Indirect Subject

Slavoj Zizek (Mythology, Madness, and Laughter) explains Hegel’s sublation of Kantian transcendentalism by noting that Hegel accepts Kant’s root insight, the “the subjective constitution of reality, the split that separates the subject from the in-itself.” Yet Hegel doesn’t stop with this acceptance: “this very split is transposed back into reality as its kenotic self-emptying (to use the Christian theological term, as Hegel does). Appearance is not reduced to reality, the very process of appearance is conceived from the standpoint of reality, so that the question is not ‘How, if at all, can we pass from appearance to reality?’ but ‘How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality to appear to itself?’”

Zizek illustrates this with a practical illustration: “How do we proceed when we are challenged to explain the meaning of a term X to someone who, while more or less fluent in our language, doesn’t know this specific term? We engage in proposing a vast series of synonyms, paraphrases, descriptions of situations where this term would fit . . . In this way, through the very failure of our endeavor, we circumscribe an empty place, the place of the right word, precisely the word we are trying to explain. So at some point, after our paraphrases fail, all we can do is to conclude skeptically: ‘In short, it is X!’ Far from functioning as a simple recognition of failure, this turn can generate an effect of insight: that is, if through our failed paraphrase we have successfully circumscribed the place of the term to be explained. At this point, as Lacan would have put it, ‘signifier falls into the signified,’ the term becomes part of its own definition” (127).

A love letter works on the same principle: “the very failure of the writer to formulate his declaration in a clear and efficient way, his oscillations, the letter’s fragmentation, etc., can in themselves be the proof (perhaps the necessary and the only reliable proof) that the professed love is authentic—here, the very failure to deliver the message properly is the sign of its authenticity. If the message is delivered in a smooth way, it arouses suspicions that it is part of a well-planned approach, or that the writer loves himself, the beauty of his writing, more than his love-object, i.e., that the object is effectively reduced to a pretext for engaging in the narcissistically satisfying activity of writing” (128-9).

Polonius may have been wiser than we think: By indirection we discover the direction to look for the subject.

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