Tag Archives: Lacan

The Absolutes that Failed, Creativity and Human Procreation

This is a challenging book and well worth spending the time and energy required to read it. To fully grasp the arguments made here one needs at the very least to read at Kant’s first critique (1998) and Hegel’s first major book (2018). But it would also be helpful to see a lot of movies, especially those by Hitchcock! There is much to admire and this book will stimulate much discussion. Some of the ideas are commonplace notions expressed in somewhat veiled language, but some of the central arguments are newly formulated paradoxes that attempt to get at elusive aspects of human lived experience and the political economy of nation-states in the Late Capitalist era.

The central paradox (in common sense terms) is that it is only by striving to get what we do not necessarily hope to accomplish that we become aware of who we really are, and the true “nature” of a human being is not a static personality but a continually shifting confrontation with ontic realities and obdurate blockages, especially in creation and procreation.

Much important information is contained in this book, but at times it almost feels like a primer for obscure trivia that might emerge as questions on the tv program “Jeopardy”. But for many the penetrating comments on Kant and Hegel will be worth the price of the book for anyone who is not already either a Kant scholar or a Hegel scholar. It just came out in hardcover but no doubt a paperback version will appear and that will make it even more affordable and more widely read. It is not a textbook however. It would not be useful in a lecture course although it might provoke discussion in an advanced graduate seminar. Key terms are never fully defined. It is not poetry or even verse drama, since there are too many declarative sentences to compare any of this to a work by T. S. Eliot (Žižek 2020: 419).

In “Murder in the Cathedral” Eliot argues that the highest form of “treason” is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. He was writing about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in the twelfth century (1170 CE), during the reign of Henry II. Perhaps Søren Kierkegaard was a bit wiser in his arguments with himself about marriage and being a householder versus intellectual productivity. Maybe the idea that doing the right thing for the right reason is a higher form of wisdom than doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason, or even doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The fourth possibility would be doing the wrong thing for the right reason and that often happens when one has to choose a path that is neither good nor bad but nevertheless perhaps better, like assassinating Adolph Hitler, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was willing to be complicit with despite the Ten Commandments.

One has to either believe in Tanakh (which is called the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures by the goyim who are not Jews) or believe in the so-called New Testament (which Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews definitely see as apocryphal) to believe in some kind of YHWH/Gott/God figure in order to follow a theological argument in the way that Eliot did.  (The notion of a “unified” Bible that can reconcile the Old and the New is something that Charles Sanders Peirce might deem a kind of “vague” popular belief that is not strictly logical but that helps people get through the day, more or less.)

Žižek, in his inimitable style, mixing close analytical arguments with popular culture examples, presents three Theorems, I, II, and III. He then recapitulates with a kind of overview of his central motif: negativity which is so “radical” that it cannot be “sublated”. His triad of argumentation attempts to persuade us that we can (I.) know the “fate of ontology in our era”, (II.) comprehend that it is “sexuality,” as a force of “negativity” disrupting every ontological “edifice”, that allows for our “contact with the Absolute”, and (III.) the convoluted “space” can be thought of in terms of three synecdoches: the Möbious strip, the cross-cap and the Klein bottle.

Like Durkheim’s argument about the need for prostitution to allow for bourgeois norms concerning monogamy, Žižek concludes with paradoxes: human reason requires madness as its ground; stable, committed monogamous relationships require notions of sexual passion that can also threaten the notion of bourgeois forms of romantic love between two individuals; and, the ethical aspects of “communal life” require military struggle. In other words, without madness, passion and war we cannot have liberal Enlightenment Reason, modern marriages or nation-states.

Much of the vocabulary is unnecessarily metaphorical and poetic. Part of his charm is his obfuscation of central points in numerous digressions. Sometimes the illustrations are as complex to decipher as the points they are supposed to illuminate. It all reminds me of the largest rough diamond discovered since 1905, the 1,758 carat basketball size Sowlo, discovered in April 2019 at the Karowe mine in Bostwana, and recently purchased by Louis Vuitton of the LVMH corporation in Paris.  Žižek’s rough diamond is not the biggest ever published. But Sewelo means “rare find” in the Setswana language and this most recent book by Žižek is indeed a rare find.

I found it at the Athenaeum book store in Amsterdam in November, 2019, when it had first come out. I was actually looking for a book by Spinoza in both 17th century and contemporary Dutch, but that book had been sold. Instead of a Dutch language version of Spinoza’s masterpiece I happened to find another deeply Metaphysical book. Žižek wants to “transpose” the “gap” between the “Absolute” and our phenomenal world. In a Kantian (or Neo-Kantian) vein, one could say he wants to focus on the distance between the phenomenal and the Ding-an-Sich. We can never fully know the Thing-in-itself, but we can know that we can never know.

Spinoza’s notion that we can somehow link up with the Absolute as that which is beyond the vicissitudes of everyday life and even politics in our comprehension of “Nature” is thus at odds with Žižek’s core Metaphysical assumption that we cannot coalesce the phenomenally ontic and the transcendentally ontological. For Žižek “man” is “united” with “Nature” precisely by an acceptance of the paradox that human beings cannot be entirely “natural’. One does not have to accept that axiom or many others, however, in order to enjoy this uncut diamond. Nor would a fully polished version of this gem necessarily be a lot better, except perhaps for classroom use with undergraduate students, graduate students, or those not philosophically inclined already.

Like a good novel of the sort written by Tolstoy or Somerset Maugham this book is a “good read”. It can also be compared to The Signature of All Things, a surprisingly good novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013) about Alfred Russell Wallace, the theory of natural selection, and related matters like the commercial production of quinine in the Indonesian archipelago. This Post-postmodernist “novel” has many plot twists and I kept being intrigued by all of the characters on the stage. Žižek has many of the characteristics of a good story teller. Many academic philosophers and social scientists have said they do not read any of Žižek’s books and find them a waste of time. I can see why. He is in no way a standard academic writer. He is often slightly obscure about centrally important points, but that is actually part of the overall argument. Some things are hard to pin down completely. There are “antinomies”.

Surprisingly, the antinomies in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason can be compared to the antinomies of “pure sexuation”. Romantic love as a form of eros is also a form of epistemological truth and even Metaphysical Truth. There are major omissions in this book from the perspective of the social sciences. Although Žižek has profound things to say about Luther, he completely ignores Max Weber’s oeuvre and the notion that the Protestant rebellion against some Roman Catholic dogmas has an “association” (“elective affinity”) with the Geist of modern capitalism and the world capitalist system. It is as if Immanuel Wallerstein and other World Systems Theorists never existed.

He is keen on German-language philosophical work from Prussian and Weimar, etc., thinkers (that is often labeled “German Idealism” although much of it was composed before there was a Deutschland as a nation-state). But he does not elaborate on the Neo-Kantians or even the Neo-Hegelians very much (other than Marx and Lacan). The book looks at various ways of thinking about historical materialism and dialectical materialism. He interrogates many bits and pieces of Neo-Marxist thought. But some may have difficulty with the claim on the book jacket that this is an example of true rigor. In attempting to “re-invent” himself again, it is possible that Žižek may have gone a bit too far out in Left field to really catch all of the pop flies hit by a variety of Marxist batters. David Harvey does not enter the stage.

There is also not much attempt made by Žižek to discuss other views of Lacan’s central ideas. Felman (1987) provides a general view of aspects of Lacan’s notion that we human beings chase after “the truth” but nevertheless in running after it we are always bound to miss it and to some extent lie. Yet one could read Žižek as if he is saying he (and only he) has the correct interpretations of a number of different Metaphysical, ontological. Epistemological, axiological, teleological and Methodological problems. Yet anyone who has studied history, philosophy or the socio-cultural and political-economic Wissenschaften knows that there is almost always room for further dialogue.

If we focus on love of the mother and jealousy of the father in young boys, then we have one little bit of the big puzzle that psychoanalysis can sometimes get at in Freudian psychoanalysis, but then we have a host of other views, including those of the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. A thorough-going comparative symbolic anthropology and comparative historical sociology is required to even begin to solve some of the societal questions that Žižek touches on. He does indicate an awareness of Levi-Strauss’ notion that one specific narrative of a  “myth” is not enough and that we have to look at the subtle nuances of the variations in which the story is told to even begin to capture some of the implicit “structures” in those ideas, but he nevertheless often treats a short summary of a movie (well known or not) as a kind of empirical “proof” or “smoking gun”. (The pattern is a bit like: “See: what I am saying is also depicted very well in movie Y, but not in movie X, which is flawed.”)

If we go from the very, very micro (nano seconds, DNA) to the very, very macro (a Universe with billions of galaxies) then human life on planet earth is perhaps about a kind of Neo-Darwinian belief in the centrality of procreation and the survival of the species. But at the level of social life for the last 50,000 years or so there is more to sexuality and having progeny and future generations. So perhaps “creativity” should be emphasized a bit more in the foreground. Newton famously did not have any children and yet his version of physical laws was a useful way of trying to understand certain aspects of life on planet earth and the movement of physical bodies in the then known solar system.

I cannot possibly cover all of the little puzzles in this book, nor fully present much less unravel the intriguing paradoxes. It would require a book of similar length to even begin to touch on all of the ideas found in 481 pages (i.e. 458 pages of text and end notes). But let me briefly discuss two aspects of this book that made me think very carefully about some of my fundamental assumptions.

One enlightening discussion is the notion that Kant’s antinomies and Lacan’s antinomies overlap. Whether or not Lacan’s explanation makes it clear that in essence Kant was dealing with “sexuation”, it is nevertheless provocative to think through the question. The second stimulating analysis, however, grabbed me even more. That is the comments on Luther and Christian theology. I found myself trying to explain the Roman Catholic dogmatic notion of “predestination” and Jean Calvin’s emphasis on the individual human being and “double predestination” to a group of male friends. They were not interested and it is highly likely they would not even consider picking up this book if it were available to them for free. (It will soon be in many libraries.) But Corollary 4 of Theorem IV blew me away.

It is I am sure coincidence and not Jungian synchronicity but 1517, 1857, 1917 and 1957 (Shanghai Commune) are all important dates and they are all interlinked. The Protestant Reformation sparked a break up of the Medieval Roman Catholic order in Western Europe and that then had an important impact on the quest to form a unified nation-state called Deutschland in the nineteenth century. If there had been a unified empire of all German-speaking people rather than a split between Deutschland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire then many things would have turned out differently, including a series of wars that eventually culminated in the long wars of 1914-1918 and 1932-1945. The Emperor Napoleon’s military leadership laid the groundwork for the events that inspired Hegel in 1807 to publish a very veiled revolutionary tract and that led to Lenin being allowed to return to the Finland Station. No one could have predicted that dialectic in 1517 when Luther made his 95 theses public.

Žižek immediately links Aristotle and Luther to today’s “consumer slavery” (without mentioning Weber’s oeuvre). True freedom (as opposed to nominal political freedom) and true slavery (as opposed to what we normally think of as slavery) may not be as straightforward as we usually assume. The master-slave dynamic is complex, as Hegel points out eloquently. It may be an illusion to think that God has chosen the elect and that those who are not among the elect cannot do anything about that, but it can be psychologically reassuring to the rich capitalist merchant in Amsterdam who owns stock in the first limited liability company in the world, the Vereenigde Oost-Indië Compagnie (VOC) and becomes so wealthy he can have a very big and wide house built on the Heerengracht. His good fortune is God’s will.

Human beings did not always sense a logical inconsistency between double predestination and free will because if an action succeeds (e.g. if the town of Leiden holds out against the enemy siege), then it seems as if that was predestined to happen. (It is partially a matter of type I and type II errors in our thinking; if we lose, we assume it was bad luck, but if we win, we assume we deserved it.) Free choice, Žižek (2020: 392) points out, is not a matter of choosing between strawberry cake or chocolate cake, but choosing to put all one’s chips on the table, to put “at stake one’s very existence”. There is no free choice in a death camp or maximum security prison other than the choice to die or to make the most of each day and still remain as honorable as is humanly possible. But in most of life’s circumstances (at least in societies where the average poor person can still obtain running water and sufficient food) there is some degree of freedom, however slight. (Solzhenitsyn wrote eloquently about that in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denosovitch.)

The biggest hole in this important book is lack of discussion of Charles Sanders Peirce’s Pragmaticism and triadic epistemology. If Peirce’s semiotic of Interpretant (i.e. Interpretive Networks) and Representant (i.e. Operationalized Representations) had been included, some of the less clear aspects of this rough diamond could have come to light. The Interpretant is never a solitary interpreter, but sometimes one feels that Žižek treats himself as the lone wolf who knows exactly how to travel the obscure trails and beat the pack. His use of “sign systems” is never quite clear since we do not know what his real intellectual allegiances come down to other than his somewhat idiosyncratic interpretations of Hegel and his allegiance to everything that Lacan wrote (or said).

I like this book, but precisely since I enjoy reading and even re-reading certain paragraphs. I sometimes wish I was reading Terry Pinkard’s biography of Hegel again (see Hegel 2018 for references), or Shoshana Felman’s (1987) take on Lacan again instead. I hope that Žižek will continue to go into the topics raised so well in this book and start to educate himself in the social sciences, especially the comparative historical sociology and political economy of Max Weber. His language skills will allow him to read Weber’s original German exposition of ideas and Weber’s letters in the MWGA volumes. The Gesamtausgabe is a valuable resource that Žižek has not tapped but that will deepen and broaden his intellectual quest. I myself have been struggling to work my way through the German edition and compare it to the English translation that has been in wide use since 1968. I look forward to reading more of Žižek’s stimulating work in the future and hope that this book will not only be widely read but also critiqued by scholars with far more knowledge of all the subjects that are touched on than any one person can muster. The Interpretive Network of Kant scholars will certainly want to comment on the way in which Žižek links Lacan to Kant and, perhaps, dialogue between psychoanalysts and Kant scholars will produce further refinement of the ideas concerning the noumenal and the phenomenal. Ditto for work on Hegel and for analysis of the impact of the Protestant Reformation.


Felman, Shoshana. 1987. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 2018. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Tr. and ed. Terry Pinkard. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [First edition 1807.]

Israel, Jonathan I. 2019. The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Trs. and eds. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [First edition 1781, revised 1787.]

Solzhenitzyn, Alexandr. 1995. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Random House.

Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society. Trs. and Eds. Gunther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Weber, Max. Max Weber-Gesamtausgabe. (MWGA). Band I/25: Wirtschaft und Gesellschat. Gesamtregister (Comprehensive Index) Bearbeiteit von (eds.) Edith Hanke und Christoph Morlok.  Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. [This is the comprehensive index needed to read the six volumes written in drafts over ten years. It is regarded as a chronological improvement over Weber 1968, but only available in German.]

Universal Evil and Individual Good: From Chaos to Cosmos

Western consciousness is by no means the only kind of consciousness there is; it is historically conditioned and geographically limited, and representative of only one part of mankind. It is a mistake to think that we are the center. We start with that prejudice. But we are really devilish, awful things; we simply do not see ourselves from the outside. We think we are really wonderful people, highly respectable and moral, and so on, but in reality we are bloody pirates. What the European thinks of himself is a lie. We read the newspapers, we learn about the world of politics and economics, and we believe that this is something concrete, as if everything depended upon what we would do about currency exchange rates, the general economic situation, and so on. On this we are completely mad, as if dealing with these matters were the right thing to do. We take it for granted that this is the world where real things happen, that it is the only world, and that perhaps there is nothing beyond it. But there are innumerable people who think differently: we are few compared to those who have a completely different idea about the meaning of the world. For these people, we are simply ridiculous, because we live in a sort of illusion with respect to the world.[1]

When evil is exclusively attributed to others, even more so if these “others” are different and far away from us, circumscribed within an identifiable category, it is partly projected outside and partly relegated to the unconscious (in fact, it is during childhood that this psychic mechanism is activated: we were absolutely good; evil was, instead, located in some remote region, comfortably and well-separated from our known world).

A nation, a society, a single individual, or all of humanity is not instinctively inclined to attribute the responsibility for evil to themselves, not even in retrospect, and the borderline between good and evil does not separate the good and evil within us, but rather serves to separate us, who are good, from others, who are evil incarnate. It is easy at this point to demonize the other, from whom we separate ourselves to confirm our purity by putting up barriers or walls which we also ask for them to help us pay for.

Evil comes from the outside. In Egypt, Seth, god of destruction, chaos, storms, and violence, is brought by the desert wind; he is the divinity of the borderlands and foreigners, but at the same time he is also considered to be the god of the equilibrium between the positive and the negative. In Norse mythology, Loki is also a constitutionally ambiguous god: he symbolizes the Shadow and personifies evil; his deeds testify to a great cunning, as well as the ability to become a point of contact and exchange between gods and other mythical figures. Loki stands apart from the usual moral norms, and his transversality and eccentricity serve to maintain the cosmic balance, which is continually destabilized and then restored by his actions. He is the origin of evil, but paradoxically, his malignant side guarantees the existence of the good. Moreover, his ambiguity is underlined by his bisexuality and tendency to change form (his name appears to be derived from the word for flame, the symbol par excellence of state changes) as well as to perform clownish and clever actions, typical of the trickster. Still further, in Abraxas, the apotropaic and multiform divinity of probable Gnostic-Mithraic origin present in the Persian tradition, we find light and darkness, male and female, guilt and purity together. He is an invisible being, an archetype, who acts as a mediator between mankind and the Sun and, according to the Persian tradition, symbolizes the union and totality of Arimane, leader of the Daeva, demon-like creatures that incarnate Evil, Darkness, and Substance, and Ahura Mazda, in which Good, Light, and Spirit are lodged.

In opposition to the theories of good as summum bonum and evil as privatio boni, gradually advocated and disseminated in various forms by authors ranging from St. Augustine to Scotus Eriugena, and to the “lesser good” of Leibniz, Jung states that evil is a psychic reality consubstantial with the reality experienced by the psyche.

Here, then, is the ancient fear of foreign invasion, carried out by beings who are surely more advanced than our civilization, who usually attack us, or could attack us, with the intention of annihilating us, for two reasons: either because they have run out of something which is indispensable for their survival and which we are unlucky enough to possess, or because they are absolutely evil, and their goal is blind, in the sense that their evil nature “forces” them to crush the stupid inhabitants of the Earth who, deep down, are quite good, apart from a few hiccups along the way, but who, whenever they are proudly defending their own territory together, find solidarity, courage, heroism, and good feelings that would otherwise remain submerged.

Post-industrial society and hegemonic culture have, more or less unknowingly, ridiculed and banalized the idea of Evil. Evil has been sterilized, with the result that the Shadow has been expelled, but only apparently: the contemporary collective psyche has built a “ship of fools” in which to expel all our negative qualities, but when we later awaken from this illusion, we find it lurking outside the door to our homes or inside our very walls.

The process of globalization has been forcing mankind toward shared meanings and a universal validity of values which, though apparently leading to the “protection” of the dominant contemporary social system, is not always able to guarantee the expression of the individuality of the people, especially those who, due to historical or personal psychic and collective events, have no “central” or defined roles in the host society. The result is, often, a profound split between the social part of the individual (the Person) and its more intrinsic and internal components which, being more protected from external, worldly influences, are closer—psychologically and symbolically—to the oldest layers of humanity.

What we are facing globally is the realization and re-actualization of a form of archaic thought in which people who plan and carry out criminal acts have a very serious psychic immaturity and, perhaps even more serious, a very dangerous incapacity to think symbolically.

Thinking through symbols means understanding and welcoming within oneself the possibility of the indefinite, tolerating incompleteness, doubt, and paradox, all of which are elements making up the Self, in the knowledge that, beyond the most obvious meanings and explanations, beyond the absolute Light, there is a submerged world of contradictions, of the non-finite and of non-final explanations, that point to different and still other meanings.

We are witnessing the loss of those overflowings of meaning that were the mysterious heritage of every religion and which distinguished them from otherness. We are filling our psyche with concepts, techniques, certainties, and skills, but we are losing silence.

Contemporary society, having lost the sense of expectation and of the sacred, the transcendental, and the mysterious, has placed the sign and the symbol on the same level, producing a dangerous confusion of meaning. The sign corresponds to one and only meaning, and if by chance our unconscious, which is infused with semantic univocity, introduces a dissonant, strange or unknown element, alarm and panic are triggered in the rational psyche and defense systems are adopted, some of which are also unconscious.

What is happening in the world, with such naked and cruel acts of terrorism, shows a misunderstanding of the Shadow. “Civilization” has forced upon the individual a radical restriction of his/her freedom, in the sense that every personal idea of “justice” has to be subverted by a socially sanctioned justice, albeit not always shared, whether it is divine or secular. Over time, moral codes change, depending on changes in society as well as those in the collective and individual psyche. In Italy, for example, laws on abortion and divorce have changed the boundaries between good and evil, modifying the priorities of some values that are more or less accepted: today, the law affords protection to individual freedom with respect to family protection in the case of divorce[2] and, in the case of abortion, it protects the agency of women in relation to maternity.[3]

In the particular case of Islamic-inspired terrorism, a struggle is underway between the individual and the society in which the individual lives and was often born and raised; there is a dramatic fracture between a collective unconscious, by its nature impossible to identify but whose roots date from a time long before the present, temporally and culturally, and a personal unconscious made up of painful repressed memories, pregnant with privation, marginalization, uprooting, ignorance, and desires for revenge, which have not found a resolution in the individual’s psyche, remaining at the level of Shadow.

I truly believe that one of the causes triggering the devastating fury of recent, dramatic episodes of terrorism derives from the emergence of socially and individually pathological conditions such as depression and, above all, identity crisis and the anxiety of non-being. These have found their horrific “exit pathway” that we have learned to recognize because the majority of the individuals committing these acts of terror are from the first generation of immigrants who have their primary needs fully met: if their parents and grandparents had to reinvent their everyday social context, finding a job, accommodation, and a “logic” to having uprooted themselves from their places of origin with which, however, they maintained a deep psychic bond and which they were recognized as being from, today’s terrorists find themselves to be no longer the children of their family’s place of origin, but psychically not entirely, or only superficially, integrated into their new cultural environment either. These individuals possess a huge share of free psychic energy which they are unable to invest in pro-social activities, but rather anti-social, in a multilayered act of rebellion against the previous generations, desperate and despairing. It is as if the psychic energy of two or three generations before them has been compressed, with only a narrow passageway to escape, rendering their expression violent. When individuals lose, or perhaps have never found, the ability to relate, even symbolically, to impersonal social institutions, there is a serious risk that the public part of the individual’s life may collapse, with a consequent withdrawal into radicalization. Every experience, every aspect of life that affects an individual who has embarked on the path of radicalization, is perceived as a profanation of truth and faith. The individual becomes hard, closed to the world and the society in which he or she lives. James Hillman would say that it is as if there were excess salt, which pushes the person to a paroxysmal closure and a virginal self-perception. The risk that society runs is what Hillman called the fervor of salt, which can lead to fanaticism, puritanism, and terrorism: a lack of salt leads to the slackening of social and individual principles, whereas excess salt can facilitate entry into a climate of terror.[4]

Blind adherence to a collective “ideal” crushes any individual desire, transforming identity into an undifferentiated set of characteristics: it is the opposite path to individualization. This sort of “collectivization” protects individuals from the discomfort of being face-to-face with their own ghosts, with their own selves, enabling them to hide not only from the eyes of the “enemy”, but also from their own eyes. The massacre of random unarmed and unsuspecting citizens accentuates the indifferentiation of the victims as well as the executioner: group ferocity causes the sinking into the Shadow of any sense of guilt which, for the individual, can evoke feelings of human pity, but for the group, the horde, it hides in the non-distinction, precluding any sensitivity. This explains the extreme coldness and cynicism with which terrorists perpetrate blind and ferocious acts of violence or cold executions of “infidels”: this is the anesthesia of terror.

The violence of terrorist attacks is the dramatic concretization of a symbolism missing in Western society, in whose collective psyche a monster has been growing which is invisible to those who do not want or do not know how to see it. This monster is now attacking the host body from within. The Shadow has exploded and is corroding an increasingly sick body: the body’s reaction is similar to that of a feverish sick person who, rather than understanding whether the fever originates from a cold or an infection, wards off the cold with a triple layer of sweaters: it will not die from the cold, but rather from sepsis.

The search for immortality does not regard the individual, but the whole group; that is why the communication strategies of IS try to involve the masses. The individual regresses psychologically for the benefit of the group’s psyche, which is governed by “leaders” who exalt the submissive and indifferentiated members of the group itself. The existence and the sacrifice of the individual guarantees the survival of the group. That is why I argue that there is a terrorist disease, rather than a terrorist, since “madness” is to be sought in the psyche of the group rather than the individual. If you read the results of the Rorschach tests that were given to Nazi officials during the Nuremberg trials, psychiatrists were long reticent to reveal their findings; only one, after many years, though not addressing individual responses, stated that it was considered inappropriate to publish the results precisely because the respondents’ replies were considered “normal” on average. This made him reflect on the possibility that anyone, potentially, finding him/herself in a certain place at a certain historical, economic, social, etc. moment, could have “revealed” his or her Shadow and been overwhelmed by it.[5]

Renouncing social life in favor of remaining hidden means renouncing any relationship outside of the group; psychologically, it is to renounce the acceptance and decoding of the complexity of real life, made up of contradictions, limitations, and “unsaturated thought”. The choice of radicalization frees up the individual, in the sense that it allows him or her to entrust every choice and every interpretation to the leader. Thought is “saturated” because, in a closed group, there is no exchange with the outside, no space for any psychic movement. In the long run, however, it will be the “impermeability” of the group that leads to its implosion and death.

The uniformity of clothing, combined with camouflaging facial features, helps to homogenize the mass whose very reason for existing is its indifferentiation. The fear of psychic anonymity which the individual feels constrained by is contained and sublimated by an anonymity of “return”: if the host society ignores or, worse, despises me, then my voluntary withdrawal from the eyes of the world will guarantee my psychic survival. Adhering to an extremist organization unconsciously guarantees the security of the individual who, by being “at the edge” of society, finds his own eccentric individuality.

The psyche, in order to function in an adaptive and rewarding manner for itself and the society in which it lives, needs motion, since any inert state is synonymous with psychic and physical death. In alchemical terms, it is as though the terrorist, or the fundamentalist, remains attached to the state of nigredo, which is a condition of disorientation, depression, dissolution, and darkness, but which allows the individual to consciously, though with pain and difficulty, redirect their existence toward the Light. In some psychic states, it is as if there is a stasis of the propulsive thrust of the psyche, which can no longer project itself towards an external psychic object: it is a closing off of the real, external world, moving towards an autistic and paranoid condition. Certain extreme and radical doctrines convince individuals that the only possibility of giving “meaning” to their existence is through a dramatic break with the real world in order to move towards an ideal world.

The terrible events we are witnessing reveal a short circuit between the Person, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious of so-called “terrorists”, with the addition of a very serious relapse of the archetype of the Shadow, which risks becoming an alien psychic object, entrenched in our psyche and whose extreme danger consists in its non-recognition: all the negative, the unacceptable, the demonic—natural components of the ambivalent human condition—are placed in our Shadow, which is neither positive nor negative, but becomes harmful if ignored, misunderstood, or projected onto the psychic object.

The Person is a compromise between the individual and the collective. It consists of pieces of the collective with which the I identifies and which have the function of facilitating adaptation to the surrounding social world. Humans have a peculiarity that is very useful for adapting to the collective, but which is potentially dangerous and misleading for the purpose of identification: imitation. This is essential for the recruitment of young people to be turned into soldiers and terrorists: imitating one’s hero can push one to emulate that hero’s death in action.

When individuals lose the ability to relate to impersonal social structures that, in turn, have lost the ability to convey and “narrate” shared beauty and harmony, the result is a collapse of the public sphere of life.

The arrival of massive migratory flows has re-activated the ancient fear of contamination coming from the outside. “Western” society unconsciously fears contagion, with its burden of suffering, corruption, and death. Terrorist acts perpetrated “at home” are nothing less than the materialization of such fears. In the past, foreign invaders entered the city by breaking down the perimeter walls; today the “new barbarians” are often born in our own cities, are our own brothers with whom we share the same places, the same horizons. If previously the enemy of our civilization was alien, today the “alien” is our unconscious part that fails to find dialogue with the community to which the individual belongs: it is a psychic oxymoron, an alien-citizen.

In this kind of situation, the concept of adherence to a peer group grows unchecked, to the detriment of individuality: I am not, I belong. We should not, however, necessarily imagine that these fundamentalist organizations operate according to the Western mentality; a sense of belonging does not require rigid hierarchies, physical proximity, or pyramid structures (René Guénon said that Westerners, in their mental habits, are too inclined to find “systems”, even where they cannot be).[6] It is just as wrong, and perhaps even more dangerous, to give credence to the idea of the existence of so-called “lone wolves”; it is highly unlikely that a “lone wolf” will plan terrorist action “in the name of …”. Those who choose to kill blindly, taking into account the end of their own lives as well, must have previously gone through a period of ideological brainwashing and emotional subtraction from the social world in which they had lived and with which they had interacted up to the point of their extreme decision. I speak of an extreme decision because in the word “decision” there is the idea of the cut (from the Latin de-caedĕre, to cut off), which an individual cannot reach alone. Terrorists receive fundamentalist education that makes them immune and impermeable to any emotional influence external to themselves and the organization or religious movement they have joined and feel they belong to.

Recent events, however, have revealed a pathogenic aspect of our nihilistic society: its inability to give meaning to people’s existence, neither to their lives nor to their deaths. The most fundamentalist wing of the Islamic world has thus become entrenched in this painfully exposed nerve of Western culture that, often, can no longer adequately respond to questions about the meaning of life, allowing the emergence of a psychological context of the idolatry of power and money, full of declared and supposed “freedoms,” which in truth is scarcely human. Radicalism has occupied the emotional spaces left empty by a profound crisis in and fragmentation of shared values, to which fundamentalism is opposed in its rigid Manichean thought.

What does the so-called “Western” system of thought propose (or oppose) to these extreme forms of fanaticism and “non-thought”? An external faith anchored solely to an external form in which the religious function is no longer a “matter of the soul”. A religious phenomenon, being truly religious to its core, must be an experiential psychological fact, a “mysterium,” and in the word mysterium there is the “mu” particle, that is, silence as a mystical place of shared contemplation, or the absolute nothing of Zen. For the divine image as archetype to find its sacred silence, which is not an absolute or desperate silence, it must walk the path from the depths of the collective unconscious to consciousness.

Self-sacrifice in the suicidal terrorist act corresponds to the renunciation of one’s relationship with anyone else; in the case of the fundamentalist, he or she has already withdrawn any form of projection, abdicating any form of relationship during the preparation and the psychic and physical waiting for the approaching time of action.

For Jacques Lacan, man risks falling into the abyss of perversion when he disregards and denigrates the Law of the Word, giving precedence to a Law that transcends humanity and every established limit. This happens when a person rises up as an avenger who, transcending his or her individual life, kills in the name of a Value, a Cause. Whoever rises up as an avenger assumes the role of “crusader” in the pursuit of the affirmation, at any cost, of God’s perfect Law which, perversely, “mortifies” the imperfect law of humans, at the cost of the physical annihilation of the infidel.[7]

Symbolic thinking exceeds the standard capacity of the senses since it is in the symbol that we find the future. In the terrorist there is the loss of symbolic function and the ability to produce one’s own “living” images. Images no longer represent something, they no longer have any connection with underlying unconscious factors; they have become empty simulacra without meaning and thus without soul.

Here the dyad chaos-cosmos turns out to be an inseparable binomial because it is in their polarity that life, with its moderate and extreme aspects of good and evil, finds its reason for being, and it is not possible, not “Natural” to conceive of existence as made up only of good or only of evil, with the evil segregated into a hermetically sealed hell. The myth of Pandora’s box tells us how impossible, even unnatural, it is to try to confine all the evils of the world in a single space; sooner or later, the thirst for knowledge, sometimes dressed in the guise of curiosity, must liberate the evils of the world; besides jealousy, vice, and madness, they include old age and disease, which remind us of the passage of time. Only hope, remaining at the bottom of the box, can save us from the dejection of lost immortality; we have to thank Pandora and the female gender, to which, by extension, is attributed curiosity, if time has found its natural course: from the unnatural and immobile Chaos of Uranus, tenaciously attached to the mother-wife Gaia, who does not literally breathe (for our cultural canons, bound as we are to the “breath of life”, to the “mother’s breath”, it is a non-living life), and who refuses to give “light” to his offspring, presaging their end, we pass to the “death” of an eternal—and therefore not real—love and to the birth of Time, a time of births and deaths, of hopes and disappointments, of lights and shadows.

Western civilization has preferred to rely on a dichotomous morality in which the good-evil division reassures us of the “extraneousness” of evil, to be projected through its Shadow onto the alien, excluding it from its own God. The Book of Job is exemplary in this regard: the “permission” that God gives Satan to bring evil to poor Job reveals all his symbolic ambivalence: for, the omnipotence of God, so far away in his inscrutability and thus beyond good and evil, turns out to be fallacious like, and more than, his creation, though remarkably powerful (proving that, in the end, it will be the same God who “grants” a sort of “reparations” to Job). Job chooses the path of acceptance, revealing in his “humanity” all of his greatness.[8]

In conclusion, one of the evils and risks of contemporary Western humanity is what we might call “the shelter of reason.” We seek protection in a supreme order, whether religious or secular, in the blind hope that an external entity can guarantee us a sterile existence, devoid of accidents and misfortunes, but also, I would add, devoid of fantasy, depth, mystery, imagination, surprises, ideas, and visions, in a kind of perennial Truman Show. I believe that Jung referred to this when he pointed out that it is precisely in the vortex of chaos that eternal miracles dwell, and that it is the disquieting chaos itself that reveals a deep meaning, since man not only dwells in an orderly world but also in the magical world of his soul.[9]

[1] Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works, Alchemical Studies, vol.13, p.55, U.S.A.

[2] From Law n. 898 of 1970 to Law n. 55 of 2015.

[3] Law n. 194 of 22 May 1978.

[4] James Hillman, Alchemical Psychology, Spring Publications, 2015, U.S.A.

[5] G. Pietropolli Charmet, A. Piotti, Uccidersi. Il tentativo di suicidio in adolescenza, 2009, Italy.

[6]René Guénon, Man and His Becoming According to the Vedānta, 1945, United Kingdom.

[7] See Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud: The Real, The Symbolic, and the Imaginary (Psychoanalytic Crosscurrents), 1995, USA.

[8] See C. G. Jung, Answer to Job, 1984, United Kingdom.

[9] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche: vol.8, 1970, United Kingdom.

The documentary “Enemies of the People” (2009) and the question of ethics


Enemies of the People (2010) was broadcast in July 2011 on More4 in the United Kingdom under a different title (Voices from the Killing Fields), having won a number of high profile international awards globally, including the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2011.


In Enemies of the People we are told early on that it is the filmmaker’s painful obsession and a need to deal with his profound mourning, which drives this project. Thet Sambath is the victim of genocide, having lost his whole family in the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge; his desire is to understand how the killers could have killed. That desire leads him to commence a 10-year mission to find the killers first and then learn on camera as much as possible about them, their motives for the murders and the exact forms these have taken. In order to achieve this goal, Sambath does not hesitate to conceal his true motives from those whom he tracks down. He does not tell them he is a victim of their killings. ‘I smile’ he says ‘so they tell me everything. I smile outside but there is pain inside’. Sambath is a character in his own film, we see him and hear his feelings and thoughts, recorded both as a kind of video diary and also by a British filmmaker who is credited as the co-director of the film and who turned up a lot later in Sambath’s journey, helping him create a film out of his footage.


Sambath Thet’s patient recording of the killers’ testimonies, through his tenacious and persistent engagement with those who were responsible in some ways for the disappearance of his whole family, appears to be his main reason for his living in the last 9 years. The most astonishing is his relationship with Khmer Rouge second in command — if Pol Pot was the ‘First Brother’, he was the Second Brother — Nuon Chea, a ‘very secretive man’, says Sambath, who spends 10 years of his life trying to get close to him in order to obtain the testimony.


Was Sambath’s project an ethical enterprise?


Does Sambath’s stated project of searching for the truth excuse his deceptions in actually obtaining the testimonies? In order to interrogate this further, I will now engage with the ethics of closeness, which Bauman (2007:88) also called the ethics of proximity, or the relational ethics linked to what Martin Buber called ‘the I –Thou’ ethics, and mostly with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who breaks with the Cartesian supremacy of the ‘I’ in favour of intersubjectivity, albeit asymmetrical. I will look briefly at Kant’s categorical imperative, which demands the truth at all times (see for example Zupancic 2011 [2000]: 46) and also investigate Lacan’s call ‘ not to give up on one’s desire’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 321) in this context.



The Ethics of Proximity

The ethics of proximity is not a school of philosophical thought with an established tradition. One could argue that it is Emmanuel Levinas with his groundbreaking publication Totality and Infinity (1961) who put the ethics of proximity on the map. Cooper points out that Levinasian ethics is articulated ‘through critical dialogue with the western philosophical tradition’ (Cooper 2005:16). In Cooper’s reading Levinas ‘uncouples‘ the relationship between justice and ethics through the face of the Other ‘Levinas’s understanding of the visage is pivotal to his gradual re-thinking of the way in which subjectivity is constituted ethically by questioning ontology in a manner that shuns the light of justice without making either sphere invisible’ (ibid. :17).


Levinas draws from Martin Buber’s ideas of the ‘I – Thou’ relationship (Buber 1923). However, in Buber the ‘I – Thou’ relationship is reciprocal and reversible, and, to put it simply, depends, or at least might depend, on how the Other treats us. Levinas’s notions are emphatically different and more exigent.


Levinas’ originality lies in the depiction of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship as asymmetrical, beyond or outside, or prior to the logic of reciprocity (see for example Reinhard in Zizek, Santner, Reinhard 2005: 48). It is therefore prior to any choices (Kierkegaard) – it is pre-voluntary and pre-conscious. As we have seen already, in a documentary encounter the ‘asymmetrical ‘ element is important: one person makes a film about the other; one person has the power of the media apparatus behind them, one person is using the technology – in short, one person, i.e. the director, is more powerful than the other about whom the film is made..


In Levinas the infinite responsibility for the Other is set in motion by the Other whose arrival impacts on the ‘I’. The ‘I’ therefore, the ego, is not the prime mover – the power of the decision-making is shifted from the ‘I’ to the Other. In other words, the freedom of the I is constituted as receiving a challenge, an appeal from the other and that appeal is then transformed into a demand which organizes, or should do, the world we live in.


Clearly these demands are almost impossible to carry out and yet we are asked to try and keep trying. Critchley in his study of the ethics of proximity Infinitely Demanding (2007) stresses that, despite the apparent and stated passivity, in truth the Levinasian subject is never passive as his ‘ethical experience is activity, the activity of the subject (…)’ (Critchley 2007:14). Therefore, despite the responsibility for the other being there a priori before anything else might take place, what takes place might be the choice of the subject.


In his ethics Levinas lists two elements, which happen to be strikingly important in any documentary: the language and the face. The idea of the face, the ‘visage’, appears to have created another controversy amongst the scholars. Cooper argues that it is not an actual face and insists that ‘the face cannot be seen since vision is not a relation of transcendence’ (Cooper 2005:17). But many writers have taken ‘the face’ very much as the face so perhaps for our purposes it is fine to take it both literally (at face value) and as a metaphor of the Other. The point is, and Cooper agrees, that through the face the asymmetrical relationship is established: ‘the face takes us out of the very relation it simultaneously creates: the other always exceeds the idea I have of it, escapes my grasp, and thus breaks with the spatial symmetry that would equate my position with its own’ (ibid:18).


Significantly, Levinas states that one of the aims of his work is to demonstrate that the relation with alterity is language itself:


‘We shall try to show that the relation between the same and the other – upon which we seem to impose such extraordinary conditions – is language. For language accomplishes a relation such that the terms are not limited within this relation, such that the other, despite the relationship with the same, remains transcendent to the same. The relation between the same and the other, metaphysics, is primordially enacted as conversation (…)’ (Levinas 1961: 39).


Levinas uses the terms ‘conversation’ and ‘discourse’ synonymously in Totality and Infinity (1961). Conversation is a relation that maintains separation between self and Other but is also the indispensable link. Through the approach of the Other, my spontaneity is limited: ‘The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics’ (ibid.: 43). The spontaneity is reduced by the infinite responsibility for the Other, confirmed in the conversation.


In Enemies of the People the faces of of the subjects of the films haunt the audience; the former killers, including Brother number two, are now characters in the film. There is something uncomfortable about the project and the spectators are invited to share in the complicity of obtaining truth by deception.


In terms of the ethics of proximity, another thinker, Knud Logstrup, Levinas’s contemporary at Freiberg introduces the notion of ‘trust’ to the ‘I –Thou’ encounter which he also views as asymmetrical.


‘Trust’ is an idea that is vital in documentary film and Logstrup urges us to be very careful about what that trust might involve:


‘(…) No one has the right to make himself the master of another person’s individuality or will. Neither good intentions, insight into what is best for him, nor even the possibility of saving him from great calamities which would otherwise strike him can justify intrusion upon his individuality and will’ (Logstrup in Jodalen 1997:87).


In many a documentary encounter, the issue of trust becomes an uncomfortable burden: how do we interview a person who has committed bad things and yet he or she trusts us with their life story, and sometimes more, with their actual lives? How can we possibly do our work if the search for the truth involves a breach of the trust somebody invested in our encounter? How do we get that crucial testimony if at the last moment the witness simply says ‘no’ and cries? In the Levinasian system, the answer is not difficult to anticipate: the minute your extraction of testimony causes unbearable pain, you must stop. For Levinas, or for a Levinasian, Enemies of the People is clearly NOT an ethical project, despite its quest for the truth.


There could be other philosophical paradigms one could deploy which might offer remedies to the infinite demands of the responsibility for the Other, such as the epistemological drive or the Kantian quest for the universal truth. Surely, we, society, history, culture, have a right to demand the truth from the witnesses; do we not? If we do, then clearly the scene was ethical. Kant calls that which would produce the power to act ethically and morally, the motivational force that would dispose the self towards the good, ‘the philosopher’s stone’ as arriving through the fact of reason, which can be shared universally (see Bennett 2010:74, Bauman 2007: 37,Critchley 2007:26). Truth and duty are the highest values. He further states ‘autonomy in ethics entails universality: the only norms upon which I can legitimately act are those, which I can consistently will as a universal law’ (Critchley 2007: 32-33). Such is the argument for the categorical imperative in Kant. On the other hand, wouldn’t Samabath’s deception towards the former killers disqualify his effort as unethical – he is lying after all?


Within the ethics of proximity this need to search for reason and truth, as any other need, must be subordinate to the infinite responsibility towards the Other. From that point of view, it might appear that any encounter, which carries in it a risk of hurting the Other, including interviewing, never mind putting the Other’s pain on public display, might be simply unethical and immoral. Kant famously gives an example in which a murderer enquires of the whereabouts of a potential victim. The respondent knows that if he tells the truth, the murderer might well kill that person. Kant still demands a truthful answer (MacIntyre 2010[1987]:188, Zupancic 2011[2000]: 46-47). This very cold intellectual stance, some say, can be a basis for horrific justifications of torture and genocide (see Zizek quoted below, for example).


In Levinas, a personal choice (which is a cornerstone of other philosophical systems such as Kierkegaard )[1] and indeed Lacan), is a little restricted as the ethics of responsibility for the Other overrides all other possibilities. Cooper stresses that in Levinas ‘there is no stable position of knowledge, comprehension, vision, perception or understanding’ (Cooper 2005:23) as ‘each of these activities is vulnerable to disruption’ (ibid.: 23).


To sum up, Levinas is interested in developing a reaction to symmetry, hegemony of the I and the Other. His thinking is thus in stark contrast to Buber in which the responsibility of the I is accompanied by the hope that the Other will reciprocate. There is no such hope, demand or expectation in Levinas. As we begin to see, the ethics of Levinas, whilst highly relevant to documentary, will put extraordinary pressures on the encounter.


For the startling conclusion of the Levinasian ethical paradigm, and also that of Logstrup, is that the documentary filmmaker should be in continuous fear of being unethical as her epistemological pursuit will almost automatically, inevitably and perhaps unconsciously put the Other in danger. It might even indeed be that it is close to impossible to make documentary films and be ethical towards the Other [2]


We will see directly how the Levinasian notion of responsibility for the Other sits uncomfortably with Lacan’s notion of Desire.



Love Thy Neighbour versus Desire

Lacan in his Seminar VII on Ethics questions the whole project of ‘love thy neighbour’ and wonders whether a human being is actually capable of an act of altruistic love at all, therefore appearing at complete loggerheads with Levinasian ideals of the infinite responsibility for the Other. On the other hand, his command to follow through one’s desire has surprising meeting points with Kant – which I will elaborate on next.


Lacan reminds us that Freud has a problem with the Love Thy Neighbour notion and quotes from Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents, saying that man’s innate tendencies lead us to ‘evil, aggression, destruction, and thus also to cruelty’. Lacan quotes Freud mercilessly lest we want to forget:

‘Man tries to satisfy his need for aggression at the expense of his neighbour, to exploit his work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to appropriate his goods, to humiliate him, to inflict suffering on him, to torture and kill him’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 185).

Why is it difficult to love one’s neighbour? For many reasons, but mostly, Lacan points to the drives, which are repressed and spill over to jouissance, a selfish and sometimes destructive enjoyment, always tinted with pain, and ultimately, with death as it spells out the limits of the momentary fulfillment – of desire.


The Ethics in Lacan

The issue of the ethics versus desire in Jacques Lacan is a complex matter. For the purpose of this discussion I will contain my interrogation to Seminar VII, on the ethics of psychoanalysis. In it we find Lacan’s notorious and controversial notion, or the call ‘not to give up on one’s desire’: ‘ne pas céder sur son désir[3] translated as a confusing ‘not to give ground relative to one’s desire’(Lacan [1959-60]1992: 321) or as Zupancic (2000) and Zizek (1994[2005]) propose, as simply ‘not to give up on one’s desire’ or even as ‘not to compromise one’s desire’ (ibid.: 61).

Lacan in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis discusses at length the apparently self-destructive choices of Antigone and her father Oedipus in terms an ethical act which, once undertaken, demands to be seen through, no matter what the consequences. It is Oedipus’ unstoppable quest for knowledge, which is ultimately at the heart of his tragedy. And yet, according to Lacan, that relentless pursuit of the truth is rewarded too:

‘It is important to explore what is contained in that moment when, although he has renounced the service of goods [the Symbolic], nothing of the preeminence of the dignity in relation to the same goods is ever abandoned; it is the same moment when in his tragic liberty he has to deal with the consequence of that desire that led him to go beyond the limit, namely, the desire to know.

He has learned and still wants to learn something more’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 305) (my emphasis).

This is thus a radical definition of ethics: if you willfully betray your readiness as to keep discovering what your desire might be, or somehow submit to the demands of ‘the service of goods’[4], your very compromise is unethical. This is what Lacan goes on to say: ‘And it is because we know better than those who went before how to recognize the nature of desire, which is at the heart of this experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you? . . . Opposed to this pole of desire is traditional ethics’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 314]. And a few pages later, he repeats again, positioning the analytic encounter in the same terms: ‘I propose then that, from an analytical point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire. Whether it is admissible or not in a given ethics, that proposition expresses quite well something that we observe in our experience’ (ibid.: 319] (my emphasis – please note a different translation of the French, as mentioned previously).

Eleanor Kaufman’s (2002) illuminating paper stresses that in Lacan ‘desire may be not always self-evident; the important thing is not to give up on the quest to encounter it’ (Kaufman 2002: 141). Fink (1999) in his paper on Seminar VII reminds us that ‘human desire is very unwieldy, unruly, and unmanageable. First of all, we spend a great deal of time and energy pretending it is not there, pretending that what we want is not really what we want, keeping our desire out of sight-keeping it from others and from ourselves. (…) Lacan teaches us that our desire is such a precious thing to us that when faced with a possibility of its satisfaction, we often run the other way, preferring to remain unsatisfied so as to keep our desire alive ‘(Fink 1999: 532). Fink also points out to the fact that our desire is often initiated by the Other – so as we uncover these desires in the analysis they might feel foreign, strange, not our own. Given that ‘desire comes from the Other ‘(Lacan 1996: 419) Fink poses the question again, ‘how am I to know what I really want?[5] (Fink1999: 533), which remains the key question of Lacanian psychoanalysis throughout his work.

Fink also stresses Lacan’s suggestion that guilt arises when ‘I do not act on my desire – when I slip by the occasions to express my hostility, when I swallow my pride instead of lashing out.’ ‘The only thing one can be guilty of’ Lacan says’ is giving up on one’s desire’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 319) Fink goes on to say that in a clinic it is important to bear in mind that Lacan ‘tells us not to act in accordance with what we believe to be the good of our fellow man or woman’ (Fink 1999: 536). Fink reminds us that in Seminar VIII Lacan too urges the analyst not to aim at what he or she considers to be the analysand’s own good, but rather ‘at the analysand’s greater Eros.’ (ibid. :536) Eros of course is a broader notion than desire and will indeed include love. The ethics of the psychoanalysis is constituted in Seminar VII and VIII by the psychoanalyst’s work in helping the analysand’s uncover their desire – and ability to love. Fink concludes ‘the analyst must thus, from a Lacanian vantage point, direct the treatment not in accordance with some preconceived notions of the analysand’s good or best interest, but to facilitate the analysand’s greater Eros. (…) If Lacan provides anything by way of a possible ‘solution’ to the paradox of desire and satisfaction, I would argue that it is not via sublimation, but rather via a changed relation between desire and the drives in each of us’(Ibid.: 544).

This seems to be getting us closer to the situation the filmmaker can find himself in with his subject in a documentary encounter. Does this seeing through one’s desire give one a right to do what one wants? It is a little more complicated as we will see directly. Zizek (1994[2005]: 67) says that ‘the saint is ethical (he does not compromise his desire) and moral (he considers the Good of others) whereas the scoundrel is immoral (he violates moral norms) and unethical (what he is after is not desire but pleasures and profits, so he lacks any firm principles). Zizek then points out that the relationship between the horizontal lines could be far more interesting: for example, the hero could be immoral, yet ethical –‘that is to say, he violates (or rather, suspends the validity of) existing explicit moral norms in the name of a higher ethics of life’ that include the fidelity to his desire (ibid.: 67). Zizek (1994[2005] and Zupancic (2011 [2000]) take an even more controversial example of an ethical stance which would be utterly immoral, namely that of the Marquise de Montreuil and Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuse (1782): they have struck a pact in which Valmont seduces women and abandons them as a kind of proof of his love for the Marquise de Montreuil. It is in the end the Marquise who, in her consistency and fidelity to her desire, is the most ethical character in the novel, despite being also despicably immoral. Valmont, on the other hand, gets confounded by the unexpected love he feels for Madame de Tourvel, but he cannot see it through for the fear of humiliation in the eyes of Madame: he therefore fails on every count being neither ethical nor moral.

Zizek also makes a point similar to Fink, explicating the relationship between guilt and desire. Zizek clarifies that Lacan posits a relationship of ethical exclusion between the ethics of desire and the superego. The feeling of guilt ‘is not a self-deception to be dispelled in the course of the analysis: we really are guilty: superego draws the energy of the pressure it exerts upon the subject from the fact that the subject was not faithful to his desire that he gave up. Our sacrificing to the superego, our paying tributes to it, only corroborates our guilt’ (Zizek 1994[2005]: 68).

Lacan makes references to Kant, in part developing the link between Kant and Sade, which he suggests first in the same seminar (Seminar VII) and then in the Écrits ‘Kant with Sade’ of 1963.

Zizek reflects on the importance of this connection and suggests that ‘A lot-everything, perhaps-is at stake here: is there a line from Kantian formalist ethics to the cold-blooded Auschwitz killing machine? Are concentration camps and killing as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason?’ (cf. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/kant-and-sade-the-ideal-couple/)

These are dramatic statements, which are highly pertinent to my interrogation with the testimony of a traumatized victim at its heart. Kant’s has a disdain for a desire vis-à-vis duty – a desire that is often pathologised in Kant as giving in to low instincts, which have nothing to do with his lofty ideas of pure ethics (see for example MacIntyre 2010:77).


Lacan in his Seminar VII analyses Sade’s devotion to his fantasy of the ultimate succumbing to the desire and going beyond the limit. Zizek insists however that the focus of Lacan is always Kant, not Sade: what he is interested in are the ultimate consequences and disavowed premises of the Kantian ethical revolution. (cf. Zizek in http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/kant-and-sade-the-ideal-couple/)


Is this in any way relevant to documentary filmmaking? It might be relevant to documentary filmmaking or any activity profoundly fuelled by desire, to the exclusion of a moral consideration for what might be good for other people. In the same paper Zizek continues, giving an example of an artist ‘absolutely identified with his artistic mission, pursuing it freely without any guilt, as an inner constraint, unable to survive without it.’ Zizek gives also an example of another artist: Jacqueline du Pré, who ‘confronts us with the feminine version of the split between the unconditional injunction and its obverse, the serial universality of indifferent empirical objects that must be sacrificed in the pursuit of one’s Mission’:


Du Pré’s unconditional injunction, her drive, her absolute passion was her art (…) She thus occupied the place usually reserved for the MALE artist-no wonder her long tragic illness (multiple sclerosis, from which she was painfully dying from 1973 to 1987) was perceived by her mother as an “answer of the real,” as divine punishment not only for her promiscuous sexual life, but also for her “excessive” commitment to her art…’ (Zizek in “Kant and Sade, The Ideal Couple”, web reference as before; capitals in the original).



Here we get very close to the film we are focusing on, Enemies of the People. The documentary film maker’s ‘excessive commitment’ to his work through the fidelity to their desire would definitely make them ethical in the Lacanian system. However, that does not necessarily mean that they are moral – they might well be immoral, meaning, causing pain and havoc in people’s lives.



Badiou in his Ethics; an Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2002[1993]) offers an approach to the issue of ethics which, by his own account, draws from Lacan’s ‘don’t give up on your desire’ but is clearer and more exigent . It also stresses the notion of evil. Badiou’s move is to dissociate himself in the strongest possible term from the Levinasian ethics of the responsibility of the Other, placing the personal decision of the I at the heart of his ethics, which he call ‘an ethic of truths’ (or sometimes an ethic of a truth process). He is very insistent that ‘there can be no ethics in general, but only an ethic of singular truths, and thus an ethic relative to a particular situation’ (Badiou 2002[1993];IVI)), although he did accept that one has to take into account the network of relationships it sustains.


Peter Hallward, in his introduction to the book, points out that the system of thinking that Badiou attacks has a couple of preliminary assumptions; first the assumption of an a priori evil (totalitarianism, violence, suffering), which Badious questions; then the imposition of an essentially defensive ethics, a ‘respect for negative liberties’ and ‘human rights’. Badiou argues that operating in the realm of consensus, this is intrinsically conservative ethics. Badiou lists two prevailing ‘philosophical poles’: first a ‘vaguely Kantian pole is grounded in abstract universality, general human attributes and some kind of vague acceptance of truth’. The second one is vaguely Levinasian attuned to the irreducible alterity of the Other. Badiou’s proposes a more radical move. His translator, also a philosopher, stresses: ‘The whole tangled body of doctrine associated with the Other (…) is here simply swept away. Gone is the complex “negotiation” of a multiplicity of shifting “subject positions”; (…) Gone is the whole abject register of “bearing witness”, of a guilt-driven empathy or compassion ultimately indistinguishable from a distanced condescension’.



The Immortal Versus the Victim

In his introduction Badiou mentions Hegel’s subtle distinction between ‘ethics’ [Sittlichkeit] and ‘morality’ [Moralitaet]. Hegel sees ethics as involving immediate action whereas morality is reflexive. Hegel, and Badiou after him, puts emphasis on ‘immediate firmness of decision. (ibid. :2) Badiou’s insistence on linking ethics to particular situations (ibid. :3) seems helpful in discussing an encounter in documentary film.


Badiou states that the reduction of a human being to the status of victim ‘equates man with his animal substructure’ (ibid. :11). Badiou then makes the point that many torturers of man begin to treat people as animals also because the victims begin to think of themselves in this way.[6] Badiou makes a point that any resistance to annihilation doesn’t lie in his fragile body but rather ‘in his stubborn determination to remain what he is’ – i.e. something other than the victim. (ibid. 110-11)


Badiou then introduces the notion of an Immortal, the rights of the Infinite, ‘exercised over the contingency of suffering and death’ (ibid. :10-11). For Badiou this is not a religious thought, as he says later in the book that there is no God – it is rather that the notion that the human being is more than the sum of his or her most basic needs; this is crucial in Badiou’s ethic of truths.


It is in his introduction that Badiou sets out a devastating critique of the ‘Western’, meaning capitalist, ways of thinking about the world: he gives an example of a doctor about to tend to a patient in distress, when he or she stops and begins to wonder whether he or she should treat the patient, due to his or her insurance status for example. Badiou says that a situation like this is a simple matter: of course you must treat the sick patient whatever the circumstance. The point is that the emphasis in Badiou is always on the I and the decision, which is still a decision, that everybody has to make for themselves (ibid. :15). ‘For the faithful to this situation means, to treat to the limit of the possible. Or if you prefer: to draw from this situation, to the greatest possible extent, the affirmative humanity that it contains. Or again: to try to be the immortal of this situation (ibid. :15).


So the key principles of Badiou’s ethic of truths are the following 3 theses:

Thesis 1: ‘Man is to be identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable, by the Immortal which makes of him the most resilient [resistant] and most paradoxical of animals (ibid. :16)

Thesis 2: ‘our positive capability for Good’ and ‘our refusal of conservatism, including the conservation of being, that we are to identify Evil – not vice versa’. (Ibid.: 16)

Thesis 3: The final point is, again, about thinking through of the ethics of ‘singular situations.’



The Ethic of Truths and a possibility of an evil event

Badiou’s notion of the subject is connected to ‘something extra’, which wrenches a person through his or her being as a near animal. It is something that happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary insicition in ‘what there is’ (ibid.: 41). This is what Badiou call an ‘event’ (ibid.: 41), which compiles us to decide a new way of being. Badiou lists huge historical events as possible ‘events’ in the way he uses them: the French Revolution, Galileo’s creation of physics, but also a personal amorous passion, the invention of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg (ibid.: 42). The key thing for Badiou is the ability on the part of the subject to hence with relate to the situation from’ from the perspective of its eventual (evenemeniel) supplement (ibid.: 41). Badiou calls this fidelity. He calls ‘subject’ the bearer of ‘a fidelity’, the one who bears a process of truth’ (ibid.: 43).


Badiou envisages though a possibility of a false event which is evil and which he calls ‘simulacrum’ (ibid.: 72-73). He gives a dramatic example which wipes out any confusion regarding it: namely the example of the Nazis and the ‘National Socialist revolution’: ‘they borrowed names –“revolution”, “socialism” –justified by great modern political events (the Revolution of 1789, or the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). A whole series of characterizers are related to and legitimated by this borrowing: the break with the old order, the support sought from mass gatherings (…)’ (ibid.:72). Badiou stresses that such an ‘event’ might have formal similarities with a true event but the difference in this instance lies in its ‘absolute particularity’ (ibid.:73) of a community it only addresses itself too i.e. the Germans. A true event cannot have this kind of a restriction: ‘The void, the multiple-of nothing, neither excludes nor constrains anyone (…) although it is an immanent break within a singular situation, is none the less universally addressed’ (ibid.: 73).


Badiou calls such a mis-recognition of an event a ‘simulacrum of truth’ (ibid.: 73). It is here that Badiou and Zizek part ways, as the latter envisages a possibility of an act, which is ethical but immoral as previously stated. [7] Such a possibility does not exist in Badiou and he would certainly deem that pact between Valmont and Madame Montreuil not an event but a simulacrum: again, he does not use the word ‘pathological’ (neither does Lacan), but the pact between Valmont and Madame Montreuil stops them from a possibility of following a true event, namely the miraculous falling in love in the case of Valmont and Madame de Torveil. It is a sense of a closed set which privileges only a particular group: ‘Fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set [ensemble] (the ‘Germans’ or the ‘Aryans’)’ (ibid.: 74).


Badiou sees dangers in confusing the simulacrum with a true event and cautions again against any form of a closed set, which ‘works directly against truths’ (ibid.: 76). Having named love as one of the possible truth events, Badiou now says ‘we can see how certain sexual passions are simulacra of the amorous event’ (ibid.: 77). A person in the middle of a sexual passion might have a difficulty in telling the difference between a simulacra and ‘the event’ but love as an event in Badiou relies on a sudden experience of seeing the world differently together, through the event of love, and not just on a mutual desire.[8]



Concluding thoughts and questions

 If we could be certain that we can qualify the position of the filmmaker as a true event, would that constitute an ethical act on the part of Sambath?

Some questions remain: was this really an event or was the filmmaker simply ‘acting out’ – acting out his pain so that it becomes bearable? Could other people ‘join’ in his event or was it ‘an ensemble’ of one, i.e. him driven by his extraordinary pain which perhaps had tinges of revenge? Was it then just ‘simulacrum’ – something which is fundamentally evil but pretends to be good? These question might well remain and it is important to keep raising them in our society today, which is driven to a large extent by images and their meaning, like in Guy Debord’s ‘society of spectacle’.


Maurice Blanchot in his Infinite Conversation (1993) touches upon the almost unspeakable notion of the link between language and torture (and he is mentioning it in passing as ‘these things can only be said in passing’ (Blanchot[1993]2008 :42): ‘Torture is the recourse to violence – always in the form of a technique – with a view to making speak. This violence, perfected or camouflaged by technique, wants one to speak, wants speech’ (Blanchot 2008: 43) (my emphasis).


Once we somehow excuse this ‘forced speech’ or ‘forced testimony’ for whatever reason, the path is open towards real horrors of people being made to speak in various contemporary chambers of torture all over the world – where, according to the executioners, torture is but a necessary evil used for the good of us all. There seems a chasm of difference between an enthusiastic filmmaker and the apparatchiks of various systems, and yet therein lies a profound obscene danger of documentary project, which at least one needs to be aware of.




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Badiou, A. (2000) What is Love? In Sexuation, R.Salecl (ed.) Durham: Duke University Press. pp.263-282.

Badiou, A. (2001) Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, P. Hallward, trans. London and New York: Verso.

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[1] It is worth mentioning a connection between Levinas and Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, despite very serious differences, particularly regarding the notion of love for the Other which in Kierkegaard is equal but not greater to the love one has for oneself . Some scholars see the similarities in the question of singularity in the two philosophers particularly in contemporary world besieged by globalisation and commodification – ‘the Levinasian and Kierkegaardian insights continue to resound’ (Simmons &Wood 2008:4). It is also Kierkegaard who was the first one to bring up the concept of the idea ‘for which I am willing to live and die’ (Simmons 2007: 230) which resonates both with Lacanian ‘don’t give up on your desire’ and Badiou’s notion of fidelity In a classic text from 1935 Brock emphasises the Kierkegaardian notion of choice as crucial. The choice is what one does with one’s whole existence, this is what one must do if one ‘wishes to ‘exist’, that is to conduct, and not merely to be driven by life (Brock 1935: 78). Again this resonates with Lacan which I will discuss hencewith.

[2] Levinas does mention the Third but he is less interested in developing these ideas and delegates those to the duties of the state and the judicial system.

[3] It appears that Lacan doesn’t actually use this kind of invective but instead says: « La seule chose dont on puisse être coupable, c’est d’avoir cédé sur son désir» [ the only thing you can be guilty of is to give up on your desire – my translation] See J. Lacan, Le séminaire livre VII, L’éthique de la psychanalyse, Seuil, 1986. p.329.

[4] ‘the service of goods’ in this seminar stands for society, which relies on exchanges of systems and commodities.

[5] The ‘what I really want’ is not an invitation for a senseless pursuit of hedonism but rather an urging to explore one’s core fantasy which, one could argue, defines the very subject hood of each person. Lacan repeatedly criticizes both notions of some kind of altruistic conduct or conformity to the requirements of goods and services. Please note that the concept of l’objet petit a only arrives later in Lacan’s work. Lacan leaves the notion of evil purposefully open.

[6] This resonates clearly with Agamben’s discussion of Muselmann. Badiou does not mention ‘Muselmann’ but sends the reader to another book about camps, i.e. Varlam Shalamov Stories of Life in the Camps, which focuses on the notion of surviving through a denial of accepting one’s position as the nonhuman. .

[7] Zizek appears to have changed his reading of Lacan’s don’t give up on your desire’ somewhat in his latest book and appears to have got closer to Badiou Zizek 2012: 121). He still however gives a status of an ethical act to Don Giovanni’s final refusal to repent or regret a life of broken promises and broken hearts, knowing that that decision will result in his eternal damnation. Zizek seems to appreciate the steadfastness of a commitment. (ibid.: 123-124) ‘If hedonism is to be rejected, is Lacanian ethics then a version of the heroic immoralist ethics, enjoining us to remain faithful to ourselves and persist on any chosen way beyond good and evil? (ibid.: 123) However, one could argue that that notion is not really spelled out in Lacan but is rather a Zizekian adaptation of the dictum. Badiou of course would see Don Giovanni’s steadfastness as simulacrum – a false event.

[8] For a reading of Badiou’s notion of love as the event which can happen in a non erotic situation see Lisa Baraitser’s reading (Baraitser 2009: 116-8).