Zizek - The obscene object of postmodernity


D. lz.

Aubert (ed.), Navanin,Joyce avec hcan (Pans,Navarin, 1988),pp. 9-12, ar Jacques


The original hysterical position is characterizedby the paradox of'teliing the truth in the form of a lie'. In terms of literal'truth' (the correspondence words and of things), the hysteric undoubtedly'lies'; but it is through this lie that the truth ofhis or her desire erupts and articulatesitself. To the extent that obsessional neurosis is a 'dialect of hysteria' (Freud), it impLies a kind of inversion of this relation: the always'sticks to the Acts', obsessive'liesin the form of a truth'. The obsessive 'hysterized'striving to effacethe tracesof his subjectiveposirion. He is that is, his 'succeeds desire erupts - only when, finally, by some inadvertent slip, he in lying'.

The Obscene Objectof Postmodern ity

This is a chapter from Looking Awry: An lntroduction to JacquesLacan through PopularCulture(1991,pp. 141-53), most accessible ZiZek,s the of surveys culture.The book analyses diversityof materialfrom film, of a opera,dramaand fiction,engagingLacan's thought in the process and intervening politics, in philosophy and aesthetics. The argumentisframed by a distinction Zi2ekwishes makebetween to modernism and postmodernism. detectsa false oppositionbetween He Habermas's definitionof modernism the claimthat reason ratherthan reliance traditional on authority the basis a healthy is of society:and his - as definition postmodernism an exposure the ideology thisclaim of of of throughrevealing hiddenpoweragenda 'reason,. Ziiek,s the of tn analysis,this latter, postmodernist claim is still modernist, sincemodernism is itself characterized 'a logic of unmasking',exemplifiedby the Big by Threeof a centuryago: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.lt was the achievement of anotherBig Three- Adorno,Horkheimer and Marcuse, first the generation the Frankfurtschool to havealreadysuspected of reasonin this way. for 2i2ek, this places Habermas the embarrassing in positionof finding himselfsuddenlyin the postmodernist camp, sinceHabermas locates source freedomin the rejection a modernist the of of utopia and in the divisionbetweendifferent life-worlds precisely what modernism saw as alienating. the sametoken, Habermas tsy takesdeconstruction to be a postmodern phenomenon, that for him it constitutes attackon in an reason. But in Zizek's reading,deconstruction in fact modernist, it is is as

endeavourto prove that the this claim to universalify is necessarily. who cannothandlesupposition. get flooded with you jouissance. ever unableto match its actsto an endless chain of demands. Boththesereadings makethe sameerrorin believing that there is an absence wherethereis a disgusting presence that is too present..to begin with a negarive referenceto Habermas. The Postmodernist Break Mo dernismuersus Postmodernism 'postmodernism' the topic of is discussed 'deconstructivist'circles. its ideal of a comrnunal life guided by mutual understandingand recognition and by the absence conof straint) and postmodemism (defined as the 'deconstruction' of this claim to universality. in its 'repressive' 'totalitarian'. Kafka's 'postmodern'text articulatesthe threat that the poses-to superego the Law through colonizing with enjoyment.Here of K. very form. thereby producing subject a hauntedby an infiniteguilt.t Thir opposition is simply false:for whar of Habermasdescribes 'postrnodernism'is the imrnanent obverseof the modas ernist project itself. that universal rcason is as such.In Hitchcock's film. inconthat is drivenby an obscene and anarchic the sistency which bewilders the victim unableto escape Law.the Other'sconsistency basicto language. necessary a suppositionof . too near. In complying with this custom.although in a peculiar way.ZiZek picks out two modernistmisreadings the emptiness the core of Kafka.This same proximity the Thingappears Kafka's menacing of in TheTrial. Zizekillustrates contrastbetweenmodernism the and postmodernism by noting a difference structure in betweena scene the modernist in film Blow Up and a 'postmodernist'scene Hitchcock's in Lifeboat.we will question the very way Habermas constructs the opposition betlveen modernism (defined by its claim to a universaliry of reason.List ethics of the individual's shapinghis life as a work of art alwayspart of the modernist projecr? Is the genealogicunnraskingof universalcategoriesand values. without knowing it.however. Instead the Law possessing empty placeasthe idealof of an 'Before justice in the parable (as the Law'). persecuted the symis by bolicnetwork. the there is a lack of consistency betweenthe (symbolic) Law and the (real) act of copulation. what he describes the tension between modernism and as postmodernismis the imnrencnt tension that has defined modernism from its very beginning.a fantasy concealing gap.a 'trespassing the frontier that separates vital of the domainfrom the judicialdomain'.it.reveals himselfas a cause horror by showingin hisfacehis response the response the of to of Britishsailors.rather than a fanaticalbelief in . the same at time the superego presents itselfas all- knowing. The 'obsceneobject of postmodernity'is the Lacanian.from Nietzscheto 'poststructuralism'.38 Culture The Obscene Objectof Postmodernity 39 procedure excellencg an unmasking par with meaningproduced solelyby the movement signifiers. Was not tlre acstheticist. The theme of Blow Up isthe disappearance a body photographed chance. that it masks a particular nerwork of power relations.the Law allowingtransgression while seeming forbid it: Kafka is introducing to the punitive superego jouissance. discovers paysfor with his but and life. of by the film'sactioncentringupon the search what is to fill this absence. this reliance of In upon language. brought into horrible proximity. after language hasfailed in its reference. Kafka'stext proclaims So that the Law is 'necessary' not 'true': as K. back. while being pickedup in a lifeboat. are it Lacan who marksthe postmodernist breakby focusingupon that which liesoutside the signifierand which is detectable only retrospectively.whereasmodernism conceals it.ln this fantasy. 'nothing'istakento be 'something' . the calling into question of the urriversalityof reasonnot a modernist procedurepar excellence? Is not the very essencco[ thcoretical modemism. The object of fear itself thus becomes the focus for the postmodernism camera: showsthe 'obscene object'. with a kind of distancingfrom him. a German U-boatsailor.it in is obligatory . the reversehappens:there is 'something' wheretherewas 'nothing'. is engulfed uncontrolled it by drives: the Freudian superego closer has linkswith the id than the ego does. deconthe structionists still 'structuralists': is the 'poststructuralist. is only the psychotic. we would like to add a new fwist: to propose that Flabemrasrs himself postmodernist.tennis-match' in 'ball' rollsto his feet.a sign of good manners. for A final sequence showsthe photographer watchinga . anti-universa. To sustain this thesis. constiturively 'false'.s of at (1) bureaucracy: asthe mark of an 'absentgod'. its acceptanceof rational argument as the only way to deGnd conviction. and that its truth-claim is nothing but an effect of a series rhetorical figures. its refusal of the authority of tradition.Paradoxically.so to speak. which the non-existent whereuponhe throws . ln The Triatthe closeness of this presence irruptsin the court in the occurrence a lewd coupling of of a man and a woman at the backof the room. (2) as the projectionof an innervoid into an 'apparition' outside. the revelation of the 'When . a In the postmodernist scene. it But presumes existence the big Other as the sincethe act of speaking the of warrant for siEnification.investing the Law with a boundless enjoyment.. joining in a gamewhich 'workswithout an object'.Thing.the incestuous maternalobject. as if its prohibitions were consistentthroughout. if you cannot investthe Law as necessary.

: even as the mimed rennisgame can be played without a ball. postmodern precisely becausehe recognizes a positive condition of freedom and emancipation in what appeared to modernism as the very form of alienation:the autonomy of the aestheticsphere. takesa walk near a tennis court where a group of people . traumatic kernel whose status remains deeply ambiguous: the Real resistssymbolization. is an Anglo-Saxon and German invention. lie elsewhere. tennis ball . Though it is the middle of the night. It is only with Lacan that the break occurs.*irhorr. Hitchcock as Postmodernist In what. In Adomo and Horkheimer's Dialectit of Enlightenment. as charismatic apparition:the diffcrence. he discoversthe conrours of a body there.the real Thing'. As the hero cleveloos photographs shot in a park. who affirms enjoyment as .mime a game of tennis. and that the only 'posrstructuralist' is Lacan. on the other hand. etc. It inclicates the hero's consentingto the fact that 'the gameworks without an object. perhaps the last great modernist fil. The useof the prefix 'post-' in both cases should not lead us astray (especiallyif we take into account the crucial. then. resignedto the cul-de-sacin which his investigation has ended. He hesrtat.the functional division of different social domains. his attention is attracted to a stain that appears on the edge of one of the photographs. it seems that . that the play is set in motion by a central absence. contents' behind the consciousness' ideology. accorclingto the code of the detective novel. the modemist project reaches its zenith of self-critical fulfilment. This renunciation of the modemist utopia.. In the frame of this supposedgame.that is.the gesture at work from Nietzsche to Adorno and Horkheirner's Dialecticof Enlightenmenl is not this gesture the supreme act of modernism? As soon as fissures appear in the unquestionable authoriry of tradition. Deconstructionismis a modernist procedure par excellence: presents it perhapsthe most radicalversion of the logrc of 'unmasking'. attests to the fact that we are in a postmodernist unlverse. fact that 'poststnrcturalism'. This scene has. exemplified by the great triad of Marx-Nietzsche-Freud? Is not the ironic. in the final scene.postmodernist. It consistsnot in demonstratingthat the game works without an objecr. the tension berr.bur rarher in displaying the objcct directly. the cenrral impossibiliry around which every signi4ring nerwork is structured.corresponds preciselyto the break berween modernism and postmodernism. he finds thar the body has disappearedwithout leaving atrace. aiming at a radical revolution in the historical totality of the contemporary world and at the utopian abolition of the difference 'alienated' befween life spheres. the very term although designating a strain of French theory. The same object can function succcssivcly a disgustingreject and as a sublime. so his own adventure proceedswithout a body.a metaphoricaltunction in relation to the rest of the film. this acceptance the fact that freedom is possibleonly on the basisof a cerrain of fundamental 'alienation'. of moraliry.whereby the very uniry of the experience of meaning is conceived as the effect of signifying mechanisms.veenuniversal reason and the particular contents escaping its grasp is inevitable and irreducible. the object of desie par excellence. betr. . does the postmodemist break consisr? Let's begin with Antonioni's BIow {Jp. Ironically. seH-destructive gesture by means of which reason recognizesin itseH the force of repression and domination against which it fights . Deleuze. but it is at the same time its own retroactive product. berween art and 'reality'. and then acceptsthe game: bending over. At first. (of of the ego). This confusion concerning the break between modernism and postmodernism comes to a critical point in Habermas's diagnosis of poststructuralist deconstructionism the dominant form of contemporaryphilosophicalpostas modernism. Habermas is. he makes a gesturc of picking up the ball and throwing it back into the courr. then.s a moment. The term refers to the way the Anglo-Saxon world perceived and located the theories of Derrida.'.doesnot pertain to the 'effective properries'of thc object. of course. in so far as he thematizes a certain real. The Line of demarcation between modemism and postmodernism must. The first thing to note here is that the body is. Horkheimer and Marcuse on the one side and Habermason the other . But on returning to the scene of the crime the next day. and lands near the hero. 'Postmodernism' is the exact reverse of this process.3in their unmaskingof the repressive potential of 'instrumental reason'. belongs to postmodernism: the break berween the first and the secondgeneration of the Frankfurt school . In this sensewe could even say that deconstructionists are basically still 'structuralists. allowing it to make visible its own indifferent and arbitrary character.strictly srructural.2 MaF in cuse's One-Dimensional Man. effect that can take place only in so far asit ignoresthe textual an movement that produced it. when he enrargesthe detail. nobody usesthe term 'postsrructuralism').40 'effective Culture 'false The ObsceneObject of postmodernity 41 . and indeed finds the body. causethat the startsthe interpretarive desire of the detective (and the reader): how did it happen?who did it? The key to the film is only given to us. the imagrned ball is hit out of bounds. on account of certain crucial features of his theory.in Franceitself. however. one can grasp this difference berween modernism and postmodernism by analysing the effect of horror in Hitchcock's fllms. he rushesto the park. but only to its place in the symbolic order. it is Habermas LrimseHwho.veen Adomo. etc.The hero. Foucault.. but usually overlooked.

than the to Such a postmodernistprocedureseems us much more subversive the latter. The terri$'ing object is an everyday object thar has startedto funcrion.and so on.The onry di{ference would be that. Secret Beyondthe Door. and thus renderedall the more horrible. A little later. celia Barrett. because the possibiliry of grasping the central emptinessunder the perspectiveof an 'absent God'. who enjoys rhe same stupid pleasures. and moves in with him. ce[a gets a key made and enters the room. for this procedure correspondsperfecdy to to that of Proust rn [Jn Amour de Swannwhen Odette confesses Swann her Odette . She meets Mark Lamphere there. of the irrtcrprcrativedelirium taken to the infinite. not knowing it himserf. by chance. The SeuenthWctim. lesbian effect on Swann is evident only in the changein the tone of her story when she effect. in accompLished the 1940sby the legendaryproducer Val Lewton (Cat People. take a small detail from Lfeboat. finally. his look becomesperplexed. he would be the incarnation of the Thine whose arrival was awaited. But he forbids their enrrance into room number seven.This demonstrates the Proustian side of Hitchcock. help. the intersubjective machine.here we have the perfect illustration of the fundamentalambiguiry of the Freudiannotion of das Unbeimliche. works as well if the Thing is lacking. IfJoyce is the modemist par excellencc. stagesin pure (one is almosr tempred to say distilled) form this logic of a' everyday object found in the place of dasDing. by not showing the Thing.asthar which fills in the hole in the other (the symbolic order). The opposition between modernism and postmodernism is thus far from being reducible to a simple cliachro. Let's this The properly Hitchcockian approach.who logically. The elementary procedure for evoking horror would be.its Presenceis indicated only by means of offscreensounds. is to reuerse process.the not cameraremains on the German. totally comrnon thing is revealedas Evil incarnate. leavesopen usualmodemist one. we are even tempted to say that postmodernismin a way prccedcs modernism. 'something might happen'. one can only detect ttby his reaction to the survivors'reaction: his smile dies Bonitzera calls what Pascal out.iting of this same story look like? one would have to put Godor himself onstage: would be someoneexactly]ike us. The whole futile and senseless action of the play takes place while waiting for Godot's arrival when.42 Culture The ObsceneObject of postmodernity 43 Hitchcock simply respectsthe classicalrule (already known by Aeschylus in according to which one must place the terrifying object or event The Oresteia) outside the scene and show only its reflections and its effects on the stage.But Hitchcock's procedure is theexact of this: what he does not show.. Instead of directly showing the terrifying monster (vampire.is the stripwreckedsurvivors. If one does not see the object directly. a central absence. submarine:their surprise for way of filming this scenewould be to let us hear the screams The traditional person gnpping the side of the boat. in its completely ordinary: what one took only a moment ago for a appearance. but to move the camera to the shipwrecked survivors: it would then be the perplexed expressionon their facesthat would indicate to us that they had pulled something unexpectedout 'W'hat? was finally built up. materialized emptiness. one 6l1s out its absencewith Antasy projections (one seesit as more horrible than it actually is). A lesser-known film by Fritz Lang. and then by revealing its frightening effect to be simply the effect ofits place in the structure. he has found himself by chance at the place of the Thing. with a friendly smile. and Mark shows them his garlery of historical rooms.precedes Joyce of the other is retroactivelyperceivedby thc modemist gazeas its incompleteie_ss. And the thrill effec resulrs precisery from the fanriliar. but one knows very well that 'Godot' can never arrive.y. reconstituted in the vault of his mansion. reflecting inexplicthat one is confronting the source of ar-r itself. someonewho lives the samefutile. because is just a name he 'what for nothingness. He shows the German sailor climbing on board and saying. One shows an ordinary object or an activity.tseckett's waitingfor Godot.by shadows. Fascinated by the taboo placed on ir. which turns our ro be an exact replica of her room. of the time . not .one realizes in theobject able terror. from the scene where the group of Allied welcome on board their boat a German sailor from the destroyed castaways when they find out that the personsavedis an enemy.ew. writer of the symptom ('the symptomJoyce. then. which is locked. 'Danke schon!' Then he does show the surprisedfacesof the survivors.through the reactionsof the rnilieu to this object. contrary finally revealthe German sailor. to show the handsof an unknown and then nol to show the German sailor. marrieshim. The lessonof modernism is that the stmcture. T'he prototype of a modernist text would be Samuel. but notices its disastrous themselues suddenly. If his apparition provoked a terrifying effect. The most familiar ttringstake on a dimension of the uncanny when one finds them in another prace. the couple receives his intimate friends.that her story hasa terrif ing Proust only describes adventures. if the machine revolves around an emptiness. to limit oneselfto reflectionsof or the terrifying object in its witnesses victims. a young businesswoman. a place that . this is the crucial axis of the revolution in horror movies As is well known. thc as Lacan puts it). The terror is intensified by the fact that this object is. Like Kafl<a. domestic characterof what one finds in this Thing's forbidden place .however.the postmod ernistinconsistency only temporally.is not right'. for would the 'postmodernist'. the postmodernistreversalshows t/re Thing ikelf as the incarnated. This is accomplishedby showing the terri$uing object directly. travelsto Mexico after her older brother's death. precisely. he boring liG that we do. the camerawould When the suspense of the water. etc). murderous beast).

_of productive movement. as an inversion. There is. in m2 it is an ordinary wornan washing children's clotl-res. during night interrogations. mt rhe door-kecpcr is arr in employee of the court.Kafka'suniverseis a world in which nauseous of various obscene. abandoned by God).' These nvo readings. by the priest in order to explain to him his situation uis-i-uis the Law. m1 it's a rnan. 'absent God' in Kafka does not work at all: for Kafka's the formula of the in problem is. One reading takes the transcendentcharacter of the centre (of the Casde. with its accent on the inacagency(the Castle. the Castleis indeed presentunder 'Which is why the figure of subservient. finds himself in front of another door of the Law (the entrance to the interrogation chamber). of the apologue conceming the door of the Law? 'We do not have far to look: at the beginning of the second chapter ('First Interrogation'). that is the theological lesson of very proximity).who up to now had held himself at an assured 'universe of anxiery'.its provokesanxieryis not the lossof the incestuous too close to dasDing. misrecognizedby a modernist reading of Ka{ka. then. In m1 we are in fronr of the entranceto a magnificent Court ofJustice. Bureaucracy Enjoyment and Two doorsof the Law To specify further the statusof the Kafkaesqueobsceneenjoyment. since this door was intended only for you. of Kafka would be that in the heart of the bureaucratic machinery. in rn' the washerwoman pushes him into the interrogation chamber half against his will. holding the place absent. the secret as of the lack. full of filth and crawling obscenities.on condition. nobody elsemust come in. obsceneGod. the apologueconceming the door of the Law (let'scall it. the other reading takes the emptiness of 'illusion of perspective'. From this modernist perspective. The patent failure of all the major interpretations of this apologue seemsonly to confirm the priest's thesisthat 'the comments often enough merely expressthe comrnentator's bewilderrnent'. this postmodernism:Kafl<a's . of elusive. it is indeed revolting presence. is mad.although opposed.the differencelies only in the fact SupremeGood exactlythe sameasGod 4l. there is only 'works by an emptiness. inaccessible.has got too God .' At the sametime. Tlrc crucial feature of rn2 is alrcedy indicated by its location: the Court is krcatccli' the middle of the vital promiscuiry of worker's lodgings. as a reverse form of the this transcendence as an apparition of the immanence of desire (the inaccessible transcendence. the antipode of Joyce. asin BIow Up where the read this conjunction in tvvo opposed ways. can we find. 'absent God' (the universe of Kafl<aasan anguished the Court) as a mark of an universe. The Court in The Trial is not simply absent. in The Tial. 'myth' another that functions as a variation. obscene. The washerwornan saysto him. lascivious and cormpt civil servants. it would be preferable ro rrear it in the way claude L6vi-Strausstreats a myth: by establishingits relations to a seriesof other myths and elaborating -Where the rules of their transformation. why not . of the of space a nauseousinert presence. Kafl<a's blocks it. that one takesinto account the Lacanian definition of anxiety (what object but.transcendent cessible. in the style of L6vi-Strauss.44 Culture The Obscene Objectof Postmodernity 45 (to inteqpret) where each stable moment reveals itself to be nothing but a 'condensation' of a plural signiflring process. We are 'Supreme Being of Evil'. inert presencethat is It is preciselythis dimension of a non-dialecticizable. another way to penetrate the anecdote'smystery: insteadof seeking its meaning direcdy. the door-keeper lets him know that this door is intended only for him. the guise phenomena. One can itseH'. which nevertheless share the same theoretical frame: theological and imrnanentist. on the contrary. closeto us. Reiner Stach is cluitejustified in recognizing in this detail a disrinctive trait of Kafka's univcrsc. Ka{ka'suniverseis a however. I am now going to shut it. over the world of objects qua representations). but in -2 it is easily transin grcsscd. on the contrary. is always already filled out by an inert.ra that we have sot too closeto him. presentunder the figures ofthe obscenejudgeswho. If Joyce's text provokes interpretation.JosefK. nothing: bureaucracy would be a mad machine that gameis playedwithout a body-object. Kafl<a is in a certain way already postmodernist. of the absence such.this empry place.in m2 we are in a block of workers' flats. 'I must shut this door after you.'the trespassing the frontier that separates vital domain from of the . let's take as a starting point the flmous apologue concerning the door of the Law in The Tial.miss the same point: the way this absence. the frontier separatingeveryday life from the sacred plece of the Law cannot be transgressed ml . here also.' which is clearly a variation of the last words of the door-keeper to the man from the country in the priest's apologue: 'No one but you could gain admittance through this door. in m1 the door-kecper preventsthe in nran from the country from passing through the door and entering the Cor"rrt. distance.the Court). however. in m2 a woman. the writer of fantasy.ml) and the first interrogation (m2) carr be opposed through a whole series of distinctive features. is then only the negative form of the apparition of the surplus of its desire. glancethrough pornographic books. the central lack. the anecdote told to K.that in this universeGod is toopresent. In short.

thereekof theroom andthe dim light together for made a whitish dazzleof fog.the elementaryoperation of Kafka: this shortcircuit betweenthe feminirLe 'substance' ('psychological type') and the place of the I-aw.In m1. It was the washerwoman. had to laugh too. positive side of this inconsistency is. The place of transition from one domain to the other is a door guarded by an ordinary washerwoman of a provocative sensuality.as a last desperate attempt after a long and useless ramble: The first thing he saw in the little room was a greatpendulum clock which already 'please pointedto ten.' said the Exarnining Magistrate.it is based on the simple fact that she is connected with the Law. whereas here the woman possesses a kind of advanceknowledge. the public burstsinto laughter: ''Well. has 'peer to beneath lils hands to sce what was happening'). and the error of K.whom K. he go through. 'Doesajoiner called Lanzlive here?' asked.she is a being without any access the dimension of to Truth (even when what she is sayingis literally true. thcn. filthy enjoymenr that is her very substance. who waswashingchildren's clothes a cub.as has already been pointed out by Stach. grasped handle the door. of course.K. This act. 'you are a house-painter?' 'No. . a man called Lanz. All K.edLanz.einingerian more subversive gesture. is disturbed by a public act of sexual intercourse. a pure. the excuse that he is looking for a joiner caTl.'I asked a her for joiner. is that of the Moebius strip: if we progressfar enough in our descentto the social underground. and leams that one's arrival hasbeen long expected.46 Culture The ObsceneObject of Postmodernity 47 the judicial domain'. marks the moment of the eruption of the trlunratic lleal. Confronted with such an image of woman.above all . could seewas that a man had drawn lrer into a corner by the door and was claspingher in his arms. had recogriizedas a potential causeof disturbancefrom the moment of her entrance..inconsistent bricolage penetratedwith enjoyment. Kaflra does not succumb to the usual critical-feminist temptation (of demonstraring that this figure is the ideological product of specific social conditions. neurral universaliry . All the oppositionsnoted by K. his mouth was wide open and he was gazing up at tl-re ceiling.berween the merry right side and the severeleft side of the pubLic) prove false as soon as he tries to base his tactics on them...'Whether she was ar fault now or not. consists in .the Law itself .the Court is . in the middle of the sublime and noble Law. Every attempt to establish Court's mode of functioning the by logical reasoningis doomed in advanceto fail. perhaps. nobodyelse mustcomein. difficult to perceive because of its over-cxposure (K. In a much 'W.just go right in. in andshepointed damphandto the opendoor of the nextroom. Her position regarding the Law is far more crucial than that of a minor functionary. 'I'rn the junior nranager of a large Bank. unprecedentedplace. enjoyment: it empts openly when the argument of K. we find ourselves suddenly on the other side. the door-keeper doesn't know anyttring. put in parenthesis.traditionally. for the problem is that there is nothing behind this mask of simulation.he peered by from beneath hishandto see whatwashappening. a formal sense: is asif in it the chain of 'normal' connectionsberween causes and effectswere suspended. This is. of contrasting it with the outlines of another type of femininity).'7 The situation here is exacdy the sameas in the well-known incident from The Arabian Nights:one entersa place quite by chance. The paradoxical foreknowledge of the washerwoman has nothing whatsoever to do with so-called feminine intuition . himself only chose to enter her room quite by chance.veen the angcr of the judges and the laughter of the public on rhe benches. People doubied up with thcir hands on their knees and shook as if in spasms coughing-' of The other.''I know.. might not haveobeyed shehadnot comeup to him. nothing but a certain glutinous. Yet it was not she who hacl uttered the shriek but the man. the place of the Law. Here K. while making it occupy an unheard-of. she lies as a consequence of her subjectiveposition). after an ordinary answerby K. The ObsceneLaw In Kafka'suniverse. wasintermpted a shriekfrom the end of the hall.'saidrhe woman.8 What is the relation. Smearedby an obscenevitaLiry. K. andsaid: if the of 'l mustshut this door afteryou. Ignoring the naive cunning of K. between this woman and the Court of the Law? In Kafka's work.' said K.6 The structure here.assumes the featuresof a heterogeneous.'said a young womanwith sparkling blackeyes.she is calculatingthe enjoyment she will to derive from her actions).' This answer evokcd such a hearty outburst of laughter from the Right parry that K. she makes him understand that his arrival has been awaited for a long time.turning over the leavesand addressing K. It is insufhcient to sayofsuch a being that shefeigns her affectionsto seducea man.. one could not tell.. discoversthis for himself soon afterward when his passionateargumentation before the tribunal is intemrpted by an obsceneintrusion. even though K. the woman as a 'psychologrcal rype' is wholly consistent with the anti-feminist ideology of an otto weininger: rhe woman is a being without a proper seE she is incapable of assuming an ethical attitude (even when she appears act on ethical grounds.lawless. with an air of arrthoriry. then. Kafka wholly accepts this portrait of woman as a 'psychologrcalrype'. . of course. (ber\.

but for all that it still is not . He thinks that everybody will be anxious to have order restored and the offending couple ejected from the meering. Finnegan. the Other of the Law. sucksour the living. signif. In all previous religions. evidenced by the superego. flooding the judicial domain. in so far as it is totally insensible to the living substanceof enjoyment. The fatal error of K. K. Living subjectscan no longer be consideredprisonersof a dead cobweb. the game is over: puzzled and confused.ro. a cornmentary that enablesus to see our way through the inexhaustible nerwork of ciphered allusions. there is a In "pp."r.that is. In m2.we encounter a place. . a kind of parasiteor vampire. it remains an inconsistent bricolage.In mi. and the real totalitarian danger arisesonly when the Law no longer wants to stay dead. The result of nrl is. it is impregnated with enjol'rnent.This fact ru. The Tial ts quite 'readable'. he hopes to keep literary scientistsoccupied for at least the next four hundred years).iing chain repelling significationwith an exccss of sticky enjoyment. It is as if Ka{ka'stexr were a of coagulated. the other of the Law appears on the conrrary. filled with importent rage. then Kafl<aexemplifies this characterisricin a way that is different fromJamesJoyce. certain gap. pulsating.funcrions as a superegoic knowledge (S2 in Lacan'smathemes). ml and m2 are complementary.t0 'p. All at once the plaits start to move and to secretea glutinous mucus. 'it is not necessary accept ro everything as true. Ir is the reference to m'that supports the intelpretation of Kafl<aas a'writer of absence'.The meeting of K with the washerwoman adds to this the obverse. that there is no truth about Truth. presentforce. a of domain of sacredenjoyment (in the form ofritual orgies.an 'unreadable'book: we cannot read it the way we read an ordinary 'realist' novel.. according to JacquesAlain Miller. for example).ds from the time when the Other *". representing the rwo modes of lack: the lack of incompletenessand the lack of inconsistency. The superego knows too much The bureaucrary depicted in Kafka's novels .at this point.the imrnense machinery of totally useless. If modem literature can be characterizedas 'unreadable'. But when he tries to rush across the room..whole. produces a radical opaciry and blocks every essay interpretation./all'. breathing. -We must. compared to tlis. implies a disquieting experience:suddenlywe become aware that what a minute ago appeared ro us a dead letter is really alive. To follow the thread of the text we need a kind of 'reader's guide'.o. yet dead.decisions). by the collar . nothing is lacking. The Other as the other of the sFnbolic Law is nor only dead. In short.on the contrary. superfluousknowledge. The main outlines of the story are clear enough Kafka's style is concise and of proverbial puriry. Someone seizes him from behind. the petrified colpse comes alive again. as a homogeneous entity. he leaves the room. rnixed with signsofperplexiry. as inconsistenr: nothing is wanting in it.the presence of what? of a blind machinery to which nothing is lacking in so far as it is the very surGit of enjoyment. attainable by means of consistent argument. the negative theological reading of his universe as a crazy bureaucratic machine turning blindly around the central void of an absent God. because of its over-exposed character.illegibiiiry' functions preciselyas an invitation to an unending processof reading of interpretarion (recall Joyce's joke that 'with Finnegan'swake. . the_Law is necessary without being true. collection following a kind of aleatory logic a of enjoyment. was to addressthe Court. To quote the words of the priest in m1.but what he gers instead is an act (a public copulation). then. the other of the Law as incomplete.a surviving remainder of that time'. K. of course. The group of heroes is advancing through a long tunnel the stone walrs of which are nvisted like interlaced plaits of hair. whereas the Court can only return him an obscenesmile. whereas inJudaism the sacreddomain is evacuatedof all tracesof vitaliry and the living substance subordinated to the dead letter ofthe Father'sLaw. This provides the image of Karka as a 'writer of presence'. then. the inversion of the dead Law into the obscene figure of the superego. The superego imperative 'Enjoy!'. one must only accept it as necessary'.'stigmatized. yet this . usually passed ovcr in silence: in so far as the I aw is not grounded in Truth. Let us recall a shorr scene from the filrn Aliens. ru'ning bli'dly and provoking an unbearable feeling of irrational' guilt . it doesn't even know that it is dead (ike the terrible figure in Freud's dream): it couldn't know it. Kafl<a'ssensirivity to this 'trespassing of the frontier that separates vital domain from the judicial domain' depends the upon his Judaism: the Jewish religion marks the moment of the most radical separation thesedomains. Thus.s counter to our spontaneous understanding. its very heart. But it is this very 'legrbility' that. with enjoyment. Every warranr of the Law has the status of a semblance. the paradox of a law that. formal character of the Law becomes now the sine qua non of our freedom. we can never reach the last door of the Law. The dead. Which is why Ka{ka's universe is eminently that of the superego. Kafl<atrespasses is the divisions of his inherited religion.. reversethe usualmetaphor of 'alienation'whereby the dead. expectsactionfrorn the Court Qegaldeeds.s wake is. loses the thread of his argument. The super ego presents. once again. the crowd obstructs him.48 Culture The ObsceneObject of postmodernity 49 overlooking the solidarity berween this obscene disturbance and the court. formal letter.

50 Culture The ObsceneObject of postmodernity 51 Nothing seems more obvious than the connection between the superego and the Lacanian. we 'put must forward the paradoxical proposition that the normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes but also far more moral than he knows'.and hr-is relation toward the super-ego (its traumatic prohibitions and injunctions) that of (non-)knowledge. 46. The Philosophical Discourse Modernity (cambridge. Is the superego not the very model 'irrational' injunction founded solely in its own processof enunciation.that is. renounce the usualnotion of the unconsciousasa kind of 'reservoir' of wild. 'The Ego and the Id'. 3g. than ego is awareof through conscious perceptions'. 1.we suppose existenceof the big other as guarantorof our meanthe ing. of course. in the person of the all-knowing persecutor.e. The superego is on the side of 52. Allen Lane. the master-signifier. (London: Hogarth press and the Institute of psycho-Analysis. Universiry of Minnesota Prcss. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 cf.. But where can we graspthis knowledge in a palpableway. of ignorance. cruel. only one answer is possible:if man is more immoral than he (consciously) believes and more moral than he (consciously)knows .must we not conclude that theid in itselfalready consists ofunconscious. Beacon press. According to Lacan. L'Ane 16 (1984\.There is a certain fundarnentalbelief . 37. Ibid. Freud himself treats the superego as a ki'd of knowledge ('the superego knew more than the ego about the unconsclous id'). I b i d . Our conscious ego does not (want to) know anything about them. The Freudian solution to this paradox is. of an demanding obedience without further justification? Lacanian theory.p . pp. Jrirgen Habermas. .so to speak. the true formula of atheism is 'God is unconscious'. KaJka: Towarda Minor Literuture (Minneapolis. we only have to remember the famous challenge made by Lacan to his audience that they show him one singlepersonwho did nor unconsciously believe in his own immortahry. Miller. for it is through them that we can detect Freud's crucial insights. Schocken. p. 1953). it is a fragment of the chain of knowledge whose purest forn of apparition is 'irrational what we call the feeling of guilt'. Dialectic Enlightentnent oJ (London.la The only subject who can effectively renounce the 'chariry principle' . 13. Newsletter theFreudia. i. both for good and for evil. then. illicit drives:the unconsciousis also (one is even tempted to say: above all) fragments of a traumatic.973).Sl.that this feeling is well-founded: we feel guilry because of our repressedunconscious desires. The nicestirony of the title of Freud's'The Eso and the Id.for example.in other words. then. a paradoxical knowledge unbeknown to the subof ject? As we have seen. The Tnal (New York. KaJkaserotischer Mythos (Frankfurt. ci Gilles Deleuze and F6lix Guattari..i. p. the whole dimension of which he himself failed to notice (let us recall only what Lacan has been able to derive from a similar 'slippery' distinction bef. if his relation toward the id (the illicit drives) is that of (dis)belief. a set of prohibitions and injunctions. 1984). runs counter to this spontaneous intuition: the opposition between S1 and 52 that is. as a resuit of acts we are certain we did not comrnit.a belief in the other's basicconsistency thar belongsto languageassuch.. andthat thesuperego of consists an unconscious knowledge.a material. 19g7). capricious. berween the master-signifier and the chain of knowledge overlaps the opposition of ego-ideal (the 'unitary trait'. in The standardEdition oJ the complete Psychological works.t'L^.weenego-ideal and ideal ego).992). 51. 1 1 i We should.12 'What is the precise meaning of this distinction berween belief and knowledge. .Field 6 (1/2\ of Jacques-A)ain (1. p. Mass. conceiving it as the condition for successful communication. Fischer Verlag. in God. ar p. Franz Kafl<a. 1964). repressed beliefs.vol. who seesin the symbolic network of meaning around him a plot staged by some evil Persecutor. Even in the most asceticanalyticalphilosophy. p. One-Dimensional Man (Boston. than it thinks fglaubt: believes]it has. 1987). 5 0 .1986).By the mere act of speaking. this fundamentalbelief is maintained in the form of what Donald Davidson called 'the principle of charity'. which this ln in agencythat 'seesall and knows all' is embodied in the real.. of MIT Press.e.able to 'read our thoughts'. however. Pascal Bonitzer. and thus holds the subject responsible for its unacknow'the ledged desires: superego knew more than the ego about the unc o n s c i o u sd ' . Rciner Stach. 19. where doesit acquire. Herbert Marcuse. the point of symbolic identification) and the superego. In other words. 'Longs feux'. 'uruntelligible' and 'irrational' law text. What. Sigmund Freud. externalexistence? paranoia. whose relation to the big other of the symbolic order is characterized a by * fundamental disbeLief ts the psychotic a paranoiac. but the superego 'sees all and knows all'. 5-15. Concerning the id. 'Dury and the Drives'. produced as if by a kind of slip and lost already in the note accompanying the quoted phrase from The Ego and the Id? In this note Freud rephraseshis 'simply proposition by sayingthat it states that human nature has a far greater extent. is rhe import of that ephemeraldistinction befween belief and knowledge? llltimately. We feel guilty without knowing why. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer."n taught us to be extremely attentive to such distinctions that emerge momentarily and are forgotten imrnediately afterward.

t 2 Ibid. 1-33. ZiZekquestions whether'true' communication bedistinguished can from'false'.pp. Second.(1994). which reassesses concept of ideology the through readings from philosophy. the institutions. if discourse not depend as did on an ideological structure function at all. arguments. Here 2i2ek providesa surveyof the century's theoriesof ideology.ient a semblance solidarity. as long asthe rituals or produced suffi<. 'Mental Events'. edited by 2iZe*.showing how there is a basic fault-line that shows through in oppositional structuresof truth and falsity. The Spectre ldeology of Thisis the introduction a collection to entitled Mappingldeology.52 Culture is that it leaves out the third crucial notion that contains the real theoretical 'The Superego in its Relations to the innovation of this essay:its title should be Ego and the Id'.p. 1 4 Cf. Odrrd Univenity Press.it is no simple matter to separate supposedly extra-ideological elements from'spontaneous' 'facts'. example. and on 1980).economic structures sexual and relations. the ideologyemergingat the core of the socialin response its current to formations. is not correctto to it regardthe 'ldeological StateApparatus' determining as beliefs subjects. ritual practices (3) and social organizations that maintainits dominance. for where an oppositionbetweenan earlyand a lateform of capitalism assumed orderto dismiss is in Marx's . of Third. 52. of since the Fascist experience shows that the so-called manipulators were indifferentasto whetherthey were believed not. the there is an assumption which it depends on that is neverquestioned. sociology and psychoanalysis. such liberal as subjects experiencing themselves individuals as 'free choice'. Donald Davidson. basic assumptions modesof rhetand (2) oric that constituteits conceptual apparatus. Whatever opposition. I J rbid.which ideologyitselfserves conceal.in Essays Actions Euents (New York.. to Three aspects the current approaches ideology can be distinin to (1) guished: the beliefs. ideological oneswhen the ideological hidden in self-evident is suchas laws. with uncontrolled First.

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