Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Discipline Between Two Freedoms 2.2-2.4

The latest summary for our reading group has been provided by Jeremy Ridenour who is a graduate student working in psychoanalysis and blogs on philosophy, religion and psychoanalysis at JRidenour. – APS

Zizek begins this section on the auto-poesis of the self by exploring the relationship between chaos and order. A major problem in evolutionary cognitivism is to explain how a distinct self-same organism emerges out of its environment. That is to say, how can we account for the cell’s membrane, which serves to delineate the boundaries between the cell and its surroundings? Zizek believes that this problem between the inside and the outside can only be explained when, “the One of an organism as a Whole retroactively ‘posits’ as its result, as that which it dominates and regulates, the set of its own causes” (106). Based on Hegel’s understanding of the infinite as self-limitation, Zizek concludes that the cell is thus true infinity insofar as it imposes its own boundary (i.e. membrane) and does not rely on its environment to set limits.

Next, Zizek outlines Hegel’s understanding of origin of human habits. “In his genealogy, Hegel conceives habit as the third, concluding, moment of the dialectical process of the Soul, whose structure follows the triad of notion – judgment – syllogism (107). The dialectic begins with the sentient self, which is simply an undifferentiated sensing object that Zizek compares to Freud’s notion of oceanic feeling. At this lowest level, the Soul lacks self-reflection. In judgment, the next movement, the Self has the ability to feel itself, which poses the unique problem of how it can serve as both the form and content of feeling. As Zizek puts it quite aptly, “the frame itself has to become part of the enframed content” (108). The exact problem is the self’s inability to grasp the frame itself since everything that is perceived is always already filtered through that frame. Zizek enlists Deleuze’s notion of the virtual (i.e. the actuality of the possible) to serve as a way out of this dilemma. According to Zizek, the self’s self-consciousness is in fact the actuality of its possibility. Within Kant’s philosophy we run up against a limit precisely when the self’s phenomenal experience of itself would suggest that the self could have access to the noumenal.

Hegel frames the problem in this way, “the subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement” (110). Zizek urges us to read Hegel as saying that madness is always a potentiality of man’s ontological position. Moreover, sanity can only ever emerge by overcoming the potential threat of insanity. For Hegel, “in a habit, the subject finds a way to ‘possess itself,’ to stabilize its own inner content in ‘having’ as its property a habit, i.e., not a positive actual feature, but a virtual entity, a universal disposition to (re)act in a certain way. Habit and madness are to be thought together: habit is the way to stabilize the imbalance of madness” (112).

To properly understand the relationship between the soul and the body, we must always think the two together. That is to say the body is always already impregnated with the soul, and the soul must be embodied to manifest itself. This closed circle can only be broken through by the moment of judgment in which a “self-referentiality which twists the circle into itself” (113). Zizek goes on to say that “the process of corporeal self-expression has no pre-existing referent as its mooring point: the entire movement is thoroughly self-referential, it is only through the process of ‘expression’ (externalization in bodily signs) that the expressed Inner Self (the content of these signs) is retroactively created” (113). This “lack of any ontological guarantee” (113) leads him to conclude that our behaviors and speech acts are always potentially threatened by irony. Namely when I say A, it always possible that I mean to imply non-A. He goes on to argue that it is possible that the emotions I present in my persona (mask) may be more representative of my true self than how I truly feel in my inner self. Hence, the violent personas that people often adopt in video games that are completely at odds with how they conduct themselves in society, might be truer expressions of the real self. Thus the persona people present in public might actually be a false mask that conceals the true violent self. Habit can break out of this dilemma by “putting truth in ‘mindless’ expressions” (114). Moreover, habit is unique insofar as it literally signifies nothing. Zizek goes on to connect this with the Lacanian signifier that “represents the subject for another signifier” (115). “The ‘nothing’ is the void of the subject itself, so that the absence of an ultimate reference means that the absence itself is the ultimate reference, and this absence is the subject itself” (115).

According to Hegel the pure self has no interior nature but rather is defined by an externality, which “stands for the paradoxical short-circuit of the super-natural (spiritual) in its natural state” (117). Spirit is part of nature and can only ever emerge through the affliction of the self. This leads him to reinterpret Sartre’s discussion of the waiter in the café. The only way for the water to retain a sense of freedom is to over-identify with his role. In fact, this should suggest that those waiters who add a personal touch to their service betray the fact that they are not free in their role. The supposed personal touch gives them the false impression that there is a real person under the persona as waiter when in reality it “provides the sense of false freedom, allowing me to accommodate myself to my self-objectivization in the role that I am playing” (118).

Finally, Zizek explores Laclau’s concept of hegemony because it provides us with a connection to think about the relationship between particular habits and universality of man’s genus. “The predominance of one or another habit is the result of a struggle for hegemony, for which accident will occupy the empty place of the universality” (119). He concludes that the habit helps the subject avoid madness by not harmonizing universality and accidents, but rather by encouraging the subject to identify “with a disposition, with a virtuality. Habit is the outcome of a struggle for hegemony: it is accident elevated to ‘essence’, to universal necessity, i.e., made to fill in its empty place” (121).

7 thoughts on “Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Discipline Between Two Freedoms 2.2-2.4

  1. It felt like a lot of interesting Hegelian ideas with some fun examples, but at the end of the day it wasn’t a very tight argument.

  2. Gabriel’s essay was at least trying to do something, it seemed, whereas Zizek is just kind of saying, “Hey, let’s talk about Hegel.” Hopefully the next chapter will have more to it.

  3. I agree with the points above. It seemed to turn into the answer to an exam question like “Discuss the importance of Hegel’s description of habit”. I normally like Zizek’s rambling style because it’s good food for thought, but when you’re actually trying to have a constructive debate with others about it, it can be quite annoying. Still, at least I know a little bit more about Hegel than I did 2 days ago.

  4. While I essentially agree with what everyone has said here, I did find the discussion of how the morning newspaper is the morning prayer interesting and thought it connected up with some of the Malabou discussion we’ve had before. I wish Z would have focused in more on that with regard to habit (I note too that Malabou wrote the foreword to the English translation of Raviasson’s On Habit).

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