In the ninth masterclass on Žižek’s philosophy we will be focusing one of Žižek’s core theoretical figures: Jacques Lacan.
For Žižek, he sees psychoanalysis as a 20th century form of knowledge that helps us to bridge with what emerged in German Idealism in the 19th century. This is achieved because, in psychoanalysis, with the discovery of the unconscious, we are able to go deeper into the thing-in-itself, by understanding the structure of the unconscious as a narrative, or a form of language.
This discovery of the unconscious as an autonomous form of language, or as Freud said, a repetition automatism, means that the ego, is fundamentally de-centered. The ego is de-centered in relation to a structure of linguistic knowledge that it does not fully know or understand, and cannot integrate. This means that the ego is not the ruler or master of its own house, but needs to be humble to approach this unknown dimension of itself.
In this process, the emergence of psychoanalysis as a knowledge, Lacan remains true and faithful to this Freudian discovery, and attempts to work through this discovery with structural linguistics, and other forms of 20th century knowledge that Freud did not have access to.
Žižek sees this motion of the Lacanian form of psychoanalysis, as a true repetition of the Freudian discovery which brings out new dimensions of the unconscious for us to reflect on in 21st century philosophy.
During the time of Lacan’s career, he positioned himself as an anti-philosopher. This meant that Lacan understood that the discovery Lacan made of the unconscious, fundamentally went against some of the presuppositions of philosophy throughout all of history, of the nature of the self.
Of course, Freud was aware of this, but Lacan even deepened his understanding of how wrong philosophical presuppositions of the self were in regards to this de-centered nature. For philosophers before psychoanalysis, the self was seen as a central substantial ego, which was self-transparent, which had a knowledge structure that it understood fully.
However, with the discovery of the unconscious, and with the discovery of a structure of language which was unaware to the ego, this meant that the subject was de-centered internally, in relation to its own knowledge practices. This also introduces the idea that the subject is fundamentally a libidinal historical entity. Such a fact is often never identified in pre-psyhcoanlaytic philosophical writings, or even post-psychoanalytic writings, in figures like Heidegger.
However, even if Lacan positions himself as an anti-philosopher, he also frequently engages with philosophy, with figures like Plato, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, and in some sense, tries to rethink these figures with the discovery of psychoanalysis.
This psychoanalytic retroactive understanding of philosophy helps us make sense of what it means to attain and work with absolute knowing. When a subject has attained and integrated absolute knowing, it means the subject has integrated, or started to integrate its unconscious knowledge, its own de-centered core.
This, according to Lacanian psychoanalysis, brings us not to an end or closure, but to a mystery of desire. This mystery of desire, and location of absolute in a becoming, can be worked with, by focusing on internal paradoxes, knots and contradictions. What this means is that when the self has located its own internal paradoxes, knots and contradictions in relation to its most fundamental desire, this working through in the symbolic structure is the location of pushing the absolute further, of expanding the absolute.
In this sense, Žižek often uses metaphors of an alien inhuman core, as the true realm of the subjects becoming. In other words, for Žižek, the true subject’s becoming is not the external outside and it is not the self-transparent ego, but rather the de-centered core within itself, what is often referred to as an extimate core, which is alien to the subject, and which is first experienced by the subject as a radical otherness.
Of course, in the process of working through paradoxes, knots and contradictions, the subject can become more aware of this alien inhuman core, and transform itself radically in relation to this becoming.
Ultimately then, what Žižek is concerned with in relating to Lacan, is deconstructing and negating false masters. Masters who would try to tell us what the world is in-itself, or masters that would try to convince us that they are self-transparent, a substantial ego, that is fully aware of its knowledge.
What the discovery of psychoanalysis and the unconscious means, is that in order to truly emancipate oneself, one has to align with the core of one’s unconscious desire, and when one does this, one opens oneself into a confrontation with a truth that is difficult, fundamentally, to integrate into one’s everyday persona.
This is because the unconscious is incompatible with our social and physical reality. The unconscious as a wish fulfilment has no room for otherness, no room for any constraints or forces that would prevent its opening, and prevent its “yes”, its affirmation. As Žižek has said, the unconscious knows no, no.
This force of the unconscious is a type of language, it is structured like a language. In Žižek’s philosophy it is often referred to as an inhuman vision and voice, a vision and a voice in images and symbols which have a desire of their own, and which fundamentally move the subject independent of the ego’s will, or independent of the ego’s desires.
In that sense, the true master, is nothing but the unconscious form of knowledge itself.
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