Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Unconscious Is Structured Like A Language

I find Zizek difficult to read in large doses. For instance, I did not even make it all the way through this. I don't think I retain much from the book containing the following:
"So what is hegemony? Those who still remember the good old days of Socialist Realism are well aware of the key role played by the notion of the 'typical' in its theoretical edifice: truly progressive Socialist literature should depict 'typical' heroes in 'typical' situations. Writers who, for example, presented a predominately bleak picture of the Soviet reality were not accused simply of lying - the accusation was that they provided a distorted reflection of social reality by focusing on phenomena which were not 'typical', which were sad remainders of the past, instead of focusing on phenomena which were 'typical' in the precise sense of expressing the deeper underlying historical tendency of the progress towards Communism. A novel which presented a new Socialist type of man who dedicated his life to the happiness of all the people, of course, depicted a minority phenomenon (the majority of people were not yet like that), but none the less a phenomenon which enabled us to identify the truly progressive forces active in the social situation.

Ridiculous as this notion of the 'typical' may sound, there is a grain of truth in it - it lies in the fact that each apparently universal ideological notion is always hegemonized by some particular content which colours its very universality and accounts for its efficiency. In the present rejection of the social welfare system by the New Right in the USA, for example, the very universal notion of the present welfare system as inefficient is contaminated by the more concrete representation of the notorious single African-American mother, as if social welfare were, in the last resort, a programme for single black mothers - the particular case of 'the single black mother' is silently conceived of as 'typical' of the universal notion of social welfare, and what is wrong with it... The same goes for every universal ideological notion: one always has to look for the particular content which accounts for the specific efficiency of an ideological notion. In the case of the Moral Majority campaign against abortion, for example, the 'typical' case is the exact opposite of the (jobless) black mother: a successful and sexually promiscuous career woman who gives priority to her professional life over her 'natural' assignment of motherhood (in blatant contradiction to the facts, which tell us that the great majority of abortions occur in lower-class families with several children).

The specific 'twist', the particular content which is promulgated as 'typical' of the universal notion, is the element of fantasy, of the phantasmic background/support of the universal ideological notion - in Kant's terms, it plays the role of 'transcendental schematism', translating the empty universal notion into a notion which directly relates and applies to our 'actual experience'. As such, this phantasmic specification is by no means a mere insignificant illustration of exemplification: it is on this of which particular content will count as 'typical' that ideological battles are won or lost. To go back to our example of abortion: the moment we perceive as 'typical' the case of abortion in a large lower-class family unable to cope economically with another child, the perspective changes radically...

[Footnote] Another name for this short circut between the Universal and the Particular, by means of which a particular content hegemonizes the Universal, is, of course, suture, the operation of hegemony 'sutures' the empty Universal to a particular content. For that reason, F.W.J. Schelling must be considered the originator of the modern notion of critique of ideology: he was the first to elaborate the notion of 'false' unity and/or universality. For him, 'evil' lies not in the split (between the Universal and the Particular) as such but, rather, in their 'false'/distorted unity, that is, in a Universality that effectively privileges some narrow particular content and is impenetrably 'anchored' in it. Schelling was thus the first to elaborate the elementary procedure of the critique of ideology: the gesture of discerning beneath the appearance of neutral universality (say, of 'human rights'), the privileged particular content (say, white upper-middle-class males) which 'hegemonizes' it...[End Footnote]

'Single unemployed mother' is thus a sinthome in the strict Lacanian sense: a knot, a point at which all the lines of the predominant ideological argumentation (the return to family values, the rejection of the welfare state and its 'uncontrolled' spending, etc.) meet. For that reason, if we 'untie' this sinthome, the efficiency of its entire ideological edifice is suspended. We can see now in what sense the psychoanalytic sinthome is to be opposed to the medical sympton: the latter is a sign of some more fundamental process taking place on another level. When one claims, say, that fever is a symptom, the implication is that we should not cure only the sympton, but attack its causes directly. (Or, in the social sciences, when one claims that adolescent violence is a sympton of the global crisis of values and the work ethic, the implication is that one should attack the problem 'at its root', by directly addressing problems of the family, employment, etc., not only by punishing the offenders.) The sinthome, in contrast, is not a 'mere sympton', but that which holds together the 'thing itself' - if one unties it, the 'thing itself' disintegrates. For that reason, psychoanalysis actually does cure by addressing the sinthome.

This example makes it clear in what sense 'the universal results from a constitutive split in which the negation of a particular identity transforms this identity into the symbol of identity and fullness as such': the Universal emerges from the Particular when some particular content starts to function as the stand-in for the absent Universal - that is to say, the universal is operative only through the split in the particular. A couple of years ago, the English yellow press focused on single mothers as the source of all the evils of modern society, from the budget crisis to juvenile delinquency - in this ideological space, the universality of the 'modern social Evil' was operative only through the split of the figure of 'single mother' into itself in its particularity and itself as the stand-in for the 'modern social Evil'. Owing to the contingent character of this link between the Universal and the particular content which functions as its stand-in (i.e. that fact that this link is the outcome of a political strugle for hegemony), the existence of the Universal always relies on an empty signifier: 'Politics is possible because the constitutive impossibility of society can only represent itself through the production of empty signifiers.' Since 'society doesn't exist', its ultimate unity can be symbolized only in the guise of an empty signifier hegemonized by some particular content - the struggle for this content is the political struggle. In other words, politics exists because 'society doesn't exist': politics is the struggle for the content of the empty signifier which represents the impossibility of Society. The worn-out phrase 'the politics of the signifier' is thus fully justified: the order of the signifier as such is political and, vice versa, there is no politics outside the order of the signifier. The space of politics is the gap between the series of 'ordinary' signifiers (S2) and the empty Master-Signifier (S1)..." -- Slavoj Zizek (1999), The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, Verso: 174-177, 180.

No comments: