This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The Violence of the Fantasy
Department of Philosophy University of Ljubljana
It goes to Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s credit that a century ago he spelled out the properly perverse nature of the way Christianity relates to paganism; he turns around the standard (mis)perception according to which the ancient pagan attitude is that of the joyful assertion of life, while Christianity imposes a sombre order of guilt and renunciation. It is, on the contrary, the pagan stance that is deeply melancholic: Even if it preaches a pleasurable life, it is in the mode of “enjoy it while it lasts, because, at the end, there is always death and decay.” The message of Christianity is, on the contrary, that of infinite joy beneath the deceptive surface of guilt and renunciation: The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. (Chesterton, 1995, p. 164) Is not Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the ultimate proof of this paradox? Only a devout Christian could have imagined such magnificent pagan universe, thereby confirming that paganism is the ultimate Christian dream. Perhaps this is why the conservative Christian critics who recently expressed their concern at how books and movies like Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series undermine Christianity through their message of pagan magic miss the point, the perverse conclusion that is unavoidable here: You want to enjoy the pagan dream of pleasurable life without paying the price of melancholic sadness for it? Choose Christianity! We can discern the traces of this paradox up to the well-known Catholic figure of the priest (or nun) as the ultimate bearer of the sexual wisdom. Recall what is arguably the most powerful scene of The Sound of Music
Address correspondence to Slavoj Žižek, Department of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, Kongresni trg 12, SI—1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Wise, United States, 1965): After Maria escapes from the von Trapp family and returns to the monastery, unable to deal with her sexual attraction toward Baron von Trapp, she cannot find peace there, since she is still longing for the Baron; in a memorable scene, the Mother Superior summons her and advises her to return to the von Trapp family and try to sort out her relationship with the Baron. She delivers this message in a weird song “Climb every mountain!” whose surprising motif is: “Do it! Take the risk and try everything your heart wants! Do not allow petty considerations to stand in your way!” The uncanny power of this scene resides in its unexpected display of the spectacle of desire, which renders the scene literally embarrassing: The very person whom one would expect to preach abstinence and renunciation turns out to be the agent of the fidelity to one’s desire.1 Significantly, when The Sound of Music was shown in (still Socialist) Yugoslavia in the late 1960s, this scene—the three minutes of this song—was the only part of the film that was censored (cut out). The anonymous Socialist censor thereby displayed his profound sense for the truly dangerous power of Catholic ideology: Far from being the religion of sacrifice, of renunciation to earthly pleasures (in contrast to the pagan affirmation of the life of passions), Christianity offers a devious stratagem to indulge in our desires without having to pay the price for them, to enjoy life without the fear of decay and debilitating pain awaiting us at the end of the day. If we go to the end in this direction, it would even be possible to sustain that therein resides the ultimate function of Christ’s sacrifice: You can indulge in your desires and enjoy, I took the price for it upon myself! There is thus an element of truth in a joke about what is the ideal prayer of a young Christian girl to Virgin Mary: “O thou who conceived without having sinned, let me sin without having to conceive!”—in the perverse functioning of Christianity, religion is effectively evoked as a safeguard allowing us to enjoy life with impunity. The reference to Hollywood is here by no means accidental: The Sound of Music encapsulates the false liberation provided by the Hollywood escapism. In this article, I try to further elaborate how this fake liberation works apropos three related topics: the ideological lesson of cartoons; the mode of censorship that survives even in our “permissive” era; the ambiguities of violence in Hollywood.
“The Truth Has the Structure of a Fiction”
Nowhere is this saying of Lacan more appropriate than with regard to today’s cartoons, which render the ideological coordinates of our society much more directly than the movies with “real” actors. The well-known and highly successful animated series The Land Before Time, produced by Steven Spielberg, provides what is arguably the clearest articulation of the hegemonic liberal multiculturalist ideology. The same message is repeated again and again: We are all different—some are big, some are small, some know how to fight, others know how to flight—but we should learn to live with these differences, to perceive
Violence of the Fantasy
them as something that makes our lives richer. (Recall the echo of this attitude in the recent reports on how the al-Qaeda prisoners are treated at Guantanamo: They are given food appropriate to their specific cultural and religious needs, allowed to pray . . . ) From and on the outside, we appear different, but inside, we are all the same—frightened individuals at a loss in the world, needing the help of others. In one of the songs, the big bad dinosaurs sing about how those who are big can break all the rules, behave badly, squash the helpless small: When you’re big/ You can push all/The little ones around/They’re looking up/While you are looking down/ . . . /Things are better when you’re big/ . . . /All the rules that grown-ups made/They don’t apply to you. The answer of the oppressed small ones in the following song is not to fight the big ones, but to understand that, beneath their bullying appearance, they are no different from us, secretly afraid, with their share of problems: They have feelings just like we do/They have problems too/We think because they’re big/they don’t, but they do. They’re louder and they’re stronger/and they make a bigger fuss/but way down deep inside/I think they’re kids like us. The obvious conclusion is therefore the praise of differences: It takes all sorts/To make a world/Short and tall sorts/Large and small sorts/To fill this pretty planet/with love and laughter/To make it great to live in/Tomorrow and the day after/It takes all types/without a doubt/ dumb and wise types/every size types/To do all the things/That need to be done/To make our life fun. No wonder, then, that the final message of the films is, again, that of pagan wisdom: Life is an eternal cycle in which old generations are replaced by the new ones, in which everything that appears has to disappear sooner or later. The problem, of course, is how far do we go here? It takes all sorts—also nice and brutal, poor and rich, victims and torturers. The reference to the dinosaur kingdom is especially ambiguous here, with its brutal character of animal species devouring each other—is this also one of the things that “need to be done to make our life fun?” The very inner inconsistency of this vision of the prelapsarian “land before time” thus bears witness to how the message of collaboration-in-differences is ideology at its purest. Why? Because, precisely, any notion of a “vertical” antagonism that cuts through the social body is strictly censored, substituted by and/or translated into the wholly different notion of “horizontal” differences with which we have to learn to live, because they complement each other. The underlying ontological vision is here that of the irreducible plurality of particular
constellations, each of them multiple and displaced in itself, which cannot ever be subsumed under any neutral universal container. The moment we find ourselves at this level, Hollywood meets the most radical postcolonial critique of ideological universality: The central problem is perceived as that of the impossible universality. Instead of imposing our notion of universality (universal human rights, etc.), universality—the shared space of understanding between different cultures— should be conceived of as an infinite task of translation, of constant reworking of one’s own particular position. Is it necessary to add that this notion of universality as the infinite work of translation has nothing whatsoever to do with those magic moments in which effective universality makes its violent appearance in the guise of a shattering ethico-political ACT? The actual universality is not the never-won neutral space of translation from one to another particular culture, but, rather, the violent experience of how, across the cultural divide, we share the same antagonism. At this point, of course, the obvious reproach imposes itself: Is not such Hollywood tolerant wisdom a caricature of the truly radical postcolonial studies? To this, one should answer: Is it really? If anything, there is more truth in this simplified flat caricature than in the most elaborated postcolonial theory. Hollywood at least distills the actual ideological message out of the pseudo-sophisticated jargon. Today’s hegemonic attitude is that of “resistance”— all the poetics of the dispersed marginal sexual, ethnic, life-style “multitudes” (gays, mentally ill, prisoners) “resisting” the mysterious central Power. Everyone ‘resists,’ from gays and lesbians to Rightist survivalists— so why not make the logical conclusion that this discourse of “resistance” is the norm today, and, as such, the main obstacle to the emergence of the discourse that would effectively question the dominant relations? So the first thing to do is to attack the very core of this hegemonic attitude, the notion that “respect for Otherness” is the most elementary ethical axiom: I must particularly insist that the formula ‘respect for the Other’ has nothing to do with any serious definition of Good and Evil. What does ‘respect for the Other’ mean when one is at war against an enemy, when one is brutally left by a woman for someone else, when one must judge the works of a mediocre ‘artist,’ when science is faced with obscurantist sects, etc.? Very often, it is the ‘respect for Others’ that is injurious, that is Evil. Especially, when it is resistance against others, or even hatred of others, that drives a subjectively just action. (Cabinet, 5, 2001, p. 72) The obvious reproach here is: Do Badiou’s own examples not display the limit of his logic? Yes, hatred for the enemy, intolerance toward the false wisdom and the like. But is it not the lesson of the last century that one should respect a certain limit—the limit, precisely, of the Other’s radical Otherness? We should never reduce the Other to our enemy, to the bearer of false knowledge: There is
Violence of the Fantasy
always in him or her the Absolute of the impenetrable abyss of another person. The twentieth century’s totalitarianism, with its millions of victims, shows the ultimate outcome of following to the end what appears to us a “subjectively just action”; no wonder, then, that Badiou ended up directly supporting Communist terror. This, precisely, is the line of reasoning one should reject; let us take the extreme case, a mortal and violent struggle against a Fascist enemy. Should one display here a respect for the abyss of the radical Otherness of Hitler’s personality beneath all his positive acts? It is here that one should apply Christ’s wellknown words about how he brings sword and division, not unity and peace: Out of the very love for humanity (inclusive of whatever remains of the humanity of Nazis themselves) one should fight in an absolutely ruthless and respectless way. In short, the Jewish saying often quoted apropos holocaust “When somebody saves one man alone from death, one saves entire humanity” should be supplemented with “When one kills only one true enemy of humanity, one (not kills, but) saves entire humanity.” The true ethical test is not only the readiness to save victims, but also—even more, perhaps—the ruthless dedication to annihilate those who made them victims. The emphasis on multitude and diversity masks is, of course, the underlying monotony of today’s global life. In his perspicuous booklet on Deleuze, Alain Badiou (1997) drew attention to how, if there ever was a philosopher who, apropos any topic whatsoever, from philosophy to literature and cinema, repeated and rediscovered the same conceptual matrix, it was Deleuze. The irony of this insight is that this precisely is the standard reproach to Hegel—whatever he is writing or talking about, Hegel always manages to squeeze it into the same mold of the dialectical process. Is there not a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the one philosopher about whom one can effectively make this claim is Deleuze, the anti-Hegelian? And this is especially pertinent with regard to social analysis: Is there anything more monotonous than the Deleuzian poetry of contemporary life as the decentered proliferation of multitudes, of nontotalizable differences? What occludes (and thereby sustains) this monotony is the multiplicity of resignifications and displacements to which the basic ideological texture is submitted. Unbreakable (Shyamalan, United States, 2000) is paradigmatic of today’s ideological constellation in its very contrast between form and content. As to its content, it cannot but strike us as childishly ridiculous: The hero (Bruce Willis) discovers that he is actually a real-life comic book hero who cannot be wounded, who is invincible. As to its form, it is a rather refined psychological drama shot in a slow melancholic mood: showcasing the pains of the hero who finds it traumatic to accept what he effectively is, his interpellation, his symbolic mandate.2 Exemplary is the scene when his own son wants to shoot him with a gun, thus proving to him that he effectively is invincible. When the father resists, the son starts to cry, desperate that his father is not able to accept the truth about himself. Why does Willis resist being shot? Is he simply afraid to die, or rather, is he afraid of getting a firm proof that he is invincible? And is this not the same
dilemma as that of Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death”? We are not afraid to discover that we are mortal, but, rather, that we are immortal. Here, one should link Kierkegaard with Badiou: It is difficult, properly traumatic, for a human animal to accept that his life is not just a stupid process of reproduction and attaining pleasures, but that it is in the service of a Truth. And this is how ideology seems to work today, in our self-proclaimed postideological universe: We perform our symbolic mandates without assuming them and “taking them seriously.” While a father functions as a father, he accompanies his function with a constant flow of ironic-reflexive comments on the stupidity of being a father. The recent Dreamworks animated blockbuster Shrek (Adamson and Jenson, United States, 2001) renders perfectly this predominant functioning of ideology. The standard fairytale narrative line (the hero and his endearingly confused comic helper go to defeat the dragon and save the princess from its clutches) is coated in jokingly Brechtian “extraneations” (when the large crowd observes the wedding in the church, it is given instructions how to react, as in the faked spontaneity of a TV show—“Laugh!”, “Respectful silence!”), politically correct twists (after the kiss between the two lovers, it is not the ugly ogre who turns into a beautiful prince, it is the beautiful princess who turns into a plump ordinary girl), ironic stabs at feminine vanity (while the sleeping princess awaits the savior’s kiss, she quickly arranges her hair to appear more beautiful), unexpected reversal of bad into good characters (the evil dragon turns out to be a caring female who later helps the heroes), up to anachronistic references to modern mores and popular culture. Instead of praising all too fast these displacements and reinscriptions as potentially “subversive” and elevating Shrek into yet another “site of resistance,” one should focus on the obvious fact that, through all these displacements, the same old narrative is being told. In short, the true function of these displacement and subversions is precisely to render the traditional narrative palpable for our “postmodern” time—and thus to prevent us from replacing it with a new narrative. No wonder the finale of the film consists of the ironic version of “I’m a Believer,” the old Monkee’s hit from the 1960s. This is how we are today believers—we make fun of our belief, while continuing to practice them, that is, to rely on them as the underlying structure of our daily practices. In the good old German Democratic Republic, it was impossible for the same person to combine three features: conviction (belief in the official ideology), intelligence, and honesty. If you were convicted and intelligent, you were not honest; if you were intelligent and honest, you were not convicted; if you were convicted and honest, you were not intelligent. Does the same not hold also for the ideology of liberal democracy? If you (pretend to) take seriously the hegemonic liberal ideology, you cannot be both intelligent and honest: You are either stupid or a corrupted cynic. So, if one can indulge in a rather tasteless allusion to Agamben’s homo sacer, one can risk the claim that the predominant liberal mode of subjectivity today is homo sucker: While
Violence of the Fantasy
trying to exploit and manipulate others, he ends up being himself the ultimate sucker. When we think we are making fun of the ruling ideology, we are just strengthening its hold over us.
Hays Office in 2000
What this means is that, in our allegedly “permissive” societies, ideological censorship is well and alive, although in a displaced way. In the good old times of the Hays Office censorship, the proverbial Hollywood procedure was to change the sad ending of the literary or dramatic source of the film into the obligatory upbeat happy ending. With Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (United Kingdom/ United States, 2001), the circle is in a way closed: It is Thomas Harris’s novel that ends with Hannibal Lecter and the FBI agent Clarice Sterling living together as a couple in Buenos Aires, while the film censored this ending, opting for a more acceptable one. Such a strange reversal of the standard procedure calls for a closer analysis. It bears witness to extremely strong ideological investments.3 Why, then, did it occur? When Ridley Scott accepted to direct Hannibal, he immediately approached Harris: “The ending was a very touchy question, so the first thing I did was call Tom Harris. I said I didn’t quite believe it. Suddenly it was this quantum leap from this character I thought was incorruptible and unchangeable. It couldn’t be. Those qualities were the thing that made her the most fascinating to Hannibal. If she’d have said yes to him, he’d have killed her” (The Passions of Julianne Moore, 2001, p. 127).What, then, is so inadmissible in this “most bizarre happy ending in the history of popular fiction”? Is it really just psychology, just the fact that “this resolution is completely out of character for Clarice”? The correct answer is rather the opposite one: In Hannibal, we are served a direct realization of what Freud called the “fundamental fantasy," the subject’s innermost scene of desire that cannot be directly admitted. Of course Hannibal is an object of intense libidinal investment, of a true passionate attachment—from The Silence of the Lambs, we (and, in the couple of Hannibal and Clarice, Clarice stands for this “we,” the common spectator, the point of identification) love him, he is an absolute charmer. Hannibal fails precisely because, at the novel’s end, it directly realizes this fantasy that must remain implicit—the result is thus “psychologically unconvincing” not because it is a fake, but because it gets too close to our fantasmatic kernel. For a girl to be devoured by the charmingly devilish paternal figure is this not the mother of all happy ends, as they would have put it in Iraq? The ultimate cause of Hannibal’s failure is that it violated the prohibition of the fundamental fantasy that renders the cinematic universe psychologically “palpable.” Therein resides the truth of Adorno’s (1997) apercu: “Perhaps, a film strictly obeying the Hays Office code could succeed as a great work of art, but not in a world in which there is a Hays Office” (p. 217). Fundamental fantasy is not the ultimate hidden truth, but the ultimate founding lie, which is why the
distance toward the fantasy, the refusal to stage it directly, does not simply bear witness to a force of repression, but also enables us to articulate this fantasy’s falsity. Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (France/Austria, 2001) offers a precise orientation in this conundrum. The film is based on a short novel by Elfriede Jelinek, the story of a passionate but perverted love affair between a young piano player and his older teacher (superbly played by Isabelle Huppert). It refers to the old cliché, from fin de siecle Vienna, of a young, sexually repressed girl from an upper-class family who passionately falls in love with her piano teacher. However, today, 100 years later, more than just the respective gender roles are inverted. In our permissive times, the affair has to get a perverted twist. Things take the fateful turn and start to slide toward the inexorable tragic ending (the teacher’s suicide) at a precise point: when, in answer to the boy’s passionate sexual advances, the “repressed” teacher violently opens herself up to him, writing him a letter with the detailed list of her demands (basically, a scenario for masochistic performances, including how he should tie her up, force her to lick his anus, slap and even beat her, etc.). It is crucial that these demands are written. What is put on the paper is something too traumatic to be pronounced in direct speech, her innermost fantasy itself. When they are thus confronted—he with his passionate outbursts of affection and she with her cold impassionate distance—this setting should not deceive us: It is she who effectively opens herself up, laying bare to him her fantasy, while he is just playing a more superficial game of seduction. No wonder he withdraws in panic from her openness, the direct display of her fantasy radically changes her status in his eyes, transforming a fascinating love object into a repulsive entity he is unable to endure. However, soon afterward, he himself gets perversely attracted by her fantasmatic scenario, caught into its excessive jouissance, and, first, tries to return to her her own message by enacting elements of her fantasy (he slaps her so that she starts to bleed from her nose, kicks her violently); when she breaks down, withdrawing from the realization of her fantasy, he passes to the act and makes love to her in order to seal his victory over her. The consummated sexual act that follows is, in its almost unbearable painfulness, the best exemplification of Lacan’s il n’y a pas de rappport sexuel. Although the act is performed in reality, it is—for her, at least—deprived of its fantasmatic support, and thus turns into a disgusting experience that leaves her totally cold, pushing her toward suicide. It would be totally misleading to interprete her display of fantasy as a defense-formation against the sexual act proper, as an expression of her inability to let herself go and enjoy the act. On the contrary, the displayed fantasy forms the core of her being, that which is “in her more than herself,” and it is the sexual act that is effectively a defenseformation against the threat embodied in the fantasy. In his (unpublished) seminar on anxiety (1962–1963), Lacan specifies that the true aim of the masochist is not to generate jouissance in the Other, but to provoke its anxiety. That is to say, although the masochist submits himself to the
Violence of the Fantasy
Other’s torture, although he wants to serve the Other, he himself defines the rules of his servitude; consequently, while seeming to offer himself as the instrument of the Other’s jouissance, he effectively discloses his own desire to the Other and thus gives rise to anxiety in the Other—for Lacan, the true object of anxiety is precisely the (over)proximity of the Other’s desire. Therein resides the libidinal economy of the moment in The Piano Teacher, when the heroine presents to her seducer the detailed masochistic scenario of how he should mishandle her: what repulses him is this total disclosure of her desire. (And is this not also perfectly exemplified by the scene, in Fight Club, of Ed Norton beating himself up in front of his boss? Instead of making the boss enjoy it, this spectacle obviously provokes his anxiety.) Returning to Hannibal, its fundamental lesson thus concerns the uncanny absolute proximity of trauma and fantasy—the two are never simply opposed (with the fantasy serving as the protective shield against the raw Real of a trauma). There is always something utterly traumatic about directly confronting one’s fundamental fantasy—such a confrontation, if not properly managed by the analyst, can easily lead to complete subjective disintegration, and, conversely, there is always something fantasmatic about the trauma: even the utmost trauma of collective rape, of the concentration camp suffering and humiliations, can find strange resonances in our deepest disavowed fantasies, perhaps this is why, after being compelled to undergo such a horrible ordeal, the subject as a rule feels “irrationally” guilty or at least besmirched—the ultimate proof of an unbearable jouissance. So while the “classic” structuralist Lacan solicits me to dare the truth, to subjectively assume the truth of my desire inscribed into the big Other, the late Lacan is much closer to something like truth or dare. (The symbolic) truth is for those who do not dare—to do what? To confront the fantasmatic core of (the Real of) their jouissance. At the level of jouissance, truth is simply inoperative, something that ultimately doesn’t matter. This, of course, in no way implies that Hannibal does not respect other aspects of the Hollywood ideological censorship. The film takes place in the prototypical postcard environs, be it the center of Florence or in the rich suburbs of Washington, DC, so that, in spite of all its physical horror and disgust, the dimension of the material inertia and decay, the heaviness of the material reality that “smells,” is totally absent—Hannibal may be eating the brain, but this brain really does not smell. And, incidentally, this same censoring of the too real impact also allows us to account for (at least part of) the impact of Sergio Leone’s westerns. Clint Eastwood, who acted in three of his films, suggested that Leone innovated the genre of western simply because he was not aware of the Hays Code prohibitions: “For instance, the Hays Office had long stipulated that a character being struck by a bullet from a gun could not be in the same frame as that gun when it was fired: the effect was too violent. ‘You had to shoot separately, and then show the person fall./ . . . /Sergio never knew that, and so he was tying it up . . . You see the bullet go off, you see the gun fure, you see the guy fall, and
it had never been done this way before’” (Frayling, 2000, p. 143). This violation of the prohibition opened up the space for the “return of the repressed” of the American western itself—no wonder that Leone’s Italian “fake” mythical vision of western (he even didn’t speak English!) was later reappropriated by Hollywood itself—exemplarily in the uncanny The Quick and the Dead (Moore, United States, 1995) with Sharon Stone.
From Oppressive to Redemptive Violence
The situation gets even more complex in the case of (bodily) violence. Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive (United States, 1993) provided a clear version of the violent passage à l’acte serving as a lure, a vehicle of ideological displacement. Toward the film’s end, the innocent-persecuted doctor (Harrison Ford) confronts at a large medical convention his colleague (Jeroem Kraabe), accusing him that he falsified medical data on behalf of a large pharmaceutical company. At this precise point, when one would expect that the shift would focus on the company—the corporate capital—as the true culprit, Kraabe interrupts his talk, invited Ford to step aside, and then, outside the convention hall, they engage in a passionate violent fight, beating each other till their faces are red of blood. The scene is telltale in its openly ridiculous character, as if, in order to get out of the ideological mess of playing with anticapitalism, one should do a move that renders directly palpable the cracks in the narrative. Another aspect is here the transformation of the bad guy (Kraabe) into a vicious, sneering, pathological character, as if psychological depravity (which accompanies the dazzling spectacle of the fight) should replace the anonymous nonpsychological drive of the capital: The much more appropriate gesture would have been to present the corrupted colleague as a psychologically sincere and privately honest doctor who, because of the financial difficulties of the hospital in which he works, was lured into swallowing the bait of the pharmaceutical company. A step further from this zero-level of violence is found in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (United States, 1976), in the final outburst of Travis (Robert de Niro) against the pimps who control the young girl he wants to save (Jodie Foster). Crucial is the implicit suicidal dimension of this passage a l’acte: When Travis prepares for his attack, he practices in front of the mirror the drawing of the gun; in what is the best-known scene of the film, he addresses his own image in the mirror with the aggressive-condescending, “You talkin’ to me?” In a textbook illustration of Lacan’s notion of the “mirror stage,” aggressivity is here clearly aimed at oneself, at one’s own mirror image. This suicidal dimension reemerges at the end of the slaughter scene when Travis, heavily wounded and leaning at the wall, mimics with the forefinger of his right hand a gun aimed at his blood stained forehead and mockingly triggers it, as if saying, “The true aim of my outburst was myself.” The paradox of Travis is that he perceives himself as part of
Violence of the Fantasy
the degenerate dirt of the city life he wants to eradicate, so that, as Brecht put it apropos of revolutionary violence in his The Measure Taken, he wants to be the last piece of dirt with whose removal the room will be clean. It is only a thin, almost invisible, but nonetheless crucial, line that separates Taxi Driver from David Fincher’s Fight Club (United States/Germany, 1999), an extraordinary achievement for Hollywood. The film’s insomniac hero (superbly played by Edward Norton) follows his doctor’s advice and, in order to discover what true suffering is, starts visiting the support group of the victims of testicular cancer. However, he soon discovers how such practice of the love for one’s neighbors relies on a false subjective position (of voyeurist compassion), and soon gets involved in a much more radical exercise. On a flight, he meets Tyler (Brad Pitt), a charismatic young man who explains to him about the abortiveness of his life filled with failure and empty consumer culture, and offers him a solution: Why don’t they fight, beating each other to pulp? Gradually, a whole movement develops out of this idea, secret after-hours boxing matches are held in the basements of bars all around the country. The movement quickly gets politicized, organizing terrorist attacks against big corporations. In the middle of the film, there is an almost unbearably painful scene, worthy of the weirdest David Lynch moments, which serves as a kind of clue for the film’s final surprising twist: In order to blackmail his boss into paying him for not working, the narrator throws himself around the man’s office, beating himself bloody before building security arrives; in front of his embarrassed boss, the narrator thus enacts on himself the boss’s aggression toward himself.4 What does this self-beating stand for? In a first approach, it is clear that its fundamental stake is to reach out and reestablish the connection with the real Other, that is, to suspend the fundamental abstraction and coldness of the capitalist subjectivity best exemplified by the figure of the lone monadic individual who, alone in front of the PC-screen, communicates with the entire world. In contrast to the humanitarian compassion that enables us to retain our distance toward the other, the very violence of the fight signals the abolition of this distance. Although this strategy is risky and ambiguous (it can easily regress into a proto-Fascist macho logic of violent male bonding), this risk has to be assumed—there is no other direct way out of the closure of the capitalist subjectivity. The first lesson of Fight Club is thus that one cannot pass directly from capitalist to revolutionary subjectivity. The abstraction, the foreclosure of the others, the blindness for the others’ suffering and pain, has first to be broken in a gesture of taking the risk and directly reaching toward the suffering other—a gesture that, since it shatters the very kernel of our identity, cannot but appear as extremely violent. However, there is another dimension at work in self-beating: the subject’s scatological (excremental) identification, which equals adopting the position of the proletarian who has nothing to lose. The pure subject emerges only through this experience of radical self-degradation, when I let/provoke the other to beat the crap out of me, emptying me of all substantial content, of all
symbolic support that could confer on me a minimum of dignity. Consequently, when Norton beats himself in front of his boss, his message to the boss is: “I know you want to beat me, but, you see, your desire to beat me is also my desire, so, if you were to beat me, you would be fulfilling the role of the servant of my perverse masochist desire. But you are too much of a coward to act out your desire, so I will do it for you—here you have it, what you really wanted. Why are you so embarrassed? Are you not ready to accept it?” Crucial is the gap between fantasy and reality. The boss, of course, would have never effectively beaten up Norton, he was merely fantasizing about doing it, and the painful effect of Norton’s self-beating hinges on the very fact that he stages the content of the secret fantasy his boss would never be able to actualize. Paradoxically, such a staging is the first act of liberation. By means of it, the servant’s masochist libidinal attachment to his master is brought to the daylight, and the servant thus acquires a minimal distance toward it. Already at a purely formal level, the fact of beating up oneself renders clear the simple fact that the master is superfluous: “Who needs you for terrorizing me? I can do it myself!” It is thus only through first beating up (hitting) oneself that one becomes free: The true goal of this beating is to beat out that which in me attaches me to the master. When, toward the end, Norton shoots at himself (surviving the shot, effectively killing only “Tyler in himself,” his double), he thereby also liberates himself from the dual mirror-relationship of beating. In this culmination of self-aggression, its logic cancels itself, Norton will no longer have to beat himself—now he will be able to beat the true enemy (the system). Incidentally, the same strategy occasionally is used in political demonstrations. When a crowd is stopped by the police prepared to use brutality, the way to bring about a shocking reversal of the situation is for the individuals in the crowd to start beating each other. Far from bringing any satisfaction to the sadist witness, the masochist’s self-torture frustrates the sadist, depriving him of his power over the masochist. Sadism involves a relationship of domination, while masochism is the necessary first step towards liberation.5 When we are subjected to a power mechanism, this subjection is always and by definition sustained by some libidinal investment: The subjection itself generates a surplus-enjoyment of its own. This subjection is embodied in a network of “material” bodily practices, and, for this reason, we cannot get rid of our subjection through a merely intellectual reflexion—our liberation has to be staged in some kind of bodily performance, and, furthermore, this performance has to be of an apparently “masochistic” nature, it has to stage the painful process of hitting back at oneself.
1. Years ago, an ironic review aptly characterized The Sound of Music as a movie about a stupid nun who would be allowed to lead her happy monastic life if her Mother Superior
Violence of the Fantasy
were not to invite her to her room and start to shout at her hysterically about the need to climb every mountain . . . The difficulty to assume interpellation is a great topic of posttraditional Hollywood, which is the unifying feature between two Martin Scorsese’s films, The Last Temptation of Christ (United States, 1989) and Kundun (United States, 1997). In both cases, the human incarnation of the divine figure (Christ, Dalai Lama) is depicted in the difficult process of assuming his mandate. The only similar case is A City Of Angels (Silbering, United States, 1998), the Hollywood remake of Wim Wenders’s Wings Of Desire (Himmel über Berlin) (Germany, 1987): In the German original, the angel turned into an ordinary human lives happily forever with his love, while in the Hollywood version, the woman is run over by a truck at the film’s end. It is a clear index of the constraints imposed by the politically correct perspective that almost all critical reactions to Fight Club remained blind to this emancipatory potential of violence: They saw in the film the reassertion of the violent masculinity as a paranoid reaction to the recent trends that undermine traditional masculinity; consequently, they either condemned the film as proto-Fascist, or commended it as a critique of this proto-Fascist attitude. See Deleuze, 1989.
Adorno, T. (1997), Minima moralia. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag. Badiou, A. (1997). Deleuze. Paris: Hachette. Chesterton. G. K. (1995). Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. Deleuze, G. (1989) Masochism. New York: Zone Books. Frayling, C. (2000) Sergio Leone. Something to do with death. London: Faber and Faber. On evil: An interview with Alain Badiou. (2001). Cabinet, 5 Winter. The passions of Julianne Moore. (2001). Vanity Fair, March.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?