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Whenever we speak of cause, on the other hand, there is always something anti-conceptual, something indefinite …. In short, there is a cause only in something that doesn’t work.… The Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong. The important thing is not that the unconscious determines neurosis—of that one Freud can quite happily, like Pontius Pilate, wash his hands. Sooner or later, something would have been found, humoral determinates, for example—for Freud, it would be quite immaterial. For what the unconscious does is to show the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real—a real that may well not be determined.15 The unconscious intervenes when something “goes wrong” in the order of causality that encompasses our daily activity: a slip of the tongue introduces a gap in the connection between intention-to-signify and words, a failed gesture frustrates my act. However, Lacan’s point is, precisely, that psychoanalytic interpretation does not simply fill in this gap by way of providing the hidden complete network of causality that “explains” the slip: the cause whose “insistence” interrupts the normal functioning of the order of causality is not another positive entity. As Lacan emphasizes, it belongs rather to the order of the nonrealized or thwarted, that is, it is in itself structured as a gap, a void insisting indefinitely on its fulfillment. (The psychoanalytic name for this gap, of course, is the death drive, while its philosophical name in German Idealism is “abstract negativity,” the point of absolute self-contraction that constitutes the subject as the void of pure self-relating.) And the psychoanalytic notion of fantasy accounts precisely for the illusory/failed attempt to fill in this ontological gap. The basic paradox of the Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism Freudian notion of fantasy resides in the fact that it subverts the standard opposition of “subjective” and “objective.” Of course, fantasy is by definition not “objective” (in the naïve sense of “existing” independently of the subject’s perceptions); however, it is also not “subjective” (in the sense of being reducible to the subject’s consciously experienced intuitions). Fantasy rather belongs to the “bizarre category of the objectively subjective—the way things actually, objectively seem to you even if they don’t seem that way to you.”16 When, for example, the subject actually experiences a series of fantasmatic formations that interrelate as so many permutations of each other, this series is never complete; rather, it is always as if the actually experienced series presents so many variations of some underlying “fundamental” fantasy that is never actually experienced by the subject. (In Freud’s “A Child Is Being Beaten,” the two consciously experienced fantasies presuppose, and thus relate to, a third one, “My father is beating me,” which was never actually experienced and can only be retroactively reconstructed as the presupposed reference of—or, in this case, the intermediate term between—the other two fantasies.) One can go even further and claim that, in this sense, the Freudian unconscious itself is “objectively subjective.” When, for example, we claim that someone who is consciously well-disposed toward Jews nonetheless harbors profound anti-Semitic prejudices he is not consciously aware of, do we not claim that (insofar as these prejudices do not render the way Jews really are, but the way they appear to him) he is not aware how Jews really seem to him?

Furthermore, does this not allow us to throw a new light on the mystery of Marxian commodity fetishism? What the fetish objectivizes is “my true belief,” the way things “truly seem to me,” although I never effectively experience them this way—Marx himself here uses the term “objektiv-notwendiges Schein” (a necessarily objective appearance). So, when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist’s reproach to him is not, “A commodity may seem to you a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people”; the Marxist’s actual reproach is rather, “You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you—in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers.” This is also one of the ways of specifying the meaning of Lacan’s assertion of the subject’s constitutive “decenterment.” The point is not that my subjective experience is regulated by objective unconscious mechanisms that are “decentered” with regard to my self-experience and, as such, beyond my control (a point asserted by every materialist), but rather something much 82 Penumbra more unsettling: I am deprived of even my most intimate “subjective” experience, of the way things “really seem to me,” of the fundamental fantasy that constitutes and guarantees the core of my being, since I can never consciously experience it and assume it. According to the standard view, the dimension that is constitutive of subjectivity is that of the phenomenal (self)experience.

In other words, I am a subject the moment I can say to myself: “No matter what unknown mechanism governs my acts, perceptions and thoughts, nobody can take from me what I see and feel now.” Say, when I am passionately in love, and a biochemist informs me that all my intense sentiments are just the result of biochemical processes in my body, I can answer him by clinging to the appearance: “All you’re saying may be true, but, nonetheless, nothing can take from me the intensity of the passion that I am experiencing now ….” Lacan’s point, however, is that the psychoanalyst is the one who, precisely, can take this from the subject, insofar as his or her ultimate aim is to deprive the subject of the very fundamental fantasy that regulates the universe of the subject’s (self)experience. The Freudian subject of the unconscious emerges only when a key aspect of the subject’s phenomenal (self)experience (his or her fundamental fantasy), becomes inaccessible (that is, is primordially repressed).

At its most radical, the unconscious is the inaccessible phenomenon, not the objective mechanism, that regulates my phenomenal experience. So, in contrast to the commonplace that we are dealing with a subject the moment an entity displays signs of “inner life”—that is, of a fantasmatic self-experience that cannot be reduced to external behavior—one should claim that what characterizes human subjectivity proper is rather the gap that separates the two, that is, the fact that fantasy, at its most elementary, becomes inaccessible to the subject; it is this inaccessibility that makes the subject “empty” (). We thus obtain a relationship that totally subverts the standard notion of the

subject who directly experiences him or herself, and his or her “inner states”:

an “impossible” relationship between the empty, nonphenomenal subject and the phenomena that remain inaccessible to the subject—the very relation registered by Lacan’s formula of fantasy, ◇a.

Geneticists predict that in about ten to fifteen years, they will be able to identify and manipulate each individual’s exact genome. Potentially, at least, each individual will thus have at his or her disposal the complete formula of what (s)he “objectively is.” How will this “knowledge in the real,” the fact that I will be able to locate and identify myself completely as an object in reality, affect the status of subjectivity? Will it lead to the end of human subjectivity?

Lacan’s answer is negative: what will continue to elude the geneticist is not my phenomenal self-experience (say, the experience of a love passion that no knowledge of the genetic and other material mechanisms determining it can take from me), but the “objectively subjective” fundamental fantasy, the fantasmatic core inaccessible to my conscious experience. Even if science formulates the genetic formula of what I objectively am, it will still be unable Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism to formulate my “objectively subjective” fantasmatic identity, this objectal counterpoint to my subjectivity, which is neither subjective (experienced) nor objective.


1. John Brockman, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York:

Simon and Schuster, 1996), 23.

2. Ibid., 21.

3. Ibid., “Introduction.”

4. See, as one among the thousand paradigmatic passages: “Is there, as David Bohm says, an ‘implicate order’ to matter that is beyond our present comprehension and presumes a ‘wholeness’ to all things? Can we conceive of a ‘Tao of physics,’ as Fritjof Capra’s million-selling book terms it, in which Eastern philosophies parallel the mind-wrenching paradoxes of the quantum world?” (Pat Kane, “There’s Method in the Magic,” in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. Jane Franklin [Oxford: Polity Press, 1998], 78-79.)

5. See Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 421.

6. It is interesting to note how the opposition of “hard” science, whose conceptual structure embodies the stance of domination, and “gentle” science bent on collaboration and so on, comes dangerously close to the New Age ideology of two mental universes, masculine and feminine, competitive and cooperative, rational-dissecting and intuitive-encompassing.

In short, we come dangerously close to the premodern sexualization of the universe, which is conceived of as the tension between the two principles, Masculine and Feminine.

7. Perry Anderson, “A Sense of the Left,” New Left Review 231 (September/ October 1998): 76.

8. Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1991), 410.

9. See Jacques Derrida, “La mythologie blanche,” Poetique 5 (1971): 1-52.

10. See Jacques Derrida, “Le supplement de la copule” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972).

11. See Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosh, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).

12. See Ray Jackendoff, Consciousness and the Computational Mind (Cambridge:

MIT Press, 1987).

13. “The I/Ego or He or It (the Thing), which thinks.” 84 Penumbra

14. See Varela, op. cit., 126.

15. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 22.

16. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 132. (Dennett, of course, evokes this concept in a purely negative way, as a nonsensical contradictio in adjecto.)

The Enjoying Machine Mladen Dolar

In his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes the following remarks

on the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy:

When you go to the theater in the evening, you are preoccupied by the affairs of the day, by the pen that you have lost, by the check that you will have to sign the next day …. Your emotions are taken charge of by the healthy order displayed on the stage. The Chorus takes care of them. The emotional commentary is done for you …. Therefore you don’t have to worry; even if you don’t feel anything, the Chorus will feel in your stead.

Why after all can one imagine that the effect on you may be achieved, at least a small dose of it, even if you didn’t tremble that much? To be honest, I’m not sure if the spectator ever trembles that much.1 This is indeed a most curious device: we can delegate our terror and pity onto the chorus, who feels for us, grieves for us, trembles for us, and frees us of our burden of participation and emotion. Whatever we may be thinking or feeling while attending the performance, we “objectively” experience terror and pity via our stand-ins. This point was taken up by Slavoj Žižek in Enjoy Your Symptom!, where he proposed some other instances of the same device such as the women hired to mourn and cry over the dead in the place of the mourner, a practice still followed in certain parts of the world; the prayer wheels of the Buddhist monks; and, to come closer to our everyday experience, the canned laughter that accompanies various TV sitcoms. In this bizarre phenomenon, the machine laughs instead of us and frees us, so to speak, of the burden of enjoyment. The moment one starts to look, the examples keep springing up; the phenomenon suddenly appears to be widely present without bearing a name. It was finally given a name by Robert Pfaller 86 Penumbra with his felicitous invention of the concept of interpassivity, and under this banner a gradually spreading international discussion followed.2 Among the advantages of this term, interpassivity, is that it counteracts interactivity and points out its reverse side. Interactivity is one of the slogans of the day, the password for dealing with the new media and praising their alleged advantages, as well as the motto of a series of new artistic forms and practices that involve participation by the audience. On the other hand, interpassivity aims at a certain kind of enjoyment disguised by interactivity.

What kind of enjoyment can be derived from something like canned laughter? Surely it’s rather an unavowable sort of pleasure to be indulged in private, something clearly bordering on perversion, a guilty pleasure, a secret enjoyment. One can present oneself as a hero of interactivity, taking things into one’s own hands, not letting oneself be imposed on, striking back, as it were, that is, being a subject (although in the rather dubious sense of a peasant in the global village). But interpassivity? This notion hardly seems glamorous; moreover, there is even something shameful about it. For it seems that, in order to be a subject, one must at least oppose passivity. One could say that interpassivity is the reverse side of the subject, a constant peril that could engulf subjectivity—and also something presenting itself as a lure, the song of the Sirens, a constant temptation to submit to this unavowable enjoyment.

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