So you thought Lacanian psychoanalysis died with the master? Well, no; the ghost of Jacques Lacan lives on, in the least predictable of places – Slovenia. In Ljubljana, Slavoj Zizek (born 1949) leads a genuine school of Lacanians. Not that they are practicing psychoanalysts, but philosophers, sociologists, semioticians, film theorists and media specialists. Zizek and his group thus place far greater emphasis on the analysis of signs, language, and (collective)
symbolism than on the individual subconscious.
Slavoj Zizek is already known for several publications in French (the collection of articles Tout ce que vous avez toujours voulu savoir sur Lacan, sans jamais oser le demander à Hitchcock (1988) and Le plus sublime des hystériques - Hegel passe (1989)) and English (The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) and Looking Awry - an introduction to Lacan through popular culture (1991)). Now Merve Verlag in Berlin has brought out Liebe Dein Symptom wie Dich selbst!.
Practical applications of fashionable theories have been the mainstay of academia for decades. With a subtitle like Jacques Lacan's Psychoanalyse und die Medien it could appear as though Zizek is riding the same bandwagon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Zizek does not use Lacan to illuminate the popular media. No; he applies the popular media to Lacan! In an often brilliant manner Zizek explains, and actualizes, the fundamental ideas of Lacanian theory with examples from sci-fi novels, Stephen King, or – especially – the rich oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. He does not ask What does Lacan teach us about television, but What does television teach us about Lacanian theory? This is much more than just a clever game or a pedagogical gimmick. It is a way of working, surprising at first glance, very elucidating in practice, and theoretically responsible. Zizek's method has everything to do with Lacan's idea of the symptom.
Lacan's most important contribution to Western thought may be that he turned causality upside down. He recognized that an effect always appears before a cause. First a symptom manifests itself, and only later do we recognize the disease. Something happens, and only later, when we see the broader context, when we construct a story out of what has happened, realize the symbolism, do we realize what it meant, what kind of symptom it was.
To illustrate Zizek's method with my own example: Carl T. Dreyer made a nice short film, They caught the ferry (1948), by order of the Danish traffic safety board. Dreyer shows a speeding motorcyclist trying to catch the next ferry. On his wild ride across a Danish island he is followed by an old black car. At a certain point the motorcyclist takes a wrong turn at a fork in the road. The black car (and the camera) wait for the bike to come back. Back on the 'right' road the bike is finally overtaken by the old black car. Then Dreyer shows us who is in the car: death. The motorcyclist gets a fright and drives into a tree. Only then, in retrospect, does the meaning of the fork become clear: by going the wrong way the motorcyclist could have saved his life, but he naturally turns back
on to the 'right' road and rides straight into death.
Dreyer's film is of course about predestination, about humanity not being able to escape fate. In a certain sense this is also what Lacan's theory is about. Chance does not exist for Lacan either. However, things are not predestined by Divine Providence, but 'post-destined' by the meanings we give them. Every symptom is explained in retrospect through the disease which it foretells (and every symptom that finds no disease disappears and is forgotten, stops being a symptom). Zizek makes it clear that this has to do only with repetition. At the moment that Dreyer shows us the figure of death in the car, the entire meaning of what looked like a simple account of a fast ride over a Danish island changes retrospectively. In the light of death, the motorcyclist's wrong turn becomes a quasi-theological tract about how we cannot escape fate. Looking back (possibly via a literal repetition: watching the film again) we change the film's whole meaning. A posteriori, the wrong turn becomes a symptom of predestination.
A letter always reaches its destination, Lacan said. A sign always gets – retrospectively – a meaning (or else it is not a sign): the postman always rings twice. A fine example of a letter that always arrives, cited by Zizek in a footnote, is Max Ophul's Letter from an Unknown Woman. The dandy Louis Jordan receives a letter from a woman whom he has no recollection of – she is one of many the Don Juan has had a (remarkably short) romance with. But the letter, the symptom, tells him that he has unwittingly spoiled her life and that of her/their child (whose existence he knew nothing of before the letter). Confronted with this symptom of this 'un(der)conscious' reality he chooses for death...
We find the same situation in a completely different genre: the familiar gag from Chuck Jones's Roadrunner cartoons where the coyote runs through the air for a minute before realizing he's hovering over an abyss. Only when he realizes this does he fall. Indestructible cartoon characters like the coyote sometimes
forget to die. But ultimately this, death, is the only symptom which we cannot escape. And this is precisely why we go to such trouble to do just that, to forget our end, to banish it from our consciousness. In short, we are constantly running, like the coyote, above an abyss. Every medium, every form of writing, everything which will not perish when we have long lain under the soil, is a scheme to deny the ultimate symptom, 'death'. Every medium, from a vacation
snapshot to an equestrian statue, is a memorial stone for Derrida.
Zizek does not have too much time for Derrida and poststructuralism. Maybe because in light of Derrida's views, embracing the symptom as the only reality in fact comes down to embracing death, the only inescapable reality. Loving the symptom (as in the title of Zizek's book) then actually implies kissing one's
own skeleton. Because, naturally, death is all that gives meaning to life (which would be unbearable without it). And aren't the media pre-eminently the carriers of death? Naturally Zizek's book is itself a symptom too, and this review merely a symbolic discourse about it, a distorted (and undoubtedly poststructuralist) vision of it. But for the low price of this book you can identify with it yourself, and discover what you actually knew all along, but never dared ask...
translation LAURA MARTZ