When I read about the death drive I can’t help but think of zombies. They embody the notion of the “undead machine” that is the counterpart to normal life and the so-called ordinary dead. Zizek makes the claim that language in itself is dead; yet it “behaves as if it possesses a life of its own” (113) which like the zombies is horrifyingly a dead machine yet continues to resemble the living through its drive. Perhaps language only lives because humans allow it to live, we believe in it, consequently like we believe in zombies- therefore, we (or some people) believe in the coming of a zombie apocalypse. Because there are those who believe in zombies, could it be possible that for them zombies symbolize the fetishized other? What about language? Perhaps one could read zombies or language as the ‘commodity fetishism’, it is “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (123). The idea of zombies could satisfy the human desire and the want to know and fantasize about life after death. As language satisfies the human want for communication (I would say, contrary to Plato, most believe that language is necessary).
Moreover, in The Primordial Substitution Zizek begins to explain Lacan’s notion of “decentrement” as the subject projecting their belief and feelings onto the Other, he explains, “I can literally laugh and cry through another” (141). If this is the case of the substitution for the subject then what I do not understand is why the subject would do this? By transferring the decentred subject’s emotions or “innermost content” (141) onto the Other, the subject is then free to breathe, take rest, and free to have a roaming mind (141-142); but what is the subject to do with all of this newly acclaimed freedom? I suppose that upon the basis of this freedom the subject then would find new (or more) signifiers to substitute in certain areas of the subject’s life. This then leads me to the possible answer Zizek makes earlier in the chapter about empty signifiers, “the excessive fixation of an empty signifier: to put it in a somewhat simplified way, I can change my symbolic identity precisely and only in so far as my symbolic universe includes ‘empty signifiers’ which can be filled in by a new particular content” (119). If once the subject has the freedom from transposing the subject’s “innermost content” onto the Other- that perhaps could be understood as changing one’s symbolic identity- then the subject is empty, looking to be filled again with new signifiers, as long as new signifiers are available.
Yet I am still unclear as to exactly what is the point of allowing this substitution. On page 149, Zizek says, “I am active through the other- that is I can remain passive while the Other does it for me”. By substituting the decentred subject’s content onto the other one is then (as we say) “vicariously living through another” because the subject fears the actual experience and possible enjoyment of the object directly, therefore, would remaining passive allow the subject to free themselves of current (empty) signifiers to allow for new signifiers to come into the symbolic order of the subject?
The description – or model – of the death drive as being that of a statue according to Zizek was particularly interesting. He states, “…the gaze not only mortifies its object, it stands itself for the frozen point of immobility in the field of the visible” (111). In addition he states, “This paradox of moving statues, of dead objects coming alive and/or of petrified living objects, is possible only within the space of the death drive which, according to Lacan, is the space between the two deaths, symbolic and real” (112). This idea of the statue and the gaze comes up in many movies (those portraying Medusa are a good example, as per Zizek). One that comes to my mind deals with the movie Interview with the Vampire: As soon as Louis is made a vampire (and thus exists between the two deaths: alive in the symbolic order, but dead in the real, as his body is dead), the first thing that he sees is the statues of angels in the graveyard watching him (and moving). It is as though as soon as the death drive becomes represented in Louis, it also is represented in the world around him. There are many other movies, however, where this is likewise played out.
I thought that Zizek’s relating the state of money to the symbolic (like language) was really revelatory. He states, “…money is precisely not merely a token of interpersonal relations but emerges as the materialization of the symbolic institution in so far as this institution is irreducible to direct interaction between ‘concrete individuals’” (129). That is, money works imperfectly in the way that language works imperfectly. In fact, money is much like the Thing, in that it is not truly a thing to be grasped, but actually exists in the virtual, where it’s noticed by way of its effects, not its existence (131). It’s like the black hole analogy, like the Real.
As far as the fetish object vs. the phobic object, I took it as the following: They both arrive at the intersection of two lacks: that of the lack of the subject to enjoy (the castrated subject) and the lack of the Other. The fetish object is a stand-in for castration. This means (I believe) that the fetish object is that which symbolizes the phallus the mOther lacks. The phobic object, however, is the exact opposite and substitutes castration (although, if it’s the castration of the subject or the Other, I don’t know) (132-133).
I do not understand what causes the “disintegration” when Zizek states, “For that reason, when the fetishist staging of castration disintegrates, the Other is no longer experienced by the subject as castrated; its domination over the subject is complete…” (133). Does the disintegration of the fetish object necessarily mean that it becomes a phobic object? Or is it just lack of a fetish-izing? Also, does this imply that the Other only has a hold on the subject when it is castrated, or not? This confused me.
Something I would like explained to me a bit more is what’s at the end of “The primordial substitution.” After discussion of the subject which can experience through another, and thus is barred, Zizek states that the fetish can only occur if substitution has occurred, and that “For the differential/formal structure to emerge, the real has to redouble itself in the symbolic register… This substitution of the big Other, the Symbolic Order, for the Real of the immediate Life-Substance… gives rise to S [barred], to the ‘barred subject’ which is then ‘represented’ by the signifiers…” (144). I just want to make sure that this means what I think it means, which is that a person, in being symbolized in the symbolic structure, thus exists as a bifurcated individual (in both the symbolic and real), which is why two deaths are possible, and why the death drive is possible. The thing that makes experience through another possible is the same thing that makes the death drive possible: the doubling of the Real into the Symbolic.
When Zizek talks about interpassivity, is he implying that the object a is the inert part of us? That was something I didn’t understand. I know that people are spurred to frantic movement out of fear that the Other will render them passive creatures for manipulation. I also understand that if they are constantly moving, then something stands in for them as passive. Is that the object a? Page 152 was confusing.
Also, I read the formula for fantasy as the way in which the subject relates to the cause of desire. That is, that fantasy – like we read in The Real Gaze – is based around the relation of the subject to the object a. Fantasy is the thing that explains why the subject can never get to the object a, and it makes the object a seem obtainable.
In an effort to help us understand the phantasmic background of ideological formation, Zizek begins the third chapter of The Plague of Fantasies with a focus on the mortification of the living body. He explains that photographs paralyze the living and X-rays allow us to see the living as if they were already dead. The benefit of this transformation is found when one realizes only “immobility makes a thing visible” (p. 109). Using this logic Norman Bates’ mummified mother in Pyscho existed more fully than any living character in the film. Her corpse embodies a pain that is frozen, never to be satisfied- a manifestation of the object petit a. Zizek also plays with the opposite image of dead things, like ghastly sailing pirate ships and walking robots, coming to life. The paradox between the living dead and dead things with life are found in the death drive. The death drive is “the space between the two deaths, symbolic and real” (p. 122). Simply put, to be dead while alive is part of the symbolic order. Conversely, to be alive while dead is a part of the real where jouissance can be found.
Admittedly, I struggled to fully comprehend Zizek’s version of fetishism, despite the fact that he expounds upon it in great detail. I was most perplexed by the idea that the “fetishist Other is always ‘lower’” and is only “correlative to the gaze of the observer” (p. 125). I would think that because outside observers want what they can’t have, the Other would be higher not lower in the outsider’s view. In any case, I mostly understood the distinct contrast between historical realists and discursivists and how the two sides regard the opposition. Zizek then delves deep into Marx’s notion of fetishism, even describing commodity fetishism as it relates to four social relations (p. 126).
My favorite part of the fetishism passage is found in the discussion on “fetishist misrecognition.” Zizek explains that we attach symbolism to certain actions to rationalize or justify them (p. 128). This symbolic order tells us that America bombed Iraq, not that a series of commands from the president led one US bomber to drop explosives on a key part of Baghdad. But even saying there was a series of commands is a way of using symbolism to explain various individual acts. Dr. Richardson taught his students Lacanian theory this semester. It’s another example of fetishist misrecognition. This symbolism offers a sensible explanation that links and gives meaning to a bunch of independent events. A dozen or so adults kept coming to a particular room in Preston Hall on Wednesday nights. These people paid thousands of dollars to a university to do so. Every week, a man with glasses and plaid shirts said some things and encouraged others to say some things. All the other people in the room would leave for one week. They would read a certain amount of pages in four books over a period of time. These students also typed on computer keyboards and posted the results of their typing on the internet.
As we delve deeper into this week’s reading, I’d like to spend the rest of this post discussing the idea of interpassivity which, for me, was the most enthralling part of the whole chapter. When the book introduced interpassivity on p. 144, I saw great value in Zizek’s explanation and highlighted those first couple pages of that section. He assumes the role of a prophet (this work was published before the creation of facebook or twitter) when he explains that many will laud “breakthroughs” in technology that require engagement from the consumer. One can enter into a relationship with media nowadays in which our feedback and participation can actually shape the content and presentation of the media itself! In other words, we can “participate actively not only in the spectacle itself, but more and more in establishing the very rules of the spectacle” (p. 144).
In our work-centric society, the label of “couch potato” carries such a negative connotation, but Zizek claims new media is far more destructive than we realize. When you come home from a long day, and “veg” out in front of the television, who does all the work? The television does. It puts on the show, creates the story, sings, laughs, and even cries for us. We have the power to sit back and watch media labor for us. On the other hand, new media sits back and watches us labor for it. We are creating facebook profiles and providing sensitive information to big companies. We are trying to fit meaningful and quirky messages into 140 characters or less. We are watching the Kony 2012 video and consequently spending our free time organizing awareness campaigns to bring down an African warlord. And all the while, the media just sits back and watches us entertain it. Anytime media intentionally causes us to experience an emotion, it is in control of us, not vice versa. In the past, we allowed it to grieve for us, but now we “authentically suffer through reports on rapes and mass killings” (p. 145) in Bosnia, Mexico, Syria, Somalia, etc. It is satisfying that I can, for a very brief moment, claim that Zizek thinks as I do because he closes his chapter by explaining that interpassivity is one of two main conclusions to be drawn from his third chapter. The threat of new media is not that we mindlessly consume whatever they serve us, but instead “they deprive of us of our passivity, of our authentic passive experience, and thus prepare us for the mindless frenetic activity” (p. 159).
In “Fetishism and Its Vicissitudes” Zizek, when discussing the spectral nature of fetishism, claims that “there is a strong temptation today to renounce the notion of fetishism,” claiming that in our age of “false transparency” reveals the intricate relationship between individuals and the means of production (129). Zizek uses the example of the “making of…” documentaries that accompany films in order to illustrate how the very unveiling of the production process does not, although it appears to, reveal the “secret locus of the prohibited,” because in fact, in postmodernity, it is the actual “symbolic mode of production” that fetishism mystifies (130). Here, as Christopher Lindner illustrates in Fictions of Commodity Culture Zizek’s idea of social practices as the locus of ideological practices concealed by fetishism, where the social relations between human individuals is not longer the object concern, places “more stress on the individual’s potential for self-awareness – on the individual’s capacity for self-awareness and basic power to think” (77). However, though Zizek addresses to a minimal extent the capacity for self-awareness individuals have in relation to the typical notion of Marxian commodity fetishism, he claims that the “inversion is not in what people think they are doing, but in their social activity itself” that reinforces the idea that commodities have metaphysical “powers” beyond their material positivity (135).
What becomes problematic is when Zizek moves beyond the ontological question of commodity fetishism and attempts to elaborate on how people, when they are fully aware that they are engaging in social practices that help perpetuated the ideological formation of capitalism and their own alienation, continually engage in said social practices. Zizek claims the process of transposing human beliefs upon material objects cannot be located in an “immediate, self-present living subjectivity to whom the belief embodied in ‘social things’ can be attributed,” but the individual constantly refers to an original or primordial Other than is the “subject supposed to believe” (135). It would seem that in this framework of knowledge that fetishism, that relies on the belief of the Other, serves as the fantasmatic apparatus of capitalism, functioning in a way that it covers the gap in the Symbolic Order that is “opened up by primary repression of Real trauma or antagonism” (Wood 301). So in this way there is a movement away from Marx who understood fetishism as “concealing the positive network of social relations,” but instead, as in Zizek’s view, the social relations themselves, in a postmodern era, are visible and yet fetishism still conceals the “void around which symbolic networks revolve” (301). It would seem that this is what Zizek is referring to when he implies that there is subject that serves as the center to which the beliefs attributed to material things, stems. Instead it is a primordial and external Other that is constantly deferred. So these beliefs, which are central to fetishism in all regards, require an external Master-Signifier, such as liberal-democracy or capitalism, which is both the locus of the structure and external to at the same time.
One of the most difficult aspects of Zizek’s commentary is that it is still unclear, at least to me, how interpassivity provides a framework for freedom in this paradigm of fetishism. Zizek claims that with externalization of beliefs that comes with “primordial substitution” as mentioned earlier, a positive space is opened through in which the individual subject might actively participate through the Other. If the realm of fetishism is comprised of this “bizarre category of the object-subjective,” the key to demystifying the ideological practices of fetishism is to objectively establish that your actions, the symbolic exchange, actually belies the fact that you unconsciously experience social reality in a way that reinforces fetishism,
As I read Zizek’s discussion of the tableaux vivants as an example of the death drive, I couldn’t help but think of the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. When they are being looked at, or gazed upon, they appear to be statues. As soon as they are out of view, though, they become animated, moving toward the person who had been watching them. Not only do they move, but they transform from a traditional Gothic angel statue into a terrifying figure with sharp teeth bared, arms raised, fingers outstretched…the whole nine yards. Zizek says that “horror cuts both ways: what provokes horror is not only the discovery that what we took for a living human being is a dead mechanical doll…but also – perhaps even more – the traumatic discovery that what we took for a dead entity…is actually alive – all of a sudden, it starts to trickle, tremble, move, speak, act with an (evil) intent” (112). He says on page 113 that “drive is immortal, eternal, ‘undead,’” which certainly fits with the Weeping Angels, to the point that if they are watched for too long, they will actually inhabit the person watching them even though they are immobile.
Like Lindsey, I’m confused by page 152. Zizek says that “if I am to function as pure activity, I have to externalize my (passive) Being – in short, I have to be passive through another. This inert object which ‘is’ my Being, in which my Being is externalized, is the Lacanian objet petit a…the more I am active, the more I must be passive in another’s place – that is to say, the more there must be another object which is passive in my place” (152). Over the last several days, I’ve been frantically trying to complete reading assignments, blog posts, and papers for classes to the point where I have hardly had time to sleep. I have had a desire to be passive, but have not been able to stop being active. I have (actively) posted on Facebook about how much I must get done and how busy my days are, but have also responded to friends’ posts where they were talking about their vacations and how happy they were to have some downtime, to get some rest, to be finished with their own papers, etc. The way I’m understanding Zizek’s statement is through this example – my desire, my objet petit a, has been relaxation, passivity. Even though I have been incapable of stopping my activity, I have externalized my desire for rest by talking about it (indirectly) on Facebook, thus placing responsibility on my friends to respond with their own stories about sitting on the porch, relaxing at the lake, going to Vegas to visit family…whatever. Am I, through my own posts, prompting my friends to experience passiveness for me? In my exhausted head, it seems as though it makes sense to look at Zizek’s statement this way, but it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong.
Zizek’s discussion of the Lacanian death drive as “the space between the two deaths, symbolic and real,” locates the death drive in the space between “the ‘dead’ symbolic order which mortifies the body and the non-symbolic [Real] Life-Substance of jouissance” (112). In addition, he states that the “paradox of moving statues, of dead objects coming alive and/or petrified living objects, is possible only within the space of the death drive” (112). This discussion brought to mind the Doctor Who episode “Blink,” in which entities that appear to be statues of Weeping Angels are unable to move and, therefore, appear to be statues when they are observed. Furthermore, the Weeping Angels cover their faces when in their statue form to avoid being seen by each other. To be seen turns the Angels to stone, and to be seen by one another “locks” them in an seemingly immovable stone state. The sensation experienced by the spectator is explained by Zizek’s observation that “what provokes horror is not only the discovery that what we took for a living human being is a dead mechanical doll [also presented in other Doctor Who episodes]…but also—perhaps even more—the traumatic discovery that what we took for a dead entity [the Weeping Angel statues]…is actually alive” (111). In this respect, the spectator’s fascination with the Weeping Angels may be attributed to these entities embodying both senses of horror. The latter—the statue as a living being—is the spectator’s initial discovery of statue’s secret (hidden) threat. The former—the living creature as statue—is realized when the Angels are cleverly maneuvered so as to look at each other and consequently permanently (?) immobilized. The villainous Angels are defeated, but they are not dead. They continue to operate at the level of potential which can never be seen. My interpretation of these living immobile statues is that they exist as “’alive while dead’…giv[ing] body to the remainder of Life-Substance [jouissance] which has escaped the symbolic colonization” (112). The Weeping Angels may be seen as the “counterpoint” to death in the Symbolic, as “the ‘living dead’ (the monstrous Life-Substance which persists in the Real outside the Symbolic” (113). However, I’m tempted to locate these entities in the “split which runs within the domains of Life and Death [which] constitutes the space of the death drive,” though I’m not sure how to articulate this idea other than to note that if “drive is immortal, eternal, ‘undead’,” then the Angels appear to give concrete form to this immortal drive (113).
Furthermore, Zizek’s discussion of “troppo fisso” may be applied as an ontological characteristic of the Weeping Angels. The title of the episode, “Blink,” refers to the warning that the (human or Time Lord) observer must keep his/her gaze locked on the Angels: “Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink.” Unlike Dante, the protagonist (Sally Sparrow) in “Blink” is given permission, or rather commanded” to gaze fixedly in order to “blur the proper view of the totality of Being” (115). Zizek notes that “this fixation on the beloved object (or, more to the point, on some scene of the Other’s jouissance) which congeals it, wrenches it from its context, and thus destabilizes, throws off the rails, the balanced flow of things, stands for the violent cut of anamorphosis which, at the visual level, sustains the gap between reality and the real” (115-16). The problem is that if they exist in the space between the Symbolic and the Real (the space of the death drive), the Angels are a form of jouissance, not just an imagined scene of their jouissance. To gaze fixedly on them is to be horrified, perhaps a traumatic encounter with the Real, but not the Real as the existence of the statue in the Symbolic. The gaze fixes the statue as a concrete specter but the gaze must remain constant. The observer’s life literally depends on her ability to not look away. If “anamorphosis…sustains the gap between reality and the real,” Sally Sparrow’s gaze sustains the image of the statue as statue, while her inability to blink (an impossibility) keeps the Angel in suspension between reality and the real. Or something like that.
As Zizek begins discussing fetishism, he uses movement and stillness to exemplify modernization. In his illustration, still pictures are used to identify the death or mortification of their subjects, or the living body (108). This reminded me of certain Native American tribes who refuse to allow pictures to be taken of them because they feel it captures a portion of their souls. What changed stillness from mortification though is his “negative link” between movement and stillness. Movement is equated with blindness. When objects are in motion we aren’t allowed to clearly grasp, handle, or maintain them. It is when they are immobilized that we can better relate to and understand them. Such medical procedures as MRIs and X-rays would be a prime example of this notion. When our bodies are immobilized it is clear to the attending technician what is ailing us or what the problem is. Stillness brings about an ability to identify the issue. As Zizek says, “immobility makes a thing visible” (109). Next, he states that those who have died exhibit a fuller instance. Does this mean that the person’s memory claims more value than the actual person, then?
Zizek continues to discuss how immobilization and mortification are connected through his introduction of the gaze. The gaze mortifies his object, he says, and operates as the frozen point of immobility (111). This made me think of freeze frames in movies in which one object or person is frozen on the screen in front of us. While it definitely invokes our gaze, it also, in a sense, is gazing at us from the perspective of something within the screen. Later, he states how a “frozen gaze” interrupts order or flow of things (115). I believe this is due to again immobilization and mortification. It naturally follows that the frozen gaze is not just the image frozen on the screen but our response to freeze as we return the gaze. So really, the gaze also immobilizes us, right?
The most enjoyable part to me is when he discusses the difference between belief and knowledge. Not only are the two unequal or asymmetrical, but we perform them differently (138). I think he’s saying that belief is reflective while knowledge is more precise. “For this reason, I can believe through the other, but I cannot know through the other” (138). In other words, someone else enables us to believe but knowledge is something we can only do on our own. Someone else can believe for you but you must know for yourself.
Cinema is a form of death, a posthumous imagining. The moving picture, the literal film reel, is made of numerous still pictures; living productions are made of death, small pieces of death that seem whole until mashed together to make it alive again and you see how sterile and insignificant they really are (the sort of never-ending hermeneutic circle where we never stop analyzing which came first or which is whole without the other, with and without the capital O). But beyond this creepy sort of look into a film reel as a plethora of twitching corpses line dancing for our amusement, it is the fact that “what we took for a living human being is a dead mechanical doll but also…the traumatic discovery that what we took for a dead entity…is actually alive” (111). We are looking directly into the death drive, which seems like a nice place to mash in Lacan. And here I think Zizek manages to explain the death drive in the best terms I have yet to come across: “…not the simple opposition between life and death, but the split of life itself into ‘normal’ life and horrifying ‘undead’ life, and the split of the dead into ‘ordinary’ dead and the ‘undead’ machine” (112). Somewhere between language (which is a dead and functioning) and Life-Substance (which I will need explicated in great detail in the near future) is this death drive where cinema functions and that blurry line of cyborgs comes in.
Now to the fun albeit slightly less image based subject of fetishism and how we are strengthening it (sorry if I sound a bit like a “how-to” manual herein). Zizek brings up “The making of…” films that show us how we get a product in the death drive in a sense that shows up in the death drive. By laying bare our fetish, by showing the making of, is not depleting the fetish, but feeding it? I didn’t really get this until Zizek equated this to the idea of physical money and the imaginary money that we all have (though yes, both are real/Real). “…the postmodern transparency of the process of production is false in so far as it obfuscates the immaterial virtual order which effectively runs the show…”(131). The thing always existed and even showing how it exists through the medium in which it exists is not really showing us anything, is not ruining anything for us…as long as it is false…and living in this death drive where it operates only makes it a production (too many clustered undefined pronouns?). We cannot destroy our fetishes, even by exposing them; by exposing how they operate or even depicting in tedious detail their birth. We are cannot shed our fetish.
The Other is our prosthetic enjoyment (I know, a topic we already covered). We enjoy through the Other insofar as we can enjoy catharsis without actually having to deal with all the trials and tribulations. It is not that another is doing the work for us (141) but substituting for me. I still feel the things, but without all the physical labor. My problem with this is taking account for a literal prosthetic. And here we enter into a stage of lack that Zizek doesn’t particularly tackle in this section. If we have this emotional Other, this prosthetic than we can also look at the physical prosthetics, the arm that does the work for me and so on. Now, if there is a lack (say I lose my arm) and I receive another (besides phantom limb and all sorts of other trauma), then I have filled my lack a lack which I only knew existed because it had once not existed at all. When my arm was there I did not feel a lack, its absence created a lack in which I filled. What about surplus? Tattoos are a great place to go from here. Tattoos are seen as a surplus cosmetic, they are not necessary and we are not born with them. However, once we have them and they are removed then we sense their lack. People often explain, “this is where my tattoo used to be…” and so what about cover ups? This is where my tattoo used to be until I covered up with another and so I have a surplus which is a lack? Sorry, this is a bit of mad rambling I have been mulling over. When exactly does surplus stop being a lack and how can we provide for the prosthetic in this sense?
Sorry this is so late…
I have to say that I am so thankful for Zizek’s examples and illustrations. I feel like at this point I should get what they’re saying but I still don’t. So, the one part that really made some sense was the section titled “The Subject Supposed to Believe”, because I liked his example.
He opens this section by talking about what the subject is supposed to know. He uses the example of the show “Columbo” to describe this (I think many more shows are using this tactic now). The audience knows who did the crime, the detective then seeks the culprit. Often the detective’s time is spent trying to prove to the culprit that he in fact did it. So. The process is “I know something, then I find proofs to prove my knowing that something”. And this “knowing” is different from “believing”.
His explanation in regards to religion is interesting then. One believes first, then deals with “proofs” or lack thereof. Any hard evidence takes the magic out of religion though by proving or disproving. This knowing/believing has more to do with the subject, not the other. Does this say anything specific about the subject’s belief (or knowledge) of his fantasy/fetish? Or is religion (since he discusses it) a fantasy of sorts in itself? I mean, if we found out that Hobbits really did exist (found proof of the fantasy characters), Tolkien’s stories would lose some of its thrill and believable unbelievability, right?
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