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The Fright of Real TearsReview - The Fright of Real Tears
Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory
by Slavoj Zizek
Indiana University Press, 2001
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Oct 12th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 41)

In this series of lectures delivered in London in 1998, Slavoj Zizek devotes the bulk of his efforts to unveiling the conceptual significance of the cinematic corpus of director Krzysztof Kieslowski. In his prefatory remarks, Zizek specifies that this exercise in film theory is not the performance of mere exegetical commentary, a set of clever observations shedding light on what these films mean. Rather, he proposes that Kieslowski's work can be employed as a medium facilitating the more fundamental labor of the direct construction of philosophical theories of subjectivity-"in philosophy, it is one thing to talk about, to report on, say, the history of the notion of subject (accompanied by all the proper bibliographical footnotes), even to supplement it with comparative critical remarks; it is quite another thing to work in theory, to elaborate the notion of 'subject' itself" (pg. 9). So, consistent with the tenor of the author's own caveat about his interests here, this review will not spend time simply summarizing, in encapsulated form, Zizek's analyses of Kieslowski's films (Zizek proceeds in his familiar fashion of dissecting cinematic productions utilizing the dual scalpels of Lacanian theory and the history of philosophy-his general manner of procedure in interpreting cultural objects is also exhibited in earlier texts such as Enjoy Your Symptom! and Looking Awry). Instead, attention will be paid to an odd little occurrence, a strange textual protuberance, surfacing in this volume, a moment that calls into question the entire meaning of Zizek's relation to what he refers to broadly as "Theory" (i.e., a philosophical approach to socio-cultural phenomena informed by properly dialectical sensibilities, as opposed to the brute empirical efforts of "Post-Theory" [for example, various cognitive science treatments of the individual's physical, neurological responses to conscious experiences]).

In the introduction, Zizek recounts a personal anecdote. He describes a situation in which he found himself asked to provide an interpretation of a piece of artwork, a piece for which he had no theoretical explanation immediately ready at hand:

Some months before writing this, at an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, so I engaged in a total bluff, which went something like this: the frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, implied by the structure of the painting, which frames our perception of the painting, and these two frames do not overlap-there is an invisible gap separating the two. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. Are we, today, in our post-modern madness, still able to discern the traces of this gap? Perhaps more than the reading of a painting hinges on it; perhaps the decisive dimension of humanity will be lost when we lose the capacity to discern this gap... To my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today's cultural studies (pg. 5-6).

The misfiring (or, one could say, depressingly ironic success) of Zizek's joking bluff underscores a problem notoriously brought to light by Alan Sokal's Social Text hoax (Zizek himself mentions Sokal in the introduction): what is usually designated under the heading of "continental theory" (i.e., deconstruction, post-structuralism, cultural studies, and so on) often appears to be intellectually bankrupt, since many of its representatives are unwilling or unable to distinguish between conceptually rigorous philosophizing and empty, jargon-laden posturing by a bunch of pretentious sophists. Some pessimistically conclude that, because of this serious problem plaguing professional academia, there is no difference between legitimate philosophy in the continental tradition and, as it's disparagingly-but-appropriately designated, "fashionable nonsense." In this context, Zizek reaffirms his commitment to genuine theory against post-modern sophistry, and maintains that an alternative exists to the false dilemma between the uncritical embracing of the natural sciences by empiricist "Post-Theory" and the vacuous babbling of many of today's representatives of continental philosophy. And, this commitment is seemingly underscored by Zizek's consistently clear and articulate deployment of concepts forged by such figures as Kant, Hegel, Freud, and Lacan; his ability to render the highly abstract systems of these thinkers as both concrete and relevant in contemporary milieus bears witness to there being kernels of truthful insight in the continental tradition of theorizing (despite detractors insisting otherwise).

And yet, much later in The Fright of Real Tears, something disturbing occurs. In the course of explaining specific features of Kieslowski's films, Zizek mentions certain techniques employed by modernist painting. He states:

One of the minimal definitions of a modernist painting concerns the function of its frame. The frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, the frame implied by the structure of the painting, which frames our perception of the painting, and these two frames by definition never overlap-there is an invisible gap separating them. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them (pg. 130).

This should at least raise the attentive reader's eyebrows, if not cause him/her to laugh out loud. In the introduction, the author cites a post-modern sounding jumble of verbiage which he himself explicitly identifies as a "bluff," a means of pulling the collective legs of some gullible audience. After tipping the reader off to the essentially "fake" nature of this notion of "the dimension in-between-the-two-frames," this very same material reappears later in the text, ostensibly being offered as part of a "serious" theoretical discussion. Is he parodying himself? Is he mocking his audience by rubbing their noses in what he takes to be their inability to distinguish between philosophy and its muddleheaded semblance, letting them know in advance that he's feeding them garbage and secretly snickering to himself while they happily eat it up despite a fairly unambiguous announcement of his intentions? Perhaps the decisive challenge represented by The Fright of Real Tears is nothing other than the task of deciding in what sense to take this case of reiteration on Zizek's part.

At the broadest of levels, two interpretative possibilities present themselves. On the one hand, there is the obvious-yet-boring alternative, that is to say, the easy way out: the notion of the "double frame" is inapplicable to the piece of artwork mentioned in the personal anecdote from the introduction, but is indeed applicable and relevant in the context of the discussion in which it reappears later in the text. In other words, Zizek's bluff amounts to nothing more than a misapplication of an interpretation by offering a legitimate analysis of Malevich, Hopper, and Munch (these are the figures referred to in the second occurrence of the "double frame" notion) out of context in relation to another artist's painting which this analysis doesn't quite fit (i.e., the mysterious, unnamed painting prompting the use of the "frame within a frame" jargon as a cover-however, one should observe that Zizek suspiciously avoids revealing anything specific about the painting mentioned in the earlier anecdote).

The other alternative, the much more entertaining paranoid fantasy, is to venture speculating that Zizek is really a "deep cover" version of Alan Sokal. If successfully placing a single bogus article in an academic journal is enough to violently ruffle the feathers of ivory tower "theorists" everywhere, then publishing scores of well-received books which are retroactively revealed to be part of a long-running joke had at the expense of numerous readers might well be enough to destroy continental philosophy in its present form. What if this reiteration of the "double frame" theme is the crack in the façade, the slight, superficial anomaly indicating something more disturbing than the simple misapplication of a cogent theoretical notion? Maybe, many years ago, Zizek made a bet with some of his Slovenian colleagues about how much post-modern sounding gibberish he could get contemporary academics to swallow-keep in mind that, recently, he's been trying to persuade people to embrace as unproblematic the juxtaposition of Stalinist dialectical materialism and Christian theology.

Perhaps a grand-scale version of the Sokal hoax would function much like a Stalinist purge, wiping the slate clean of the tiresome sedimentation of pseudo-philosophy characterizing much of today's intellectual landscape. One of the things that Zizek finds appealing about Christianity is the motif of redemption, of starting again from ground zero through a gesture of a radical break with the past. Pulling the plug, so to speak, on what he refers to in The Fright of Real Tears as "Theory" might be one way to clear the ground, to finally eliminate a lot of the nonsense that all too often passes for thought. If nothing else, this would certainly qualify as one of the funnier pranks played in the history of ideas. Zizek truly deserves admiration if he's been able to keep the lid on a "bluff" of this magnitude for such a long period of time, if he's been capable of driving himself to crank out volume after volume of incredibly detailed theoretical analyses, all the while patiently waiting to have a really hearty laugh at the expense of a whole group of minor industries in institutionalized academia. This might even qualify, according to the Lacanian-Zizekian definition, as a species of genuine ethical act: the absolute, unconditional sacrifice of an entire oeuvre, painstakingly constructed over the course of years, for the fleeting, momentary pleasure of a humorous joke (Zizek's love of humor, his enjoyment taken in using the task of explaining abstract philosophical theories as an excuse for telling dirty jokes, would thus make a Sokal-esque gesture of sacrificing his entire corpus an autobiographical instance of "not giving way on one's desire").

This book contains other amusing and enlightening moments. In a lengthy footnote (note 57, pages 204-205), Zizek offers a re-reading of the past three hundred plus years of the history of philosophy vis-à-vis Lacan's dictum (from the twentieth seminar) that "there is no sexual relationship" (including Descartes' "I fuck, therefore I am," Fichte's fucking as a self-positing activity generating the complementary dyad of subject-fucker and object-fuckee, Marx's insistence upon a rejection of idealist "masturbation" and a return to the real of material sex, Nietzsche's "Will to Fuck" with its desire for the eternal recurrence of the same copulation, and so on up through Heidegger). Zizek also does a nice job demonstrating why Lacan's recourse to mathematics, logic, and topology isn't simply another example of what is claimed to be (sometimes with justification) continental philosophy's general misappropriation and abuse of science. For example, when Lacan compares the psychoanalytic notion of the "phallus" with the mathematical concept of an imaginary number, the point of the comparison isn't to ridiculously and untenably assert that psychoanalysis itself literally is a theoretical discipline capable of exhaustive quantitative formalization à la physics. Rather, the square root of negative one (or the concept of the number zero, a concept famously employed for Lacanian ends by Jacques-Alain Miller in his 1966 essay "Suture") is a specific example of a general structure or much broader "signifying logic": more specifically, an instance in which a representation-concept (i as ·, or, alternatively, phallus as F) designating a non-existent (non-)entity plays an indispensable role, despite its lack of a substantial ontological status, in sustaining the functioning of a signified, conceptually mediated reality of extant, existent entities. In other words, Lacan means only to establish, for the sake of clarity in analytic metapsychology, a structural parallel between, on the one hand, mathematical equations essential to the sciences that require imaginary numbers for the adequate expression of specific truths describing real, material, "non-imaginary" reality, and, on the other hand, psychoanalytic explanations concerning how conceptual illusions and fictive non-entities (such as the phallus, the fantasy, objet petit a, and so on) are, while being non-existent, absolutely crucial in the constitution of reality as experienced by concrete, flesh-and-blood human beings, as part of the "psychopathology of everyday life."

Zizek proceeds to go on the counter-offensive against Sokal and "Post-Theory," arguing that the ontology implicit in the philosophical worldview of a field like cognitive science is incredibly impoverished; it admits of (when not simply reducing human reality to the random firings of bundles of neurons internally and solipsistically generating all aspects of experiential reality almost ex nihilo) only two basic ontological dimensions, namely, the physical, material world (including the human body and brain) in conjunction with the realm of subjective consciousness. For Zizek, an important "third dimension" is missing here, a lack rendering deficient most quasi-scientific, vaguely empiricist analyses of subjectivity: the Lacanian symbolic order, the trans-subjective matrix of representations, meanings, and institutions mediating between subjective consciousness and the material real. As with his other books, The Fright of Real Tears underscores the importance of the modern philosophical legacy (particularly, Kant, Schelling, and Hegel, as filtered through the lens of Lacan) for addressing contemporary concerns in the study of the human subject. Zizek once again makes a strong case for why the temptation to cut the Gordian knots of the history of ideas through physicalist, scientistic stances with respect to subjectivity must be resisted, for why an adequate portrayal of the subject must continue to rely upon a sophisticated combination of transcendental, material, as well as structural levels of analysis. The fright of "real theory," the desire to disburden oneself of the painful obligation to wrangle with the myriad complex details of systems of thought that sometimes feel unwieldy and inconvenient to use, risks prompting a flight towards either one or the other of two equally unsatisfying alternatives: either an abandonment of the ground of philosophy in favor of a much simpler, "straightforward" relationship to the ostensible immediacy of empirical data about human beings qua neurological organisms, or a seductively easy relaxing into the free associational flow of jargonized, très chic post-modern nonsense that ultimately says nothing meriting anyone's attention. Taking into account Zizek's anecdote about "the frame-within-a-frame" and its later, seemingly serious resurfacing in his text, the question remains: Is Zizek convinced that a form of theory can be deployed that avoids these twin pitfalls of contemporary thought (the vast majority of his writing suggests this), or, adopting a Derridean attitude of deconstructive suspicion apropos of Zizek's marginal little "slip," is a darker tone about the silliness and futility of theory as satirical "intellectual imposture" subtly signaled here?

© 2001 Adrian Johnston

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy  at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.


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