The past two days I’ve participated in a lively thread about post-traumatic subjectivity at the Attempts at Living blog. In the course of the discussion I became aware of an essay by Slavoj Zizek entitled “Descartes and the Post-Traumatic Subject.” [The Abstract and a link to the PDF of the paper can be found here.] Having read Zizek’s essay, I’m not sure what value there is in writing a post about it. I once did a lot of PTSD counseling and might do so again in the future. Does Zizek offer practical therapeutic advice? No. Does he reframe post-trauma in a way that has psychoanalytic value? That question might be worth considering, although I regard Zizek’s frame as a constraint to break rather than a context to step into. Does he reposition post-trauma politically? He does, and that’s what I find most objectionable about the essay. Is Zizek claiming that what he writes is true? If so, I don’t see any evidence supporting his truth claims. Alternatively, is Zizek telling a story, writing a kind of fiction, an alternative reality in which characters can act and events can be staged? Previously I’ve concluded that I get the most personal value out of metaphysical speculation if I regard it as a fictional genre. Do I find value in Zizek’s speculative “short story” about the post-traumatic subject? I do. In fact, I think I can adapt it for a chapter in my own fiction that I expect to write next week. So I’ll write this post about Zizek not as a critique but as a kind of summary description of a fictional world, an oppressive apocalyptic vision.
In some realities, what the subject fears is the inability to attain desires. In that sort of reality, trauma is the definitive obstacle to the fulfillment of desire. Trauma maims or kills you so that you cannot pursue your desire. Trauma removes that which you desire from the field of possibility, making further pursuit pointless — learned helplessness. The post-traumatic subject becomes passive, psychically numb, alienated, zombified, reduced to brain and body without a heart and soul. Trauma permanently severs the link between desire and fulfillment. Post-trauma, desire dies because it cannot possibly be fulfilled.
But that’s not how Zizek’s alternate reality works. Zizek begins his story by rehearsing (his version of) the Freudian-Lacanian fiction about trauma: that the victim actually wants to be traumatized.
For Freud (and Lacan), every external trauma is “sublated,” internalized, owing its impact to the way a pre-existing Real of the “psychic reality” is aroused through it. Even the most violent intrusions of the external real — say, the shocking effect on the victims of bomb-explosions of war — owe their traumatic effect to the resonance they find in perverse masochism, the death-drive, in unconscious guilt-feeling, etc.
In ZizekWorld, what one fears is what one desires. And what one desires is to be hurt, to be victimized by the sadist, to be punished, to be dead. I desire what I fear: some might regard this construction as a delusional phantasm, a subjective fiction. Trauma, when it comes, could be regarded as the irruption of the Real, destroying the fantasy, clearing the way for the individual who was previously immersed in a fictional delusion to get a little more real, to start becoming a real subject. But that’s not Zizek’s story. In ZizekWorld, not only does the subjectively Real incorporate the phantasm of imagined trauma: the image of the trauma is central to the subject’s reality.
Why? In Zizek’s fictional universe, as in many other parallel universes, the human subject is activated by desire. But here’s the twist in ZizekWorld: if the subject’s desire is ever fulfilled, then the subject loses the prime motivation to do anything. The object that someone desires is never really the cause of desire; if the object is attained, then desire must shift to some other object, some other potential source of fulfillment that must be pursued. At some unconscious level the person occupying Zizek’s fictional world understands this to be the case: if ever my desire is truly fulfilled, then I have nothing left to motivate me, no emotional engagement in the world.
In ZizekWorld, then, it’s not the permanent impossibility of fulfillment that kills desire. What kills desire is the fulfillment of desire. And so in effect the subject desires that which would kill desire, which would in effect kill the subject. The subjects in ZizekWorld are animated not by libido versus death drive, but by libido intertwined with death drive. And it is trauma that, catastrophically, fulfills the subject’s desire. In trauma, the phantasmatic image of desire held at a distance by the subject suddenly and uncontrollably closes the gap — between subject and object, between desire and fulfillment, between libido and death. Trauma destroys the object of desire because the object was always just a stand-in for death. And now death has come upon the subject, killing the object of desire. And trauma kills the subject of desire too, because the subject is intrinsically organized around desire.
But in ZizekWorld, killing the subject of desire doesn’t kill the subject altogether.
All different forms of traumatic encounters, independently of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbolic…), lead to the same result — a new subject emerges which survives its own death, the death (erasure) of its symbolic identity: after the shock, literally, a new subject emerges. Its features are well-known from numerous descriptions: lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment — it is a subject who is no longer “in-the-world” in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. This subject lives death as a new form of life — his life is death-drive embodied, a life deprived of erotic engagement; and this holds for henchmen no less than for his victims.
The resurrected undead zombie subject is born again, its desire fulfilled. Should we feel sorry for the post-traumatic subject, and angry at the perpetrator of the trauma? Not in ZizekWorld.
What if we surmise that the cold indifferent disengaged subjects are NOT suffering at all, that, once their old persona is erased, they enter a blessed state of indifference, that they only appear to us caught in unbearable suffering?
The post-traumatic subject feels no pain because pain, like all feeling, is a product of a subjectivity fueled by desire, and the desiring-subject is dead. What then do trauma and its consequences mean in ZizekWorld? They mean nothing, since meaning is another product of the desiring-subject, a story that the subject tells itself about what it desires and why, how it goes about pursing its desires, why it is thwarted, etc.
In ZizekWorld the post-traumatic subject lives on, without desire, continually repeating the same meaningless sequences of actions again and again, the death drive decoupled from libidinal investment. And who are these “degree zero” subjects, these shells without substance, these “autistic monsters” that populate ZizekWorld? They are the “new proletariat”:
the exploited worker whose product is taken away from him, so that he is reduced to subjectivity without substance, to the void of pure subjective potentiality whose actualization in work process equals its de-realization.
Presumably in ZizekWorld the new proletarian masochistically wants to be exploited, feels he deserves it as punishment for his guilt, wants to be reduced to performing repetitive meaningless tasks. Who else are the post-traumatic subjects occupying ZizekWorld? Those cold-blooded killers, terrorists, and suicide bombers, those mindless followers of orders dictated by their authoritarian leaders, the Muslims:
When one looks an autistic subject (or a “Muslim”) into the eye, one also has the feeling that “there is nobody home.”
I could go on to discuss Zizek’s negate-the-negation shtick, whereby trauma ironically doubles the original primal trauma of symbolic castration from the Mother by the Father, a trauma that creates the subject in the first place. But this is enough I think: I’ve got my own fiction to write. We can certainly envision a Leader in ZizekWorld who organizes the zombified new proletariat in order to accomplish a violent revolution. Even if they’re killed or maimed in the battle it doesn’t mean anything, because they’re already dead, beyond meaning, beyond suffering. Or the ruling class can simply continue to exploit their undead workers, who don’t feel it anymore, who don’t care about anything anymore. Or the Muslims can be bombed into oblivion, since they’re already undead zombies. I can use these fantastic totalitarian speculations of Zizek’s for my own sinister fictional insurgencies…