Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

Introduction to the Italian Edition of Glyn Daly, Conversations with Zizek[1]Mar/03/2017



iek’s great merit lies in his having recognized that Lacanian thought should be interpreted as a derivation of Hegelianism, which has dominated part of French philosophy since the 1930s.  This introduction to iek’s work allows the author to highlight the essential nodes of Lacanian thought, and in particular the notion of the Real.  He discusses in particular the dual interpretation—Kantian and Hegelian—of the concept of the Real, and the ethical and political consequences which these two interpretations somehow imply.


Keywords: Zizek’s Hegelian Approach – Lacanian “Thing” – Ethics, Politics, Psychoanalysis – the Real - New Freudo-Marxism


  1. 1.    “Sublime” pop


“Paraphrasing Hegel’s paraphrase of Martin Luther: to recognize the rose of the sublime in the cross of everyday vulgarity.”[2]


        We want to introduce here an author who, despite his increasing popularity in Italy, remains less well-known here compared to other, especially English-speaking, countries.  We are trying to overcome a general lag that characterizes Italy, a country where the trend of thought often (wrongly) used to classify Slavoj iek’s work—“postmodernism”, “post-structuralism”, “French thought”, etc.—does not enjoy the same success as it has in the Anglo-American world.

        In fact, the very style of iek’s writing, not to mention its content, seems specifically aimed at causing outrage in Italian academia.  Case in point: the fact that he takes so damned seriously today’s popular culture—Hollywood films, advertising, bestsellers, fatuous fashions—in short, everything that intellectuals dismiss as Kitsch.  One ought to examine the aesthetic references of twentieth-century philosophers, for whom citing Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and Renaissance painting, the great Romantic poets, is considered bon ton.  And while some went as far as quoting Proust, Rilke, Musil or Picasso (modernism having by then been established), rarely do they quote the film directors or musicians who form an important part of the lives of their sons and daughters.  The cinema—which has produced great works in the twentieth century—is never cited by philosophers (apart from Deleuze, Nancy and a few others), as if it were some kind of idle hobby.  In contrast, iek—who describes himself as a would-be cinéaste—continuously rattles off references to films, even those that can only be labeled as commercial or pop.  In short, iek’s style is sublimis, in the original sense of the term:  it continually oscillates between the highest and lowest levels, reminding one a bit of Mahler’s music.  He nonchalantly moves from Schelling to Spielberg, from Wittgenstein’s Vienna to Kinder chocolate eggs, from Hegelian dialectic to sexual references found in porn films.  But this astonishing nonchalance in his choice of examples expresses a certain rhythm of thought that is peculiar to him, and which is one of the reasons his books have been so welcomed.  I don’t belong to any of the intellectual tribes with which iek so strongly associates himself—nineteenth-century German Idealism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-1989 neo-Marxism—and yet, I often enjoy reading him.  Why?  For the music of his thinking.  Unlike other traditional philosophers, his writing evokes to us not Renaissance madrigals or Romantic symphonies, Brandenburg concertos or austere Webern’s compositions, but rather, rock, funk and rap.

        We have always been led to believe that what determines the success of a philosophical text is its content.  But I wonder whether in the end it is instead the music of ideas.  Some Romantic scholars who are so dear to iek did indeed seek to show that music is philosophical—but it is time to show in what way philosophy is, though not acoustical, musical.  One may wonder whether what ultimately counts in philosophy is not the meaning of what one says, but how one says it, the argumentative strategy one uses (what Plato called dialectic).  We continue to read Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant or Nietzsche, not because we are still Platonists, Cartesians, Kantian or Nietzschean, but because these masters’ writings continue to seduce us.  If we are today convinced that we see the limits to the conceptual content of their writings, what is it then that seduces us?  I would claim that it is a rhythm or even a curvature of thought that is difficult for us to think about: a quality that does not fall into canonical distinctions (ethics, aesthetics, knowledge, know-how), a kind of lightness, or rather sensation given to us by real thinkers who dare to think of something heretofore unthought of, something new, that makes them so different from their followers, imitators and commentators, even from the best ones.

        I don’t believe that everyone who reads iek completely shares his way of thinking—one often gets irritated reading him.  But one never gets bored.  With iek, it’s worthwhile disagreeing and arguing.  In this introduction, I will not pass up the opportunity to question him.  I wonder at times whether the highest praise one can offer a thinker is to say, “I don’t much share your position, and yet I’m interested in arguing against it.”


2. The trees and the forest


        Some find his continuous references to psychoanalysis, especially in its Lacanian form, as being rather inflexible.  Although iek was a dissident in Slovenia, which at that time was still communist Yugoslavia, he remains—as he admits in these conversations—steeped in a Stalinist mentality.  Isn’t his need to unequivocally take sides part of the Stalinist legacy?  Isn’t his way of reading Freud and Lacan also Stalinist?  And for that matter, wasn’t the person who introduced him to Lacanian thought—namely, Jacques-Alain Miller—part of the Leninist-Maoist movement that pervaded the elite circle of philosophers at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in the 1960s?  Clearly, for an anti-Leninist and anti-Stalinist, iek’s positions at times have the distinctive aroma of Bolshevik Manichaeism.  Anyway, even though I don’t share this kind of politico-philosophical choice, I find iek’s work regarding the politico-mental functioning of state socialism—which he experienced first hand—and its sudden disintegration to be among the most lively and lucid contributions in the literature on the Decline of Communism.  iek is a “Stalinist”, but a charming one.

        Unlike many school-trained Lacanians, iek isn’t boring.  He always keeps in mind how Lacan’s concepts—and those of psychoanalysis in general—were constructed: he doesn’t simply dish out the warmed-up leftovers of a theory that’s assumed to be true, but instead takes into account the costs of theory construction (and by costs I don’t mean mental exertion, but the scotoma, the blind spot, that every theoretical construction—even the best—inevitably implies).  What isolates so many Lacanians from the broader intellectual context is that, while they often have a Tarzan-like agility in jumping from one tree to another in the dense Freudian-Lacanian forest, they are unable to see the forest itself.  But for someone outside, one has first to help him see the forest.  As a philosopher, iek sees also the forest.

iek has understood a very essential aspect about Lacan: namely, that he made the only serious, sophisticated attempt at rearticulating all of psychoanalytic theory in Hegelian terms.  More specifically, Lacan reread Freud through a filter taken from Alexandre Kojève in his famous seminars on Hegel[3], a reading that drew heavily on the early Heidegger.  Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty, Klossowski, Breton, Aron, Koyré, Eric Weil, Corbin, Desanti, and more rarely Lévinas and Sartre—in fact, most of the personalities which later had a huge impact on French culture—all attended these seminars.  And so it is that since the 1930s a certain unmistakable style (which its opponents label as dandistic) prevails in the French (and not just French philosophical) way of writing.  So, all of French culture, from the 1930’s to the present, was shaped by Hegel and Kojève—it is all Hegejevian, so to speak.  All of Lacan’s thought up to the 1960’s develops a number topics and notions that were already present in Kojève’s seminars, such as the desire for recognition, the desire of the Other, the dialectic of the subject and its constitutive alienation, and so forth.  In short, in order to thoroughly understand Lacan, one needs to have first understood Hegel and Heidegger, and to understand them as Kojève did.  If one doesn’t know them or understand them, then Lacan’s assertions and graphs will simply remain catechisms for disciples to recite.  Lacanian theory is a Hegelian and phenomenological psychoanalysis:  this is both its strength and, in my opinion, its shortcoming.

        The shrewd reader will ask, “How can one construct today a philosophical discourse upon a discipline that is now in crisis, as is psychoanalysis?  Isn’t iek’s exuberance a kind of Indian Summer of the Freudian theory?”  iek’s confinement to the fringes here in Italy, for example, is probably the result of the increasing mistrust of psychoanalysis among many Italian intellectuals.  iek’s story is an eloquent symptom of the change in the status of psychoanalysis over the last twenty-five to thirty years (a change that has been more marked in the US than in Europe).  Psychoanalysis has, for the most part, been abandoned by psychiatrists and more generally by the “sciences” (biology, neurosciences and cognitive science now dominate psychiatry); psychoanalysis has lost a large part of its academic-scientific respectability.  Despite this, it has not disappeared.  It has instead become a theory of reference in humanities departments, including those new fashionable disciplines such as the history of art and film, comparative literature, cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, communications, etc.  The university students and professors, as well as the so-called public intellectuals, who lead this kind of koiné forward, are often fans of iek.  Psychoanalysis is less and less something belonging to psychiatrists and psychotherapists, and more and more something belonging to feminists, literary critics, “continental” philosophers, historians of film and lifestyles, Geertzian anthropologists, to name a few.

There is an accompanying further change in the ethico-existential function of analytic treatment.  One goes to the psychiatrist or cognitive psychotherapist in order to be quickly cured of unbearable symptoms, and one undertakes a lengthy analysis as part of a journey of metanoia—as St. Paul called it—that is, spiritual conversion or reconversion of one’s own being in the world.  Although journalists often write that the psychoanalytic cure has by now been replaced by psychotropic drugs, this isn’t the case:  very often those in analysis also take such medication, so that psychopharmacology and psychoanalysis mutually, though secretly, support one another.  Psychoanalysis in the West is tending to transform itself from specialized therapy, as it once was, into a tool, rhythm and support of a lifestyle and of a way of being-in-the-world.


  1. 3.   The Specter of Hegel


In this context, how is one to understand iek’s Hegelian revival?  In fact, Hegelianism has enjoyed a new vitality in recent decades in fields far outside of philosophy.  I am not referring here only to the acclaimed Return to Hegel among American neo-pragmatists such as Richard Rorty, who underlined the Hegelian matrix of American pragmatist thought, from Royce to Dewey.  The most widely cited epistemologist and historian of science today, T.S. Kuhn, presented a Hegelianized theory of the progress of science that has left a lasting impression on our times.[4]  I. Lakatos’ reconstruction of the development of mathematics and scientific knowledge is explicitly Hegelian, as is the anti-epistemological anarchism of P. Feyerabend.  And it is not difficult to make out the extension of Hegel’s shadow behind the very interesting developments in the sciences of evolution and biology (S. Gould, N. Eldredge, S. Oyama, and especially R. Lewontin).  More than Marx, it is Hegel who seems to be the specter that wanders about the West. [5]  Lacan’s work can thus be inscribed within a broader movement of Hegelian Challenge.  And those who disdainfully reject Lacan because they find him abstruse, obscure, mystical—in short, a charlatan[6]—are in fact turned off, even if they don’t know it, by the Hegelian, or rather, Hegejevian, style of his way of thinking.

        Lacan re-transcribed psychoanalysis from the point of view of transcendental philosophy, that is, along the line that goes from Kant to Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger.  This transcription inevitably placed Lacanian thought in conflict with a large part of the psychoanalytic establishment, which is currently dominated by an Anglo-American orientation, one that is traditionally a more empiricist-positivist way of thinking—Locke-Hume-Bentham-Mill line all the way up to the recent philosophy of mind.


Lacanians will say that the core of Lacan’s theory is that “the unconscious is structured like a language”: an exquisitely Hegelian sounding apothegm.  What Lacan says is, if psychoanalysis essentially works by way of speech (all psychotherapy is, by definition, logotherapy), and if this linguistic process is able to have notable effects on the life of the analyzand[7], why should one then think that language is only a tool for working on the unconscious?  Isn’t the unconscious instead made of the same substance as the tool we use upon it, that is, language?

A similar argument was put forward by Bishop Berkeley[8], who hated materialism:  why should one think that perceptions are a way of entering into contact with reality (the material world), as opposed to thinking that what we call reality is, in the end, nothing other than our perceptions themselves?  But Hegel’s speculative idealism went even further:  our approach to perceptual reality is always by way of concepts—we can talk about this table only because we have developed the concept ‘table’.  Thus, concludes Hegel, we philosophers can settle for the concept ‘table’ and needn’t consider the contingent, concrete table.  Lacan carried out a similar operation in the area of psychoanalysis:  since the analyst works by way of language, he concludes that the unconscious is essentially language.  The unconscious is ça parle, which is a way of saying ça pense—in short, the unconscious is thought.  It is not something one thinks about, it is what thinks.  It is Objective Thought, Objektive Geist, in the Hegelian sense (a thought with no specific subject, or as W.R. Bion would say, “thought without a thinker”).

        Idealism, from Hegel to Lacan, is irrefutable: clearly, anything we can say regarding even the most contingent, singular or, to us at least, extraneous reality, will always be said by way of concepts, and hence by way of language.  Even if we claim that language is not important, that we are still animals, etc., we can only say this linguistically.  It is on this basis that the subject of language came to dominate Western thought in the latter half of the twentieth century—what came to be called the linguistic turn.  In fact, language has a less “spiritualist” connotation compared to the Hegelian Geist (Spirit).  This logocentrism of the second half of the twentieth century reveals a fundamental decision:  that of excluding contingent things from theoretical considerations.  The contingent—“the bone”, as iek calls it (“the spirit is a bone”)—doesn’t matter.

The philosopher Krug, who was a contemporary of Hegel, challenged Hegel to deduce from the logical movement of the Absolute the pen with which he was writing in that precise moment.  Hegel answered that his speculative philosophy made room for the notion of “absolute chance”, and already included contingency in the notion of essence.  “Contingency, not the contingent, is necessary.  For this reason a given contingent is not the object of much interest,”[9] and hence, not even Krug’s pen is of much interest.  This indifference towards the contingent, which in turn is swallowed up in the concept that determines its possibility, is repeated by Hegel.[10] We will see below how this idealist indifference towards the contingent poses critical problems when iek conceptualizes the notion of the Real.  Those who are not Hegelian think that it is ultimately the contingent—precisely because it has been “left free from the idea”—that makes a difference, that is, that makes History.


4. A Romantic denunciation


In any event, this psychoanalytic neo-idealism becomes somewhat twisted and contorted at a certain point.  If, on the one hand, the unconscious according to Lacan is structured like a language—that is, human reality is structured a priori, even before stupid and contingent human beings flesh it out—on the other hand, what counts for Lacan is the loss that the irruption and primacy of language produce. Human beings are alienated creatures precisely because they are creatures of language.  Our mother (the Other) teaches us to speak; that is, when we as babies desperately cry out, our mother tells us, for example, “You want the pacifier!”  She gives a signifier—the pacifier—to the desire that makes us cry out.  From that moment on, we know that what we desired was that signifier, a kind of knowledge that comes from the Other.  But what did we really desire before we were told what we desired?  What dark, primordial object caused us to be so agitated?  We will never know.  Language humanizes us, but at the price of a basic distortion that polarizes our existence:  the actual thing we sought will always be over and beyond the language that humanizes us.  As we will see, this Hegelian psychoanalysis rests on a kind of Romantic denunciation.

        Many adherents to this type of psychoanalysis will certainly look down at the “Romantic” qualification given to it.  When I refer to a number of important currents in Western thought as being Romantic, it is not to belittle them.  I myself am (to some extent) incorrigibly Romantic—otherwise, why would I read iek?  For that matter, we are all Romantics to some extent[11], perhaps not in philosophy, but in our aesthetic tastes, in our sentimental lives, with our children, in politics, etc.  One doesn’t live by bread and Reason alone.  And isn’t Freud’s basic message also quite Romantic, “le cul a ses raisons que la Raison ne connaît pas”?  Aren’t the libido’s reasons Romantic?  Romanticism today is the view that human beings essentially lack something that can never be had, that they live their own humanity as an exhilarating, incurable sickness.

Lacanian Romanticism differs from the hermeneutic approach precisely because it thematizes a real, extra-subjective lack as the origin and fulcrum of subjectivity.  Hermeneutics, in contrast, adopted Nietzsche’s (ironic) motto, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” in order to proclaim the (in my view, maniac) triumph of subjectivity:  the Real and Being are dissolved in the historical—and human, all too human—dynamic of interpretations.  Hermeneutics thus turns into an endorsement given to each and every current ideology and belief, the only condition being that it have kairos, that it is timely and historically successful.  This view triumphs today in a wide range of fields in contemporary psychoanalysis—a view that is referred to as “narratological”, “relational”, or “hermeneutic”, in accordance with Shafer, Spence, Stolorow, Renik, et al.  In short, the unconscious is reduced to an inter-subjective relation, or rather, to a relation between discourses:  the analyst does nothing more than help the subject find for himself a better narrative, to interpret himself according to a new and happier story.  As can be seen, the dimension of the Real in this case is permanently removed:  analysis is simply a discourse that deviates, modifies, and develops other discourses.  Analysis is nothing more than a transformation; that is, it gives new forms to our own interpretative lives.

        I have always considered Lacan’s Hegelianism as being much more insightful compared to the hermeneutic molasses.  Paraphrasing the basic hermeneutic motto, Lacan would instead say, “There are no facts, only interpretations of the Thing.”  The Real is not removed; to the contrary it becomes the very fulcrum of subjectivity.  Whence the importance Lacanians place on trauma:  they bet on the fact that every subjectivity is constructed and formed around a trauma, around something that breaks our subjectivity, that disrupts it and forces it to reconstitute itself and find a new balance (and by ‘trauma’ is understood above all the experience of excessive, devastating pleasure).  Thus the narratological soap opera—in which treatment consists in substituting a happy myth that the subject will recount to himself for an unhappy one (neurotic or otherwise)—sidesteps the fulcrum of the Real with which every subjectivity must sooner or later come to terms.  The theory according to which “the unconscious is structured like a language” paradoxically turns into a kind of trans-psychological, transcendentalist view, and as a result every subjectivity revolves around a Real that can never be symbolized nor rendered in discourse.  It is what Lacan called his “mysticism”.


5. Talking about things that are better left unsaid


        Western culture over the past two hundred years seems to be roughly divided between two trends.  One is generally called positivist (or “scientistic”, according to its opponents), and includes methodological rationalism (e.g., Popper).  It is positivist since it doesn’t accept that the negative operates in the world—and negativity is brought into the world by the (thinking, desiring, speaking, suffering) subject.  Positivism certainly grants that everything that we may think or know is linked to an I that remains transcendental:  all knowledge is knowing-for-someone.  But the point is that, for positivism, this transcendental I, which is presup-posed, can never be posed by any meaningful discourse.  This commitment was expressed apodictically by Wittgenstein in the last sentence of his Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[12]  What one cannot speak about, above all, is the subject for which the world appears and who thinks of it as a world—one must remain silent about this.  Lacan says that this view implies a Verwerfung, forclusion, a foreclosure of the subject:  consequently, the subject cannot be, as such, the object of meaningful knowledge or discourse.

Positivism’s self-foreclosure from the possibility of thematizing subjectivity has become even more evident in recent decades as positivism now dares, with the help of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, to ascend to the Heavens: to develop a science of the mind.  Cognitive science is the attempt to make thought the object of scientific thought. [13]  But terminological preferences are never irrelevant:  cognitive scientists always speak of the mind, upon which a verifiable or falsifiable theory can be constructed—but they never speak of a subject.  Speaking of it remains foreclosed.  The mind is, in short, subjectivity in so far as it becomes the object of science.  But clearly, if the scientist wants to remain positive—that is, be one who has a good head on his shoulders—he can never thematize himself as a subject who studies, and makes conjectures about, the mind.[14]

        The other current—which includes Lacanian psychoanalysis—can in fact be defined as Romantic and transcendental, despite a certain flag-waving materialism on its part.  This current poses what must be presupposed in every act of thought and knowledge, i.e., the subject—upon which it has no intention whatsoever of remaining silent.  But not in order to present it as a mind or brain, that is, not as its own object of knowledge.  From Kant up to Lacan, one counted on the fact that one could rigorously thematize transcendental subjectivity (the absolute, self-referring negativity of the idealists) without reducing it to an object of knowledge.  But this belief leads to an image—or rather, eulogy—of subjectivity as the eternal, drifting mine in the order of being (in the ontic order).  It is precisely because the Romantic refuses to consider the subject as a presence among presences, a thing among things—even as a thing of a special substance, cogitans and not extensa—that the subject is exalted as that which seamlessly introduces the lack, negativity, the void, the unpredictable, the abyss, the night, the ineffable (the divine? is subjectivity divinity for us moderns?) into the positive dimension of things.  We have here a number of keywords of Lacanian theory.

In fact, when iek and others[15] note that Lacan’s theory is a Hegelian reformulation of Freud, one shouldn’t take this Hegelianism in a literal, pedantic sense:  it is not an application of the triadic thesis-antithesis-synthesis form.  The Hegelian Aufhebung—as overcoming, cancellation, conservation of what is cancelled—is resized.  The Lacanian dialectic is a dialectic of the lack and its representation—but it is always a dialectic.  In this psychoanalytic neo-Hegelianism the original lack is never overcome-cancelled-retained in some higher synthesis:  it produces the subjective story as an attempt, an epic, to overcome it.  Lacan is certainly much more Romantic (more modern) than Hegel:  the subject as event introduces the lack into the dense, voidless world of things—and for this reason the subject will always be defined as a split one.  The subjectivity that positivism fails to thematize is instead described by modern Romanticism as something that will always lack something, especially itself as a “thing” to grasp and possess.

        This Hegejevian Romanticism which has seduced non-positivist intellectuals from both sides of the Atlantic was expressed quite well by the journalist Massimo Nava (2005) in an obituary for Paul Ricoeur.  For Ricoeur, he writes, “man is distinguished from animals by his own cruelty; he nurses sad passions like envy and hatred.  And man is the only living being that has freed itself from the instinct for survival.”  Such a statement, with its journalist’s cheek, describes the basic thought underlying contemporary Romanticism:  that the human being is not just a natural being. [16] And man is not just such a being precisely because of his “sad passions”.  The aim is not to return to an outdated spiritualism, but to lay out a project that is at once ethical, aesthetical and political, namely:  that human beings are dysfunctional, they are not darwinianly fit—they are a Romantic animal species.  There follows from this an entire view of animal nature as a kind of Lost Innocence:  of the animal as an imaginary harmony, as a being that lacks nothing, that always fits with its environment and so forth. [17] Having been chased away from its terrestrial paradise of animal nature, human subjectivity—in Lacan as in this form of contemporary thought—always appears not only as a lack of this animal harmony, but also as manque à être, as lack of being.

But this was the fundamental point of Kojève’s seminars.  And the Hegejevian Sartre had already written in Being and Nothingness that the “for-itself” (the subject) “is what it is not, and is not what it is.” [18]:  a quite Hegelian statement.  We can say that Lacan always sought to describe the subject in so far as it “is what it is not, and is not what it is,” that is, through a dialectic between being and representation, between recognition and alienation.

        In the case of iek, this human specificity is linked not only to language, but also to the Freudian death drive (the journalist’s “sad passions”):  “Death drive is not something that is in our genes; there is no gene for death drive.  If anything, death drive is a genetic malfunction.[19]”  The death drive, Todestrieb, is the presence of the unnatural in nature.[20]


  1. 6.   From the Symbolic to the Real


        Those who are not up to date see Lacan almost exclusively in a Hegelian light due to the primacy he affords the signifier and language.  But things changed following his death, and iek is an eloquent example of this:  a less logocentric form of Lacanian theory took shape, in which what counts is the Real and that which summons it (the small a object, the Thing, enjoyment…).  The more updated Lacanians now read the master in a more real-ist register.  This is due in part to a more general climactic change in Western thought in recent years:  the decline of the linguistic turn.  As noted earlier, Western thought from the 1950’s to the 1980’s was focused on language—and Lacan ably expressed this focus.  In line with the latter Wittgenstein and Austin, Anglo-American analytic philosophy had for decades identified philosophy with linguistic therapy:  the philosopher deals with neither the world nor with the subject, but only with language games.  Likewise, phenomenology seemed to have turned into hermeneutics, so that the philosopher does nothing more than interpret texts.  In short, the heirs to the positivists and phenomenologists followed a parallel convergence, to use an oxymoron, towards language.  This logocentric spell has by now been broken.  Analytic philosophy is practically coming to a close as it merges with the new philosophy of mind, which instead takes up the grand metaphysical questions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:  the mystery of consciousness, the relation between the mind and the world, between thought and body, etc.  But continental philosophy is also ridding itself of hermeneutics and—as in the most recent work of Derrida or Agamben[21]—is re-examining the question of animal nature, for example, denouncing the sacrificial abandonment of the biological, corporal dimension of humanity.  Today, for the more open-minded Lacanians, the Real predominates.

        But for Lacan, what is the Real?  Many do not understand what he means since they think of the Real in terms of external things, of the table in front of me or the pen with which Krug writes, but clearly, this is not what is at issue.  The table, the pen, everything that makes up the domestic world we live in—exhaustively domesticated by science and technology, which have transformed nearly everything into tools for us—is the Umwelt, our environment, or rather, the Heim, the home in which we live, of which we are a part because it is also a part of us.  It is the reality of recognizable and predictable things which end up being in our image and likeness.  The Real that Lacan discusses is instead all that is outside our subjectivity:  it is unthinkable, unknowable, something that radically threatens our subjectivity even while it attracts it.  It is that which is experienced in the so-called de-realization syndrome: we no longer feel a part of the familiar reality, and we finally perceive the real as…Real.

In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis[22], one of Lacan’s most fascinating seminars, he discusses das Ding, the Thing:  each of us is attracted by something obscure, unique and unnamable, which guides our life and calls for a kind of unconditional loyalty on our part.  Although Lacan gives several names to this real thing around which we revolve—later he uses the Platonic term agalma[23], or the small a object—he is always discussing the same thing:  a thing-lack that is beyond any linguistic representation.  But doesn’t this hypostasis of an extra-subjective Thing—even if it constitutes the eye of the hurricane of subjectivity—conflict with the underlying Hegelian optimism that inspires the Lacanian theoretic endeavor?

If the Real is in fact what subjectivity excludes, is the Real then that which any specific subjectivity excludes from itself, or is it that which is excluded by all subjectivities?  In the first case, we remain within a Hegelian logic:  the Real is always Real-for-a-subject.  The Real would be a necessary, yet always specific, aspect that every subject implies and creates.  My Real needn’t be your Real.

It is not by chance that Lacan attributes to the Real the modality of the impossible[24]. We typically think of the Real in the same way as we think of the contingent, like this table I’m writing on which is blue and made of wood—Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist, “The world is all that falls.” [25]  The real world is contingent, it falls from the sky.  Then, why is the Real, according to Lacan, impossible?  Is it impossible in the same way that a square circle is impossible, or that two plus two is equal to three?  It is impossible because Lacan thinks of the Real in a Hegelian way, that is, always from on the basis of subjectivity:  the Real is what is impossible for a subject…and yet it happens, it falls on top of him!  We can say at any rate that the contingent (not contingency!) is impossible for an Hegelian, that which is impossible for him to integrate into his system.

“The Real is impossible in the sense that we cannot symbolize it or accept it,” says iek.  Just as when someone dear to us dies, and our first, incredulous response is to exclaim, “It’s not possible!”—but it is real for this very reason.  Some time for mourning is needed in order to realize that such a loss has occurred, that is, in order to inscribe this lack within ourselves, and hence to take it out of the Real.  What is an ordinary contingency from an objective point of view—the fact that someone dies—turns out to be impossible for a subject.  As iek points out in these conversations, “For Lacan, the Real is not impossible in the sense that it can never happen—a traumatic kernel which forever eludes our grasp.  No, the problem with the Real is that it happens and that’s the trauma.  The point is not that the Real is impossible but rather that the impossible is Real.[26]


7. The ethical real


But the crucial point is this:  if the Real is always the Real-for-a-subject, if the Thing is not the Kantian thing-in-itself, but my Thing that attracts me and not someone else, don’t we fall back into an objectivist psychology?  That is, since my Real is not that of another, I can consider the Real of another in an objective manner, from the outside, as something I can study as a moment of the other’s subjectivity.  Doesn’t subjectivizing the Real (extricating it from any Kantian dimension of the Thing’s unattainability) result in a “psychological” objectivization?  When iek says, for example, that for the Nazi the Jew was the abject Real to be evacuated, isn’t he just doing social psychology, with which any researcher on the “mass psychology of fascism” could agree?

When one says that the Real is that which is excluded by the subject, one is in fact using a subtly ambiguous term, since exclusion has both an active sense (eliminating something that was once included) and a passive sense (leaving something outside of a positive act of selection).  It seems quite insignificant, yet this distinction forms the basis of the reading that the radical left, on the one hand, and free market conservatism, on the other hand, give to third-world poverty.  For the former, the poor are excluded in the active sense, they are the products of capitalism; for the latter, the poor are excluded in the passive sense in that they remain outside of capitalism—they were unable to become part of the game.  Contrasting solutions follow:  if exclusion is active, then capitalism is the sickness to be cured; if exclusion is passive, then capitalism is the remedy.  iek seems to give an active sense to exclusion:  the Real is that which was excluded by a subject, to the extent that it is always relative to a subject.  The Real is a product of subjectivity, even if this latter is in some ways the product of the Real.  A paradoxical consequence of this dialectical subjectivization of the Real is the belief, expressed by some Lacanians, according to which only psychotics are able to come into actual contact with the Real with “a bare mind”, insofar as that which they foreclose from the Symbolic returns to them from the Real.

But let’s consider the (very objective) work of astronomers.  We can certainly say that in studying the stars they are attracted by a Real that is shared only by those who have that same passion.  So, when they speculate on black holes, for example, are they thus representing the Thing that attracts them?  And yet astronomers make up a community that shares rules and professional ethics.  And is it not the case that they form an ethical community precisely because the thing they seek is not the Thing of this or that astronomer, but a thing-in-itself that draws them and compels them?  Of course, black holes are themselves a representation that has been constructed through the history and game of astronomy, something that the community of astronomers as much invented as discovered; thus, a naively objectivist reading of the objects of astronomy is not sufficient.  This example of the famous black holes was not chosen by chance:  they are so fascinating because they seem to be a prototypical phenomenalization of the thing-in-itself—they indicate the entry into a universe that by definition is unknowable (it is impossible for someone to return to our universe and tells what is inside a black hole).  I wonder whether the Thing is simply that from which a subject is excluded and around which it constitutes itself, or whether, more radically, it is not something from which every subject, without exclusion, is excluded insofar as it is a subject.  We can think of the Thing as something that can never be objectified for anyone else:  it is that exclusion which universally unifies us and makes it possible to construct community and solidarity among ourselves.  Any other approach is idealist:  it amounts to saying, “Black holes are only a construction of astronomical subjectivity.”  They are certainly a construction, but they are not only that.  The hypothesis of black holes says in fact that there exists—to use the scientists’ terminology—a singularity in the universe that is radically excluded from our known universe, and this is precisely the Real, singularity itself.  We can therefore say that the Real is always in some way a black hole.  It is not so much something that disrupts a determinate order of reality, a specific domus or domestication of the world, but rather, it is that which is beyond anyone’s reach, which in turn is the very aspect that draws and attracts us.

An even richer example is death itself.  As Heidegger showed, given that my death can only be mine, it is my most authentic, most proper possibility.  But in saying that true death is only mine, i.e., is always subjective, we universalize its place:  each of us deals with one’s own death as subjective.  What is more real than death?  And isn’t it a thing-in-itself since it unravels from a Hegelian dialectic that poses the ever Real as a product of the subjective story?

        Now, only this de-subjectivized externality of the Thing—that is, its Kantian dimension—can explain why, for Lacan, this loyalty to our desire, our remaining subject to the Thing, has to do with what we commonly call ethics.  Historically, the ethical paradigms have been quite diverse, but in general what we refer to as ethical are those actions in which the other counts.  And what is the other subject if not, quite simply, the fact that…it excludes me as a subject?  Isn’t the subjectivity of the other something that radically excludes mine?  Isn’t every subject for the other something that is absolutely real insofar as I can never be the other subject, and hence can never live its death?  What is ethical is my looking after the other as a subject in itself and for itself—it is precisely in excluding that, as a subject, s/he is my object.

        iek reminds us (as do various religions) that ethics always implies transcendentality.  But iek does not say that this also implies a universal exclusion, in the sense that we are ethically bound to that from which we will always be excluded.

From a Kantian approach, the Real is the impossible for everyone—and it is this universality that makes it an ethical stake.  By everyone I don’t mean the unanimous “everyone” in the sense of the statistical unanimity of human beings: I mean the others to the extent that each one will be excluded by every other subject.  For us, aren’t others the Real par excellence?

        An hypothesis of universality (like brotherhood among all human beings) is based, not on a least common denominator between all human beings, but on what each subject is devoted to, namely, to a care for the Real.  For monotheistic religions, universal sisterhood or brotherhood is based on a devotion to God—but the Real cannot be enthroned in the Supreme Being.[27]

        The Lacanian dialectic thus finds itself before a critical junction:  if the Real is always complementary to a subject, to each subject, it cannot be what brings us together universally since everyone would be excluded.  Thus, the Real is reduced to a halo that accompanies subjectivity, a kind of blind spot in subjective life.  In contrast, if the Real falls from the sky, so to speak, then it is not subjective and hence marks something completely external to the subjective order which is the domain of psychoanalysis.  One needs to return to Kant:  the Real is the thing-in-itself that we must always presuppose (without ever being able to pose it as an object) and that anchors us ethically.  Even if iek clearly opts for the “subjectivist” solution, he does not preclude the reference to Kant.


On the other hand, Lacan himself seems to give us another view of the Real, according to which the Real cannot be reduced to a correlate of a subject.  It is no coincidence that in the seminar on ethics Lacan takes on the Kantian thing.  At a certain point he refers to the debate between Goethe and Hegel over Sophocles’ Antigone, concerning Antigone’s embarrassing declaration that she buried her brother Polyneices’ body just because he was her brother!  Antigone curiously states that a brother is unique: “I can never have another one.”  Lacan shows that it is not just a silly remark, as Goethe thought: for Antigone, the brother is her thing precisely because he has this unique character.[28] Now, every uniqueness is inexpressible.  Language and knowledge can never express the uniqueness, the pure event:  the unicum is unthinkable for a speaking subject who inevitably categorizes.[29] But is Antigone’s Thing, the uniqueness to which she is devoted, is it a Thing only for Antigone?  After all, what do we care about Polyneices?  It’s Antigone’s business.  But if this were the case, the tragedy wouldn’t move us, and instead it does.

But in the end ethics has precisely to do with this:  what counts is not a generic other, a member of my same species homo sapiens, but the other who is him or her. Ethics socializes us on the basis of the asocial, absolute and unthinkable singularity.


  1. 8.   “Unutilitarian” ethics


It would be a mistake to think that the questions raised by iek concern only Lacanians.  Even those who don’t take part in this philosophical-psychoanalytic slang encounter similar problems, although expressed in different terms.

The appeal to the Real has ethical and political implications that are just as important.  For example, it lies behind the rejection—on iek’s part—of the doctrine that has largely inspired the legal, political and ethical organization of modern societies: namely, utilitarianism.  This is the theory according to which the essence of human beings resides in their seeking to maximize their own pleasure and/or happiness.[30]  We can say that modern utilitarianism marks the triumph of Greek sophistry in our culture.  The sophist proposed useful, successful tools for convincing one’s fellow citizens:  “Given that every human being seeks pleasure, offer them pleasing prospects!”  Utilitarianism thus offers a kind of technology of seduction; at one time it was the eristic of sophists, now it is advertising, the mass media industry, technologies of consensus, ads… Utilitarianism is in the end the theory of flattery:  “If you flatter others, and offer them the image of what they want to be, they’re yours!”

There is little to say:  a large part of our communal life is utilitarian. Utilitarianism has been perspicuous from time immemorial.  The central point for iek, however, is that human beings are something more:  the essentially utilitarian interpretation that a great number of Anglo-American analysts have given to Freud’s theory is an unjust appropriation.

In the same way that ancient philosophers countered the sophists, iek relies on the fact that human beings are not simply machines for maximizing pleasure and/or happiness.  Human beings—of which philosophers would be the most sensitive and high-strung examples—are also bound by a need for truth.  But I would ask at this point, what is truth if not the fact that other real subjects—and not just my own pleasure to be maximized—count?

Human beings are not completely objectifiable since, despite all the technologies for flattering and exploiting them (that is, for making them happy), there is a part of them that looks after the Real.  In short, it is not enough for them to be happy.  Indeed, iek states, “What is missing is precisely a theory of—as Kant already put it in his Critique of Pure Reason—why human beings are destined to ask themselves questions which they cannot answer.[31]” Why is it that, like hysterics, they seek a satisfaction they can never have?  Human beings have this anti-utilitarian vice of asking useless questions.  And this is because they don’t want to be just “happy fools”:  happy, yes; but fools, no.  This willingness on the part of human beings not to be simply happy, is pompously, and Kantianly, called freedom.  iek restores the concepts of freedom and autonomy.  Curiously, he has a Hegelian conception of the Real, and a Kantian conception of ethics.  “We say that the ethical act is Real,” says iek, “Real is not this kind of thing-in-itself that we cannot approach; Real is, rather, freedom as a radical cut in the texture of reality.[32]”  But isn’t this the heart of Kantian ethics, i.e. “noumenic freedom”?  Human beings aren’t just machines that follow the law of maximum pleasure (or least pain), but are able to impose the law by themselves.  Subjective transcendence transcends utilitarianism.  “You were not born to live like brutes, but to follow paths of… the Real.[33]” iek reminds us that “life is not simply life.” In short, life is acceptable if one has a Cause.  This seems to me to be the basic concern of the iekian take on Freud and Lacan.

        Now, this iekian emphasis on autonomy and freedom seems to overturn an important aspect of the Lacanian “campaign”, and  in particular, his attack on the various conceptions of the autonomous Ego, of the liberal ideology of the free and entrepreneurial Ego.  Clearly, the Lacanian ironies regarding freedom marked his distance with respect to the existentialist themes that were pervasive in Paris during the 1940’s and 1950’s—one need only think of the Sartrian exaltation of “unbounded freedom”.  Lacan apparently wanted to oppose the Freudian disenchantment to an essentially catholic, consciousness-oriented view derived from the Cartesian axiom regarding the free will of a thinking being.  But over time, the savvier Lacanians realized that, in the end, their doctrine was based on a fundamental assumption:  that it is possible to speak of the subject—not minds—only if there is ethical freedom in the background.

In fact, ethics—whether in Descartes or Kant—is inseparable from freedom:  a subject is ethical only if it is in some way autonomous, that is, if it gives itself nomos, the law, without being naturally subject to it:  autonomous, at least in certain crucial aspects of life, from the dictat of the pleasure principle. (“An ethical act,” says iek somewhat romantically, “[…] signals a rupture, a break in the causal network or structure of the universe.  Freedom is this break—something which begins out of itself.[34]”).  It is not because some human beings are able to make duty prevail over pleasure; rather, it is because our pleasure in the end is not our only duty.  And it is in this ethical autonomy that we finally find, beyond the cozy cocoon of reality, contact with the Real.

        For iek, the ethical dimension—without which there is no subjectivity—makes the Real sensible.  This will certainly surprise those who think that ethics is a question of norms, prescriptions, commandments, rules, etc., and analysts themselves usually think of ethics as something normative, super-egoic.[35]  Lacan’s novelty, which is taken up by iek, consists instead in having spoken of ethics as a relation to an original thing, to which we can remain more or less faithful, to an irreducible Real that attracts us and pulls us in.  Lacanian thought grafts uncannily a Kantian ethics onto a Hegelian dialectic of the subjectivity and the Real.



9. Marxism of beautiful souls


        A final note needs to be added regarding iek’s commitment as a political writer.  While iek is innovative in his analysis of culture and in philosophy, he is politically rather conservative:  he follows the Freudian-Marxist tradition.  As is well known, Freudian-Marxism or Marxist-Freudianism began early in the 20th and cut across the entire century with its phosphorescent lights:  from W. Reich and S. Bernfeld, to E. Fromm, H. Marcuse, L. Althusser, E. Fachinelli, J.F. Lyotard, E. Laclau, A. Badiou and others.  iek thus continues the glorious tradition that tried to combine Marx and Freud—and Nietzsche, and sometimes also Heidegger and Derrida.  The Marx-Nietzsche-Freud trinity was the paradigm of Modernity itself for a large part of the last century (the three “masters of suspicion”, as Ricœur labeled them).  The Marxist analysis of the fetishism of commodities seemed to many generations as the socio-economic pendant not only of the Freudian hypothesis of fetishistic perversion, but of the psychoanalytic theory of alienation tout court.  It is precisely because combining Marx and Freud is so tempting, easy, and inevitable, that I personally have always deeply distrusted Freudian-Marxism.  I have always distrusted alliances that present themselves with the inviting smile of the obvious.

I have the impression that, for the generation that both iek and myself who writes belong to, the ideal of socialism or communism was in the end a mask for the more basic ideal of the Revolution.  That is, our desire to shake up the society in which we live was much stronger than the desire for a new society, that was being vaguely sketched out.  Our real enjoyment was deconstructive; the outcome that the change was supposed to bring about was only a pretext (proof of this lies in the fact that all the forms of socialism that were real-ized were simply horrific for us).  Today, believing in the Revolution is like believing in God or in the soul’s immortality:  it is not something one can argue for or against.  One either has faith or one doesn’t.  It thus makes no sense here to raise objections to iek’s faith.  And yet, some remarks must be made.

It doesn’t seem to me at all irrelevant that Freud was not seduced, not even for an instant, by Bolshevism[36], which he considered a secularized application of religious utopia, a promise of a paradise on earth as an ersatz of heaven.  Freud instead thought that human beings would never succeed in freeing themselves from their own unconscious, from that which grants dissatisfaction and suffering regardless of a society’s setting.  I always read the Future of an Illusion (Freud 1932) as a critique not only of religion, but also of a socialist millennialism.  And one cannot simply get around it by saying that Freud was naïve about politics and hardly Freudian:  on the contrary, I see his distrust of the Dream of a Wonderful Future, of political Messianism, as a corollary to his theoretic position.  At least in this regard, I am more an orthodox Freudian than iek.

Lacan’s own “environmental” sympathies for the Left are well known, but he never formulated any kind of Freudian-Marxism, Leftist doctrines remained outside of his teachings.  Rather, he never attempted, for example, a dialogue with Althusserian Marxism.  He often said “The social is always a scourge”. This could this a blindness on the part of the Master, but I share the arguments he used to respond to those young opponents he encountered in Vincennes’ University and Louvain:  he exposed the illusion of the Revolution as a solution to the human manque à être.  To the gauchistes students of Vincennes, he quite rightly said, “The regime shows you and tells you, ‘Look at how they enjoy themselves!’”[37]  iek certainly does not contest Lacan at all, but couldn’t one give the same reply to his Freudian-Marxism?

Of iek’s leftism I would say the same thing that he himself says quite rightly in this book regarding the hard-line Left, especially its Trotskyist variant:


When I speak with some of my orthodox Marxist friends of all the recent disturbing events […] they are always telling the same story […]. So the story goes that there was always a chance of an authentic workers’ revolution, but […] I think that the standard idea that in all these cases we had a missed opportunity for socialist revolution is a deep delusion. It doesn’t function in this way.[38]


I would extend that judgment of illusion from paleo-Marxism even to neo-: the world doesn’t function in a Marxist way.

But in excluding the power of the contingent, doesn’t Hegelianism lead sooner or later to dogma?  And in order to get out of the dogma, the medicine, for centuries, has always been the same: the Kantian beyond-the-horizon of the Thing.  In identifying the real and the rational, doesn’t every Hegelianism inevitably lead to a loss of reality?

In short, the reasons I reject Marxism-Leninism are the same for which iek rightly rejects ideologies:  they seek to give meaning to suffering and to history.  In fact, we find here the two sides of exclusion, the active (Hegelian) and passive (Kantian).  It seems to me that when one dies of hunger or AIDS in Africa, and says, “I am a victim of Western capitalism!”, that is when he or she opts for the active sense of exclusion, his or her belief gives meaning to their pain:  they feel like a victim to be avenged, since the “deep” responsibility for their misery can be precisely identified and named.  In other words, blaming the West for one’s own poverty gives meaning to one’s own misery (isn’t anger the triumph of meaning?), but iek himself tells us that giving meaning to suffering is the greatest illusion.  Aren’t countries like China or India now emerging from misery (of course, with enormous inequalities and abuses to be overcome) and threatening the West’s supremacy precisely because they have finally stopped giving meaning to their misery?  Just because they stopped complaining about the West’s exploitation?

What is much more Real-istic, much more intolerable, is the passive interpretation of exclusion:  people are often poor because… they are superfluous.  If today hundreds of millions of people in the poorest countries in the world simply disappeared, our wealthy societies would hardly notice.  One part of humanity is excluded in the sense that it is not needed by capitalism or anyone else.  Isn’t this senseless, unbearable contingency of human beings—if they didn’t exist, everything would go on as before—perhaps the most intolerable thing, from which Freudo-Marxism has often tried to distract us?  And yet, doesn’t Freud’s Oedipus say something that is quite un-Marxist?  It is not that a parent tried to sexually abuse a child, but simply that the child is excluded from the sexual life of his parents.  The thing that is difficult to tolerate is the non-guilt of the parents.  Today, a number of “revisionist” psychoanalysts and psychotherapists tend to place all the guilt on the parents, overturning Freud’s approach:  “If I have problems, it’s the fault of my abusive, incestuous father, of my mother who wasn’t good enough, of my lecherous uncle, etc.”  A flood of novels and films unceasingly tell us that Oedipus is innocent while Laios and Iocasta are guilty.  But Oedipus’ Complex is terrible since every subject in the end—whether in analysis or in life—must recognize, at Colonus, that that good-for-nothing parent was not the final cause of his malaise.

And this, applied to social and political life, opens up for us a simple and tremendous evidence:  that every human being is fortuitous, that he or she had no right to be born; and if we find a meaningful place in the world, this means that we have created it.




Agamben, G. (2004) The Open. Man and Animal, transl. Kevin Attel (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press).


Benvenuto, S. (1995) “Lacan’s Dream”, Journal of European Psychoanalysis, n.2, Fall 1995-Winter 1996, pp. 107-131.


M. Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1991) Lacan, The Absolute Master (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press).


Chomsky, N. (1989) “Noam Chomsky: An Interview”, Radical Philosophy 53.


Derrida, J.:

- (1994) Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge).

- (2002a) “E se l’animale rispondesse (Finte e tracce)”, aut aut, 310-311, pp. 4-26.

- (2002b) Fichus (Paris: Editions Galilée)


S. Freud:

- (1927) Future of an Illusion, GW, 14, pp. 325-380; SE, 21, pp. 5-56.

- (1932) Introduction to Psychoanalysis (New Series), GW, 15; SE, 22, pp. 5-177.


Henrich, D. (1981) Hegel im Kontext (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp).


Kojève, A. (1969) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (New York: Basic Books).


Kuhn, T.S. (1977) “Concepts of Cause in the Development of Physics”, in The Essential Tension (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago-London), pp. 21-30.


Lacan, J. :

- (1975) Le Séminaire, livre XX. Encore (Paris: Seuil).

- (1986) Le Séminaire, livre VII. L’éthique de la psychanalyse (Paris : Seuil); Trans. D. Porter, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).

- (1991a) Le Séminaire, livre XVII. L’envers de la psychanalyse (Paris: Seuil).

- (1991b) Le Séminaire, livre VIII, Le transfert (Paris: Seuil).


Nava, M. (2005) “Il filosofo della metafora”, Corriere della Sera, 23 May 2005.


Van Haute, P. (1989) Psychoanalyse en filosofie (Peeters: Louvain).


Wittgenstein, L. (1921) Tractatus logico-philosophicus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961).


iek, S.:

- (1988) Le plus sublime des hystériques. Hegel passe (Paris: Point Hors Ligne).

- (2005a) Distanza di sicurezza (Rome: Manifestolibri).

- (2005b) “Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism” in Interrogating the Real (London-New York: Continuum.


iek, S. & Daly, G. (2004), Conversations with iek (Cambridge : Polity). Ital. Ed.: Psicoanalisi e Mondo contemporaneo (Bari: Dedalo, 2006.


[1] iek & Daly (2004).


[2] S. iek (2005, p. 67).


[3] In the 1930’s, Kojève held a seminar on The Phenomenology of Spirit that marked a fundamental turn for all of French culture, an event from which it has not yet recovered (Kojève 1969).


[4] Kuhn and Lacan had a same teacher: the philosopher and historian of science Alexandre Koyré.  The links between Kuhn and Lacan remain completely unexplored.  About Koyré’s influence on Kuhn, see in particular Kuhn (1977).


[5] Following Derrida’s Specters of Marx (Derrida 1994), very few still doubt the fact that Marx lives, albeit from a spectral life.


[6] The accusation of charlatanism against Lacan is by now a commonplace in certain cultural circles, the best known one being made by Noam Chomsky (1989, pp. 31-40).


[7] Lacanians use the term analisant [the analyzing one] in place of the more traditional patient in order to distinguish analysis from any kind of medical act, and in order to highlight the active role of the analyst’s client.


[8] Lacan has recognized the influence of Berkeley on his own thinking: Lacan (1975, ch. II, p. 93).


[9] D. Henrich (1981, p. 168).  See iek (1988, 2.2 & 2.3).


[10] “Not in the infinite drive to dissolve the contingent in the concept, but precisely in abandoning such an endeavor does one find the right attitude of the subject towards chance.  The latter, as naturalness left free from the idea, is already overcome and seen as indifferent” (Henrich, cit. p. 169).


[11] But the Romanticism that contrasts itself with, or ignores, science is completely foreign to me.  This Romanticism slips into the usual obscurantism of chic superstition.  I am surprised by how many psychoanalysts today, coming from any number of schools, are so inclined, as individuals, towards such naive, cheap beliefs, by how many embrace various forms of questionable alternative medicines.  The first generation of psychoanalysts wanted to be at the avant-garde of the scientific spirit; after just one hundred year, analysts have tended to become gullible and irrational, adapting to mainstream pop and New Age culture.


[12] Wittgenstein (1921, 7).


[13] I leave aside here what iek calls the “third culture” along the lines of John Brockman, that is, a philosophical popularization of the “hard” sciences that offers non-reductionist interpretations of them (a nebula that ranger from Hawking to Capra, from Dawkins to Varela, from Gould to Mandelbrot and Minsky, etc.)  This “third culture” clearly expresses an increasing need to step out of the constrictive dichotomy that characterized twentieth century culture.  See iek (2005b, pp. 87-117).


[14] The cognitive sciences tend to be self-referential—to the extent that have to do with minds studying minds—and from Russell we know how every self-referential discourse continually risks getting caught in antinomies.  But the disquieting paradoxes of self-reference are avoided insofar as the cognitive sciences always separate the subject as (the unspeakable) premise, from the mind taken as object—they distinguish types of mind, to use Russell’s terms.


[15] Myself included (Benvenuto 1995).


[16] iek repeats similar things in these conversations: “Something goes terribly wrong in nature: nature produces an unnatural monstrosity and I claim that it is in order to cope with, to domesticate, this monstrosity that we symbolize” (iek & Daly 2004, p. 65).


[17] This idyllic view of the animal—like the Eden lost by human subjectivity—seems completely mythological to those who know animals well.  Derrida had criticized this view in recent years—and made Lacan the target of this criticism as well.  See Derrida (2002a; 2002b, pp. 50-3).  For a critique of the Heideggerian view of animal nature (that essentially inspires the Lacanian criterion of humanity) see Agamben (2004).


[18] On the similarities between Sartre and Lacan, because of their common Hegelianism, see Van Haute (1989): M. Borch-Jacobsen (1991, in part. pp. XIII-XVI, p. 228-9).


[19] iek & Daly (2004, p. 94).


[20] One could object to this iekian identification of the death drive with that which denies natural determinism—the opposite instead seems to me to be true.  For Freud, Todestrieb was in fact a repetition compulsion, the inertia of pleasure that leads us to Nirvana or death.  Today we would say that it is the entropic tendency inherent to every natural, closed system.  I would rather expect to see in Eros, in the life drive, that which denies and contrasts the inertia of natural life:  it is what escapes the Lustprinzip (the principle of desire-pleasure) and inexplicably leads us toward the other.


[21] See footnote 17.


[22] Lacan (1986).


[23] Agalma is something dazzling inside Socrates that attracts and seduces young people (Symposium). See Lacan (1991b).


[24] Lacan uses the distinct modes of classical logic:  the contingent; the necessary and the impossible (but he excludes the possible).


[25]  Wittgenstein (1921, 1).


[26] iek & Daly (2004, p. 69-70).


[27] If we identify the Real with God (as religions do) one always ends up contrasting my God with that of the others, and universalism ends up in cultural clashes.  God is always the God of Abraham and Isaac; the Real, instead, belongs to no one, it is never “mine” or “yours”.


[28] J. Lacan (1986, ch. XIX, pp. 296-8).


[29] In fact, proper names that indicate single individuals are only indexes, like a finger pointing towards that specific thing; they are not real concepts.


[30] As part of utilitarianism I also include so-called contractualism, which is today quite fashionable thanks to J. Rawls and his theory of justice.  Contractualism is a kind of marginalist utilitarianism (similar to the so-called marginalist economics):  we call a society just when those who are worst off can say, “In an unjust society I would be even worse off.”


[31] iek & Daly (2004, p. 58).


[32] iek & Daly (2004, p. 166).


[33] Paraphrase from Ulysses’ words in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Considerate la vostra semenza:/ fatti non foste a viver come bruti/ ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza” [Consider what you came from:/ You were not born to live like brutes/ but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge] (Inferno, XXVI, 118-120).



[34] iek & Daly (2004, p. 124).


[35] The (dialectic?) paradox of ethics is that, if it’s identified with norms and laws, it runs into its own stalemate.  Maybe someone who is good follows a norm, but unconsciously.  If the law says, “Do not kill!” it means that the subjects strongly desire to kill.  The commandments are like the ditch that was once the riverbed, when the river ran dry.


[36] “And although practical Marxism inexorably cleared away all idealistic systems and all illusions, it has in turn created illusions that are no less questionable and free from the former.  It hopes to change, in the course of a few generations, human nature. […] But such a transformation of human nature is unlikely” (S. Freud, 1937; SE, 22, p. 179?; GW, 15, p. 194).



[37]  Lacan (1991a, p. 240).


[38] iek & Daly (2004, p. 145-6).


Sergio Benvenuto

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