From Joyce-the-Symptom
to the Symptom of Power

by Slavoj Zizek

The Statue of Liberty, Raymond Pettibon
ink on paper, 1995

What does Lacan's thesis on "Joyce-the-symptom" aim at? Joyce's famous statement that he wrote Finnegans Wake in order to keep literary historians busy for the next 400 years has to be read against the background of Lacan's assertion that, within a psychoanalytic cure, a symptom is always addressed at the analyst and as such points forward towards its interpretation. The "modernism" of Joyce resides in the fact that his works, at least Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, are not simply external to their interpretation but, as it were, in advance take into account their possible interpretations and enter into dialogue with them. Insofar as an interpretation or theoretical explanation of a work of art endeavours to "frame" its object, one can say that this modernist dialectics provides another example of how the frame is always included in, is a part of, the framed content: in modernism, theory about the work is comprised in the work, the work is a kind of preemptive strike at possible theories about itself. On that account, it is inappropriate to reproach Joyce for no longer writing for a naive reader capable of an immediate consumption of his works, but for a reflected reader, who is only able to read with an eye on possible theoretical interpretations of what he is reading, in short, for a literary scientist: such a "reflected" approach in no way diminishes our enjoyment in the work - quite the contrary, it supplements our reading with a surplus-enjoyment which is one of the trademarks of true modernism.

What interests us here, however, is the general background of the all- pervasive reflectivity of everyday life within which this Joyce'a attitude is inscribed. In one of his letters, Freud refers to the well-known joke about the newly married who, when asked by his friend how his wife looks, how beautiful she is, answers: "I personally don't like her, but that's a matter of taste." The paradox of this answer does not point towards an attitude of selfish calculation ("True, I don't like her, but I married her for other reasons - her wealth, the social influence of her parents..."). Its crucial feature is that, by providing this answer, the subject pretends to assume the standpoint of universality from which "to be likeable" appears as an idiosyncrasy, as a contingent "pathological" feature which, as such, is not to be taken into consideration. The joke therefore relies on the impossible/untenable position of enunciation of the newly married: from this position, marriage appears as an act which belongs to the domain of universal symbolic determinations and should as such be independent of personal idiosyncrasies - as if the very notion of marriage does not involve precisely the "pathological" fact of liking a particular person for no particular rational reason.

One encounters the same "impossible" position of enunciation in contemporary "postmodern" racism. We all remember one of the highlights of Bernstein's West Side Story, "Officer Krupke", the song in which the delinquents provide the amazed policeman with the socio-psychological explanation of their attitude: they are victims of disadvantageous social circumstances and unfavorable family relations... When asked about the reasons for their violence against foreigners, neo-Nazi skinheads in Germany tend do give the same answers: they suddenly start to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, etc. The same goes even for Zhirinovsky: in interviews to the "enlightened" Western press, he also speaks the language of pop-sociologists and psychologists. That is to say, there are two main pop-scientific cliches about the rise of populist demagogues: they feed on the frustrations of ordinary people at the economic crisis, and social insecurity; the populist totalitarian leader is a distorted personality who, by means of his aggressivity, abreacts the traumatic personal past, the lack of genuine parental love and support in his childhood - the very two reasons quoted by Zhirinovsky when he is asked to explain his success: "If there were a healthy economy and security for the people, I would lose all the votes I have."; "It seems to have been my fate that I never experienced real love or friendship." This is what Lacan had in mind when he claimed that "there is no metalanguage": what Zhirinovsky or skinheads assert is a lie even if, or rather precisely insofar as, it is factually true - their assertions are belied by their very position of enunciation, i.e. by the neutral, disengaged position from which the victim is able to tell the objective truth about itself. And it is easy to imagine a more theoretically updated version of such a false attitude - a racist, for example, who claims he is not the true author of his violent verbal outbursts against the African-Americans or Jews ar Arabs: the charges against him presuppose traditional metaphysical notions which have to be deconstructed; in his performative utterance, which by itself perpetrated an act of violence, he was merely referring to, quoting, drawing from the historically available stock of insults, so that the entire historical tradition, not himself, must be put to trial; the very notion that there exists a self-identical responsible subject who can be held accountable for racist outbursts is an illusion already denounced by Nietzsche who proved that the deed or rather the doing is original, and that the "doer" behind the doing is a symbolic fiction, a metaphysical hypostasis, etc, etc.

This impossible position of enunciation characterizes the contemporary cynical attitude: in it, ideology can lay its cards on the table, reveal the secret of its functioning, and still continue to function. Exemplary is here Robert Zemeckis' Forest Gump, a film which offers as the point of identification, as the ideal ego, a simpleton, and thus directly asserts stupidity as a key category of ideology. The principal ideological axis of Forest Gump is the opposition of the hero and his life-long love. Gump is a blessedly-innocent simpleton with a "heart of gold" who executes the orders of his superiors undisturbed by any ideological qualms or fanatical devotions. Renouncing even a minimum of "cognitive mapping"(Jameson), he is caught in a tautological symbolic machine towards which he lacks any ironic distance - a passive witness and/or participant of great historico-political battles whose significance he doesn't even try to understand (he never asks himself why he has to fight in Vietnam, why he is suddenly sent to China to play ping-pong, etc.). His love is a girl fully engaged in the ideological struggles of the last decades (anti-Vietnam demonstrations, etc.) - in a word, she participates in history and endeavours to understand what is effectively going on. The first thing to note about the film is that Gump is ideology at its purest: the opposition of Gump and his girlfriend does not stand for the opposition between the extra-ideological zero-degree of social life and ideological struggles which divide the social body; it rather exemplifies the tension between Ideology in its zero-degree (the meaningless ideological machine) and the antagonisms Ideology endeavours to master and/or render invisible. Gump, this slow-witted, automatic executor of orders, who doesn't even try to understand anything, gives body to the impossible pure subject of Ideology, to the ideal of a subject in whom Ideology would function flawlessly. The ideological mystification of the film resides in the fact that it presents Ideology at its purest as non- ideology, as extra-ideological good-natured participation in social life. That is to say, the ultimate lesson of the film is: do not try to understand, obey, and you shall succeed! (Gump ends up as a famous millionaire.) His girl, who endeavours to acquire a kind of "cognitive mapping" of the social situation, is symbolically punished for her thirst of knowledge: at the end of the film, she dies of AIDS. Forest Gump reveals the secret of ideology (the fact that its successful functioning involves the stupidity of its subjects) in such an open way that, in different historical circumstances, it would undoubtedly have subversive effects; today, however, in the era of cynicism, ideology can afford to reveal the secret of its functioning (its constitutive idiocy, which the traditional, pre-cynical ideology had to keep secret) without in the least affecting its efficiency.

This cynical attitude also provides a key for today's resurgent ethnic and religious "fundamentalisms". Lacan already emphasized how a cynic doesn't believe in words (in the "symbolic efficiency"), but only in the real of jouissance - and is the Nation-Thing not today's supreme embodiment of political jouissance? This accounts for the paradox that, today, the cynically "enlightened" intellectuals who are no longer able to believe in any social Cause are the first to fall prey to "fanatical" ethnic fundamentalism. The link between cynicism and (ethnic or religious) fundamentalism does not concern primarily the fact that, in today's "society of spectacle", fundamentalism itself is just another mediatic show and, as such, feigned, a cynical mask of power interests, but rather its opposite: the cynical distance itself relies on the unacknowledged attachment to an ethnic (or religious) Thing - the more this attachment is disavowed, the more violent its sudden eruption... We should always bear in mind that, within our ideological space, the reference to one's Nation is the supreme form of ideology in the guise of anti- or non-ideology (in short, of ideology tout court): "let's leave aside our petty political and ideological struggles, it's the fate of our nation which is at stake now".

We encounter a homologous falsity in the attitude of those traditional psychoanalysts who prefer their patients to be "naive" and ignorant of psychoanalytic theory - this ignorance allegedly enables them to produce "purer" symptoms, i.e. symptoms in which their unconscious is not too much distorted by their rational knowledge. For example, the incestuous dream of a patient who already knows all about the Oedipus complex will be far more distorted, resorting to more complex strategies to conceal its desire, than the dream of a "naive" patient. We all have a longing for the good old heroic times of psychoanalysis, in which a patient told his analyst "Last night, I had a dream about killing a dragon and then advancing through a thick forest to a castle...", whereupon the analyst triumphantly answered "Elementary, my dear patient! Dragon is your father and the dream expresses your desire to kill him in order to return to the safe haven of the maternal castle...". Lacan's wager is here exactly the opposite: the subject of psychoanalysis is the modern subject of science, which means - among other things - that his symptoms are by definition never "innocent", they are always addressed to the analyst qua subject supposed to know (their meaning) and thus as it were imply, point towards, their own interpretation. For that reason, one is quite justified in saying that we have symptoms which are Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian, etc., i.e. whose reality involves implicit reference to some psychoanalytic theory. Today, the "free associations" of a typical educated analysand consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of their disturbances...

So, at the political level, the problem today is how to counteract this "reflected" racism: is there a specific kind of knowledge which renders impossible the act, a knowledge which can no longer be co-opted by cynical distance ("I know what I am doing, but I am nevertheless doing it")? Or must we leave behind the domain of knowledge and have recourse to a direct, extra-symbolic, bodily intervention, or to an intuitive "Enlightenment", a change of subjective attitude, beyond knowledge? The fundamental wager of psychoanalysis is that there exists such a knowledge which produces effects in the Real, that we can "undo things (symptoms) with words" - the whole point of psychoanalytic cure is that it operates exclusively at the level of "knowledge" (words), yet has effects in the Real of bodily symptoms.

How, then, are we to specify this "knowledge" which, even in our era of cynicism, brings about effects in the Real? Perhaps the best approach to it is via the opposition between violent coercion and "genuine" subordination. This opposition, of course, is never to be accepted at its face value: subordination (of women to men in a patriarchal society, of a "lower" to a "higher" race, of a colonized to the colonizer, etc.), precisely when it is experienced as "genuine" and "sincere" by the subordinated subjects themselves, presents a case of ideological delusion beneath which critical analysis should be able to discern the traces of (internalized, "naturalized") external brute coercion. However, what about the far more sinister inverse operation which makes us (mis)perceive as mere coercion to which we submit ourselves in a wholly external way, something that effectively has a hold on us "from within"? In a first approach, i.e. at an immediate-abstract level, our yielding to the raw coercion is, of course, to be contrasted to a relationship towards some "genuine" authority in which I experience my subordination to it as the fulfillment of my personality, not as something that thwarts my self-realization - by way of subordinating myself to a genuine authority, I realize my own essence (in a traditional patriarchal society, for example, a woman is supposed to fulfill her inner vocation by subordinating herself to her husband). The "spirit" of such an immediate opposition between external coercion and genuine subordination is, however, profoundly anti-Hegelian: Hegel's wager is precisely to demonstrate how the two opposites pass over into each other (see his exemplary analyses of "noble" and "low" consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit). On the one hand, a close dialectical analysis renders visible how our external subordination to brutal coercion is never simply external, i.e. how this very experience of the force to which we yield as simply external is an illusion of abstract consciousness. Suffice it to recall the traditional liberal attitude towards State as a "mechanical" instrument of external coercion which limits my freedom: what this liberal individualist attitude fails to notice is how this limitation of my freedom involved in the notion of a citizen is not external but the self- limitation which actually increases my true freedom, i.e. elevates me to the level of a free rational being - that part of me which resists the State order, which experiences this order as a threat, is the unfree aspect of my personality. In it, I am effectively enslaved to the contingent "pathological" features of my non-rational nature, to the insignificant whims of my particular nature - as such, this part has to be sacrificed if I am to become a truly free individual. Perhaps an even better example is provided by an adolescent who resists his father's authority and experiences it as external "repression", misrecognizing thereby the extent to which this authority holds him in sway "from within" and guarantees the integrity of his self-experience - witness the disorientation, the sense of loss, which takes place when the paternal authority effectively disintegrates ... As a true Hegelian, Lacan was fully justified in inverting the commonplace about the liberating potential of the unconscious impulses which resist the "repression" of the Authority to which we submit consciously: the Master is unconscious, he exerts his hold upon us in the unconscious. On the other hand, insofar as "human being" implies the infinite freedom of subjectivity, an element of falsehood sticks to every allegedly "genuine" subordination: beneath it, there always lurks a hypocritical calculation or a fear of raw violence. The dialectic of liberation resides precisely in breaking the spell of "genuine" authority, in denouncing it as a mask of brutal coercion; exemplary is here (again) the case of the feminist critique that discerns the traces of brutal coercion in what, within the patriarchal space, appears as woman's "natural" vocation. At a more general level, one can assert that "progress" does not consist only in reducing the amount of violent coercion but also in recognizing violent coercion in what was previously perceived as the "natural" state of things. The logic of this recognition involves the properly Hegelian dialectical tension between the In-itself and the For-itself: it is wrong simply to claim that the patriarchal subordination of women always was founded on violent coercion and that liberating reflection just brings to light an already existing state of things; yet it is no less wrong to claim that, prior to feminist critical reflection, things just took their course without any antagonistic tension and that violence becomes violence only when it is experienced as such. The paradox of reflection is that it retroactively makes the past state of things what it always-already "truly was": by means of the feminist retroactive gaze, the past is retroactively posited in its "truth".

On that account, one should be very careful not to reify the psychic impact of a certain sexual practice into its immediate property. For some feminists, for example, fellatio stands for the worst humiliation and debasement of the woman - what if, on the contrary, we imagine an intersubjective relationship in which fellatio bears witness to men's humiliation, to his abasement to a passive bearer of his phallus, a plaything in woman's hands? Our point here is not merely that the relationship of domination in a sexual contact is always tainted with ambiguity, but that it is the very ambiguity, "undecidability", of a Master/Servant relationship that "sexualizes" it. In the minimal dispositif of sexual intercourse, the one stares blindly, intoxicated with enjoyment, while the other "works" - who is here the Master and who the Servant? Who effectively serves whom as the means of his or her enjoyment? Is not the apparent Master the Slave of his Slave, is not the true Master he who demands of his Slave that he play the role of Master? In the standard (hetero)sexual act, man "takes", "makes use of", a woman - but with a small shift in perspective, it is possible to assert that he effectively reduces himself to an instrument of her enjoyment, subordinating himself to the insatiable superego-injunction "Encore!" (the title of Lacan's Seminar XX).

What we must avoid here, apropos of such dialectical passages of an opposite into its other, is the lure of symmetry: Hegel's point is not that the two reversals (of "genuine" authority into external coercion and vice versa) are somehow exchangeable, that they follow the same logic. Their asymmetry is best epitomized by means of reference to the couple of cynicism and irony. The fundamental gesture of cynicism is to denounce "genuine authority" as a pose, whose sole effective content is raw coercion or submission for the sake of some material gain, while an ironist doubts if a cold calculating utilitarian is really what he pretends to be, i.e,. he suspects that this appearance of calculating distance can conceal a much deeper commitment. The cynicist is quick to denounce the ridiculous pretense of solemn authority; the ironist is able to discern true attachment in dismissive disdain or in feigned indifference. In matters of love, for example, the cynicist excels in denigrating exalted declarations of deep spiritual affinity as a stratagem to exploit sexually or otherwise the partner, whereas the ironist is prone to ascertain, in a melancholic mood, how the brutal making sport of our partner, even humiliation, often just expresses our unreadiness to admit to ourselves the full depth of our attachment... Perhaps, the artist of irony par excellence was none other than Mozart - suffice it to recall his masterpiece Cosi fan tutte. The trio "Soave il vento", of course, can be read in a cynical way, as the faked imitation of a sad farewell which barely conceals a glee at the coming erotic intrigue; the ironic point of it is that the subjects who sing it, inclusive of don Alfonzo, the manipulator who staged the event, are nonetheless authentically taken with the sadness of the situation - this unexpected authenticity is what eludes the grasp of the cynicist.

In a first approach, cynicism may appear to involve a much more radical distance than irony: is irony not a benevolent ridicule "from above", from within the confines of the symbolic order, i.e. the distance of a subject who views the world from the elevated position of the big Other towards those who are enticed by vulgar earthly pleasures, an awareness of their ultimate vanity, while cynicism relies on the "earthly" point-of-view which undermines "from below" our belief in the binding power of the Word, of the symbolic pact, and advances the substance of enjoyment as the only thing that really matters - Socrates versus Diogenes the Cynicist? The true relationship is, however, the reverse: from the right premise that "the big Other doesn't exist", i.e. that the symbolic order is a fiction, the cynicist draws the wrong conclusion that the big Other doesn't "function", that its role can simply be discounted - due to his failure to notice how the symbolic fiction nonetheless regulates his relationship to the real of enjoyment, he remains all the more enslaved to the symbolic context that defines his access to the Thing- Enjoyment, caught in the symbolic ritual he publicly mocks. This, preciely, is what Lacan has in mind with his "les non-dupes errent": those who are not duped by the symbolic fiction are most deeply in error. The ironist's apparently "softer" approach, on the other hand, far more effectively unbinds the nodal points that hold together the symbolic universe, i.e. it is the ironist who effectively assumes the non-existence of the Other.

A common notion of psychoanalysis, of course, makes it almost an epitome of cynicism as an interpretative attitude: does psychoanalytic interpretation not involve in its very essence the act of discerning "lower" motivations (sexual lust, unacknowledged aggressivity) behind the apparently "noble" gestures of spiritual elevation of the beloved, of heroic self-sacrifice, etc.? Perhaps, however, this notion is somewhat too slick; perhaps the original enigma that psychoanalysis endeavours to explain is exactly the opposite: how can the effective behaviour of a person who professes his/her freedom from "prejudices" and "moralistic constraints" bear witness to inumerable inner impediments, unavowed prohibitions, etc.? Why does a person free to "enjoy life" engage in systematic "pursuit of unhappiness", methodically organizing his/her failures? What's in it for him/her, what perverse libidinal profit?

Another way to define the trap into which cynicism gets caught is via the difference between the public Law and its obscene underside, the unwritten superego rules: cynicism mocks the public Law from the position of its obscene underside which, consequently, it leaves intact. A personal experience revealed to me this inherent obscenity of Power in a most distastefully-enjoyable way. In the 70s, I did my (obligatory) army service in the old Yugoslav People's Army, in small barracks with no proper medical facilities. In a room which also served as sleeping quarters for a private trained as a medical assistant, once a week a doctor from the nearby military hospital held his consulting hours. On the frame of the large mirror above the wash-basin in this room, the soldier had stuck a couple of postcards of half-naked girls - a standard resource for masturbation in those pre- pornography times, to be sure. When the doctor was paying us his weekly visit, all of us who had reported for medical examination were seated on a long bench alongside the wall opposite the wash-basin and were then examined in turn. So, one day while I was also waiting to be examined, it was the turn of a young, half-illiterate soldier who complained of pains in his penis (which, of course, was in itself sufficient to trigger obscene giggles from all of us, the doctor included): the skin on its head was too tight, so he was unable to draw it back normally. The doctor ordered him to pull down his trousers and demonstrate his trouble; the soldier did so and the skin slid down the head smoothly, though the soldier was quick to add that his trouble occurred only during erection. The doctor then said: "OK, then masturbate, get an erection, so that we can check it!" Deeply embarrassed and red in the face, the soldier began to masturbate in front of all of us but, of course, failed to produce an erection; the doctor then took one of the postcards of half-naked girls from the mirror, held it close to the soldier's head and started to shout at him: "Look! What breasts, what a cunt! Masturbate! How is it that you don't get the erection? What kind of a man are you! Go on, masturbate!" All of us in the room, including the doctor himself, accompanied the spectacle with obscene laughter; the unfortunate soldier himself soon joined us with an embarrassed giggle, exchanging looks of solidarity with us while continuing to masturbate... This scene brought about in me an experience of quasi-epiphany: in nuce, there was everything in it, the entire dispositive of Power - the uncanny mixture of imposed enjoyment and humiliating exercise of Power, the agency of Power which shouts severe orders, but simultaneously shares with us, his subordinates, obscene laughter bearing witness to a deep solidarity...

One could also say that this scene renders the symptom of Power: the grotesque excess by means of which, in a unique short-circuit, attitudes which are officially opposed and mutually exclusive reveal their uncanny complicity, where the solemn agent of Power suddenly starts to wink at us across the table in a gesture of obscene solidarity, letting us know that the thing (i.e. his orders) is not to be taken too seriously and thereby consolidating his power. The aim of the "critique of ideology", of the analysis of an ideological edifice, is to extract this symptomal kernel which the official, public ideological text simultaneously disavows and needs for its undisturbed functioning.

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