Welcome to Lecture 19 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 1 of Interlude 3 — King, Rabble, War… and Sex. In this lecture we will be mostly focusing on the symbolic function of the King in relationship to social substance and the paradoxes of contingent necessity.
Žižek starts the chapter by focusing Jack London’s famous novel Martin Eden about a struggling writer who has a paradoxical relationship with achieving fame and success. The book is ultimately a tragedy with the lead character choosing to commit suicide by jumping into the sea. Here Žižek quotes directly from the last passage of the book (1):
“He seems floating languidly in a sea of dreamy vision. Colours and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain — a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at that instant he knew, he ceased to know.”
The key to the story, for Žižek, is the paradoxical way in which what pushes the main character to suicide was not his struggles as a writer, nor poverty, or alienation from high society; instead, what pushes the main character to suicide was success and fame itself. He notes how Martin Eden is puzzled upon achieving fame and success because of the way that everyone starts to interact and relate to him. He notices that there is no perceptible change in him, he is still the exact same person he was as a struggling writer, but now all of a sudden, everyone interacts with him as if he is a totally different person. This subtle shift, where nothing substantial changes, but everything changes, is where Žižek locates the crucial level of the “negation of the negation”. Here to quote directly from the logic that Martin Eden struggled with (2):
“He drove along the path of relentless logic to the conclusion that he was nobody, nothing. Mart Eden, the hoodlum, and Mart Eden, the sailor, had been real, had been he; but Martin Eden! the famous writer, did not exist. Martin Eden, the famous writer, was a vapour that had arisen in the mob-mind and by the mob-mind had been thrust into the corporeal being of Mart Eden, the hoodlum and sailor.”
What is happening here, we may speculate, is a collision with the false images of the specular fantasy. What is happening here, are the real and pragmatic consequences of not properly traversing the fantasy before it captures you. When we dream of fame and success the fullness and realness of this fame and success is only a mirage, a specular image. If we ever actually attain this fame and success, we will realize it is almost unbearable empty and meaningless. This is why we may find that so many people who spend their lives in the spotlight struggle with personal identity issues and end up in a tragedy. What we perceive from the outside as a full actualization is in fact its exact opposite, an insubstantial illusion.
Here to quote again directly from Martin Eden (3):
“I am personally of the same value that I was when nobody wanted me. And what is puzzling me is why they want me now. Surely they don’t want me for myself, for myself is the same old self they did not want. Then they must want me for something else, for something that is outside of me, for something that is not I! Shall I tell you what that something is. It is for the recognition I have received. That recognition is not I. It resides in the minds of others.”
This is of course a very Hegelian point since he is reflecting on the domain of others and the invisible currency of social recognition. What happens when someone achieves fame and success is that one all of a sudden finds oneself in a repetitive spiral or loop that is formed by nothing except the “mob” of minds that all of a sudden direct their gaze and voice towards you. In that sense the only thing that separated Martin Eden the hoodlum and sailor, from Martin Eden the famous writer, was nothing except this realm of others who had all of a sudden created an illusion around his personal identity. Here to quote Žižek on this point (4):
“What Martin cannot accept is this radical de-centering of the very core of his personality which ‘resides in the minds of others’: he is nothing in himself, just a concentrated projection of others’ dreams.”
Now we can imagine this in a reflective way, especially if you are a struggling writer or author, or if you are a struggling creative in any domain. I will even play the game and locate myself as the struggling writer making this YouTube channel. On the level of imaginary-real, we can say that the struggling writer is alone with his (unrecognized) ego. On the level of the symbolic-real, we can say that there is the social order in itself which is autopoietically self-organizing around the identities of those recognized in the symbolic substance.
The real at this stage is this the gap or the absence between the imaginary ego identity and the symbolic social substance. The imaginary ego identity is tirelessly working away without recognition and the symbolic social substance is in-itself repetitively enacting the games of recognition which are the life blood (so to speak) of the system.
Thus the place where the imaginary, the symbolic and the real collide is where the objet petit a forms or emerges as a curvature in the twisted space of desire. The objet petit a is where the imaginary ego projects all of its fantasmatic desires of being recognized by the symbolic social substance. In Martin Eden’s case it is is where Eden desired to be recognized by the symbolic social substance of the high society. When Eden realizes that the high society is not recognizing him for his concrete achievements (his actual writings) but for insubstantial reasons related to mob mind mentality, the fantasmatic screen dissolves and his identity collapses into a suicidal abyss. The tragic truth here, recounted from the first quote, is that he only comes to “know” the truth, when this entire identity matrix collapses in death. Thus we again must reflect on the importance of traversing the fantasy, where we can experience an ego death before we actually die.
Here let us quickly situate this process in the Lacanian triad of the imaginary-symbolic-real so we can more easily visualize this transformation and apply it in our own way (If you want to learn more about the Lacanian triad you can visit this overview). To be precise we find the poor, unknown Martin Eden on the level of the imaginary ego. In this mode Eden’s gaze and voice are directed towards the symbolic social substance of high society. Note that in this mode the formula for truth is in the structure of the “barred Other” since the imaginary ego is not being recognized by the symbolic social substance. Then the symbolic social substance (from the point of view of Eden’s imaginary ego) is real where we find the missing “Other’s gaze”). This is why the objet petit a as a semblance forms in this domain. Finally, the real of this absent Other’s gaze is, when directed back at Eden, the unbearable reality which creates his struggle for recognition. This is in short the twisted space of the Lacanian triad.
Second, we have the structure where, though no concrete work product in-itself, Martin Eden becomes a rich and known writer. In other words, Eden’s imaginary ego is transformed by the mob mind of the symbolic social substance which now perceives him to be a great creative person. In this process the Other’s gaze, the Real that stars back at Eden, is the specular fiction of the great creative person.
Thus, what Eden cannot bear is that he is too brutally aware of the fact that this Real staring back at him is a false mirage. He knows that there was nothing substantial in the “work performed” which caused this transformation. In this way we realizes that the mechanism at work which transformed him from a poor unknown writer to a rich known writer was not a transformation which made his identity more real, he was more real when he was a hoodlum and a sailer.
Žižek then turns his attention to the way in which this Real of the symbolic function can be deployed in a division between the masculine and the feminine. In order to explore the sexuation of the Real he uses the examples of two movies that triumphed at the 2011 Oscars: King’s Speech and Black Swan. In King’s Speech we have a story about the “Man” confronting the emptiness of the symbolic function, the way in which the substantial fullness from the external view (the King) is actually impotent and empty when you are performatively internal to the position. In Black Swan we have a story about the “Woman” confronting the way in which the symbolic function leads to her demise and ruin, the way in which enaction in relation to the symbolic social substance will lead to the destruction and dissolution of her feminine character.
Let us first utilize the Lacanian triad to situate an analysis of King’s Speech. On the level of the imaginary ego we have the normal human animal who is confronting the impossible challenge of submitting to and enacting the symbolic function of King. Here the normal human animal must enact this function in relationship to the social substance of the “Nation”, in this context the “English Nation”. In this relation the social substance of England perceives this normal human animal as the highest embodiment of the social substance, the King. It is the gaze of this Real Other that paralyzes and traumatizes the normal human animal on the level of the imaginary ego. Here to quote Žižek on this matrix (5):
“The problem of the soon-to-be-king, the cause of his stuttering, is precisely his inability to assume his symbolic function, to identify with his title. The king thus displays a minimum of common sense, experiencing the stupidity of seriously accepting that one is a king by divine will — and the task of the Australian voice-coach is to render him stupid enough to accept his being a king as his natural property.”
This is an important dimension of the Real to reflect on, perhaps especially for those in a masculine mode of being. We will discuss this dimension in more theoretical depth, but for now we can say that, the risk of the masculine position is either relating to the symbolic function too strongly (really believing you are a king) or being unable to act at all due to the recognition that the symbolic function appears to be a nonsensical pointless exercise.
Now in relation to the feminine Real we further explore the narrative arc of Black Swan. According to Žižek, the story of Black Swan captures the notion that while a man can fulfill his symbolic function and still lead a normal private life, a woman who totally dedicates herself to a public symbolic function, risks a path of self-destruction. Indeed, throughout the story of Black Swan, Portman’s character dedicates herself full time to being the best performer she can be in relation to the social substance of the theatrical crowd, but that this dedication is constantly haunted by an evil or sinister otherness which captures and destroys her in the end. Here to quote Žižek (6):
“[A woman’s] success [in public life] is paid for by her death. It is easy to recognize in this plot the old topos of a woman torn between her artistic vocation and a happy, calm private life, who makes the wrong choice and dies.”
This is also an important Real to reflect on, perhaps especially today, when the demands for universal individuation independent of masculine or feminine modes of being, is being enacted and performed on a much larger scale then ever before. This process is leading to a redefinition of individual, family and community life in ways that are unpredictable and in some sense destabilizing for many different matrices of sexual identity.
This brings us back to serious theory. In Hegel and Lacan there is the realization that subjectivity vis-a-vis the symbolic order is constitutive de-centered. In other words one must recognize that the symbolic function that you are enacting is not because you have some special substance which the others do not have. The reason why you possess that symbolic function is because of (and only because of) the others who recognize you as such. To quote Žižek (7):
“For Hegel, the king is defined as a subject who accepts his radical decentering, that is, […] accepts the fact that he is a king because others treat him as a king, not the other way round[.]”
If a subject is incapable of realizing this reflective determination, Žižek claims there are specific and precise consequences for both the masculine function and the feminine function. On the level of the masculine function one risks madness. In other words, the truly mad person is the person who directly identifies with his symbolic function, who sees no gap, and who believes that the reason they are king is because they have a special substance which no other subjectivity possesses. Consequently, the madness of the masculine position is a type of grandiose narcissism where you believe you are the most important subject in the world, someone uniquely connected to divine will over and above the other subjectivities. To quote Žižek (8):
“if he thinks that he is a king “in himself”, he is a madman.”
Or also (9):
“John Smith is […] not John Smith, but someone else with the same name. […] I am never “that name” — the John Smith who really thinks he is John Smith is a psychotic.”
The way out of the fall into madness is to recognize the total contingency of the symbolic function, to recognize that there is no deeper necessity (some divine will of God) that is regulating the necessity from all time.
On the other hand, on the level of the feminine function, one risks withdrawal. In other words, because the feminine can sense that the full enaction of public identity could lead to her death and demise, she may opt for a life in the nothingness, in the privacy of her own primordial otherness. This, according to Žižek, is a conservative strategy of the feminine which is unable or unwilling to accept the risks that come with the pressure of the symbolic social order. However, this analysis Žižek makes no affirmative constructive gesture for a way out of the conservative feminine mode, other than to assert that this conservative withdrawal of the feminine is not aided by the “postmodern” “post-Oedipal” mode of subjectivity which would deny sexual difference and the desires to return to the Mother’s Womb. In this gesture there is a hint of a solution. Could it be that the problem for the feminine subjectivity vis-a-vis symbolic social substance is precisely that it is too often enacted as a mimicry of the masculine modes public persona? Could it be that what our culture lacks is a precisely feminine mode for enaction in the symbolic social substance? A mode of enaction which allows the feminine to express its own power and mode of being but at the same time without the risk of death and self-destruction?
In this confusing matrix Žižek then seeks to further explain the Hegelian theory of monarchy and power. According to Žižek, Hegel’s theory of monarchy revolves around the historical problem of the contingency of power. Because there is no deeper transcendental necessity governing the historical process there is no clear way to nominate the one person who will enact the symbolic function of monarch. This problem is constitutive of modernity because in the pre-modern era, before the rise of democracy after the American and French Revolutions, this problem was avoided by the removal contingency in the hereditary monarchy. Thus in the modern democratic era stability can only be achieved when the subjects comprising the social substance accept the radical contingency of this process and recognize that there is no positive content that could make a King a King. There is no “magical X” which would legitimize the power and authority that comes with occupying the symbolic function of the throne.
This brings us back to the topic of Absolute Knowing (a topic which one can explore in its full depth from Lecture 15). On the level of Absolute Knowing we are not on a level which can be approached through some substantial external correlation. In this mode we are in a mode of thinking which supports cumulative addition, or a type of ratcheting progressive teleological mechanism. This is in fact how university discourse operates. There is always something new to be discovered, there is always some positive addition of knowledge to be gained. On the level of Absolute Knowing, in contrast, we are dealing with more of a subtraction. This can be captured in the common wisdom of “less is more”. Instead of operating in the progressive teleological mode that what is known will somehow be supplemented with a complete knowledge, one instead operates in the “eternal” gap of what is known and what is not-yet-known. This gap is always open, forever incomplete, allowing us to recognize that knowledge’s (10):
“surplus is something which is not yet here as said/known, but always to be produced. The difference that separates surplus-knowing from established knowledge is thus a pure difference immanent to knowing.”
In this sense Hegelian Absolute Knowing is strictly correlative with the Lacanian psychoanalytic gesture of “there is no big Other”. When we think in terms of “there is no big Other” we are thinking about this permanent inescapable lack or hole in reality which is never to be completely filled by a precise and complete symbolic function. To quote Žižek (11):
“Absolute Knowing […] involves a “less”: it refers to a constitutive lack, the lack in the Other itself, not in our knowledge.”
One may recognize that it is the mad masculine position which always attempts to fill this hole and complete this lack, as opposed to existing in the space of Absolute Knowing. Thus the archetypal tyrannical masculine form may be positioned somewhat closely to the straw man of Absolute Knowing, where he thinks in terms of a linear progressive teleology which he will complete. On the other hand, the archetypal wise masculine form may be positioned somewhat closely to the iron man of Absolute Knowing, where he thinks in terms of the eternal gap or rupture internal to an irreducibly incomplete knowledge. Here to quote Žižek (12):
“Hegel’s Absolute Knowing does involve a “less”: it refers to a constitutive lack, the lack in the Other itself, not in our knowledge. Hegel’s Absolute Knowing is not an open field of endless progress, it is the overlapping of the two lacks (the subject’s lack of knowing and the lack in the Other itself) that accounts for its “closure”.”
In this way what Hegel’s Absolute Knowing achieves is not a totalizing closure but rather a closure which is capable of bringing at a Real antagonism of a situation (13):
“Hegel’s own Absolute Knowing […] moves from one to another shape of knowing, touching it in its Real, i.e., bringing out its immanent/constitutive antagonism[.]”
This brings us back to the strange ontological territory of the monarch, the place where a contingency is transformed into a necessity, not through the divine will of God, but through an immanent act internal to the symbolic which has no external grounding. Zizek is quick to make a connection between this contingency transformed into a necessity as what Lacan notes as the quilting point. The quilting point is the moment where an endless chain of knowledge has to become concretized into a singular moment of the will’s decision-making process. In other words the quilting point is the moment where “all particularity [has to be absorbed] into its single self” (14). One can see this activity in almost all group formations. There are an endless number of directions that could be taken, there are an endless number of decisions that could be the correct one, there are an endless number of agents that could carry out the task. The point of the quilting point is that, what is immanent to the symbolic, is that only one such direction can be taken, only one such decision can be made, and only one agent can carry out the task. This is the moment where an infinite multiplicity must be transformed into a singularity. This is the moment “ultimate self-determination” (15).
In the context of a nation state, in the context of the realization of a head of state, this is what Žižek nominates as a “christological” moment: “the necessity of a singular individual embodying the universal Spirit.” (16). In the above representation one may note a structural similarity in the forms of the signifying chain (S2) and the Master Signifier (S1) as homologous to the relation between the wavefunction of quantum mechanics and the collapse of the wavefunction, where an indeterminate field of potential is transformed into a determinate actuality with a clear and determinate position.
On a reflective note, is this not how a head of state collapses into existence. Before the moment of the collapse, the actual nomination of a head of state, there is a field of potentiality represented in the chaotic realm of “democratic knowledge”. However, upon the ultimate decision, only one can emerge from the field of potentiality, enacting the determinate real of a constellation of symbolism. This knowledge does not tell us or give to us the magical moral or ethical standard by which we can know what direction to take or what person to support, but identifies a structural matrix where a field of potential collapses into a singularity. According to Žižek meditating on this process is of high importance because it is precisely the process that he claims the “Understanding” cannot grasp in-itself (17):
“while Understanding can well grasp the universal mediation of a living totality, what it cannot grasp is the this totality, in order to actualize itself, has to acquire actual existence in the guise of an immediate “natural” singularity.”
In this distinction regarding the understanding, Žižek situates an important difference between what he thinks of the historicist evolutionary and eternal revolutionist. For the historicist evolutionary thinker everything is complexity. What this leads to is always a situation that is impossible, “too complex”. Consequently, it is impossible to “act” because one is surrounded by an endless series of directions, decisions and agents. There is no way to simplify the situation.
In contrast to the historicist evolutionary, the eternal revolutionist takes the complex multiplicity and reduces everything to a radical and violent simplification: Yes or No! In the end there is no way to take the complexity and know the position and movement of everything in the external real. The only way to act is to take the contextual knowledge of a given real, antagonism, and jump into the situation with a clear yes or no.
In terms of the German Idealist tradition, we are dealing with a difference here that is essential for our contemporary constellation of knowledge. When one is thinking in terms of the temporality of complex reality, one is thinking of the Absolute as a simple undivided entity that precedes the emergence of subjectivity. It is in this mode that one cannot think of the Absolute as substance but also subject (as we covered in Lectures 12 through 18). When we are capable of thinking the Absolute as substance but also as subject we have to think the eternity of a simple act or cut, where the Absolute is itself a division which retroactively changes what “complex reality” is. In other words, when we are capable of thinking the Absolute as substance but also as subject, we are capable of thinking that “magical moment” where an “infinite pondering crystallizes into a simple “yes” or “no”.” (18)
In order to demonstrate the tension between the historicist evolutionist and the eternal revolutionist consider first a quote from G.K. Chesterton Žižek’s favourite Christian theologian (19):
“The guillotine has many sins, but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it. The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in the axe. The Evolutionist says, “Where do you draw the line?” the Revolutionist answers, “I draw it here: exactly between your head and body.”
And also a Žižekian meditation on Alain Badiou, on the radicality of the subjective act (20):
“It is from here that one can understand why Badiou, the theorist of the Act, has to refer to Eternity: the Act is only conceivable as the intervention of Eternity into time. Historicist evolutionism leads to endless procrastination, the situation is always too complex, there are always further aspects to be accounted for, the pondering of pros and cons is never over.”
Thus, an important point for reflection here is to try our best to incorporate into the understand its own blind spot, its inability to see its own radical collapse, its own “totalitarian” moment of decision.
Now if you will allow me this leads to a very meta-level analysis where we can attempt to approach the “christological” moment of historicist evolutionary process itself. This is ironic in the sense that eternal or religious knowing is so obviously the unthought repressed dimension of the evolutionary worldview. However, when we think the Absolute as substance but also subject we can inscribe the process of the emergence of evolutionary knowing into the historical process itself. When we do this we recognize that there was a moment in the symbolic chain where a series of identities were coming to understand the historical constitution of being, and that this symbolic chain itself collapsed into a moment where one figure stood out from the rest as the foundation for further evolutionary knowing. In other words, before the rise of “Darwin” and “natural selection” as signifiers holding together the field of evolutionary sciences there was a multiplicity of naturalists attempting to understand how to turn biology into a proper science. In this field any number of thinkers could have emerged as the “totalizing figure”, it is only in retrospect that we can piece together the linear progressive teleology that narrativizes Darwin was the figure of this transformation.
To end this meditation let us once again consider the field of politics. Zizek wants to bring our attention to the difference between dialectical sublation (or idealization) and sublimation (the movement of sexual energy). By focusing on the difference between sublation and sublimation he is asking us to focus on a potential minimal difference between Hegel and Lacan.
In Hegel dialectical sublation is the process whereby all particular entities are included into an idealized totality. For example, even though all of the particular politicians we see on the left hand side of this representation lost to Trump in the 2016 presidential election, they are still maintained and subsumed by the dialectical totality. This is sublation. All of the particular figures are within the new ideal totalizing structure.
On the other hand, sublimation is something slightly different. Sublimation is recognizing that in every process of historical sublation there is always a remainder which does not quite fit within the new totality. In other words, all of the particulars do not recognize the figure of the new totality as the ideal sublation. This is how Lacan recognizes the “non-sublated” remainder which characterizes the coincidence between the field of politics and sexuality. To quote Žižek directly, sublimation takes the “non-sublated remainder of the Real and elevates it directly into the embodiment of the impossible Thing.” (21)
In other words, when we think sublation and sublimation together we cannot think of a peaceful harmonious totality that rests in its idealization, but rather a totality at war with itself, where an impossibility is repeated, and it is this impossibility which holds the entire edifice together. Now we should hold this thought close to our reflection as it is the key to our continuation of this interlude in the next lecture.
This brings us to the end of Lecture 19 focused on Part 1 of Interlude 3 – King, Rabble, War… and Sex. In this lecture we focused most specifically on the function of the King in the symbolic social substance, inclusive of its paradoxes and antagonisms vis-a-vis contingent identity.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Interlude 3 – King, Rabble, War… and Sex. p. 417.
(2) ibid. p. 418.
(4) ibid. p. 418-419.
(5) ibid. p. 421.
(7) ibid. p. 422.
(10) ibid. p. 424.
(12) ibid. p. 424-425.
(13) ibid. p. 425.
(16) ibid. p. 427.
(17) ibid. p. 426.
(18) ibid. p. 427.