Παρασκευή 23 Απριλίου 2021

Slavoj Zizek Ego Ideal and Superego: Lacan as Viewer of Casablanca

Nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance - Enjoy! [1]

Although jouissance can be translated as "enjoyment," translators of Lacan often leave it in French in order to render palpable its excessive, properly traumatic character: we are not dealing with simple pleasures, but with a violent intrusion that brings more pain than pleasure. This is how we usually perceive the Freudian superego, the cruel and sadistic ethical agency which bombards us with impossible demands and then gleefully observes our failure to meet them. No wonder, then, that Lacan posited an equation between jouissance and superego: to enjoy is not a matter of following one's spontaneous tendencies; it is rather something we do as a kind of weird and twisted ethical duty.

This simple, although unexpected, thesis encapsulates the way Lacan reads Freud. Freud uses three distinct terms for the agency that propels the subject to act ethically: he speaks of ideal ego (Idealich), ego-ideal (Ich-Ideal) and superego (Ueberich). He tends to identify these three terms: he often uses the expression Ichideal oder Idealich (Ego-Ideal or ideal ego), and the title of the chapter III of his booklet The Ego and the Id) is "Ego and Superego (Ego-Ideal)". Lacan introduces a precise distinction between these three terms: the "ideal ego" stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, I would like others to see me); the Ego-Ideal is the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize; and the superego is this same agency in its revengeful, sadistic, punishing, aspect. The underlying structuring principle of these three terms is clearly Lacan's triad Imaginary-Symbolic-Real: ideal ego is imaginary, what Lacan calls the "small other," the idealized double-image of my ego; Ego-Ideal is symbolic, the point of my symbolic identification, the point in the big Other from which I observe (and judge) myself; superego is real, the cruel and insatiable agency which bombards me with impossible demands and which mocks my failed attempts to meet them, the agency in the eyes of which I am all the more guilty, the more I try to suppress my "sinful" strivings and meet its demands. The old cynical Stalinist motto about the accused at the show trials who professed their innocence ("the more they are innocent, the more they deserve to be shot") is superego at its purest.

What follows from these precise distinctions is that, for Lacan, superego "has nothing to do with moral conscience as far as its most obligatory demands are concerned" [2]: superego is, on the contrary, the anti-ethical agency, the stigmatization of our ethical betrayal. So which one of the other two is the proper ethical agency? Should we - as some American psychoanalysts proposed, relying on a couple of Freud's ambiguous formulations - set up the "good" (rational-moderate, caring) Ego-Ideal against the "bad" (irrational-excessive, cruel, anxiety-provoking) superego, trying to lead the patient to get rid of the "bad" superego and follow the "good" Ego-Ideal? Lacan opposes this easy way out - for him, the only proper agency is the fourth one missing in Freud's list of the three, the one sometimes referred to by Lacan as "the law of desire," the agency which tells you to act in conformity with your desire. The gap between this "law of desire" and Ego-Ideal (the network of social-symbolic norms and ideal that the subject internalizes in the course of his or her education) is crucial here. For Lacan, the seemingly benevolent agency of the Ego-Ideal which leads us to moral growth and maturity, forces us to betray the "law of desire" by way of adopting the "reasonable" demands of the existing socio-symbolic order. The superego, with its excessive feeling of guilt, is merely the necessary obverse of the Ego-Ideal: it exerts its unbearable pressure upon us on behalf of our betrayal of the "law of desire." The guilt we experience under the superego pressure is not illusory but actual - "the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one's desire," [3] and the superego pressure demonstrates that we effectively are guilty of betraying our desire.

Let us turn to an example of the gap that separates the Ego-Ideal from the superego, that of the well-known brief scene three quarters into one of the greatest Hollywood classics, Michael Curtiz' Casablanca[4]: Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) comes to Rick Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart's) room to try to obtain the letters of transit that will allow her and her Resistance leader husband Victor Laszlo to escape Casablanca to Portugal and then to America. After Rick refuses to hand them over, she pulls a gun and threatens him. He tells her, "Go ahead and shoot, you'll be doing me a favor." She breaks down and tearfully tells him the story of why she left him in Paris. By the time she says, "If you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you," they are embracing in close-up. The movie dissolves to 3 1/2 second shot of the airport tower at night, its searchlight circling, and then dissolves back to a shot from outside the window of Rick's room, where he is standing, looking out, and smoking a cigarette. He turns into the room, and says, "And then?" She resumes her story...

The question that immediately pops up here is, of course: what happened in between, during the 3 1/2 second shot of the airport - did they do it or not? Maltby is right to emphasize that, as to this point, the film is not simply ambiguous; it rather generates two very clear, although mutually exclusive meanings - they did it, and they didn't do it; the film gives unambiguous signals that they did it, and simultaneously unambiguous signals that they cannot have done it. On the one hand, a series of codified features signal that they did do it, and that the 3 1/2 second shot stands for a longer period of time (the dissolve of the couple passionately embracing usually signals the act after the fade-out; the cigarette afterwards is also the standard signal of the relaxation after the act; up to the vulgar phallic connotation of the tower); on the other hand, a parallel series of features signals that they did not do it, that the 3 1/2 second shot of the airport tower corresponds to the real diegetic time (the bed in the background is undisturbed; the same conversation seems to go on without a break). Even in the final conversation between Rick and Laszlo at the airport, when they directly touch the events of this night, their words can be read in both ways:
RICK: You said you knew about Ilsa and me?
RICK: You didn't know she was at my place last night when you were... she came there for the letters of transit. Isn't that true, Ilsa?
ILSA: Yes.
RICK: She tried everything to get them and nothing worked. She did her best to convince me that she was still in love with me. That was all over long ago; for your sake, she pretended it wasn't and I let her pretend.
VICTOR: I understand.
Well, I certainly don't understand - did they do it or not? Maltby's solution is to insist that this scene provided an exemplary case of how Casablanca "deliberately constructs itself in such a way as to offer distinct and alternative sources of pleasure to two people sitting next to each other in the same cinema," that it "could play to both 'innocent' and 'sophisticated' audiences alike." [5] While, at the level of its surface narrative line, the film can be constructed by the spectator as obeying the strictest moral codes, it simultaneously offers to the sophisticated enough clues to construct an alternative, sexually much more daring narrative line. This strategy is more complex than it may appear: precisely because you knew that you are as it were "covered" or "absolved from guilty impulses"[6] by the official story line, you are allowed to indulge in dirty fantasies. You know that these fantasies are not "for serious," that they do not count in the eyes of the big Other. Our only correction to Maltby would be that we do not need two spectators sitting next to each other: one and the same spectator, split in itself, is sufficient.

To put it in the Lacanian terms: during the infamous 3 1/2 seconds, Ilsa and Rick did not do it for the big Other (in this case: the order of public appearance which should not be offended), but they did do it for our dirty fantasmatic imagination. This is the structure of inherent transgression at its purest: Hollywood needs both levels in order to function. This, of course, brings us back to the opposition between Ego-Ideal and obscene superego: at the level of Ego-Ideal (which here equals the public symbolic law: the set of rules we are supposed to follow in our public speech), nothing problematic happens, the text is clean, while, at another level, the text bombards the spectator with the superego injunction "Enjoy!", i.e. give way to your dirty imagination. To put it in yet another way, what we encounter here is the clear example of the fetishistic split, of the disavowal-structure of "je sais bien, mais quand meme..." (I know very well, but..."): the very awareness that they did not do it gives free rain to your dirty imagination. You can indulge in it, because you are absolved from the guilt by the fact that, for the big Other, they definitely did not do it. Appearances do matter: you can have your multiple dirty fantasies, but it matters which of them will be integrated into the public domain of the symbolic law, noted by the big Other. This double reading is not simply a compromise on the part of the symbolic law, in the sense that the law is interested only in keeping up appearances, and leaves you free your exercise of dirty imagination on condition that it does not encroach upon the public domain. The law itself needs its obscene supplement, it is sustained by it.

The infamous Hollywood Production Code of the 30s and 40s was not simply a negative censorship code, but also a positive (productive, as Michel Foucault would have put it) codification and regulation that generated the very excess whose direct depiction it hindered. The prohibition, in order to function properly, had to rely on a clear awareness about what really did happen at the level of the prohibited narrative line. The Production Code did not simply prohibit some contents, it rather codified their cyphered articulation, as in the famous instruction of Monroe Stahr to his scriptwriters from Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon:
At all times, at all moments when she is on the screen in our sight, she wants to sleep with Ken Willard. ... Whatever she does, it is in place of sleeping with Ken Willard. If she walks down the street she is walking to sleep with Ken Willard, if she eats her food it is to give her enough strength to sleep with Ken Willard. But at no time do you give the impression that she would even consider sleeping with Ken Willard unless they were properly sanctified. [7]
We can see here how the fundamental prohibition, far from functioning in a merely negative way, is responsible for the excessive sexualization of the most common everyday events. Everything the poor starved heroine does, from walking down the street to having a meal, is transubstantiated into the expression of her desire to sleep with her man. We can see how the functioning of this fundamental prohibition is properly perverse, insofar as it unavoidably gets caught in the reflexive turn by means of which the very defense against the prohibited sexual content generates an excessive all-pervasive sexualization - the role of censorship is much more ambiguous than it may appear. The obvious reproach to this point would be that we are thereby inadvertently elevating the Hayes Production Code into a subversive machine more threatening to the system of domination that direct tolerance: are we not claiming that the more severe is direct censorship, the more subversive are the unintended by-products generated by it? The way to answer this reproach is to emphasize that these unintended perverse by-products, far from effectively threatening the system of symbolic domination, are its inherent transgression, its unacknowledged obscene support.

In Western literature, the first figure fully aware of this is Ulysses, and it was Shakespeare's genius to deploy this aspect of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida - no wonder that, even today, this play is causing such a confusion among the interpreters. At the war council in Act I where the Greek (or "Grecian," as Shakespeare put in what now may be called Bush mode) generals try to account for their failure to occupy and destroy Troy after eight years of fighting, Ulysses intervenes from a traditional "old values" position, locating the true cause of the Greek failure in their neglect of the centralized hierarchic order where every individual is at its proper place:
The specialty of rule hath been neglected:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.

...O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power...
What, then, causes this disintegration which ends up in the democratic horror of everyone participating in power? Later in the play, when Ulysses wants to convince Achilles to rejoin the battle, he mobilizes the metaphor of time as the destructive force that gradually undermines the natural hierarchic order: in the course of time, your old heroic deeds will soon be forgotten, your glory will be eclipsed by the new heroes - so if you want to continue shining in your warrior glory, rejoin the battle:
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. /.../ O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was; for beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.

(III 147-176)
Realpolitik of cruel manipulation, of cheating, of playing one hero against the other. It is only this dirty underside, this hidden disharmony, that can sustain harmony (Ulysses plays with Achilles's envy, he refers to emulation - the very attitudes that work to destabilize the hierarchic order, since they signal that one is not satisfied by one's subordinate place within the social body). Secret manipulation of envy - the violation of the very rules and values Ulysses celebrates in his first speech - is needed to counteract the effects of time and sustain the hierarchic order of "degrees." This would be Ulysses's version of Hamlet's famous "The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!". The only way to "set it right" is to counteract the transgression of Old Order with its inherent transgression, with crime secretly made to serve the Order. The price we pay for this is that the Order which thus survives is a mockery of itself, a blasphemous imitation of Order.

That the public law needs support from some hidden superego obscenity is today more actual than ever. Recall Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, a court-martial drama about two US marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers; the military prosecutor claims that the act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence (composed of Tom Cruise and Demi Moore - how could they fail?) succeeds in proving that the defendants followed the so-called "Code Red," the unwritten rule of a military community which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who has broken the ethical standards of the Marines. Such a code condones an act of transgression, it is illegal, yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group. It has to remain under cover of the night, unacknowledged, unutterable - in public, everyone pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence (and the climax of the film is, predictably, the outburst of rage of Jack Nicholson, the officer who ordered the night-time beating: his public explosion is, of course, the moment of his fall).

While violating the explicit rules of community, such a code represents the spirit of community at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on individuals to enact group identification. In contrast to the written explicit Law, such a superego obscene code is essentially spoken. Therein resides the lesson of Coppola's Apocalypse Now: the figure of Kurtz is not a remainder of some barbaric past, but the necessary outcome of the modern Western power itself. Kurtz was a perfect soldier and as such, through his over-identification with the military power system, he turned into the excess which the system has to eliminate. The ultimate insight of Apocalypse Now is that power generates its own excess, which it has to annihilate in an operation imitating what it fights (Willard's mission to kill Kurtz is nonexistent for the official record, "it never happened," as the general who briefs Willard points out).

Here we enter the domain of secret operations, of what power does without ever admitting it. In November 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney said that defeating terrorists meant that "we also have to work ... sort of the dark side ... A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion". Is he not talking like a reborn Kurtz? In a debate about the fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC in the midst of 2004, one of the weird arguments for the ethico-legal acceptability of their status was that "they are those who were missed by the bombs": since they were the target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate military operation, one cannot condemn their fate when they were taken prisoners after the combat. The argument suggests that whatever their situation, it is better, less severe, than being dead. This reasoning tells more than it intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that they are now cases of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts. If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space "between the two deaths," occupying the position of homo sacer, legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status) while biologically still alive, the US authorities which treat them in this way are also in a kind of in-between legal status which forms the counterpart to homo sacer. Acting as a legal power, their acts are no longer covered and constrained by the law. Instead they operate in an empty space that is still within the domain of the law.

So when, in November 2005, President Bush emphatically proclaimed "We do not torture" and simultaneously vetoed the bill, proposed by John McCain, that just legalizes this fact by explicitly prohibiting the torture of prisoners as detrimental to the US interests, we have to interpret this inconsistency as an index of the tension between the public discourse, society's Ego-Ideal, and its obscene superego supplement. Another proof, if proofs are still needed, of the enduring actuality of the Freudian notion of the superego.


[1] Lacan, J., On Feminine Sexuality: The Seminar, Book XX, New York: Norton 1998, p. 3.

[2] Lacan. J., The Ethics in Psychoanalysis, p. 310.

[3] ibid, p. 314.

[4] I rely here on Richard Maltby, "'A Brief Romantic Interlude': Dick and Jane go to 3 1/2 Seconds of the Classic Hollywood Cinema," inPost-Theory, David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1996, p. 434-459.

[5] ibid, p. 443.

[6] ibid, p. 441.
Jacques Lacan's Bibliography in English

Jacques-Alain Miller's Bibliography in English

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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