Ever since Jacques Lacan first published his “Kant with Sade,” originally intended to serve as a preface to a modern edition of Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, it has become somewhat of a commonplace among psychoanalysts, philosophers, and cultural critics alike—often in polemical dialogue with one another—to present readings of the type “Y with X,” whereby X would signal the secret “truth,” or the inherent dark underside, of Y. As Lacan writes: “Philosophy in the Bedroom comes eight years after the Critique of Practical Reason. If, after having seen how attuned it is to the latter, we demonstrate that it completes the latter, we will say that it gives the truth of the Critique.”1 Unlike Lacan, but in order to underscore the logic behind much of his argument, I will follow Slavoj Žižek’s usual practice to put the term “truth” in this context between quotation marks. My reasons for doing so are furthermore pivotal to the very issues that are at stake. Indeed, it is first of all the status of truth in philosophy as well as its distinction from another “truth,” or rather, from a peculiar type of knowledge of, or in, the real—seemingly available only to psychoanalysis—that are put into question in this interplay between Kant and Sade. In other words, if Sade gives us the “truth” of Kant, this also implies a radical destitution of the philosophical categories of truth, of the good, of the moral law, and so on, in the name of something far more radical—“enjoyment,” the death drive, or what one commentator in a bold oxymoron has called “pure desire”—which those familiar philosophical categories cannot fail to disavow, and which instead shines through on another stage, or in another discourse, such as the analyst’s: a dramatic stage or discourse which, in this sense, would have been greatly inspired and anticipated by Sade.
Not only can we imagine situations in which a person’s stubborn sense of duty for its own sake would come to acquire exactly the kind of “pathological” dimension that Kant’s definition of the moral law as pure practical reason in the strict sense would have to forsake. But Lacan is also able to show in what way the typical Sadeian scenarios of endless torture and perverse suffering can be said to obey a universal maxim of their own, the ground for a true “right to enjoyment” [droit à la jouissance] which, both in terms of the radical rejection of all “pathological” interest in well-being and in terms of the form of this maxim, which is also its only substance, must be recognized as strictly conforming to the requirements of Kant’s universal moral law. Lacan phrases this Sadeian maxim as follows: “I have the right to enjoy your body, anyone can say to me, and I will exercise this right, without any limit stopping me in the capriciousness of the exactions that I might have the taste to satiate by doing so.”2 However, this imperative would still present us with little more than a formal homologue to Kant’s categorical imperative, based on a Sadeian version that is actually not even found in so many words in Philosophy in the Bedroom, if it were not for at least three further motives, which I take to be the real key to the dynamic behind Lacan’s difficult text, as well as behind those readings for which it has been this text’s fate to serve as a model.
The three motives in question are in fact variations on a single theme, namely, that of the philosopher who is being unmasked, undermined, and subverted by the libertine. Lacan, first of all, insists on the fact that in Sade’s imperative, the split between the subject of enunciation (the figure behind the grammatical “me” in “so anyone can say to me”) and the subject of the enunciated (the figure who says, or is said to say, “I have the right”) is openly acknowledged, whereas this split is actually obfuscated or concealed behind the idea of an autonomous subject—simultaneously legislator, agent, and subject of/to the law—in Kant. This means that, even if in both cases the law actually comes from the outside rather than from a little voice within, Sade is more open about this than Kant: “In which the Sadeian maxim, by pronouncing itself from the mouth of the Other, is more honest than appealing to the voice within, since it unmasks the splitting, usually conjured away, of the subject.”3 Second, by reducing itself to a mere instrument of the Other’s will to enjoyment, the Sadeian subject in a sense gives body to the object-cause of desire that in strict Kantian terms would have to remain absent from the domain of the moral law. This was, after all, Kant’s great revolution—to have shown that the moral law cannot be accomplished without robbing its subject of every representation of a possible object. With Sade, however, this meta-law, regarding the encounter between the law and a subject who ought to remain objectless, is completely overhauled. We thus already see a higher Law emerge, a Law for which Lacan in his text typically uses a capital L so as to distinguish it from the regular moral law, and the object of which, far from remaining unknowable as the Kantian Thing-in-itself, is actually made to appear, in a thorough reshuffling of the transcendental aesthetic, as the agent-instrument of Sadeian torment: “Do we not have this object here, descended from its inaccessibility, in the Sadeian experience, and unveiled as Being-there, Dasein, of the agent of torment?”4
Third and finally, we can also formulate the general relationship between Kant and Sade as one in which the latter forces the confession of that which is lacking in the former: “Thus Kant, by being put to the question ‘with Sade,’ that is to say with Sade filling the office, for our thought as well as in his sadism, of an instrument, confesses to what is covered by the meaning of ‘What does he want?’ which henceforth is no longer missing for anyone.”5
In these three formulations from “Kant with Sade,” beyond a simple homology between the Kantian imperative and the reconstructed Sadeian maxim, we see a deeper and asymmetrical pattern develop, one which ever since the publication of Lacan’s trendsetting text has frequently come to overdetermine the type of interaction envisaged between philosophy and psychoanalysis. Sade, for all his fantasies about nature’s complicity in the omnipotence of perversion, proves to be both more honest and more radical than Kant. The libertine, like the psychoanalyst who finds inspiration in his bedroom, is one who gives us the painful “truth” that is otherwise hidden, disguised, or disavowed by the philosopher. The interpretive scheme behind Lacan’s text reveals the secret double bind that ties even the most sublime moral law to the dark continent of morbid desires and obscene superego injunctions—a continent first conquered by Freud more than a century after parts of it had been discovered by Sade. To be exact, Sade’s notion of a “right to enjoyment,” actually elaborated only by Lacan, suggests to what extent “the law and repressed desire are one and the same thing,” or, as we also read further on: “This demonstrates from another point of view that desire is the obverse of the law. In the Sadeian fantasy, we see how much they sustain each other.”6
In sum, what we obtain from “Kant with Sade” is the matrix for an as yet un-heard-of subversion of philosophy by, and through, psychoanalysis: “Here Sade is the inaugural step of a subversion, of which Kant, no matter how amusing it might seem in view of the man’s coldness, is the turning point, one that has never been noted, as far as I know, as such.”7 If we use the horizontal bar as a symbol of repression, whereby that which lies beneath the bar is repressed by, and at the same time necessarily grounds and sustains, whatever is standing on top, we can concentrate the conclusion of Lacan’s text in a simple formula:
Whenever the inherent underside of this formula is shown in broad daylight, as could seem to be the task of a critique of morality inspired by Lacanian psychoanalysis, the result of this turnabout or anamorphic shift also inevitably reveals the inherent split that divides the moral law from within. Starting from desire, or from objet petit a as the object-cause of desire, the discourse of the analyst would thus allow us to interrogate and come to grips with the constitutive divide of the subject, in this case the moral subject. Without this view from below, in fact, the split in the subject would not even be visible in the first place. Finally, insofar as some version or other of the subject typically occupies the center stage in all modern philosophy, the analyst’s discourse, following the model provided in “Kant with Sade,” also allows us to put into question the very status of philosophy itself in the name of everything that the latter’s beloved truth(s), whether practical or theoretical, cannot but disavow and push away beneath the bar of repression.
Today it seems almost unavoidable to give an updated version of this type of reading in the guise of a confrontation of “Badiou with Žižek,” whereby Žižek would giddily come to play the role of a modern or postmodern Sade in the boudoir of Badiou’s secret Kantianism:
This combination is nearly unavoidable not only because Žižek was one of the first thinkers to devote a long commentary to Badiou’s philosophy, in the central part of The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, but also because, in the same “Wo Es War” series for Verso in which The Ticklish Subject appeared, Žižek was responsible two years later for publishing the translation by Peter Hallward of Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, which in many ways produced a breakthrough for Badiou, just as Hallward’s exhaustive introductory guide to Badiou’s philosophy came to us prefaced with much well-deserved praise by Žižek.
In English-speaking parts of the world, Badiou’s work thus seems to have been thoroughly mediated by Žižek’s idiosyncratic brand of Lacanianism, in some cases before any of this work was even beginning to be available in translation. This mediation, moreover, takes the shape of what almost seems to be a preemption, which in actual fact will turn out to have been a retroactive self-criticism as much as the anticipatory critique of another thinker who is only recently becoming better-known.
I will have to come back to the strange temporal loop involved in the process of this forced reception, since it is not foreign to the rapport between philosophy and psychoanalysis in general—or, at least, it does not seem to me to be foreign to Žižek’s work in terms of the peculiar rapport it establishes between Lacanian psychoanalysis and contemporary European philosophy. But first I want to attempt briefly to systematize Žižek’s criticisms of Badiou. This will then lead me to propose a new set of demarcations so as to avoid the familiar subversive matrix of “Kant with Sade” by way of a rather more subtractive “Badiou without Žižek.”
Aside from numerous isolated references, starting with his earliest books published in English, Žižek has devoted two extensive critical commentaries to Badiou’s philosophy, both of which are available in multiple versions in journals and in books: the abovementioned chapter “The Politics of Truth, or Alain Badiou as a Reader of St. Paul” from The Ticklish Subject, an abridged version of which had been anticipated in South Atlantic Quarterly the year before; and a more recent article, partially written in answer to my views on Badiou and Lacan, published as part of the foreword to the second edition of For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as Political Factor and again, in a slightly modified version, as a chapter both in Hallward’s edited volume, Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, and in a special issue of Communication & Cognition edited by Dominiek Hoens.
In these texts, the lines of demarcation between praise and blame are not always easily drawn. Frequently, what is meant to be a critical rejoinder, such as the description of Badiou as “the last great author in the French tradition of Catholic dogmatists,”8 could also be read as a vicious attack, with the subsequent result that Žižek in public and private conversations already has been somewhat at pains to clarify the exact nature of his responses to Badiou. This ambiguity is at least in part due to the fact that what presents itself as a straightforward summary of Badiou’s philosophy is already heavily influenced and refracted by Žižek’s own thought. This is a first example of the strange temporality of Žizek’s line of reasoning: many insights from Badiou, before being allowed to stand on their own, are thus appropriated and transcoded in Žižekian and/or Lacanian language. No doubt this is a result of the overwhelming power of Žižek’s thinking. Like most truly original minds, he too cannot not think in his own terms. However, we can also see the involuntary side-effect of this inability, which from another perspective of course looks like the gift of a rare ability: Badiou’s thinking thus may appear to be more derivative than it actually is, since in his moments of greatest insight he would primarily be confirming the views of Lacan by way of Žižek while, conversely, many of his alleged blindnesses, or the risks of the so-called non-thought, seem to depend on inexplicably naïve and slightly caricatured principles, for which those recently expropriated insights can then serve as the perfect rebuttal in the hands of Žižek.
This is not just a matter of preemptive strikes as part of the usual art of philosophical warfare. Badiou truly does appear as an increasingly important accomplice in Žižek’s work, but one whose own arguments, once they are expropriated and transcoded, almost magically come to serve as counter-arguments to the alleged misgivings of their originator. These misgivings, though, actually may be the product of a one-sided summary on the part of the commentator, instead of signaling an authentic blind spot in the texts that are being commented upon. On occasions, the allegedly neutral summary thus paints an almost unrecognizable portrait of Badiou’s philosophy, while in other cases the perspective under attack seems to resemble, more than anything else, some of Žižek’s own viewpoints, albeit from earlier works. Many of Žižek’s counter-arguments by contrast seem to be faithful paraphrases, admittedly rewritten in Lacanese or Hegelese, of Badiou’s thought properly understood. To disentangle this interpretive knot may well be a nightmarish labor worthy of Sisyphus. Perhaps this is even one of the reasons why to this date Badiou has remained uncharacteristically silent in response to the polemic provoked by his friend.9
On some topics, finally, Žižek seems to toy with a number of hypotheses that are loyal experiments which do not really break with Badiou’s own thought, even though they push this thinking in rather unexpected and potentially extreme directions. Thus, when he discusses politics, art, science, and love as the four conditions of truth, or the four generic procedures that condition philosophy according to Badiou, Žižek insists on what we might call their uneven development, all the while suggesting that either religion or love would occupy a symptomatic position within (or outside) the series—either as the disavowed model for all four conditions or as something of an ultimately determining condition, which therefore would have to be counted twice, once as part of the series and a second time as the model for all four. “So, perhaps, if we take Badiou’s thought itself as a ‘situation’ of Being, subdivided into four génériques, (Christian) religion itself is his ‘symptomal torsion,’ the element that belongs to the domain of Truth without being one of its acknowledged parts or subspecies,” Žižek writes in The Ticklish Subject, whereas in his text for Think Again, perhaps under the influence of Alenka Zupančič’s arguments along the same line, this function of symptomal torsion is attributed to love instead: “So is love not Badiou’s ‘Asiatic mode of production’—the category into which he throws all truth procedures which do not fit the other three modes? This fourth procedure also serves as a kind of underlying formal principle or matrix of all of them.”10 Žižek, as is only to be expected, then goes on to suggest the primordiality of psychoanalysis in this regard: “And insofar as Badiou recognizes that the science of love—this fourth, excessive, truth procedure—is psychoanalysis, one should not be surprised to find that Badiou’s relationship with Lacan is the nodal point of his thought.”11 The hesitation itself between religion and love can serve as a further indication of the fact that Žižek, with regard to the status of the different truth conditions, is only experimenting with the limits and possibilities of Badiou’s philosophy, without phrasing as yet any inherent and insurmountable shortcoming or deadlock.
No doubt we could make the same point about Žižek’s discussion of the four subjective figures in Badiou’s philosophy (the master, the hysteric, the pervert, and the mystic—even if these are old names that are not quite held up in Badiou’s current theory of the subject that is part of Logics of Worlds, in which the figures of the subject are either faithful, obscure, or reactive—with a fourth figure, that of resurrection, squaring the circle with a renewed fidelity) in comparison with Lacan’s famous theory of the four discourses (the master’s, the hysteric’s, the analyst’s, and the university discourse). Here, too, Žižek’s discussion confirms Badiou’s fundamental insights, while complementing them with an even-handed exposé of the specific differences and overlaps that separate them from, or connect them with, Lacan. In fact, by underlining Badiou’s obvious proximity to the figure of the master, including in Badiou’s own definition, whereas it is rather the hysteric’s discourse that serves as a model for Lacan, Žižek also candidly portrays how his own response to Badiou corresponds in large part to the hysteric’s reiterated mockery and denunciation of the philosopher or master-thinker by answering all of the latter’s proposals with an ironic rejection: Ce n’est pas ça!12
In Žižek’s reading of Badiou, the actual criticisms can be divided into three registers, which in order of increased weight are respectively philosophical, political, and psychoanalytical in nature.
In philosophical terms, the argument takes two apparently incompatible forms. Žižek first of all accuses Badiou of being much more profoundly Kantian than Badiou himself has been able or willing to admit. Badiou’s Kantianism, to which Žižek is dying to play the role of the Sadeian tormentor, would be particularly clear in terms of the rigid divide that, in Žižek’s summary and spelling, separates the positive (phenomenal) order of Being from the radically other (noumenal) dimension of the Truth-Event: “What all this means is that there is a Kantian problem with Badiou which is grounded in his dualism of Being and Event, and which needs to be surpassed.”13 When Badiou proposes that one of the forms of “Evil” would consist in the disastrous sublation of this gap, that is, in the direct overlap or forced coincidence between the two radically incommensurate dimensions that are (or ought to be) Being and the Truth-Event, he would in a typical Kantian fashion be reminding us of the indispensable requirement to treat the accomplished Truth-Event only as a regulative idea, and not as a constitutive principle. This is how Žižek reads my line about the “as if ” mode of the generic extension of a situation: “Can we imagine a more direct application of the Kantian distinction between constitutive principles (a priori categories which directly constitute reality) and regulative ideas, which should only be applied to reality in the as if mode (one should act as if reality is sustained by a teleological order, as if there is a God and immortal soul, etc.)?”14
A Kantian modesty would be lurking in the notion of an ethic of restraint, explicitly assumed in Badiou’s idea not to push the operation of forcing a truth all the way to include the unnameable point of the real of a situation in the process of its event-related transformation. Finally, even despite the so-called secularization of the infinite, realized in mathematical set theory, Badiou as read “with Žižek” would nonetheless remain caught in the notion of finitude that is central to Kant’s criticaltranscendental project: “Although Badiou subordinates the subject to the infinite truth procedure, the place of this procedure is silently constrained by the subject’s finitude.”15 For Badiou, the subject is nothing but a finite instance of a truth process that in and of itself is strictly speaking infinite, and this gap between the finite and the infinite cannot be erased without getting involved in a “disaster” similar to the place and function of the “transcendental illusion” in Kant.
Žižek’s answer to this first shortcoming, or this first disavowal, consists not only in unmasking Badiou’s profound, albeit surreptitious, Kantianism, but also in countering it with a by-now familiar passage through Hegel. Instead of setting up an insurmountable gap between the positive order of Being and the radically heterogeneous order of the Truth-Event, Žižek thus proposes that a thoroughly Hegelianized Badiou would have had to transpose this split onto the order of Being itself. “The only way out of this predicament is to assert that the unnameable Real is not an external limitation but an absolutely inherent limitation,” Žižek proposes in his text for Think Again. He continues: “This and only this is the proper passage from Kant to Hegel: not the passage from limited/incomplete to full/completed nomination (‘absolute knowledge’), but the passage of the very limit of nomination from the exterior to the interior. The true materialist solution is thus that the Event is nothing but its own inscription into the order of Being, a cut/rupture in the order of Being on account of which Being cannot ever form a consistent All.”16 Badiou, in other words, would have been insufficiently clear about the immanent nature of the split within the multiple of Being. This can also be phrased in Badiou’s own terms, as the split between presence, or presentation, and re-presentation. “The key to Badiou’s opposition of Being and Event is the preceding split, within the order of Being itself, between the pure multitude of the presence of beings (accessible to mathematical ontology) and their re-presentation in some determinate State of Being,” Žižek writes in For They Know Not What They Do; “The question, therefore, is that of the precise status of this gap between the pure multitude of presence and its representation in State(s).”17
An odd variant of this philosophical criticism—odd in the sense that it hardly seems compatible with the allegation of a profound Kantianism—holds that Badiou, by supposing that the order of presence somehow offers up a wildly profuse and anarchic multiplicity prior to its inevitable capture by the State or the metastructure of a situation—is also much more Deleuzean than he is able or willing to admit. Žižek questions this privilege of pure presence-without-representation by invoking an obvious counter-example from politics: “Today, however, extreme Rightist populists are also not represented; they resist State Power; so perhaps we should question this logic of multiple presence versus State representation. On this point, Badiou remains all too close to Deleuze.”18 Žižek also asks: “Is it not that there already has to be some tension/antagonism that is operative within the pure multitude of Being itself? In other words, is Badiou, in overlooking this topic, close to Deleuze, his great opponent?”19 It is difficult to reconcile these two views of Badiou as a proto-Kantian and a crypto-Deleuzean, if for no other reason than that Deleuze frequently explained how his little book on Kant’s critical philosophy, in clear contradiction with the Spinozian principle of joy as an affirmative passion, was his only reactive book written against and about an enemy. In another sense, though, the second philosophical reproach may confirm the first one: Badiou, we could then say, remains too close to Deleuze because of, and not in spite of, his undigested Kantianism. Pure presence and multiplicity can seem to be overprivileged precisely as a result of the presupposition of a purely external opposition, in contrast to an immanent split, between presence and re-presentation, or between Being and Event.
Politically, much of Žižek’s criticism focuses on the alternative, which is central to Badiou’s recently published lecture series Le Siècle, between the two paths taken by the so-called “passion for the real” in the twentieth century, namely, the self-destructive path of purification, or purging, and the purely formal path of subtraction, or the play of minimal differences. Žižek connects this criticism with his more strictly philosophical arguments by imagining the consequences of a hypothetical alternative scenario, one in which Badiou would not have hesitated, as he still seems to have done in Le Siècle, between the plea for a strict fidelity to the violently selfdestructive fury of the twentieth century and the need resolutely to move on from a politics of purification to a politics of subtraction. Žižek in this regard actually goes so far as to speak of a “blunder,” to which he believes there is a certain necessity in Badiou: “Why? Because fully to follow the logic of subtraction would force him to abandon the very frame of the opposition between Being and Event. Within the logic of subtraction, the Event is not external to the order of Being, but located in the ‘minimal difference’ inherent to the order of Being itself.”20 Complete loyalty to the logic of subtraction, in other words, would have forced Badiou to risk taking the next step in the obligatory passage from Kant to Hegel.
After calling him at the same time too Kantian and too Deleuzean, all the while quickly making his own much of the argument about the twentieth century’s violent “passion for the real,” Žižek thus almost seems to blame Badiou for not being quite Badiouian enough in making the move from purification to subtraction! In the new foreword to For They Know Not What They Do, in a concluding fragment not reprinted in the version for Think Again, he even adds an illustration of what the much sought-after politics of subtraction would look like. Thus, citing the fate of the four profiles of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin that used to appear at the top left-hand side of each issue of Pravda, Žižek recalls how, after de-Stalinization, it was not just that the profile of Stalin was removed so as to leave only Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but rather Lenin’s profile was strangely redoubled, so that we end up with an uncanny repetition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and … Lenin. This brings Žižek to ask rhetorically “what if the repetition of Lenin is the ultimate example of the logic of subtraction, of generating the minimal difference?”21 Of course, if we leave the sphere of Soviet influence, another solution, one that is more likely to be favored by Badiou, could consist in adding the profile of Mao Zedong. When Žižek fails to consider this possibility, we could even say, mimicking his very own style, that there is a strict necessity to this failure in Žižek’s approach. Why? Because fully to follow the logic of Badiou’s Maoism would have forced Žižek to abandon the allegation of a purely external opposition between Being and Event. But, then again, by abandoning the notion of such a preor proto-Kantian dualism in Badiou, Žižek would also have lost the perfect opportunity to present himself as the Hegel or Sade of this closet Kantian.
Žižek’s most profound and harshest criticism of Badiou, which is also the real crux of the debate, is of course psychoanalytical in nature—even though the consequences of this criticism never leave untouched the spaces of philosophy and politics. We can summarize this criticism by saying that Žižek teaches Badiou a lesson or two in dying. To be more precise, if all philosophical wisdom, according to a common schoolbook definition, consists in learning how to prepare for death, then the fundamental lesson of psychoanalysis by contrast would teach us how to die twice—or, failing that, how to live in the uncanny or undead space in-between-the-two-deaths, that is, the physical and the symbolical.
This criticism will immediately strike a note of familiarity in the ears of anyone even mildly acquainted with Lacan’s “Kant with Sade.” Following the Lacanian model, Žižek himself in fact had performed a similar critique of Badiou’s former teacher, Louis Althusser. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek shows how Althusser’s theory of ideology as interpellation leaves out of the picture all the obscene scenarios of desire and drive that alone tie an individual to the mechanisms of interpellation by which this individual is turned into an accountable subject. “In short, the ‘unthought’ of Althusser is that there is already an uncanny subject that precedes the gesture of subjectivization,” Žižek writes; “‘Beyond interpellation’ is the square of desire, fantasy, lack in the Other and drive pulsating around some unbearable surplus-enjoyment.”22
When Žižek opens his first major reading of Badiou by announcing how the latter’s notion of fidelity to a truth is actually the exact equivalent of Althusser’s notion of ideology, the trained reader already knows exactly what to expect next. Beneath and beyond Badiou’s truth, Žižek will thus locate an ineradicable dimension of excessive enjoyment, for which Lacan, taking his clue from Marx, coined the term plus-dejouir, or “surplus enjoyment”:
What Badiou’s concept of truth cannot fail to disavow, in other words, is the dimension of perverse desires and the death drive that necessarily precedes, subverts, and outlasts any and all attempts to domesticate it. Badiou at this point would even run the risk of banality and the non-thought according to Žižek: “When Badiou adamantly opposes the ‘morbid obsession with death,’ when he opposes the Truth-Event to the death drive, and so on, he is at his weakest, succumbing to the temptation of the non-thought.”23 What is more, insofar as “his theoretical gesture involves a ‘regression’ to ‘non-thought,’ to a naïve traditional (pre-critical, pre-Kantian) opposition of two orders (the finitude of positive Being; the immortality of the Truth-Event) that remains blind to how the very space for the specific ‘immortality’ in which human beings can participate in the Truth-Event is opened up by man’s unique relationship to his finitude and the possibility of death,” Badiou’s fundamental weakness can be overcome only by radically acknowledging the role of the death drive as a missing third term, or a “vanishing mediator,” between Being and Event:
“The Lacanian death drive (a category Badiou adamantly opposes) is thus again a kind of ‘vanishing mediator’ between Being and Event: there is a ‘negative’ gesture constitutive of the subject which is then obfuscated in ‘Being’ (the established ontological order) and in fidelity to the Event.”24 Using Lacan’s discourse as an instrument of subversion, much in the same way that Lacan himself used Sade to give us the tormented “truth” of Kant, Žižek thus boldly lays bare that which cannot but remain obfuscated in Badiou’s philosophy. In the end, it would seem that we have not gone very far beyond the matrix of Lacan’s text. The radical point is still and always to unveil the dark and repressed underside of philosophy’s grandest claims to truth: “The ‘death drive’ is thus the constitutive obverse of every emphatic assertion of Truth irreducible to the positive order of Being.”25
Can we ever hope to extricate Badiou’s thought from the complex picture drawn by Žižek? At first, it may seem a fairly straightforward, if not exactly small, task to respond to each of the three criticisms summarized above:
Response to Criticism One
Regarding Badiou’s alleged Kantianism, to be overcome by a passage from Kant to Hegel, we should no doubt apply to Žižek some of his own observations, in For They Know Not What They Do, about the typical “deconstructivist” criticisms of Hegel’s pan-logicism.26 Žižek thus is one of the first to fall prey to the error that soon thereafter is to become common among perspicacious critics of Badiou, when he formulates as a reproach to Badiou what is actually a basic feature of Badiou’s own thought, that is, the insight in the immanent deadlock, or impasse, of the ontological discourse of being—an impasse which for Badiou already signals the retroaction of an event, without which it would not be visible in the first place. Like the Derridean reading of Hegel, Žižek’s claim about Badiou’s hidden Kantianism breaks down an open door. In order to maintain the distance between Badiou and Lacan, similar to what Rodolphe Gasché had to do in order to keep the distance between Hegel and Derrida, Žižek is forced to impute to Badiou a nonsensically simplified version of “proto-Kantian dualism,” summarizing the worn-out textbook platitudes about how the event “belongs to a wholly different dimension” and suchlike. Matters reach a peak when Žižek refutes Badiou by means of Badiou himself—presenting as a limit supposed to escape Badiou the elementary proposition of Badiou’s entire philosophy, from his Maoist works all the way to Being and Event! Not only has Badiou repeatedly explained the reasons for his anti-Kantianism, often through a detailed reading of Hegel’s Logic, but he has also always rejected the “leftist” or “rightist” deviations that would oppose freedom and necessity, forces and places, the masses and the State, or Event and Being as two externally opposed “orders” or “dimensions” (terms that, including the abundance of New Age-sounding large capitals, are strictly Žižek’s only). This is precisely one of the major lessons that Badiou draws early on, so as never to abandon it, from the Maoist principle that “One divides into two”—a principle obviously more attuned, if only we were able to recognize as much, to Žižek’s demand for a Hegelian dialectic than to any naïve proto-Kantian or even pre-Kantian duality.
As for Badiou’s Deleuzeanism, Žižek is probably the first to perceive the perversity of this reproach, since much of his own book on Deleuze would not have existed, at least not in its present form, if it were not for Badiou’s Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, in which the differend between the two is painstakingly documented. But even in terms of strict philosophical content, the argument that somehow Badiou would favor a wild, even vitalist notion of pure multiple presence, accessible outside of representation, completely fails to understand that for the author of Being and Event, being is only approachable in a kind of backward inference—drawn exclusively from the formal impasses, deadlocks, or absurd reasonings based on representation itself. Our only means to think being qua being are the immanent resources of thought struggling to come to grips with its own intrinsic excess. Nowhere is being given as such, not even as an unspeakable but still somehow showable experience. The excess of representation over presentation, in other words, is not some great insight supposedly missing from mathematical ontology, but rather the most fundamental feature of this ontology itself.
Response to Criticism Two
The political argument, regarding Badiou’s failure fully to embrace his own suggestion of the need to pass from a politics of purification to a politics of subtraction, portrays as an admittedly incomplete linear progress what in actual fact consists of a distinction in terms of level of application that even today allows for a partial overlap, or a non-synchronous synchronicity, between the two. In his current work Badiou thus ends up arguing for a destruction of a regime of appearing or existence while at the same time on the level of being he restricts the change produced by an event to an effect of supplementation or subtraction. “Indeed, something that was not entirely present in Being and Event, and that I will now redeploy, finally going back to my oldest sources, is the real distinction between being and existence,” Badiou says in an interview; “Finally, and to wrap up this discussion which is extremely important politically speaking, but also very abstract, I believe that I will assert that there is supplementation of being and destruction of existence whenever an event occurs.”27
As for the play of minimal difference, which in Žižek’s hands gets to be compared, not to say reduced, to Lacan’s logic of the signifier, itself equated with Hegel’s logic of the re-mark as the play between a mark and the inscription of the empty place of this mark, and so on: this play has actually been criticized quite extensively by Badiou in relation to the Hegelian dialectic, both in the footnotes to The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic and in a superb reading of the Logic of Science that appears in Theory of the Subject by way of anticipating the criticism of Lacan’s overly structural dialectic. What is more, Žizek’s two other canonical references for this logic of the void or empty place and its subsequent marks, namely, Jacques-Alain Miller’s “Matrix” and “Suture,” receive a heavy if not fatal blow from one of Badiou’s fellow Maoists, Lucie Analbage, in a key chapter from The Present Situation on the Philosophical Front, before being tackled by Badiou himself in a special section from his book Number and Numbers. Ultimately, the problem with this logic is its complete inability to conceive of the transformative power of an event other than as the effect of a structural reiteration, even though the indefinite repetition of mark and place generates a semblance of dialectical movement that claims to be more radical than anything: “One could speak of a kind of ‘ultra-dialectic,’ a theory of movement such that it becomes impossible not only to grasp but more radically to determine the movement itself.”28 At best, the passage from one term to another, when they are identical, only leads to a “serial logic,” that is to say, “one and then the other as minimal difference.”29 Any attempt to turn the play of minimal difference into the greatest insight of Badiou’s philosophy at the very least would have to come to terms with this profound criticism of the Hegelian or Lacano-Millerian logic, which Žižek for obvious reasons is only too happy to privilege in Badiou’s Le Siècle.
Response to Criticism Three
Finally, as for Badiou’s failure to take into account the domain in-between-the-twodeaths, here too we could give empirical counter-evidence, such as the opening hypothesis in Of an Obscure Disaster according to which the “death” of communism, with the fall of the Soviet Union, is merely a second death, the first occurrence of which had long preceded its symbolical redoubling. More importantly, however, the complexity of the debate with psychoanalysis shows how superfluous is any pretense to restore the “proper” Badiou by pulling him out of Žižek’s hands. Aside from opening up one can of worms after another, as though in a potentially endless series of Chinese boxes, such pretense also completely misses the point, since it is certainly not a schoolmasterly question of “correcting” Žižek’s interpretation with empirical or theoretical counter-examples. We would then still fail completely to grasp the deep necessity behind Žižek’s peculiar understanding, or misunderstanding, of Badiou.
The situation, in other words, is both more complicated and more interesting than would appear at first sight in view of our using “Kant with Sade” as a model. Žižek knows that at least two of Badiou’s own texts seriously upset the scenario of a subversion of philosophy, of truth, or of the moral law, by its inherent other—an other that would be accessible in a primordial way to psychoanalysis. Thus, in The Ticklish Subject, Žižek is first of all obliged to consider how, in Saint-Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, the dualism of the law and its inherent transgression or sinful perversion is already described, including in explicitly Lacanian terms, only to be supplemented by the possibility of a truth beyond the law and its obscene other. In Paul’s terminology, this domain beyond the morbid dialectic of law and sin is of course love, which for Badiou is only one possible condition of truth among others. Thus, we would have to complicate our initial formula somewhat so as to include this domain beyond the law and its underlying desire:
Secondly, in For They Know Not What They Do and Think Again, Žižek responds extensively to my criticisms of his and Lacan’s position, in which I took up arguments from Badiou’s Theory of the Subject against the interplay of the twin figures of the superego and anxiety, best illustrated by Creon and Antigone in Sophoclean tragedy. As a supplement to this first tragic dyad, Badiou in his Theory of the Subject elaborates a second one, merely suggested but never quite taken up by Lacan himself, namely, the dyad of justice and courage as exemplified by the Aeschylean figures of Athena and Orestes. Aeschylus would thus assist Badiou in his attempt to move beyond, without ever ignoring, the morbid entanglement of the law and its violent origin in non-law, so as to break out of the deadlock that thus far seems to have kept the entire tradition of psychoanalysis as if spellbound by the tragic model of Sophocles.
Given these acute insights, in Saint Paul and Theory of the Subject, into the perverse interdependence between the law and its transgression, or between the ferocious superego injunction and the anxiety-producing confrontation with the real of enjoyment, Žižek in his polemic with Badiou obviously cannot merely reenact the matrix of “Kant with Sade.”30 How, then, does he proceed? Žižek’s brilliantly perverse answer or, rather, his hysterical way out of the apparent deadlock of perversity, will consist in positing that there exists a Lacanian alternative, too, to the merely perverse interplay between law and sin, between law and desire, between the superego and anxiety.
At first, though, the fundamental psychoanalytical lesson may not seem to offer any way out of the perverse dialectic. Žižek admits this much in a long series of rhetorical questions:
Is not Badiou’s description of the intertwining of Law and desire full of implicit (sometimes even explicit) references to and paraphrases of Lacan? Is not the ultimate domain of psychoanalysis the connection between the symbolic Law and desire? Is not the multitude of perverse satisfactions the very form in which the connection between Law and desire is realized? Is not the Lacanian division of the subject the division that concerns precisely the subject’s relationship to the symbolic Law? Furthermore, is not the ultimate confirmation of this Lacan’s “Kant avec Sade,” which directly posits the Sadeian universe of morbid perversion as the “truth” of the most radical assertion of the moral weight of the symbolic Law in human history (Kantian ethics)?31
Upon closer inspection, however, the entire effort of Lacan’s psychoanalysis according to Žižek consists in avoiding the masochistic intermingling of the moral law and its obscene superego supplement. It is precisely Freud’s limitation not to have gone far enough in exceeding this framework in which desire is the obverse of the law—not to have recognized that this is merely a view of the law as superego, which gives us no access to a higher Law beyond the law, a Law that stands in a new relation to the Thing. Žižek’s habitual propensity to use large capitals left and right actually makes him loose sight of the difference between the law and the Law in Lacan’s “Kant with Sade”—a difference which, as Bernard Baas has pointed out, may very well serve to mark the difference in this particular regard between Freud and Lacan.32 However well that may be, forced by Badiou’s rejection of the Pauline predicament to go beyond the morbid dialectic, Žižek clearly outlines the stakes of the Lacanian endeavor. “Freud’s discovery—the ethics of psychoanalysis—does it leave us clinging to that dialectic?” Lacan himself had asked in Seminar vii, launching a question the answer to which is a resolute “No!” according to Žižek:
… for Lacan, there is “a way of discovering the relationship to das Ding somewhere beyond the Law”—the whole point of the ethics of psychoanalysis is to formulate the possibility of a relationship that avoids the pitfalls of the superego inculpation that accounts for the “morbid” enjoyment of sin, while simultaneously avoiding what Kant called Schwärmerei, the obscurantist claim to give voice to (and thus to legitimize one’s position by reference to) a spiritual illumination, a direct insight into the impossible Real Thing.33
Žižek’s wager to avoid both and at the same time the perverse or morbid and the mystical or obscurantist position thus hinges on the ability to posit a domain beyond or, following the spatial logic of the bar of repression, perhaps it would be more accurate to say beneath, the relationship between the law and its violent and perverse other: “Lacan’s ‘Kant avec Sade’ retains its full validity—that is, the status of the Kantian moral Law remains that of a superego-formation, so that its ‘truth’ is the Sadeian universe of morbid perversion. However, there is another way of conceptualizing the Kantian moral imperative which delivers it from superego constraints.”34
This other way of conceptualizing the law as Law reaches far beyond the constraints of the superego so as to delve into the uncanny depths of pure death drive: “For Lacan, the uncanny domain beyond the Order of Being is what he calls the domain ‘between the two deaths,’ the pre-ontological domain of monstrous spectral apparitions, the domain that is ‘immortal,’ yet not in the Badiouian sense of the immortality of participating in Truth, but in the sense of what Lacan calls lamella, of the monstrous ‘undead’ object-libido.”35 Badiou, even while being exceedingly aware of the perverse logic of law and desire, would nonetheless still fail to acknowledge this spectral domain where the drives are forever rampant.
Our complete formula thus would have to look somewhat as follows:
Of course, there is an ultimate irony to the added detour by which Žižek seeks to avoid the perverse interplay between law and desire, all the while claiming to outsmart Badiou. Thus, if we exclude the middle sections of our formula, we still merely end up repeating a similar dialectic on a higher level, this time between truth and the death drive.
For Žižek, the key to the Lacanian way out of the deadlock of the law and its obscene underside is the notion of the act. As he writes in an important self-critical remark in the new foreword to For They Know Not What They Do: “The Lacanian name for this gesture of breaking the vicious circle of the superego is act, and the lack of a clear elaboration of the notion of act in its relation to fantasy is perhaps the key failing of The Sublime Object.”36 We might even say that Žižek’s entire polemic with Badiou reaches its climax in this notion of the act, which in parenthetical additions is often equated, without further ado, with Badiou’s notion of the event. Žižek certainly is not alone in doing this: Alenka Zupančič, too, seems to suggest in her Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan that there is more than simply a family resemblance between both notions. So is the act ultimately synonymous with the event?
In the remaining pages I obviously cannot offer a systematic overview of Žižek’s changing definitions of the act throughout his work. Nor am I qualified to embark upon a detailed comparison with the way the act is defined in Lacan’s own seminar on The Psychoanalytical Act, a seminar which interestingly enough had to be cut short due to the “events” (or should we say “acts”?) of May ’68 in France. All I wish to suggest is how there are two fundamental concepts of the act that circulate in Žižek’s vast body of work, only one of which seems to be in strict keeping with Lacan’s use of the concept. There is first of all the notion of the act as a traversing of the fundamental fantasy, eventually followed by the identification with the symptom as an unsymbolizable leftover of the process of symbolization, in which enjoyment and the signifier immediately coincide. A subject’s defining act thus consists not just in interpreting his or her desire by integrating it into the existing symbolical network, but in assuming the ultimate nonexistence of the symbolic—its constitutive incompleteness. “The act involves the acceptance of this double impossibility/limit: although our empirical universe is incomplete, this does not mean that there is another ‘true’ reality that sustains it,” as the example of Antigone perfectly illustrates: “Antigone’s act locates her, as it were, in the ex nihilo of the interstices of reality, momentarily suspending the very rules that define what counts as (social) reality.”37 But then, especially in Žižek’s more recent works, we also find a second, entirely different understanding of the act as that which not only heroically assumes and bears witness to the real as impossible but also profoundly transforms the entire symbolic order that sets the parameters for what is possible and impossible in the first place. Thus, opposing what he calls “the act proper” to other modalities such as the hysterical acting out, the psychotic passage à l’acte, and the symbolic act of formal self-assertion, Žižek writes: “In contrast to all these three modes, the act proper is the only one which restructures the very symbolic coordinates of the agent’s situation: it is an intervention in the course of which the agent’s identity itself is radically changed.”38 In a sense, this shift from one notion of the act to another, a shift which clearly involves a sharp self-criticism on the author’s part, also coincides with a decisive reaffirmation of the fact that miracles do happen: “From ‘impossible to happen’ we thus pass to ‘the impossible happens’—this, and not the structural obstacle forever deferring the final resolution, is the most difficult thing to accept: ‘We’d forgotten how to be in readiness even for miracles to happen.’”39 Much less clear, however, is the question of who or what would exemplify this type of miracle, similar to the sublime illustration of the first act by Antigone.
My main hypothesis with regard to these two notions of the act then holds that while the first notion is openly indebted to Lacan, the second is to a large extent an attempt to appropriate, under the same Lacanian term of the act, whatever Badiou understands by a truly transformative process of change, which alone would deserve to be called an event. It seems to me, however, that the question is still very much open if and how we can get here from there: can we ever expect to get to the act as radical change by starting from the act as real, or from the act as confrontation with the vanishing cause of the real, after traversing the fundamental fantasy? As if to fill the void between these two notions, Žižek in more recent years also increasingly appears to favor a definition of the act in purely formal terms, as an intractable sticking to principles against all odds. The Pope’s stubborn refusal to give way on the issue of abortion, for example, can then serve as an example of the authentic ethical act, against the pragmatic adaptability and feel-good spiritualism of the Dalai Lama:
“The Pope, in contrast, reminds us that there is a price to pay for a proper ethical attitude—it is his very stubborn clinging to ‘old values,’ his ignoring the ‘realistic’ attitudes of our time even when the arguments seem ‘obvious’ (as in the case of the raped nun), that makes him an authentic ethical figure.”40
If Žižek with his elaboration of the different notions of act merely wanted to note that Lacan has more to offer in this regard than Badiou wants to acknowledge, then we could end the discussion here and shake hands over yet another happy coincidence. But there is more: Žižek’s understanding of the Lacanian act as real in fact not only presents itself as more radical than Badiou’s event, but there also seems to come
a point where respect for the act as a pure gesture of self-relating negativity and/or stubborn attachment to principle disables in advance any engaged fidelity to a cause of the kind to which Badiou feels obliged to pledge his fidelity following the example of one of his other mentors, aside from Lacan and Althusser, namely, Sartre.
Badiou once summed up the two options in the last truly engaging polemic in French politico-philosophical thought as follows: “Sartre against Althusser: that meant, at bottom, the Cause against the cause” (PP 10). With this wordplay, of course, Badiou is referring not just to any political Cause, but also more specifically to the Maoist La Cause du Peuple which could always count on Sartre’s support, whereas Althusser’s insights into Marx’s discovery of a structural or absent cause did not seem to allow for a similar commitment: “One saw this very well in the choices and urgencies: Althusser on the side of Waldeck Rochet, when push came to shove; and Sartre, with the ‘Maos,’ despite everything.”41 Where in this debate, then, should we place Lacan? After all, did not Lacan by the end of his life abruptly dissolve his École freudienne de Paris only to give birth to the École de la Cause freudienne, often referred to simply as École de la Cause? This might seem to give us some anecdotal reason to put Lacan in the same camp with Sartre and Badiou.
Žižek, on the other hand, ends his final ruminations in For They Know Not What They Do, on the situation in the ex-Soviet Union, with a plea for a Lacanian leftist political project that would at least keep alive the memory of past causes, even if they have been thwarted by the turn to Western-style capitalism and neoracism: “Today more than ever, in the midst of the scoundrel time we live in, the duty of the Left is to keep alive the memory of all lost causes, of all shattered and perverted dreams and hopes attached to leftist projects.”42 However, the ultimate paradox of this hopeful project might well be its inherent incompatibility with some of the very same teachings from the Lacanian school that so deeply inspire Žižek. As the latter writes in The Ticklish Subject, in another good summary of his entire polemical reply to Badiou: “For Lacan, negativity, a negative gesture of withdrawal, precedes any positive gesture of enthusiastic identification with a Cause: negativity functions as the condition of (im)possibility of the enthusiastic identification—that is to say, it lays the ground, opens up space for it, but is simultaneously obfuscated by it and undermines it.”43 It would thus seem that any principled recognition of the real of enjoyment and drive as the absent cause, or absent center, of political ontology strictly speaking undermines in advance the possibility of identifying with a leftist Cause—other than a lost one! To put the question even more bluntly: what causes are there to be kept alive from a psychoanalytical perspective, if for the latter the most radical act consists in the subject’s defining gesture of pure negativity that precedes and undermines every one of the possible candidates?44
This political paradox finally brings us back to the theoretical question which I announced at the start: What is the status of truth after psychoanalysis? From the preceding remarks we are now in a position to rephrase this question as follows: Is there or is there not a truth of the real? Is knowledge, recognition, or acknowledgement of the real not necessarily at loggerheads with the philosophical category of truth?
Lacan’s own steps towards answering this question in his final works is reflected in a number of statements that have a typically aphoristic appeal. Badiou, in his 1994–1995 seminar on Lacanian Antiphilosophy concentrates in particular on one of these statements, originally made by Lacan in a 1970 speech to the École freudienne de Paris: “The truth may not convince, knowledge passes in the act” [La vérité peut ne pas convaincre, le savoir passe en acte].45 Thus, whereas Lacan begins his international career, most notably in his 1953 discourse in Rome, by promising that psychoanalysis would bring not only truth but also wisdom, his later teaching starting in the 1970s increasingly moves towards a general antiphilosophical destitution of the category of truth, in favor of a peculiar kind of knowledge in the real. There is knowledge in the real, but there is also a real in knowledge. The act happens precisely when something of the real passes into a form of knowledge capable of transmission and as a result of which something drops out of the existing arrangements of knowledge, including their guarantee in the subject who is supposed to know. As Badiou comments: “For Lacan, there is no truth of the real, there is no knowledge of the real, but a function of the real in knowledge. There is also no knowledge of truth, but at best the truth of a knowledge in the real that works.”46 Le réel passe en savoir, meaning not only that the real passes into knowledge, but also that the real is not without knowing, as in the homonymous le réel pas sans savoir. While for Lacan, this form of knowledge in the real is best transmitted through the formal operations of mathematical logic, I would add that this role has been taken over by popular culture in the writings of a disciple such as Žižek. There is thus something arch-scientific about the act in Lacan, whereas in Žižek the act oscillates between an arch-aesthetic and an arch-political dimension. In both cases, however, the crucial point not to be missed is how the transmission of this knowledge in the real finds an impediment, rather than an aid, in the category of truth.
Ultimately, the philosopher’s foolish illusion always consists in loving the force of truth, whereas in the analyst’s discourse we could say that the real is always stronger than the true. “The analysis can only have as its goal the advent of a true speech and the realization by the subject of his or her history in its relation to a future,” Lacan had written in one of his classical Écrits, but this promise of truth would later be dismissed as a lure better left to the care of other discourses, such as the university or master’s discourse: “There are four discourses. Each one of them takes itself for the truth. Only the analytical discourse makes an exception.”47 For the later Lacan, therefore, the dividing line separates truth from a new type of knowledge that involves the relations between sense, nonsense, and the real, or between fantasy and enjoyment. Žižek could not be clearer in this regard:
So, while the “classic,” structuralist Lacan invites me to dare the truth, subjectively to assume the truth of my desire inscribed into the big Other, the later Lacan comes much closer to something like truth or dare: (the symbolic) truth is for those who do not dare—what? To confront the fantasmatic core of (the Real of ) their jouissance. At the level of jouissance, truth is simply inoperative, something which ultimately doesn’t matter.48
Lacan’s answer, in other words, does not simply oppose truth and knowledge but rather adds another dimension, for which the real of enjoyment and drive constitutes the third mediating term. As Žižek also explains:
In philosophical terms, Lacan introduces here a distinction, absent in Badiou, between symbolic truth and knowledge in the Real: Badiou clings to the difference between objective-neutral Knowledge which concerns the order of Being, and the subjectively engaged Truth (one of the standard topoi of modern thought from Kierkegaard onwards), while Lacan renders thematic another, unheard-of level; that of the unbearable fantasmatic kernel. Although—or, rather, precisely because—this kernel forms the very heart of subjective identity, it cannot ever be subjectivized, subjectively assumed: it can only be retroactively reconstructed in a desubjectivized knowledge.49
We thus begin to see how Žižek’s claim through the act somehow to outstrip the radicalism of Badiou’s notion of the event has a temporal no less than a spatial effect. Typically this plays itself out in terms of positing the act as a negative gesture that always necessarily precedes the masterly inscription of the event into a new set of parameters:
That is the difference between Lacan and Badiou: Lacan insists on the primacy of the (negative) act over the (positive) establishment of a ‘new harmony’ via the intervention of some new Master-Signifier; while for Badiou, the different facets of negativity (ethical catastrophes) are reduced to so many versions of the ‘betrayal’ of (or infidelity to, or denial of ) the positive TruthEvent.50
The same operation of seeking to occupy the place prior to that of symbolic meaning or truth also applies to Žižek’s use of the notion of the subject as opposed to the subsequent process of subjectivization, which he sees as central both to Badiou and to fellow Althusserians such as Rancière, Balibar, and Laclau:
Lacan introduces the distinction between the subject and the gesture of subjectivization: what Badiou and Laclau describe is the process of subjectivization—the emphatic engagement, the assumption of fidelity to the Event (or, in Laclau, the emphatic gesture of identifying empty universality with some particular content that hegemonizes it), while the subject is the negative gesture of breaking out of the constraints of Being that opens up the space of possible subjectivization.51
Of course, what is really pivotal in this distinction is the fact that the subject comes before subjectivization, with the latter in a sense already suturing the gap of which the subject is the strict correlative. It is precisely this logical priority that gives the analyst’s discourse its leverage in the radical interrogation of any philosophical master discourse: “In Lacanese, the subject prior to subjectivization is the pure negativity of the death drive prior to its reversal into the identification with some new Master-Signifier.”52
Finally, the attempt always more radically to recapture the prior act can also be phrased in terms of sublimation and the death drive. Žižek not only insists that “the whole of Lacan’s effort is precisely focused on those limit-experiences in which the subject finds himself confronted with the death drive at its purest, prior to its reversal into sublimation,” but he will also once again pit the death drive, which merely suspends the existing order in preparation for a new act of creation, against the event: “However, this ‘merely’ should be put in quotation marks, because it is Lacan’s contention that, in this negative gesture of ‘wiping the slate clean,’ something (a void) is confronted which is already ‘sutured’ with the arrival of a new Truth-Event.”53 From the radical point of view of the preceding void, or the empty place, indeed, every consequent inscription of a new mark must seem utterly naïve in comparison—at best, it is the age-old lure of truth as a symbolic fiction and, at worst, the banality of pure non-thought. This literally makes it impossible to have faith in the category of truth in the wake of Lacan’s return to Freud: “Lacan parts company with St. Paul and Badiou: God not only is but always-already was dead—that is to say, after Freud, one cannot directly have faith in a Truth-Event; every such Event ultimately remains a semblance obfuscating a preceding Void whose Freudian name is death drive.”54
In the end, I would propose that we pay closer attention to the feverish pace and peculiar haste that seem to be more than purely incidental to the thought processes found in Žižek’s work. I say this with the utmost respect: this is not just a repetition of the vulgar resentful notion, which is so common among intellectuals so as almost to become their defining feature, about how someone else always publishes too much or too fast. Quite the contrary, as Lacan could have shown in reference to his early text “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty: A New Sophism,” a text which is extensively commented upon by Badiou in Theory of the Subject, haste often has a strictly logical, almost speculative function. Badiou in fact had tried to show in his commentary that Lacan’s notion of anticipated certainty, when one hastily jumps to a conclusion so as to outsmart the others in the famous prisoners’ dilemma, fails to take into account the possibility that the other might be dumber than oneself and therefore slower in drawing the same inferences.55 What Badiou could not foresee at the time, however, is the strange kind of speculative haste that is ultimately meant to imply, rather than to shy away from, the notion that the other is a fool. Žižek’s haste to expropriate and often preemptively to vitiate the thought of some of the most provocative philosophers today—a project which is now culminating in a searching rapprochement among the trio Lacan-DeleuzeBadiou as the answer in French thought to the hegemonic role of Foucault-DerridaLevinas—can and perhaps should be seen as part of a larger trend that for purely structural reasons pushes the hysteric-as-analyst always to undermine the master’s discourse, now shown to be foolishly ignorant, with reference to a prior, more originary, or more radically disavowed act.
In Žižek’s repeated interpretations of the type “Y with X,” in other words, it is absolutely crucial that X, while ostensibly being a response to an already existing discourse, nonetheless appear to be logically, or even ontologically, prior to Y. Žižek does not even shy away from jumping back to the future with regard to his own works, as when he uses the new foreword to For They Know Not What They Do so as to present this book in retrospect as a critique of The Sublime Object of Ideology. Speaking of the praise of “pure” democracy and the Lefort-inspired critique of “totalitarianism” in this last book, Žižek confesses: “It took me years of hard work to identify and liquidate these dangerous residues of bourgeois ideology clearly at three interconnected levels: the clarification of my Lacanian reading of Hegel; the elaboration of the concept of act; and a palpable critical distance towards the very notion of democracy.”56 It seems unlikely, though, that those “years of hard work” correspond to the mere two years that lapsed between the publication of The Sublime Object of Ideology and For They Know Not What They Do. I would rather venture that the author, in keeping with an irresistible tendency to position himself in the absolutely prior place, has now done the same with his own work—almost as if to suggest that the self-criticism, in an impossible temporal loop, comes before the actual work. More importantly, this strange backtracking also erases the role of some of those same interlocutors such as Badiou whose notion of the event can then be said to have been anticipated by an act the radicality and pure negativity of which is supposedly ignored and obliterated by everything coming afterwards. No doubt this too is part of the reason why Žižek’s criticisms of Badiou are so nearly impossible to refute.
In the purest Žižekian fashion, then, perhaps I can be allowed to conclude with a joke. This one puts two fools together in an insane asylum as they get caught up in a heated shouting match. The first yells: “You’re a fool!” And the second: “No, you’re a fool!” “No, you!” “No, you!” and so on, back and forth, until the first person finally shouts out with a certain pride: “Tomorrow, I will wake up at five a.m. and I will write on your door that you’re a fool!” to which the second person answers smilingly: “And I will wake up at four a.m. and wipe it off!” This is exactly what the death drive or the act can do for Žižek with regard to the pretense to truth of the event in Badiou. Before any inscription of a new truth even has a chance to take place, actually blocking this process in advance by virtue of a structural necessity, the death drive always already has had to come first to wipe the slate clean. In order to undermine the claims of philosophy, the analyst’s discourse can always pit the subject against subjectivization, the void against semblance, the real against symbolic fictions, and in the most general terms, the death drive against fidelity to the cause of truth. Thus, in the debate between Badiou and Žižek, I cannot help but think that it is the analyst’s irrefutable and endearing wager—his ever more radically abyssal act—always to wake up earlier than the philosopher!
1 Jacques Lacan, “Kant avec Sade,” in Écrits 2 (Paris: Seuil, 1971), 120. This version is the last one corrected by Lacan. English translation by James B. Swenson, Jr. as “Kant with Sade,” October 51 (1989): 55. Page numbers in subsequent citations refer to the French and English versions, respectively (with frequent modifications of the translation).
2 Ibid., 123/58.
3 Ibid., 125/59.
4 Ibid., 127/60.
5 Ibid., 131/63.
6 Ibid., 139/68 and 145/73.
7 Ibid., 120/55.
8 Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 1999), 142.
9 The relation between master and hysteric seems to be one of codependence—both in Lacan’s version and in the version that for some time was central to the renewed formulation of an axiomatic theory of the subject for Badiou. But this codependence is also asym- metrical in terms of one’s need or desire explicitly to address the other. While obvious in Žižek, this need or this desire does not seem to be as pressing for Badiou—whence what to the public eye may appear to be a certain coldness on the part of the philosopher, a coldness which of course only further provokes and intensifies the desire for contestation on the part of the thinker whose model is the hysteric’s discourse.
10 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 141; and “From Purification to Subtraction,” in Think Again, ed. Peter Hallward (London: Continuum, 2004), 170. See also Alenka Zupančič, “The Fifth Condition,” in Think Again, 190–201.
11 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 141; Think Again, 170–71.
12 See Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 164.
13 Žižek, Think Again, 178.
14 Ibid., 173.
16 Ibid., 179.
17 Žižek, “Foreword to the Second Edition: Enjoyment within the Limits of Reason Alone,” in For They Know Not What They Do (London: Verso, 2002), lxxiv–lxxxv.
18 Ibid., civ n104.
19 Ibid., lxxxv.
20 Žižek, Think Again, 178.
21 Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, lxxxi.
22 Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), 61; and The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 124. See also Mladen Dolar, “Beyond Interpellation,” Qui Parle 6, no. 2 (1993): 73–96; Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 106–31; and Alenka Zupančič, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (London: Verso, 2000), who concludes the debate most succinctly: “The (psychoanalytic) subject is nothing but the failure to become an (Althusserian) subject” (41–42n11).
23 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 145.
24 Ibid., 163 and 160. See also ibid., 169n25.
25 Ibid., 159.
26 For the original formulations, which I will paraphrase and apply to Žižek himself in the next sentences, see For They Know Not What They Do, 72–91.
27 Bruno Bosteels, “Can Change Be Thought? A Dialogue with Alain Badiou,” in Alain Badiou: Philosophy and Its Conditions, ed. Gabriel Riera (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005). See also in another interview, with Peter Hallward and Bruno Bosteels, “Beyond Formalisation: An Interview,” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003): “For the time being I don’t want to accord a metaphysical privilege to subtraction. … There is something like an ideological decision involved here, one that gives priority to subtraction (or minimal difference) rather than to destruction (or antagonistic contradiction)” (119); and later: “I am obliged here to reintroduce the theme of destruction, whereas in Being and Event I thought I could make do with supplementation alone” (131).
28 Lucie Analbage, “La dialectique en son semblant,” La situation actuelle sur le front philosophique (Paris: François Maspero, 1977), 58–59. See also TS 21–68; and “Note complémentaire sur un usage contemporain de Frege,” in NN 36–44. [For a list of Badiou’s principal texts and their corresponding abbreviations, see the introduction to this issue—Ed.]
29 Alain Badiou, Joël Bellassen, and Louis Mossot, Le noyau rationnel de la dialectique hégélienne (Paris: François Maspero, 1978), 30.
30 In fact, only a few pages after having accused Badiou of falling prey to the temptation of banal non-thought with his view on the morbid dialectic of law and death, Žižek recognizes in this very same view one of Badiou’s most complex psychoanalytical insights: “So when Badiou speaks of the ‘morbid fascination of the death drive,’ and so forth, he is not resorting to general platitudes, but referring to a very precise ‘Pauline’ reading of the psychoanalytic notions he uses: the entire complex entanglement of Law and desire.” The Ticklish Subject, 150.
31 Ibid., 152.
32 Bernard Baas, Le désir pur: Parcours philosophiques dans les parages de J. Lacan (Louvain: Peeters, 1992), 53–55.
33 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 153.
34 Ibid., 168n17.
35 Ibid., 154.
36 Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, xl.
37 Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion (London: Verso, 2001), 175–76.
38 Žižek, On Belief (London: Routledge, 2001), 85
39 Ibid., 84.
40 Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? 182.
41 Badiou et al., Le noyau rationnel de la dialectique hégélienne, 15–16.
42 Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 271.
43 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 154.
44 In a last turn of the screw from after 9/11, Žižek places the line of demarcation between First and Third World: “It appears, in fact, as if the split between First World and the Third runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life, full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause.” For They Know Not What They Do, lxxiv.
45 Jacques Lacan, “Allocution sur l’enseignement,” in Autres écrits (Paris: Seuil, 2001), 305.
46 Alain Badiou, L’antiphilosophie lacanienne (1994–1995 seminar), session of March 15, 1995.
47 Jacques Lacan, “Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse,” in Écrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 302; and Ornicar? 17/18 (1979): 278.
48 Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, lxvii.
49 Ibid., cv; also in Think Again, 256n18.
50 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 159.
51 Ibid., 159–60.
52 Ibid., 160.
53 Ibid., 160 and 153–54.
54 Ibid., 154.
55 Lacan, “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty: A New Sophism,” trans. Bruce Fink and Marc Silver, Newsletter of the Freudian Field 2, no. 2 (1988): 4–22. See also TS 264–74. For a short and suggestive commentary, see Dominiek Hoens and Ed Pluth, “What if the Other Is Stupid? Badiou and Lacan on ‘Logical Time,’” in Think Again, 182–90.
56 Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, xi.
Text published in Polygraph 17 (2005), reproduced on simongros.com without permission of the author.