Friday June 02 2023



Categories:Others Cultivated…

“How the Non-duped Err”



Slovoj Zizek



How the Non-Duped Err 

“The Unconscious Is Outside”

Forward, Backward


One of the best-known Hollywood legends concerns the final scene of Casablanca. It is said that even during the shooting itself, the director and writers oscillated between different versions of the denouement (Ingrid Bergman leaves with her husband; she stays with Bogart; one of the two men dies). Like most such legends, this one is false, one of the ingredients of the myth of Casablanca constructed afterward (in reality, there were some discussions about possible endings, but they were resolved well before the shooting), but it nevertheless illustrates perfectly how the “quilting point” (point de capiton) functions in a narration. We experience the present ending (Bogart sacrifices his love and Bergman leaves with her husband) as something that “naturally” and “organically” follows from the preceding action, but if we were to imagine another ending—say, for example, that Bergman’s heroic husband were to die and that Bogart were to take his place on the plane for Lisbon together with Bergman—it, too, would be experienced by viewers as something that developed “naturally” out of earlier events. How is this possible, given that the earlier events are the same in both cases? The only answer is, of course, that the experience of a linear “organic” flow of events is an illusion (albeit a necessary one) that masks the fact that it is the ending that retroactively confers the consistency of an organic whole on the preceding events. What is masked is the radical contingency of the enchainment of narration, the fact that, at every point, things might have turned out otherwise. But if this illusion is a result of the very linearity of the narration, how can the radical contingency of the enchainment of events be made visible? The answer is, paradoxically: by proceeding in a reverse way, by presenting the events backward, from the end to the beginning. Far from being just a hypothetical solution, this procedure has been put into practice several times: • J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is a three-act play about the fate of the Conway family. In the first act, we witness a family dinner (that took place twenty years ago) where all the members are busy making enthusiastic plans for the future. The second act takes place in the present, i.e., twenty years later, when the family, now a group of broken people whose plans have failed, are again gathered together. The third act transposes us back twenty years once again and continues the dinner from the first act. The effect of this temporal manipulation is extremely depressing, if not outright horrifying. What is so horrifying, however, is not the passage from the first to the second act (first the enthusiastic plans, then the sad reality), but rather the passage from the second to the third. To see the depressing reality of a group of people whose life projects have been mercilessly thwarted, and then to witness those same people twenty years earlier, when they were still full of hope and unaware of what lay in wait for them, is fully to experience the dashing of hope. • The film Betrayal, based on Harold Pinter’s scenario, tells a trivial story of a love affair. The “trick” of the film is simply that the episodes are arranged in reverse order: first we see the lovers as they encounter each other in an inn a year after their break, then the break itself, then their first conflict, then the passionate climax of the love affair, then their first secret date, and finally the moment when, at a party, they first meet. Such reversals in the order of narration might be expected to provoke an effect of total fatalism: everything is decided in advance, while the protagonists, like puppets, unwittingly play out their roles in an already written script. Closer analysis reveals, however, quite another logic behind the horror provoked by such an ordering of events, a version of the fetishistic split je sais bien, mais quand meme: “I know very well what will follow (because I know in advance the end of the story), but still, I don’t quite believe it, which is why I am filled with anxiety. Will the unavoidable really happen?” In other words, it is precisely the reversal of the temporal order that makes us experience in an almost palpable way the utter contingency of the narrative sequence, i.e., the fact that, at every turning point, things might have taken another direction. Another example of the same paradox is probably also one of the great curiosities of the history of religion: a religion noted for driving its followers toward incessant, frenetic activity is Calvinism, which founds itself on a belief in predestination. It is as if the Calvinist subject were driven by an anxious premonition that, after all, the unavoidable might not happen. This same form of anxiety Ruth Rendell’s excellent crime novel Judgement in Stone, a story of an illiterate maid who—fearing public disgrace if her illiteracy were to become known—kills her employer’s entire family, liberal benefactors who want to help her in every way. The story unfolds linearly except that at the very beginning Rendell reveals the final outcome and at every turning point draws our attention to the chance occurrence that seals the fate of all concerned. When, for example, the daughter of the employer’s family, after some lingering, decides to spend the weekend at home and not with her boyfriend, Rendell comments directly that “her fate was sealed by this arbitrary decision: she missed the last chance to escape the death that awaited her.” Far from transforming the flow of events into a fated enchainment, the eruption of the point of view of the final catastrophe renders palpable the radical contingency of the events. “The Other Must Not Know All” It would be wrong to conclude from the “nonexistence of the big Other,” i.e., from the fact that the big Other is just a retroactive illusion masking the radical contingency of the real, that we can simply suspend this “illusion” and ”see things as they really are.” The crucial point is that this “illusion” structures our (social) reality itself: its disintegration leads to a “loss of reality”—or, as Freud puts it in The Future of an Illusion, after conceiving religion as an illusion: “Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well?” 1 One of the key scenes in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, the charity dance in the palace of the wealthy Nazi spy posing as a society lady, demonstrates perfectly the way the very superficiality of the big Other (the field of etiquette, social rules, and manners) remains the place where truth is determined and thus the place from which “the game is run.” The scene sets up a tension between the idyllic surface (the politeness of the charity dance) and the concealed real action (the desperate attempt by the hero to snatch his girlfriend from the hands of the Nazi agents and to escape together with her). The scene takes place in a great hall, in full view of hundreds of guests. Both the hero and his adversaries have to observe the rules of etiquette appropriate to such an occasion; they are expected to engage in banal conversation, to accept an invitation to dance, etc., and the actions each of them undertakes against the adversary have to accord with the rules of the social game (when a Nazi agent wants to lead the hero’s girlfriend away, he simply asks her for a dance, a request that, according to rules of politeness, she cannot refuse; when the hero wants to run away, he joins an innocent couple just taking their leave—the Nazi agents cannot stop him by force because this would expose them in the eyes of the couple; and so on). It is true that this renders action difficult (to deal a blow against the adversary, our action must inscribe itself in the texture of the surface social game and pass for a socially acceptable act), but an even more rigorous limitation is imposed upon our adversary: if we succeed in inventing such a “doubly inscribed” act, he is confined to the role of the impotent observer, he cannot strike back because he is also prohibited from violating the rules. Such a situation enables Hitchcock to develop the intimate connection between the gaze and the couple power/impotence. The gaze denotes at the same time power (it enables us to exert control over the situation, to occupy the position of the master) and impotence (as bearers of a gaze, we are reduced to the role of passive witnesses to the adversary’s action). The gaze, in short, is a perfect embodiment of the “impotent Master,” one of the central figures of the Hitchcockian universe. This dialectic of the gaze in its connection with both power and impotence was articulated for the first time in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” When the minister steals the incriminating letter from her, the Queen sees what is going on, though she can do nothing but impotently observe his actions. Any action on her part would betray her to the King, who is also present but who does not know and must not know anything about the incriminating letter (which probably reveals some amorous indiscretion of the Queen). The crucial point to be noted is that the situation of the “impotent gaze” is never dual, it is never a simple confrontation between a subject and an adversary. A third element is always involved (the King in “The Purloined Letter,” the ignorant guests in the Saboteur) that personifies the innocent ignorance of the big Other (the rules of the social game) from which we must hide our true designs. What we have then are three elements: an innocent third who sees all but fails to grasp the real significance of what he sees; the agent whose act—under the guise of simply following the rules of the social game taking place—deals a decisive blow to the adversary; and, finally, the adversary himself, the impotent observer who apprehends perfectly the real implication of the act, but is nonetheless condemned to the role of a passive witness, since his counteraction would provoke the suspicion of the innocent, ignorant big Other. The fundamental pact uniting the actors of the social game is thus that the Other must not know all. This nonknowledge of the Other opens up a certain distance that, so to speak, gives us breathing space, i.e., that allows us to confer upon our actions a supplementary meaning beyond the one that is socially acknowledged. For this very reason, the social game (the rules of etiquette, etc.), in the very stupidity of its ritual, is never simply superficial. We can indulge in our secret wars only as long as the Other does not take cognizance of them, for at the moment the Other can no longer ignore them, the social bond dissolves itself. A catastrophe ensues, similar to the one instigated by the child’s observation that the emperor is naked. The Other must not know all: this is an appropriate definition of the nontotalitarian social field. 2 The “Transference of Guilt” The very notion of the big Other (of the symbolic order) is founded on the special kind of double deception that becomes visible in a scene from the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup, where Groucho defends his client before the court of law with the following argument in favor of his insanity: “This man looks like an idiot and acts like an idiot—but this should in no way deceive you: he IS an idiot!” The paradox of this proposition exemplifies perfectly the classical topos of the Lacanian theory concerning the difference between animal and human deception: man alone is capable of deceiving by means of truth itself. An animal can feign to be or to intend something other than what it really is or intends, but only man can lie by telling a truth that he expects to be taken for a lie. Only man can deceive by feigning to deceive. This is, of course, the logic of Freud’s joke about two Polish Jews often cited by Lacan. One of these men asks the other in an offended tone: “Why are you telling me that you are going to Cracow,, so that I’ll think you’re going to Lemberg, when you are really going to Cracow?” This same logic structures the plot of a whole series of Hitchcock’s films: the amorous couple is at first united by a pure accident or an external constraint, i.e., they find themselves in a situation in which they must pretend to be married or in love, until, finally, they fall in love for real. The paradox of such a situation could be adequately described by a paraphrase of Groucho’s plea: “This couple looks like a couple in love and acts like a couple in love—but this should in no way deceive you: they ARE a couple in love!” We find perhaps the most refined version of this in Notorious, when Alicia and Devlin, American agents in the house of Sebastian, a rich Nazi supporter and Alicia’s husband, furtively enter the wine cellar to explore the secret contents of the champagne bottles. There, they are surprised by the sudden arrival of Sebastian. To conceal the real purpose of their visit to the cellar, they embrace quickly, feigning a clandestine meeting of two lovers. The point is, of course, that they are effectively in love: they succeed in deceiving the husband (for the time being, at least), but what they offer him as a lure is truth itself. This kind of movement “from outside inward” is one of the key components of the intersubjective relations in Hitchcock’s films: we effectively become something by pretending that we already are that. To grasp the dialectic of this movement, we have to take into account the crucial fact that this “outside” is never simply a “mask” we wear in public but is rather the symbolic order itself. By “pretending to be something,” by “acting as if we were something,” we assume a certain place in the intersubjective symbolic network, and it is this external place that defines our true position. If we remain convinced, deep within ourselves, that “we are not really that,” if we preserve an intimate distance toward ”the social role we play,” we doubly deceive ourselves. The final deception is that social appearance is deceitful, for in the social-symbolic reality things ultimately are precisely what they pretend to be. (More precisely, this holds only for those of Hitchcock’s films designated by Lesley Brill as “romances,” in opposition to the “ironic” films. The “romances” are ruled by the Pascalian logic whereby social play gradually changes into an authentic intersubjective relationship whereas the “ironic” films [Psycho, for example] depict a total blockade of communication, a psychotic split where the “mask” is effectively nothing but a mask, i.e., where the subject maintains the kind of distance from the symbolic order characteristic of psychoses.) It is against this background that we should also conceive the “transference of guilt,” which is, according to Rohmer and Chabrol, the central motif of the Hitchcockian universe. 3 In Hitchcock’s films, murder is never simply an affair between a murderer and his victim; murder always implies a third party, a reference to a third person—the murderer kills for this third person, his act is inscribed in the framework of a symbolic exchange with him. By means of his act, the murderer realizes his repressed desire. For this reason, the third person finds himself charged with guilt, although he does not know anything or, more precisely, refuses to know anything of the way he is implicated in the affair. In Strangers on a Train, for example, Bruno, by killing Guy’s wife, transfers the guilt for the murder onto Guy, although Guy does not want to know anything about the “murder-for-murder” pact referred to by Bruno. Strangers on a Train is the middle term of the great “trilogy of the transference of guilt”: Rope, Strangers on a Train, I Confess. In all three films, murder functions as a stake in an intersubjective logic of exchange, i.e., the murderer expects from the third party something in return for his act—recognition (in Rope), another murder (in Strangers on a Train), silence before the court of law (in I Confess). The crucial point is, however, that this “transference of guilt” does not concern some psychic interior, some repressed, disavowed desire hidden deep beneath the mask of politeness, but quite the contrary a radically external network of intersubjective relations. The moment the subject finds himself at a certain place (or loses a certain place) in this network, he becomes guilty, although, in his psychic interior, he is totally innocent. Which is why—as Deleuze has pointed out—Mr, and Mrs. Smith is a thoroughly Hitchcockian movie. A married couple unexpectedly learns that their marriage is legally invalid. What was for years rightful indulgence in conjugal pleasures changes suddenly into sinful adultery, i.e., the same activity retroactively acquires a totally different symbolic value. This is what the “transference of guilt” is about, this is what confers upon Hitchcock’s universe its radical ambiguity and lability. At any moment, the idyllic texture of the everyday course of events can disintegrate, not because some iniquitous violence erupts from under the surface of social rules (according to the common notion that, beneath the civilized mask, we are all savages and murderers), but because all of a sudden—as a result of unexpected changes in the symbolic texture of intersubjective relations—what was a moment ago permitted by the rules becomes an abhorrent vice, although the act in its immediate, physical reality remains the same. To elucidate further this sudden reversal, it is sufficient to recall three great Charlie Chaplin films distinguished by the same melancholic, painful humor: The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight. All of them turn on the same structural problem: that of locating a line of demarcation, of defining a certain feature, difficult to specify at the level of positive properties, whose presence or absence radically changes the symbolic status of the object. Between the small Jewish barber and the dictator, the difference is as negligible as that between their respective moustaches. Yet it results in two situations as infnitely remote, as far opposed as those of victim and executioner. Likewise, in Monsieur Verdoux, the difference between the two aspects or demeanors of the same man, the lady-assassin and the loving husband of a paralyzed wife, is so thin that all his wife’s intuition is required for the premonition that somehow he has “changed” . . . The burning question of Limelight: what is that “nothing,” that sign of age, that small difference of triteness, that turns the clown’s funny routine into a tedious spectacle? 4 This differential feature that cannot be pinned to some positive quality is what Lacan calls le trait unaire, the unitary feature: a point of symbolic identification to which the real of the subject clings. As long as the subject is attached to this feature, we are faced with a charismatic, fascinating, sublime figure; as soon as this attachment is broken, the figure is deflated. As proof of the fact that Chaplin was well aware of this dialectic of identification, it is enough to recall his earlier City Lights, where the action is set in motion by a coincidence that constitutes an effective pendant to the inaugural accident in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: the casual coincidence of the slam of a car door with the steps of a departing customer leads the blind flower girl wrongly to identify Chariot with the owner of the rich car. Later, after regaining her sight, the girl does not recognize Chariot as the benefactor who provided money for her operation. Such an intrigue, which seems at first a banal, melodramatic plot, bears witness to a far more perspicacious apprehension of intersubjective dialectics than that at work in most “serious” psychological dramas. If tragedy is ultimately a matter of “character,” i.e., if the immanent necessity leading to the final catastrophe is inscribed in the very structure of the tragic personality, there is on the contrary always something comical in the way the subject is attached to the signifier that determines his place in the symbolic structure, i.e., that “represents him for the other signifiers.” This link is ultimately groundless, “irrational,” of a radically contingent nature, absolutely incommensurate with the subject’s ”character.” It is no accident that Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Hitchcock film that exposes this constituent of his universe most clearly, is a comedy. All the numerous accidental encounters, coincidences, etc., that set off the plot of his films are of an essentially comical nature (recall, for example, the inaugural false identification of Thornhill as the nonexistent “Kaplan” in North by Northwest). The film in which Hitchcock wanted to render manifest the tragic side of such an unforeseen coincidence (The Wrong Man, where the musician Balestrero is wrongly identified as a robber) demonstrates this principle a contrario, by its very failure. How to Hystericize Christianity In making the radical externality of the Other the place where the truth of the subject is articulated, Hitchcock echoes Lacan’s thesis that “the unconscious is outside.” This externality is usually conceived as the external, nonpsychological character of the formal symbolic structure regulating the subject’s intimate selfexperience. Such an apprehension is, however, misleading: the (Hitchcockian and at the same time Lacanian) Other is not simply a universal formal structure filled out with contingent, imaginary contents (as in Lévi-Strauss, where the symbolic order is equivalent to universal symbolic laws structuring the material of myths, kinship relations, etc.). The structure of the Other is, on the contrary, already at work where we encounter the eruption of what seems to be the purest subjective contingency. Note the role of love in Hitchcock’s films: it is a kind of “miracle” that explodes “out of nothing” and renders possible the salvation of the Hitchcockian couple. In other words, love is an exemplary case of what Jon Elster calls “states that are essentially by-products”: an innermost emotion that cannot be planned in advance or assumed by means of a conscious decision (I cannot say to myself “now I shall fall in love with that woman”: at a certain moment, I just find myself in love). 5 Elster’s list of such states comprises above all notions such as “respect” and “dignity.” If I consciously try to appear dignified or to arouse respect, the result is ridiculous; the impression I make, instead, is that of a miserable impersonator. The basic paradox of these states is that although they are what matters most, they elude us as soon as we make them the immediate aim of our activity. The only way to bring them about is not to center our activity on them but to pursue other goals and hope that they will come about ”by themselves.” Although they do pertain to our activity, they are ultimately perceived as something that belongs to us on account of what we are and not on account of what we do. The Lacanian name for this “by-product” of our activity is objet petit a, the hidden treasure, that which is “in us more than ourselves,” that elusive, unattainable X that confers upon all our deeds an aura of magic, although it cannot be pinned down to any of our positive qualities. It is through the objet a that we can grasp the workings of the ultimate “by-product” state, the matrix of all the others: the transference. The subject can never fully dominate and manipulate the way he provokes transference in others; there is always something “magic” about it. All of a sudden, one appears to possess an unspecified X, something that colors all one’s actions, submits them to a kind of transubstantiation. The most tragic embodiment of this state is probably the good-hearted femme fatale of hard-boiled detective novels. Basically a decent and honest woman, she witnesses with horror the way her mere presence brings about the moral decay of all men around her. From the Lacanian perspective, it is here that the Other enters the scene: “states that are essentially by products” are states that are essentially produced by the big Other—the “big Other” designates precisely the agency that decides instead of us, in our place. When, all of a sudden, we find ourselves occupying a certain transferential position, i.e., when our mere presence provokes “respect,” or “love,” we can be sure that this “magic” transformation has nothing whatsoever to do with some “irrational” spontaneity: it is the big Other that produces the change. It is therefore no accident that Elster illustrates these “states that are essentially byproducts” by means of the Hegelian notion of the “cunning of reason.” The subject engages in a certain activity with the purpose of achieving a well-defined goal; in this he fails since the final result of his actions is a different, totally unintended state of things that, however, would not have been brought about had the subject aimed directly at it. The final result could be brought about only as a by-product of an activity aimed at another goal. Compare the classic Hegelian example of the murder of Julius Caesar. The immediate, conscious goal of the conspirators opposed to Caesar was, of course, to reinstate the Republic; the final result—the “essential by-product”—of their conspiracy was, however, the installation of the Empire, i.e., the exact opposite of what they intended. In Hegelian terms, we could say that the Reason of History used them as involuntary means of realizing its aim. This Reason, which pulls the strings of History, is, of course, a Hegelian figuration of the Lacanian “big Other.” Hegel tells us that the way to detect Reason at work is not to look for the great proclaimed aims and ideals that have guided historical agents, but rather to devote our attention to the effective “by-products” of their activity. The same holds true for Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market,” one of the historical sources of Hegel’s idea of the “cunning of reason.” In the market, every participant contributes unknowingly to the common good by following his egotistic interests. It is as if one’s activity were guided by a benevolent, invisible hand. Again, we have another figuration of the “big Other.” It is against this background that the Lacanian thesis “the big Other does not exist” has to be read. The big Other does not exist as subject of history; it is not given in advance and does not regulate our activity in a teleological way. Teleology is always a retroactive illusion and “states that are essentially by-products” are radically contingent. It is also against this background that we should approach the classic Lacanian definition of communication, by which the speaker receives from the other his own message in its true, inverted form. It is in the “essential by-products” of his activity, in its unintended results, that his message’s true, effective meaning is returned to the subject. The problem with this is that, as a rule, the subject is not prepared to recognize in the mess that results from his actions their true meaning. This brings us back to Hitchcock: in the first two films of the “transference of guilt” trilogy, the addressee of the murder (Professor Caddell in Rope, Guy in Strangers on a Train) is not prepared to assume the guilt transferred to him by the murder, In other words, he is not prepared to recognize in the murder accomplished by his partner an act of communication. By realizing the desire of the addressee, the murderer returns to him his own message in its true form (witness the shock felt by Professor Caddell and the end of Rope when the two murderers remind him that all they did was to take him at his word and act out his conviction about the Superman’s right to kill). I Confess, the final film of the trilogy, presents, however, a significant exception. Here, Father Logan recognizes himself from the very beginning as the addressee of the murderous act. Why? Because of his position as confessor. By directly associating the motif of the “transference of guilt” with Christianity (through a series of parallels between Father Logan’s suffering and the Way of the Cross), I Confess exhibits the subversive character of Hitchcock’s relationship to Christianity. The film makes visible the hysterical, “scandalous” kernel of Christianity, later obscured by its institutionalization of the obsessional ritual. That is to say, the suffering of Father Logan consists in the fact that he accepts the transference of guilt, i.e., that he recognizes the desires of the other (the murderer) as his own. From this perspective, Jesus Christ himself, this innocent who took upon himself the sins of humanity, appears in a new light: insofar as he assumes the guilt of sinners and pays the price for it, he recognizes the sinners’ desire as his own. Christ desires from the place of the other (the sinner), this is the ground of his compassion for sinners. If the sinner is, in terms of his libidinal economy, a pervert, Christ is clearly a hysteric. For hysterical desire is the desire of the other. In other words, the question to ask apropos of a hysteric is not “What does he/she desire? What is the object of his/her desire?” The real enigma is expressed in the question “From where does he/she desire?” The task is to locate the subject with whom the hysteric must identify to be able to accede to his/her own desire. Ladies Who Vanish “The Woman Does Not Exist” Given the central status of deception in relation to the symbolic order, one has to draw a radical conclusion: the only way not to be deceived is to maintain a distance from the symbolic order, i.e., to assume a psychotic position. A psychotic is precisely a subject who is not duped by the symbolic order. Let us approach this psychotic position via Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, probably the most beautiful and effective variation on the theme of the “disappearance that everybody denies.” The story is usually told from the point of view of a hero who, quite by chance, becomes acquainted with a pleasant, somewhat eccentric person; soon afterward, this person disappears and when the hero tries to find him or her, all those who saw them together remember nothing about the other (or even remember positively that the hero was alone), so that the very existence of this missing person passes for a hallucinatory idée fixe of the hero. In his conversations with Truffaut, Hitchcock himself mentions the original of this series of variations; it is the story of an old lady who disappeared from her hotel room in Paris in 1889, at the time of the Great Exhibition. After The Lady Vanishes, the most famous variation is undoubtedly Cornell Woolrich’s roman noir, Phantom Lady, in which the hero spends the evening with a beautiful, unknown woman whom he encounters at a bar. This woman, who subsequently disappears and whom no one will admit seeing, turns out to be the only alibi the hero has to counter a charge of murder. In spite of the utter improbability of these plots, there is something “psychologically convincing” about them—as if they touched some chord in our unconscious. To understand the apparent “rightness” of these plots, we should note first of all that the person who disappears is as a rule a very ladylike woman. It is difficult not to recognize in this phantomlike figure the apparition of Woman, of the woman who could fill out the lack in man, the ideal partner with whom the sexual relationship would finally be possible, in short, The Woman who, according to Lacanian theory, precisely does not exist. The nonexistence of this woman is rendered manifest to the hero by the absence of her inscription in the sociosymbolic network: the intersubjective community of the hero acts as if she does not exist, as if she were only his idée fixe.


Source: Looking Awry


  Date of Publish: 4 April 2017