On Zizek on Hedonism

[This is a comment I wrote for a thread at Crooked Timber about an essay of Slavoj Zizek’s on religion and ethics. I liked it, so I’m posting it here. Sorry, Slavoj: the font I chose for the blog doesn’t have a glyph for your Z-diacritics.]

Zizek does a thing, in my view, where he runs too quickly through “pleasure” in Lacan, blending together a few senses of the word that would be better held distinct. So I want to take a few minutes to parse out the consequences of this elision. While I’m mindful that defenses of this sort of thing are liable to fall on deaf ears in this venue, I actually and genuinely believe that there is something in this line of inquiry that could be extremely productive for a lot of the kinds of folks who hang around here.

“Pleasure” and “enjoyment” are terms of art in Lacanian psychoanalysis. As always in psychoanalysis, these have an interesting and complicated relationship to economic utility — e.g., Freud says in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that the subject in the thrall of the pleasure principle is akin to the rational, calculating homo economicus, in that he’s willing to put off enjoyment for greater returns. But Lacan’s twist is in consideration of pleasure as a kind of Hegelian tendency that generates its own resistance — indeed generates subjectivity as this resistance. Illustratively, ‘jouissance’ first appears in the Lacanian corpus in the mid-50s in a discussion of the master-slave dialectic. The point, in that discussion, is that pleasure — which is to say, achieved pleasure, utility — is experienced as a kind of loss of subjective reality, akin to what happens to the master half-way through the master-slave dialectic. Pleasure is evanescent, like a subatomic particle produced in an accelerator. The productive position is that of the slave, for whom ‘jouissance’ is the famous self-impeding enjoyment that approaches but never really quite reaches pleasure, and in which the subject recognizes itself. This is Lacan’s take on the world of dissatisfaction and unhappiness in which we all actually live.

Now, by the seventies, there is a new formulation, “surplus enjoyment,” and opinions differ about how this should be understood. Does the new formulation register a new wrinkle in Lacan’s thought on the relationship of pleasure to utility, or is it just a clarification of the old jouissance, which already meets utility obliquely? It seems to me that jouissance is to be understood as enjoyment that misses pleasure, as it were, by perpetually falling short; while surplus enjoyment is “useless” pleasure, which misses satisfaction by simply being irrelevant to need. Cigarettes are jouissance: the smoker needs them, and yet the satisfaction that each smoke offers is fleeting — indeed, by indulging the addiction, it engenders the (artificial) need for the next. And indeed, we smoke (well, I don’t), at great cost to ourselves, in order to have small, frequent needs that we can actually mostly meet. In contrast, the paradigmatic example of surplus enjoyment is Coca-Cola — a wholly vacuous pleasure, which in the satisfaction of which, we recognize something in alterity that we desire. In a word, consumerism. You do something, and then you realize that you wanted it.

(I should clarify: we’re talking about subjective attitudes, not the commodities themselves. The point isn’t what smoking or Coca-Cola are really like; the point is that both are easier than solving any of our actual problems.)

Of course, Zizek knows all this — hell, I learned much of what I know of this stuff from his Sublime Object of Ideology. But sometimes, as in the linked piece on hedonism, I find he tries to have it both ways: to insist on the complexity of the psychoanalytic concept of enjoyment when it suits him, and fall back on a naïve utilitarian concept when it doesn’t. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed him do this, usually in popular pieces where he is staying away from jargon. So, when we read that hedonists “dedicate their lives to the pursuit of pleasures…”, we need to ask Zizek to slow down and explain exactly what he means (which he likely does in the book) because on that question hinges the issue of the relationship of pleasure to super-ego, and super-ego to ethics.

I think this confusion is a product of the constraints imposed on Zizek by Lacan. At the end of the day, he wants to make an argument that squares with Lacan’s take on the ethical, but that’s a tricky thing to pull off. Getting off the wheel, going “beyond the pleasure principle,” for Lacan, does two things: it corresponds to a different sort of ego loss (as the subject moves from the world of desires to the world of the drives), and it is also the transcendental ground for the ethical act. Those keeping score at home will thus note that Lacanian ethics has nothing to do with super-ego or calculation. Rather — and here I’m speaking in Alain Badiou’s language — the ethical act, like a revolutionary act, cannot be fully comprehended within the preexisting situation. It’s always tinged with the irrational. What this highlights is how dangerous ethics is. It’s not for nothing that Lacan’s ethics is a reading of Antigone. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s “religious suspension of the ethical” is roughly congruent to Lacan’s “ethics.”

In this light, let’s take a look at another passage from the article.

Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things. From today’s experience, however, one should rather stick to Steven Weinberg’s claim: while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.

I think there’s a Lacanian argument to be made there, but I’m not at all sure that it is the one Zizek is making, at least in the short form. The argument I would make instead is that just when it looks to us like we’re assuming control over our own ethical choices, just when we’ve killed God or whatever, we are blind to the way we’ve simply substituted poorly-examined conventional wisdom, institutional and individual self-interest and precritical morality for true ethical action.* True ethical action is, after all, terror: too unstable to really hang around.

*I think that’s what Zizek is doing with his reference to political correctness, but I’m straining the bounds of a charitable reading here.