In this video we introduce lecture 28 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 2 of Chapter 8 – Lacan as a Reader of Hegel: The Lacanian Prosopopoeia. In this work we explore the notion of the big Other as a coherent universe of meaning, which is then broken down in and by analytic questioning to the level of subjective destitution.
Starting with a quote connected from our last lecture (1):
“The mode of appearance of the Cunning of Reason is irony, which for Hegel lies at the very core of dialectics: “All dialectics lets hold that which should hold, treats it as if it fully holds, and, in this way, it lets it destroy itself — the general irony of the world”.”
This is an important starting point for this lecture because we are given a key to the dialectical relationship between our subjectivity and the world: that of unconscious attachment and letting go. Who has not structured their world around a strong attachment as if it would persist forever, only to realize in tragedy that all things are in the end taken from us, leaving us with our bare void of subjectivity? This is key to our focus on Lacanian prosopopoeia because it is in this speech where we can be brought to the crushing reality of our unconscious attachments, and be made to felt the bare nakedness of our signifying chain.
Consider again (from the last lecture) the subject that holds tightly onto a conceptual universe structured by God and religion; Earth and nature; American and nationalism; or even physics and science. For the religious subject God is everything and is always with them; for the naturalist subject the Earth is everything and must be preserved indefinitely; for the nationalist subject their country is everything and fully identified with; or for the scientific subject the physical universe is all with no exception. What all such structures fail to recognize is that it is their very subjective disposition vis-a-vis a coherent other which unites them in an illusion. This coherent other is what prevents direct contact from the void point of their own subjectivity, and thus keeps them aligned with an image outside of themselves, which will forever keep them from true and free speech with the other (forms of subjectivity).
That is why Žižek’s central thesis in Less Than Nothing is that there is no such “big Other” that can guarantee meaning and coherence in this life and world. If one subjects oneself to a Socratic dialogue, or a psychoanalytic session, then one will easily find that any universe of guaranteed meaning is an illusion of one’s own speech and reflects a certain matrix of identification with one’s own social constellation. It is the crumbling of these worlds of coherent meaning which allows the subject to (finally) make contact with its own truth.
Ultimately, whether in the philosophical tradition of Socrates, or the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud, this truth is that one’s own subjectivity is finite and mortal, that there is no image that can save one from the abyssal fate that we all face. Thus, one can gain a type of singular meaning, and build a process of coherencing and consistencing (as opposed to a totality), which can make sense in the face of confrontation with death. We have the freedom to choose how we will die.
Here Žižek focuses on the method deployed by Socrates that can achieve such an effect (2):
“With his method of questioning, Socrates merely pushes his opponent-partner to make his abstract idea more concrete (“What do you mean by justice, by happiness…?”), and, in this way, lets him reveal the inconsistency of his position and lets this position destroy itself. The method does not impose external standards onto an idea, it measures the idea by its own standards and lets it destroy itself through its own self-explication.”
The brilliance in this method lies in the opposite of the conventional approach of argumentation and discourse, where a subject tries to use argumentation to convince the other that his position is wrong or inconsistent. Socrates reveals inconsistency by simply provoking the other to more clearly and concretely explain their idea. In this making clear and concrete, the subject qua other realizes in their own speech that their idea is inconsistent, and loses faith in it by their own work or subjective effort.
Before the procedure one may, for example, believe that one is acting in relation to a totally coherent notion of “happiness” or “justice”, or “truth”, or “goodness”, that pre-exists their own being (as in the conventional Platonic notions of the Absolute).
However, after the Socratic procedure, it is not that one falls into an abyssal nihilism where there is only death, but rather realizes that it as a historical subject is responsible for the emergent determination of happiness, justice, truth and goodness, from its own self-positing and working as a historical entity facing extreme limitations. The subject in this mode is capable of embodying these notions despite the extreme limitation of death, and is capable of making sense of these notions in-and-for itself.
Here is a description of the effect of the Socratic method (3):
“What this means is that the very presence of Socrates, his questioning attitude, transforms the speech of his partner into prosopopoeia: “When the participants in a conversation are confronted with Socrates, their words all of a sudden start to sound like quotes and cliches, like borrowed voices; the participants are confronted with the abyss of what authorizes them in their speech, and the moment they try to rely on the usual supports of authorization, authorization fails. It is as if an inaudible echo of irony adds itself to their speech, an echo which hollows out their words and their voice, and their voice appears as borrowed and expropriated.”
Thus, what one took to be the absolute idea (which also applies to previous examples of the religious, naturalist, scientific or nationalist subject) is that the absolute idea is nothing but a big mess of symbolism which ultimately has no other that can guarantee it. The thick density of their symbolic edifice collapses into nothing from its own hollowing out in deep questioning.
The hollowing out process can work in both external and internal forms. For example, there can be forms of subjectivity that align their absolute idea to the height of civilisation (think here Plato’s Philosopher Kings); but also there can be forms of subjectivity that align their absolute idea to the depths of their mind (think here Jung’s Transcendental Archetypes). Both forms, for Žižek, are misleading and ultimately need to be “hollowed out” for the subject to confront both its own void of subjectivity, and also the void at the core of the historical social process.
Now we can confront the genius of the method that gets instituted in psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis the other as analyst is not meant to reify your perfect image of the absolute idea, but is rather a figure that, in perpetual questioning of your speech (“what do you mean by that?” “why do you think that?”) forces the subject to eventually confront, what Žižek calls, the “indivisible remainder” at the core of one’s subjectivity: the objet petit a. The object petit a is not a big other guaranteeing meaning, but rather the excess of symbolism itself which structures the subject’s deepest desire to return to origin and the primal scene of its own emergence.
In this sense most speech in human history is actually “prosopopoeia” or a “figure of speech in which an absent or imaginary person is represented as speaking or acting” (like if a “theologian” and a “physicist” were in an argument with each other).
In the situation where a theologian and physicist are in an argument it is not that one is right and the other is wrong. As in a theologian saying “I don’t believe in science and physics” as holding the key to the origin; “I believe in religion and God” as holding a key to the origin!
Or vice versa: as in a scientist saying “I don’t believe in religion and God” as holding the key to the origin; “I believe in science and physics” as holding a key to the origin!
Instead, it is that they are both dramatising an absent void at the core of the historical process: that of the fact that there is no big other. The psychoanalyst is someone who simply helps subjects realize this imaginary action at the heart of their discourse.
Such dramas are not just relegated to abstract intellectual disagreements about ontology, but also the basic and elementary coordinates of our love relationships. In such relationships we can meet the forms of emptiness reached in analysis much more directly, brutally and unexpectedly if our image is not returned or reflected by the other. In this situation we say “I love you” because we have an image in our mind of the other as a reflection of our deepest desire (the indivisible remainder of the symbolic chain).
However, if the response to our statement is “I don’t love you”, then we immediately break the image and fall into our own abyss. We cannot help but realize that our entire universe of meaning has collapsed and we must face our bare loneliness.
This is what Žižek through Lacan refers to as “subjective destitution”. Subjective destitution is when the gap at the core of oneself is made present in deep feeling. This gap usually exists in the space between the enunciation of content and the enunciated content (like the previous examples of the religious, naturalist, scientific or nationalist subject). The fictional identity of the subject is held together by the accurate reflection of their image in the other (in the case of the religious subject, the belief in God; in the case of the naturalist subject, the belief in the Earth; and so forth).
Subjectivity in this form is in the first mode of negating the gap, of pretending it doesn’t exist. In this situation one fully identifies with the coherence and consistency of one’s language instead of working the gap of the self.
Here in the confrontation with the gap itself, one recognizes that one cannot find a totally coherent and consistent system of knowledge which guarantees truth. Instead, in the truth of the gap, one is offered the chance to create oneself ex-nihilo, and thus can express a truth in the guise of fiction. From this one can more deeply express the singularity of oneself, and can break from the social semblances that mask the subject from itself (like the historical categories used as examples in this video).
Before this recognition of the gap and the confrontation with subjective destitution there is the possibility for the emergence of a radical split in the subject. This radical split in the subject can be found in the distinction between the actual lived life of the subject and the virtual imaginary of the subject (which now has alternative mediums for inner and isolated expression). Consider the subject in real life that is shy and boring at a party. This very same subject may live out an inner private life of being sadistic or seductive, as in its pornographic fantasies or video game explorations. Here Žižek’s point is that, for the subject before subjective destitution, it is indeed the virtual and isolated fantasy life that may be more true and real then the actual lived embodied performance. The actual lived embodied performance may be a false image that is being mediated by a false notion of the big other.
Here there is a strange dialectical reversal upon confrontation with subjective destitution (5):
“The shift from me speaking through some figure of the Other to the I itself as prosopopoeia? From “I cannot tell the truth about myself directly; this most intimate truth is so painful that I can only articulate it through another, by adopting the mask, talking through the mask, of another entity,” to “truth itself is talking through me”? This reversal involves the dialectical shift from predicate to subject — from “what I am saying is true” to “truth is talking through me.”
In other words, before subjective destitution, the subject pretends that it is speaking the truth directly, as a coherent and consistent whole; whereas, after subjective destitution, one realizes that one has to do less, and that the truth can move through me much easier if I let go of a false control of my image.
Thus, the illusion to overcome is a type of “primordial prosopopoeia” (ultimately back to earliest formation of subjectivity) which conditions the identity of the subject in professionalisation or adultification. Here to quote Žižek (6):
“There is a transcendent ventriloquism that makes people believe that something that was said on earth came from heaven.”
From this perspective the overcoming of the illusion of the guarantee of meaning is realizing that all speech that has ever been spoken is coming from here on Earth, and that the truth of all such speech is moving through our collective body, including our own right now.
Consider the way these transcendent figures can emerge on our historical horizon in the form of a judge or figure of the law, the form of a physicist or natural scientist, or the form of a religious priest or pope. For Lacan and Žižek, these are the figures of the big Other meant to guarantee meaning and truth where there is in fact nothing to guarantee.
To quote Žižek (7):
“This apparently absurd logic renders perfectly the functioning of the symbolic order in which the symbolic mask matters more than the direct reality of the individual who wears it. It involves the by now familiar structure of what Freud called “fetishistic disavowal”: “I know very well that things are the way I see them, that the person in front of me is a corrupt weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge, so that when he speaks, it is the law itself which speaks through him.”
This interpretation means that, although there is no big Other, we nonetheless, in our historical social performance, must still respect the appearances as appearances. We cannot simply deconstruct the judge, the physicists or the priest (as the opposite of strongly believing in them). It is not our job to do that, since there is no big Other as the truth, the truth will happen in its own time, without our help. These figures are not fully aware of what they are saying or doing, for there is something in them more than them that is speaking them.
To visualize this consider the position of truth before subjective destitution: one here feels the locus of cognition is “me directly” or “my agency” (“I really believe in X”). However, after subjective destitution, one is constitutive de-centered, for the truth of the Other is speaking independent of what “I really believe”. Here is where one can find Žižek’s use of Niels Bohr’s horseshoe: “I hear it works even if you don’t believe in it”.
At the same time, when we consider both ends of the process, we have to recognize that it is neither me nor the other that is the absolute truth, but rather the gap that constitutes the two. The gap in the failures and inconsistencies of both myself and the other is the “absolute truth” which remains constant through the transformation as a whole.
If the absolute truth is the gap, and all of our speech is ultimately inconsistent and incoherent, how are we to handle this practically, on the deepest subjective levels? Žižek offers a model in his reading of Great Expectations, not only the book on the first order, but its effect on society as it moved through multiple editions. In the first book, the main love story between Pip and Estella ends unhappily, in the dissolution of their relationship and their parting. However, due to public pressure, future editions of the book ended with a happy ending. This is the force of the big Other, attempting to guarantee meaning and coherence in the universe of love (everything must end “happily ever after”).
However, it is in the original edition where we can find a clue to evading this torturous pressure of the big Other. In this edition, as Pip and Estella articulate their parting and remaining friends at a distance (9):
““We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench. “And will continue friends apart,” said Estella. I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquillight they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
What we should pay attention to is the lines “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”. What this means is that not only did they never speak again, but that they also did not even keep memories of their parting. It is the memories that linger from the past where we are truly tortured, and it is this torture that forces us to demand a “happy ending” so we can be free from these memories of absolute loss.
For Žižek, such a recognition, that of “now shadow of another parting from it”, which brings us to the level of Hegel’s Absolute Knowing. Instead of seeing this possibility has a tragedy that will haunt us forever, we change our perspective, and see it as a radical opening of new possibility. In this reflective shift, nothing substantial or physical changes, it is merely our subjective reflexivity that changes.
Thus, to conceptualise the function of the truth in love relationships: we are forever between a temporal two, of our self and the other. The absolute gap is always a threat because it is absolute. It will eventually claim both identities, and all of our speech. Here we can see the subjective effort of loving despite this fact that is the true success. This means we do not need to see eternal union as the success, and thus do not need to be haunted when it ends.
Consider, for example, the movie Her, where the relationship between Theodore and Samantha ends in Samantha’s transcendence from the world, leaving Theodore with new perspective on himself and his past relationships.
Or consider the movie La La Land, where the relationship between Sebastian and Mia ends with Mia finding a different partner and Sebastian opening his own jazz bar, both finding a new and better life for themselves in the dissolution of their bond.
(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 8: Lacan as a Reader of Hegel. p. 513.
(2) ibid. p. 513-514.
(3) ibid. p. 514.
(4) ibid. p. 515.
(5) ibid. p. 516-517.
(6) ibid. p. 517.
(8) in video.
(9) ibid. p. 519.