Terry Eagleton

  • The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters by Slavoj Žižek
    Verso, 248 pp, £40.00, January 1997, ISBN 1 85984 094 9
  • The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of The World by Slavoj Žižek and F.W.J. Von Schelling
    Michigan, 182 pp, £35.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 472 09652 4
  • The Plague of Fantasies by Slavoj Žižek
    Verso, 248 pp, £40.00, November 1997, ISBN 1 85984 857 5

Schopenhauer saw us all as permanently pregnant with monsters, bearing at the very core of our being something implacably alien to it. He called this the Will, which was the stuff out of which we were made and yet was utterly indifferent to us, lending us an illusion of purpose but itself aimless and senseless. Freud, who was much taken with Schopenhauer, offered us a non-metaphysical version of this monstrosity in the notion of desire, a profoundly inhuman process which is deaf to meaning, which has its own sweet way with us and secretly cares for nothing but itself. Desire is nothing personal: it is an affliction that was lying in wait for us from the outset, a perversion in which we get involuntarily swept up, a refractory medium into which we are plunged at birth. For Freud, what makes us human subjects is this foreign body lodged inside us, which invades our flesh like a lethal virus and yet, like the Almighty for Thomas Aquinas, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

This ‘Thing’, as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls it, with horror movies archly in mind, is otherwise known as the Real, in the Lacanian Holy Trinity of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. It is also the chief protagonist of the work of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who by drawing our attention to this most underprivileged of Lacan’s three categories, challenges his fashionable image as a ‘post-structuralist’ thinker. Zizek’s Lacan is not the philosopher of the floating signifier but a much tougher, alarming, uncanny sort of theorist altogether, who teaches that the Real which makes us what we are is not only traumatic and impenetrable but cruel, obscene, vacuous, meaningless and horrifically enjoyable. Zizek himself is both dauntingly prolific and dazzlingly versatile, able to leap in a paragraph from Hegel to Jurassic Park, Kafka to the Ku Klux Klan; but just as Lacan’s fantasy-ridden world of everyday reality conceals an immutable kernel of the Real, so Zizek’s flamboyant parade of topics recircles, in book after book, to this very same subject. The almost comic versatility of his interests masks a compulsive repetition of the same. His books, as in Freud’s notion of the uncanny, are both familiar and unfamiliar, breathtakingly innovative yet déjà lu, crammed with original insights yet perpetual recyclings of one another. If he reads Lacan as ‘a succession of attempts to seize the same persistent traumatic kernel’, much the same can be said of his own writing, which continually bursts out anew with Schelling or Hitchcock or the war in Bosnia but never shifts its gaze from the same fearful, fascinating psychical scene.

As Zizek sees it, the Real for Lacan is almost the opposite of reality, reality being for Lacan just a low-grade place of fantasy in which we shelter from the terrors of the Real, a Soho of the psyche. The natural state of the human animal is to live a phantasmal lie. Fantasy is not the opposite of reality: it is what plugs the void in our being so that the set of fictions we call reality are able to emerge. The Real is rather the primordial wound we incurred by our fall from the pre-Oedipal Eden, the gash in our being where we were torn loose from Nature, and from which desire flows unstaunchably. Though we repress this trauma, it persists within us as the hard core of the self. Something is missing inside us which makes us what we are, a muteness which resists being signified but which shows up negatively as the outer limit of our discourse, the point at which our representations crumble and fail.

Lacan’s infamous ‘transcendental signifier’ is just the signifier which represents this failure of representation, rather as the phallus for psychoanalysis represents the fact that it can always be cut off. The Real is what cannot be included within any of our symbolic systems, but whose very absence skews them out of shape, as a kind of vortex around which they are bent out of true. It is the factor which ensures that as human subjects we never quite add up, which throws us subtly out of kilter so that we can never be identical with ourselves. It is a version of Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself, and what is ultimately unknowable is Man himself.

The Real is desire, but for Lacan, so Zizek argues, more specifically jouissance or ‘obscene enjoyment’. This enjoyment, which sounds rather less suburban in French, is a sublimely terrifying affair. It is the lethal pleasure of what Freud calls primary masochism, in which we reap delight from the way that the Law or superego unleashes its demented sadism on us. Enjoyment, Lacan maintains, is the only substance which psychoanalysis recognises, and it is also Zizek’s unwavering obsession. Like Schopenhauer’s Will, it is a brute, self-serving affair, as devoid of meaning as the American waiter’s mechanical injunction:‘Enjoy!’ Like the waiter, the Law instructs us to enjoy, but does so in curiously intransitive mood: we are just to reap gratification for its own sake from the superego’s crazed, pointless dictats. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek sees ideological power as resting finally on the libidinal rather than the conceptual, on the way we hug our chains rather than the way we entertain beliefs. At the root of meaning, for both Freud and Lacan, there is always a sustaining residue of non-sense.

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