- Series: Wo Es War Series
- Hardcover: 284 pages
- Publisher: Verso (February 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1859847242
- ISBN-13: 978-1859847244
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #14,697,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan
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“If Zupancic's book does not become a classic work of reference, the only conclusion will be that our academia is caught in an obscure desire to self-destruct.”—Slavoj iek
About the Author
Alenka Zupan?i? is a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy in the Slovene Academy of Sciences, Ljublijana
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But desire has traditionally been excluded from the field of ethics. Indeed, it was seen as opposite to the moral law, as a force blocking access to the moral high ground. As Alenka Zupančič writes in her introduction, the term ethics is often taken to refer to a set of norms which restrict or `bridle' desire. Yet this understanding of ethics fail to acknowledge that desire is a component of ethics which cannot simply be eliminated without ethics itself losing all meaning. Better still, a moral economy built upon desire escapes the law of diminishing returns and of resource depletion. Tapping the source of desire will allow the moral subject to grow indefinitely.
According to Lacan, Kant was the one who introduced the dimension of desire into ethics, and brought it to its `pure state'. To desire is to demand the impossible, and this is precisely what Kantian ethics compels us to do. For Kant, duty is "a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no value." Death itself, if duty tells us so, can be pursued as a moral act. Like the starry heavens above, the moral law is what fills the mind with shock and wonder.
Kant was not the stern and boring moralist that philosophy textbooks would have us believe. His positions on `the right to lie' or on radical evil seem to be, strictly speaking, inhuman. Some of his commentators have indeed expressed reservation or even repulsion at the practical implications of his ethics. For Kant, nothing, not even the love of our fellow-man or the law of self-preservation, can justify us in making an exception to the moral law. If my act conforms with duty and if it is accomplished only for the sake of duty, then it is an ethical act. Here the ethical man is disturbingly close to the pervert--who attributes to the Other (to duty or to the Law) the surplus-enjoyment he derives from his action.
French literature offers us several figures of radical evil or perversion. In Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont breaks off with his lover by repeating: "It is not my fault", hiding the enjoyment he derives from betrayal behind a supposed respect for nature's law. But it is Sade who has brought literary perversion to its most incandescent point. Reading Sade as a moralist, deriving a code of ethics from his Philosophy in the Bedroom, has been a constant temptation for French intellectuals. Foreigners are sometimes puzzled by the high respect that Sade commands upon French thinkers since the beginning of the twentieth century. Could Sade provide the template for a new ethics beyond good and evil, a morality in tune with our time of moral confusion?
It is well known that Lacan wrote an essay entitled `Kant with Sade' in which he brings to our attention the extraordinary proximity of Kant and Sade. This notoriously difficult text has been a source of inspiration and commentary for many philosophers claiming the Lacanian legacy. They often add more confusion than light, and project upon Lacan's reading of Kant and Sade their own proclivities. Taking her readers through a step-by-step approach, and treating her subject with utmost rigor and clarity, Zupančič offers the most compelling interpretation of Kant avec Sade that I have had the chance to read. According to Kant, to act without allowing pathological incentives to influence our action is to do good. But so is radical evil, as Kant himself was forced to consider when discussing the execution of the monarch by French revolutionaries. In other words, at the level of the structure of the ethical act, the difference between good and evil does not exist. At this level, evil is formally undistinguishable from good.
Providing a close reading of Kant with Sade alone would constitute a considerable achievement. But Zupančič does not stop here. She transforms Kant into a Lacan avant la lettre by pointing the many parallels and convergence between Kant's doctrine and Lacan's ethics as developed in particular in Seminar VII. She offers literary digressions on Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses and of Molière's Don Juan, again based on Lacanian principles. She revisits Lacan's cursory remarks on great works of tragedy, such as Hamlet, Antigone, Sophocles' Oedipus, and the Claudel trilogy beginning with The Hostage.
Any commentator is bound to compare Alenka Zupančič's work with Slavoj Zizek's own writings. They belong to the same Slovenian school of Lacanese psychoanalysis. Why Slovenia? Why Lacan? None of what I read provides any satisfying explanation, but footnotes offer some clues. Like Zizek, Zupančič has read and maybe attended Jacques-Alain Miller's seminar. She is also in familiar terms with Louis Althusser's philosophy. All this points toward an intellectual constellation that defined Parisian chic in the late seventies, and that was somehow transplanted in Ljubljana where it prospered in a hotbed atmosphere functioning in closed circuit. Globalization and the end of communism brought this mix of Lacanianism and continental philosophy to the world, something the enterprising Slovenians were better able to do than the French, with their poor command of English and their disregard for anything beyond Parisian limits.
There are marked differences between Zupančič and Zizek, however. For a start, the "Big Z" is much more productive. I am amazed at the rhythm by which he churns out massive volumes, his last opus on Hegel being more than one thousand pages long. By contrast, Alenka Zupančič is more parsimonious, this being her first entry in an oeuvre that counts only three essays. Second, Zupančič does not share Zizek's taste for lowbrow pop culture and radical provocations. She prefers to comment literary masterworks than cheap Hollywood flicks or TV series. She keeps her politics to herself, with only limited allusion to a feminist agenda that Zizek would deride as utterly conventional. She offers a Zizek with a "small z", a Zizek without the ebriety and obscene excess. She sits safely in the driver's seat, and won't enter the skids and car rolls that often make Zizek end up on the wrong side of the road. Her Ethics of the Real is a demanding read, yet accessible even to the lay reader without any notion of classical philosophy or modern psychoanalysis.
Again, if you really want to see someone's take on Kant as colored by Lacan's concept of the Real, then this book might be worth suffering through. For anyone else, I don't know what the attraction would be.