Arc de Triomphe

“The bird is an animal with an inside and outside. When you remove the outside, you see the inside. When you remove the inside, you see the soul.”

  • Paul, quoting an 8-year-old’s essay about her pet in Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vi [1]: Film in 12 Tableaux [2]
  • I’ll use this French new wave [3] film to help understand Zizek’s set of essays about the process of becoming, essays that examine numerous odd-sounding Deleuzian [4] concepts, such as the quasi-cause[5]. The film, with its unusual style, works well with these articles – two of them even discuss how Deleuze used another event in European art cinema, Italian Neorealism [6], to distinguish between historical causality and the emergence of the New:

    The moments of the emergence of the New are precisely the moments of Eternity in time. The emergence of the New occurs when a work overcomes its historical context … One can, of course, explain neorealism by a set of historical circumstances (the trauma of World War II, etc.). However, there is an excess in the emergence of the New: neorealism is an Event which cannot simply be reduced to its material/historical causes, and the “quasi-cause” is the cause of this excess, the cause of that which makes an Event (an emergence of the New) irreducible to its historical circumstances. [7]

    The movie credits are shown over three successive views of a beautiful woman (Nana, also the name of a tragic novel [8] about a courtesan. The Nana of this film is played by Godard’s wife at the time, Ana Karina.) This overlapping between the character, her resonant name, the actress, her resonant name [9], and the character’s ambition – to be an actress – spotlights how humans are performers in their own lives – acting out their social roles. This aspect of the film also sheds light on Zizek’s/Deleuze’s claim that, rather than historical context enabling us to understand a work of art, it is

    the work of art itself which provides a context enabling us to properly understand a given historical situation. [10]

    After showing us an intertitle announcing the first tableau, Godard shows Nana’s back as she sits at a coffeehouse bar arguing with her husband, Paul. Since we only catch glimpses of her and Paul’s faces in a distant mirror, we are forced to infer their feelings from their words. Nana has had an affair, and Paul asks her if her lover has more money than he does. She repeats the question, “What do you care?” four times, each in a different tone. Her repetitions can recall a Deleuzian paradox regarding the New, that it

    … can ONLY emerge through repetition. What repetition repeats is not the way the past “effectively was,” but the virtuality inherent to the past and betrayed by its past actualization. [11]

    Nana explains her multiple replies, saying she doesn’t know the best way to express the sentiment, and Paul remarks that she isn’t on stage and accuses her of parroting nonsense. We’ll use his accusation to point to the book that Zizek refers to most often in this series, Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense [12], and how the work betrays a deadlock in his thinking that Deleuze had never resolved:

    … 1) on the one hand, the logic of sense, of the immaterial becoming as the sense-event, as the EFFECT of bodily-material processes-causes, the logic of the radical gap between generative process and its immaterial sense-effect: “multiplicities [13], being incorporeal effects of material causes, are impassible or causally sterile entities. The time of a pure becoming, always already passed and eternally yet to come, forms the temporal dimension of this impassibility or sterility of multiplicities.”… [For example, the] cinema image is inherently sterile and impassive, the pure effect of corporeal causes, although nonetheless acquiring its pseudo-autonomy.

    (2) on the other hand, the logic of becoming as PRODUCTION of Beings: “the emergence of metric or extensive properties should be treated as a single process in which a continuous virtual spacetime progressively differentiates itself into actual discontinuous spatio-temporal structures.” [14]

    Nana calls Paul cruel (and we finally get a shot of him, although his back is to us also.) Nana says she wants to die and reproaches him for refusing to introduce her to an unspecified man, a man whom the conversation implies that she thinks will help get her into the movies. She adds that, although she had thought she and Paul might have gotten together again, the more they talk, the less the words mean. She calls him horrible for not thinking of her as special, saying (as we catch sight of his face in the mirror,) “I hardly love you anymore, but I still think you’re someone special.” Paul counters that she is leaving him because he is poor, which Nana admits might be true. She then asks if she can borrow 2,000 francs, and he refuses. Perhaps in memory of happier times together and to part amicably, they play pinball. As Paul takes his turn, he tells her of the essay quoted at the beginning of this entry, and the camera focuses on Nana. The child’s words can illustrate that

    the basic premise of Deleuze’s ontology is precisely that corporeal causality is NOT complete: in the emergence of the New, something occurs which CANNOT be properly described at the level of corporeal causes and effects. [15]

    The second tableau begins with a documentary-style shot of the Arc de Triomphe (the first of 3 of this Arc in the movie,) then shows Nana working in the record section of an electronics shop. There, she first asks after an absent friend who owes her 2,000 franks, and then tries unsuccessfully to borrow the sum from another co-worker, who says that she is broke herself. She asks Nana if her need is serious, but Nana says she is alright. Nana asks her about a book she is perusing, and the woman reads a portion of it as we get a Hopperian [16] (one of many in the film) shot, a view of the city through the window with the jazz section of the store in the foreground. The book’s protagonist tells another character that he attaches too much importance to logic, then feels “bitter triumph” at having told him – “no more struggle to live again.” The references to logic and “jazz” (think “all that …”) resonate with an interesting idea about the importance of “nonsense” in becoming, in that nonsense

    maintains the autonomy of the level of sense, of its surface flow of pure becoming, with regard to the designated reality (“referent”). [17]

    We discover why Nana needs the 2,000 francs in the third tableau, when she tries to get the key to her apartment and her landlords keep it from her. But when her husband meets her and shows her photos of their son, she remarks that the boy looks like Paul, not her (at this moment, A thin young man passes behind, staring at her.) We can relate the reference to fatherhood to the remainder of the previous Zizek quote:

    …does this [function of nonsense] not bring us back to the unfortunate “phallic signifier [18] as the “pure” signifier without signified? Is the Lacanian phallus not precisely the point of non-sense sustaining the flow of sense? [19]

    Not only does Nana not tell Paul that she is now homeless, but she turns down his invitation to dinner, saying she is going to the cinema. We see the name of the film in lights outside the theater, Joan of Arc [20], the “Maid of Orléans,” who led soldiers against English invaders in the fifteenth century and was canonized as a saint in 1920. We then see the inside, mostly empty except for Nana and her date (and, in the third row behind them, the young man from the last scene.) Moved to tears by the silent classic, Nana ignores the man she has come with, even when he puts his arm around her. We watch with Nana as a young priest tells Joan that she will be burned at the stake. When he asks how she can believe she was sent by God, Joan replies, “God knows our path but we understand it only at the end of the road,” and when he asks her what her deliverance will be she replies, “Death” – The word is shown before and after a close up of Nana’s face. This hint of Nana’s fantasy [21] and how it affects her can conjure up this description of the quasi-cause:

    One can also say that the quasi-cause is the second-level, the meta-cause of the very excess of the effect over its (corporeal) causes. This is how one should understand what Deleuze says about being affected: insofar as the incorporeal Event is a pure affect (an impassive-neutral-sterile result), and insofar as something New (a new Event, an Event of/as the New) can only emerge if the chain of its corporeal causes is not complete, one should postulate, over and above the network of corporeal causes, a pure, transcendental, capacity to affect. [22]

    Nana abruptly leaves her date to meet another man at a café, the man who she had argued about with Paul (and who is referenced in the credits only as a “Journalist”) who had offered to take photos of her to help her get into the movies. After she admires his red Alpha Romeo, she looks at a sample of his work – a “composite sheet” of a woman whose only visible covering is a towel. Nana asks him if she can borrow 2,000 francs, and he says he doesn’t have it, but she agrees to go to his apartment to get the photographs taken. Nana’s acting aspiration can portray the connection between the quasi-cause and Lacan’s “objet petit a” [23], equivalents in meaning the

    … pure, immaterial, spectral entity which serves as the object-cause of desire…[24]

    The fourth tableau shows a policeman interrogating Nana over her half-hearted attempt to steal 1,000 francs that another woman had dropped. Finding that she is homeless, he asks her what she will do. She replies, looking down, then away, “I don’t know … I … is someone else.” The fifth shows Nana near a cinema which displays a Spartacus poster [25]. A man, mistaking her for a prostitute, asks if she is available. She acquiesces, and gets 5,000 francs from him. We witness a struggle between them, however, when she tries to avoid being kissed on the mouth. These struggles, inner and outer, can represent the duality in Deleuze’s work on causality:

    This duality is ultimately overdetermined as “the Good versus the Bad”: the aim of Deleuze is to liberate the immanent force of Becoming from its self-enslavement to the order of Being. Perhaps the first step in this problematizing is to confront this duality with the duality of Being and Event, emphasizing their ultimate incompatibility… [26]

    In the sixth tableau, Nana meets an old friend, Yvette, in front of a restaurant. When Nana asks her about her husband, Yvette says that life is hard, and she wants to escape to the tropics. “Escape a pipe dream,” Nana replies, and they enter the restaurant. Inside, a young man looks up at them from his pinball game. After getting a table, Yvette returns to kiss him – he is the man from the second tableau, a pimp named Raoul [27]. The camera lingers on him looking at Nana before Yvette tells Nana her story – her husband had moved her and her children to a hotel by the harbor and then abandoned them to act in the movies. She credits these circumstances with pushing her into prostitution, and Nana counters that people are responsible for everything they do, from their unhappiness to shutting their eyes or raising their hands. This discussion, connecting the physical with happiness, allows us to further elaborate on Deleuze’s ideas of causality:

    Deleuze is not affirming a simple psycho-physical dualism in the sense of someone like John Searle; he is not offering two different »descriptions« of the same event. It is not that the same process (say, a speech activity) can be described in a strictly naturalistic way, as a neuronal and bodily process embedded in its actual causality, or, as it were, “from within,” at the level of meaning, where the causality (“I answer your question because I understand it”) is pseudo-causality. In such an approach, the material-corporeal causality remains complete, while the basic premise of Deleuze’s ontology is precisely that corporeal causality is NOT complete: in the emergence of the New, something occurs which CANNOT be properly described at the level of corporeal causes and effects. [28]

    Yvette then tells her that Raoul wants to meet her, and Nina says she wouldn’t mind. A jukebox plays “Ma Môme,” in which the singer celebrates his wife – no “starlet,” but with more love in her eyes than the virgin saint. Nana listens as she waits, looking at a soldier on leave from the Algerian war and a woman enjoying their time together [29], then at a man at the jukebox (Jean Ferrat [30], the one who had actually recorded the song.) Yvette plays pinball with Raoul, who asks her if Nana is a lady or a tramp, and a voice off-screen advises him to insult her and to gauge her status from her reaction. Sitting at Nana’s table, Raoul says that he knows her well. When she denies his claim, he reveals that he had seen her with Paul when he showed her the photos, then says that her hair [31] looks awful and, like Paul, he says that she will parrot any nonsense. Nana laughs, and he kisses her hand, telling her to wait. At the pinball machine, he looks at an account book with women’s earnings and room expenses. We hear gunshots outside, and a North African man runs in, his face bloodied, rasping, “My eyes.” Nana grabs her purse and flees. The next scene (and seventh tableau) shows Nana in a café writing a letter to Yvette’s former madam. Raoul enters and interrupts her – he has followed her. She notes that he had left the café quickly when the “crook” was shot, and he answers that he thinks the shooting was over “some political stuff.” He says that he can help her make more money than Yvette’s madam can. Nana asks him what he thinks of her, and he says, possibly thinking of the song that was playing when they met, that there is much goodness in her eyes. She says that she hadn’t expected a “Catholic” answer, and clarifies the question, asking if he thinks she is special. He replies that there are only three kinds of girls to him, those with one expression, those with two, and those with three. He then tells her she is pretty, and asks why she hasn’t tried to get into films. She said she had, elaborates, and then apologizes for telling him her life story. He replies that he is her friend, and makes her smile, despite her saying that she doesn’t feel like it. They kiss, embrace, and leave, and we get a second shot of the Arc de Triomphe. Their new alliance can connect to Zizek’s definition of “Event.” It

    …cannot be simply identified with the virtual field of Becoming which generates the order of Being – quite the contrary, in The Logic of Sense, Event is emphatically asserted as “sterile,” capable only of pseudo-causality. So, what if, at the level of Being, we have the irreducible multitude of interacting particularities, and it is the Event which acts as the elementary form of totalization/unification? [32]

    The eighth tableau shows Nana at a typical day in her new profession while we hear her and Raoul’s very clinical discussion of the legal and practical aspects of the business. The discussion ends with the injunction that a prostitute must accept anyone who pays and the assurance that the prostitute’s man takes her to a restaurant or the movies “after the medical check.” The ninth shows Raoul bring Nana to the cinema, saying he will be with her in five minutes. She replies that the movie has already started. As he goes upstairs to discuss business with another pimp, Luigi, Nana orders some wine and notices a handsome young man get cigarettes from the vendor and return upstairs. She follows and flirts with him, then asks Raoul for cigarettes, and he tells her she can get them downstairs. Luigi, noticing that she is disappointed at missing the movie, mimes a boy blowing up (and accidentally popping) a balloon. Nana laughs, embraces Luigi, and says that he ought to be her man. Raoul crossly asks if he and Luigi can talk now. The young man brings Nana some cigarettes, and she plays a big band number from the jukebox and dances, drawing sullen looks from Raoul. Nana’s display of joie de vivre can symbolize that:

    Perhaps the limit of Deleuze resides in his vitalism, in his elevation of the notion of Life to a new name for Becoming as the only true encompassing Whole, the One-ness, of Being itself. When Deleuze describes the gradual self-differentiation of the pure flux of Becoming, its gradual “reification” into distinct entities, does he not effectively render a kind of Plotinian process of emanation? [33]

    Nana is back on the job in the tenth tableau, where she and a coworker admire an inspector’s BMW before Nana gets a customer, a photographer named Dimitri. When they discuss services and pay, Dimitri says something inaudible, and Nana says she will see what she can do. She walks around the hotel, opening doors on various coworkers until she finds one who isn’t currently engaged. When they return, Dimitri asks the name of the second woman, who replies, “Elizabeth. Like the Queen of England.” Dimitri tells Nana not to bother undressing for now, but says he doesn’t know whether he will need her later. The camera moves in for a close-up of her shadowed face as the screen fades to black. We can let the blackness reveal that,

    Against this “idealist” stance, one should stick to Badiou’s thesis on mathematics as the only adequate ontology, the only science of pure Being: the meaningless Real of the pure multitude, the vast infinite coldness of the Void. [34]

    The eleventh tableau takes place in another restaurant, where Nana strikes up a conversation with an off-screen patron, asking him if he would buy her a drink. When he agrees and she moves to his table, we see his face; he is the philosopher, Brice Parain [35]. Nana tells him that suddenly she doesn’t know what to say, and they get into a discussion about language and thought. He tells her a story from Dumas’s novel, The Viscount of Bragelonne [36] about Porthos, the least intelligent of the three musketeers. Porthos has to place a bomb in a cellar to blow it up. As he is running away, he has the thought, “How is it possible to put one foot in front of the other?” This thought literally stops him in his tracks. Parain comments – “The first time he thought, it killed him.” The philosopher’s discussion of the disconnect between thought and action sets off another point of Zizek’s, the ability to conceive

    … of Deleuze’s opposition of the intermixing of material bodies and the immaterial effect of sense along the lines of the Marxist opposition of infrastructure and superstructure … Is not the flow of becoming superstructure par excellence – the sterile theater of shadows ontologically cut off from the site of material production, and precisely as such the only possible space of the Event? [37]

    Nana, slightly offended at Parain’s story, says that she wishes people didn’t have to talk, repeating what she had said to Paul at the beginning – the more people talk, the less the words mean. Parain discusses the impossibility of thought without language, and explains that one “learns to speak well only when one has renounced life for a while.” He emphasizes the need to see life with detachment, and, to Nana’s protestation that one can’t live everyday life with detachment, replies, “[W]e pass from silence to words. We swing between the two because it’s the movement of life…” Parain asserts that the thinking “life presupposes one has killed the everyday too elementary life” and advises her to learn to speak “without wounding anyone.” He stresses, however, the importance of making mistakes, an insight provided by Kant, Hegel, German philosophy – “We must pass through error to arrive at the truth.” This reference to Hegel leads me to Zizek’s discussion of the dialectical process, which Kierkegaard accused of resolving all antagonisms by a “deux ex machina.” Zizek answers that the point of dialectic reconciliation

    …is not that tension is magically resolved and the opposites are reconciled. The only shift that effectively occurs is subjective … the truly New is not simply a new content, but the very shift of perspective by means of which the Old appears in a new light. [38]

    Nana asks if love shouldn’t be the only truth, and Parain answers, “For that, love would always have to be true. This talk of mistakes and the priority of truth over love gives us room to elaborate on the importance of “pseudo-causes,” such as politics,

    … inherently “sterile,” … a theatre of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality… [39]

    In the last tableau, Nana is with the young man from the poolroom. Although their dialogue is inaudible — at times turning the movie into a “silent” one a la Joan of Arc — at others we hear a story, “The Oval Portrait [40], being read. (We see the young man reading, but the voice is Godard’s own.) The Edgar Allan Poe story describes how an artist painted a portrait of his young wife, capturing an absolute “‘life-likeness’ of expression” while unconscious of her life slipping away in front of him. During the reading, the camera focuses on Nana’s face in front of a small photo of Elizabeth Taylor from Butterfield 8 [41]. Nana and the young man declare their love for each other, and agree to live together – Nana will end her employment with Raoul. In the next scene, Raoul forces her into a car with another pimp. They drive by the Arc de Triomphe and a large poster of the movie, Jules & Jim [42], and then stop in front of the “Restaurant des Studios.” After arguing about who gets their part of the bargain first, the other pimp throws a parcel of money to Raoul, who runs to his car. Returning, he grabs Nana and holds her in front of him, saying that there are 10,000 francs missing. The other pimp has his henchman shoot, and Nana is hit. Raoul goes back to his car and, as Nana tries to follow him, shoots her. Both cars drive away, and we get the end credits. Bleak as it is, we can use this ending to remember that

    …human thought, the primordial abyss of pure potentiality explodes, acquires existence, in the middle of created positive reality – man is the unique creature which is directly (re)connected with the primordial abyss out of which all things emerged. [43]

    1. Jean-Luc Godard & Marcel Sacotte. Vivre sa Vie (1962.) in: Script-o-Rama.
    2. This is an interesting choice of words – by using 12 of them, Godard brings to a French Catholic mind the stages of the cross. See: “Tableaux.” in: 2014.
    3. “French New Wave.” in: Wikipedia. January 15, 2014.
    4. “Gilles Deleuze.” in: Wikipedia. January 15, 2014.
    5. “Line of flight.” in: Wikipedia. May 10, 2012.
    6. “Italian Neorealism.” in: Wikipedia. January 15, 2014.
    7a. SlavojŽižek. “Organs without Bodies: Becoming versus History.” in: 1997/2008.
    7b. Slavoj Žižek. “Organs without Bodies: Quasi-Cause” in: 1997/2008
    8. “Nana (novel).” in: Wikipedia. January 1, 2014.
    9. “Anna Karenina.” in: Wikipedia. January 30, 2014.
    10-11. Žižek. “Becoming versus History.”
    12. “The Logic of Sense.” in: Wikipedia. January 19, 2014.
    13. “Multiplicity (philosophy).” in: Wikipedia. December 21, 2013.
    14. SlavojŽižek. “Organs without Bodies: le siècle empiriomoniste.” in: 1997/2008.
    15. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    16. “Edward Hopper.” in: Wikipedia. January 27, 2014.
    17. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    18. “The Paradox of the Phallic Signifier.” From The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso), pp. 130-131. in: June, 2009.
    19. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    20. “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” in: Wikipedia. January 19, 2014. Note the theater reference in the Cine-Tourist – the film combines 2 different theaters: Roland-François Lack. “the place of cinema: cinema as location in Vivre sa vie.” Undated.
    21. A refresher on Zikek’s/Lacan’s ideas on fantasy seems appropriate here, so I linked to another essay: Slavoj Žižek. “How to Read Lacan .4. From Che vuoi? to Fantasy: Lacan with Eyes Wide Shut. in: in: 1997/2007.
    22. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    23. As defined in this blog: “The objet a, as both the object and the cause of desire, simultaneously represents “the pure lack, the void around which desire turns and which, as such, causes the desire, and the imaginary element which conceals this void, renders it visible by filling it out” (Žižek 2005: 178). It is a lost object that never existed prior to being lost; it thereby drives Lacan’s concept of desire as impossible to satisfy.” From: Louis-Paul Willis. “From Jocasta to Lolita: The Oedipal Fantasy Inverted.” in: International Journal of Zizek Studies, Volume Six, Number Two (2012).
    24. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    25. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    26. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    27. The same first name of the cinematographer, Raoul Coutard – in: Wikipedia. December 29, 2013.
    28. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    29. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    30. Vivre Sa Vie (1962): Trivia. in: 1990-2014.
    31. Nana’s hair is styled after the protagonist of a movie about a prostitute who is killed by Jack the Ripper. “Pandora’s Box.” in: Wikipedia. December 31, 2013.
    32-34. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    35. Brice Parain, according to an essay by Michael Atkinson, “paved the way for the poststructuralists by maintaining that language begat humanity, not the other way around.” From the Criterion Collection DVD’s accompanying booket. (2010.) The link is to a Google book that mentions his work: The Spell of Language: Poststructuralism and Speculation. in: 1989.
    36. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    37. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    38. Žižek. “Becoming versus History.”
    39. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    40. The Oval Portrait. 1850. in: American Studies: The University of Virginia. 1994-2005.
    41. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    42. Raoul Coutard was also cinematographer for this movie – in: Wikipedia. December 29, 2013.
    43. Žižek. “le siècle empiriomoniste.”


    “That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.”

  • Mary Kane, to her husband’s claim that their son should be thrashed, in Citizen Kane [1]
  • Orson Welles’ masterpiece, with its obvious Oedipal overtones, provides a lively vehicle for discussing two of Zizek’s essays about the complex relationship between this concept [2], and the “Big Other.” [3] In the first essay, Zizek uses the story of Hamlet to start off his discussion of transformations of the Oedipus myth.

    Although the Welles film has a vastly different setting from the Shakespeare play, it does begin at a castle. (Instead of armed guards, however, this palace has only a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign for protection. To ominous music, we slowly approach the building through a murky fog and various landscapes strewn with decaying riches, including a cage of monkeys and a drawbridge flanked by Bast [4] statues. From each perspective, the castle looks dead except for a single lit window always uncannily shown in the same spot on the screen. As we come close to the window, the light goes out. We then see it from the inside – a cathedral window which dominates the frame, dwarfing a figure lying stiffly in front of it. The camera cuts to a log cabin in a blizzard and then pulls out to reveal that we had been looking through a snow globe. A mouth whispers “Rosebud,” then a hand drops the globe. A nurse enters and pulls the man’s covers over his head. The sun starts to appear, then the screen fades to black. The opening, guiding us through ancient ruins to a death scene, echoes this early portion of the first essay, describing

    …the grounding myth of the Western Greek civilization (the suicidal jump of the Sphinx representing the disintegration of the old pre-Greek universe); and it is in Hamlet’s “distortion” of the Oedipus that its repressed content articulates itself – the proof of it being the fact that the Hamlet matrix is found everywhere in pre-Classic mythology, up to … Ancient Egypt itself whose spiritual defeat is signaled by the suicidal jump of the Sphinx. [5]

    Blaring music breaks the mood, and a newsreel quotes the first words of the poem “Kubla Kahn [6] about his pleasure dome, “Xanadu.” [7] We see the castle, playground of the rich and powerful, as a pompous narrator describes its contents — “loot of the world” and “the biggest private zoo since Noah.” The voice, comparing the owner, Charles Foster Kane, to the Pharaohs, announces Kane’s death and gives us a long and scattered biography, including: descriptions of Kane’s empire growing then shrinking, the source of his fortune (his mother received a deed to an abandoned, supposedly worthless, mine shaft from a defaulting border,) and a range of labels given to him – from Wall Street banker Mr. Thatcher, his former guardian (We are told here that Kane, on meeting him, had attacked him with a sled,) who calls him a “communist,” from a union speaker, who calls him a “fascist,” and from his own words, describing himself as “an American.” We are told that there was “no public issue on which Kane papers took no stand,” from promoting the Spanish-American War to denouncing World War I, and that there was “no public man whom Kane … did not support or denounce – often support then denounce” (at this point we see footage of him with Hitler.) The narrator tells us that Kane was married, and divorced, twice, and that his first wife and only child had died in an auto accident. The newsreel ends by telling of a scandal that had ruined his budding political career and that he had outlived his power to make history in a “nation that had ceased to … trust him.” Setting, as it does, the historical frame and Kane’s (failed) mythological status within it, the newsreel can help us remember Zizek’s point about how Western myth has interacted with the enlightenment in our era:

    Enlightenment always already “contaminates” the mythical naive immediacy; … And what is postmodernity if not the ultimate defeat of the Enlightenment in its very triumph: when the dialectic of Enlightenment reaches its apogee, the dynamic, rootless postindustrial society directly generates its own myth. [8]

    In a dark, smoke-filled room filled with faceless reporters, Mr. Rawlston, owner of the company that produced the newsreel, complains that all it showed was a big American – it didn’t tell the viewer who Kane was. Rawlston claims that an understanding of Kane’s last word would provide an answer. He sends a reporter, Mr. Thompson, to ask those closest to Kane what they knew about “Rosebud” – Rawlston is groping for a myth to center his unwieldy story. Similarly, according to Zizek,

    …philosophy needs the recourse to myth, not only for external reasons, in order to explain its conceptual teaching to the uneducated crowds, but inherently, to “suture” its own conceptual edifice where it fails in reaching its innermost core, from Plato’s myth of the cave to Freud’s myth of the primordial father and Lacan’s myth of lamella. Myth is thus the Real of logos: the foreign intruder, impossible to get rid of, impossible to remain fully within it. [9]

    The reporter tries to interview Susan, Kane’s second ex-wife, a singer in a sleazy nightclub, but she, exhausted, rebuffs him, asking, “Why don’t you people leave me alone? I’m minding my own business. You mind yours.” The head nightclub waiter tells Thompson to come back later. The reporter then visits the stark marble Thatcher Library. A monumental statue of the “grand old man of Wall Street” looks down on the librarian, Miss Anderson, and at Thompson before Anderson brings the reporter to a vault and allows him to look at pages 83 – 142 only of Thatcher’s diary, adding that he must leave the room at 4:30 promptly. The door closes on him (revealing a camera’s shadow [10],) then we see Thatcher’s ornamental script dissolve to a flashback of Kane as a boy throwing a snowball against his mother’s boardinghouse sign. Inside, his mother, Mary, calls for him to pull his muffler around his neck. His father weakly protests about Mary’s appointing Thatcher as Kane’s guardian until Thatcher mentions the enormous allowance he and his wife will receive from the Lode money. When they go out to tell him about the separation, we see Kane’s love and respect for his Mother and, even before they tell him he is going with Thatcher, Kane’s resentment of the man. When they do tell him and Thatcher tries to shake his hand, Kane attacks him with the sled, leading to a family skirmish and the exchange quoted at the beginning of this entry. Since this scenario, with a powerful man coming between Kane and his mother (and rendering his own father powerless,) is reminiscent of the one in Hamlet, we’ll use it to bookmark Zizek’s discussion of the relationship between that work and the Oedipus myth.

    The standard, pre-Lacanian, “naive” psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, of course, focuses on Hamlet’s incestuous desire for his mother. Hamlet’s shock at his father’s death is thus explained as the traumatic impact the fulfillment of an unconscious violent desire (in this case, for the father to die) has on the subject; the specter of the dead father which appears to Hamlet is the projection of Hamlet’s own guilt with regard to his death-wish; his hatred of Claudius is an effect of Narcissistic rivalry – Claudius, instead of Hamlet himself, got his mother… [11]

    Thatcher describes Kane’s continuing resentment throughout these pages, from Kane’s sarcastic “Merry Christmas” when Thatcher gives him a new sled to his lack of interest in the holdings he receives when he reaches his 25th birthday – except for one – The New York Inquirer. After gaining financial independence from the “grand old man,” he uses the newspaper to launch an extended attack on Thatcher’s corrupt firm. These expressions of resentment can symbolize what Zizek, in writing of the current weakening of the Oedipus myth and connecting it to the increasing inefficiency of the symbolic order (the big Other,) describes:

    [F]ar from cheerfully assuming the inexistence of the big Other, the subject [of today’s “culture of complaint”] blames the Other for its failure and/or impotence, as if the Other is guilty for the fact that it doesn’t exist, i.e. as if impotence is no excuse. The more the subject’s structure is “narcissistic,” the more he blames the big Other, and thus asserts his dependence on it. The “culture of complaint” thus calls on the big Other to intervene, and to set things straight … they, translating their demand into legalistic complaint, confirm the Other in its position by their very attack. [12]

    Thatcher visits the newspaper’s headquarters in time to overhear Kane tell a reporter that he will “supply” a war in Cuba. When Thatcher confronts Kane about his attack on his firm, pointing out that Kane is the largest stockholder in the firm, Kane replies that Thatcher is talking to two people – the owner of 82,634 shares of Public Transit Preferred, who offers to contribute $1,000 to a committee to boycott The Inquirer — and the publisher of that newspaper, whose duty and pleasure it is “to see to it that decent, hard-working people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because … they haven’t anybody to look after their interests.” We can use Kane’s conflicting self-identifications to note the duality in the ancient and early modern forms of the Oedipus myth; Oedipus was able to act as he did because of his ignorance, while Hamlet could not because of his knowledge – formulas that mean the difference between tragedy and melodrama — the

    …couple of “he doesn’t know it, although he does it” and “he knows it and therefore cannot do it”: … [The] first formula covers the traditional hero and the second one the early modern hero… [13]

    To Thatcher’s warning that his newspaper is losing a million dollars a year, Kane replies wryly that at that rate he would have to close it — in 60 years. The narrative skips 34 years ahead to when Kane signs an agreement relinquishing his newspaper – the paper has gone bankrupt. As he walks toward the back windows, complaining about how Thatcher was “always too old,” we see how small Kane is in comparison to them. As he returns to the foreground, we are told that he is to retain a large “measure of control” over the papers. Musing about how he had only used his fortune to “buy things,” Kane says that he might have been a really great man if he hadn’t been so wealthy. When Thatcher asks what he would like to have been, Kane replies bitterly, “everything you hate.” This introspection helps us reflect on a third formulation of the myth, combining knowledge and act in an ambiguous way, accounting for the late modern-contemporary hero. This formulation

    … allows for two thoroughly opposed readings, somewhat like the Hegelian speculative judgment in which the lowest and the highest coincide: on the one hand, “he knows very well what he is doing, and he nonetheless does it” is the clearest expression of the cynical attitude of moral depravity – “Yes, I am a scum, cheating and lying, so what? That’s life!”; on the other hand, the same stance … can also stand for the most radical opposite of cynicism, i.e. for the tragic awareness that, although what I am about to do will have catastrophic consequences for one’s well-being and for the well-being of those who are nearest and dearest to me, I nonetheless simply HAVE to do it on account of the inexorable ethical injunction … in short, the properly modern post- or meta-tragic situation occurs when a higher necessity compels me to betray the very ethical substance of my being. [14]

    His time up, the reporter leaves, disappointed that he found no mention of Rosebud. He then interviews Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s general business manager. An enormous portrait of Kane dominating the wall behind him, Bernstein recounts how Kane took over the Inquirer and how he generated a scandal about a missing woman, evicting the paper’s standing editor-in-chief and planning to accuse and bully the woman’s husband. Bernstein then tells how Kane, trying to make his paper stand out above all others, wrote a “Declaration of Principles” for its first issue, promising to provide the people of New York City “with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly” and with “a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.” As Kane’s most loyal follower, Bernstein (and his story) can guide us through Zizek’s discussion about yet another permutation of the Oedipus myth – one that Freud wrote of in his book, Moses and Monotheism. The book, according to Zizek,

    turns around … the dispositif of Totem and Taboo: the father “betrayed” and killed by his followers/sons is NOT the obscene primordial Father-Jouissance, but the “rational” father embodying the symbolic authority, the figure which personifies the unified rational structure of the universe (logos). Rather than the obscene pre-symbolic father returning in the guise of his Name, of symbolic authority, we have now the symbolic authority (logos) betrayed, killed by his followers/sons, and returning in the guise of the jealous, vengeful and unforgiving superego figure of a God full of murderous rage … Only after this second reversal of the Oedipal matrix do we reach the well-known Pascalean distinction between the God of Philosophers (God qua the universal structure of logos, identified with rational structure of the universe) and the God of Theologists (the God of love and hatred, the inscrutable “dark God” of capricious “irrational” predestination). [15]

    Bernstein warns Kane against making promises he wouldn’t want to keep, and Kane’s best friend, Jedediah Leland, points out that Kane starts two sentences in a row with “I.” Kane answers that people must know who’s responsible, that they’re getting the truth without interference from “special interests.” Leland asks if he can have the original statement after it is printed, saying he believes it could turn out to be important. In this scene, Kane, as opposed to his two companions, is in shadow, portending his transition, which again shows his duality – and which gives us a chance to elaborate on the

    God of groundless Willing and ferocious "irrational" rage … the God who, by means of his Prohibition, destroys the old sexualized Wisdom, thus opening up the space for the de-sexualized, "abstract" knowledge of modern science. The paradox is that there is "objective" scientific knowledge (in the modern, post-Cartesian sense of the term) only if the universe of scientific knowledge itself is supplemented and sustained by this excessive "irrational" figure of the prohibitive father; Descartes' "voluntarism" (his infamous statement that 2+2 would be 5 if such were God's Will, there are no eternal truths directly co-substantial with the Divine Nature) is the necessary obverse of modern scientific knowledge. [16]

    We see the transition begin as Kane “buys” the reporters of the rival paper, the Chronicle. In a masterful segue, a photograph of the Chronicle’s staff, which we learn that paper had taken 12 years to acquire, “comes to life” as Kane’s photographers shoot them in the same relative positions. Kane says that he had looked at the older picture 6 years previously feeling “like a kid in front of a candy store” and that now he has his candy. We see the room full of celebrants and decorated with three ice sculptures – one of the letter “K” [17] and the others caricatures of Bernstein and Leland. He brings out skimpily dressed (especially for the time) female dancers and a band (featuring a strangely smiling African American musician,) and they perform a number, singing his praise as someone who would “do all he can” for the poor. Kane steals a kiss from one of the dancers, who gracefully pushes him away. Leland joins in the singing, if a bit satirically, but suggests to Bernstein that the new reporters will change Kane. Bernstein kids his boss about his fetishistic collection of statues, and Kane jokes back; then, delirious, asks his new staff, “Are we going to declare war on Spain or are we not?” Later, when Kane is travelling through Europe, adding to his collections, Bernstein asks Leland why he didn’t accept Kane’s invitation to accompany him. Leland replies that he wanted Kane to have fun and asks him, “Am I a stuffed shirt?” Bernstein answers, “If you thought I’d answer different from what Mr. Kane tells you -well, I wouldn’t.” Bernstein’s response is like that of “faithful followers” who

    …should conceal from the paternal figure of the leader … precisely this gap between the leader in the immediacy of his personality and the symbolic place he occupies, a gap on account of which the father qua effective person is utterly impotent and ridiculous. [18]

    Bernstein also tells Leland that Kane wants to buy the world’s biggest diamond. When Leland says that diamonds are not things Kane collects, Bernstein clarifies that this purchase is to “collect somebody that’s collecting diamonds. Anyway, he ain’t only collecting statues.” The doubling of the wording and its implication about Kane’s feelings for his first wife, Emily, brings up

    A further paradox … that this “irrational” God, as the prohibitory paternal figure, also opens up the space for the entire development of modernity, up to the deconstructionist notion that our sexual identity is a contingent socio-symbolic formation: the moment this prohibitory figure recedes, we are back into Jungian neoobscurantist notions of masculine and feminine archetypes which thrive today. This point is crucial if we are not to misunderstand completely the gap which separates the “proper” authority of the symbolic law/prohibition from the mere “regulation by rules”: paradoxically, the domain of symbolic rules, to count as such, must be grounded in some tautological authority BEYOND RULES, which says, “It is so because I said it so!” [19]

    After tersely saying that Kane’s first and second marriage “ended,” Bernstein suggests that Thompson see Leland, a man from “one of those old families with a father that’s worth ten million and then one day he shoots himself and it turns out there’s nothing but debts.” We meet Leland on the sunny porch of a nursing home. Welles shows Leland’s memory of the deterioration of Kane’s first marriage through a montage of scenes from affection and intimacy to alienation, their final exchange ending with Kane’s assertion that people will think what he tells them to think.

    To Thompson’s question about whether Kane was ever in love with Emily, Leland answers that Kane’s basic motivation was an insatiable need for love – “he just didn’t have any to give. Well, he loved Charlie Kane of course, very dearly, and his mother, I guess he always loved her…” This insight brings Leland to Charlie’s political career and to his second wife (whom Kane once called “a cross-section of the American public.”) The next flashback shows him meeting Susan, who offers him hot water to clean off mud that a passing carriage had splashed on him. In her apartment is the snow-globe, positioned in front of a dressing table mirror in which we see both him and Susan as he tells her to look at him. He shuts her door, but she reopens it, protesting that her landlady prefers it open when she has a “gentleman caller.” He discloses where he had been going before he met her – to see some items that had been brought back from where they had been kept after his mother died. When Susan says that her mother had wanted her to be a grand opera singer, he demands to know what happened to that dream. Although she says that her voice is not right for opera he has her sing for him. Charlie’s applause for her singing dissolves into applause from a rally for his campaign for governor of New York. We cut to him promising to convict the incumbent, “Boss Jim Geddes.” Finding out about the budding affair, Geddes gets Emily and Charles to go together to Susan’s apartment, where he confronts Kane and threatens to tell all the newspapers if Charles doesn’t withdraw from the race. Kane refuses, over his wife’s and Susan’s objections, saying he won’t let Geddes and Emily “take the love of the people of this state” from him. After telling Kane that he would need – and will get – “more than one lesson,” Geddes walks away while Charles screams after him. “I’m going send you to Sing Sing … Sing Siiiiing!” A shot of the front doorway then becomes the photo on a newspaper with the headline, “Candidate Kane Found in Love Nest with ‘Singer.’” We can couple the previous scenes with Zizek’s distinction between someone’s persona as a “big Other” and the human carrying out that position:

    One can see, now, why, at the level of individual libidinal economy, Lacan calls this prohibiting God the “real father” as the “agent of castration”: symbolic castration is another name for the gap between the big Other and jouissance, for the fact that the two can never be “synchronized.” [20]

    When the counts show that Kane will lose, his newspaper goes to print with the headline, “Fraud at Polls.” A drunken Leland answers Charlie’s sarcasm that “It’s obvious the people prefer Jim Gettys to me” by pointing out that Kane had always talked about giving the people their rights as if he “can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered,” adding that if he found out that the people didn’t need him, Charlie would probably “sail away to a desert island … and lord it over the monkeys!” Leland asks to be transferred to the Chicago newspaper, and Kane reluctantly consents. After Emily divorces him, Charlie quickly marries Susan, and intersubjectively [21] tells one of his reporters that “We’re going to be a great opera star.” Kane builds an opera house to showcase his new wife (as Leland says to Thompson, to give lie to the quotes that rival papers had put around the word “singer” when reporting his affair.) Leland, forced to review Susan’s debut in the opera, Salammbo [22], and expected to flatter it, passes out, drunk, before typing more than a couple of disparaging lines. Charlie finishes the review as scathing of Susan as Leland had started it, then fires him. In the Leland scenes, watching the descent from the heights of Kane’s power to his disgrace and his disavowal of that disgrace, we can imagine

    in what precise sense perversion enacts the disavowal of castration: the pervert’s fundamental illusion is that he possesses a (symbolic) knowledge which enables him to regulate his access to Jouissance … So when one speaks today of the decline of paternal authority, it is THIS father, the father of the uncompromising “No!”, who seems effectively to be in retreat; in his absence, in the absence of his prohibitory “No!”, new forms of the fantasmatic harmony between the symbolic order and jouissance can thrive again. [23]

    Thompson returns to interview Susan, who is more amiable now if still worn out. After she says that everything (except her leaving him) was Charlie’s idea, we flash back to a vocal trainer tormenting her out of fear for his reputation as Kane insists that he prepare for her opening at his Chicago Opera House. Later, after seeing “Leland’s” review of it, she berates Charlie for having sent him a $25,000 severance check. A messenger delivers Kane an envelope with the check torn to pieces. Charlie’s “Declaration of Principles” is also enclosed. Susan asks what he is reading, and Kane calls it an “antique.” This revelation about Charlie offered by his old friend can represent the

    move also apropos of the notion of Dieu obscur, of the elusive, impenetrable God: this God has to [b]e impenetrable also to Himself, He has to have a dark side, an otherness in Himself, something that is in Himself more than Himself… Perhaps, this accounts for the shift from Judaism to Christianity: Judaism remains at the level of the enigma OF God, while Christianity moves to the enigma IN God Himself. Far from being opposed to the notion of logos as the Revelation in/through the Word, Revelation and the enigma In God are strictly correlative, the two aspects of one and the same gesture. [24]

    Susan, humiliated, says she is through singing, adding that she never wanted to in the first place. Then we see Kane’s shadow fall over her and her frightened expression as he says, “You will continue with your singing.” During the subsequent montage of Susan’s various performances, her voice gets progressively weak, and then we see a shot of a theatrical light burning out. We next see her passed out in a locked room as Charlie forces the door open – She has poisoned herself. He disavows her suicide attempt as a mistake, then Susan tells him, “I couldn’t make you see how I felt, Charlie. But I couldn’t go through with the singing again. You don’t know what it means to know that people are…that a whole audience just doesn’t want you.” He relents. He builds Xanadu, where he retires with her into the insulated world filled with servants and wealthy pleasure seekers. She quickly gets tired of being hostess to the fantasies of the superrich, but he ignores her pleas to go away, even to New York for an evening, saying sternly, “Our home is here.” She uses puzzles of various exotic places to give her the illusion of travel. These puzzles can stand in for the

    paradoxical result of this mutation in the “inexistence of the Other” (of the growing collapse of the symbolic efficiency) [ — ] the re-emergence of the different facets of a big Other which exists effectively, in the Real, and not merely as symbolic fiction. [25]

    One day, Kane decides to invite all his guests to a picnic and to spend the night in the Everglades nearby — over Susan’s protest that this is just an excuse to order everyone around. The trip, however, gets her to think about their relationship, and she tells him, similarly to what Leland had said long ago, that tokens of his “love” are bribes to get others to love him. Kane slaps her. Later, when she tells him she is leaving, he tries to dissuade her, promising to do things her way, saying, “You can’t do this to me.” She answers, “I see. It’s you that this is being done to! … I can’t do this to you? Oh, yes I can.” We return to the present, where Thompson tells Susan that he feels sorry for him. She replies, “Don’t you think I do?” Charlie’s dissociation and Susan’s insight and sympathy can symbolize a point at the end of Zizek’s essay, “From the Myth to Agape”:

    This divine self-abandonment, this impenetrability of God to himself, signals God’s fundamental imperfection. And it is only within this horizon that the properly Christian Love can emerge, a Love beyond Mercy. [26]

    When Thompson says that he will be going to Xanadu, Susan suggests that Thompson talk to Raymond, the butler, who “knows where the bodies are buried.” Pairing the expression with the place returns us to the loss of “the big Other” in the following description of its consequences:

    … on the one hand, the failure of symbolic fiction induces the subject to cling more and more to imaginary simulacra, to sensual spectacles which bombard us today from all sides; while on the other, it triggers the need for violence in the Real of the body itself. [27]

    Raymond offers to tell Thompson about Rosebud for $1000. We flash back to Kane’s rage after Susan had left, knocking over and breaking things in her room until he sees the snow-globe. He stops, picks it up, and says “Rosebud” walking away with tears in his eyes, unconscious of the many servants watching him. In the present, Thompson decides that this information isn’t worth the money Raymond had requested, and he turns down Raymond’s offer to answer more questions. The reporter decides that “rosebud” would just be another piece of a jigsaw puzzle and leaves. Raymond, in charge of disposing of Xanadu’s “junk,” watches a workman throw an old sled into the furnace. We see the name “Rosebud” on it before the camera cuts to an exterior view of the castle, smoke issuing from its chimney. Then, as in the beginning, we are shown a “No Trespassing” sign. This sign can direct our attention to the paranoia that Zizek defines as

    The belief in the big Other which exists in the Real … so that, two features which characterize today’s ideological stance[;] cynical distance and full reliance on paranoiac fantasy are strictly codependent: today’s typical subject, while displaying cynical distrust of any public ideology, indulges without restraint in paranoiac fantasies about conspiracies, threats, and excessive forms of enjoyment of the Other. Distrust of the big Other (the order of symbolic fictions), the subject’s refusal to “take it seriously,” relies on the belief that there is an “Other of the Other,” a secret, invisible, all-powerful agent who effectively “pulls the strings” behind the visible, public Power. This other, obscene, invisible power structure acts the part of the “Other of the Other” in the Lacanian sense, the part of the meta-guarantee of the consistency of the big Other (the symbolic order that regulates social life). [28]

    As an alternative to this stance, and also

    [i]n contrast to the pagan celebration of the Divine (or human) Perfection, the ultimate secret of the Christian love is, perhaps, that it is the loving attachment to the Other’s imperfection. And THIS Christian legacy, often obfuscated, is today more precious than ever. [29]

    1. Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles. Citizen Kane (1941.) in: (Note: the script has many parts that had been edited out of the film.)
    2. Slavoj Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.” Journal of European Psychoanalysis. No. 8/9, p. 3-20, 1999. (English). in: The European Graduate School. (1997 – 2012).
    3. Slavoj Žižek. “The Big Other Doesn’t Exist.” Journal of European Psychoanalysis. Spring – Fall 1997 in: Lacan.Com. Undated.
    4. “Bastet.” in: Wikipedia. December 13, 2013.
    5. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.”
    6. “Kubla Kahn: Theories about the meaning of the poem.” in: Wikipedia. December 20, 2013.
    7. “Xanadu (Citizen Kane).” in: Wikipedia. November 21, 2013.
    8-9. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.”
    10. Emphasizing power’s ability to safeguard itself from any oversight.
    11. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.”
    12. Žižek. “The Big Other.”
    13-14. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.
    15-16. Žižek. “The Big Other.”
    17. Perhaps a foretelling of Welles’ 1962 movie, The Trial and of aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s work inspired by Kafka (and Welles)
    18-20. Žižek. “The Big Other.”
    21. Here’s a link to a discussion of this concept from an earlier entry.
    22. “Salammbô.” in: Wikipedia. June 15, 2013.
    23. Žižek. “The Big Other.”
    24. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.”
    25. Žižek. “The Big Other.”
    26. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.”
    27-28. Žižek. “The Big Other.”
    29. Žižek. “From The Myth to Agape.”

    Down the Rabbit Hole

    “It’s just a word, Ophelia.”

  • Carmen, telling her daughter to call her sociopathic stepfather “father” in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [1]
  • I found a Zizek essay [2] that intersects with the movie quoted above (a favorite of mine) in several interesting ways. The article delves further into the foundations of and connections between the three Lacanian “orders,” or “registers[3] – real, imaginary, and symbolic – orders which have been crucial to numerous posts on this blog.

    The film moves between the narratives of fascist Spain during World War II and of a dark fairy tale about a princess who had escaped her father’s subterranean realm. The princess died when exposed to the outside world, but her father knew she would return, as a voice tells us, “perhaps in another body, at another place, at another time.” We then meet a girl, Ophelia, reading fairy tales as she and Carmen, her very pregnant mother, ride to meet Captain Vidal, referred to in the quote at the beginning of this entry. We cut to him consulting a cracked watch, grumbling to himself that they are fifteen minutes late. We later find that the watch has enormous importance in Vidal’s symbolic order, and his addressing an invisible Other after consulting it fits well with an early question in Zizek’s article:

    How is it that, when individuals exchange symbols, they do not simply interact with each other, but always also refer to the virtual big Other? When I talk about other people's opinions, it is never only a matter of what me, you, or other individuals think, but also a matter of what the impersonal "one" thinks. When I violate a certain rule of decency, I never simply do something that the majority of others do not do – I do what "one" doesn't do. [4]

    Vidal again reveals his obsession with protocol when Ophelia tries to use her left hand to shake his. This particularity shows such gestures as following rules analogous to those of language. Zizek groups these rules into four types:

    When we speak (or listen, for that matter), we never merely interact with others; our speech activity is grounded on our accepting of and relying on a complex network of rules and other kinds of presuppositions. First, there are the grammatical rules I have to master blindly and spontaneously: if I were to bear in mind all the time these rules, my speech would come to a halt. Then there is the background of participating in the same life-world which enables me and my partner in conversation to understand each other. The rules that I follow are marked by a deep split: there are rules (and meanings) that I follow blindly, out of custom, but of which, upon reflection, I can become at least partially aware (such as common grammatical rules), and there are rules that I follow, meanings that haunt me, unbeknownst to me (such as unconscious prohibitions). Then there are rules and meanings I am aware of, but have to act on the outside as if I am not aware of them – dirty or obscene innuendos which one passes over in silence in order to maintain the proper appearances. [5]

    When Ophelia and her mother settle in for the night, Carmen tells Ophelia that her brother is acting up and asks her to tell him a story to calm him down. Ophelia tells a tale of a magic rose on a mountaintop that could give whomever plucked it immortality –a rose, however, whose thorns were full of poison. People “fear pain more than they want immortality,” so the rose remained “unable to bequeath his gift to anyone, alone and forgotten at the top of that mountain … until the end of time.” We’ll use this story as a foil to Homer’s story of the “Gifts of Danaoi,” a story with which Zizek says Lacan gives

    an account of the genesis of the big Other. “Danaoi” is the term used by Homer to designate the Greeks who were laying siege to Troy; their gift was the famous wooden horse which, after it was received by the Trojans, allowed the Greeks to penetrate and destroy Troy. For Lacan, language is such a dangerous gift: it offers itself to our use free of charge, but once we accept it, it colonizes us. The symbolic order emerges from [such a] gift… [6]

    Later that night, a fairy guides Ophelia to a labyrinth, where a faun tells her that she is Princess Moanna, daughter of the King of the Underworld. He adds that she must fulfill three tasks before the full moon to show that her essence is intact. He gives her The Book of Crossroads which he says will show her what to do. She looks inside, but the pages are blank. Looking up, she sees that she is alone.

    In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the ground of their entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only insofar as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. [7]

    The next morning, Carmen gives Ophelia a dress (which looks like a dark green version of the one Alice wears in Lewis Carroll’s books) to wear to a dinner party the Captain is hosting that evening. Carmen expresses a concern that Ophelia be beautiful for him, a concern with appearances that Vidal shows in his own grooming rituals. Yet even the most seemingly carelessly chosen apparel carries a message:

    [U]tility functions as a reflective notion: it always involves the assertion of utility as meaning.… [for example, someone who wears stone-washed jeans signals] that he leads his life under the sign of a no-nonsense, down-to-earth attitude. [8]

    Before bathing, Ophelia opens The Book of Crossroads, in which illustrated instructions appear as she watches. If we take this book as part of Ophelia’s fantasy world, we can recall the words of J. Malcolm that Zizek quotes:

    By saving [an unsent] letter, we are in some sense ‘sending’ it after all. We are not relinquishing our idea or dismissing it as foolish or unworthy (as we do when we tear up a letter); on the contrary, we are giving it an extra vote of confidence. We are, in effect, saying that our idea is too precious to be entrusted to the gaze of the actual addressee, who may not grasp its worth, so we ‘send’ it to his equivalent in fantasy, on whom we can absolutely count for an understanding and appreciative reading. [9]

    Scenes of Ophelia’s first task alternate with scenes of the Captain’s search for rebels. His cruelty throughout the film (early on, he brutally kills an old man and his son for the “crime” of hunting rabbits and for breaches of etiquette when questioned) along with this juxtaposition of scenes show that his character is reflected in the giant, gluttonous toad which Ophelia has to confront in her task. So the Captain himself exemplifies the type of monster that Zizek defines in the article – a sociopath. Zizek defines this personality by his (or her) inability to understand the performative dimension of language:

    The notion of the social link established through empty gestures enables us to define in a precise way the figure of sociopath: what is beyond the sociopath’s grasp is the fact that “many human acts are performed … for the sake of the interaction itself.” [10]

    When Vidal returns he presides over an elegant dinner with various local authorities and their wives. Early on, he contradicts the mayor’s sympathetic remark that he knows he is not there by choice and has them all toast to “choice.”

    Belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of our choice, what is anyway imposed on us (we all must love our country or our parents). This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in any case necessary, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice although effectively there isn’t one, is strictly codependent with the notion of an empty symbolic gesture, a gesture – an offer – which is meant to be rejected. [11]

    Later, a Civil Guard Capitan tells of Vidal’s father having broken his watch at his death to show how a brave man dies. Vidal also denies this story – despite that he compulsively cleans and consults this watch throughout the film. (This dinner is essential in providing clues of repression and its role in propagating a cycle of abuse – clues to both Vidal’s repression of his own family history and that of the patriarchal regime which he upholds.) The essay discusses the relation between symptoms, such as this compulsion, and the big Other:

    According to Freud, when I develop a symptom, I produce a ciphered message about my innermost secrets, my unconscious desires and traumas. The symptom’s addressee is not another real human being: before an analyst deciphers my symptom, there is no one who can read its message. Who, then, is the symptom’s addressee? The only remaining candidate is the virtual big Other. This virtual character of the big Other means that the symbolic order is not a kind of spiritual substance existing independently of individuals, but something that is sustained by their continuous activity. [12]

    Ophelia, who had been sent to bed without dinner for ruining her dress, is given a new task – to use a key that she had obtained by killing the toad to retrieve an item in the lair of another monster, a hideous creature called “The Pale Man.” The faun gives her chalk to create a door to his home. When she enters, she observes the pictures on the wall of him eating children, and then looks down at a pile of children’s shoes on the floor. These images from del Toro’s semi-historical film evoke the following description of how Colin Powell prepared to address the UN assembly to advocate the 2003 attack on Iraq:

    [T]he US delegation asked the large reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica [13] on the wall behind the speaker’s podium to be covered with a different visual ornament. Although the official explanation was that Guernica does not provide the adequate optical background for the televised transmission of Powell’s speech, it was clear to everyone what the U.S. delegation was afraid of: … This is what Lacan means when he claims that repression and the return of the repressed are one and the same process: … the very change, the very gesture of concealing the painting, drew attention to it and imposed the wrong association, confirming its truth. [14]

    Ophelia opens one of three doors with her key and removes a knife, then, too hungry to resist, she disobeys the faun’s earlier instructions to eat nothing from the banquet in front of the Pale Man. The grotesque creature, who had until then been sitting motionless, awakens, eats two of the fairies that had been sent to assist her, and comes for her, chasing her down a long hallway, and she narrowly avoids their fate by creating a door that brings her back to her room. Various aspects of her task and its consequences echo the story of the rebels, in which Mercedes, a head-servant at the mill, gives them the key to Vidal’s storehouse. Although the rebels create a diversion, Vidal quickly sees through it. He notices that the warehouse lock has been opened, not blown off. His men trap some rebels in the woods and kill all of them except one. They bring him to the warehouse to interrogate him. The Captain shows him “a few tools” to help his captive “open up.” Vidal’s casual attitude toward torture matches the approach toward it as expressed by Dick Cheney during the Iraq war. In the essay, Zizek remarks upon this approach:

    The popular and seemingly convincing reply to those who worry about the recent US practice of torturing suspected terrorist prisoners is: “What’s all the fuss about? The US are now only openly admitting what not only they were doing all the time, but what other states are and were doing all the time – if anything, we have less hypocrisy now!” To this, one should retort with a simple counter-question: “If the high representatives of the US mean only this, why, then, are they telling us this? Why don’t they just silently go on doing it, as they did it till now?” So when we hear people like Dick Cheney making obscene statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask them: “If you just want to torture secretly some suspected terrorists, then why are you saying it publicly?” That is to say, the question to be raised [is]: what is there more in this statement that made the speaker tell it? [15]

    Ophelia’s mother dies giving birth to the son that the Captain has so badly wanted. Afterwards Vidal keeps his son very near him. He has found through his interrogation that there is an informant living in his household and suspects Mercedes. As she puts the child in a crib the Captain starts to question her, beginning by speculating, “You must think I’m a monster.” He asks her to bring him something from the storehouse, and remarks as she turns to go that he is the only one that has the key. He tells her to be careful. Mercedes tries to leave with Ophelia, but they are soon captured. The captain locks Ophelia in her room and starts interrogating Mercedes in the warehouse. However, Vidal underestimates Mercedes’ intelligence, strength and ruthlessness – she cuts him a Glasgow smile [16] with a knife she keeps in her apron and escapes. Ophelia likewise escapes her locked and guarded room [17], drugs her stepfather, and obtains her baby brother. She runs to the labyrinth, where the faun demands, as her last task, that she let him use the knife she got from the Pale Man to cut the newborn, saying that the gateway can only be opened by “the blood of an innocent.” She refuses, holding her brother tightly. Vidal, who has followed her, does not see the faun. He takes his son and shoots the girl. As he leaves, he is surrounded by a large group of rebels, Mercedes among them. Before he is shot he smashes the watch, asking them to tell his son about the time his father died. Mercedes answers, “No. He will not even know your name.” – creating the possibility of breaking the cycle, at least for Vidal’s family. The film ends with a vision of Ophelia as Princess Moanna entering her father’s kingdom and the voice saying that “she reigned with justice and a kind heart for many centuries … and, like most of us, she left behind small traces of her time on earth visible only to those that know where to look.” With these words, we can reflect on

    the old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheel-barrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but the guards could not find anything, it was always empty – till, finally, they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This reflexive twist pertains to communication as such: one should not forget to include into the content of an act of communication this act itself, since the meaning of each act of communication is also to reflexively assert that it is an act of communication. This is the first thing to bear in mind about the way the unconscious operates: it is not hidden in the wheel-barrow, it is the wheel-barrow itself. [18]

    1. del Toro, Guillermo. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006.) in:
    2. Slavoj Žižek. “How to Read Lacan 2: Empty Gestures and Performatives: Lacan Confronts the CIA Plot” in: Undated (2004?).
    3. “CHRONOLOGY • Slavoj Zizek – Key Ideas.” in: 1997/2006.
    4-12. Zizek. “Empty Gestures and Performatives…”
    13. Guernica (Painting). in: Wikipedia. October 14, 2013.
    14 – 15. Zizek. “Empty Gestures and Performatives…”
    16. Glasgow Smile. in: Wikipedia. October 22, 2013.
    17. We see Ophelia using chalk that the faun had given her to create doorways, although when adults look they can only see chalk rectangles drawn on the walls. The movie leaves the question of how she got out of the room a mystery.
    18. Zizek. “Empty Gestures and Performatives…”


    “My dirty feet are two splendid starting points for my philosophy.”

  • Squire Jons to his meaning-thirsty knight, Antonius Block, in The Seventh Seal [1]
  • This entry uses Bergman’s film about a man’s search for God and meaning to capture the essence of Zizek’s essay [2] about how action and actions’ failures are constitutive of humanity and meaning – my readers can judge whether movie and article make a good match. The essay compares Lacan’s work to Hegel’s dialectical process. [3]

    As Block is returning home from the Crusades. Death appears, saying that he has been at his side for a long time. Block challenges Death to a chess game, and Death agrees that Block will live as long as he holds out against Death, and that if Block wins, he can go free. Soon afterward, Block and his squire, Jons, see a man seated on the beach. When Jons dismounts to ask him the way, he finds himself talking to a corpse. To Block’s later question of whether the man was a mute, Jons replies that he “was quite eloquent.”

    This exposition squares with the first section of Zizek’s article, “The Lack in the Other,” which sets out the relationship between Knowledge and Truth:

    [T]he insufficiency of knowledge, [to the purpose] of the truth, radically indicates a lack, a non-achievement at the heart of truth itself. [4]

    Block and Jons come to a church, and Block goes to a confession booth. He speaks to a priest, who is behind the screen. He discusses his feelings of emptiness and the fear and disgust with which he regards himself. He longs to know that God exists, believing that “no one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness,” and tells the priest that he is playing chess with Death – stalling until he can accomplish “one meaningful deed.” When asked how he will outwit Death, he says that he uses a combination of the bishop and knight. The priest shows his face – Block has revealed his strategy to his opponent. Block’s strategy (immediate and ulterior) and its frustration bring to mind Zizek’s assertion that

    …the truth at which one arrives [through the dialectical process] is not “complete”; the question remains open, is transposed into a question addressed to the Other. [5]

    Further, Block’s expression of yearning for knowledge, not faith, and of his sense that his emptiness “is a mirror turned towards my own face” recalls Zizek’s next words:

    Lacan’s formula that Hegel is “the most sublime of hysterics” should be interpreted along these lines: … the hysterical subject is fundamentally a subject who poses himself a question all the while presupposing that the Other has the key to the answer, that the Other knows the secret. But this question posed to the Other is in fact resolved, in the dialectical process, by a reflexive turn… [6]

    At a village, Block and Jons watch a small troupe of actors perform for the townspeople, but the show is interrupted by a procession of monks, one of which scolds the crowd that all will perish in the black plague as God’s punishment. Jof, a member of the troupe given to visions, enters a tavern, where the patrons talk of the rumors about the plague and of the possibility of the world’s end. One whispers that priests have urged women to “purge” themselves with fire, and that many have died from it, but that the priests say that “it’s better to die pure than to live for hell.” This discussion referencing the damage caused by those who claimed knowledge of God’s will can warn us against an early belief of Lacan’s, that

    Absolute knowledge is this moment in which the totality of discourse closes in on itself in a perfect non-contradiction, up to and including the fact that it posits, explains and justifies itself. [7]

    The frightened villagers, stirred up by Raval, a drunken former theological doctor, turn on Jof – an actor and an outsider – but Jons enters the tavern and defends him. Meanwhile, Block in his wanderings comes upon Jof’s wife, Mia, and their infant son. They talk for a while, and then Jons and Jof join them. After Mia tends to Jof’s wounds, Mia and Jof offer Block and Jons some milk and strawberries, and Block invites the family to his home, since the town they had planned on performing at next has been stricken by the plague. Mia asks Block if he has a wife. Block says he does and reminisces on how happy he had been with her before he joined the crusade, commenting that faith “is a torment… like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears…,” then comments on how unreal his anxiety is when sitting with her and her husband. This temporary change in his point of view can help us remember how in Lacan’s later thought, the logic of the question acts as its own response, a paradox

    illustrated, in its most elementary form, by the famous Hegelian witticism that the secrets of the Egyptians are secrets for the Egyptians themselves: … it is even by that which appears at first to exclude us from the Other – our question by which we conceive of it as enigmatic, inaccessible, transcendental – that we rejoin the Other, precisely because the question becomes the question of the Other itself, because substance becomes subject (that which defines the subject, let us not forget, is precisely the question). [8]

    However, Block continues his search, telling a girl who is about to be executed for having sexual relations with the Devil that he wants to meet him – he, if anyone, must know if God exists. The girl tells Block to look for him in her eyes, but he sees only fear. She answers that the Devil is with her, and will protect her from the fire, adding, “You must see him somewhere, you must. The priests had no difficulty seeing him, nor did the soldiers.” Through this dialog,

    … we could recall the Hegelian proposition which can be paraphrased as “the fear of error is error itself: the true evil is not the evil object but the one who perceives evil as such.” [9]

    Block gives her a potion to take away her pain as the soldiers light a fire beneath her. Jons says that he had thought of killing the soldiers, but that she’s nearly dead already. Enraged, he asks Block what she sees, then answers himself – she sees only emptiness. “We stand powerless, our arms hanging at our sides, because we see what she sees, and our terror and hers are the same.” This sense of experiencing the other’s “‘hidden treasure’ … as already missing from the other” is how Zizek conceives of Hegel’s concept of “de-alienation[10] as an element of Lacan’s concept of “separation[11]:

    “De-alienation” is reduced to … the experience of a separation between the Other and its secret, objet petit a. [12]

    However, terror at emptiness causes people to form fetishes, objects which fill the constitutive lack in the Other. Jons’ insight serves us well in this matter and others throughout the film. He had caught Raval, the former theological doctor, stealing a ring from a corpse and recognized him as the man who had convinced Block to join the crusade, and noted that grave robbery was “a more fitting occupation for scoundrels.” We can use this ring as an index for the concept, “fetish” and Jons’ exposing him as a scoundrel for “de-fetishization.” Zizek elaborates on these concepts:

    “[D]e-fetishization” is all the more difficult to achieve because the fetish reverses the standard relationship between the “sign” and the “thing”: we usually understand the “sign” as something that represents, that replaces the absent object, whereas the fetish is an object, a thing that replaces the missing “sign,” It is easy to detect absence, the structure of signifying deferrals, when one expects the full presence of a thing, but it is more difficult to detect the inert presence of an object when one expects to find “signs,” the game of representational deferrals, traces … [13]

    Jons tells Raval that seeing him, “I suddenly understand the meaning of these ten years, which previously seemed to me such a waste. Our life was too good and we were too satisfied with ourselves. The Lord wanted to punish us for our complacency.” These words seem to express what Zizek means by the

    Hegelian “loss of the loss” … not the return to a full identity, lacking nothing [but] the moment in which loss ceases to be the loss of “something” and becomes the opening of the empty place … the experience of loss as a “positive,” indeed “productive, condition.” [14]

    Zizek connects de-fetishization and loss of the loss with Hegel’s concept as “Absolute Knowledge,” which is

    …only a [way] to say … “you are permitted to know”, which opens up a place for the advance of science (logic, etc.) [15]

    We can elaborate on Zizek’s idea of de-fetishization using Jons’ summary of these ten years and his judgment of them: “[W]e sat in the Holy Land and let snakes bite us, flies sting us, wild animals eat us, heathens butcher us, the wine poison us, the women give us lice, the lice devour us, the fevers rot us, all for the Glory of God. Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.”

    Such is the post-fantasmatic relationship with the object: the object is “abolished,” “suppressed,” it loses its fascinating aura. That which at first dazzles us with its charm is exposed as a sticky and disgusting remainder, the gift given “is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit.” [16]

    Getting back to Block, his chess game takes a turn for the worse when Death hints that he will take the actors and their son – the family that Block had offered to protect. Later in their journey, Jof sees Death playing chess with Block. He tells Mia that they have to escape. Noticing Mia approaching the wagon, Block pretends to be clumsy and knocks over the board, saying that he has forgotten where the pieces were. This upset moves us to another point of the essay, that failure is imminent to truth:

    Goethe had it right, as opposed to Scripture … in the beginning was the act; the act implies a constitutive blunder, it misses, it “falls into a void”; and the original gesture of symbolization is to posit this pure expenditure as something positive, to experience the loss as a process which opens up a free space, which “lets things be.” [17]

    While Death rearranges the pieces, the actors escape with their son. Death wins the match and tells Block that he and his companions will be taken when Death sees him again. The knight asks him if he will divulge his secrets then, and Death replies that he has nothing to tell. This dialog can emphasize Zizek’s position that, contrary to Lacan’s early conception that, for an analyst’s client, Absolute Knowledge would be to reintegrate all traumatic ruptures within the client’s “symbolic[18] field,

    one must insist on the decisive fact that Hegelian Absolute Knowledge has absolutely nothing to do with some kind of “ideal,” the specific twist of Absolute Knowledge comes about when one perceives that the field of the Other is already “closed” in on its own disorder. To put it another way, the subject as barred is to be posited as correlative to the inert remainder which forms the obstacle to its full symbolic realization, to its full subjectivization [symbolized by Lacan’s “matheme[19]] S [19a]◊ a. [20]

    Block reaches his castle and finds his wife alone – everyone else had fled from the plague. When Death arrives, Block cries out to God for mercy. Jons, a bit scornfully, tells him, “I could have given you an herb to purge you of your worries about eternity. Now it seems to be too late. But in any case, feel the immense triumph of this last minute when you can still roll your eyes and move your toes.” Jon’s answer, placing action (the failure of which gives us subjectivity and the ability to form meanings) above the search for eternal truths, can point to why, in Lacan’s

    …matheme for Absolute Knowledge (SA), the two terms must be barred – it works by the conjunction of S and A.[21]

    The movie ends with Death, having made Block and his companions join hands, leading them “in a solemn dance towards the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt of the tears from their cheeks.” Mia, hearing Jof’s description of this image, smiles – “You with your visions and dreams.” This image can lead us to what seems the point of the essay, how to “live out the drive[22]

    The circuit of the drive is perhaps best defined as the pulsation between goal and aim: initially, the drive is on the path towards a certain goal; subsequently, this goal coincides with the experience of the path itself, whose “aim is nothing else but the return of this circuit” – in short, the true end (“Infinite” aim) achieves itself by traversing its incessant failure to achieve the “finite” end (goal); in the very failure to achieve our intended goal, the true aim is always already achieved. [23]

    Of course, one thing that might stop the drive, for humanity, at least, is the irreversible destruction that would most likely come from a (the?) dominant superpower’s economic dependence on war [24] Despite our having been granted a temporary retrieve [25] as the tavern patrons would say, “The omens [26] are terrible.”

    1. Bergman, Ingmar. The Seventh Seal (1957.) in: The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb).
    2. Slavoj Žižek. “The Most Sublime of Hysterics: Hegel with Lacan.” in: Lacan.Com. (originally published in French in Le plus sublime des hystériques – Hegel passe, Broché, Paris, 1999.)
    3. “Hegelian dialectic.” in: Wikipedia. August 27, 2013.
    4-9. Žižek. “The Most Sublime of Hysterics.” [UPDATE 9/6/13: I’ve recently been informed that in his later work Zizek uses the term “absolute knowing” rather than “absolute knowledge” to emphasize the processual dimension involved in Hegel’s absolute.]
    10. “Alienation.” in:>Premium Library Reference>Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006.
    11. “Separation.” In: No Subject – Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. September 11, 2006.
    12-17. Žižek. “The Most Sublime of Hysterics.”
    18. “The Symbolic.” in: Wikipedia. August 12, 2013.
    19. “Matheme.” in: Wikipedia. March 7, 2013.
    19a. ◊ represents “the tying of Symbolic ($), Imaginary (a) and Real (a) as it is operated by fantasy.” Chemama and Vandermersch, translated by Louis-Paul Willis in International Journal of Zizek Studies. 2012.
    20-21. Žižek. “The Most Sublime of Hysterics.”
    22. Žižek. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Page 5. Verso. 1989. in: Google Books.
    23. Žižek. “The Most Sublime of Hysterics”
    24. Gagnon, Bruce. “The Soul of Our Nation: War” in: Common Dreams. August. 30, 2013.
    25. Common Dreams staff. “In Reversal, Obama Will Seek Congressional OK to Use Force on Syria: Obama Wants Military Strike Against Syria, But Will Seek Congressional Approval” in: Common Dreams. August. 31, 2013.
    26. Greenwald, Glenn. “Obama, Congress and Syria” in: Common Dreams. September 1, 2013.

    Drive-In Part VIII: Underground

    “Animals could be bred und slaughtered.”

  • Dr. Strangelove describing how mine shafts can accommodate survivors of a nuclear holocaust in How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1]
  • Kubrick’s brilliant satire on the cold war, the connection between sex and aggression, and communication failure should work well as a companion piece to this Zizek essay [2], an essay that links our culture in the US to the belief of many of its citizens in the validity of the preemptive strike against Iraq and to its fallout. The essay begins by offering various examples of how ideology works – “The explicit ideological text (or practice) is sustained by the “unplayed” … obscene superego supplement.” [3]. One of these examples is from the days of “Really Existing Socialism” and another is the military’s traditional relationship towards homosexuality, a relationship

    which operates at two clearly distinct levels: the explicit homosexuality is brutally attacked, those identified as gays are ostracized, beaten up every night, etc.; however, this explicit homophobia is accompanied by an … implicit web of homosexual innuendos, inner jokes, obscene practices, etc. The truly radical intervention into military homophobia should therefore not focus primarily on the explicit repression of homosexuality; it should rather “move the underground,” disturb the implicit homosexual practices which SUSTAIN the explicit homophobia. [4]

    The movie begins with a narrator describing ominous rumors about a Russian project, hinted to be the ultimate weapon, and then cuts to a suggestive view of a B-52 being refueled to the tune, “Try a Little Tenderness.” (Sexual allusion pervades the film, both visually, as here, and verbally, such as in the characters’ names.)

    In the next scene, head of Burpleson Air Force Base, General Jack D. Ripper, calls his second in command, Group Captain Mandrake, saying that he received orders over the Red Phone to put the base on “Condition Red” and to transmit Plan R – The “Go Code” for nuclear war – to their planes. The use of these phrases can help us remember another of Zizek’s examples of ideology working through its obscene underside – in his description of the movie A Few Good Men.

    …US marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers…followed the so-called “Code Red,” the unwritten rule of a military community which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who has broken the ethical standards of the Marines. Such a code condones an act of transgression, it is “illegal,” yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group. It has to remain under cover of the night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public, everyone pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence… [5]

    Back at Dr. Strangelove, after showing us another general, Buck Turgidson, getting news (during his liaison with a bikinied secretary) that an attack order was intercepted, the film cuts to Ripper instructing the men at his base to shoot anything that approaches within 200 yards of the perimeter. He ends with a pep talk: “I have always expected the best from you, and you have never given me anything less than that.” Mandrake enters Ripper’s office to tell him that the radio is still playing civilian music, which he points out wouldn’t be on if a Russian attack were in progress, such an attack being the prerequisite for initiating Plan R. Ripper, after covertly locking his office doors and then uncovering a pistol on his desk, tells Mandrake that he will not recall the wing – He must stop “Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” When asked, he reveals that he became aware of the conspiracy when he became profoundly fatigued after “the physical act of love.” To elucidate the primal connection between sex and power as analyzed by Freud and Lacan, Zizek uses another movie character, Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, but Ripper will do as a foil:

    While the explicit Law is sustained by the dead father qua symbolic authority (the “Name of the Father[6]), the unwritten code is sustained by the spectral supplement of the Name of the Father, the obscene specter of the Freudian “primordial father.…, in the figure of Kurtz, the… obscene father-enjoyment subordinated to no symbolic Law, the total Master who dares to confront face to face the Real of terrifying “ jouissance [7] is presented not as a remainder of some barbaric past, but as the necessary outcome of the modern Western power Itself. [8]

    We cut to the War Room, where the US President, Merkin Muffley, has called his Generals together. He asks General Turgidson how a nuclear attack order could have been issued when the president is the only one with the authority to give such an order. Turgidson reminds Muffley about Plan R, “in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack if the normal chain of command is disrupted…,” a plan prompted by a senator’s claim that the US deterrent lacked credibility. Turgidson adds that the planes’ radios are designed so that after the order is issued they cannot receive any messages except those preceded by the correct three letter code group prefix, a code that, in this case, only General Ripper knows. He suggests that, since recalling the wing is extremely improbable, the best course of action would be to launch an all-out attack on “the Russkies” which would reduce retaliatory casualties to the “modest and acceptable” number of ten to twenty million killed. In a twisted way, the reasoning behind finding such a number acceptable (and of completely disregarding the “Russkies’” casualties) evokes Zizek’s discussion of a debate about the fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC, in which:

    one of the arguments for the ethico-legal acceptability of their status was that “they are those who were missed by the bombs”: since they were the target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate military operation,… This reasoning tells more than it intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that … in the eyes of the law, [their lives no longer count] .… If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space “between the two deaths,” occupying the position of … legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status) while biologically still alive, the US authorities which treat them in this way are also in a kind of in-between legal status which forms [their] counterpart…: acting as a legal power, their acts are no longer covered and constrained by the law – they operate in an empty space that is still within the domain of the law. And the recent disclosures about Abu Ghraib only display the full consequences of locating prisoners into this place “between the two deaths.” [9]

    President Muffley, disgusted, tells Turgidson that he’s heard enough from him. He has General Faceman order the men from a nearby army unit to enter the base and get General Ripper on the phone, then he has Russian Ambassador Alexiy DeSadeski admitted to the War Room (over Turgidson’s objections that“he’ll see the Big Board!”) He then gets the Soviet Premier, Dimitri Kissov, on the hotline. In a famous sequence, Muffley tells Kissov that “one of our base commanders…went a little funny in the head [and] ordered his planes to attack your country.” Muffley offers to provide him with the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes. Kissov reveals that a doomsday device, which can destroy all human and animal life on earth, has been set to go off if Russia is bombed or if any attempt is made to disable the device.

    The communication between heads of the two rival superpowers of the time can help us recall the phrase “clash of civilizations,” a phrase Zizek uses when putting the so-named thesis of “Samuel Huntington [10] into perspective through the Abu Ghraib torture photos:

    [T]he clash between the Arab and the American civilization is not a clash between barbarism and respect for human dignity, but a clash between anonymous brutal torture and torture as a mediatic spectacle in which the victims’ bodies serve as the anonymous background for the stupidly smiling “innocent American” faces of the torturers themselves. At the Same time, one has here a proof of how, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, every clash of civilizations is the clash of the underlying barbarisms. [11]

    President Muffley asks his science adviser, Dr. Strangelove, if it is possible to build a Doomsday device with an automated trigger which cannot be disabled. Strangelove answers that in such a device, this feature is not only possible, but essential. “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the Fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.” This reply can be seen as having an

    obscene virtual dimension … inscribed into an ideological text in the guise of the fantasmatic background that sustains the emptiness of what Jacques Lacan called the Master-Signifier. The Master-Signifier is the signifier of … a threat which, in order to function as such, has to remain potential. [12]

    Strangelove continues that “the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” angrily asking DeSadeski, “Why didn’t you tell the World, eh?!” DeSadeski replies, “It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.” With this incisive satire of how the superpowers thought during the Cold War, now seems a good place to deliver Zizek’s next point:

    [I]n the XXth century, this link between power and invisible threat gets in a way redoubled or reflected-into itself: it is no longer merely the existing power structure which, in order to sustain its efficiency, its hold over its subjects, has to rely on the fantasmatic dimension of the potential/invisible threat; the place of the threat is, rather, externalized, displaced into the Outside, the Enemy of the power – it is the invisible (and for that very reason all-powerful and omnipresent) threat of the Enemy that legitimizes the permanent state of emergency of the existing Power… [13]

    Kubrick shows us the firefight between the army unit and the men at the Burpleson Air Force Base while a poster in the background displays the legend, “Peace is our Profession.” Ripper gets Mandrake to help him shoot at the “invaders” and elaborates on his “bodily fluids” theory. When the Burpleson men surrender, Ripper, afraid of being tortured into revealing the recall code, says “I happen to believe in a life after this one, and I know I’ll have to answer for what I’ve done. And I think I can.” He then enters the bathroom and shoots himself. Although Mandrake, by looking at Ripper’s doodles, finds out the three letters of the code (POE, for peace on earth/purity of essence,) the army unit commander, Bat Guano (who thinks Mandrake is a “prevert,”) requires a great deal of convincing to allow him to reach the President and deliver the information. The discussion of torture and “preversion” brings us to what Zizek considers the crux of the Abu Ghraib matter:

    [T]o anyone acquainted with the reality of the US way of life, the photos immediately brought to mind the obscene underside of the US popular culture [such as American performance art and “theatre of cruelty,” the photos of Mapplethorpe, the weird scenes in David Lynch’s films as well as]… the initiatic rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. Do we not see similar photos in regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an army unit or in a high school campus, where the initiatic ritual went overboard and soldiers or students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures (like penetrating their anal opening with a beer bottle in front of their peers), to suffer being pierced by needles, etc. [14]

    While Guano’s unit battles Ripper’s base, one of Ripper’s planes is hit by a Soviet missile. The plane loses three of its engines and is leaking fuel, but the Navigator believes they can reach their primary and secondary targets, although they would not make it back. The damage forces them to fly low, so they cannot be spotted on a radar screen. We cut to the war room, where SAC communications control tells the attendees that four planes have been destroyed and all others have acknowledged the recall code. As Turgidson tries to lead the others in a prayer of thanks, Premier Kissov calls and says that one of the planes that had been reported shot down may have only been damaged. Muffley apologizes that “they’re jamming your radar and flying so low, but they’re trained to do it. You know, it’s it’s initiative!” This last is a good word for the Abu Ghraib tortures, which

    cannot be reduced to simple evil acts of individual soldiers, they were of course also not directly ordered – they were legitimized by a specific version of the obscene “Code Red” rules… Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people: in being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture, they got the taste of its obscene underside which forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy, and freedom. No wonder, then, that it is gradually becoming clear how the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not a limited case, but part of a widespread practice: on May 6, Donald Rumsfeld had to admit that the photos rendered public are just the “tip of the iceberg,” and that there are much stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder. As to the institutional background of the Abu Ghraib “excess,” already in early 2003, the US government, in a secret memo, approved a set of procedures to put the prisoners in the “war of terror” under physical and psychological pressure and thus to assure their “cooperation” (the memo uses wonderful Orwelese: long exposure to strong light is called “visual stimulation”…). This is the reality of Rumsfeld’s dismissive statement, a couple of months ago, that the Geneva convention rules are “out of date” with regard to today’s warfare. [15]

    Muffley advises Kissov to put all his forces into the remaining plane’s two targets. Meanwhile, Major Kong, aircraft commander of the troublesome plane, finds that it cannot reach either of its designated targets. He orders his men to get to the next target opportunity at Kodlosk and overcomes numerous malfunctions in the plane’s equipment to drop his bomb there. We last see him in the legendary scene in which he rides the bomb, rodeo-style, to its destination.

    Back in the War Room, Strangelove offers to help “preserve a nucleus of human specimens” in mine shafts. He explains that top government and military men must be included “to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition” and that, with ten females (selected “for their sexual characteristics”) to each male, the mine shafts could produce a gross national product at present levels in about twenty years. After Ambassador DeSadeski praises Strangelove’s “astonishingly good idea” and leaves, General Turgidson rants that the specimens must be… on the alert to prevent the Russians from taking over their mineshaft space, and he ends by demanding that “we must not allow… a mine shaft gap!” Strangelove, who had been in a wheelchair for the entire movie, stands up to say that he has a plan, and then exclaims, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” This vision of the rise of Dr. Strangelove in a transformed US can draw us to the conclusion of Zizek’s essay:

    (Fascists invoked the threat of the Jewish conspiracy, Stalinists the threat of the class enemy up to today’s “war on terror,” of course). This invisible threat of the Enemy legitimizes the logic of the preemptive strike: precisely because the threat is virtual, it is too late to wait for its actualization; one has to strike in advance, before it will be too late… In other words, the omnipresent invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense (which pose the only true threat to democracy and human rights, of course) if the classic power functioned as the threat which was operative precisely by way of never actualizing itself, by way of remaining a threatening gesture (and this functioning reached its climax in the Cold War, with the threat of the mutual nuclear destruction which had to remain a threat), with the war on terror, the invisible threat causes the incessant actualization – not of itself, but – of the measures against itself. The nuclear strike had to remain the threat of a strike, while the threat of the terrorist strike triggers the endless series of strikes against potential terrorists… The power which presents itself as being all the time under threat, living in mortal danger, and thus merely defending itself, is the most dangerous kind of power. [16]

    Although there has been a recent mass break from the prison we’ve been discussing, I’ll finish this entry with articles about closer-to-home fallout [17] from the preemptive strike and about more current uses [18] of this power. As Turgidson might put it, although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like someone exceeded his authority.

    1. Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George. Dr. Strangelove: or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964.) in: The Kubrick Site: Dr. Strangelove: A Continuity Transcript.
    2. Slavoj Žižek. “MOVE THE UNDERGROUND! What’s Wrong with Fundamentalism? – Part II.” in: Lacan.Com. Undated (2004?).
    3. Slavoj Žižek. “Ego Ideal and Superego: Lacan as Viewer of Casablanca.” in: Lacan.Com. Undated (2005?).
    4-5. Žižek. “MOVE THE UNDERGROUND!
    6. “Name of the Father.” in: Wikipedia. June 19, 2013.
    7. I’m using “DUI,” an earlier entry of mine, for the definition of “Jouissance.” I had taken this definition from: Žižek. “Ego Ideal and Superego.”
    10. “The Clash of Civilizations.” in: Wikipedia. July 29, 2013.
    11-16. Žižek. MOVE THE UNDERGROUND!
    17. “USA Bradley Manning Trial Underscores Serious Accountability Failures.” In Amnesty International. July 31, 2013.
    18. Cora Currier. “Who Are We at War With? That’s Classified.” in: July 29, 2013.

    Drive-In Part VII: In the Trenches

    “What would your, er, newspapers and your politicians do with that?”

  • Colonel Dax to a member of the General Staff referring to the order by one of his generals to fire on his own men in Paths of Glory [1]
  • Now that I have only two Kubrick films that I like and haven’t discussed yet, I thought I’d try to pair this movie, partly based on the actions of one French historical figure [2], with Zizek’s essay named after another [3]. Although there are no other similarities between the two figures, there are some interesting ways to connect the film and article, starting with opening credits – The music to “La Marseillaise” plays, recalling the French Revolution. Zizek starts his essay by pointing out how the world’s attitude toward this Revolution has changed greatly, even for those on the left, after the demise of Communism in 1989:

    In our post-modern era of “emerging properties,” chaotic interaction of multiple subjectivities, of free interaction instead of centralized hierarchy, of a multitude of opinions instead of one Truth, the Jacobin dictatorship is fundamentally “not for our taste…” [4]

    A narrator gives us the background on the conflict between Germany and France in the First World War, ending by saying that “after two grisly years of trench warfare … [s]uccessful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands.” These few words on the German army’s attack — and its aftermath — make a good introduction to the Zizek essay’s first point about Lacanian ethics,

    an ethics that goes beyond the dimension of what Nietzsche called “human, all too human,” and confronts the inhuman core of humanity. This does not mean only an ethics which no longer denies, but fearlessly takes into account, the latent monstrosity of being-human, the diabolic dimension which exploded in phenomena usually covered by the concept-name “Auschwitz” – an ethics that would be still possible after Auschwitz, to paraphrase Adorno. This inhuman dimension is for Lacan at the same time the ultimate support of ethics. [5]

    General George Broulard visits General Paul Mireau at the opulent Chateau de L’aigle to request that he take “The Ant Hill,” a well-fortified German position. Mireau says that this request is impossible, given that his division was “cut to pieces.” After Broulard coyly mentions that there has been talk of a possible promotion, however, Mireau decides that nothing is beyond his men “once their fighting spirit is aroused.” The next scene shows Mireau walking through the trenches to see the division’s commander, Colonel Dax, a take which allows us to see the wretched condition of the men who are supposed to accomplish this feat. On the way, he talks to various soldiers, one of whom is shell-shocked. When asked about his wife, this soldier says that he doesn’t expect to see her again, a claim that Mireau interprets as “cowardly.” When the soldier agrees that he is a coward, Mireau strikes him and orders him transferred out of his regiment. He then visits Dax, who fails to show enthusiasm for the mission, especially after Mireau tells him that about half of his men will likely be killed. But Mireau subtly threatens to take him away from his regiment, saying that he needs a rest. Dax capitulates.

    Before the reconnaissance mission, Lieutenant Roget, the officer in charge, gets drunk and carps sarcastically at his two subordinates. In the middle of no man’s land he sends one, Private Lejeune, ahead, then, after a short wait during which a flare goes off showing some dead bodies, he throws a grenade towards where he had sent the soldier and runs back to his quarters. He later blackmails the other, Corporal Paris, who confronts him about Lejeune’s death.

    The tyranny and corruption depicted in these scenes can remind us of the Robespierre quote in Zizek’s essay, “The rigor of tyrants has only rigor for a principle; the rigor of [a Truly] republican government comes from charity.” [6] This second form of rigor is what Zizek seems to mean by “Terror,” which he defines, also citing Robespierre, as “prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs.”

    The night before the attack, two soldiers discuss the meaning of the fear of death. One of them, Private Arnaud, makes a case that most of the soldiers are actually only afraid of getting hurt. He asks the other,

    A: Aside from the bayonet, what are you most afraid of?

    O: High explosives.

    A: Exactly. It’s the same with me. Because I know that it can chew you up worse than anything else. Look, it’s like I’m trying to tell you. If you’re really afraid of dying you’d be living in a funk all the rest of your life because you know you’ve got to go someday, any day. If death is what you really fear, why should you care about what kills you? [7]

    We’ll use this discussion to bookmark Zizek’s claim that Robespierre’s power in the new republic came from his lack of fear of death, an “‘inhuman’ dimension of the couple Virtue-Terror promoted by Robespierre.”

    [W]hat if, fully recognizing this dependence [of the transcendental ego on the empirical ego] as a fact (and nothing more than this – a stupid fact of being), one nonetheless insists on the truth of its negation, the truth of the assertion of the independence of the subject with regard to the empirical individuals qua living being? Is this independence not demonstrated in the ultimate gesture of risking one’s life, on being ready to forsake one’s being? [8]

    The next day, we see Col. Dax walking through trenches lined with soldiers who huddle against the sides as the air is filled with explosions and gunfire. Then he leads the charge. Kubrick Corner has an excellent description of this famous battle scene; I’ll copy a bit of it here:

    Only once during the actual assault does the film create a moment of perceptual subjectivity…, using an eye-line-match, to Dax’s view of the Ant Hill. It’s a rather terrifying view. We first see only the Ant Hill, its distance exaggerated by the wide angle lens. But then, as the camera slowly zooms out, we are forced to watch four of “our” men killed by a single mortar explosion directly in front of us. Again, instead of lingering momentarily on the casualties, the film cuts quickly away to more violence. By the end of the nearly ten-minute scene, after witnessing the disastrously failed assault, the meaninglessness of the death has become a grotesque spectacle.[9]

    Mireau, seeing that one company isn’t leaving the trenches, orders the battery commander, Captain Rousseau, to fire on them. Rousseau replies that he needs a written order to fire on his own men. Col. Dax goes back to the trench to try to get the men to charge, but is knocked back by a retreating soldier’s falling body when he tries to lead them out. Lieutenant Roget tells Dax that his men had tried to charge three times but were pinned down by overwhelming fire, telling him to look at all the casualties. The attack fails. We cut to the gorgeous chateau where Mireau demands a court martial trying a hundred men under the death penalty for cowardice. When Dax argues, Mireau threatens to place him under arrest, but Broulard intervenes. When Mireau continues to bluster about Dax’s “insubordination,” Broulard eyes him sternly, saying, “I am merely offering an opinion, General. Please do not feel constrained to accept it.” Mireau immediately backs down. This exchange is an example of “habit” that is overridden by what Zizek calls, “divine madness.”

    … many political situations in which a choice is given on condition that we make the right choice: we are solemnly reminded that we can say no – but we are expected to reject this offer and enthusiastically say yes.[10]

    Mireau, however, maintains that it was the soldiers’ duty to obey the order to attack, declares that “We can’t leave it up to the men to decide whether an order is possible” and calls the whole regiment “a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.” Dax asks, “Why not shoot the entire regiment?” When Broulard says that all that is needed is to set an example, Dax offers to let them shoot him – an offer that we can use to elaborate on the idea of “divine madness.” Such madness

    presupposes a pure transcendental subject non-affected by [any earthly] catastrophe – a subject which, although non-existing in reality, IS operative as a virtual point of reference. Every authentic revolutionary has to assume this attitude of thoroughly abstracting from, despising even, the imbecilic particularity of one’s immediate existence, or, as Saint-Just formulated in an unsurpassable way this indifference towards what Benjamin called “bare life…”[11]

    Looking meaningfully at Mireau, Dax states that, “The logical choice is the officer most responsible for the attack.” Broulard snaps, “This is not a question of officers,” then tells Mireau that they shouldn’t “overdo this thing.” Mireau concedes that he “was a bit too anxious to see proper justice meted out — I’ve spent my entire life in the army. I’ve always tried to be true to my principles.” He says that he will settle for trying three men – one from each company in the first wave. Dax requests to be appointed counsel for the accused, which Broulard grants, to Mireau’s discomfort.

    The men are chosen – one, Ferol, is seen as a “social undesirable” by his superior, the second, Arnaud, loses when his company draws lots, and the third, Paris, is chosen because he had confronted Lieutenant Roget with killing the soldier during the reconnaissance mission. The men are tried for “showing cowardice in the face of the enemy” and the head judge says that the court will “dispense with unnecessary formalities.” When Dax requests the men be read the specific charges against them, the head judge refuses. The rest of the court martial follows this pattern, with the head judge often “informally” taking on the role of another prosecutor. The contrast between Dax’s concern that his subordinates be properly represented with Mireau’s and the court’s desire to dispense with the formalities of such representation can help us remember the Lacanian

    opposition between the “subject of enunciation” and the “subject of the enunciated (content)”: while Democracy admits antagonistic struggle as its goal (in Lacanese: as its enunciated, its content), its procedure is regulated-systemic; Fascism, on the contrary, tries to impose the goal of hierarchically structured harmony through the means of an unbridled antagonism.[12]

    The prosecutor calls the attack “a stain on the flag of France,” and calls for the death penalty. Dax points out that since he was not allowed to present any evidence, the prosecution presented no witnesses, there was no written indictment of the charges, and no stenographic records were kept of the proceedings, that it is the court martial that is such a stain. The men are nevertheless found guilty. This finding exemplifies the idea that

    The Ethics of Psychoanalysis… refers to as the “perspective of the Last Judgment,” a perspective even … discernible in one of the key terms of the Stalinist discourse, that of “objective guilt” and “objective meaning” of your acts: while you can be an honest individual who acted with most sincere intentions, you are nonetheless “objectively guilty,” if your acts serve reactionary forces – and it is, of course, the Party which has the direct access to what your acts “objectively mean.”[13]

    A priest, Father Dupree, delivers the bad news to the men and offers to help them prepare for death. Private Ferol immediately breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably. Paris tells the priest that he would feel hypocritical turning to God now, but decides to confess when Dupree claims that God is always ready to listen to his prayers. Arnaud mocks them, praying to the wine bottle from which he has been drinking, and asks Dupree to get out of there with his “sanctimonious, pat answers,” laughing angrily at Dupree’s claim of God’s power.

    We can see now why Lacan’s motto il n’y a pas de grand Autre /there is no big Other/” brings us to the very core of the ethical problematic: what it excludes is precisely this “perspective of the Last Judgment,” the idea that somewhere – even if as a thoroughly virtual point of reference, even if we concede that we cannot ever occupy its place and pass the actual judgment – there must be a standard which allows us to take measure of our acts and pronounce their “true meaning,” their true ethical status.[14]

    Infuriated with Dupree’s offer to “save” him, Arnaud punches him. Paris pushes Arnaud away, and when he comes back, Paris strikes him, causing Arnaud to hit his head against a stone wall, fracturing his skull. The doctor advises, per the general’s insistence on Arnaud’s execution, that he be tied to a stretcher “so he won’t slip when you tilt it. …[P]inch his cheeks a couple times…The general wants him to be conscious.” Meanwhile, Dax calls Lieutenant Roget to his quarters. He asks how Roget happened to pick Corporal Paris, and pretends to accept Roget’s claim that he had no personal motive. Then he puts him in charge of the firing squad, over Roget’s objections. The battery commander enters as Roget leaves to tell Dax something “that may have a bearing on the court martial.”

    Dax interrupts General Broulard at a ball to convince him to stop the executions. Broulard admits that, judging from the casualties, the efforts of his regiment must have been considerable. However, he claims that “the general staff is subject to unfair pressures from newspapers and politicians” and that the execution will be good for the troops’ morale. He compares troops to children, who crave discipline. “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.” We can compare such logic to today’s predominant post-political politics – a “politics of fear”

    politics which renounces the very constitutive dimension of the political, since it resorts to fear as its ultimate mobilizing principle: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive State itself (with too high taxation), fear of ecological catastrophes – such a (post)politics always amounts to a frightening rallying of frightened men. [15]

    Dax tells Broulard what the battery commander had told him – that Mireau had ordered Rousseau to fire on his own positions. He gives him copies of sworn statements from all the principals involved and asks the question quoted at the top of this entry. Broulard excuses himself and leaves. The next scene begins as the soldiers come to take the three men to the firing squad. Paris falls to his knees, crying to Sergeant Boulanger, the head of the squad, to save him. Boulanger tells him that no one can save him, but that there “will be a lot of dignitaries, newspapermen out there. How do you want to be remembered?” He reminds him that “This is the last decision you’ll have a chance to make on earth. You can act like a man, or we’ll have to drag you out of here.” Paris stands up, regaining his composure. He later refuses the blindfold that Lieutenant Roget offers him and nods noncommittally at Roget’s apology. The three men in their last hours can symbolize what Zizek calls the “part of no part … the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice.” Zizek defines democracy:

    A phenomenon which, for the first time, appeared in Ancient Greece when the members of demos (those with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice) not only demanded that their voice be heard against those in power. They not only protested the wrong they suffered and wanted their voice be recognized and included in the public sphere, on an equal footing with the ruling oligarchy and aristocracy; even more, they, the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice, presented themselves as the embodiment of the Whole of Society, of the true Universality: “we – the ‘nothing’, not counted in the order – are the people, we are All against others who stand only for their particular privileged interest.” The political conflict proper designates the tension between the structured social body in which each part has its place, and “the part with no-part” which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality, of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté, the principled equality of all men qua speaking beings – up to the liumang, “hoodlums,” in today’s China, those who are displaced and freely float, lacking their work-and-residence, but also cultural or sexual, identity and registration.[16]

    Ferol continues to cry until the end – Father Dupree’s prayers and attempts to comfort him and to get him to brace himself are powerless. This proof of Arnaud’s claim that the priest (spokesman for the “Big Other” in the world of the film) has no power brings us to another point of the essay; that Democracy is:

    the master-signifier which says that there is no master-signifier, at least not a master-signifier which would stand alone, that every master-signifier has to insert itself wisely among others. Lacan’s big S of the barred A, which says: I am the signifier of the fact that Other has a hole, or that it doesn’t exist.[17]

    Later, Mireau, dining with Broulard, gushes about how well the men died. “There’s always that chance that one will do something that will leave everyone with a bad taste. This time, you couldn’t ask for better.” Dax enters, at Broulard’s request, and Broulard tells Mireau what Dax had told him, saying that there will have to be a public inquiry to clear Mireau’s name. Mireau protests that he is being scapegoated – “The only completely innocent man in this whole affair!” After he leaves, Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s job, perhaps demonstrating that,

    the basic aim of antidemocratic politics always and by definition is and was depoliticization, the demand that “things should return to normal,” with each individual sticking to his or her particular job. And this brings us to the inevitable paradoxical conclusion: “dictatorship of the proletariat” is another name for the violence of the democratic explosion itself. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” is thus the zero-level at which the difference between legitimate and illegitimate state power is suspended, i.e., at which the state power As Such is illegitimate.[18]

    Dax, disgusted at Broulard’s claim that his actions were motivated by the desire for a promotion, refuses it. A surprised Broulard calls Dax an idealist, and says that he pities him as he “would the village idiot.” These words could have been written for the essay:

    Happy us who live under cynical public-opinion manipulators, not under the sincere Muslim fundamentalists ready to fully engage themselves in their projects… what better proof of the ethico-political misery of our epoch whose ultimate mobilizing motif is the mistrust of virtue! Should we not affirm against such opportunist realism the simple faith in the eternal Idea of freedom which persists through all defeats, without which, as it was clear to Robespierre, a revolution “is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime…”[19]

    Dax returns to his quarters and hears a commotion at a café across the road. The owner announces the “latest acquisition from the enemy” and brings out a young woman to caterwauls and whistles from the French soldiers. Saying lewdly that she has only “natural talent” and praising her golden throat, he asks her to sing. The men drown her out with their catcalls initially, but gradually fall silent, their faces expressing deep longing, and soon start to hum along with her, some with tears in their eyes. We could mediate on the next point during this scene:

    The point is thus not the shift in relations of power and domination between actual socio-political agents, the redistribution of social control, etc., but the very fact of transcending – or, rather, momentarily canceling – this very domain, of the emergence of a totally different domain of “collective will” as a pure Sense-Event in which all differences are obliterated, rendered irrelevant. Such an event is not only new with regard to what was going on before, it is new “in itself” and thus forever remains new. [20]

    Sergeant Boulanger tells Dax that they have orders to move back to the front immediately, to which Dax replies, “Give them a few minutes more.” The movie ends with Dax walking away to the music, leaving us with the question of

    how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it from being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term “regulated procedure”? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic” democracy remains a momentary utopian outburst which, the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. [21]

    I don’t want to try to offer any “sanctimonious, pat answers,” so I’ll end my part here by saying that the Zizek article handles this question in some interesting ways (inserting another link at this point [22] for convenience) and by pointing out that, although important to everyone, there are some right now for whom answers to these questions seem especially urgent [23].

    1. Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson. Paths of Glory (1957.) in: Script-o-Rama.

    2. “Géraud Réveilhac.” in: Wikipedia. March 1, 2013.

    3-6. Slavoj Zizek. “Robespierre or the “Divine Violence” of Terror.” in: Ab. 2006(?).

    7. Kubrick & Thompson. Paths of Glory in: Script-o-Rama.

    8. Zizek. “Robespierre…”.

    9. Alex Jack. “PART 4: Paths of Glory“. in: Kubrick Corner. Undated.

    10-22. Zizek. “Robespierre…”

    23. Phyllis Bennis. “Celebrations and Dangers for Egypt’s Revolutions” in: Common Dreams. July 5, 2013.