“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.


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