April fish and other hoaxes

Slavoj Zizek is the new oracle of Birkbeck, University of London.

Believe it or not

Recall the diagnosis of the 20th century proposed long ago by William Butler Yeats, this arch-conservative: "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned; / the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity." ("The Second Coming", 1920) The key to this diagnosis is contained in the phrase "ceremony of innocence", which is to be taken in the precise sense of Edith Wharton's "age of innocence". Newton's wife, the "innocent" the title refers to, was not a naïve believer in her husband's fidelity. She knew well of his passionate love for Count Olenska, she just politely ignored it and staged the belief in his fidelity.

In one of the Marx brothers' films, Groucho Marx, when caught in a lie, answers angrily: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" This apparently absurd logic renders perfectly the functioning of the symbolic order, in which the symbolic mask-mandate matters more than the direct reality of the individual who wears this mask and/or assumes this mandate. This functioning involves the structure of fetishist disavowal: "I know very well that things are the way I see them / that this person is a corrupt weakling / but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge, so that when he speaks, it is the Law itself which speaks through him." So, in a way, I effectively believe his words, not my eyes. I believe in another space (the domain of pure symbolic authority), which matters more than the reality of its spokesmen. The cynical reduction to reality thus falls short: when a judge speaks, there is in a way more truth in his words (the words of the institution of law) than in the direct reality of the person of judge. If one limits oneself to what one sees, one simply misses the point.

This paradox is what Lacan aims at with his "les non-dupes errent". Those who do not let themselves be caught in the symbolic deception/fiction and continue to believe their eyes are the ones who err most. What a cynic who "believes only his eyes" misses is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our experience of reality. The same gap is at work in our most intimate relationship to our neighbours. We behave as if we do not know that they also smell badly, secrete excrement, etc. A minimum of idealization, of fetishizing disavowal, is the basis of our co-existence.

It is an active will to disavow the actual state of things. Perhaps therein resides the most elementary meta-physical gesture: in this refusal to accept the real in its idiocy, to disavow it and to search for another world behind it. The big Other is thus the order of lie, of lying sincerely. And it is in this sense that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity".

If "the truth has the structure of a fiction", which then, on a closer look, is this fiction? Already for decades, a classic joke is circulating among Lacanians to exemplify the key role of the Other's knowledge. A man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man. However, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back trembling of scare. There is a chicken outside the door and that he is afraid that it would eat him. "Dear fellow," says his doctor, "you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man." "Of course I know that," replies the patient, "but does the chicken know it?" Therein resides the true stake of psychoanalytic treatment. It is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms, the unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth. It is here that Hannibal Lecter himself, this proto-Lacanian, was wrong: not the silence of the lambs, the ignorance of chicken is the subject's true traumatic core.

Does exactly the same not hold for the Marxian commodity fetishism? Here is the very beginning of the famous subdivision 4 of the Chapter 1 of Capital, on "The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret":

"A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."

We can imagine a bourgeois subject visiting a course of Marxism where he is taught about commodity fetishism. After the finished course, he comes back to his teacher, complaining that he is still the victim of commodity fetishism. The teacher tells him: "But you know now how things stand, that commodities are only expressions of social relations, that there is nothing magical about them!" To which the pupil replies: "Of course I know all that, but the commodities I am dealing with seem not to know it!"

So, again, the true task is not to convince the subject, but the chicken-commodities. Not to change the way we speak about commodities, but to change the way commodities speak among themselves. Alenka Zupancic goes here to the end and imagines a brilliant example that refers to God himself:

"In the enlightened society of, say, revolutionary terror, a man is put in prison because he believes in God. With different measures, but above by means of an enlightened explanation, he is brought to the knowledge that God does not exist. When dismissed, the man comes running back, and explains how scared he is of being punished by God. Of course he knows that God does not exist, but does God also know that?"

Niels Bohr, who gave the right answer to Einstein's "God doesn't play dice" ("Don't tell God what to do!"), also provided the perfect example of how a fetishist disavowal of belief works in ideology. Seeing a horseshoe on his door, a surprised visitor said that he doesn't believe in the superstition that it brings luck. To which Bohr snapped back: "I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!" What this paradox renders clear is the way a belief is a reflexive attitude. It is never a case of simply believing - one has to believe in belief itself. Which is why Kierkegaard was right to claim that we do not really believe (in Christ), we just believe to believe. And Bohr just confronts us with the logical negative of this reflexivity (one can also NOT believe one's beliefs).

It is quite simply that, at some point, Alcoholics Anonymous meet Pascal: "Fake it until you make it."



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