The Object of Proximity: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis in Žižek and Santner via Lacan

The Object of Proximity:
The Ethics of Psychoanalysis in Žižek and Santner via Lacan

By Daniel Tutt, American University

Comments and or questions are welcome. Please direct them to danielp.tutt(at)

Proximity towards the jouissance of the Other, or the neighbor, in Lacan’s seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis becomes a matter of ethical concern because the Other as das Ding (the thing) poses problems outside of the moral relationship. In this paper I will examine the ethical positions of two psychoanalytic theorists, Eric Santner and Slavoj Žižek. The proximity towards the excessive jouissance of the neighbor as das Ding presents a number of interesting ethical problems. Žižek’s confrontation with das Ding is a complex procedure that remains ambiguous, particularly in light of his sympathies towards the Christian Pauline agape version of radical love. Žižek’s treatment of proximity towards the Other seeks a total escape from the fantasmatic symbolic coordinates of the oppressive symbolic order, whereas with Santner, in his text The Psychotheology of Everyday Life, the “mental excess” of jouissance caused by confrontation with the Other as das Ding is sought to be converted into an owning of the excessive proximity into a “blessings of more life.”

This paper first identifies and describes the Lacanian subject – a subject rooted in lack and the crisis of symbolic investiture and argues that Lacanian subjectivity is capable of radical freedom from the fantasmatic symbolic coordinates that sustain its relationship to its own freedom. There are several meta-ethical questions that arise in light of Lacan’s notion of ethics for subjectivity inhabited by fantasmatic symptoms and a symbolic order structured by oppressive fantasy relations. These problems will be explored in this paper as they guide both Žižek’s and Santner’s work, particularly the superego demand to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The question of politics in relation to the Other for Santner is centered on how to convert the “superego ban” into a blessings of more life. Whereas with Žižek, the meta-ethical subject ought to be positioned in relation to the Other to enable a radical break from the fantasmatic symbolic coordinates into a new symbolic relationship to the Other, a position highly reminiscent of Antigone’s. To what extent does Zizek’s ethics reflect Lacan’s sympathies towards Antigone’s reluctance to renounce her fundamental desire? Furthermore, how does Santner in the Psychotheology of Everyday Life position his meta-ethical subject in allegiance to the desire of the Other, and what are the political implications for both of these positions? Admittedly, this is an especially speculative question considering Santner does not deal directly with Lacan’s ethics seminar.

With the rise of the Lacanain left, and a number of texts beginning to identify the relationship between psychoanalysis and politics, we are presented with a powerful critique of the undergirding assumptions behind liberal theory. Perhaps most importantly is the notion that transitive recognition from the Other as the constituting ground of intersubjectivity is inherently blocked by the functioning of desire.

Das Ding and the Impossible Good of the Lacanian Subject
The ethical injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is problematized in Lacan’s seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, as the very core of the intersubjective relation is rooted in an unconscious structural relation to the realm that Lacan refers to as the symbolic. The Lacanian register of the symbolic is an often-difficult concept to unpack. One of the more cogent descriptions of the symbolic is found in popular culture through the example of Woody Allen’s public divorce with Mia Farrow. Allen is said to have dealt with the media in the same hyperactive, idiosyncratic ways as the characters in his films. A traditional psychoanalytic reading of this occurrence would argue that Woody Allen’s actions are merely repressed character traits of his own self put down onto the big screen and then reappearing as a result of a psychical and emotional breakdown. The Lacanian reading would argue something different; that Allen’s incorporation of his symbolic behavior patterns from symbolic art is real life as such. The Lacanian subject is deprived of that which it believes to be the most intimate part of himself, and this happens in the realm of the symbolic.

When faced with the ethical injunction “to love thy neighbor as thyself,” the primary procedure for the multicultural and Judeo-Christian models are to keep at bay the proximity of the neighbor, as the neighbor is inhabited with an uncanny jouissance. To Lacan, one truly encounters the Other not when one discover her values, dreams, and wishes, but when the subject encounters the neighbor as jouissance. As Žižek has suggested, what the predominant liberal multiculturalist model has neglected is this very direct encounter with the “traumatic kernel” of the Other in favor of PC engagement with the “decaffeinated Other.”

“I encounter the other in her moment of jouissance. When I discern in her a tiny detail – a compulsive gesture, an excessive facial gesture – that signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter is always traumatic, there is something at least minimally obscene about it, I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gap separating me from it.”[1]

This encounter with jouissance is most often equated with Lacan’s dimension of the real. Jouissance is the excess of stuff that penetrates through the pores in the surface, like a science fiction alien whose liquid excrement remains both a void to be filled over in a lack of “an excess of existence over representation”, or it might also consist of “representation without existence.” Since reality only occurs in so far as the real is not fully experienced, reality happens at the shortest distance from the real through fantasy, hence the ugliness of the real stands for existence itself.[2]

The postmodern multiculturalist mode of engaging the other, as Zizek has noted, runs along two primary modes, that of the New Age, and the Judeo-Christian, both of which are merely displacing a form of pathos onto an Other that is more authentic, and this ends up causing a sort of inverted racism.[3] This inverted racism, of keeping at far proximity the traumatic Other is in many ways a resurgence of Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” whereby the Other is deprived of their own cultural identity and forced to enter the totality of the repressive capitalist culture.[4] Encountering the Other at the level of das Ding, without depriving that Other of its symbolic jouissance, which the liberal multiculturalist requires, is by definition an exclusivist act by the distance it maintains towards the Other. This distance towards the other is the basis of ethics Eric Santner and Slavoj Žižek, but before examining them, we turn to Lacan’s ethical system.

In the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan develops the neighbor as “das Ding”, (the Thing) a pre-symbolic object characterized primarily by affect and appearing in the symbolic realm prior to any and all representation.[5] Das Ding is a substanceless void, and in structure it is equivalent to the neighbor, or the Other. The Other[6] takes on a “thing-like” character based on an excess materiality that always resists symbolization in the register of the real.[7] This Other as object is filled in by a certain distance, what Lacan refers to as proximity, a proximity that is identical to the neighbor. As Lacan comments, “the neighbor is identical to the subject, in the same way that one can say the Nebenmensch that Freud speaks of as the foundation of das Ding as his neighbor.”[8] Lacan’s theory of the neighbor-as-das-Ding is rooted in Freud’s conception of das Ding:

“and so the complex of the neighbor divides into two constituent parts the first of which impresses through the constancy of its compos[i]tion, its persistence as a Thing, while the other is understood by means of memory-work…”[9]

Lacan characterizes Das Ding as “a primordial function located at the level of the unconscious Vorstellungen.”[10] Das Ding ultimately indicates that there is no sovereign good; and thus no possibility to constitute the good in the realm of the subject. “There is good and bad and then there is das Ding” – the Thing remains unfathomable, an excess, outside of the moral relationship.

The Lacanain subject is based on subject suppose to know,[11] or subjectivity that is always beyond mere identity and recognition. As Judith Butler notes, “the Lacanian subject is not imminent to the discourse that creates it.”[12] Das Ding is posited at the center of the subject’s desire, but das Ding itself is simultaneously excluded – it is something that only a representation can represent.[13] Representation, in Lacanian analytics is a form of apprehending, and representation will always develop out of the good of das Ding, but importantly das Ding presents itself in the realm of the symbolic as something that has already defined the good through an unconscious relation to the social, or the symbolic realm. The subject can only formulate their relation to das Ding as bad through their symptom, which is rooted in fantasy,[14] more of which will be discussed below.

Lacan’s Ethics: A Matter of Form and Freedom
What are the ethical implications of Lacan’s understanding of the neighbor? Since ethics occurs, “precisely when man poses that question of the good he had unconsciously sought in the social structures,”[15] and “the question of ethics is to be articulated from the point of view of the location of man in relation to the real”[16] – Lacanian ethics, as Zupan?i? correctly points out, appears in the encounter, it is something that happens to us, it throws us out of joint, because it always inscribes itself in a given continuity as a rupture, a break or interruption. This is when ethics comes into play; i.e. will I act in conformity to what threw me out of joint? For Lacan, emphasis is placed on desire, “have you acted in conformity with the desire which inhabits you?” for after all, it is desire that aims at the real.[17]

Understanding the precise relation between Lacanian ethics and the good becomes a matter of form for Lacan, similar to Kantian ethics. The register of the real in Lacan’s theoretical period from 1959-60, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis depicts das Ding as that which always eludes symbolization. This inability to symbolically integrate das Ding indicates that das Ding always stays separate from ethics, which would in other philosophical schools of thought (utilitarian ethics, and Aristotelian ethics in particular[18]) seek to naively interject the thing, or more precisely, “the good” into the realm of representation, which can never be symbolically integrated.[19] Lacan’s presupposition of das Ding’s impossible symbolic integration is rooted in his allegiance to the Freudian “universal law of incest and the Oedipal complex” that structures human desire and the “I-other” relationship, where good and evil seem to coalesce and das Ding is the remainder. Das Ding, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis comes to inhabit language a negative way, as that which manifests desire for the real. Thus, the real, in ethical terms is an extra moral matter, similar to what we find in Kant’s moral system.

“If a man is to become not merely legally, but morally, a good man… this cannot be brought about by gradual reformation so long as the basis of the maxims remain impure, but must be affected through a revolution in the man’s disposition… He can become a new man only by a kind of rebirth, as it were through a new creation.”[20]

Kant and Lacan are both placing ethics, and ethical change ex nihilo, and both develop their ethical systems out of a material excess, for Kant the excess is pathology, and for Lacan it is object petit a. [21] Both systems are seeking to manage the “excess of the real,” and Zupancic argues, Lacan’s passage a la act[22] is identical to Kant’s allegiance on form in his development of the Groundwork. For Lacan, the faculty of desire does not point to any particular act of desiring but to the frame of desiring as such, similar to how Kantian form points to duty.

The surplus in relation to legality and to the ethical is what is dealt with by form – the main point being that for Kant it is incumbent to follow the form of duty. Kantian ethics demands that an action not only conform to duty, but it mandates this conformity be the only content or motive of that action. Form itself must be appropriated as a material surplus, in order for it to determine the will, and Kantian form is the same as Lacan’s conception of object petit a, the thing that persists beyond surplus enjoyment. The metaphysical question to both systems of ethics is virtually the same, how can form become matter? Yet, both Lacanian and Kantian ethics seek to solve the problem of form, or how if Kantian form and Lacanian object petit a force the subject to follow a sort of second nature, then ethics functions as a drive and isn’t ethics at all. As Zupan?i? argues, how Lacan dealt with object petit a, or the surplus enjoyment left over in the domain of the real that persists for the sake of enjoyment is similar to how Kant dealt with the excess of pathology. Since the Kantian object drive is nothing but the drive of the will, and the Lacanain subject’s separation from the pathological object petit a produces a certain remainder, a remainder that constitutes the drive of the ethical subject, both systems of thought construct ethics from very similar conceptual problems.[23]

We are beginning to see the contours of a Lacanian subject forming that is not rooted in a nightmarish ontological rut as many have criticized Lacan, particularly those that argue his subjectivity is purely a subject constructed from language. To the contrary, as Ed Pluth has noted in Signifiers and Acts: Freedom in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject, Lacan’s ethics are rooted in a view of freedom of the subject. Importantly, the Lacanian subject can change the destiny of an unconscious desire to the point of “being verbal to the second power” – since “every act of speaking involves an act of addressing an other – always implying a search for recognition from a third party other,” a true ethical act is one that does not address the big Other. As Pluth observes, “an act does not receive recognition for its identity from an other… it is thus not the subject that acts, an ‘act subjects.’”[24] Thus, the Lacanain subject can never locate the good in the subject, but the subject is able to overturn their lack of capacity to assume their own symbolic identity. The capacity of the subject to overturn their symbolic situation will be examined via Slavoj Žižek and Eric Santner’s reading of the ethics of psychoanalysis.

The Psychotheology of Over-Proximity
The ethical problem of proximity to the neighbor introduces a number of ethical implications for ethics, and the ethical relation to the Other in Eric Santner’s work, The Psychotheology of Everyday Life. For Santner, the ultimate problem of the neighbor is based on the whether the subject accepts the Other (or neighbor) in their jouissance, or real excess, and in so doing, how they come to handle this over-proximity. Santner characterizes the Freudian “mental excess” (what Lacan would later deem jouissance) as an “excess of validity over meaning,” as the “undeadness of biopolitical life,” and his primary ethical concern is in how to convert the excess into a “blessings of more life.”[25] This mental excess that the subject inhabits, or what Santner refers to as “undeadness” colors everyday life as “a paradoxical kind of mental excess that constrains by means of excess.”[26] Santner develops a slightly different type of Otherness than that of Lacan, based on Jean Laplanche’s psychoanalytic theory of “seduction. ” Laplanche was an intimate student and colleague of Lacan, and in his conception of the Other, or the “enigmatic signifier” the traumatic encounter with the Other’s desire becomes constitutive of the inner strangeness we call the unconscious itself.[27] Therefore, unlike the Lacanian Other, Santner’s Other is stripped of its material properties, a position that evokes Derrida’s notion of the spectral aura of the Other:

“the other is not reducible to its actual predicates, to what one might define or thematize about it, anymore than the I is. It is naked. Bared of every property, and this nudity is also its infinitely exposed vulnerability: its skin. This absence of determinable properties, of concrete predicates, of empirical visibility, is not doubt what gives to the face of the other a spectral aura.”[28]

The subject is placed in a relationship with the enigma of the Other’s desire not through language (as in Lacan) but through an unconscious transmission that is neither simply enlivening nor simply deadening but rather “undeadening” – the encounter with the Other produces an internal alienness that has a sort of vitality, and yet belongs to no life at all. This “undeadness” creates an encounter with legitimation, or what Freud referred to as the death drive, a “too much-ness” of pressure and the build of an urge to put an end to it.[29]

Central to Santner’s ethical project in the Psychotheology is the way that the mental excess structures one’s symbolic identity in institutions. Since symbolic identity in institutions creates an “excess of validity over meaning” whereby the symbolic identity and meaning of all community’s, individuals, or groups remain an utter mystery to that group, and this group identity crisis is constitutive of modernity as such. Santner develops this notion of group identity crisis from the Hegelian observation that the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians were also mysteries to the Egyptians themselves. What psychoanalysis offers in the face of this “excess of validity over meaning” is a positing of theoretical tools to rework the transference into institutions. Santner’s psychoanalytic model of transference is similar, but quite different than that of Žižek and Lacan. In both versions, the “working through” to traverse the fantasy of the neighbor/stranger who dwells there with us is central.”[30]

Santner incorporates “new thinking,” or Franz Rosenzweig’s “metaphysical thinking,” from his famous post WWII text, the Star of Redemption to confront the Freudian mental excess, or what he refers to as “old thinking.” Old thinking is the condition where man has subjected himself to the excess but has simultaneously turned away from the challenges and claims of everyday life in the face of that excess.[31] Rosenzweig is indebted to Freud in Moses and Monotheism in his construction of subjectivity, where we find the subject constituted on the unconscious, and bound up with sovereignty through symbolic investments into institutions. By institutions, Freud refers to all places that endow the public with social recognition and intelligibility.[32] Freud’s conception of identity formation in Moses and Monotheism is based on one’s allegiance to their transgressions: myths, narratives, and cultural systems that help to organize fundamental human anxieties, conflicts and wishes. What is crucial in Santner’s reading of Moses and Monotheism is the basis of social solidarity with a group and with institutions:

“we are in a form of life, truly animated by its spirit, not so much when we agree with its basic rules, – i.e. its public sanctioned form of the good, but rather when we are haunted by its spirits, plagued at the level of our immemorial transgression that is structurally transmitted by the from of life and narratives of that solidarity.”

Before “crisis of symbolic investiture” can be examined, the ethical implications for adopting the “blessings of more life” in the face of the Freudian excess of mental life needs to be explored.

The overarching emphasis of the Psychotheology is on what Santner calls a “biopolitical subject,” with biopolitical life, or the sort of subjectivity that has been thrown by the enigma of its legitimacy and stripped of its place within a meaningful order. Santner wants to know how do ought to come to understand this form of life?

“To be thrown by the enigma of legitimacy is to be seduced by the prospect of an exception to the space of social reality and meaning, by the fantasy of an advent, boundary, or outer limit of that space that would serve as its constituting frame and power, its final, self-legitimating ground.”[33]

The release from this hold is a release from an exceptional beyond, or a sort of “release as transcendence from undeadness,” into “biopolitical animation,” a harnessing of the surplus value of life that is accessible via the unconscious. Again, borrowing from Freud’s introduction of trauma into the social fabric in Moses and Monotheism Santner describes the “too much” of biopolitical life, as a certain pressure that interrupts the working of the pleasure principle, and the patterns of diffusion that constitute human everyday mindedness in its normal functioning. The pleasure principle reveals that the human mind is always operating under a sort of posttraumatic stress syndrome. Santner’s “too muchness of biopolitical life” is rooted in Freud’s theory that trauma must contain an excess of demand, and the means “to address an other.” A trauma only becomes possible when the “too muchness” of one’s address to an Other persists beyond what can be translated as a demand. There exists a surplus cause that always persists beyond any determinate lack and its possible satisfaction, a surplus that is beyond the workings of the pleasure principle.

Santner’s ethics at this point, in light of the crisis of symbolic identity is concerned with whether we ought to assume our identity in the social body based on the symbolic mandates that determine our identity, or whether the subject ought to break with this system. The two poles of ethical action he develops are the “sciences of symbolic identity,” and the “ethics of singularity.” The strength of Santner’s ethical position is that only when we “truly inhabit the midst of life” are we able to “loosen the fantasy” that structures everyday life.[34] Thus, similar to what we see in Lacan, to own one’s fantasy is to really live as a free subject, aiming at the truly ethical question that Lacan poses: “have you acted in conformity with the desire which inhabits you?” for it is desire that aims at the real.[35]

The Crisis of Symbolic Investiture
How the subject in Santner’s the Psychotheology, as well as Lacan’s ethical subject deals with “the crisis of symbolic investiture” are a matter of ethics, which we will explore below. For both Lacan and Santner, ethics requires a confrontation with the Other to free oneself of the Other and then surrender to the real, or everyday life. The confrontation with everyday life, or the Lacanian real is a collapse of the subject’s symbolic constructed identity. The symbolic identity crisis that Lacan and Santner refer to can be more clearly understood through Santner’s reading of the book Soul Murder, and Lacan’s theory of the Name of the Father. Soul Murder and Name of the Father are instructive to understanding how “the crisis of symbolic investiture” operates through psychoanalytic theory.[36] Both Lacan and Santner refer to the crisis of symbolic identity when discussing the infamous case of the Judge Daniel Schreber, who upon receiving the symbolic authority in society as a Judge experienced a total psychotic breakdown where his very ability to assume a symbolic identity rooted in authority became penetrated with “a kernel of invasiveness, which introduced the subject into too much reality.” What is it about this “too much reality” that created the conditions for the “crisis of symbolic investiture?” To fully understand this crisis, a reading of Lacan’s late capitalist “university discourse” and the complex insertion of the Name of the Father bring the crisis into more clarity.

For Lacan, symbolic identity inhabits an empty place, or the “point de caption,” which occurs when the subject functions as a signifier embodying a function beyond its own concreteness. The subject is emptied of its particular signification in point de caption, in order to represent fullness in general. Point de caption operates in national, religious, political, or ethnic signifiers such as “the nation” or “communism” or even religious identity groupings such as “Christian” or “Muslim,” yet they function as pure negativity, and represent what has to be excluded or negated. As Yannis Stavrakakis points out in the Lacanian Left, the Name of the Father functions as an insertion into point de caption, as an operation tied to power relations in late capitalism. Lacan’s Seminar on the Four Discourses introduces the “university discourse” as arising in the wake of the chaotic revolutionary protests of May 1968 in France, and across Europe. The university discourse is a mode of discourse that incorporates scientific discourse to legitimize relations of power. The subject in university discourse becomes equivalent with the social totality, and is situated in the particular historical and late capitalist symbolic space, where the movement occurs, mainly apart from the Master’s discourse, and into university discourse.

An excellent example that reveals the procedure of Name of the Father filing in the point de caption into empty symbolic identity are the popular “culture jamming” Yes Men.[37] The Yes Men are a group of activists who inhabit false symbolic authority by assuming the identity of powerful businessmen, activists, and politicians. They deliver totally ludicrous presentations that are in actuality totally empty of legitimate content. What they have discovered through these presentations to power holders is that their audiences end up listening attentively to their presentations, and more importantly, they end up taking their statements for total fact without question and most often end up agreeing with their absurd findings. What this indicates more than anything is that symbolic identity construction functions as an empty gesture of symbolic power supported by a fantasmatic supplement, and both unite to form reality.[38] What the Yes Men and the case of Schreber both indicate is that the commands of identity, deployed from the level of fantasy will always be filled up as an empty vessel. The “crisis of investiture” for both Schreber and the Yes Men occur when “the kernel of invasiveness of too much reality” functions on the side of symbolic identity as an empty space that can be filled in with an inherent negativity. This crisis of identity problematizes attempts to adequately symbolize oneself in everyday reality.

Lack and Desire in the Real
In the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the mediating force of the Other is desire. Desire is posited as universal, “all desire is desire of the Other,” since all desire is structured around a missing jouissance, around a lack; it is important to understand the way that lack of the Other structures symbolic identities. Lack is introduced at the intersection of the real and the symbolic, and it emerges through the symbolization of the real. Lack then introduces the idea of fullness and integration with the lost object, and most important for ethics, lack is always introduced through an act of exclusion, an exclusion in part responsible for the fundamental disequilibrium between integrating the Other into the symbolic realm, yet we find that there is something that does fill in the symbolic: fantasy.[39]

The imposition of fantasy arises precisely when the desire for filling in, or covering over lack arises. On a structural level, fantasy stimulates and promises to cover over the lack in the Other created by the loss of jouissance. Since fantasy is also an effect of symbolic castration, it is also a defense mechanism against the fear of symbolic castration. Symbolic castration is defined by Lacan as, “a symbolic lack of an imaginary object,” and symbolic castration is the subject’s first perception of the Other, as not complete, but lacking. Lacan argues that the subject can only maintain psychic normality by accepting this inherent lack of the other; hence symbolic castration plays a normalizing effect on the subject.[40] Fantasy then becomes crucial to understanding the role of the “I-Other” relationship and to determining how the Other serves as a support that fills in the void for the lack in the Other, in the realm of the symbolic. The illusory nature of fantasy serves as the central support for the desire to identify, which is inherently impossible in the real, as discussed above.[41] The Other of fantasy takes on the role of an object, or das Ding to sustains desire itself, and since the Other appears as a remainder, the Other is in an almost mythological status to the subject. The Other promises to provide what the subject lacks and thus unify both as subjects.[42] The other takes on the role of the object that can potentially unify both the split psyche (of the subject) and of unifying the split social field itself.

Responsibility to the Other: Moving Beyond the Superego
Like lack and the crisis of symbolic investiture, superego appears in the realm of the symbolic to police one’s identity. The Other that invades the subject’s jouissance is filled with too much pressure, but, importantly, it is this pressure that has already been processed as a superego demand. The superego already organizes these relations as impossible; it shuts the door by preventing psychic agency.[43] In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the superego is an imperative of the Law, which Lacan develops in his lecture, “Kant with Sade.” Superego consists of a demand to fulfill the Other in so far as the Other demands the subject to enjoy – an oppressive call that only results in a pervasive feeling of guilt.[44]

In Santner’s reading of the superego, the Other is double, the Other is within the I and the Other is external as das Ding, and both posses an enigmatic core. It is this core, or ground that creates an intersubjective struggle in the realm of the symbolic. The “struggle” revolves around how to translate these messages and how to form a common ground of struggle – a possibility that Santner argues forms the very basis of intersubjective realtionality. Struggling through the material scraps of the excess of meaning that creates Santner’s “validity in excess of meaning” becomes the basis of how we assume our place among the meaningless of socio-symbolic value systems that keep us tied to the Other’s fantasmatic enigmatic thing-ness.[45] To push beyond into the “blessings of more life,” Santner incorporates Rosenzweig’s concept of “revelation” by which he refers to the capacity for space to be opened on the basis of a relational surplus in myself and in my neighbor. Revelation is an opening of space organized around the claims made upon me by the Other in-so-far as he or she is singularly out-of-joint with respect to the social intelligibility produced by this inscription of law.

These moments of “revelation” capture the basis of our social relations, and they transform our biopolitical undeadness into a new potentiality, and form the basis for an opening into the beyond. By “beyond,” Santner means beyond the fantasies that sustain our biopolitical undeadness. These unconscious fantasies keep us at a distance from actually living life, and it is this distance that must be traversed. The goal then is not to revolutionize the social relations (as we find in Žižek) as such, but to Santner, a la Rosenzweig, the goal is to de-animate the undeadness (and undeadness is defined as a looming metaphysical loneliness) of biopolitical life and to convert the undead matter into a form of new social relations, new ways of both transgressing the excess and denying it simultaneously. There is a paradox to this system, in that there is a certain pressure exerted by the law of the superego and transgression to the Law is central to its very command. What holds a community together most deeply, Žižek notes, “is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s normal everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms) with a specific form of enjoyment.[46] Every induction of the subject into the socio symbolic field consists of a sort of “seduction” whereby one’s solidarity with the family/community/institution is always in part sustained by a transgressive enjoyment structure sustained by fantasy. Another moment of release from the hold the Other has on one’s superego can be found via shrugging off the other. Rosenzweig’s solution is similar to Žižek, in order to release the subject from the excitation of the superegoic demands, the time and space of this release ends up becoming the very time and space of the ethical encounter. Rosenzweig’s ethical encounter is an opening of space where new possibilities of being-together, of responsiveness to the Other, can arise.[47]

Žižek’s version of “shrugging off the fantasy of the other,” or “desublimation” can result in a traumatic situation, as “the gap separating beauty from ugliness is thus the gap that separates the real: what constitutes the real is the minimum of idealization the subject needs to sustain the horror of the real.” This ugliness of proximity of the neighbor ends up requiring a sublime distance to maintain the neighbor’s fantasy frame. Once the neighbor approaches their status of ugly existence in the real, Žižek characterizes the encounter as traumatic.

What we find at this point is that psychoanalysis lies outside of a teleology in favor of embracing the singularity of the subject, what Santner refers to as the ethics of singularity, or what Jonathan Lear has referred to as “taking advantage of the disruption of previous attempts to construct a teleology.”[48] To Santner, what is crucial in the move beyond our intersubjective surrender to the Other and moving beyond biopolitical undeadness is the process of:

“an opening of what seems most fatefully demonic and what sticks out from our predicative being; it is paradoxical because it involves both an affirmation and a negation of this predicative core.”[49]

Rosenzweig’s “Divine Love”
Santner’s is concerned with the undeadness of biopolitical life, or life that has been thrown by the crisis of symbolic identity and investment into institutions, and he is also concerned with how to counter the superego ban, and lack. He looks to the Star of Redemption to find Biblical and religious resources to combat the undeadness. The possibility of un-deadness, or to reawaken – what Santner refers to as “exodus” is coterminous with revelation, as described earlier. On one hand, the subject is interpellated via symbolic investiture and on the other, the subject is excluded based on being a part of symbolic identity, which is no part, containing no teleology, and these two poles are linked. The only way out is through the game of “divine love,” as developed in the Star. Divine love is a psychoanalytic technique of identification that is similar to revelation, but it consists of a moving beyond from the institutions that create the “undeadness of biopolitical life.” Moving beyond involves transforming the institutional flux of that interpellate the subject and bring that subject into the midst of life, in relation to their neighbor. This movement beyond is what Rosenzweig refers to as “falling in love,” a situation that involves more than just positive affirmation of being – falling in love, or might we say “loving thy neighbor as thyself” is a subsumption into the too muchness itself. Falling in love is a subsumption into das Ding itself, but it is a das Ding inhabited with an inherent positivity, having negated the institutional flux of biopolitical dead matter. This form of divine love is ultimately a form of singularization, a form of singling out of the subject, but not of excluding.[50]

Rosenzweig’s “divine love” is an opening up of possibilities, a facing up to the “too muchness” – which is in large part organized by the fantasies that bind us to social reality.[51] Here, Rosenzweig’s subject becomes a meta-subject and out ethics become a matter of meta-ethics as we are creating an ideal intersubjective relation. The excess materiality of the human subject Rosenzweig refers to as the “germ cell” – a particular point that stresses a remnant of humanity that remains able to think through the “too muchness” – a part of the self will always remain a complete singularity. When looking at an old photograph we are being touched by the remnant of the self, and this left over remnant, Santner refers to as the “germ cell.” While this leads Santner to conclude that the self in its biopolitical undeadness is actually not part of the whole – the self is a singularity – beyond their generic-ness, it is this “metaethical” quality of the self that is most important to Santner to preserve. The self remains through the excess, “a stain on the horizon of social intelligibility.”[52] Žižek, in a similar vein recognizes the singularity of the metaethical self:

“That which, in me, resists the blissful submergence into the Good is… not my inert biological nature but it is the very kernel of my spiritual selfhood, the awareness that, beyond all particular and physical features, I am ‘me’, a unique person, an absolutely singular point of spiritual self reference.”53

This meta-ethical self that we have develope[d ]up to this point is a self stripped of all its trappings of “too muchness of life.” It isn’t an inert thing, but rather, the left over, metaethical self is a tautological point of self-reference – a breach in the chain of being. Yet, any encounter towards loving one’s neighbor must be dealt with in terms of their death-driven singularity – as an encounter with my neighbor as das Ding. The question remains: is the germ cell and metaethical self merely a version of embracing das Ding?

From Antigone to St. Paul – Žižek’s Ethical Ambiguity
The intense form of desire as das Ding is what Lacan urges the subject not to renounce. Lacan’s wager to act in conformity with one’s desire has led many to adopt a position that Žižek refers to as “heroism as lack,” a position that acts on the presupposition of lack in the Other. Žižek rejects those Lacanian influenced theorists who prefer a fundamental renunciation of desire as a condition of access to desire. What’s unclear in Santner’s ethics on the other hand, is whether he is assuming the heroism of lack in “divine love” and “revelation.” Žižek argues that such an ethical act is antithetical to Lacan’s ethical theory and to the very discovery of Freud’s death drive:

“To desire something other than its continued ‘social existence,’ and thus to fall ‘into some kind of death,’ to risk a gesture by means of which death is ‘courted or pursued,’ indicates precisely how Lacan reconceptualized the Freudian death drive as the elementary form of the ethical act.”[54]

To Žižek, this is the entire point of the Antigone reading in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, as Antigone risks her entire social existence to defy the socio-symbolic power of the City embodied in the ruler (Creon), thereby she ‘fell into some kind of death,’ i.e. her act of suicide sustained a symbolic death that enabled her to remain excluded from the sociosymbolic space. By offering nothing new but insisting on her unconditional demand, Antigone broke the cycle of desire and performed a truly ethical act. To Žižek, the main point of the authentic act is to gain “free action,” and in so doing, to renounce the “transgressive fantasmatic supplement” that attaches us to any given social reality.[55] What seems to differentiate Santner from Žižek is this radical break with the entire sociosymbolic system in order to reinstitute fundamentally new ground.

Whether Santner’s divine love is a matter of “existing as lack,” or if it promotes the “heroism of lack” – or owning of das Ding, or an Antigone-like symbolic refusal is difficult to discern. A reading into Žižek’s ethical position on love may shed some light, however. When faced with the ethical situation induced by Lacanian ethics, Žižek however is ambivalent. In some cases, he identifies only two available ‘options:’

“Is not Lacan’s entire theoretical edifice torn between these two options: between the ethics of desire/Law, and lethal suicidal immersion into the Thing?”[56]

Is there yet a third way, however, offered by Žižek? As Frances Restuccia has suggested in an excellent discussion of Lacanian ethics through film in Amorous Acts, Žižek opens up a third way to the ethical impasse – that of love. To pass through the ethical impasse into a form of Pauline agape, Žižek claims the subject arrives at a sort of mystical communion, but the subject has “to pass through the zero-point of night of the world.”[57] It is this intense confrontation the Hegelian “night of the world,” or with negation that Žižek credits Christianity’s agape love as promoting. St’ Paul’s ethics were more of an “unplugging” from the symbolic desire system, and less of a renunciation of desire, similar to that of Antigone. Paul’s “unplugging” is achieved only by “throwing the balanced circuit of the universe off the rails.”[58]

To fully appreciate how love enters the psychoanalytic system, we must first differentiate love from desire. With desire “there is always a gap between the object of desire and its cause, the mediating feature or element that makes this object desirable”[59] whereas with love the object is not split off from its cause. With love, “the very distance between the object and cause collapse.”[60] The most frequent example Lacan refers to is that of courtly love, they way in which the lady is brought to the level of das Ding, her proximity is denied of its jouissance.

Žižek waivers between preferring to simply “exist as a lacking subject” over and above the Antigone version of desire induced symbolic suicide. As we see from the Plague of Fantasies, Žižek’s ethical position

“in no way condones suicidal persistence in following one’s Thing; on the contrary, it enjoins us to remain faithful to our desire as sustained by the Law of maintaining a minimal distance to the Thing – one is faithful to one’s desire by maintaining the gap that sustains desire, the gap on account of which the incestuous das Ding forever eludes our grasp.”[61]

The core ethical question to Žižek revolves around immersion into the Thing or allegiance to the ethics of desire/Law. “Unplugging” in the Pauline version offers the kind of radical break with the symbolic coordinates via love that Žižek finds satisfactory to completely change the coordinates of the fantasmatic supplement of the desire system. “Unplugging” is what Rosenzweig and Santner refer to as “revelatory conversion,” or an opening to and an acknowledgement of the Other qua stranger, the Other who’s face manifests a “spectral aura” of jouissance. Unplugging results in a freeing of jouissance where the Other is externalized, a process that in psychoanalytic terms is actually a freeing of psychosis.[62]

We find two very different, but complimentary ethical outcomes of the neighbor as das Ding in Santner and Žižek. Santner’s divine love posits a radical intersubjective sort of love through negation, where the Other is simultaneously embraced, but the institutional flux of undeadness is negated. Žižek’s more radical break with the Other is only by totally “throwing the balanced circuit off the train tracks” does the subject come to open up a clear third way forward, a position that Lacan never seemed to recognize as possible.


[1] Žižek, Slavoj, The Abyss of Freedom, Pg. 25
[2] Žižek, Slavoj, The Ticklish Subject, Pg. 165
[3] Žižek, Slavoj, Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself? No, Thanks!, Pgs. 165 – 167
[4] Marcuse, Herbert, A Critique of Pure Tolerance: Repressive Tolerance. Pg. 33.
[5] Lacan, Jacques, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Pg. 54
[6] The Other is in most cases synonymous to the neighbor, as we see that the subject has their own inner Otherness, their own neighbor within them.
[7] The excess materiality is most frequently referred to as object petit a. object petit a is the object of desire, the a represents the object that can never be attained. It is also defined as the left over from the introduction of the symbolic in the real (Seminar 11, Pg. 179).
[8] Ibid, Pg. 76
[9] Freud, Sigmund, Collected Works, 1885 – 1928 – Pgs. 426 – 27
[10] Lacan, Jacques, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis Pg. 62
[11] The basis of “subject suppose to know” is a desire to eliminate all negativity and replace it with a positivity, most often in political discourse, the subject suppose to know is rendered in utopian terms. Stavrakakis, Yannis, Lacan and the Political, Pg. 42
[12] Butler, Judith Psychic Life of Power, Pg.
[13] Lacan, Jacques, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis Pg. 71
[15] Ibid, Pg. 76
[16] Lacan, Pg. 11
[17] Zupan?i?, Alenka, Ethics of the Real, Pg. 235
[18] Zupan?i?, Alenka, Ethics of the Real, Pg. 11
[19] Zupan?i?, Alenka, Ethics of the Real, Pg. 55
[20]Kant, Immanuel Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Pg. 42 – 43
[21] object petit a is unlike the big Other which represents a radical and irreducible alterity, the little other is “the other which isn’t other at all since it is essentially coupled with the ego.” Later in Lacan’s seminars, object petit a is the surplus enjoyment, that is left over in the real. The small a persists in enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment. Evans, Dylan, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Pg. 124 – 125. [22] Passage a la act is a symbolic act addressed to the big Other, it is thus an exit from the symbolic, through identification with the object.
[23] Zupan?i?, Alenka, Ethics of the Real, Pg. 16 – 18
[24] Pluth, Ed, Signifiers and Acts: Freedom in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject, Pg. 6
[25] The “blessings of more life” is from Harold Bloom in his work on Freud, Why Freud Matters
[26] Santner, Pg. 2
[27] Santner, Pgs. 33 – 34
[28] Derrida, Jacques, Adieu. To Emmanuel Levinas, Pg. 111
[29] Santner, Pgs 36 – 37
[30] Žižek, Slavoj, The Fragile Absolute, Pg. 86
[31] Santner, Pg. 29
[32] Santner, Pg. 26
[33] Santner, Pg. 56
[34] Ibid, Pg. 33
[35] Zupan?i?, Pg. 153
[36] Soul Murder is based on the book written by Morton Schatzman in 1947 about the case of Daniel Schreber, the paranoid psychotic whom Freud, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari and many others have interpreted.
[37] The Yes Men are a group of culture jamming activists who practice what they call “identity correction” by pretending to be powerful people and spokespersons for prominent organizations,
[38] Stavrakakis, 76.
[39] Stavrakakis, Yannis, Lacan and the Political, Pg. 42.
[40] (Evans, 22 – 23). [41] Stavrakakis, Yannis, Lacan and the Political, Pg. 46. [42] Lacan, Jacques Seminar XI, 1982. Pg.165.
[43] Santner, Pg. 83
[44] Evans, Dylan, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Pgs. 200 – 201
[45] Santner, Pg. 93
[46] Žižek, Slavoj, Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Women and Causality, Pg. 55
[47] Santner, Pgs. 103 – 104
[48] Santner, Pg. 99
[49] Santner, Pg. 97
[50] Santner, Pg. 65 – 67
[51] Santner, Pg. 71
[52] Santner, Pg. 74
[53] Žižek, Slavoj, Invisible Remainder, Pg. 59
[54] Žižek, Slavoj The Ticklish Subject, Pg. 263
[55] Ibid, Pg. 169
[56] Ibid, Pg. 239
[57] Žižek, Slavoj, Fright of Real Tears, Pg. 165.
[58] Žižek, Slavoj The Fragile Absolute, Pg. 121
[59] Ibid, Pg. 121
[60] Ibid, Pg. 21
[61] Žižek, Slavoj, Plague of Fantasies, Pg. 239
[62] Ibid, Pg. 86


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2. Žižek, Slavoj, Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself? No, Thanks! Columbia University Press, 1998.

3. Stavrakakis, Yannis, The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics. State University of New York Press, 2007.

4. Evans, Dylan, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Rutledge Press, 1996.

5. Crocket, Clayton, Interstices of the Sublime: Theology and Psychoanalytic Theory. Fordham University Press, 1997.

6. Restuccia, Frances, Amorous Acts, “The Taming of the Real: Žižek’s Missed Encounter with Kieslowski’s Insight.” Stanford University Press, 2006.

7. Lacan, Jacques, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: 1959-1960. Norton and Company Inc., 1986.

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14. Žižek, Slavoj, Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Women and Causality (London: Verso, 1994

15. Derrida, Jacques, Adieu. To Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Nass. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999

16. Marcuse, Herbert, A Critique of Pure Tolerance: Repressive Tolerance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965

17. Butler, Judith Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1997

18. Freud, Sigmund, Collected Works, 1885 – 1928. New York, Copyright, 2007.

19. Kant, Immanuel Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960