What is a subject?
To offer an entry point to this question, let us present another one: what is the difference between the subject-theories of Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek? For our contextual anchoring points, we’ll summon two major texts by these two major philosophers of our time: The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. I (2009) by Derrida and The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) by Žižek.
As our theoretical background, we might adopt a highly influential theory about the subject, a theory that both of the aforementioned authors make a good use of in their own works. The theorist they share in common is Jacques Lacan. His theory of the subject, inspired by a radical reworking of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, is perhaps one of the most intricate and elaborate conceptual frameworks ever built to answer to the question of the subject. In his use, the concept of “subject” gains a radically different meaning compared to that of the Anglo-American psychological tradition. The central point of difference would be that, for Lacan, the “subject” is not the ego, but rather this “ego” is for him an object, fundamentally an alien object in the human organism. The genuine subject is something quite different.
To offer a taste of that “genuine” subject, let us amuse ourselves with a brief crystallization of our main idea of what a “subject” indeed means for Lacan. As we mentioned, it is radically different from the ego: we might even go as far as to call the two opposites of one another. Whereas the ego is structured by language, helplessly at the mercy of the signifying texture, the subject entails a break in that system at the same moment when it disrupts the structure. In a sense, the subject is the element which guarantees the meaning of language without any reference outside the language. In short, it creates meaning from an infinite, paradoxical regress. How can this be? We will attempt to reveal it shortly.
Žižek on the Subject of the Subject
In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek offers a strongly counter post-structuralist reading of Lacan’s theory of the subject. The sharpest point of his critique and theory is directed against Derrida and deconstruction as a theory both of the subject and of the text.
To begin with, we must make a crucial differentiation in the concept of the subject and how this differentiation is put to use by Žižek. On the one hand, to speak of the subject is to speak of her as defined by her “classic” features: “autonomous”, “sovereign”, “free” etc. A subject in this sense is always tied to a given ideology by the process of interpellation which comes to be defined as the very condition of subjectivity: a subject must always be a subject of something, of some ideology. On the other hand, Žižek also talks of the subject prior to and beyond this type of interpellation, before any positivity, before any interpellation or subjectification. There are no specific terms for these two subjects because ultimately they are not two different concepts, but both can exist simultaneously and indeed cannot exist but together. Nonetheless, it is crucial to know the difference, and so we shall adopt a manner of speaking that, whenever we speak of the subject post interpellation, we shall call her simply “the subject”, and, when we refer to the subject prior to all interpellation, we shall use the term “subject as such”. The difference reflects somewhat closely that of Žižek’s.
Of these two, we are first and foremost interested in the subject as such. It is there (and as we shall see, the “subject as such” really is “something out there”) that we will encounter the focus of this essay, that is, the applied critique of Derrida against Žižek’s (and Lacan’s) conception of subjectivity.
The Subject of the Signifier = the “Subject as Such”
As we have already established, for Žižek there exists a subject outside the various subject positions ascribable to the subject, that is, there is a subject before and after all ideological interpellation, “the subject of lack,” as Laclau put it. According to Laclau’s preface, Žižek’s book consists of a single major argument directed against the poststructuralist tradition, an argument that he phrases as follows: “The category of the ‘subject’ cannot be reduced to the positions of the subject, since before subjectivation the subject is the subject of a lack.”. What does this mean?
The major point of interest that strikes us is that Žižek treats this “subject as such” as antagonistic and opposite to the process of subjectification (which in this context could be easily swapped for “interpellation”):
The subject is therefore to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectification: what the subjectification masks is not a pre- or trans-subjective process of writing but a lack in the structure, a lack which is the subject [as such].
For Žižek, this subjectification represents exactly the poststructuralist gesture of reducing the subject to various subject positions, which he understands as separate configurations of agency that bring about a sense of fullness and sovereignty for the subject. The crucial point is that poststructuralism claims that there is no subject beyond and prior to these positions; that the subject is simply reduced to the various roles they play in society. To the contrary, Žižek claims that it is exactly this empty place, this “placeness”, this abstract, radical negativity that is the “subject of the signifier” or, as we call her, the “subject as such”.
Obviously, there are numerous ways we could conceive this point of divergence between what Žižek identifies as “poststructuralism” and what he presents as the Lacanian case against it. Next we shall make an effort to approach this gap that we have dived into by framing it as a question of a different difference, that between of a feint and a feigned feint.
The Question of the “Subject as Such” as a (Feigned) Feint
We can now address – at some level very abrupt in nature – the difference between the (Lacanian) subject as respectively understood by Žižek and Derrida. To put it plainly, the “question of the subject” is here formulated in a way that asks whether the subject is capable of a “feigned feint”, as both Lacan and Žižek claim, or whether this essential attribute of the “subject of the signifier” is merely a simple feint, as argued by Derrida.
Let us begin our examination with a joke.
Two Jews meet in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asks one. ‘To Cracow’ was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you are going to Cracow, you want me to believe you are going to Lemberg. But I know you are going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?’
Both Žižek and Derrida quote versions of this joke and insert it as a part of their argument, as an exemplifying element of sorts. Both link it first of all to Freud, from whom Lacan later on picked it. What is so intriguing about it that a quartet of such influential figures would be drawn to it? It is not even funny, in my opinion. Žižek writes:
We can deceive animals by an appearance imitating a reality for which it can be substitute, but the properly human way to deceive a man is to imitate the dissimulation of reality – the act of concealing deceives us precisely by pretending to conceal something.
This theorem is derived more or less directly from Lacan:
Moreover, animals show that they are capable of such behavior [feigning] when they are being hunted down; they manage to throw their pursuers off the scent by briefly going in one direction as a lure and then changing direction. This can go so far as to suggest on the part of game animals the nobility of honoring the parrying found in the hunt. But an animal does not feign feigning. It does not make tracks whose deceptiveness lies in getting them to be taken as false, when in fact they are true—that is, tracks that indicate the right trail. No more than it effaces its tracks, which would already be tantamount to making itself the subject of the signifier.
To summarize, very briefly: the Jewish joke, for Lacan and for Žižek, stands as an argument, on the one hand, for the fundamental difference between animal and human orders. On the other hand, the joke illustrates the existence of the big Other, i.e. Speech, language as an autonomous whole, as the totality of the symbolic order which Žižek connects with the Hegelian Objective Spirit. Our ability to present a truth as a lie is conceived essentially as an effect of intersubjective language qua which these types of “mind games” can take place. What is so radical in Žižek, and in Lacan, is the analysis of this “place” as the place of the subject – who is precisely nothing but this empty place, this “placeness”:
To ‘unmask the illusion’ does not mean that ‘there is nothing to see behind it’; what we must be able to see is precisely this nothing as such – beyond the phenomena, there is nothing but this nothing itself, ‘nothing’ which is the subject. To conceive the appearance as ‘mere appearance’ the subject effectively has to go beyond it, to ‘pass over’ it, but what he finds there is his own act of passage.
So the “subject” is no nothing but “the nothing itself”. Is this contradictory? In a sense, yes, definitely. But Žižek’s exact point is that “the subject”, prior and beyond all subjectification, is exactly a contradictory element in the structure of the Other, in the symbolic order, or rather, it is only through contradictions in the symbolic order that we can access this “primal subjectivity”, this subject prior to any subjectification. This is the kernel of his argument in The Sublime Object, an argument derived directly from Lacan: the subject as such is nothing but a break in the symbolic system, a lapsus, the “hard core” which is the (Lacanian) Real. We will focus on this difference between a feint and a feigned feint and see how the fine mechanics of the thesis operate there.
So a simple feint, a feint which even an animal is capable of, would be pretending to be something that the animal is not, or to cover something that the animal is. For example, many herbivores are known for their aptness to hide their sickness or injuries from their predators. But a second degree feint would be something else, according to Žižek and Lacan: it would essentially mean telling the truth in the knowledge that it will be conceived as a lie by the recipient subject.
The efficacy of the second degree feint is based on the notion that it is an essential human attribute to separate form from content, or appearance from essence. In this case the effect of the “veil” that supposedly covers the “truth” just happens to be the truth itself – but still it is conceived as a veil by the subject. What is hidden is the fact that there is nothing to be hidden in the first place. The “paradox” is that the effect of hiding is still as persistent and “real” as it is in the case of the first degree feint – why? Žižek’s (and Lacan’s) answer is ingenious:
The illusion that there is something hidden behind the curtain is thus a reflexive one: what is hidden behind the appearance is the possibility of this very illusion – behind the curtain is the fact that the subject thinks something must be behind it… This is also the fundamental feature of the logic of the Lacanian object: the place logically precedes objects which occupy it: what the objects, in their given positivity, are masking is not some other, more substantial order of objects but simply the emptiness, the void they are filling out.
In short, the phenomenal object hides nothing but its own place, the truth lies about nothing but about this lying itself. And this lying itself is the subject “as such”, the subject of the signifier. The subject is not an illusion but the place of this illusion, the void where it can occur in the “substance”. Ergo, subject is substance insofar as this “subject” is conceived as the distance that the substance shares with itself, the degree of alienation that it has in relation to itself .
We have now introduced, more or less comprehensively, the kernel of one side of the theoretical clash in which we are interested. Next we shall move on to the other side and see what kinds of counter-arguments and critique we can uncover from therein.
Derrida on the Concept of a Feigned Feint
In the Fourth Session of the Beast and the Sovereign, vol.I, Derrida touches on the subject of the aforementioned double feint, or of feigned feint. It is worth to note that Derrida’s focus is perhaps slightly off from ours, for his is the amicable horizon of the différance between animals and men, and of sovereigns and men. As such his aim is to undermine the concept of the feigned feint from two directions: first of all as something only of “properly human” order, secondly as a genuine, meaningful theoretical contraption as such.
As is often the case with Derrida, the text he offers us is of extraordinary quality in terms of equivocality, abundance of references and general plenitude of meaning. Because his gaze wanders first and foremost on Lacan’s conception of animals, we shall ignore quite a bit of its central foundations and move straight to the topic of the feigned feint, which begins with the very same joke we found with Žižek, in parenthesis even:
The trickery of speech, as we shall see, is of course the lie (and the animal cannot really lie, according to common sense, according to Lacan and many others, even if, as we know, it knows how to feign); but, more precisely, trickery is lying insofar as it comprises, in promising the truth, the supplementary possibility of speaking the truth in order to mislead the other, to make the other believe something other than the truth (you know the Jewish joke told by Freud and often cited by Lacan: ‘Why tell me you are going to X, so that I’ll believe you’re going to Y, when you’re going to X?’)…According to Lacan, it is this lie, this trickery, this second degree feint that the animal is unable to do, whereas the “subject of the signifier”, in the human order, supposedly has the power to do so and, moreover, supposedly comes into being as a subject, institutes and comes to itself as sovereign subject by virtue of this power: a reflexive second degree power, a conscious power of trickery through feigning to feign.
Already in the originally italicized parts of the quote we can see what will later on be identified as the central point of Derrida’s critique towards the concept of feigned feint. This central point is the power of the human agent to access this second degree feigning, or, as Lacan puts it, to efface her own traces. This is the first issue Derrida has with the feigned feint: the other concerns its conceptual clarity, which he severely doubts. Let us now see how he subtly constructs his case against Lacan and by the same token against Žižek.
The Limit(s) of the (Feigned) Feint
We shall now move on to discuss Derrida’s argument, quoted below, in detail.
In the first place, it seems difficult to identify or determine a limit, i.e. an indivisible threshold, between feint and feigned feint… For example, in the most elementary sexual display, how would one distinguish between feint and a feigned feint? … As I shall make clearer in a moment, a symptomatology (and of course a psychoanalysis) can and must always conclude that it is possible, for any feint, to be a feigned feint, and for any feigned feint to be a simple feint… The feint requires that the other be taken into account; it supposes, then, simultaneously, the feint of the feint—of a simple supplementary play of the other in the strategy of the game. This supplementarity is at work from the first feint.
To illustrate what we recognize as the central question of this feint vs. feint of a feint “paradox”, let us reconstruct it in a model where two people are thinking about themselves in the interest of tricking one another.
In the first case, we have a simple feint: person A wants to deceive person B. A starts by thinking herself though B, to imagine how she must appear via the eyes of the other. This is a first degree feint, something that everyone conceded to the animal. In the second case, we have person A wishing to fool B by telling her the truth in the knowledge that it will be interpreted as a lie by B. To do this, A must think herself thinking herself through B, i.e. A must not only think herself from the point of view of B, but also add to this reflection another reflection where she imagines B thinking herself through A. So in sum, the difference between the two feints is that the second includes the first as one of its parts.
After we have presented the case in this way we can ask the vital question: in the second degree feint, is A actually just following the logic of the first degree feint or does she enjoy access to a qualitatively different logic? Or is the difference simply quantitative? Is the whole loop of “A thinking herself thinking herself through B” simply a feint that strives to hide the fact that it is actually just a case of “A thinking herself through B”? In other words, when we supposedly move from level one to level two, do we add another layer or another dimension to our logic? When A wants to deceive B by telling her the truth as a lie, is the notion that B will not believe what I am saying a property of B as such ( which A happens to be aware of) or is it a faculty structured by A and B both?
Obviously enough, presenting the problem in this way does not exhaust its original complexity, not by a long shot. But it does offer us some sort of a clue of what it is “actually” that we are discussing here. And judging from the basis of this version of the dilemma, we would be inclined to state that, no, there is no “real” difference between a feint and a feigned feint, or that this difference is completely arbitrary, an abstraction that could go either way. In short, we side ourselves with Derrida: already a simple feint presupposes the other in the strategic game of truth and falsehood, after which there is no returning to a clear, objective stance from which self-relational problems such as this could be resolved qualitatively. In short, there is no metalanguage.
However, things may not be as simple as that after all, for in his case against Derrida and poststructuralism, Žižek is already taking into account the proposition that “there is no metalanguage” and reverses it: all there is, is object-language. We shall now endeavour to see what this means.
“There Is No Meta-language, There Is Nothing but Meta-language”
Žižek’s differing position in relation to what he calls “poststructuralism” is perhaps best depicted at the beginning of The Sublime Object’s fifth chapter (“Which Subject of the Real?”), where he attacks the traditional poststructuralist gesture of treating every text as innately divided by its own margin and content, by its own distance to itself. To put this in Lacanian theoretical terms, Žižek argues that poststructuralism bestows too much emphasis on the “metonymic sliding.” Metonymic sliding concerns the iterability of signifiers, their continuous flow and destabilization, their negativity. Up against metonymic sliding Žižek puts the “metaphoric cut,” that is, the point de capiton, the “quilting” of the symbolic field around one signifier, the fixing of meaning between signifiers by exchanging one signifier for another. Somewhat interestingly he ends up stating that the major problem of poststructuralism is actually not that it leans too much on “flabby poeticism” and not enough on solid theory, but that it is actually over theoretic in the sense that all that the poetic style is really meant to prove is that every text includes its own distance, its lack of rigid meaning. According to Žižek this proving neglects the view that language is not a closed circle.
Language is not a closed circle, as opposed to the poststructuralist disposition. This is perhaps Žižek’s most radical point, derived from Lacan. We will now reconstruct his argumentation to explicate it, again qua a joke (and a picture).
At an art exhibition in Moscow, there is a picture showing Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, in bed with a young member of the Komsomol. The title of the picture is ‘Lenin in Warsaw’. A bewildered visitor asks a guide: ‘But where is Lenin?’. The guide replies quietly and with dignity: ‘Lenin is in Warsaw’.
In this scene, the bewildered visitor is a post-constructivist whose default misconception is to mistake the title of the picture (“Lenin in Warsaw”) as its metalinguistic designation and the picture itself (Nadezhda Krupskaya) as the object-content of what is being depicted (in Lacan’s terms, as the signified). We might draw the following picture based on this view:
Here the “title” stands for the Lacanian signifier and the “picture” for the object (signified). Together they form a sign which already includes its (poststructural) distance to itself, the distance of the title from the picture, or of the signifier from the signified. But when the title does not match the object, i.e. the picture, the visitor becomes confused.
In the case that Žižek advocates, the relationship of the elements goes like this:
Here the “title” and the “picture” are on the same “level” with one another, and they both denote the Object, which is for Lacan and Žižek the “lost” object beyond representation (in the joke: Lenin in Warsaw). Moreover, in this version the “picture” is the subject that is retroactively created by the object, the lack of which is its positive condition. The title, on the other hand, is the representation of the object’s lack, just like the picture is. In the first picture, we are still working with a strictly Saussurean theory of signification, one in which the signifier is the “simple materialistic representative of the signified, of the mental representational idea”, but in the second we have the signifier (title) as “the substitute filling out the void of some originally missing representation: it does not bring to mind any representation, it represents its lack.”
All this leads Žižek to say that the poststructuralist position that “there is no metalanguage” actually means its opposite: “that there is only metalanguage”, that all we have is the difference inside language, between the title and the object, the signifier and the signified (that together conform to a sign). Žižek’s interpretation of Lacan produces a radically different setting: the ultimate reference point of language is not itself but the lost object beyond all depiction, the objet petit a, which approximates what we have in this paper called “the subject as such”. This object is lost precisely because it lies in the domain of the metalanguage, which is taken as the impossible reference point of both language and the “subject as such”. But what does it mean to say that this object produces the subject retroactively, as we said above?
To put the matter very briefly, this lost object, which Žižek equates with the Lacanian desire that produces its own cause, is both the product and the cause of the signifying texture, its ultimate reference point structured retroactively.
This impossible cause/product nature of symbolizing signification texture is, for Žižek, the Lacanian Real, that which both sustains and resists the symbolic structure as it kernel, the same thing we have named, rightfully or not, the “subject as such”. This Real is not to be identified with some romantic version of “the true individual” to whom words are not enough to express their overflowing inner self. It is not that “words” (signifiers) are “too little” (or too much) in relation to some unknown reference point “beyond the curtain of appearance”, but that this mystical, hidden content is the retroactive product of the appearance itself, the function of appearance appearing as appearance in the first place – in short, the truth of appearance is the appearance itself. The “romantic subject as such” who cannot adequately express herself in words is nothing else but this (feeling of) inadequacy itself.
The first summarising point would have to do with the question of what exactly has been tried to achieve in this paper. As we remember, our main goal was to articulate the difference between Derrida’s and Žižek’s theories concerning subjectivity and how these theories can be viewed, somewhat truthfully, as modifications of Lacan’s grounding theory of subjectivity. In our examination, one point has done its best to become the major point above all the sidetracks and footnotes that either haunt this paper or should haunt it:
Is there “a subject” beyond language/subjectification/ideology/symbolic order etc., and what is the exact status and relation of this subject to the aforementioned fields?
To this, two radically different answers have been sketched. On the one hand, we have Derrida and the tradition of poststructuralism that more or less is of the opinion that, no, there is no subject in the sense that we could abstract her prior to and beyond all subjectification; that language is a closed economy and that all such notions as “freedom”, “sovereignty”, “will” etc. are only illusionary effects of language’s innate nature found on self-reflection. On the other hand, we have Žižek with an interpretation of Lacan saying that yes, there is a subject prior to and beyond all processes of subjectification/interpellation, even beyond language itself, and this “subject as such” is called Real, and she not only escapes symbolization, but also stands both as its positive condition and negative limit, as its cause and product.
Also, let us remind ourselves of the quite effective way in which we established a point of convergence between the aforementioned two dispositions – the question of the feint versus feigned feint, or better, the question of the subject’s power to efface one’s traces. It was here that the antagonism between Derrida and Žižek erupted in flames. But it was also here that we found the means to develop their dialogue further.
Derrida, Jacques (2009) The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. I. (Séminaire: La béte et le souverain, Volume I [2001–2002], 2008). Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Johnston, Adrian (2014) “Jacques Lacan”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition). Ed. Edward N. Zalta. URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/lacan/. Retrieved: 20.11.2014.
Lacan, Jacques (2006) Écrits (Écrits, 1966). Trans. Bruce Fink in collaboration with Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg. W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York.
Laclau, Ernesto (1989) “Preface”. Trans. Jon Barnes. In Slavoj Žižek (1989) The Sublime object of Ideology. Verso, London.
Žižek, Slavoj (1989) The Sublime object of Ideology. Verso, London.
- Johnston 2014. See especially section 2.2.↵
- Laclau 1989, xii.↵
- Žižek 1989, 175.↵
- My term.↵
- The metaphor we would have in mind at this time and place in regards to this “plainly” would be something like the Antarctic. The key function of the joke, both for Žižek and for Lacan, is to exemplify what they commonly call as “the order of the big Other”. It secures what Žižek names as the “properly human way of deception”, that is, the properly human way of Being as the “subject of the signifier”. And this subject is (partially) defined by her ability to feign a feint.↵
- See e.g. here:
- Žižek 1989, 196.↵
- Lacan 2006, 683 (my italics).↵
- Žižek 1989, 195.↵
- Žižek 1989, 193–194.↵
- Žižek 1989, 225–226.↵
- Derrida 2009, 121–122.↵
- Derrida 2009, 128–129. And, following this thread further: “On the other hand, an analogous (I do not say identical) conceptual undecidability comes to trouble the opposition, so decisive for Lacan, between making and effacing tracks [or traces]… Beyond the fact that, as I had tried to show elsewhere (and this is why, so long ago, I had substituted the concept of trace for that of signifier), the structure of the trace presupposes that to trace comes down to effacing a trace as much as imprinting it… A feint, moreover, and even a simple feint, consist in rendering a sensory trace unreadable or imperceptible. How could one deny that the simple substitution of one trace for another, the marking of their diacritical difference in the most elementary inscription, the one Lacan concedes to the animal, involves effacement as much as imprinting? It is just as difficult to assign a frontier between a feint and feigned feint, to draw an indivisible line through the middle of a feigned feint, as it is to distinguish inscription from effacement of the trace.” (Derrida 2009, 130.)↵
- Žižek 1989, 153–155.↵
- Žižek 1989, 159.↵