Subjectivity, freedom, and the undoing of modernity in Zizek’s Event

Slavoj Zizek, Event (Melville 2014) [image: Melville House Books]

Zizek’s analysis of the concept of an event in his recent book (Melville, 2014) quickly leads him to focus once again upon the concept of subjectivity – and ultimately (once again) upon himself. Nevertheless, the book itself nicely dramatizes in miniature Zizek’s ongoing exploration of ways to recover and defend modern Cartesian-Romantic conceptions of freedom and its value, in the face of various waves and fronts of post-modern suspicion.

The first link between events and subjectivity can be seen in Zizek’s initial ‘approximate definition’ of an event:

an event at its purest and most minimal [is] something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation…. [T]here is, by definition, something ‘miraculous’ in an event. (4)

An event is thus (i) a kind of ‘happening’ in time, and (ii) one whose causes are not easily discernible, insofar as ‘an event is [an] effect that seems to exceed its causes’, and takes place – or at least ‘seems’ to take place – in a ‘space’ or ‘gap’ between the prior causes and the actual outcome (5). It is in (ii) that Zizek already includes a reference to subjectivity: what distinguishes an event from other happenings in time is how the relevant happening appears or seems to a subject (miraculous, shocking, interruptive), due to the (lack of) discernibility of certain features, again, by a subject.

The second link comes from the fact that such subjective appearings and seemings – along with other distinctly mental ‘happenings’ – can themselves be members of the domain of events. That is, the happening of a certain seeming/appearing can itself seem/appear to subjects as if it ‘exceeds’ its causes, insofar as, e.g., the relevant act of representing can seem to ‘emerge out of nowhere’, perhaps, e.g., from the mind of a genius. In addition to Kuhn-style revolutions in physics (12), Zizek identifies the emergence of Platonic, Cartesian, and Hegelian philosophies as three such intellectual happenings that merit the label ‘events’ (69f).

The third link to subjectivity, however, makes clear that, for Zizek, subjective happenings are actually not events on par with others, for it turns out that the historical happening of subjectivity itself is the paradigmatic ‘event’: ‘the true event is the Event of subjectivity’ (68). It is the emergence of subjectivity as a whole which most of all appears or seems to be ‘miraculous’, seeming to be an effect ‘exceeding’ its causes.

In these last two links, Zizek shows his sympathies for Cartesian-Kantian-Romantic exceptionalism about subjects and their activity, on the grounds that the causes of acts by subjects, though existent, are themselves ‘uncaused’ and entirely ‘spontaneous’, brought about by an exercise of absolute spiritual freedom – which is what entitles such acts most of all to being events in the sense sketched above. Individual acts by subjects are events because their ultimate cause (ground) is something unconditioned by natural-historical happenings – namely, subjectivity itself.

Zizek himself wants to rescue conceptual space for the continued thought of, and belief in the existence of, something akin to this freedom, in the face of contemporary reductionist or eliminativist ontologies which would render such a concept unthinkable – and despite the fact that Zizek accepts that subjectivity itself emerges in history. Or perhaps more conservatively, Zizek wants at least to make us confront the fact that we are still ‘haunted’ by the thought of such freedom and believe in it even against our better judgment:

[I]t is difficult, if not out right impossible, to get rid of the dimension of subjectivity in the sense of free responsible agency. (66); [T]he dimension of subjectivity (in the sense of free autonomous agency) is irreducible: we cannot get rid of it; it continues to haunt every attempt to overcome it. (68)

To be sure, Zizek does not deny that, at the same time, the specter of fatalism also ‘haunts’ every attempt to hold on to the subjective dimension. Zizek’s conclusion is therefore that, if we are honest, we find ourselves in a ‘double bind’:

At the level of our practical-ethical life, any attempt to simply shed responsibility and conceive of oneself as an unfree mechanism gets caught in a double bind of freedom: yes, we are doomed, Fate pulls the strings, every manipulator is in his/her turn manipulated, every free agent who decides his own fate is deluded – but to simply endorse and assume this predicament of helplessness in the face of greater forces is also an illusion, an escapist avoidance of the burden of responsibility. (67)

At this point, readers sympathetic to the radical rejection of enlightenment-romantic subjectivity propounded by Buddhism and some brain scientists (cf. 52-59) will request Zizek’s reasons for thinking that such thoughts and beliefs in freedom and subjectivity are absolutely inescapable – that we cannot ‘live as ‘being no one’’ (59) – that these ghosts cannot be fully or at least sufficiently exorcised. With enough thought, not only might the whole realm of subjective happenings, including the happening of subjectivity itself, stop seeming miraculous, but the very emergence of the illusion of its evental status would itself be accorded discernible causes.

The primary proof that Zizek here gives of the positive reality of the subjective dimension is in the pudding of what happens in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis ‘is exemplary of our predicament’ (as double-bound), because it both (i) accepts that ‘we are decentered, caught in a foreign cobweb, over-determined by unconscious mechanisms’, but at the same time (ii) insists that ‘assuming this fact (in the sense of rejecting any responsibility) is also false, a case of self-deception’, since psychoanalysis successfully ‘makes me responsible even for what is beyond my (conscious) control’ (67-68; my ital.). What proves that the appearance of subjectivity is not mere semblance is therefore the knowledge of the actual change that subjects can effect upon themselves through analysis (e.g., traversing fantasy (27f)).

Now, however, an obvious question arises: why should we think that the effectiveness of analysis is itself due to any act of free causality in the relevant sense? Why not think, instead, that the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis ‘makes me responsible’ for a certain change are themselves governed by fairly regular psychological-causal laws which will cause this same effect in anyone who undergoes such analysis? Why not think as well that the original causes of someone’s entering into analysis in the first place lie not in any spontaneity but rather in equally non-deliberative unconscious forces?

We might hope to get a better sense for how psychoanalysis in particular manifests authentic freedom if we could tease out what Zizek thinks free and active subjectivity in general looks like. The answer to this question is actually not easy to discern. Zizek follows Schelling and Hegel in characterizing free subjectivity as ultimately an ‘infinite lack of being’, the condition of being the ‘night of the world’, an ‘empty nothing’, an ‘absolute negativity’ (83-84). What this ‘nothing’ looks like concretely, in its purest form, is, for Zizek, manifest in ‘post-traumatic subjects’ (Zizek also calls them ‘autistic subjects’ (88-89)), subjects who have undergone ‘the death (erasure) of [their] symbolic identity’, and now exhibit ‘a lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment…who are no longer ‘in-the-world’ in a Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence’ (86), but which nevertheless exist as ‘the empty form of the ‘living-dead’ subject…the pure form of subjectivity…[the] subject at its zero-level’ (88). But though this might give the impression that subjectivity as such is simply a persisting blank state (gaze), the subjectivity at issue for Zizek is instead constituted by the ‘process’ of withdrawing or contraction or ‘freeing-itself-from’ (101; my ital.) both the realm of mere happenings (the realm of the Lacanian ‘imaginary’) but also the realm of pre-given ‘symbolic’ structurings of such happenings into stable ‘identities’ (cf. 106). The post-traumatic subjects have simply become experts at this act.

This is all, of course, quite abstract. We can get a somewhat more concrete sense for how this subjectivity manifests itself by looking to the less austere (‘pure’) circumstances of Zizek’s other main, and perhaps even more primary, example of an event – though one which might initially seem to be at the opposite end of experience from trauma: that of falling in love. For Zizek, falling in love is a truly ‘authentic act’ in which a subject performs ‘an actual move which retroactively changes the very virtual, ‘transcendental’ co-ordinates of its agent’s being’ (128). This is because such an act reconfigures the ‘symbolic’ structuring in terms of which ordinary happenings are understood – in contrast to ‘our ordinary activity’, in which ‘we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) co-ordinates of our identity’ (128). In falling in love, the subject withdraws or frees itself from how things are and would be, in order to intervene and cause effects on the basis of a ground not already ‘coordinated’ by existing structures – a ground which lies entirely in itself.

Zizek’s analysis here, too, is immediately complicated, however, by his own further insistence (with Freud and Schelling (and Libet)) that this ‘authentic act’ of falling in love is, in fact, an act which is ‘prior to consciousness’, ‘unconscious’, such that it ‘never happens at a certain moment, it has always-already happened’ (133). On account of this ‘subconscious gestation’, we do not experience ourselves as ever having spontaneously decided at some moment to fall in love, but rather, in a moment of receptivity, ‘we all of a sudden become aware that we (already) are in love’ (133; my ital.). This seems to make the ‘authentic act’ one that happens behind our backs, with respect to which we are actually not spontaneously self-consciously efficacious, but rather something pre-existing our consciousness, something we are receptively made aware of.

Here Zizek valiantly attempts to reincorporate a more direct, immediate, classical-modern German sense of self-conscious free agency, by relocating the genuinely authentic self-achieving of an ‘event’ in one’s self not in this ongoing subterranean ‘infection’ (a la Hegel, cf. 131), but in a different, explicit, outward activity – namely, that of actively ‘declaring’ or ‘counting’ oneself as having done what has already ‘happened’ to oneself. With a nod to Badiou (one of the surprisingly very few (two; cf. as well 159), given the main subject-matter of the book), Zizek now argues that ‘the proper moment of subjective transformation occurs at the moment of declaration’ and ‘not at the moment of the act’, i.e., only when ‘one counts oneself as (declares oneself) the one who did it’, not when one did it in the first place (133; my ital.). From this vantage-point, there do remain certain acts – here: declarings or self-countings – that we ourselves ‘really’ do, ‘authentically’, or ‘properly speaking’, which are episodic in the sense of being indexed to particular moments in time and the result of particular consciously and deliberately formed intentions, acts have not ‘always-already happened’ to us or in us, and which are ‘spontaneous’ and ‘free’ in the more classical sense.

Unfortunately, Zizek does nothing to establish that these very declarings or self-countings are not themselves simply more uneventful happenings brought about by (psychological, cultural) causes nowadays relatively easily discernible. Nor does Zizek show how these declarings are especially the effects of (or a part of) the process of ‘freeing oneself from’, or why we should think that it is the (conscious) self-counting of oneself as fallen in love, rather than the (unconscious) act of falling itself, which is what actually causes the reconfiguration of the virtual coordinates, or ultimately ‘makes me responsible’ for the original act. (Perhaps Zizek might argue that such saying always incorporates a Freudian-Brechtian Versagung?) Finally, more could be done to show how the ‘freeing’ at issue in such declarations of love is of a piece with the ‘freeing’ exemplified by the ‘zero’-subjects of post-trauma.

In any case, Zizek concludes by noting that the world-historical ‘event’ of modern enlightement-romantic subjectivity is increasingly being ‘undone’ (143f) – in ways, moreover, that, for Zizek, signal the reversal of ‘ethical progress’ (148). Despite all of its complications, Zizek holds that the ‘Event of modernity’ has been overall ‘emancipatory’ (157), and views its undoing as ‘depressive’ (159). One sign Zizek points to, of its positive value, is that modernity has effected a mode of human existence in which, at least according to Zizek, ‘our gut instinct’ now better tracks what is right (at least on certain issues (such as torture)) with such decisiveness that ‘one should not ‘think’’ but simply respond ‘dogmatically’ as the instinct leads (148; my ital.). Here Zizek adds his own personal confession:

I would like to live in a society where [things like rape and torture are] simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against [them]. (148)

A main culprit in this undoing, for Zizek, is ‘the dislocating effects of capitalist globalization which, by undermining the ‘symbolic efficacy’ of traditional ethical structures, creates a moral vacuum’ (152). Yet solutions are not forthcoming, with Zizek lamenting the fact that ‘any consistent Leftist reply’ to this undoing – or at least, perhaps: one consistent with Zizek’s own ‘gut instinct’ – is ‘conspicuously absent’ (160).

Even so, Zizek concludes optimistically by hinting that the ‘trauma’ of such undoing might itself be ‘overcome through love’ (168). In light of his previous analysis of this act (love), however, such a reply itself presumably will have to emerge unconsciously, infecting the Left subterraneously. May the day come when we recognize that it has already happened.