The Althusserian theory of ideology fully asserts the gap that separates our ideological sense-experience from the external material apparatuses and practices that sustain that experience. The theory distinguishes two levels of the ideological process: external (following the ritual, ideology as material practice) and internal (recognizing oneself in interpellation, believing). Although Althusser refers to Pascal to account for the passage between them—follow the external rituals and inner belief will come—the two dimensions remain external to each other; their relationship is that of the parallax: we observe ideological practice either from the outside, in bodily gestures, or from the inside, as beliefs, and there is no intermediate space or passage between the two. Nevertheless, (theatrical) comedy seems to provide a kind of intermediate space here, a place for passage in both directions—acting as if one believes and believing that one merely acts. When a character in a comedy feigns to believe or just acts as if he believes, he enacts (in his external behavior) an internal belief, or, vice versa, when he gets caught in his own game, actual belief can arise out of his conviction that he just believes that he acts.
The well-known formula of fetishistic disavowal—je sais bien, mais quand même … —is thus much more complex than it may appear. Recall the murder of the detective Arbogast in Hitchcock’s Psycho: it comes as a surprise, even more so than the notorious shower murder. The latter is a totally unexpected surprise, but here, although we know something shocking is about to happen, and the whole scene is shot to indicate it, we are still surprised when it does happen. Why? The obvious answer is: because we did not really believe it would. However, we should reduce the formula of fetishistic disavowal to a tautology, that is, replace the standard version “I know very well… (that you don’t love me), but I nonetheless believe (that you do)” with “I know very well that you love me, but I nonetheless believe that you do (love me).” The paradox is that this tautological version renders the gap that separates knowledge from belief palpable at its purest: if I already know that you love me, why do I also have to believe that you do? Or, to take Lacan’s famous statement that a husband’s suspicion that his wife is sleeping with other men remains pathological even if she really is doing so: is not “I know very well that my wife is cheating on me, but I nonetheless believe that she is” much more uncanny than the usual “I know very well that my wife isn’t cheating on me, but I nonetheless believe that she is”? Why does knowledge have to be supplemented by belief? Is it that a belief emerges in order to compensate for the failure of knowledge? We believe in God because we cannot know for sure that He exists. The solution is that “even if I know it, I don’t really know it”: knowledge was not—cannot be—really subjectively assumed, it did not occupy the place of truth (as in Lacan’s formula of the analyst’s discourse). Belief thus supplements a gap, an immanent split, within knowledge itself, hence we are not dealing here just with a gap between knowledge and belief. The same goes for our stance towards the threat of ecological catastrophe: it is not a simple “I know all about the ecological threat, but I don’t really believe in it.” It is rather “I know all about … and I nonetheless believe in it,” because I do not really assume my knowledge. It is this immanent gap that eludes Althusser’s theory of the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). According to Althusser, what distinguishes the State from other social apparatuses is that
everything that operates in it and in its name, whether the political apparatus or the ideological apparatuses, is silently buttressed by the existence and presence of public, armed physical force. That it is not fully visible or actively employed, that it very often intervenes only intermittently, or remains hidden and invisible—all this is simply one further form of its existence and action … one had to make a show of one’s force so as not to have to make use of it; … it suffices to deploy one’s (military) force to achieve, by intimidation, results that would normally have been achieved by sending it into action. We may go further, and say that one can also not make a show of one’s force so as not to have to make use of it. When threats of brute force, or the force of law, subject the actors in a given situation to obvious pressure, there is no longer any need to make a show of this force; there may be more to be gained from hiding it. The army tanks that were stationed under the trees of Rambouillet Forest in May 1968 are an example. They played, by virtue of their absence, a decisive role in quelling the 1968 riots in Paris.
The first thing to note here is the radical change of terrain that occurs when we pass from the first to the second level of avoiding the use of direct force. First, one makes a show of force so as not to have to use it; then, one does not make a show of force so as not to have to use it. We are effectively dealing here with a kind of negation of negation: first, we “negate” the direct use of force by replacing it with a mere show—say, in a tense situation in which the authorities expect violent demonstrations, they decide to parade columns of tanks through the working-class quarters of the city, expecting that this will dissuade the protestors; then, this “negation” is itself “negated,” i.e., there is no show of force, but the authorities expect this to have an even more powerful deterrent effect than an open display of force—since the protestors know there is a police (or military) force ready to confront them, its very absence makes it all the more ominous and omnipotent. The first negation operates at the level of the imaginary: the real of the brutal use of force is substituted by a fascinating spectacle designed to deter protestors. The second negation operates at the level of the symbolic: it is only within the symbolic order of differentiality that “the presence-absence (a presence rendered effective by its very absence)” functions, i.e., that absence can count as a positive feature even more powerful than presence. And it is this properly symbolic dimension that Althusser ignores, as is clear from a footnote attached to the quoted passage, in which Althusser draws attention to how Perry Anderson likened “the presence-absence … of the state’s armed forces to the monetary gold reserves of the Central Banks”:
general circulation in all its forms (which are practically infinite) takes place independently of the presence of the gold stocks on the market. Yet such circulation would be impossible if these reserves did not exist … they “impinge on the market” simply because they make this market (this market and no other) possible, in exactly the same way as the invisible (should I say “repressed”?—that is indeed the right term as far as most people are concerned, since they “do not care to know” that these reserves exist and play a determinant role) presence of the police or armed forces impinges on a situation.
From this second example, we can see clearly what Althusser misses: the “little piece of the real” (the armed force, gold reserves) that can remain in the background since it can perform its function even without being used, indeed can fulfill that function even if it does not exist at all—it is enough that people believe there is an armed force hidden in the background (or gold reserves in an inaccessible bank vault). The real in the background that serves as the ultimate guarantee and support of the public power is thus a spectral entity—not only does it not need to exist in reality, if it did appear and directly intervene in reality, then it would risk losing its power, since, as Lacan made clear, omnipotence (toute-puissance) necessarily reverts into “all-in-potency” (tout en puissance): a father who is perceived as “omnipotent” can only sustain this position if his power remains forever a “potential,” a threat which is never actualized. The full use of force, painful as it might be, makes it part of reality and as such by definition limited. This—and not only the shame at what they had done—was the reason the Chinese authorities turned their crackdown at Tiananmen Square, in which (at least) hundreds died, into a non-event: it was a direct exercise of brute force, but it took place at night, invisibly, like a nightmarish-spectral event of rumor; peace and order were immediately restored, all traces of conflict erased, the appearance of life carrying on as normal resumed. If a regime gets involved in open warfare against its own population, it risks losing not only the minimum of its legitimacy but the very source of its power.
As already in his classic text on Ideological State Apparatuses, Althusser compulsively repeats the point about the material support of ideology—military, legal, and ideological apparatuses, institutional and educational “machines,” etc.—claiming that this material support has been ignored by Marxists from Marx onwards. For traditional Marxists, materialism means that ideology (still conceived in an idealist way, as a form of “social consciousness,” a domain of ideas, an inverted ideal mirror of reality) is grounded in the extra-ideological material process of social (re)production (“being determines consciousness”); what they ignore is the proper material existence of ideology in the ISAs, in a complex institutional network of practices and rituals. However, Lacan here goes one step further than Althusser: there is a specific materiality of ideas themselves, immanent to the “ideal” symbolic order, insofar as this order cannot be reduced to (an expression of) meaning but functions as a “meaningless” machine, the machine that is the big Other beyond any concrete materialization in institutions or material practices:
You realize that my intention is not to turn them into “subtle” relations, that my aim is not to confuse letter with spirit … and that I readily admit that one kills if the other gives life, insofar as the signifier—you are perhaps beginning to catch my drift—materializes the instance of death. But whereas it is first of all the materiality of the signifier that I have emphasized, that materiality is singular in many ways, the first of which is not to allow of partition. Cut a letter into small pieces, and it remains the letter that it is—and this in a completely different sense than Gestalttheorie can account for with the latent vitalism in its notion of the whole.
This uncanny “machine in the ghost”—what Lacan called the autonomy of the signifier with regard to the signified—points towards the most difficult and radical sense in which one should assert materialism: not only the “priority of being over consciousness,” in the traditional Marxist sense that ideas are grounded in the material social and productive process, and not only the material (ideological) apparatuses that sustain ideology, but also the immanent materiality of the ideal order itself. To get a taste of this weird ideal materiality, we can return to Hegel’s critique of Kant. The major target of the deservedly famous chapter on the Moral World View in Hegel’s Phenomenology is the thinking of the Ought-to-be (das Sollen)—of positing an inaccessible Ideal which we can only asymptotically approach in an endless effort, but never fully realize. Rebecca Comay has drawn attention to some strange features of this chapter: Hegel’s critique of Kant is deployed with a weird passion, almost a rage, brutally mocking a caricature-like image of Kantian ethics in language employing a whole series of terms later appropriated by Freud (repression, displacement, denial …). The point of Hegel’s critique is the immanent inconsistency of the moral world-view—briefly, the full realization of the moral Ideal would mean its self-destruction, so that morality has to desire its own ultimate failure as the condition of its infinite self-reproduction. In other words, Hegel’s point is that the endless postponement of the arrival of a fully moral universe is not just an effect of the gap between the purity of the Ideal and the empirical circumstances which prevent its full actualization, it is located in this Ideal itself, inscribing a contradiction (a self-sabotaging desire) into its very heart.
This implies that there is a distortion immanent to language, a tendency to cheat, lie, engender a false appearance, which cannot be dismissed as a secondary empirical corruption of some original normativity. Habermas’ “communicative reason” is emblematic here: communicative action is possible given the human capacity for rationality, but this rationality is no longer of the traditional kind, neither the immanent rational structure of the cosmos (as in the Aristotelian tradition) nor the rational a priori of the Kantian transcendental subject. Aware that today such philosophical “foundationalism” is no longer possible, Habermas conceives rationality as a capacity inherent within language, especially in the form of argumentation. He thus reinterprets the transcendental horizon as a pragmatic a priori of intersubjective speech: all speech acts have the inherent goal of mutual understanding, and human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding. Argumentative speech relies on an inherent normativity—the absence of coercive force, the mutual search for understanding, the compelling power of the better argument—which makes communication possible. In this way, Habermas endeavors to ground the goals of human emancipation and to maintain a universalist ethical framework: the normativity he talks about is not an external ideal, but is immanent to our participation in linguistic intersubjectivity—when I talk to and with others, I imply that I obey these norms even if I consciously violate them. This pragmatic a priori inherent to language is irreducible (“unhintergehbares”: one cannot step behind it) in the strict transcendental sense: one cannot ground it in a “deeper” positivity (to explain, say, through evolutionary biology how the human animal developed intersubjective discursive normativity), since in order to provide such an account, one already has to rely on the argumentative normativity of intersubjective space (since every scientific explanation by definition proceeds in such an argumentative way). For Habermas, all other uses of language (to lie and cheat, to pretend, to seduce, etc.) are derivative: secondary empirical distortions of the inherent normativity, conditioned by relations of power and domination or by the pursuit of private interests.
Lacan may seem to say the same thing when he claims that the big Other is the decentered site of Truth which is operative even when we lie—we can lie only against the background of reference to truth. However, Lacan introduces a series of complications. First, his understanding of the big Other as the site of Truth goes beyond the standard notion of truth as correspondence with facts—his favorite example is the old Jewish joke “Why are you telling me you’re going to Lemberg when you’re really going to Lemberg?” where a lie assumes the form of factual truth: the two friends established have an implicit code that, when you go to Lemberg, you say you are going to Cracow and vice versa, and within this space, telling the literal truth means lying. (The famous Groucho Marx line “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you—he really is an idiot!” obeys the same logic.) If such cases appear as eccentric exceptions, think about the kind of polite everyday phrases that we don’t usually mean, but in response to which, when we do mean them, the addressee has the full right to reply: “Why are you saying you’re glad to see me when you are actually glad to see me?” or “Why are you asking me how I am when you do actually want to know?” To take a crueler example: I meet an acquaintance who I know to be in the final stages of cancer and tell him (out of politeness, to cheer him up) that he looks much better than the last time I saw him; however, unbeknownst to me, his cancer has been magically reduced since then, and to an attentive gaze he really does look better. In this situation, is not my acquaintance—who of course takes my compliment as mere politeness (i.e., as implying that actually I think he looks ill)—fully justified in replying: “Why are you saying that I’m looking better when I really am looking better?” This is why, far from being mere secondary embellishments, these “empty” gestures of politeness (when I say something without “really meaning it”) concern the very core of symbolic exchange, of properly human communication as opposed to the exchange of denotative signs. A bee performs its complex dance in order to signal to other bees where the flowers with the nectar are; if a human being were to do such a dance, the question would pop up: “Why is he doing that? To give me an order, asserting his mastery? To show his love for me? To warn me of danger because there’s a lizard crouched there?”
A new terrain thus opens up to our view—a terrain of what are literally “lies,” cheats, pretenses, but pretenses that are at the origin of language itself, inscribed into its very essence, not just secondary distortions of its immanent normativity. Even Kant, the thinker of transcendental normativity if ever there was one, opened himself up to this uncanny domain of “sincere lies” in his late book on anthropology. This domain compels us to rethink the entire topic of normativity, of an Ideal asymptotically approaching its actualization: what resists this actualization is not just empirical inertia, the resistance is inscribed into the very notion of the Ideal as its immanent inconsistency, inner split, or, to use Hegel’s unique term, its “absolute recoil” from itself. The impurity is not just an empirical imperfection, but is itself a priori, transcendental—for example, the fact that language is never directly insincere, that it always has to violate this norm, is an a priori feature constitutive of the very domain of the symbolic order. Although this reinscription of the empirical distortion of a notion into the very heart of that notion, as an immanent self-distortion, is the basic move of Hegel’s dialectical reflection, we can find its contours already in Kant, as was pointed out by Michel Foucault.
Foucault’s “Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology” is the introductory essay to his own translation of Kant’s last substantial work, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, from 1798. Foucault claims that Kant, in his Anthropology, refers the conditions of possibility of experience (transcendental subjectivity) back to the empirical existence of the subject: in an attempt to understand how we experience the world, Kant approaches humans as empirical objects. However, since for Kant the transcendental subject is the starting point of knowledge, the a priori that precedes any empirical knowledge and is constitutive of it, it cannot itself be investigated as an object of that knowledge: if it is an object of empirical knowledge, then it exists as an object of phenomenal reality and is as such already constituted by itself in its transcendental dimension. Foucault thus criticizes Kant for a necessary oscillation between the transcendental and the empirical: all empirical content is transcendentally constituted, but the transcendental subject is itself in need of an empirical grounding.
However, Foucault falls short in this attempt to reduce the tension in Kant’s anthropology to the gap between the transcendental and the empirical (the “transcendental-empirical doublet”), that is, to read the pragmatic dimension of which Kant speaks as the dimension of treating humans as empirical worldly beings. Even a quick glance at what Kant does makes it clear that he was aiming at something quite different: neither the subjective (in the sense of transcendental freedom and autonomy) nor the objective (in the sense of the empirical realm of phenomenal causality), but what today we would call the “performative” dimension of social-symbolic interaction, of social role playing, of obeying civilized rules of politeness. Here a weird causality enters—not the causality of hard empirical facts but the causality of polite lies and illusions, of “superficial” manners, of mere pretending—in short, the causality of what Popper called the “Third World” and Lacan the “big Other,” the level of sincere lies, of keeping up appearances. In this topsy-turvy world, the deceiver itself is deceived, and the only route to inner moral authenticity goes by way of hypocritical pretense. No wonder, then, that in the subsection “On permissible moral appearance [Schein]” in the Anthropology we encounter an unexpected Kant, a Kant far from “Kantian” moral rigorism and moralism, a Kant located in a lineage that runs from Pascal to Althusser:
On the whole, the more civilized human beings are, the more they are actors. They adopt the illusion of affection, of respect for others, of modesty, and of unselfishness without deceiving anyone at all, because it is understood by everyone that nothing is meant sincerely by this. And it is also very good that this happens in the world. For when human beings play these roles, eventually the virtues, whose illusion they have merely affected for a considerable length of time, will gradually really be aroused and merge into the disposition.—But to deceive the deceiver in ourselves, the inclinations, is a return again to obedience under the law of virtue and is not a deception, but rather an innocent illusion [Tauschung] of ourselves …
In order to save virtue, or at least lead the human being to it, nature has wisely implanted in him the tendency to willingly allow himself to be deceived. Good, honorable decorum is an external appearance that instills respect in others (so that they do not behave over familiarly with others). It is true that woman would not be content if the male sex did not appear to pay homage to her charms. But modesty (pudicitia), a self-constraint that conceals passion, is nevertheless very beneficial as an illusion that brings about distance between one sex and the other, which is necessary in order that one is not degraded into a mere tool for the other’s enjoyment.—In general, everything that is called propriety (decorum) is of this same sort—namely, nothing but beautiful illusion [Schein/appearance] should be taken, and especially because these signs of benevolence and respect, though empty at first, gradually lead to real dispositions of this sort.
All human virtue in circulation is small change—it is a child who takes it for real gold. But it is still better to have small change in circulation than no funds at all, and eventually they can be converted into genuine gold coin, though at considerable loss … Even the illusion of good in others must have value for us, for out of this play with pretences, which acquires respect without perhaps earning it, something quite serious can finally develop.—It is only the illusion of good in ourselves that must be wiped out without exemption …
Kant goes even further here than simply praising the “empty” coquetry and gallantry that mask the aim of seduction, offering other surprising details such as celebrating the art of learned conversation in which witty remarks abound during shared meals, and condemning eating alone as barbaric.
This specific dimension of politeness is located between the two extremes of pure inner morality and external legality: while both of these are constructed in a very precise conceptual way (the subject acts morally only if his motive is one of pure duty uncontaminated by pathological considerations; he acts legally if his external acts do not violate any legal prohibitions and regulations), politeness is both more than just obeying external legality and less than pure moral activity—it is the ambiguously imprecise domain of that which one is not strictly obliged to do (in failing to do it one does not break any laws) but which one is nonetheless expected to do. We are dealing here with implicit unspoken regulations, with questions of tact, with something towards which, as a rule, the subject has a non-reflexive relationship: something that is part of our spontaneous sensitivity, a thick texture of customs and expectations that constitutes our inherited substance of mores (Sitten). As such, this domain is the domain of ideology par excellence, at its purest: it is the air we breathe spontaneously in our daily interactions, in the attitudes we accept as self-evidently given. To put it in Althusserian terms, it is the domain of ideological apparatuses and practices, a domain which, to use Kant’s own terms, allows individuals to “schematize” their abstract moral and legal norms, to make them part of their living experience.
To prove the point, it suffices to recall the impasse of political correctness: the need for it arises when unwritten mores are no longer able to regulate everyday interactions effectively—in place of spontaneous customs followed in a non-reflexive way, we have explicit rules (“blacks” become “African Americans,” “fat” becomes “weight-challenged,” etc.). The main victim of such operations is precisely the order of “sincere lies,” of pretense: under the discursive regime of political correctness, it is not enough to follow external rules of politeness, one is expected to be “sincerely” respectful of others, and continually examined on the sincerity of one’s innermost convictions. In short, pushed to its extreme, the PC attitude resembles that of a proto-psychotic paranoid about the sincerity of every little politeness: greeting him with a “Hello, nice to meet you!,” his reaction is: “Are you really glad to see me or are you just a hypocrite?”
Kant’s line of reasoning implies that empirical anthropological knowledge, as well as the practical guidance based on this knowledge, can have an impact on how a free autonomous moral subject acts, that the empirical factors encompassed by culture, civilization and mores can affect moral status, or at least can occasion some form of moral progress. The appearance of virtue in a man playing the role of a virtuous man can gradually become part of his disposition: the pretense of virtue can bring about genuine virtue. Civilized social intercourse, though not yet virtue, is nonetheless a practice and cultivation of virtue: conducting themselves in company in a civilized fashion, people become gentler and more refined, and practice goodness in small matters:
Although the charms and passions are much exaggerated therein [in books that serve for amusement] they still refine men in their feelings, by turning an object of animal inclination into one of more refined inclination; a man is thereby made receptive to the motive force of virtue on principles. They also have an indirect use, for in taming their inclinations, men become more civilized. The more we refine cruder elements, the more humanity is purified, and man is rendered capable of feeling the motive force of virtuous principles.
In short, one who loves the illusion of the good is eventually won over to actually loving the good. But how can love of the illusion of the good lead to love of the good itself? If one loves the illusion of the good and enacts this illusion in social intercourse, one might come to appreciate its worth and to love the good itself for its own sake. Correlatively, from the point of view of the spectator, loving the illusion of the good in others may make us act politely in order to become lovable, which leads us to exercise our self-mastery, control our passions, and, eventually, to love the good for its own sake. In this sense, paradoxically, by deceiving others through politeness and social pretence, we in fact deceive ourselves and transform our pragmatic, polite behavior into virtuous behavior: by deceiving others through the pretence of virtue, we foster civil society, and in doing so, deceive ourselves by transforming our pretense of virtue into a disposition for virtue itself. Does not this line of thought recall Pascal’s advice to non-believers who would like to believe, but cannot bring themselves to accomplish the leap of faith? “Kneel down, pray, act as if you believe, and belief will come by itself.”
Upon a closer look, of course, we soon discover that things are more complicated, and the efficacy of ideological rituals functions in a much more twisted way. Take the case of interpellation, where Althusser’s own example contains more than his own theorization gets out of it. Althusser famously imagines an individual who, walking carelessly down the street, is suddenly addressed by a policeman: “Hey, you there!” By answering the call—by stopping and turning round to face the policeman—the individual recognizes-constitutes himself as the subject of Power, of the big Other-Subject:
[Ideology] “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed” (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical transmission of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by “guilt feelings,” despite the large numbers who “have something on their consciences.”
Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: “Hey, you there!” One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/ suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that “it really is he” who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.
The first thing to note in this passage is Althusser’s implicit reference to Lacan’s thesis on the letter that “always arrives at its destination”: the interpellatory letter cannot miss its addressee since, on account of its “timeless” character, it is only the addressee’s recognition/acceptance of it that constitutes it as a letter. The crucial feature of the quoted passage, however, is the double denial at work in it: the denial of the explanation of interpellative recognition by means of a “guilt feeling,” as well as the denial of the temporality of the process of interpellation (strictly speaking, individuals do not “become” subjects, they “always already” are subjects). This double denial can be read in Freudian terms: what the “timeless” character of interpellation renders invisible is a kind of atemporal sequentiality that is far more complex than the “theoretical theatre” staged by Althusser invoking the suspicious alibi of “convenience and clarity.” This “repressed” sequence concerns a “guilt feeling” of a purely formal, “non-pathological” (in the Kantian sense) nature, a guilt which, for that very reason, weighs most heavily upon those individuals who “have nothing on their consciences.” That is to say, the individual’s first reaction to the policeman’s “Hey, you there!” is an inconsistent mixture of two elements: first, the thought “Why me? What does this policeman want from me? I’m innocent, I was just out for a stroll minding my own business”; second, this perplexed protestation of innocence is always accompanied by an indeterminate Kafkaesque feeling of “abstract” guilt, a feeling that, in the eyes of Power, I am a priori terribly guilty of something, although it is not possible for me to know precisely what, and for that reason I am even more guilty—or, more pointedly, it is in this very ignorance of mine that my true guilt consists.
What we have here is thus the entire Lacanian structure of the subject split between innocence and an abstract, indeterminate guilt, confronted with a non-transparent call emanating from the Other, in which it is not clear to the subject what the Other actually wants from him (“Che vuoi?”). In short, what we encounter here is interpellation prior to identification. Prior to the recognition in the call of the Other by means of which the individual constitutes himself as “always already” subject, we are obliged to acknowledge this “timeless” instant of the impasse in which innocence coincides with indeterminate guilt: the ideological identification by means of which I assume a symbolic mandate and recognize myself as the subject of Power takes place only as an answer to this impasse.
What remains “unthought” in Althusser’s theory of interpellation is thus the fact that, prior to ideological recognition, we have an intermediate moment of obscene, impenetrable interpellation without identification, a kind of vanishing mediator that has to become invisible if the subject is to achieve symbolic identity, to accomplish the gesture of subjectivization. In short, the “unthought” of Althusser is that there is already an uncanny subject that precedes the gesture of subjectivization.
It is crucial to recognize that Althusser’s two failures—his failure to clearly identify the immaterial “materiality” of the big Other and his failure to grasp the complexity of interpellation—are two sides of the same coin. What escapes Althusser in his description of the process of interpellation is the subject prior to subjectivization, to symbolic identification—this subject which is effectively the answer of the Real to symbolic interpellation but which also stands for the Real that is not simply a product of material ideological practices but is correlative to the “immaterial” big Other, as its effect in the Real. It is because of the excess of this weird subject that discipline and education are needed—or, to return to Pascal’s example of praying, the question to be raised is: but who will make us pray? And this brings us to another key question: what is the entity upon which discipline and education work? Kant seems to claim that it is our animal nature:
Discipline or training changes animal nature into human nature. An animal is already all that it can be because of its instinct; a foreign intelligence has already taken care of everything for it. But the human being needs his own intelligence. He has no instinct and must work out the plan of his conduct for himself. However, since the human being is not immediately in a position to do this, because he is in a raw state when he comes into the world, others must do it for him.
But the need for discipline is not just grounded negatively, in the lack of a firm instinctual base; discipline is also needed because humans display an “unnatural” savagery (Wildheit) or passion for freedom specific to human nature:
Savagery [unruliness, Wildheit] is independence from laws. Through discipline the human being is submitted to the laws of humanity and is first made to feel their constraint. Thus, for example, children are sent to school initially not already with the intention that they should learn something there, but rather that they may grow accustomed to sitting still and observing punctually what they are told, so that in the future they may not put into practice actually and instantly each notion that strikes them … Now by nature the human being has such a powerful propensity towards freedom that when he has grown accustomed to it for a while, he will sacrifice everything for it.
The predominant form of appearance of this weird “savagery” is passion, an attachment to a particular choice so strong that it suspends rational comparison with other possible choices. When in the thrall of a passion, we stick to a certain choice whatever it may cost: “Inclination that prevents reason from comparing it with the sum of all inclinations in respect to a certain choice is passion (passio animi).” As such, passion is morally reprehensible:
far worse than all those transitory emotions that at least stir up the resolution to be better; instead, passion is an enchantment that also refuses recuperation … Passions are cancerous sores for pure practical reason, and for the most part they are incurable because the sick person does not want to be cured and flees from the dominion of principles, by which alone a cure could occur.
And, as the subsection “On the inclination to freedom as a passion” tells us, “For the natural human being this is the most violent [heftigste] inclination of all.” Passion is as such purely human: animals have no passions, just instincts. This Kantian savagery is “unnatural” in the precise sense that it seems to break or suspend the causal chain that determines all natural phenomena—it is as if, in its terrifying manifestations, noumenal freedom transpires for a moment in our phenomenal universe.
1 I rely here on Mladen Dolar, “Mimesis and Comedy,” Problemi 5–6 (2012) (in Slovene).
2 We might even suggest that the shower murder explodes out of nothing as a reaction to (the threat of) boredom: when Marion takes the shower, the film could well have ended, if she had avoided the temptation and decided to return to Phoenix and give the stolen money back.
3 See Simon Hajdini, Na kratko o dolgčasu, lenobi in počitku, Ljubljana: Analecta 2012, pp. 196–9.
4 Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter, London: Verso 2006, pp. 103–4.
5 This can also be conceptualized as a distinction between two levels of bluffing: 1) at the imaginary level, we bluff with spectacular presence, our public display of force hides the fact that there is no substantial force behind it ready to strike; 2) at the symbolic level, we bluff with absence itself, we create the impression that there is a military force behind the scenes, waiting to intervene—we hide the fact that there is nothing to hide, no hidden force ready to strike. The same distinction could be applied to the digital control exerted by state agencies like the NSA. At the first level, they bluff that they have an abundance of data about our lives, carefully disclosing a little of it to make an impression; at the second level, they bluff by evoking the threat of total control without making any concrete revelations—their knowledge remains invisible and as such even more threatening.
6 Another example: when we do something wrong and expect a figure of authority to explode in fury and shout at us, if they do not explode but remain cold and calm, the effect can be even more threatening, since there is always something of a release of tension in the open explosion of fury—OK, this is it, now we’ve seen it, we can breathe …
7 Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter, p. 104.
8 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire X, L’angoisse (1962–1962), June 19, 1963.
9 And the same goes for gold reserves: imagine they were all poisoned by radiation and thus of no physical use—if people continued to accept them as a point of reference, nothing would actually change.
10 Jacques Lacan, Écrits, New York: Norton 2006, p. 16.
11 Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) 2008. This topic of the “transcendental-empirical doublet” was further developed in Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences, New York: Vintage Books 1994.
12 Immanuel Kant, “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View,” in Anthropology, History, and Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007, pp. 263–4.
13 Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997, p. 210.
14 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Essays on Ideology, London: Verso 1984, p. 163.
15 I resume here a more detailed critical reading of Althusser’s notion of ideology from Chapter 3 of Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso 2006.
16 Here I follow the perspicacious observations of Henry Krips in his excellent unpublished manuscript “The Subject of Althusser and Lacan.”
17 Kant, “Lectures on Pedagogy,” in Anthropology, History, and Education, p. 437.
18 Ibid., p. 438.
19 Kant, “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View,” p. 367.
20 Ibid., p. 368.
21 Ibid., p. 369.