‘You May!’

Slavoj Žižek writes about the Post-Modern Superego

‘Rule Girls’ are heterosexual women who follow precise rules as to how they let themselves be seduced (accept a date only if you are asked at least three days in advance etc). Although the rules correspond to customs which used to regulate the behaviour of old-fashioned women actively pursued by old-fashioned men, the Rule Girls phenomenon does not involve a return to conservative values: women now freely choose their own rules – an instance of the ‘reflexivisation’ of everyday customs in today’s ‘risk society’. According to the risk society theory of Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck and others, we no longer live our lives in compliance with Nature or Tradition; there is no symbolic order or code of accepted fictions (what Lacan calls the ‘Big Other’) to guide us in our social behaviour. All our impulses, from sexual orientation to ethnic belonging, are more and more often experienced as matters of choice. Things which once seemed self-evident – how to feed and educate a child, how to proceed in sexual seduction, how and what to eat, how to relax and amuse oneself – have now been ‘colonised’ by reflexivity, and are experienced as something to be learned and decided on.

The retreat of the accepted Big Other accounts for the prevalence of code-cracking in popular culture. New Age pseudo-scientific attempts to use computer technology to crack some recondite code – in the Bible, say, or the pyramids – which can reveal the future of humanity offer one example of this. Another is provided by the scene in cyberspace movies in which the hero (or often the heroine), hunched over a computer and frantically working against time, has his/her ‘access denied’, until he/she cracks the code and discovers that a secret government agency is involved in a plot against freedom and democracy. Believing there is a code to be cracked is of course much the same as believing in the existence of some Big Other: in every case what is wanted is an agent who will give structure to our chaotic social lives.

Even racism is now reflexive. Consider the Balkans. They are portrayed in the liberal Western media as a vortex of ethnic passion – a multiculturalist dream turned into a nightmare. The standard reaction of a Slovene (I am one myself) is to say: ‘yes, this is how it is in the Balkans, but Slovenia is not part of the Balkans; it is part of Mitteleuropa; the Balkans begin in Croatia or in Bosnia; we Slovenes are the last bulwark of European civilisation against the Balkan madness.’ If you ask, ‘Where do the Balkans begin?’ you will always be told that they begin down there, towards the south-east. For Serbs, they begin in Kosovo or in Bosnia where Serbia is trying to defend civilised Christian Europe against the encroachments of this Other. For the Croats, the Balkans begin in Orthodox, despotic and Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia safeguards Western democratic values. For many Italians and Austrians, they begin in Slovenia, the Western outpost of the Slavic hordes. For many Germans, Austria is tainted with Balkan corruption and inefficiency; for many Northern Germans, Catholic Bavaria is not free of Balkan contamination. Many arrogant Frenchmen associate Germany with Eastern Balkan brutality – it lacks French finesse. Finally, to some British opponents of the European Union, Continental Europe is a new version of the Turkish Empire with Brussels as the new Istanbul – a voracious despotism threatening British freedom and sovereignty.

We are dealing with an imaginary cartography, which projects onto the real landscape its own shadowy ideological antagonisms, in the same way that the conversion-symptoms of the hysterical subject in Freud project onto the physical body the map of another, imaginary anatomy. Much of this projection is racist. First, there is the old-fashioned, unabashed rejection of the Balkan Other (despotic, barbarian, Orthodox, Muslim, corrupt, Oriental) in favour of true values (Western, civilised, democratic, Christian). But there is also a ‘reflexive’, politically correct racism: the liberal, multiculturalist perception of the Balkans as a site of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive, tribal, irrational passions, as opposed to the reasonableness of post-nation-state conflict resolution by negotiation and compromise. Racism is a disease of the Balkan Other, while we in the West are merely observers, neutral, benevolent and righteously dismayed. Finally, there is reverse racism, which celebrates the exotic authenticity of the Balkan Other, as in the notion of Serbs who, by contrast with inhibited, anaemic Western Europeans, still exhibit a prodigious lust for life. Reverse racism plays a crucial role in the success of Emir Kusturica’s films in the West.

Because the Balkans are part of Europe, they can be spoken of in racist clichés which nobody would dare to apply to Africa or Asia. Political struggles in the Balkans are compared to ridiculous operetta plots; Ceausescu was presented as a contemporary reincarnation of Count Dracula. Slovenia is most exposed to this displaced racism, since it is closest to Western Europe: when Kusturica, talking about his film Underground, dismissed the Slovenes as a nation of Austrian grooms, nobody reacted: an ‘authentic’ artist from the less developed part of former Yugoslavia was attacking the most developed part of it. When discussing the Balkans, the tolerant multiculturalist is allowed to act out his repressed racism.

Perhaps the best example of the universalised reflexivity of our lives is the growing inefficiency of interpretation. Traditional psychoanalysis relied on a notion of the unconscious as the ‘dark continent’, the impenetrable substance of the subject’s being, which had to be probed by interpretation: when its content was brought to light a liberating new awareness would follow. Today, the formations of the unconscious (from dreams to hysterical symptoms) have lost their innocence: the ‘free associations’ of a typical educated patient consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of his own disturbances, so we have not only Annafreudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian interpretations of the symptoms, but symptoms which are themselves Annafreudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian – they don’t exist without reference to some psychoanalytic theory. The unfortunate result of this reflexivisation is that the analyst’s interpretation loses its symbolic efficacy and leaves the symptom intact in its idiotic jouissance. It’s as though a neo-Nazi skinhead, pressed to give reasons for his behaviour, started to talk like a social worker, sociologist or social psychologist, citing diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood.

‘When I hear the word “culture”, I reach for my gun,’ Goebbels is supposed to have said. ‘When I hear the word “culture”, I reach for my cheque-book,’ says the cynical producer in Godard’s Le Mépris. A leftist slogan inverts Goebbels’s statement: ‘When I hear the word “gun”, I reach for culture.’ Culture, according to that slogan, can serve as an efficient answer to the gun: an outburst of violence is a passage à l’acte rooted in the subject’s ignorance. But the notion is undermined by the rise of what might be called ‘Post-Modern racism’, the surprising characteristic of which is its insensitivity to reflection – a neo-Nazi skinhead who beats up black people knows what he’s doing, but does it anyway.

Reflexivisation has transformed the structure of social dominance. Take the public image of Bill Gates. Gates is not a patriarchal father-master, nor even a corporate Big Brother running a rigid bureaucratic empire, surrounded on an inaccessible top floor by a host of secretaries and assistants. He is instead a kind of Small Brother, his very ordinariness an indication of a monstrousness so uncanny that it can no longer assume its usual public form. In photos and drawings he looks like anyone else, but his devious smile points to an underlying evil that is beyond representation. It is also a crucial aspect of Gates as icon that he is seen as the hacker who made it (the term ‘hacker’ has, of course, subversive/marginal/anti-establishment connotations; it suggests someone who sets out to disturb the smooth functioning of large bureaucratic corporations). At the level of fantasy, Gates is a small-time, subversive hooligan who has taken over and dressed himself up as the respectable chairman. In Bill Gates, Small Brother, the average ugly guy coincides with and contains the figure of evil genius who aims for total control of our lives. In early James Bond movies, the evil genius was an eccentric figure, dressed extravagantly, or alternatively, in the grey uniform of the Maoist commissar. In the case of Gates, this ridiculous charade is no longer needed – the evil genius turns out to be the boy next door.

Another aspect of this process is the changed status of the narrative tradition that we use to understand our lives. In Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (1992), John Gray proposed a vulgarised version of narrativist-deconstructionist psychoanalysis. Since we ultimately ‘are’ the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the solution to a psychic deadlock resides, he proposes, in a ‘positive’ rewriting of the narrative of our past. What he has in mind is not only the standard cognitive therapy of changing negative ‘false beliefs’ about oneself into an assurance that one is loved by others and capable of creative achievements, but a more ‘radical’, pseudo-Freudian procedure of regressing back to the scene of the primordial traumatic wound. Gray accepts the psychoanalytic notion of an early childhood traumatic experience that forever marks the subject’s further development, but he gives it a pathological spin. What he proposes is that, after regressing to, and thus confronting, his primal traumatic scene, the subject should, under the therapist’s guidance, ‘rewrite’ this scene, this ultimate phantasmatic framework of his subjectivity, as part of a more benign and productive narrative. If, say, the primordial traumatic scene existing in your unconscious, deforming and inhibiting your creative attitude, is that of your father shouting at you, ‘You are worthless! I despise you! Nothing good will come of you,’ you should rewrite the scene so that a benevolent father smiles at you and says: ‘You’re OK! I trust you fully.’ (Thus the solution for the Wolf Man would have been to ‘regress’ to the parental coitus a tergo and then rewrite the scene so that what he saw was merely his parents lying on the bed, his father reading a newspaper and his mother a sentimental novel.) It may seem a ridiculous thing to do, but there is a widely accepted, politically correct version of this procedure in which ethnic, sexual and other minorities rewrite their past in a more positive, self-assertive vein (African Americans claiming that long before European modernity, ancient African empires had a sophisticated understanding of science and technology etc). Imagine a rewriting of the Decalogue along the same lines. Is one of the Commandments too severe? Well then, let’s regress to Mount Sinai and re write it: adultery – fine, provided it is sincere and serves the goal of profound self-realisation. What disappears is not ‘hard fact’ but the Real of a traumatic encounter whose organising role in the subject’s psychic economy resists its symbolic rewriting.

In our post-political liberal-permissive society, human rights can be seen as expressing the right to violate the Ten Commandments. The right to privacy is, in effect, the right to commit adultery, in secret, without being observed or investigated. The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property is, in effect, the right to steal (to exploit others). Freedom of the press and of expression – the right to lie. The right of free citizens to possess weapons – the right to kill. Freedom of religious belief – the right to celebrate false gods. Human rights do not, of course, directly condone the violation of the Commandments, but they preserve a marginal ‘grey zone’ which is out of the reach of religious or secular power. In this shady zone, I can violate the Commandments, and if the Power catches me with my pants down and tries to prevent my violation, I can cry: ‘Assault on my basic human rights!’ It is impossible for the Power to prevent a ‘misuse’ of human rights without at the same time impinging on their proper application. Lacan draws attention to a resistance to the use of lie-detectors in crime investigations – as if such a direct ‘objective’ verification somehow infringes the subject’s right to the privacy of his thoughts.

A similar tension between rights and prohibitions determines heterosexual seduction in our politically correct times. Or, to put it differently, there is no seduction which cannot at some point be construed as intrusion or harassment because there will always be a point when one has to expose oneself and ‘make a pass’. But, of course, seduction doesn’t involve incorrect harassment throughout. When you make a pass, you expose yourself to the Other (the potential partner), and her reaction will determine whether what you just did was harassment or a successful act of seduction. There is no way to tell in advance what her response will be (which is why assertive women often despise ‘weak’ men, who fear to take the necessary risk). This holds even more in our pc times: the pc prohibitions are rules which, in one way or another, are to be violated in the seduction process. Isn’t the seducer’s art to accomplish the violation in such a way that, afterwards, by its acceptance, any suggestion of harassment has disappeared?

Although psychoanalysis is one of the victims of reflexivisation, it can also help us to understand its implications. It does not lament the disintegration of the old stability or locate in its disappearance the cause of modern neuroses, compelling us to rediscover our roots in traditional wisdom or a deeper self-knowledge. Nor is it just another version of modern reflexive knowledge which teaches us how to master the secrets of our psychic life. What psychoanalysis properly concerns itself with are the unexpected consequences of the disintegration of the structures that have traditionally regulated libidinal life. Why does the decline of paternal authority and fixed social and gender roles generate new guilts and anxieties, instead of opening up a brave new world in which we can enjoy shifting and reshaping our multiple identities?

The Post-Modern constellation in which the subject is bent on experimenting with his life encourages the formation of new ‘passionate attachments’ (to use Judith Butler’s term), but what if the disintegration of patriarchal symbolic authority is counterbalanced by an even stronger ‘passionate attachment’ to subjection? This would seem to explain the increasing prevalence of a strict and severely enacted master/slave relationship among lesbian couples. The one who gives the orders is the ‘top’, the one who obeys is the ‘bottom’ and, in order for the ‘top’ to be attained, an arduous apprenticeship has to be completed. This ‘top/bottom’ duality is neither a sign of direct ‘identification with the (male) aggressor’ nor a parodic imitation of the patriarchal relations of domination. Rather, it expresses the genuine paradox of a freely chosen master/slave form of coexistence which provides deep libidinal satisfaction.

Everything is turned back to front. Public order is no longer maintained by hierarchy, repression and strict regulation, and therefore is no longer subverted by liberating acts of transgression (as when we laugh at a teacher behind his back). Instead, we have social relations among free and equal individuals, supplemented by ‘passionate attachment’ to an extreme form of submission, which functions as the ‘dirty secret’, the transgressive source of libidinal satisfaction. In a permissive society, the rigidly codified, authoritarian master/slave relationship becomes transgressive. This paradox or reversal is the proper topic of psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis does not deal with the authoritarian father who prohibits enjoyment, but with the obscene father who enjoins it and thus renders you impotent or frigid. The unconscious is not secret resistance to the law, but the law itself.

The psychoanalytic response to the ‘risk-society’ theory of the reflexivisation of our lives is not to insist on a pre-reflexive substance, the unconscious, but to suggest that the theory neglects another mode of reflexivity. For psychoanalysis, the perversion of the human libidinal economy is what follows from the prohibition of some pleasurable activity: not a life led in strict obedience to the law and deprived of all pleasure but a life in which exercising the law provides a pleasure of its own, a life in which performance of the ritual destined to keep illicit temptation at bay becomes the source of libidinal satisfaction. The military life, for example, may be governed as much by an unwritten set of obscene rules and rituals (homoerotically-charged beatings and humiliations of younger comrades) as by official regulations. This sexualised violence does not undermine order in the barracks: it functions as its direct libidinal support. Regulatory power mechanisms and procedures become ‘reflexively’ eroticised: although repression first emerges as an attempt to regulate any desire considered ‘illicit’ by the predominant socio-symbolic order, it can only survive in the psychic economy if the desire for regulation is there – if the very activity of regulation becomes libidinally invested and turns into a source of libidinal satisfaction.

This reflexivity undermines the notion of the Post-Modern subject free to choose and reshape his identity. The psychoanalytic concept that designates the short-circuit between the repression and what it represses is the superego. As Lacan emphasised again and again, the essential content of the superego’s injunction is ‘Enjoy!’ A father works hard to organise a Sunday excursion, which has to be postponed again and again. When it finally takes place, he is fed up with the whole idea and shouts at his children: ‘Now you’d better enjoy it!’ The superego works in a different way from the symbolic law. The parental figure who is simply ‘repressive’ in the mode of symbolic authority tells a child: ‘You must go to grandma’s birthday party and behave nicely, even if you are bored to death – I don’t care whether you want to, just do it!’ The superego figure, in contrast, says to the child: ‘Although you know how much grandma would like to see you, you should go to her party only if you really want to – if you don’t, you should stay at home.’ The trick performed by the superego is to seem to offer the child a free choice, when, as every child knows, he is not being given any choice at all. Worse than that, he is being given an order and told to smile at the same time. Not only: ‘You must visit your grandma, whatever you feel,’ but: ‘You must visit your grandma, and you must be glad to do it!’ The superego orders you to enjoy doing what you have to do. What happens, after all, if the child takes it that he has a genuinely free choice and says ‘no’? The parent will make him feel terrible. ‘How can you say that!’ his mother will say: ‘How can you be so cruel! What did your poor grandma do to make you not want to see her?’

‘You can do your duty, because you must do it’ is how Kant formulated the categorical imperative. The usual negative corollary of this formula serves as the foundation of moral constraint: ‘You cannot, because you should not.’ The argument of those who oppose human cloning, for example, is that it cannot be allowed because it would involve the reduction of a human being to an entity whose psychic properties can be manipulated. Which is another variation on Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.’ In other words, we should say that we can’t do it, because otherwise we may do it, with catastrophic ethical consequences. If the Christian opponents of cloning believe in the immortality of the soul and the uniqueness of the personality – i.e. that I am not just the result of the interaction between my genetic code and my environment – why oppose cloning? Is it possible that they do in fact believe in the ability of genetics to reach the very core of our personality? Why do some Christians oppose cloning with talk of the ‘unfathomable mystery of the conception’ as if by cloning my body I am at the same time cloning my immortal soul?

The superego inverts the Kantian ‘You can, because you must’ in a different way, turning it into ‘You must, because you can.’ This is the meaning of Viagra, which promises to restore the capacity of male erection in a purely biochemical way, bypassing all psychological problems. Now that Viagra can take care of the erection, there is no excuse: you should have sex whenever you can; and if you don’t you should feel guilty. New Ageism, on the other hand, offers a way out of the superego predicament by claiming to recover the spontaneity of our ‘true’ selves. But New Age wisdom, too, relies on the superego imperative: ‘It is your duty to achieve full self-realisation and self-fulfilment, because you can.’ Isn’t this why we often feel that we are being terrorised by the New Age language of liberation?

Although submission within a lesbian sado-masochistic relationship and the submission of an individual to a fundamental religious or ethnic belief are both generated by modern reflexivisation, their libidinal economies are quite different. The lesbian master/slave relationship is a theatrical enactment, based on accepted rules and a contract that has been freely entered into. As such, it has a tremendous liberating potential. In contrast, a fundamentalist devotion to an ethnic or religious cause denies the possibility of any form of consent. It is not that sado-masochists are only playfully submissive, while in the ‘totalitarian’ political community, submission is real. If anything, the opposite is the case: in the sadomasochistic contract, the performance is definitely for real and taken absolutely seriously, while the totalitarian submission, with its mask of fanatical devotion, is ultimately fake, a pretence of its opposite. What reveals it as fake is the link between the figure of the totalitarian Master and the superego’s injunction: ‘Enjoy!’

A good illustration of the way the ‘totalitarian’ master operates is provided by the logo on the wrapper around German fat-free salami. ‘Du darfst!’ it says – ‘You may!’ The new fundamentalisms are not a reaction against the anxiety of excessive freedom that accompanies liberal late capitalism; they do not provide strong prohibitions in a society awash with permissiveness. The cliché about ‘escaping from freedom’ into a totalitarian haven is profoundly misleading. Nor is an explanation found in the standard Freudo-Marxian thesis according to which the libidinal foundation of totalitarian (fascist) regimes is the ‘authoritarian personality’ – i.e. someone who finds satisfaction in compulsive obedience. Although, on the surface, the totalitarian master also issues stern orders compelling us to renounce pleasure and to sacrifice ourselves in some higher cause, his effective injunction, discernible between the lines, is a call to unconstrained transgression. Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be complied with, the totalitarian master suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: ‘You may.’ He tells us that the prohibitions which regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are worthless, just a device to keep the common people at bay – we, on the other hand, are free to let ourselves go, to kill, rape, plunder, but only insofar as we follow the master. (The Frankfurt School discerned this key feature of totalitarianism in its theory of repressive desublimation.) Obedience to the master allows you to transgress everyday moral rules: all the dirty things you were dreaming of, everything you had to renounce when you subordinated yourself to the traditional, patriarchal, symbolic Law you are now allowed to indulge in without punishment, just as you may eat fat-free salami without any risk to your health.

The same underlying suspension of moral prohibitions is characteristic of Post-Modern nationalism. The cliché according to which in a confused, secular, global society, passionate ethnic identification restores a firm set of values should be turned upside down: nationalist fundamentalism works as a barely concealed ‘you may’. Our Post-Modern reflexive society which seems hedonistic and permissive is actually saturated with rules and regulations which are intended to serve our well-being (restrictions on smoking and eating, rules against sexual harassment). A passionate ethnic identification, far from further restraining us, is a liberating call of ‘you may’: you may violate (not the Decalogue, but) the stiff regulations of peaceful coexistence in a liberal tolerant society; you may drink and eat whatever you want, say things prohibited by political correctness, even hate, fight, kill and rape. It is by offering this kind of pseudo-liberation that the superego supplements the explicit texture of the social symbolic law.

The superficial opposition between pleasure and duty is overcome in two different ways. Totalitarian power goes even further than traditional authoritarian power. What it says, in effect, is not, ‘Do your duty, I don’t care whether you like it or not,’ but: ‘You must do your duty, and you must enjoy doing it.’ (This is how totalitarian democracy works: it is not enough for the people to follow their leader, they must love him.) Duty becomes pleasure. Second, there is the obverse paradox of pleasure becoming duty in a ‘permissive’ society. Subjects experience the need to ‘have a good time’, to enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and, consequently, feel guilty for failing to be happy. The superego controls the zone in which these two opposites overlap – in which the command to enjoy doing your duty coincides with the duty to enjoy yourself.