What Is Žižek So Afraid Of?: Exemplification Against The Existential Hordes

James Gifford
Ph.D. Candidate
University of Alberta



There is a decidedly odd trend currently underway, where the existential approach to psychoanalytic theory [1] has fallen into disfavour, while it has nonetheless continued to develop in empiric psychology through a framework known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) [2] .  TMT explicitly traces its origins to the works of Ernest Becker and empirically interrogates problems derived from his assertions.  In a similar manner, Becker explicitly traces his theoretical origins to the Freudian dissident Otto Rank, who, through his work’s origins in Nietzsche, was among the earliest to pursue what has become known as existential analysis.  Given the provoking theoretical implications of this approach and its usefulness to a number of literary figures who are otherwise difficult to consider via current psychoanalytic approaches to literature [3] , I propose a closer consideration of the nature of existential analysis (daseinanalysis) and its differences from its other ‘siblings’ in the post-Freudian school.  Such an analysis strikes me as both timely and overdue.  To explore this divisive trend, I will compare Slavoj Žižek’s currently popular theoretical apparatus to the alternative methodologies of existential analysis and its successor, Terror Management Theory.  Moreover, the surface of my argument relies on rereading the particular sources for Žižek’s famous ‘exemplification.’  I do this with a specific focus on the issue that foregrounds Sigmund Freud’s dramatic break from his most favoured peer, Otto Rank: psychoanalysis’ approach to anxiety.  Likewise, my work here maintains a particular concentration on the self-reflexive state as intrinsically containing (and therefore repressing [4] ) an awareness of the futurity of non-being: death-fear, mortality anxiety or mortality salience as it is alternatively termed.  Lastly, I anticipate that many readers will feel some antipathy toward the approach I outline, but I believe that examining challenges to our standard theoretical ‘toolbox’ is a valuable pursuit [5] , and as Glick and Bone suggest, “New knowledge from outside psychoanalysis and new conceptual frames of reference from within psychoanalysis need to be integrated into modern psychoanalytic thinking” (1).  Moreover, an antagonism toward closer examination and comparisons is itself an ideal subject for the method I detail.

To begin, it is important to know the background to Terror Management Theory since its notoriety in the Humanities is relatively low.  As the current manifestation of existential analysis in empiric psychology, its lineage can be traced clearly through Ernest Becker and thereby to Otto Rank, one of the earliest proponents of the psychoanalytic body of work that has developed into and become known as existential analysis or daseinanalysis.  First, TMT asserts that

humans, like other living beings, are driven by a self-preservation instinct.  However, unlike other organisms, humans are self-conscious and are aware of their own existence.  One consequence of this elevated self-awareness is the comprehension of the inevitability of their ultimate death….  [T]his inner yearning for life coupled with the painful realization that one must eventually die, places humans in an impossible paradox.  (Florian 527)


As its next innovation, TMT posits an increased investment in distal defenses against the terror and foreknowledge of mortality.  I will borrow Goldenberg’s succinct definition:

We refer to these threat-focused defenses as proximal defenses because they bear a close logical relation to the problem of death [i.e., ‘I will quite smoking because cancer is a threat,’ ‘I will kill the person who is threatening me,’ or ‘I exercise, so I don’t need to worry about cancer’].  In contrast, we refer to the terror management defenses of self-esteem and faith in one’s worldview as distal defenses because their connection to the problem of death is more remote and less rational. (“Fleeing the Body” 202; examples mine) 


Examples of distal defenses would include, ‘I will go to church more,’ ‘I will defend my country’ or ‘I have a sculpted and muscular physique,’ among others.  Moreover, proximal defenses “are employed when thoughts of death are in current focal attention, [while] distal defenses... are employed when the problem of death is on the fringes of consciousness” (202).  Empiric studies measure this indirectly via artificially heightening mortality salience against controls such as heightened fear (often via the suggestion or viewing of extreme dental pain and such, as opposed to the suggestion or viewing of death in a self-reflective context).

These TMT studies reveal a unique increase in the derogation of perceived difference and avoidance of self-reflexivity following heightened mortality salience, as opposed to other fearful or traumatic states.  Moreover, in tandem with this increased derogation of perceived difference comes an increased tendency toward stereotypic thinking and preferences for stereotype-confirming individuals [6] .  With this heightened sense of death, not only cultural symbolic systems act as distal defenses (heightened identification with the nation and derogation of difference), but so too does the major field of one’s contribution to the transcendence system (transcendence of self via identification), which functions far more pervasively.  Let me point out, by “transcendence system,” I mean the symbolic network that allows for the transcendence of self via identification, such that “one is [symbolically] a valuable participant in a meaningful and eternal reality....  According to TMT, cultural worldviews and self-esteem provide an anxiety buffer” (Goldenberg, “Fleeing the Body” 201).  For example, one’s job or research, if it is a part of self-identity, is a greater aspect of the anxiety buffer against the death-fear than one’s nationality, and it is defended more vehemently.  Vice versa, for someone who self-identifies more strongly via his or her nationalism, this inverts.  Interestingly, Arndt has recently shown that while “mortality salience leads to increased identification with one’s in-group…., it reduces such identifications when negative information or stereotypes about one’s group are salient” (“To Belong” 28).  Given Schimel’s demonstration that mortality salience increases the tendency toward stereotypic thinking, this conservation of self-esteem becomes doubly telling, especially since the stereotype threats used by Arndt were gender and race-based (women and Hispanics).  In this manner, self-esteem is somewhat oxymoronically tied to social location and one’s perception of self in a social framework that is perceived as desirable. 

In line with this investigation of the relationship among anxiety buffers, derogation, self-esteem, and social identification, in “The Effects of Self-Esteem Boost and Mortality Salience,” Jamie Arndt demonstrates that a challenge to the predicate of a buffer against mortality anxiety meets derogation exceeding that given to challenges to the cultural symbolic systems that these predicates actually support.  For example, one’s contribution to the nation is defended more vehemently than the nation itself.  In effect, a self-esteem boost can largely negate the aggressive effects of heightened mortality salience (such as the derogation of difference), but this functions only so long as the predicate of this self-esteem boost is not challenged.  Of note to my readership, the specific predicate to the anxiety buffer used in Arndt’s experiment was the subject’s major area of research and study (academic major) when such a major was an aspect of self-identification, and therefore linked with self-esteem (something every academic should bear in mind).  Moreover, in this context, I will read Žižek’s resistance to the theoretical assertion of the ego-centric will and his manipulation of ‘willing of the inevitable’ into a ‘desire for the inevitable’ as reflecting the strongest impulsion of distal defenses against the challenge to his anxiety-buffering major: for instance, his particular form of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  While I do not intend to actually analyze an individual via their writings (a highly suspicious act), the task is not without critical rewards as a means to contrasting these differing theoretical paradigms.  The substance of my contention here is that while Žižek discusses the nature of the will in the context of the primary anxiety of mortality -- which is antithetical to his investment in drive theory -- he turns to a derogation of this challenge and reinforces a symbolic system that allows him to transform his terror into a “radiant dream birth” of desire (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy 8).

            Before I progress to the primary focus of my argument, using the concepts I have outlined above, I must first foreground it with a careful outline of Žižek’s discussion of the key concepts of ‘prohibition’ and ‘impossibility’ in the specific context of paradoxicality, obversion and superfluity.  To begin with, Žižek claims that incest is impossible in the context of “the paradox of prohibiting something impossible” (“There is no” 192).  At first (to read Žižek’s language naďvely), the ‘paradoxicality’ of prohibiting incest seems absurd, since it is occurs regularly (if infrequently) despite social prohibition, hence marring his parallel to the prohibition of the impossible (in the literal sense).  Moreover, it would seem that such a prohibition, if incest were in fact impossible, would be superfluous rather than paradoxical.  In that incest occurs, it is not strictly impossible; however, in The Sublime Object of Ideology the same terminology and examples recur, with Žižek claiming “the fact of the prohibition of something which is already in itself impossible” “attests [to] the presence of the Real” (Sublime 164).  At this point, I begin to feel a foothold for critique; where prohibition meets superfluity, symbolization and social-symbolization enter the discussion, and ‘impossibility’ and ‘inevitability’ acquire non-literal meanings.

With regard to child sexuality, the reader is further told that according to the ideological system “it does not exist, children are innocent beings, that is why we must control them strictly and fight child sexuality,” which does not exist (Žižek, Sublime 164).  This statement may be more precisely rendered: our reality (ideology or belief system) denies child sexuality, hence it is contextually impossible to us in this system, so we must take elaborate measures to ensure that it does not occur in order to preserve the system that denies it.  This use of ‘impossibility’ and ‘prohibition’ is in accord with Freud’s socially context-sensitive use of the terms in Totem and Taboo, where he argues “Obsessive prohibitions possess an extraordinary capacity for displacement; they make use of almost any form of connection to extend from one object to another and then in turn make this new object ‘impossible’” (Totem 24).  In this reading, however, there is a difference between Žižek’s suggestion of the superfluous prohibition of the impossible and Freud’s initial assertion of ‘impossibility’ being a context-sensitive displacement of prohibition; according to Freud, what is taboo is prohibited, and only in its obsessive prohibition does it acquire the magnitude of impossibility.  This is opposed to a prohibition of that which has already been deemed impossible, which is what Žižek suggests.

            In addition to the above problem of the ‘impossible,’ Žižek asserts that the impossible is necessarily involved in a ‘paradoxical’ relationship.  Borrowing from Wagner, he states

‘This is everything we have to learn from the history of mankind: to will the inevitable and carry it out oneself.’  Wagner’s precise formulation is to be taken in all its paradoxicality -- if something is already in itself inevitable, why should we then actively will it and work toward its occurrence...?  This paradox... is the obverse of the paradox of prohibiting something impossible (incest, for example)....  The fear that one would nevertheless say something about it is strictly homologous to the fear that it would not occur without our active assistance. (“There is no” 192)

Wagner’s Nietzschean dictum refers to Wotan’s death and the willing of death so as to retain control or agency over it; however, in Žižek’s formulation (to again read his terms naďvely), the willing of death is the same logical statement (i.e., obverse) as fearing that death will not occur.  At this point, I must emphasize the meaning of ‘obverse,’ which sometimes seems to function as ‘inverse’ in Žižek’s work; obversion is a logically identical statement made in negative terms, where the first statement was made in positive terms, or vice-versa [7] .  As with Freud’s ‘impossible,’ this ‘homologizing’ of dread and desire is strictly confined to the context of what has already been obsessively prohibited or necessitated.  In this form, the inevitable contextually becomes the desired, but only by overlooking Wagner’s intent in suggesting that one will one’s own death.  The existential foreknowledge and fear of death is displaced by the produced desire for it, such that death is now symbolically ‘known’ and ‘colonized.’  This would seem to be nothing more than a continuation of the pleasure principle through symbolization, a symbol that opposes one’s foreknowledge of the impossibility (literally) of sustaining the pleasure principle.  The same can be said of the instinct for self-preservation, which I hold as closely related to the pleasure principle.

            To reiterate the problem of anxiety here, my reading of Žižek’s discussion of mortality (where death becomes both the symbolically desired necessity and the prohibited impossibility) hinges on Lacan’s early assertion (creatively out of context in my reading) that “anxiety is born with life” (Clark 126).  When death anxiety or the more general terror of existence is seen as intrinsic to the human condition, whether conscious or unconscious, it must be asserted that such anxiety is derivative of self-reflexivity and is in the domain of the ego, even if it primarily functions unconsciously.  This fundamental support for ego-centric psychoanalysis, which is antithetical to Žižek’s above equation, is also deeply sympathetic to the symbolic agency of the ego in willing, and in particular to the function of the will in choosing the inevitable anxiety-filled event in order to overcome being dominated by the inevitable [8] .  In effect, death becomes that which is willed so as to retain agency (symbolic agency) over it and to control fear, rather than the paradoxical desire for the inevitable that is created ‘obversely’ (to misuse the term) from prohibition.  Moreover (and my descent into jargon is temporary), unlike Žižek’s approach, the belief in the active will (even if only symbolic [9] ) renders a theory where this death-terror is not only within the domain of the ego, but so too are the repressive reactions.  Žižek’s reactive formation of the willful encompassing of the inevitable parallels his transposition of the feared to the desired as an aspect of drive theory, hence we may read the refutation of the will as a distal defense against the dual threat of an increase in the salience of mortality that analyzing such a will entails.  To this we may add, Žižek’s refutation of the will also functions as the defense of the distal defense itself, against an alternative system of thought that removes the death-denying function of his Lacanian project within the cultural symbolic system.  Unlike drive theory, the will to overcome and ego-centric psychology leave us a space with which to challenge the capitulation to terror and subsequent derogation and repression.  In Becker’s terms, we have an active space to escape evil rather than escape the Real.  This does not mean that drive theory or the unconscious are discarded, but are renegotiated to accommodate the ‘I,’ which is irrefutably a core component of our systems of symbolization.  Somewhere between the ‘I’ that exists as a network of social identifications, linguistic habits, and the unconscious series of connections that ‘prompt’ such identifications through drives, desires, and instincts, there nonetheless remains a linguistic space where we can ask “what might be said about the individual ‘I’ who makes, adjusts, and takes responsibility for the[se] identifications” (Altieri 3) [10] , as well as the intentionality that need not equate to commensurate acts or results.

            If the primary antagonism in this paper now turns to address Žižek’s lack of interest in and avoidance of problems concerning the active will in psychoanalytic theory (regardless of what is doing this willing) [11] , as well as his unwillingness to address the debate surrounding ego or existential analysis in the Lacanian death drive, then I will ‘inevitably’ return to Freud’s tentative assertion of the reality principle embodying, via repetition, an instinctual tendency toward stasis or death.  This tendency must be carefully distinguished from an active willing of the inevitable (ego-affirming rather than ego-denying), which may also lead to the tendency to repeat and where Thanatos may actually be symbolically self-preservative.  In an echo of Otto Rank, Judith Butler notes “As a yearning for the protection associated with the womb, this yearning which we call the death instinct may be less a desire for literal death than a call for a radical protection within the terms of life” (274).  In the language of Terror Management Theory, I would describe this situation as one where distal defenses may actually become life-limiting or even life-endangering, while nevertheless fulfilling the purpose of symbolically protecting life.  It is in this sense that Butler’s description of sadism’s aim as “the literal recovery of radical safety” (274) is highly akin to TMT’s recognition of a tendency toward derogation following an increase in mortality salience.  In order to make this argument, I intend to contrast the examination of the chain of works from Nietzsche to TMT against the Lacanian death-drive described by Žižek and its historical beginnings in the Freudian tendency to repeat.


Death and the Maiden: [12]


            Žižek’s “Death and the Maiden” primarily establishes a particular manner of reading Woman; however, setting aside Woman in the work, I will consider the background material that Žižek draws on in order to make his statements on gender.  First, in his contention that the three films he addresses are varying versions of the “Death and the Maiden” theme, I am drawn to give closer attention to his titular allusion before focusing on (Woman’s) surrender to the death drive.  Although the mythical and literary appearances of ‘death and the maiden’ are numerous, I will most closely consider Schubert’s famous lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen.”  In this fine example of German lieder, Schubert gives the singer and pianist the challenge of representing multiple characters, much like his “Erlkönig.”  In this double role, the voice and instrument must first imitate the frantic panting of the Maiden as she recognizes her mortality and rebels against it, and then reproduce the plodding darkness of a seductive Death.  The Maiden’s first segment of the song is placed in the treble for both piano and voice, but is followed by a sharp register and tempo change.  Both become dark and somber, adapting to a march funebre in order to depict Death seducing the young maiden.  Marking this work’s appropriateness for my task, this musical structure nicely reflects Freud’s contrasting of the pleasure principle (excitation, or the Maiden’s rhythmic cries in the upper register) against the death drive (stasis or Death’s legato voce di testa). 

In addition to this aesthetic symmetry, the two explicit aspects of the lied that I wish to draw attention to, in opposition to Žižek’s use of the theme, are the internality and seductiveness of death.  By the nature of the setting for a single singer in two roles -- Death and the Maiden -- the characters become two aspects of the same identity.  Death can no longer be projected out from the self and must be read as internal to the performer [13] .  The cognizance (or identity) of Nonbeing is intrinsic to Being.  Moreover, given my intent to challenge the death drive, the seductive singing of Death may initially seem to parallel the instinctual death drive that is argued for by Žižek; however, this is not simply the Maiden’s seduction by Death, but rather, it reflects Death’s desire for the Maiden to actively choose him.  Death does not take the Maiden at any point in the lied; he offers her the rare opportunity of actively willing what is inevitable, rather than the ego or will-denying option of having it forced on her.  As with the later Romantic, Wagner, Schubert’s work hints that “‘[t]his is everything we have to learn from the history of mankind: to will the inevitable and carry it out oneself” (Žižek, “There is No” 192), which Žižek notably appropriates.  Nonetheless, Žižek’s appropriation concurrently challenges his reading of this dictum.  The death drive may be subsumed, or at least deeply challenged, by the role of self-destruction in symbolic self-preservation, just as war may be protection, and sacrifice may be gain.

This is the conflict in the reality principle and notion of the death drive that I wish to address and that is brought out so well in the Schubert lied: the distinction between a ‘proper’ instinctual desire or drive, such as hunger, and the more complex willing of a thing in order to have authority over it.  Hence, one may ‘alchemically’ transmute the lead of fear into the gold of desire.  This alternative principle of the transmutation of elements closely resembles another musical example appearing in Žižek’s work.  The holy sacrament of marriage, as with Al-khēmíā, is the symbolic transmutation of the base sexual contract (lead or body) into a transcendental union (gold or spirit).  Therefore, we find Žižek reading “the bourgeois ideology of marriage... [as] gaining its first and perhaps noblest expression in Mozart’s Magic Flute” (Looking 100) through its “sublime ideal of the love couple” (Looking vii).  Žižek gives this example as a contrast to the Kantian sense of marriage as a contractual obligation regarding the mutual use of sexual organs.  Alternatively, I read this particular ‘sublime ideal’ as the transcendence of death via the religious value system inscribed in the love couple.  Pamina -- while she and Tamino are undergoing physical trials of earth, air, water and fire -- is explicit that while they pass through the feared portal of death (a womb/tomb equation akin to Butler’s allusion above, and seemingly derived from Rank), their shared love will light the passage and make them invulnerable to death [14] .  Their passage through death, like reborn Christ figures, is the path to symbolic immortality.  Another salient aspect of this key passage in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is the personification of Death and Love -- much like Schubert’s lied, although here it is not apparent aurally -- as well as the lover’s pursuit of this immortality project in the space between the two deaths: the space of the final destruction of self and the precursor in the awareness of mortality.  The two perfect lovers are only united, for their first real contact in the opera, during this Orpheus-like descent into the underworld that gives them the transcendence of corporeality and mortality.  Of note, Mozart was very conscious of his own frailty and mortality in the last year of his life when he wrote The Magic Flute.  In contrast to Žižek’s reading, which is dependent on the love-couple as an objet a, in the context of the earlier discussions of the fear of death, I suggest that the object in question is the ideological anxiety buffer described in Terror Management Theory, and the space between the two deaths is all of self-reflective life itself.  Religion explicitly offers Tamino and Pamina sanctification of their union and offers to light their path if they should die [15] . 

Žižek maintains “Lacan conceives this difference between the two deaths as the difference between real (biological) death and its symbolization” (Sublime 135), which is like the ancient Egyptian model, where the dead would wait to enter into either the paradise of rewards or the hell of absolute disintegration (and The Magic Flute is notably pseudo-Egyptian in its Masonic symbols).  The existential model of life places wo/man in a position where s/he is aware of his/her mortality in the fact of living, and in this sense of difference, all life is in the underworld, waiting for the weighing of one’s heart.  If an existential awareness of mortality is granted as an aspect of self-reflexivity (as Žižek seems to unwittingly suggest), the space between the personal symbolization of one’s death and death itself is the totality of self-conscious existence.  In conjunction with the incorporation of the death drive as an instinctual model,

the ‘second death’, the radical annihilation of nature’s circular movement, is conceivable only in so far as this circular movement is already symbolized/historicized, inscribed, caught in the symbolic web -- absolute death, the ‘destruction of the universe’, is always the destruction of the symbolic universe.  The Freudian ‘death drive’ is nothing but the exact theoretical concept for this Sadeian notion of the ‘second death’ -- the possibility of the total ‘wipe-out’ of historical tradition opened up by the very process of symbolization/historicization as its radical, self-destructive limit. (Žižek, Sublime 136)


Within this description of the two deaths, the Egyptian metaphor of the underworld becomes even more apt, with the distinction standing between the cognizance of death in the symbolic order and the ultimate annihilation that figures as an absolute when it is outside of this context of symbolization.  This state, in the dismal underworld where one’s heart teeters on the scale, is the complete realm of self-conscious existence, but with an ideological or religious system in place that denies the total wipe-out.  Moreover, in my Magic Flute example, the portals of ‘Not’ (need/distress/necessity) and ‘Tod’ (death) [16] bear an uncanny resemblance to the passage of birth, which is itself the gate to necessity and death (to be born is to be mortal).  Hence, this example again renders life after the womb as the space between the two deaths, and it concurrently challenges the notion of the ‘stasis’ that the death drive moves toward as an intra-uterine “radical protection” (Butler 274). 

            In addition to the religious aspect of the symbolic denial of death in The Magic Flute, another Terror Management mechanism relates to Tamino and Pamina, as well as Žižek’s comments on the “sublime ideal of the love couple” (Looking vii).  The love couple is indeed a sublime ideal, in that TMT studies have shown “exposing persons to a mortality salience induction led to higher reports of commitment to partner than did exposing persons to physical pain and neutral conditions” (Florian 533).  Moreover, “although the mortality salience and physical pain conditions were equivalent in the relatively high levels of aversive feelings they aroused, only mortality salience led to strengthening commitment to partner” (533).  In this context, the passage through Death and Necessity is even more appropriate as the moment of most intense bonding for Pamina and Tamino, since Florian has also reported that “securely attached persons reacted to a mortality salience induction with heightened need for intimacy with a romantic partner” (527; referring to Mikulincer) and “thoughts about a love relationship buffered the effects of mortality salience” (527; referring to “Death, Sex, Love, and Neuroticism”).

Turning to the conflict in the reality principle and death drive between instinct and active willing, I would like to emphasize that receiving what one desires connotes agency, while having the despised thrust on one denies the efficacy of the will (regardless of what subject is willing or the tenuousness of the relationship between the predicate ‘I’ and the verb ‘will’).  With the love-couple in The Magic Flute, the trials that elevate them beyond the agency-deprecating struggle of the first portion of the opera exist in their act of choosing the passage through the necessity of death.  This gives them agency over their fate, rather than the inevitability of simple, animal perishing.  While it is a far cry from a Wagnerian opera, it would seem to fill the dictum, “to will the inevitable and carry it out oneself” (Žižek, “There is No” 192).  Theirs is a willful placing of death as the desired object that renders it psychologically controllable and caught up in symbolization, rather than Žižek’s suggestion of succumbing to an instinctual drive.  Death becomes the means to achieving symbolic immortality, and hence denies the death drive.  Even if externalized in killing or sadism, this domination of death by being its instigator cannot reconcile with Freud’s reversal of the role of willful mastery through repetition in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  As Butler argues, “We might well concur with Freud that there is a significant connection between a desire for death and the sadistic effort to master or injure another human being, but we might remain skeptical with regard to the ontological primacy attributed to the death instincts” (268).  Moreover, my skepticism is particularly prominent when “a desire for death and the sadistic effort to master or injure another human being” may be related to a distal defense or the symbolic overcoming of death itself.  In Ernest Becker’s terms, this is an immortality project, and this concept reconfigures the reality principle in a manner contrary to Freud’s approach in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

With this distinction in mind, I will examine the death-choosing power of another protagonist and Žižek’s assertions of the centrality of the death drive to Ben’s role in the film “Leaving Las Vegas,” which is more explicit than the situation in The Magic Flute and which Žižek describes in “Death and the Maiden.”  My contention is that Ben’s choice to pursue his own death in a suicidal drinking binge is no different from Schubert’s Maiden and her opportunity to actively will what is doubly the inevitable and the Real (not just the enforcement of the death-denying ideological reality).  By the inevitable and Real, I mean the Maiden’s surrender to Death’s seduction, whether she chooses to go with him or not, although choice may negate the Real.  Moreover, I also contend that despite its theoretical implications, Žižek himself inadvertently describes this overturning of the death drive via the active will (a rebellion against the inevitability of death rather than rebellion against life) more clearly in his own works that I could attempt in mine.  For this reason, I will subversively interrogate Žižek’s primary statements and the conclusions he draws from them.  This is why Žižek is a Rankian, and has clearly read his Becker...

Žižek describes Ben in Leaving Las Vegas as “utter[ly] devot[ed] to the death drive” (“Death” 210), but “we are not dealing here merely with passive despair and depression, but with a liberating act of decision” (“Death” 209).  For Ben, the film opens with his realization of his addiction to alcohol and his now-inevitable downward spiral into destruction after losing his job; however, Žižek explicitly informs his readers that we are not watching “despair and depression” (209) flash by in a simulation of motion on the movie-screen, but rather a joyful decision to gain a measure of control and mastery over this imperative addiction and inevitable destruction by willing it.  This is not simply a ‘working toward’ death, which could be a particularly morbid manner of describing the process of living, but rather a volitional and conscious choosing of death, as opposed to the continued defeat of the perceived agency of the ego by the addiction.  In the face of the inevitability of death, mortality is symbolically controlled (a distal defense) by the ego by being incorporated into the system of symbolization; the instinct for self-preservation encounters the existential recognition of the impossibility of this project, which creates anxiety, and therefore this instinct fulfills its aims symbolically.  Moreover, in a playful manner this parallels the function of “I” in the Cartesian “I think therefore I am,” since

a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes and not when ‘I’ wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think.’  It thinks, but that this ‘it’ is precisely the old famous ‘ego’ [Ich or I] is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an ‘immediate certainty.’  (Nietzsche, Beyond Good 24)


Hence, the symbol “I” (it is not a sign) predicates and circumscribes thoughts that come from whence they come (somewhere apart from the I / Ich, and hence contest the primacy of the ego).  Of course, none of this subverts the sense of ‘I’ that still exists and the way this sense is buffered against challenges (just as the will to power employs illusions to promote self-preservation, even if the self is one of these illusions).

Leaving aside notions of the Self, another point connects Žižek’s argument on Ben to Terror Management Theory in a way that subverts the death drive.  Ben is “utter[ly] devot[ed] to the death drive” (“Death” 210), according to Žižek; however, the suicidal nature of Ben’s undertaking seems to be radically ‘self protective’ in the sense that I have noted Butler arguing for, and moreover it affirms the Self.  This possible subversion of the death drive may be taken further by acknowledging Taubman Ben-Ari’s use of TMT to examine self-destructive behaviours.  Unfortunately, TMT has not yet pursued studies of self-destructive addictions, but other dangerous behaviours, such as reckless driving, show compelling results.  As Taubman Ben-Ari asks, without abandoning the notion of self-preservation, why do young men in particular “engage in reckless driving despite the fact that this behavior contradicts the basic biological imperative of self-preservation” (196)?  I do not mean to easily elide reckless driving with alcohol addiction, but the comparison lends useful results relating to mastery and self-esteem as buffers against fear.  Taubman Ben-Ari notes “There is vast evidence that… reckless driving may entail benefits for self-worth, such as increasing the sense of mastery and competence” (197; referring to Evans), and in an apparent contrast to self-preservation, an induction of mortality salience can actually lead to an increase in reckless driving.  In effect, what may amount to suicidal behaviour can function as a distal defense against the fear of death; “a mortality salience induction… [can] lead to increased reckless driving” (197) because it contributes to the subject’s place in the social symbolic system that calms the increased anxiety around death and offers a denial of mortality (symbolic immortality).  The sense of agency and authority that engages with self-esteem is also a key factor and relates more directly to Ben’s role in Leaving Las Vegas.  While this study does not fully address Ben’s situation and the depression associated with chemical addiction, it does address Žižek’s contention of Ben as embodying the death drive.  Furthermore, Taubman Ben-Ari does note that “Further research should examine other risky behaviors, such as drug abuse and unsafe sex” (199) using the same theoretical framework.

Before I further challenge Žižek’s reading of Ben’s act as an appearance of the reality principle cum death drive, it is first important to revisit (or digress to) Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the two parallel situations he describes as exceptions to the death drive (and hence a part of the pleasure principle).  Freud first describes the child who throws away his own toys as exemplifying delayed gratification rather than a denial of the pleasure principle, and he follows this with the more problematic tendency to repeat for the sake of agency or willing control, such that “each fresh repetition seems to strengthen the mastery they are in search of” (“Beyond” 274; emphasis mine).  In other words, neither situation denies the primacy of the pleasure principle.  This is effectively a two-part division of the first situation described by Freud, where division (a) is the child’s gratification of bringing back his toys, which can only be accomplished by first making them go away.  Division (b) is an alternative reading of the same in the context of his separation from his mother, such that the child uses the ‘gone’ toys as a way of mastering this separation from his mother by willing it.  Just as she may leave him, he may have power by making his toys (projections of his mother) go away (and return via the umbilical string), hence moving from a passive to an active role, even if unpleasure is inevitably involved in both cases; “in that case it would have a defiant meaning: ‘All right, then, go away! I don’t need you.  I’m sending you away myself’” (Freud, “Beyond” 247; emphasis mine).  Ernst is seeking pleasure (symbolic pleasure) through unpleasure, such that the pleasure principle is retained and the willful authority of the ego is given symbolic prominence through a symbolic act.

The similarity of this rereading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle to Otto Rank’s central challenge to Freudian psychology is not lost to Robert Kramer.  He asks, “Was Ernst turning passive into active with this play?  Mimicking an instinctual renunciation?  Becoming a conscious subject—a subject of psychoanalytic research?” (“Otto Rank and ‘The Cause’” 227) [17] .  As I have suggested above, this mastery of the traumatic ‘inevitable’ through willing it is internally suggested in Freud’s work.  Kramer draws on Rank’s theorizing of a ‘birth trauma [18] ’ (a concept also derived from Freud’s ‘asides’) to extend the scope of this mastery over separation back to the primary parturition:

The inner chamber of Ernst’s crib was veiled, like the womb.  In pulling the spool up by a (navel) string, was not little Ernst reenacting his own birth?  Was not little Ernst pulling on the umbilical cord attached to the interiority of the womb?  Instead of recognizing the existence of mother (“there’s mother!”), the word da, according to Jacques Lacan, means “there’s me!,” while inside mother is fort, absence, where the cleavage between “not-me” and “me” does not yet exist.  “There can be no fort without da,” wrote Lacan.  (“Otto Rank and ‘The Cause’” 227; quoting Four Fundamental 239)


The conflict that is not made explicit by Kramer, but which is implicit in his argument, is a repudiation of Lacan’s statement that

To say that it is simply a function for the subject of instituting himself in a function of mastery is idiotic....  contrary to the whole phenomenology of Daseinanalysis [Existential Analysis], there is no Dasein with the fort.  That is to say, there is no choice.  If the young subject can practice this game of fort-da, it is precisely because he does not practice it at all” (Lacan 239).  


In the alternative articulation of willing the inevitable that I am discussing (or retroactive willing of the imaginatively recreated birth parturition, to be specific here), Lacan’s assertion cannot be upheld.  It is not logical to claim that “there is no choice” or that “he does not practice [fort-da] at all” (239), even if refusal would not bear out in the physical world.  By choosing the inevitable (even if I am not aware of its inevitability or am retroactively doing this choosing), I do not alter the real world, but the real world is not necessarily implicated in choice as a concept, it is symbolic [19] .  Likewise, while flying home from a conference, I may choose coffee rather than tea, even if the overworked steward neglects to serve me my desired selection, and such a choice may even become moot (though opportune) if the same steward discovers they are out of tea.  Moreover, even internal to Lacan’s argument, the distinction between ‘being’ and ‘there’s me!’ is strained by his insistence that one is intrinsic to ‘fort’ and the other antithetical.

Kramer elsewhere articulates the conflict between ‘fort’ and ‘da’ in the same existential context, closely reflecting Hans Jonas’ assertion that “As a thinking reed [man] is no part of the [universal] sum, not belonging to it, but radically different, incommensurable, for the res extensa does not think, and nature is nothing but res extensa” (Jonas 117).  Kramer maintains the “dividing line between the I, das Ich, and the universe is Angst, which vanishes only when I and You have [symbolically] become one, as parts of a greater whole.  With birth, the feeling of oneness with the who, das Ganze, is lost” (“Insight and Blindness” 4).  This position is obviously closely related to that which I described earlier with regard to TMT’s testing of identification with the “greater whole” (i.e., society) and one’s contribution to it as an aspect of self-esteem, which buffers against the ‘xenophobic’ effects of mortality salience.  In a more direct challenge to Lacan’s position, Kramer continues:

Only by willing to be oneself..., by accepting one’s difference..., can the human being discover or recover the creativity to change.  A creature born out of a biological mother, constructed from two particles of cosmic dust, the human being is at once creature and creator, or, more accurately, progresses from creature to creator, biology to psyche [soul], object to subject... (“Insight and Blindness” 5)


As has already been claimed, in the choosing of the inevitable, the conscious ‘will’ is still involved in an act of decision, even if the physical or social reality would allow no alternative.  In choosing the inevitable and making it the desired, the subject is precisely practicing the function of mastery that Lacan describes as idiocy, even if such mastery is symbolic and based on an illusionary notion of ‘I.’

Jay Watson takes up this same problem of symbolic self-creation in his reexamination of the fort/da game played by Ernst.  Moreover, he suggests the game of Gone/There may be read as doubling an assertive “Be Gone/Be There,” reenacting the birth scene, with the toy representing the child and the child representing the mother; the two tied together by an umbilical string.  By placing the game within the crib -- where “translucent tissues, and hidden chambers offer a symbolic topography of the female body, and in particular the body of the mother, whose own inner chamber houses a tenant” (Watson  478) -- the child is reenacting his own birth, and gaining mastery over it.  As with Kramer, that which is technically outside Ernst’s control, like the departure of the mother, becomes symbolically ‘chosen’ or ‘willed’ and therefore within the compass of the will.  Hence, birth, physicality and the departure of the mother are no longer agency-denying, since they are willed traumas (and in this respect they cannot be related to a death instinct).  Ernst “appears to enact the mother’s original production of him -- complete with string attached” (478), making his Dasein a matter of retroactively willed fact, rather than inevitability thrust upon him.  Moreover, in line with Rank, symbolic mastery over one’s conception negates the implication of having been created, which is the futurity of non-existence (i.e., not necessarily having one’s existence ‘un-be,’ but rather ones creation).

Watson also clearly aligns the mother’s body and the birth act as “the subject’s first conscious intimation of mortality” (488), especially emphasizing the absence of the mother that is implicit in the fort/da game and the physical fact of birth separation.  In this context, “fort/da figures an ambivalent process of submitting to and resisting death” (488).  In this, the mother is privileged as “trope for death” (488), and the control over her presence and Ernst’s own creation from within her “contributes to ego development by invoking but also dodging the larger, more unsettling game that nobody gets out alive” (488), where life is literally the ‘working toward’ death.  Just as the love-couple in the Magic Flute choose to pass through the portal of death, which they would be compelled to do if they had not so chosen, little Ernst likewise passes through the portal into being (parturition) which may likewise be designated “die Schreckenspforten, die Not und Tod mir dräun” (Mozart 138).  This is, of course, a creative reading on Watson’s part, since repeated studies in developmental psychology clearly demonstrate that very young children (as little Ernst was at the time) do not acquire a conscious comprehension or self-implication in death until sometime after the approximate age of five.  Nonetheless, such a reading is not without its theoretical usefulness.

This manner of reading Ernst’s game leads Watson to argue

these shifting representations, which signal the advent of cultural and symbolic behavior in the infant subject [read: ideological enforcement of the inevitable as the desired and personal willing of the inevitable], allow the ego to evolve mature responses to the psychic trauma of mortality while dealing with that trauma at several removes. The emerging self can thus proceed with the business of living without being paralyzed by the fear of dying [20] .  (488) 


I will add that this process of signification acts in the repression and domination of death anxiety (first encountered as the separation of birth) in a context of agency through Ernst’s game, hence the symbolic order.  The womb’s ‘stasis’ is not to be confused here with that described by Freud in the death drive, since I am not reading parturition as an unwelcome stimulus, but rather as a retrospectively recognized demonstration of the limitations of the ego and the futurity of non-being.  Watson seems to argue that “the advent of cultural and symbolic behavior” develops as a denial of the paralyzing fear of death, which is first encountered through the trauma of re-imagining one’s birth: the traum(a) of birth.  Notably, this is precisely the theoretical agenda forwarded by Rank in The Trauma of Birth in 1923, and the history of psychoanalysis tells us that these thoughts led to Rank’s discharge from the womb-like cradle of the psychoanalytic movement.  Unfortunately, no record persists of any fort/da games he may have played as compensation or to symbolically master this wound. 

The second issue that I would point out in Watson’s article is that the “unmasterable fact of death” (498) and the active will as a “stall tactic” (498) are both simplifications that are problematic in my reading of Žižek on the subject of suicide and self-destructive behaviours.  I argue that active willing is not a stall tactic and that by encompassing death, the will symbolically masters it.  Moreover, the creative act of willing must also be acknowledged, even if there is no space for it to be explored here, for in Otto Rank’s The Trauma of Birth, the titular punning must be acknowledged as profoundly significant.  In trauma der geburt there is both a trauma (wound) and traum (dream), such that birth is not only the retroactively willed trauma, but is dually the willfully created traum that Ernst has re-created to master both its wound in himself -- a wound centred in Angst -- and to master it through being its creator: its mother if you will (apologies for puns).  The self-willed and self-created trauma is a reinforcement of existence; just as “threats enhance the will to live, so [the viewing of] murder becomes ‘pro-life,’ a jolting tonic” (Lieberman n.pag).

The second exception to the reality principle, where there at first seems to be an instinctive tendency to unpleasure or even self-destruction, comes with “the manifestation of the compulsion to repeat” (Freud, “Beyond” 273) that which is unpleasant.  This is first seen in the child’s symbolic repetition of his loss of the mother (as distinct from symbolically gaining control over the production of himself).  In my reading, this division between these two exceptions is unnecessary, as the two are still manifestations of the same pursuit of the ego’s agency in the face of that which it cannot control.  Even this may be reasonably described as an upholding of the pleasure principle.  Just as the child gains control over his separation from the mother by willing it and symbolically acting it out, the war neurotic (or child) gains control over the trauma by repeating it in therapy or dreams.  Freud describes this as the attempt to build up a resistance to the trauma by post-traumatically implementing the protective anxiety; however, he allows for the parallel reading of repetition “to strengthen the mastery they are in search of” (“Beyond” 274), which is the same situation I have been discussing in regard to the active will.  Repeating unpleasure or a trauma offers the subject an opportunity to master this event that is external to the proper control of the ego.  This is done through the act of willing it symbolically, and hence (re)creating it as their own.

Drawing on these distinctions, Ben’s ‘suicide’ in “Leaving Las Vegas” corresponds (perhaps perfectly) to this tendency to “repeat unpleasurable experiences for the... reason that [he] can master a powerful impression far more thoroughly by being active... [such that] each fresh repetition seems to strengthen the mastery [he is] in search of” (Freud, “Beyond” 274).  Ben’s decision to end his life through an endless drinking binge in Las Vegas is not a surrender to his instinctual rebellion against life, but is the manifestation of his “liberating act of decision” (Žižek, “Death” 209) to take willful and creative control of his inevitable addiction and demise through willing it.  As with the child, psychoanalytic patient, or war neurotic who repeats a prior experience of unpleasure for the sake of gaining mastery over it, Ben is gaining mastery over the inevitability of his death and the uncontrollability of his addiction through the active willing of it.  In the sense that his addiction is a harmful behaviour over which he has impaired self-control, Ben masters it by choosing, and hence exercising complete self-control.  This transposes him from a passive participant in his own destruction to an active master of it.  For Otto Rank, this move is described as the transition from creature to creator, playing on the traum, though he tends to argue for more positive manifestations… 

In his work, Žižek has described the drive to nothing and death drive via Freud, claiming “For Freud, the death drive is not merely a decadent reactive formation - a secondary self-denial of the originally assertive will to power, the weakness of the will, its escape from life, disguised as heroism - but the innermost radical possibility of a human being” (“There is No” 190).  Herein, he shows his affinity for viewing self-destruction as utterly separate from the desire of the ego, the individual will, and the pleasure principle; however, this ‘radical possibility’ may be read alternatively in the sense of rebellion.  The concept of the death drive as a rebellion or the “innermost radical possibility of a human being” (Žižek, “There is No” 190) is contradicted by the possibility of viewing such an act (self-destruction, flagellation, or sadism) as a manifestation of the will over the inevitabilities of the human condition or even the will within an ideological or socially determined context.

With regard to flagellation, which is not all that uncommon, it is significant to point out that TMT has demonstrated a connection between mortality salience and living “on an abstract symbolic plane: We cope with the threat of death by embedding ourselves in a meaningful [incorporeal] culture” (Goldenberg, “Fleeing the Body” 203).  More generally, the mind-body dualism is a technique that places the self as something apart from the corruptible body, which is then denigrated as not of the self.  This is then turned into a willful separation of the self from the anxiety-provoking body; hence, human concepts of disgust over physicality, abjection, the distinction of human from animal, sexual taboos, and the elevation of the “sublime ideal of the love couple represented in Mozart’s Magic Flute” from the brute sexual contract (Žižek, Looking vii).  Moreover, this derogation of the body in the mind-body dualism is quite literally the core of flagellation in the religious order that bore its name.  Even with the example of the patient who compulsively relives or remembers the kerntrauma in therapy, without ever overcoming it, we can read this act of willing within the patient’s vicious cycle of (a) recollecting the limited agency of the ego in the traumatic event, and (b) retrospectively willing it by reliving it and thereby returning to step (a).  This does not utterly refute the possibility of such a thing as a death drive, but it does problematize the haphazard categorization of any tendency toward destruction as a manifestation of it, its description as an instinct, and most certainly gives pause to Žižek’s contentions.


Fleeing the Body – There is no Sexual Relationship


The need for a distinction between these two possible contingencies is also prominent in Žižek’s “There is No Sexual Relationship,” and this problem parallels that which is seen in Ben’s suicidal will.  Not only is the will to power -- in Ben’s case manifested as the will to mastery over his inevitable finitude and addiction -- precisely not a rebellion against the ‘normative’ condition of the pleasure principle, it is exactly the opposite of the “innermost radical possibility of a human being” (Žižek, “There is No” 190).  It is a completely conventional behaviour paralleling the creation of the symbolic order, and conforms to the human drive for mastery over circumstances, as exemplified in the reality principle when regarded as an extension of the pleasure principle.  Moreover, if we are also to consider sexuality in the context of it being a challenge to the assertion of the incorporeality of the self, then how does the reality principle become reworked as an element of the death instinct in the repression of sexuality and punishment of the body?  As Butler asks, “If the sadist dramatizes the desire to die, why is death sought…. [a]nd why does it take a sexual form?” (273).  If the body must be the region of death and one is impelled to symbolically maintain that the self is not subject to death, it then follows that the self must not be of the body, and likewise sex is not of the self.  In controlling or repressing sex, what is then read as being the real repression?  Death?  Can this be a refutation of the primacy of the pleasure principle by another instinctual level oriented toward stasis, or is it a subtle movement from the instinctual pleasure principle and survival-drive to a consciousness-centred anxiety that interacts with instincts?  Similarly, flagellation, sadism, and masochism can be seen as the denial of the finitude that the body represents, just as the tendency to repeat becomes a willful mastery.  In Rankian terms, anxiety over death-consciousness is the Kern-problem that is denied, while death itself is mastered through aspects of projection, identification as an attachment of the self onto that which is symbolically beyond death, and the creative willing of the inevitable so that it is symbolically within one’s control rather than denying one’s agency.

In Looking Awry, Žižek claims that “far from being a sign of ‘madness,’ the barrier separating the real from reality is therefore the very condition of a minimum of ‘normalcy’: ‘madness’ (psychosis) sets in when this barrier is torn down, when the real overflows reality [i.e., social constructs] (as in autistic breakdown) or when it is included in reality” (20).  My question here is ‘what have we invested in reality, the social symbolic system, that causes madness and psychosis when we reveal its superficial, veneer-like nature?’  Is repression via the social or symbolic order a means to affirming the metaphysical (incorporeal) denial of death through the placing of the self within the incorporeal symbolic order?  If so, is not the formulation of ‘instinct’ itself a disembodying of what is essentially corporeal, and the theorizing of the death drive a way of knowing and colonizing the Other of death and separation?  Terror Management Theory nicely answer these questions that I have posed, such that if “humans [we]re aware that our most basic desire for continued existence will be thwarted...., individual members of our species would be paralyzed with terror unless we developed some means of managing this problem” (Goldenberg, “Fleeing the Body” 201).  This parallels (and deepens) Žižek’s contention that the “the barrier separating the real from reality” (Looking 20), which I read as the symbolic order or ‘buffer’ in TMT, is what prevents madness and psychosis.

To re-read yet another film analysis, when discussing The Empire of the Sun, Žižek claims that “when the barrier [between the Real and reality] falls down... [Jim] invert[s] his utter impotence into omnipotence, to conceive himself as radically responsible for the intrusion of the real” (Looking 29; emphasis original), which takes the form of a deadly explosion caused by enemy warships.  My question again is how does responsibility equate to omnipotence?  Like the ‘need’ and ‘must’ homology that Žižek draws on so often, is it not clearer and perhaps more accurate to read this through Nietzsche’s (retroactive) willing of the inevitable in order to master it?  This problem is not so far from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and it forms one of the central arguments of Rank’s works.  Moreover, this willing would more accurately fit the impotence to omnipotence transition, rather than mere responsibility that is a subsequent result.  Žižek further claims:

The same enthusiastic feeling of omnipotence erupts later, in the prison camp, when an English lady dies.  Jim desperately massages her and when the woman, although dead, opens her eyes for a moment because of the stimulation of her blood circulation, Jim is thrown into ecstasy, convinced that he is capable of reviving the dead.  (Looking 30)

Again, my challenge to Žižek’s reading of the film is that Jim symbolically conquers death (symbolized in the woman, but implying his own mortality) at a time when his own mortal vulnerability is very prominent and heavy in his mind (heightened mortality salience).  He is living in a concentration camp and is continually faced with his own extinction, when he suddenly demonstrates the ability to banish (deny) death.  As above, I contend this is a symbolic mastery of the cause of anxiety and the real, rather than ‘responsibility,’ which I hold is a consequence.  This is again an instance of the retroactive willing of an event and claiming of authority over it, rather than surrender to the limitations of the ego.

In the same vein (pun intended), when describing The Night of the Living Dead, Žižek does not discuss death, the fear of death, or the extreme corporeality of the dead zombies, all of which are prominent.  Most importantly, he does not discuss the mainstream film analyses given of Romero, where the focus is most commonly on the nature of our defenses against the living dead: guns, malls, and the nuclear family.  In contrast to Žižek, in the film itself all these ‘distal defenses’ are riddled with the dead, who storm into the mall and cannot be killed by guns, even while we the living are shot by our own kind.  The dead even infiltrate the living and are members of our own nuclear family.  My reading of the film pivots on the context of these social defenses against the dead and the cognizance of death, and it is telling that in this context the walking dead eat our brains, arms, and gory intestines, revealing our repressed corporeality.  The fact that socially significant sites, rife with symbolic-cultural content, defend against the dead is equally informative given my discussion of Terror Management Theory and the role of cultural-personal attachments as anxiety buffers.  Lastly, that this readily apparent aspect of the film is disregarded by Žižek suggests that he does not want to engage with the paired issues of symbolization and the instinct for self-perpetuation in a mortality salient condition.

The dead embody the knowledge that we are nothing but body and that we could be well described as self-conscious food for someone else (I eat my fellow beasts so that tomorrow they may dine on me).  As with my discussion of corporeality in Terror Management Theory, which I will expand momentarily, the living dead are the intrusion of the Real into the ideological system that maintains the essential incorporeality of the human Self, as distinct from the human Body.  Feces and ‘guts’ remind us of our corporeality, and abjection is the denial of this physicality; ‘it’s not me.’  This form of abjection even appears in the recent film “Enemy at the Gates,” when Danilov finds himself hiding among the heaped corpses of his fallen countrymen and responds by vomiting in a denial of his own mortal danger and corporeality.  His living body is no different from the dead ones he crawls through, except they no longer crawl.  This literally becomes Danilov’s role in the war movement for Russia: the offering of hero-figures so that the doomed soldiers (the walking dead) no longer fear death due to the buffer of their social and ideological investment, as well as identification and romantic partnership.  They are of the immortal nation, and nothing secures this symbolic immortality more definitively than self-sacrifice, which is deeply enmeshed in the social nature of self-esteem as a buffer against anxiety.  As with my earlier discussion of Taubman Ben-Ari’s study of reckless driving, self-destructive behaviour may actually be increased by mortality salient conditions when such behaviour functions as a buffer in the symbolization of self as a valuable and contributing member of a larger, desirable social group.  Sacrifice becomes symbolic gain and betrays no drive toward ‘stasis,’ but rather the opposite, the paradox of an “inner yearning for life coupled with the painful realization that one must eventually die” (Florian 527).  To overcome the helplessness and anxiety inherent in this condition, especially when it is particularly salient (consciously or unconsciously), “humans have devised elaborate symbolic psychological mechanisms” (527) such as sacrifice to the nation or even culture itself.

For Danilov’s particular situation in the film (he is a news writer), threatening to execute soldiers if they failed to sacrifice themselves was a failing policy for the Russian authorities, so the social idealization of the hero system becomes Danilov’s media-oriented innovation, drawing on complex cultural systems of symbolization.  By investing in the distal defense of national identification or hero worship, the soldiers could once again surrender themselves to meaningless sacrifice without the ‘madness’ of resistance, since their death had become their very contribution to the immortality system that buffers against the fear of death and offers symbolic immortality.  This film presents an ideal example of the problem that I am approaching, as it is obsessed with corporeality and mortality within an Orphic Stalingrad situated on the dark side of the river Styx (the Volga), therein paralleling the space between the two deaths in the neo-Egyptian underworld, which is our world [21] . 

Furthermore, this corporeal form of the Real is rampant in Žižek’s works as his own personal exemplification of the Real, and I find this corporeality telling when compared with TMT’s suggestion of “Fleeing the Body” [22] as a distal defense.  As recent Terror Management research has suggested, it seems “cultures promote norms that help people to distinguish themselves from animals [or ‘lizards and lima bean’], because this distinction serves the very important psychological function of providing protection from deeply rooted concerns about mortality” (Goldenberg, “I am Not” 427).  As Žižek states, in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag: upon opening a window, the reality previously seen through it dissolves and all we see is the dense, nontransparent slime of the Real” (“A Hair of the Dog” 72; emphasis added).  This footnote is notably not reprinted in The Žižek Reader (1999) publication of this article; however, what I would point out is the ‘slime’ of the Real corresponds to Žižek’s descriptions of the dead octopus, goop, placental mass, and so forth, that so ‘fleshily’ testify in horrific corporeality to the presence of the Real as something tied to denial of corporeality and the mortal sheath [23] .  This ties the Real to the existential anxiety of mortality, which is informed by TMT’s suggestion that “acknowledging that we are animals makes us acutely aware that, like other animals, we are material [corporeal] beings vulnerable to death and decay” (Goldenberg, “I am Not” 427).  Is it not suspicious, then, that for Žižek the ideal exemplification of the Real is often a form of corporeality, rather than an ideological overturning, especially since the Real functions against the symbolic order, rather than the body?  I would tend to answer with a simple ‘yes.’  I therefore posit that this tendency suggests a correlation (if not a direct relationship) between challenges to the cultural denial of corporeality (and hence mortality) and Žižek’s use of the Real.


Scapegoating and Projection of the Inevitable:


In Žižek’s extended discussion of Wagner in “There Is No Sexual Relationship,” there is a significant oversight regarding projection.  He asserts that the death drive “points toward the traumatic kernel of the Real” (“There is No” 193) while offering the example: “the true enigma of the sacrifice does not reside in the magic efficiency of scapegoating, of sacrificing a substitute Other, but rather in the readiness of the subject effectively to sacrifice himself/herself for the cause” (“There is No” 194).  The problem here is the limitations Žižek imposes on scapegoating or projection, which makes Žižek’s statement true.  The limitation lies in the dual possibility of the willing of the inevitable (as opposed to the necessary) and the projection of the inevitable into the scapegoat (that which can be symbolically overcome).  In effect, I suggest death and suffering can be killed or made to suffer in the scapegoat.  Apart from the function of the death drive, Žižek’s description of scapegoating does not allow one to project what one wishes to overcome into the scapegoat, which would seem to contradict the most familiar definition of a scapegoat: “a person who is made to bear blame or punishment that should rightly fall on others (Named after the goat which, in ancient Jewish religious custom, was allowed to escape into the wilderness after the high priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it.)” (“Scapegoat” 714).  Bearing this definition in mind (and the highly appropriate derivation of the term to Žižek’s works, where the most common scapegoat is the Jew), the conflict seems to be between Žižek’s description of the scapegoat who acts as a substitute for one’s own desired self-destruction (death drive), and my suggestion of the scapegoat as one who substitutes for one’s fear of the inevitable.  In other words, I describe the scapegoat as the projection of a personified Death-figure followed by the destruction or overcoming of Death in this figure, while Žižek posits the scapegoat as a surrogate for the self. 

In continuation of this theme of the projection of a traumatic content into the scapegoat, I must address Žižek’s discussion of the enigma of scapegoating as “the readiness of the subject effectively to sacrifice himself/herself for the cause” (“There is No” 194), just as Danilov and Vassili Zeitsev of “Enemy at the Gates” are willing to sacrifice themselves to the heroic order as a means to preventing themselves from dying (in the symbolic, not physical, sense of death).  As with suicide, if the act of submission or sacrifice of oneself is itself a reinforcement of the system of denial that allows one to escape from the inevitable destruction that is known to be ahead (as seen in reckless driving), the pain and suffering endured is indistinguishable from the fist caught in a monkey trap of ideological enforcement.  This is not a death drive proper, just as the carelessness of the general populace in the face of impending ecological disaster is not an instinctual death drive (as Žižek argues), but rather the full working-out of the monkey trap of ideology that drives one toward the repressed fact of death that sits as the kernel that is both creating and created by this ideology.  The death drive is here an ideological impulsion, a symbolic overcoming of death through death itself, and in being so, it could not be further from instinctual.  Such a ‘death drive’ is a reaction to the self-preservation instinct in a self-conscious framework and via social systems of symbolization.  This strikes me as the antithesis of an instinct itself, let alone a death instinct.  The surrender to the death drive in being a scapegoat or masochistic (as in “Death and the Maiden”) is more properly surrender to the anxiety-buffering symbolic order that unfortunately demands a mortal price for its symbolic immortality.  The monkey -- whose clenched fist cannot fit out of the hole its flat hand could reach into -- cannot gain freedom without first releasing its grip on the shiny prize hidden in the trap.  The shiny prize is the alleviation of anxiety (the denial of death in this instance), while the fist is the symbolic system that works as the mechanism for such denial.  As with the Orphic suicide cult, the scapegoat (or oil executive) is quite literally killing him or her self in order to escape Death, just as the puritan creates the environment ripe for molestation by denying the Real of child sexuality and the Marxist perpetuates the repression of the proletariat through the comforting knowledge that the demise of Capitalism is inevitable.

One further compelling aspect of the scapegoat turns up in the ego-ideal that Žižek conveniently discusses in the context of nationalism.  In Tarrying With the Negative, he remarks on the “Ego-Ideal (Ich-Ideal) [the Ideal I]: [as] the point from which West sees itself in a likeable, idealized form, as worthy of love” (200).  The flip side of this ego-ideal is the scapegoat, who is the Other, ‘the menace to our ‘way of life’” (201).  In defense of the nation-Thing, the nationalist derogates difference, which is itself the very means by which the nation-Thing is defined.  In addition to paralleling TMT’s analysis of self-esteem as a mechanism caught up in buffering against anxiety, this is the same pattern I have already analyzed as the defense of the ideology against difference, which invokes the ideology’s anxiety-buffering function.  Terror Management Theory raises this aspect of national scapegoating and investment in the nation-Thing as its primary means to regarding the consequences of mortality salience without consciousness of the aggressivity it provokes toward the challenging of its buffer: 

Self-esteem, according to this analysis, is the sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful and eternal reality, and self-esteem is attained to the extent that one believes that one is successfully meeting the standards of value of one’s culture.  According to TMT, cultural worldviews and self-esteem provide an anxiety buffer that protects us from deeply rooted existential fears surrounding our vulnerability and mortality.  (Goldenberg, “Fleeing the Body” 201)


This view is remarkably borne out by Arndt’s testing of liking for people who support one's worldview and hostility toward those with alternative worldviews” (“Effects of Self-Esteem” 1331) within a control for self-esteem.  In this work, Arndt has shown that a self-esteem boost negates increased derogation of an anti-nationalist statement after mortality salience is raised, while “when a target threatens a dimension on which a self-esteem boost is predicated [i.e., one’s contribution to the nation-Thing], such a boost will not deter derogation following mortality salience” (“Effects of Self-Esteem” 1331).  Moreover, Florian reads this as entailing “high self-esteem [as] increas[ing] a person’s sense of meaning, value, and invulnerability, which in turn, would help to deny his or her own finitude” (528; emphasis added).  It seems that yet again aggression, in its nationalistic particularity this time, is tied to the same existential anxiety and buffering mechanism of ideological belief systems and symbolization.  The imperative ‘enjoy your nation as yourself’ that Žižek employs necessitates the hidden agenda, ‘defend your ideological system or identification as your immortal self,’ such that difference is a challenge, and a challenge holds the potential for absolute destruction versus the Edenic, immortal beyond offered by the ego-ideal.  The scapegoat is necessarily both a challenge to the nation and a challenge to the predicate of one’s contribution to the nation, so that not only is it subject to the aggression reserved for challenges to the nation-Thing, but also the more tenacious aggression against challenges to one’s personal contribution to the transcendence object of the nation.  Both cases deeply involve the scapegoat as an aspect of projection, rather than a genuine threat, since it is only through projection that ‘difference’ equates to ‘challenge.’

To which function of projection are we to turn?  If we trust Žižek that scapegoating is both associated with the “fear that what is necessary will not occur without our active assistance” (“There is No” 192) and with an externalization of the death drive into aggression, we must also question the scapegoat as “the Other into whom we project our own disavowed, repressed content [and in whom it] is sacrificed, so that, through the destruction of the Other, we purify ourselves” (Žižek, “There is No” 194)?  Is not the death drive, as described by Žižek, more appropriately functioning as a misguided defense against death?  Can one both symbolically kill the looming death in the scapegoat, hence killing one’s fear of the inevitable, while contemporaneously desiring that which we are so emphatically denying?  There seems to be an internal superfluity here, if not an inconsistency.  If it follows that “the readiness of the subject effectively to sacrifice himself/herself for the cause” (Žižek, “There is No” 194) is equivalent to projection onto the scapegoat (or placement of self in the ideology one is physically dying to defend), and we are sacrificing the scapegoat in order to purge ourselves of our repressed contents and fears, then in the context of willing the inevitable, the drive to self-destruction or masochism (or the externalization in murder and sadism) is only another aspect of this destruction of the inevitable through the projection of a symbolized form of it.  The ‘death drive’ Žižek describes is a misguided effect of the instinct for self-preservation and is not an overturning of the pleasure principle.  Can murder or sacrifice be the symbolic killing of death?  Can one die to escape death?  Does Žižek not raise this problem himself, even while avoiding addressing it? 

To begin answering my own questions, if the tendency toward a contrary to the pleasure principle is fueled by a need to assert agency over the inevitable through projection or the will, then it is more correct to consider the death drive as exactly the opposite of an instinctual drive, but rather an aspect of the conscious ego and the existential dilemma of being trapped in a deadly time-limited press between corporeality and mentality.  As such, it is not a contradiction to the pleasure principle.  The traumatic kernel is the denial of such.  What I am getting at here is the conflict between an instinctual death drive and an ego-centric, existential angst that leads to the conscious or even unconscious system of destructive agency over death.  If death anxiety and mortality salience exist and are elemental human provocations, then the instinctual drive theory is problematized because conscious willful reaction (and unconscious reaction) is equally dependent on the self-conscious and self-reflexive human condition as it is on instincts.  Whether or not we take the Self as a problematic construct, in describing human motivation and acts, neither instinct nor ‘subjective agency’ (conscious will) can displace the other.  Žižek’s discussion of drives is limited by his disregard for the fact that instincts are present and construed in self-conscious creatures, aware of themselves as instinctual animals capable of self-reflection, and this deeply modifies any reading of instincts and drives.


Where Do We Go From Here:

              As a final note to this argument, I will appeal to Žižek’s question:

Are concentration camps and killing as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason?  Is there at least a legitimate lineage from Sade to Fascist torturing, as is implied by Pasolini’s film version of 120 Days [of Sodom], which transposes it into the dark days of Mussolini’s Salo republic? (“ Kant” 285). 


In the problem of human cruelty and atrocities, the will and existential analysis have been nudged aside for theoretical approaches that offer an escape from what seems to be the Nazism inherent in the will to power; however, even Sade himself can offer a repudiation of the horrors of his own dungeon.  He offers the clear moral:

God forbid that anyone should think that in saying this I seek to give encouragement to crime!  Of course we must do everything we can to avoid criminal acts – but we must learn to shun them through reason and not out of unfounded fears which lead nowhere.  (Sade 159)

In this scenario, the horrors of unrestricted desire cannot be shunned on a moral basis or in the context of an ideological system that refuses to face these horrors as its own Real.  In a more succinct statement, echoing Sade, we cannot rely on the virtue of the weak to defend against the immorality of the strong.  Moreover, in this reconciliation of existential analysis to its most current detractors, the maligned will is the vehicle for and escape from evil, rather than a (re)veiling of (wo)man’s gaze at the world; a re-inscription of maja, illusion.  I must invert Žižek’s question and ask, ‘without conscious awareness of the general denial of human fate, which is death, and the systems of symbolization caught up in such a denial, are terrorist attacks, our own terrorist responses,  “and killing as a neutral business” (Žižek, “Kant” 285) the inherent outcome of this denial?’

To refuse the willful control over the inevitable that intrudes on the symbolic order is either an acceptance of psychosis (in Žižek’s formulation) or worse.  In reinforcing the symbolic order and enjoying the symptoms of its denial of its Real, a retreat is effected further into the systems that Terror Management Theory has shown result in a derogation of difference, increased investment in social systems of self-esteem, and very possibly reckless behaviours involving destruction and violence.  In the case of the inevitable, this difference will be enforced, no matter what Salo-like nightmares are created to defend the individual from the awareness of the crouching beast.  The ‘death drive,’ the instinctual desiring of the inevitable monster that I have shown to be a non-instinctual symbolic means to self-preservation, becomes both the denial itself and the means to avoiding the endless retreat into ideology.  Moreover, even in the willful choosing of death, and the mis-definition of this as ‘instinctual,’ there resides another level of ideology that denies the willful choosing of the inevitable as a means to control and a creation of the symbolic order that buffers against psychosis-inducing terror and control over the detrimental aspects of this buffer.  As with the ecological crisis, “[we’re] not really prepared to integrate it into [our] symbolic universe, and that is why [we] continue to act as if ecology is of no lasting consequence for [our] everyday li[ves]” (Žižek, Looking 35), hence our denial of mortality leads us to pursue and chase our own death, rather than willfully choosing its future inevitability while continuing to live.  Is it not preferable to take up one’s own death as a future inevitability that cannot be prevented, rather than mistakenly pursue death and make it imminent by symbolically destroying it?  In the same manner, the relegation of the will to non-existence in the symbolic order in which Žižek’s writings function, leaves any resolution of the real problem of Salos and Sadean dungeons without an outlet via choice, since these horrific atrocities are within an ideology that is driven by them.  Without a realization of the will and the self, as well as the conflict between ‘mortal’ autonomy and ‘immortal’ dependence/identification with the nation, can we undo the Salos of a bombed out Afghanistan, the Sadean dungeons of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, or peace through perpetual war?  The ideological system that seeks to escape from the horrors of our century forms these terrors as its own traumatic kernel that is both reviled and needed as a lack.  In contrast, when TMT subjects become aware of their own mortality salience-induced aggressivity and derogation, they negate the unconscious transaction between the anxiety buffer and the fear of its lack (i.e., confrontation with one’s mortality).  Simply put, by becoming aware of their anxiety as the source of their aggressivity, Terror Management subjects cease to aggress and invest in buffers in the same way.  Becoming conscious of the effects of the self-preservation instinct make such mechanisms and processes subject to conscious will.  Nonetheless, it is perhaps too much to hope that Žižek’s formulation will include ‘enjoy your will’ or an abandonment of the symbolic order in the self-creation (traum) of the Real; although, it may still be possible to hope for a willful release of the fist caught in the trap of ideological denial.


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[1] Existential Analysis is alternatively called daseinanalysis or Existential Psychotherapy.  Loosely this can be described as beginning with Otto Rank, but taking its form through Jean-Paul Sartre, Ludwig Binswanger, and Medard Boss, as well as Irvin D.Yalom, and Rollo May.  This paper’s focus is on the role assigned to anxiety in existential analysis as a general whole and specifically in Terror Management Theory, while contrasting this against the views set out by Slavoj Žižek.

[2] Terror Management Theory began over fifteen years ago (Greenberg’s “The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory”), and it addresses death, self-esteem, and cultural worldviews in an empiric framework, based on the position from existential analysis that anxiety is a given of human experience.  As an empiric movement, it is distinct from, though somewhat related to, psychoanalysis in general.  As Arndt points out, “Over 100 separate studies conducted in seven countries have provided support for this theory” (“To Belong” 27).

[3] I consider Lawrence Durrell a prime example of such a figure, since he is currently out of favour in the literary canon and attempts to read his work via Lacanian theory have largely failed.  I contend that his work’s basis in existential analysis -- as can be seen in his affinity for Otto Rank’s writings and his artistic relationships with those of Rank’s circle -- creates an intense challenge to different critical approaches that have failed to take such notions into account.  For further details, see Khani Begum’s “Discourse of Desire and Subversion of the Female Subject in Durrell’s Poetic Drama Sappho,” Mary Mathew’s “‘Our Many Larval Selves’: Durrell’s Livia and the Cross-Cultural Signal,” or my own “The Phenomenology of Death: Considering Otto Rank, Ernest Becker And Herbert Marcuse In Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet.”  I do not use Durrell in my ‘exemplification’ here due to the difficulty of presenting portions of his lengthy and complex works to an audience unfamiliar with the whole.

[4] As Zilboorg’s early article (1943) points out, “in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality.  We are intent on mastering death” (468).  While Zilboorg betrays many of the problems in trying to retain a Freudian approach to notions of death anxiety as intrinsic, he does strike many significant issues and notes “the fear of death is always present in our mental functioning….  If this fear were as constantly conscious [as the instinct of self-preservation], we should be unable to function normally.  It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort” (467).

[5] Other recent challenges to psychoanalytic theory, and especially Lacanian psychoanalysis, would seem to indicate a general need to at least investigate how it is applied in literary studies, what other methodologies are available that attempt to pursue similar goals, and how well each model stands in comparison to the others.  Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense demonstrates this, although in a very different manner than I have taken up here, arguing “Lacan’s ‘mathematics’ are so bizarre that they cannot play a fruitful role in any serious psychological analysis” (36).  Moreover, they suggest, “it might be prudent to check the empirical adequacy of at least some of [psychoanalysis’] propositions” (37).  Other challenges to psychoanalysis have come from within, such as Jeffrey Masson’s The Assault on Truth and Crews’ Memory Wars.

[6] See Jeff Schimel’s “Stereotypes and Terror Management.”

[7] Examining Žižek’s ‘obversion’ is an extensive project that I do not want to undertake here, even though it is a parallel project.  If ‘obversion’ is read across a number of his works, it demonstrates a rhetorically persuasive elision of differences, which, when recognized, problematize the progression of Žižek’s various arguments.  Strictly, Žižek’s use of the term ‘obversion’ is not compatible with its primary meaning: a restatement in opposite terms (negative or positive) of the same logical statement, leaving the two statements logically the same.  Rather, he means the sameness of two different statements within an ideological context.  I am emphasizing the distinction that ideological sameness or sameness within a given belief system does not necessarily agree with other measures of sameness, such as logical or empirical sameness.

[8] This does not mean that ego-psychology denies the unconscious or that choice and will necessarily connote real-world choices or willed events (depending on one’s conceptualization of the Self).  While it is not necessary to my argument here, my own sympathy falls with Nietzsche’s problematizing of the notion of the ‘self’ (ego or ’Ich’/’I’).  Nonetheless, whether the ‘I’ is a trick of the grammarians (Nietzsche, Beyond Good §14) or this illusion creates the illusory ‘real’ and ‘apparent’ world distinction (Nietzsche, Twilight 45), it does not alter the viability of the ego as a phenomenon deeply caught up in our social and notional network of symbols and symbolization.

[9] To allay my readers’ concerns over the symbolic agency of a possibly symbolic ego in a system of social symbolization, I must return to my brief use of Totem and Taboo to inform The Sublime Object of Ideology.  As Žižek’s readers, we are already strictly working in a social and symbolic context with the concepts of ‘impossibility’ and ‘inevitability,’ as well as the role of the will in negotiating the subject’s conceptualization of both.  There is a significant difference between Žižek’s suggestion of the superfluous prohibition of the impossible and Freud’s assertion of ‘impossibility’ being a context-sensitive displacement of prohibition; what is taboo is prohibited, and only in its obsessive prohibition does it acquire the magnitude of impossibility.

[10] As with my first footnote, this is another reason why I consider Durrell an excellent example of the need for an approach different from Lacanian analysis, which still takes up the issues Lacanian analysis plays with so compellingly.  As the ‘Io’ in Durrell’s Revolt of Aphrodite suggests, analysis must find a way to negotiate between the illusion and necessity of the self.

[11] The conflation of ‘self’ and ‘will’ is not necessary, and may itself be a part of the confusion surrounding the locating of the self in thought.  Moreover, undermining this ‘location’ does not deny the self; it only interrupts our notions of it and its relationship to agency and consciousness.

[12] This section of my paper, which focuses on musical examples drawn from Žižek’s works, does not explicitly address Žižek and Mladen Dolar’s Opera’s Second Death because my paper was first composed in March 2001 while this recent book dates from one year later.  Nonetheless, Žižek’s expressions of affection for musical genres lends strength to the appropriateness of my approach here, and his half of the book holds very little new material; Žižek himself points out, in a footnote, that “the present volume cannibalizes parts of [his] other Wagner essay, ‘There Is No Sexual Relationship’” (118), including the passages I have drawn out here (a tactic typical of Žižek’s publishing).  The same holds true for my consideration of The Sublime Object of Ideology, which is likewise ‘cannibalized.’  To Mladen’s opening statement that “Philosophers did not go to the opera very often” and “opera is alien to philosophers” (1), I can only repeat his own exception for “Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche” (1), especially since Rousseau and Nietzsche were significantly talented composers.  To these exceptions I would add others with a substantial focus on music: Plato, Adorno, Pythagorus, Boethius, Philodemus, Kant, or even Edward Said and numerous others.  In brief, I do not believe there is any new material in Opera’s Second Death that would significantly alter my argument here, although I could significantly extend my critique of the decontextualized approach taken in the work, ranging from their off-hand dismissal of established movements in philosophy of music to their misunderstanding of the complexities of the nationalism caught up in English musical drama of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century.

[13] Interestingly, this internality of the Other can be reversed depending on the performance. Due to the extreme low register and timbre of the death portion of the lied, it is usually performed by an Alto or a Bass, thus inverting the gender aspect of the polarity.  Due to this ‘breeches’ role for the vocalist, among varying performances the audience is unsure if the male (Death) is an aspect of the female (Maiden), or if the female (Maiden) is an aspect of the male (Death).

[14] “[Tamino:] Hier sind die Schreckenspforten, die Not und Tod mir dräun.  [Pamina:] Ich werde aller Orten an deiner Seite sein.  Ich selbsten führe dich, die Liebe leite mich”  (Mozart 138). 

[15] “Laßt sie der Prüfung Früchte sehen, doch sollen sie zu Grabe gehen, so lohnt der Tugend kühnen Lauf, nehmt sie in euren Wohnsitz auf” (Mozart 84).

[16] “Hier sind die Schreckenspforten, die Not und Tod mir dräun.”  (Mozart 138).

[17] Lending credence to the internal suggestions of this alternative reading in Freud’s original work, the three parallel approaches given on this and the next few paragraphs (mine, Kramer’s and Watson’s) were all developed independent of an awareness of one another and are likewise expressions of Lacan’s examination of the Fort/Da game in “Of The Subject Who Is Supposed To Know, Of The First Dyad, And Of The Good.”  I had not yet read the Kramer and Watson articles when forming my reading, and Kramer assured me in a private email that he had not yet read Watson and was “playing with language here so that Freud’s own unconscious can be revealed” (“RE: Rank & Lacan”).

[18] Unlike some of the bizarre extremes that Rank’s work has been taken, his title is a pun on “traum” and “trauma,” like his Seelenglaube und Psychologia (Soul-belief and Psychology, psychology being literally ‘psyche’ / ‘soul’ and ‘logos’ / ‘discourse’).

[19] I mean this in the sense that choice may be like both a ‘sign’ and a symbol.  Retroactive willing is a symbolic choice, whereas an unrestricted decision would be a choice in the sense of a ‘sign’; the choice is a ‘sign’ for a real world decision.  Ben’s willful death in Leaving Las Vegas is symbolic in the same way.

[20] Note the similarity to Zilboorg’s previously cited article: “in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality” (468), and “the fear of death is always present in our mental functioning….  If this fear were as constantly conscious [as the instinct of self-preservation], we should be unable to function normally.  It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort” (467).

[21] As I write this, an ambulance has pulled up in front of my building and the medics have removed a stretcher, reminding me that my desk is not a shield against anything, and that my work offers me nothing more than a symbolic contribution to a meaningful existence.  None of this, of course, modifies the inevitability of my future extinction, but my sense of a being a valuable contributor influences my anxiety and perhaps augments my derogation of those who would oppose the value of my work.

[22] See Jamie Goldenberg’s article of the same title.

[23] While the footnote is deleted in The Žižek Reader, three years later, Žižek still refers to “a dead squid” in Opera’s Second Death (105).