the invalid assumption that the monarch’s particular character is of vital importance. In a fully organized state, it is only a question of the highest instance of formal decision, and all that is required in a monarch is someone to say ‘yes’ and dot the ‘i’; for the supreme office should be such that the particular character of its occupant is of no significance ... In a well-ordered monarchy, the objective aspect is solely the concern of the law, to which the monarchy merely has to add his subjective ‘I will’.

The nature of the monarch’s act is thus completely formal. The frame of his decisions is determined by the constitution. The concrete content of his decisions is proposed to him by his expert advisers, so that often he has nothing to do but to sign his name. ‘But this name is important: it is the ultimate instance and non plus ultra’. Really, this example contains everything. The monarch is the ‘pure’ signifier, the master-signifier ‘without signified’. His entire ‘reality’ (and authority) rests on the name, and that is why his ‘effectiveness in reality’ is arbitrary; it can be abandoned to the biological contingency of heredity. The monarch is the One who – as the exception, the ‘irrational’ apex of the amorphous mass (‘not-all’) of the people – makes the totality of customs concrete. With his existence as ‘pure’ signifier, he constitutes the Whole in its ‘organic articulation’ (organische Gliederung). He is the ‘irrational’ supplement as the condition of the rational Totality, the ‘pure’ signifier without signified as condition of the organic Whole of the signifier-signified:

Without its monarch and that articulation of the whole which is necessarily and immediately associated with monarchy, the people is a formless mass. The latter is no longer a state, and none of those determinations which are encountered only in an internally organised whole (such as sovereignty, government, courts of law, public authorities, estates, etc.) is applicable to it.

Here, the Hegelian wager is much more ambiguous, even cynical, than we think. His conclusion is almost the following: if the Master is indispensable within politics, one must not condescend to the reasoning of good sense which tells us ‘that he may at least be the most capable, wise, courageous’. One must, on the contrary, preserve as much as possible of the distance between symbolic legitimations and ‘real’ skills, localize the function of the Master in a point rejected from the Whole where it really does not matter if he is dumb. In other words, Hegel says the same thing here as Lacan in his Seminar XVII. The gap between State bureaucracy and the monarch corresponds to that between the battery of ‘knowledge’ (S2, the bureaucratic savoir-faire) and the point de capiton (S1, the ‘unary’ master-signifier) who ‘quilts’ (capitonne) his discourse, who ‘totalizes’ it from outside, who takes on himself the moment of ‘decision’ and confers on this discourse the ‘performative’ dimension. Our only chance is thus to isolate as much as possible S1, to make of it the empty point of formal ‘decision’ without any concrete weight; in other words, to keep a maximum distance between S1 and the register of ‘skill qualifications’, which is that of the bureaucratic ‘savoir (-faire)’. If this point of exception fails, bureaucratic knowledge ‘becomes mad’. The ‘neutrality’ proper to knowledge, in the absence of the capitonnage, appears to be ‘evil’. Its very ‘indifference’ provokes in the subject the effect of a superegotistical imperative. In other words, we come to the reign of ‘totalitarian’ bureaucracy.

The decisive thing is thus not to confuse the ‘irrational’ authority of pre-liberal monarchy with that of the post-liberal ‘totalitarian’ regime. The first one is based on the gap of S1 in relation to S2, while ‘totalitarianism’ comes precisely from the non-capitonne bureaucratic discourse of S2 without S1. This difference comes out better when one considers the justification of obedience. The ‘totalitarian’ leader demands submission in the name of his supposed ‘effective’ capacities, his wisdom, his courage, his adherence to the Cause, etc. While, if one says T obey the king because he is wise and just’, it is already a crime of lèse majesté. The only appropriate justification for this is the tautology: T obey the king because he is king’. Kierkegaard has developed it in a magnificent passage which stretches, in an extended arc, from divine authority, through the highest secular authority (the king), up to school and family authority (the father):

To ask whether Christ is profound is blasphemy and an attempt (whether consciously or unconsciously) to annihilate him, for in the question is contained a doubt about his authority ... To ask whether the king is a genius, with the implication that in such case he is to be obeyed, is really lèse majesté, for the question contains a doubt concerning subjection to authority. To be willing to obey a board in case it is able to say witty things is at bottom to make a fool of the board. To honour one’s father because he is a distinguished pate is impiety.

Horkheimer, who cites these lines in ‘Authority and the Family’, sees in them an indication of the passage of the liberal-bourgeois principle of ‘rational authority’ to the post-liberal ‘totalitarian’ principle of ‘irrational’ and unconditional authority. Against such a reading, one must insist on the gap between symbolic authority and those ‘effective’ capacities which alone hold open the non-’totalitarian’ space. In other words, Kierkegaard moves here on the terrain of pre-liberal Hegelian argumentation, while post-liberal ‘totalitarianism’ is to be taken as an effect of the interior reversal of ‘liberalism’ itself. Namely: when and in what conditions does State bureaucracy become ‘totalitarian’? Not where S1, the point of ‘irrational’ authority, would exert a pressure ‘too strong’, excessive, on the bureaucratic savoir’(-faire), but on the contrary, where this ‘unary’ point which ‘quilts’ and ‘totalizes’ from outside the field of S2 fails. Bureaucratic ‘knowledge’ here ‘becomes mad’: it operates ‘by itself ‘, without reference to a decentred point which would confer upon it a ‘performative’ dimension. In a word, it starts to function as a superego.

7. The ‘Mischievous Neutrality’ of Bureaucracy

When knowledge itself assumes the moment of ‘authority’ (i.e. summons, command, imperative), a short-circuit between the ‘neutral’ field of knowledge and the ‘performative’ dimension is produced. Far from limiting itself to a kind of ‘neutral’ declaration of the given objectivity, the discourse ‘becomes mad’ and starts to behave in a ‘performative’ way towards the given of the facts themselves. More precisely, it conceals its own ‘performative force’ under the shape of ‘objective knowledge’, of the neutral ‘declaration’ of the ‘facts’. The example that comes to mind immediately is that of Stalinist bureaucratic discourse, the supposed ‘knowledge of objective laws’ as the ulterior legitimation of its decisions: a true ‘uncontrolled knowledge’ capable of ‘founding’ any decision after the fact. And it is, of course, the subject who pays for this ‘short-circuit’ between S1 and S2. In a ‘pure’ case, the accused, through great political trials, finds himself confronted by an impossible choice. The confession demanded from him is obviously in conflict with the ‘reality’ of the facts since the Party asks him to declare himself guilty of ‘false accusations’. Furthermore, this demand of the Party functions as a superegotistical imperative, which means that it constitutes the symbolic ‘reality’ of the subject. Lacan insisted many times on this link between the superego and the supposed ‘sentiment of reality’: ‘When the feeling of foreignness, strangeness, strikes somewhere, it’s never on the side of the superego – it’s always the ego that loses its bearings ...’ Does he not indicate by this an answer to the question: where does the confession come from in the Stalinist trials? Since there was not any ‘reality’ outside of the superego of the Party for the accused, outside its obscene and mean imperative – the only alternative to this superegotistical imperative being the emptiness of an abominable reality – the confession demanded by the Party was in fact the only way for the accused to avoid the Toss of reality’. Stalinist ‘confessions’ are to be conceived as an extreme consequence which ensues from the ‘totalitarian’ short-circuit between S1 and S2. In other words, in the way that S1 itself takes on the ‘performative’ dimension on itself, one is dealing with a ‘mad’ variant of the discourse’s own ‘performativity’. The signifying work can indeed ‘change reality’, namely, the symbolic reality, by transforming retroactively the signifying network which determines the symbolic significance of the ‘facts’. But here, signifying work ‘falls into the Real’, as if language could change extra-linguistic facts in their own very real ‘massiveness’. The fundamental fact of the advent of ‘totalitarianism’ would consist then of social Law beginning to function as a superego. Here it is no longer that which ‘forbids’ and, on the basis of this prohibition, opens, supports and guarantees the field of co-existence of ‘free’ bourgeois subjects, the field of their diverse pleasures. By becoming ‘mad’, it begins directly to command jouissance: the turning point where a permitted freedom-to-enjoy is reversed into an obligatory jouissance which is, one must add, the most effective way to block the access of the subject to jouissance. One finds in Kafka’s work a perfect staging of bureaucracy under the rule of an obscene, fierce, ‘mad’ law, a law which immediately inflicts jouissance – in short, the superego:

‘Thus I belong to justice’, says the priest. ‘So then, what could I want from you? The Court makes no claims upon you. It receives you when you come and relinquishes you when you go.’

How can one not recognize, in these lines with which the interview between Josef K. and the priest ends in Chapter IX of The Trial the ‘mischievous neutrality’ of the superego? Already the starting point of his two great novels, The Trial and The Castle, is the call of a superior instance (the Law, the Castle) to the subject – aren’t we dealing with a law which ‘would give the order, “Jouis!” [“Enjoy!” or “Come!”], and the subject could only reply “J’ouïs” [“I hear”], in which the jouissance would no longer be anything but understood?’ The ‘misunderstanding’, the ‘confusion’ of the subject confronting this instance, isn’t it precisely due to the fact that he misunderstands the imperative of jouissance which resounds here and which perspires through all the pores of its ‘neutral’ surface? When Josef K., in the empty chamber, glances at the judges’ books, he finds ‘an indecent picture’ in the first book. A man and woman were sitting naked on a sofa, the obscene intention of the draughtsman was evident enough.’ That is the superego: a solemn ‘indifference’ impregnated in parts by obscenities. That is why, for Kafka, bureaucracy is ‘closer to original human nature than any other social institution’ (letter to Oscar Baum, June 1922): what is this ‘original human nature’ if not the fact that man is from the start a ‘parlêtre [speaking-being]’? And what is the super-ego – the functioning mode of bureaucratic knowledge – if not, according to Jacques-Alain Miller, what ‘presentifies’ under the pure form of the signifier as the cause of the division of the subject; in other words, the intervention of the signifier-command under its chaotic, senseless aspect?

8. Postmodernism I: Antonioni versus Hitchcock

This reference to Kafka is by no means accidental. Kafka was in a way the first postmodernist. It is precisely postmodernism that, in the field of art, embodies the limits of the semiotic, Textual’ approach characteristic of modernism. ‘Postmodernism’ is a theme of theoretical discussions from Germany to the United States, with the quite surprising effect that it evokes a totally incompatible problematic in the different countries. In Germany, by ‘postmodernism’ one understands the devalorization of universal Reason, of the ‘modern’ tradition of Enlightenment, in the current which starts with Nietzsche and whose most recent offspring would be the French ‘post-structuralism’ of Foucault, Deleuze, etc. (cf. the many texts by Habermas). In the United States, it designates particularly the aesthetic stage which follows the expiration of the modernist avant-garde: in other words the different forms of ‘retro’ movements. In all of this diversity, there is, however, the same matrix. One conceives of ‘postmodernism’ as a reaction to modernist ‘intellectualism’, as a return of the metonymy of the interpretative movement to the fullness of the Thing itself, to the instilment in vital experience, to the baroque wealth of the Erlebnis before the supposed ‘prisonhouse of language’. Now, here is our thesis. It is only the Lacanian passage from the signifier to the object, ‘from the symptom to the fantasy’ (Jacques-Alain Miller), which makes it possible to remove the advent of postmodernism from the field of an ideology of authenticity, instilment, etc. Postmodernism marks the rising in the middle of the modernist space of language and its interpretative auto-movement to the infinite of a ‘hard’ nucleus, of the inertia of a non-symbolizable Real. Lacan enables us to see this place outside the symbolic as an emptiness opened by the hole in the symbolic Other. The inert object is always the presentification, the filling of the hole around which the symbolic command articulates itself, of the hole retroactively constituted by this command itself and in no way a ‘pre-linguistic’ fact.

Let’s start with Blow-Up (1966) by Antonioni, perhaps the last great modernist film. When the hero (the photographer) develops the photographs of a park in the laboratory, his attention is attracted to the stain in the bushes on the side of a photograph. He enlarges the detail, and one discovers the contours of a body there. Immediately, in the middle of the night, he goes back to the park and indeed finds the body. But the next day, when he goes back to see the scene of the crime again, the body has disappeared without leaving a trace. It is useless to stress the fact that the body is, according to the detective novel’s code, the object of desire par excellence, the cause which starts the interpretative desire. The key to the film is given to us, however, by the final scene. The hero, resigned because of the cul-de-sac where his investigation has ended, takes a walk near a tennis court where a group of hippies pretend to play tennis (without a ball, they simulate the hits, run and jump, etc.). In the frame of this supposed game, the imagined ball jumps through the court’s fence and stops near the hero. He hesitates a moment and then accepts the game. He bends over, makes the gesture of picking up the ball, and throws it back into the court ... This scene has, of course, a metaphorical function in relation to the totality of the film. It makes the hero sensitive to consenting to the fact that ‘the game works without an object’. The hippies do not need a ball for their game, just as in his own adventure everything works without a body. The ‘postmodernist’ way is the exact reverse of this process. It consists not in showing the game which also works without an object and which is put into movement by a central emptiness, but directly in showing the object, making visible the indifferent and arbitrary character of the object itself. The same object can function successively as disgusting shit and as a sublime, charismatic apparition. The difference is strictly structural. It is not tied to the ‘effective proprieties’ of the object, but only to its place, to its tie to a symbolic identification (I). One can grasp this difference between modernism and postmodernism with regard to horror in Hitchcock’s films. At first, it seems that Hitchcock simply respects the classical rule (already known by Aeschylus in the Oresteia) according to which one must place the terrifying event outside of the scene and only show its reflections and its effects on the stage. If one does not see it directly, terror rises as the emptiness of its absence is filled by fantasmatic projections (‘one sees it as more horrible than it actually is ...’).

The most simple process of evoking horror would be, then, to limit oneself to the reflections of the terrifying object on its witnesses or victims. For example, the horror is only visible by means of the frightened faces of the victims on the screen. However, Hitchcock, when he is ‘doing his duty’, inverts this traditional process. Let’s take a small detail from his Lifeboat (1944), the scene where the group of allied castaways welcome on to their boat a German sailor from a destroyed submarine: the castaways’ surprise when they discover that the person they saved is an enemy. The traditional way of rendering this scene would be to let us hear the screams for help, to show the hands of an unknown person who grips the side of the boat, and then, rather than showing the German sailor, focus the camera on the shipwrecked survivors. It is the perplexed expression on their faces which must show us that they have pulled something unexpected out of the water. What? At that moment, when one has already created the suspense, the camera can finally show us the German sailor. But Hitchcock does the exact opposite of this traditional process: what he does is precisely not to show the shipwrecked survivors. Instead, he depicts the German sailor climbing on board and saying, with a friendly smile, ‘Danke schön!’ But then he does not show the surprised faces of the survivors. The camera remains on the German. If his appearance provoked a terrifying effect, one can only detect it by his reaction to the survivors’ reaction: his smile dies out, his look becomes perplexed. This confirms what Pascal Bonitzer observed as Hitchcock’s Proustian side: this Hitchcockian procedure corresponds perfectly to that of Proust in Un amour de Swann. When Odette confesses to Swann her lesbian adventures, Proust describes only Odette. If her story has a terrifying effect on Swann, Proust only presents it through the changed tone of the narrative when she observes its disastrous effect. One shows an object or an activity which is presented as an everyday, even common, thing, but suddenly, through the reactions of this object’s milieu being reflected back on to the object itself, we realize that one is confronting a terrifying object, the source of an inexplicable terror. The horror is intensified by the fact that this object is, according to its appearance, completely ordinary. What we perceived only a moment ago as being a totally common thing is revealed as Evil incarnated.

9. Postmodernism II: Joyce versus Kafka

Such a postmodernist procedure is much more subversive than the usual modernist procedure, because the latter, by not representing the Thing, leaves open the possibility of apprehending this central emptiness from within the theological perspective of the ‘absent God’. If the modernist lesson is that the structure, the intersubjective machine, worked just as well if the Thing is missing, if the machine turned around an emptiness, then the postmodernist reversal shows the Thing itself as incarnated, positivized emptiness, by representing the terrifying object directly and then denouncing its frightening effect as a simple effect of its place within the structure. The terrifying object is an everyday object that begins to function, by chance, as an occupant of the hole in the Other. The prototype of the modernist work would thus be Waiting for Godot. The whole futile, senseless activity takes place while waiting for Godot’s arrival when, finally, ‘something might happen’. But one knows very well that ‘Godot’ can never arrive. What would the ‘postmodernist’ way of rewriting the same story be? On the contrary, one would have directly to represent Godot himself: a dumb guy who makes fun of us, who is, that is to say, exactly like us, who lives a futile life full of boredom and foolish pleasures – the only difference being that, by chance, not knowing it himself, he found himself occupying the place of the Thing. He began to incarnate the Thing whose arrival one is awaiting. There is another, less well-known film by Fritz Lang, Secret Beyond the Door (1947), which stages in a pure (one is almost tempted to say distilled) form this logic of an everyday object which is found in the place of das Ding. Celia Barrett, a young businesswoman, travels to Mexico after her older brother’s death, where she meets Mark Lamphere. She marries him and moves with him to Lavender Falls. Some time later, the couple hosts Mark’s close friends and he shows them his gallery of historical rooms which have been reconstituted in his own house, but he forbids anyone access to Room 7, which is locked.

Fascinated by his reservation vis-à-vis this room, Celia gets a key made and enters it. It is the exact replica of her room. The most familiar things receive a dimension of disquieting strangeness because of the fact that one finds oneself in a place out of place, a place that ‘is not right’. And the thrill effect results exactly from the familiar, domestic character of what one finds in this Thing’s forbidden place. That is the perfect illustration of the fundamental ambiguity of the Freudian notion of das Unheimliche. From this problematic, one can also approach the chief motif of the ‘hard-boiled’ detective novel: that the femme fatale is ‘a bad object’ par excellence, the object which eats men, which leaves many broken lives as a trace of its presence. In the best novels of this genre, a certain reversal takes place when the femme fatale as ‘a bad object’ is sub-jectivized. First she is presented as a terrifying, devouring, exploitative object. But when, suddenly, one is placed in the perspective which is hers, one finds out that she is only a sickly, broken being, one who is not in control of her effects on the milieu (masculine), who, especially when she thinks she ‘masters the game’, is no less a victim than her own victims. What gives her the power of fascination as the femme fatale is exclusively her place within masculine fantasy. She is only ‘mastering the game’ as an object of masculine fantasy. The theoretical lesson that one should get from this is that subjectivization coincides with the experience of one’s own powerlessness, of one’s own position as that of a victim of destiny. It is the moment detected by Adorno in his superb text on Carmen (in Quasi una fantasia), concerning the melody on the ‘unmerciful card’ of the third act, the nodal point of the whole opera, where Carmen, this bad-fatal object, is subjectivized, is felt as a victim of her own game. That is how the beautiful Adornian sentence on the ‘original passivity of the subject’ should be grasped. It is to be taken literally. In other words, one is not dealing with the fact that the subject – this centre and origin of activity – of the remaking and appropriation of the world should in some way recognize their own limit, their subordination to the objective world. One must, on the contrary, affirm a certain passivity as an original dimension of subjectivity itself. The structure of this passivity is given to us by the Lacanian formula of fantasy (a). The fascination of the subject in front of das Ding, in front of the ‘bad Thing’ which occupies the hole in the Other, and the exceptional character of the subjectivization of the femme fatale, comes from the fact that she is indeed herself this object in relation to which she feels her original passivity. However, one must suspend this series of variations in order to notice the socio-political correlation of this passage from modernism to postmodernism: the advent of what we call post-industrial society where all the coordinates of art change, including the status of art itself. The modernist work of art loses its ‘will have’ [aura].

It functions as a reject without charisma insofar as the ‘everyday’ world of merchandise becomes itself ‘will-have-like’ [auratique] (publicity, etc.). The postmodernist work regains the ‘will have’. Furthermore, it does so at the expense of a radical renunciation, contrary to the modernist utopia (‘fusion of art and life’) detectable even in its most ‘elitist’ projects. Postmodernism reaffirms art as a social institution, the irreducible distance between art and ‘everyday’ life. One is tempted to conceive of postmodernism as one of the phenomena of global ideological change which includes the end of the great eschatological projects. As such it is at the same time post-Marxist. This opposition of modernism and postmodernism is, however, far from being reduced to a simple diachronic. One finds it already articulated at the beginning of the century in the opposition between Joyce and Kafka. If Joyce is the modernist par excellence, the writer of the symptom (Lacan), of interpretative delirium taken to the infinite, of the time (to interpret) when each stable moment is revealed to be only a freezing effect of a plural signifying process, Kafka is in a certain way already postmodernist, the antipode of Joyce, the writer of fantasy, of the space of a painful, inert presence. If Joyce’s text provokes interpretation, Kafka’s blocks it. It is precisely this dimension of a non-dialectizable, inert presence which is misperceived by a modernist reading of Kafka, with its accent on the inaccessible, absent, transcendent instance (the Castle, the Court Room), holding the place of the lack, of the absence as such. From this perspective, the secret of Kafka would be that at the heart of the bureaucratic machinery, there is only an emptiness, the Nothing. Bureaucracy would be a mad machine which  ‘works by itself, like the game in Blow-Up which can function without a body-object. One can read this conjuncture in two different ways which share the same theoretical frame: theological and immanentist. Either one can take the inaccessible, transcendent character of the Centre (of the Castle, of the Court Room) as a mark of an ‘absent God’ – the universe of Kafka as an anguished universe, abandoned by God – or one can take the emptiness of this transcendence as an ‘illusion of perspective’, as a form of a reversed apparition of the immanence of desire. The inaccessible transcendence, its emptiness, its lack, is only the negative of the supplement (surplus) of the productive movement of desire on its object (Deleuze-Guattari).

The two readings, although opposed, miss the same point: the way that this absence, this empty place, is found always already filled by an inert, obscene, dirty, revolting presence. The Court Room in The Trial is not only absent, it is indeed present under the figures of the obscene judges who, during the night trials, glance through pornographic books. The Castle is indeed present under the figure of subservient, lascivious and corrupted civil servants. Here, the formula of the ‘absent God’ in Kafka does not work at all: on the contrary Kafka’s problem is that in his universe God is too present, under a shape – of course, which is not at all comforting – of obscene, disgusting phenomena. Kafka’s universe is a world where God – who up to this point has held himself at an assured distance – got too close to us. One must read the thesis of the exegetes, according to whom Kafka’s would be a universe of anxiety, based on the Lacanian definition of anxiety. We are too close to das Ding. That is the theological lesson of post-modernism. The mad, obscene God, the Supreme-Being-in-Evilness, is exactly the same as the God taken as the Supreme Good. The difference lies only in the fact that we got too close to Him. 

Source: INTERROGATING THE REAL - © Slavoj Žižek, 2005
© Editorial material, selection and translation, Rex Butler and Scott Stephens

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