How to read Lacan: Zizek on Lacan – Part 4. Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien. (pt Three)

This is a post based on Slavoj Zizek’s little booklet How to read Lacan. For the previous post to this one, go here.

For the first in the series, go here.

Zizek goes on to cite some beautiful passages of Shakespeare to describe what he means here by Lacan’s “real”.  He also cites an example from City Lights, the Chaplin film, which I will add in here because it encompasses what he is saying neatly.  There is a scene in City Lights where the tramp swallows a whistle by mistake. After this, when he hiccups, the whistle makes some noise inside him and as he responds to this the audience experiences some funny scenarios. The embarrassed Tramp tries to cover up these sounds not knowing what to do. This for Zizek is the purest example of shame – a confrontation with the excesses of ones body.  In this case the embarrassment is caused by sound, something completely dissociated from the material,  a disembodied entity.   He describes it as a foreign parasite. As an intruder.

This explains Lacan’s real so well because the Real is more of a fracture than it is a thing.  At its most radical, it has to be completely de-substantialized. It is not something that gets caught in the symbolic structure but the fissure in the symbolic network itself. The Real as the monstrous Thing behind the veil of appearances is the ultimate lure that lends itself easily to New Age appropriation.  And what is the lure here? “Strangely that relates to the general theory of relativity in Einstein.  While the special theory already introduces the notion of curved space, it conceives of this curvature as the effect of matter: it is the presence of matter that curves space, i.e., only an empty space would not be curved. With the passage to the general theory, the causality is reversed:  Far from causing the curvatures of space, matter is its effect and the presence of matter signals that space is curved. What can all this have to do with psychoanalysis? Much more than may appear: in a way that echoes Einstein  for Lacan the Real – the Thing – is not so much the inert presence that curves symbolic space(introducing gaps and inconsistencies in it) but, rather, an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies.”

Zizek then argues that this brings us back to Freud and his theories on trauma. Freud used to think trauma was something that, from outside, disturbes the balance of our psychic life, throwing out of join the symbolic coordinates that organise our experience. The “cure” from this angle would be how to create a universe where the traumatic experience can be included so that it loses its impact. It was later that Freud took the opposite approach.  It was Freud’s “wolf-man” patient that revealed to him another way to approach trauma.  The Wolf-man had seen his parents engaged in intercourse as a child when his father penetrated his mother from behind. This meant nothing to the child at the time, however later when he was becoming a sexual creature and trying to organise “where babies come from” in his mind, he remembered the event in a traumatic way.  A traumatic scene that embodied the mysteries of sexuality. Zizek says, “In step with Einstein’s shift, the original fact is here the symbolic deadlock, and the traumatic event is resuscitated to fill in the gaps in the universe of meaning.”

Zizek uses this example to explain anti-Semitism. While the wolf-man elevated the witness of his parents coitus into the traumatized image of sexuality long after the event, so the Jew is elevated into the place of the Thing that is disturbing and causing the unease in the social balance.  It suddenly becomes easy to anhilate Jews in order to restore social balance.

After this point is made Zizek switches to question – or rather introduce the question (when does Zizek really question Lacan??) of Lacan’s use of references to the scientific Real in order to clarify the conundrums of the psychoanalytic Real.  The question is, are these references meant to be metaphor, didactic borrowings or do they involve a theoretical link between the two domains?

Today’s physics is caught in a strange duality. We have the theory of relativity which gives the best account of how nature functions at the macroscopic level and quantum physics the best account of how it functions at the microscopic level.  The problem here is that the two theories are incompatible and the search is on for a “theory of everything” that will encompass both happily.  It should be no surprise, given Lacan’s connection to the scientific Real, to find a similar duality in Freudian theory: on the one side the hermeneutics of the unconscious, interpretations of dream, slips of the tongue and other such mistakes. On the other side is the more positivist account of our psychic apparatus as a machine for dealing with libidnal energies bringing about the metamorphosis of drives.  This split is best represented by two terms Freud uses for each, The Unconscious and the Id.  But how do we reconcile these two faces of the Freudian edifice? Lacan comes up with his own language to address these issues, but we will have to take a look at them in the next chapter.

Of course a reminder, none of this is my writing. This is condensed version of Zizek’s book How to read Lacan, which can be purchased here. I have quoted directly from this book and taken all the ideas shown in this post from this book. Please be clear, this is not my work. I am your partner in trying to puzzle it all out.