The Fragile Absolute or why is the christian legacy worth fighting for? 
by Slavoj Žižek.
Verso, 182 pp., £16, June 2000, 1 85984 770 6
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Get into the car sometime and drive out of town. Once you have got past the suburbs, and the industrial estates, and the home-made signs (‘Buy British’, ‘Our Beef With Blair’) that mark the transition, you will find yourself in another England, barely inhabited, tranquil, timeless. It is easy to see yourself in this world; its unruffled surface seems to reflect a clearer picture of who you are, free of the distorting pressures of urban life. Perhaps you could move to the country and become that person. There is no obstacle; like the graffiti that used to cover the inner cities, those signs carry a message they do not proclaim: this is wasted space, there is scope for redevelopment. Before long you are looking in estate agents’ windows.

Migration, too, presupposes a capacity to see yourself somewhere else, and the capacity to see yourself depends on the surface in which you are looking. According to Plotinus, it was because they saw themselves reflected in the world that immortal souls first migrated to the realm of matter. The idea had its origin in the myth of Dionysus Zagreus. To distract his attention the Titans offered the infant Dionysus a mirror and some other childish baubles, and then, while he was admiring his own reflected image, captured him and tore him to pieces. The reborn Dionysus meted out the same treatment to his own victims, but it was not this aspect of the story that interested the Neoplatonists. For them, the mirror of Dionysus was the material world itself. Proclus suggested that when Plato stated that the surface of the world was created smooth, he meant that it had a reflective surface like a mirror, and Plotinus had something similar in mind when he claimed that it was when the souls saw their images in ‘the mirror of Dionysus’ that they descended from unity into material multiplicity.

The myth has obvious resonances with what Lacan described as the mirror stage. Lacan interprets the human infant’s capacity to recognise itself in a mirror as simultaneously a revelatory moment of identification of and with the Ideal-I, and a devastating moment in which the discrepancy between the unified image of the reflection and the uncoordinated body of the infant becomes apparent. Like the Neoplatonists, Lacan’s theory makes the experience of the mirrored image the precipitating event through which human subjectivities are formed, and emphasises that the mirror functions as a lure: captivation leads to capture. Just as Dionysus is torn apart, and Plotinus’ souls lose their immaterial unity, so the infant experiences itself as a fragmented multiplicity, a corps morcelé.

The mirror stage remains the best known of Lacan’s ideas, yet unlike his later work it barely features in current debates in political and cultural theory. Because it is pre-social and pre-linguistic, the mirror stage is assumed to be pre-political as well. Commentators pass quickly to the end of the stage, when identification with the reflected image leads to a rivalry that Lacan took to prefigure the individual’s relations in and with society, and interpreted in terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. But they are moving too fast. Hegelian readings ignore other possible philosophical influences on Lacan’s early work, and the assumption that the political always emerges from within the social creates a blind spot in political discourse.

The parallels between Plotinus and Lacan are probably more than fortuitous. Lacan’s theory developed in the early 1930s through the synthesis of his teacher Henri Wallon’s ‘mirror test’ with some of the ideas he was picking up from his informal philosophical studies. At the time, Neoplatonism was also undergoing a revival in France under the leadership of Émile Berthier at the Sorbonne, and the belief that there were affinities between the philosophies of Plotinus and Bergson brought Neoplatonism into wider philosophical discussion. Lacan’s attention would have been drawn to the myth of Dionysus Zagreus (and its Neoplatonic interpreters) by a book he said all psychoanalysts should read at least once, Erwin Rohde’s Psyche, which had been translated into French in 1928. The general fascination with Neoplatonism had waned by the years of Lacan’s fame, but the scattering of references to Plotinus in the Seminars testifies to an enduring interest.

If we pick up the Plotinian imagery in Lacan’s early texts, it alerts us not just to the range of Lacan’s sources, but to the value of the mirror stage as a political myth comparable in potency to that of Hegel’s master and slave. In certain respects, it seems more relevant to the contemporary situation than Hegel’s dialectic, for it hinges on image rather than status, on movement rather than struggle, and on the relation of the one and the many rather than a dyadic rivalry. Above all, it provides a model for the dynamics of migration: the smooth reflective surface of the host region, the lure of the image glimpsed within it, and the experience of alienation that frequently results.

Despite the fundamental role of migration in history, it barely features within traditional political theory, where the basic element is almost invariably a bounded social unit and the political actors within it – in modern times, the nation state and the citizen. But during the past decade, migrants have become a potent symbol of the social dislocation created by globalisation, and have been invested with some of the Left’s more romantic aspirations. There is probably an element of self-delusion in this. Migrants are heroes of the Left only in the host country, not in the nations from which they come; and if you call them settlers instead, they immediately appear in a rather different light. Nevertheless, migration remains significant for it is not only a striking manifestation of the human aspiration for change, but a proven means of effecting it. The Judeo-Christian tradition is a rich source of migratory imagery, from the Exodus onward, but the locus classicus is probably Augustine’s vision of the people of God as guest-workers in Babylon and pilgrims to the New Jerusalem. Small wonder, therefore, that the City of God seems to have become the Left’s new paradigm of social change. In Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, Augustine provides the model for a counter-empire in which ‘the divine city is a universal city of aliens, coming together, co-operating, communicating.’ And even Slavoj Žižek, who complains that ‘in today’s critical and political discourse, the term “worker” has disappeared, supplanted and/or obliterated by “immigrants”,’ ends The Fragile Absolute with the vision of ‘the community of believers qua “uncoupled” outcasts from the social order’ clinging to ‘the brief apparition of a future utopian Otherness’.

Augustine described the two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem, as being governed by cupiditas and caritas respectively. Ironically, Hardt and Negri make desire the defining characteristic of the multitude who inhabit their secular ‘divine city’, while Žižek sticks with caritas (for which he uses the Greek agape) as the primary virtue of his community of believing outcasts. Augustine argued that cupiditas should be reined in, and caritas spurred on. Yet as Žižek points out, both are counterproductive. Forbidding desire is the best way to maintain it; commanding caritas, like the Kantian ethical imperative, turns love into obedience. Is there another way?

The reinterpretation of agape that Žižek offers as a way of appropriating the Christian legacy takes the form of a second-order psychoanalytic paradox. Psychoanalysis traditionally inclines toward suspicion – what we take to be goods are actually the expression, or the repression, of their opposite – but Žižek takes it further: perhaps the worst is for the best. Žižek has long fuelled this argument by working the rich seam of black humour that developed under Communism, but in The Fragile Absolute he finds a new source in the New Testament. According to Žižek, hate is the new love. Jesus said: ‘If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.’ Here, hatred does not imply an irrational antagonism, but a self-destructive act of renunciation. Examples include Lacan’s dissolution of the École Freudienne; Keyser Soze’s decision to shoot his wife and daughter when they are held hostage in The Usual Suspects; Oskar Lafontaine’s resignation from the German Government; and Sethe’s slaughter of her child in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For Žižek, the significance of these negative gestures is twofold: on the one hand, it saves what is sacrificed from a worse fate (Lafontaine’s political career would have been hopelessly compromised, Sethe’s child would have been returned to slavery); on the other, giving up his or her stake in the world uncouples the subject from the social order: the sacrifice of what is most precious ‘changes the co-ordinates of the situation in which the subject finds himself; by cutting himself loose from the precious object through whose possession the enemy kept him in check, the subject gains the space of free action’.

The problem with Žižek’s account is not that giving up what you love is a wholly inappropriate example of Christian charity – God sacrificed his own son – but that as a specifically political act it appears to be of limited value. Žižek attaches an almost mystical significance to it: just as the sacrifice of Christ led to the coming of the Holy Ghost, so the sacrifice of what is precious produces the ‘magic moment when the Absolute appears in all its fragility’, a Pentecost when the Holy Ghost is at last revealed in the community of those who have uncoupled themselves from society. But if caritas – the virtue that Augustine thought would bind the inhabitants of the heavenly city together – is just a desperate act of renunciation, what is the basis on which the outcasts sustain community, let alone the ‘authentic psychoanalytic and revolutionary political collectives’ that are to be its main forms? According to Žižek, ‘the best way to imagine such a community is to locate in the lineage of other “eccentric” communities of outcasts … from lepers and circus freaks to early computer hackers – groups in which stigmatised individuals are united by a secret bond of solidarity.’ Yet if agape is at work here too, these secret bonds will be renounced in their turn. The perfect example of Christian love – discussed in Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) but absent from The Fragile Absolute – would therefore have to be Judas in Scorsese’s Last Temptation. Christ’s disciples are already a community of outcasts, but Judas, who loves Christ more than the others do, is able to betray him, and so uncouple himself for all eternity.

When Žižek’s psychoanalytic revolutionaries are leaving society they may pass Hardt’s and Negri’s multitude going the other way, for the path of the multitude goes into and through Empire. Hardt and Negri accept that there is a place for refusal and exodus, but complain that ‘refusal in itself (of work, authority, and voluntary servitude) leads only to a kind of social suicide.’ There must also be a new community, and for them, the way to create such a community is through movement. So whereas Žižek complains that the obsession with immigrants obscures the issue of class, Hardt and Negri argue that migration is ‘a powerful form of class struggle’. And they have a point, for at a time when, as Žižek notes, many of the American working class live in China (with the Chinese Communist Party to keep them in their place) it is difficult to separate the capacity to move freely between countries from the ability for workers to take effective industrial or political action. Hardt and Negri therefore see the inhabitants of their city as ‘a new nomad horde, a new race of barbarians’ who will reappropriate global space and affirm the right to control their own movement.

Augustine’s migrants are on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem; Hardt and Negri’s multitude are going wherever their desire takes them. Returning to Augustine’s source in Plotinus, they imagine the multitude saying: ‘Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland.’ And where is the Fatherland? ‘Close the eyes and call instead upon another vision that is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.’ The passage comes from a section of the Enneads, where Plotinus urges people to turn from the illusory images seen in the mirror of matter and embark on the reascent to the intelligible world. Hardt and Negri naturally resist Plotinus’s idealism, but the reference is nevertheless revealing. Despite appearances, even the nomad horde has a utopian destination in which ‘co-operation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and innocence.’

So how, if at all, does Žižek’s vision of a ‘future utopian otherness’ differ from the Plotinian teleology of the multitude? In The Ticklish Subject (1999), Žižek identifies the ‘mysterious emergence of transcendental spontaneity’ from the negative gesture with Alain Badiou’s Truth-Event – an unpredictable happening that reveals the repressed truth of the existing situation. Events like Adam’s Fall, Christ’s death, and the French and Russian Revolutions are negative gestures which undermine the prevailing order but which also ground ‘a higher, more rational order’. Within this process, Žižek, unlike Badiou, argues for the primacy of ‘the (negative) act over the (positive) establishment of a “new harmony”’. According to Žižek ‘in this negative gesture something (a void) is confronted which is already “sutured” with the arrival of a new Truth-Event.’

Žižek’s favourite image of negativity is Hegel’s ‘night of the world’. He equates this nightmarish vision of partial objects (‘here shoots a bloody head – there another white ghastly apparition’) both with the corps morcelé which Lacan glimpsed in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and with Schelling’s Ground of Existence, the pre-ontological chaos that gives rise to the Absolute. Žižek judges Schelling to have put Plotinus’ descent from unity into material multiplicity in reverse, and sees his own insistence on the primacy of the negative in the same terms. But things are not so simple. Žižek’s vision of the corps morcelé has become detached from its original Lacanian context. In the mirror stage it is the reflected image, the illusion of unity, that cuts the body into pieces, and it is that same illusion of unity for which the infant strives, to overcome its fragmentation.

Lacan’s picture of the precise relation between unity and fragmentation in the imaginary of the human subject is not altogether clear, and, as a good psychoanalytic puzzle should, it includes a possible typo. In a revised English version of his paper on the mirror stage, Lacan argued that for the infant the ‘illusion of unity … entails a constant danger of sliding back again into the chaos from which he started; it hangs over the abyss of a dizzy Assent’. One cannot help feeling that this ‘dizzy Assent’ may disguise a Neoplatonic ‘Ascent’, but in The Fragile Absolute the two are hardly distinguishable anyway. Žižek uses the example of Julie, the heroine of Kieslowski’s film Three Colours: Blue, who is injured in a car crash that kills her husband and child. As she lies in hospital, the objects of the room are seen reflected swimming in her eye. This is the night of the world, the chaos of the body-in-pieces. At the end of the film, Julie sits in bed while the camera covers four different scenes in the lives of those to whom she is intimately related. Here again we see disparate motifs floating in the darkness of the screen, but this time they have an ‘ethereal lightness’. At last, Julie is able to cry. Her tears are ‘the tears of agape, of a Yes! to life’ and she is ‘reconciled with the universe’.

What is absent from Žižek’s account is any acknowledgment either that the fragmentation of Julie’s world is dependent on the illusion of a happily united family (after the crash she discovers that her husband’s mistress is bearing his child) or that her final ‘reconciliation with the universe’ is another illusion of unity that may soon be cruelly disabused. In short, Žižek’s utopianism obscures the psychoanalytic insight Lacan brings to the Neoplatonic myth. Where Plotinus values unity over multiplicity, and treats the mirror image of unity that precipitates the descent of souls as something quite different from the true unity to which they reascend, Lacan treats unity and multiplicity as complementary fantasies between which the subject oscillates. For Žižek, this poses two related difficulties. It becomes difficult to ascribe any meaningful primacy to the negative gesture. Just as negativity becomes positive, positivity becomes negative: it is only in coupling that you start to uncouple, through loving your family that you really learn to hate them. For the same reason, it is also impossible to ascribe any finality to a new positivity, any absoluteness to the Absolute.

Although his outcasts seem to tune into the Absolute just by dropping out, Žižek shares Hardt and Negri’s assumption that the political significance of the act of movement comes from its capacity to connect with a utopian otherness. But the reality of migration is surely much closer to the descent of the soul than to its reascent. Like the urbanite’s fantasy of country life, many migrants’ picture of their destination is produced by burnishing its surface until they see themselves reflected in it. European fantasies of the New World are one example, but the same process was at work in the migrations from the countryside to the city that characterised the 19th and 20th centuries. Narcissistic illusion is the lure, the ‘future Utopian otherness’, that draws people from one place to another. As Thomas Friedman puts it in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, ‘the “wretched of the earth” want to go to Disney World – not to the barricades.’ However, there is no reason why migration should be dismissed as a political force on this account. Whereas politics traditionally presupposes the social, migration is something that takes place outside the social, even outside the law, not, of course, in the sense that it is pre-social, but because movement between societies is not fully governed by either. The difference between migration and invasion is only one of degree; migration, like revolution, is the making and the unmaking of the social, not something that happens within it.

But if migrants are on their way to Disney World rather than the New Jerusalem, why should their wanderings be of any interest to political theorists of the Left? Because they never get there. Like all narcissistic fantasies, the image of the self that inspires migration is forever elusive (even Disney World is not pure Disney): fragmentation and alienation are the almost inevitable outcome, for even if they manage to make the journey, many migrants discover that the Ideal-I has moved on, leaving them once more a fragmented body, a mere ‘inchoate collection of desires’ (as Lacan describes it). But does the impossibility of utopia mean that there is no alternative to the status quo? Not necessarily. Migration not only changes the world; its very failure to change it into a utopia creates the conditions for solidarity. As both Lacan and Plotinus emphasise, fragmentation is desire, and desires, unlike narcissistic fantasies, can easily be shared.

For example, the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, were a revolutionary group who co-ordinated industrial protest across the United States in the early years of the 20th century. They would be a good model for one of Žižek’s revolutionary collectives, and in Hardt and Negri they feature as ‘the great Augustinian project of modern times’ whose ‘perpetual movement … was indeed an immanent pilgrimage, creating a new society in the shell of the old’. But in fact the Wobblies gathered support among those who had already made the move to the place of their dreams: migrants who had gone out West but were struggling to survive; European immigrants whose fantasies of the New World had left them slaving in the kitchens of New York hotels; African Americans and Poles whose journey to freedom had ended on the waterfront in Philadelphia. These were people whose fraternity lay not in the utopian otherness they had sought, but in the sharing of their shattered dreams.

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