SZ on antisemitism

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Fri Nov 19 09:13:21 PST 1999

A couple of people wrote me offlist asking for a taste of Zizek. Here's an analysis of anti-Semitism.



[from Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With The Negative, pp. 148-153] The Tautological "Return of the Thing to Itself"

Although "really existing socialism" has already receded into a distance which confers upon it the nostalgic magic of a postmodern lost object, some of us still recall a well-known joke about what socialism is: a social system that is the dialectical synthesis of all previous history. From the prehistoric classless society, it took primitivism, from antiquity slave labor, from medieval feudalism ruthless domination, from capitalism exploitation, and from socialism the name. This is what the Hegelian tautological gesture of the "return of the thing to itself" is all about: one must include along with the definition of the object its name. That is to say, after we decompose an object into its ingredients, we look in vain in them for some specific feature which holds together this multitude and makes of it a unique, self-identical thing. As to its properties and ingredients, a thing is wholly "outside itself," in its external conditions; every positive feature is already present in the circumstances which are not yet this thing. The supplementary operation which produces from this bundle a unique, self-identical thing is the purely symbolic, tautological gesture of positing these external conditions as the conditions-components of the thing and, simultaneously, of presupposing the existence of ground which holds together this multitude of conditions.

And, to throw our Lacanian cards on the table, this tautological "return of the thing to itself" which renders forth the concrete structure of selfidentity is what Lacan designates as the "point de capiton," the "quilting point" at which the signifier "falls into" the signified (as in the above mentioned joke on socialism, where the name itself functions as part of the designated thing). Let us recall an example from popular culture: the killer shark in Spielberg's jaws. A direct search for the shark's ideological meaning evokes nothing but misguided questions: does it symbolize the threat of the Third World to America epitomized by the archetypal small town? is it the symbol of the exploitative nature of capitalism itself (Fidel Castro's interpretation? does it stand for the untamed nature which threatens to disrupt the routine of our daily lives? In order to avoid this lure, we have to shift our perspective radically: the daily life of the common man is dominated by an inconsistent multitude of fears (he can become the victim of big business manipulations; Third World immigrants seem to intrude into his small orderly universe; unruly nature can destroy his home; etc.), and the accomplishment of jaws consists in an act of purely formal conversion which provides a common "container" for all these free-floating, inconsistent fears by way of anchoring them, "reifying" them, in the figure of the shark. Consequently, the function of the fascinating presence of the shark is precisely to block any further inquiry into the social meaning (social mediation) of those phenomena that arouse fear in the common man. To say that the murderous shark "symbolizes" the above-mentioned series of fears is to say too much and not enough at the same time. It does not symbolize them, since it literally annuls them by occupying itself the place of the object of fear. It is therefore "more" than a symbol: it becomes the feared "thing itself." Yet, the shark is decidedly less than a symbol, since it does not point toward the symbolized content but rather blocks access to it, renders it invisible. in this way, it is homologous with the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew: "Jew" is the explanation, offered by anti-Semitism for the multiple fears experienced by the "common man" in an epoch of dissolving social links (inflation, unemployment, corruption, moral degradation)behind all these phenomena lies the invisible hand of the "Jewish plot." The crucial point here, again, is that the designation 'Jew" does not add any new content: the entire content is already present in the external conditions (crisis, moral degeneration ... ); the name "Jew" is only the supplementary feature which accomplishes a kind of transubstantiation, changing all these elements into so many manifestations of the same ground, the 'Jewish plot." Paraphrasing the joke on socialism, one could say that anti-Semitism takes from the economy unemployment and inflation, from politics parliamentary corruption and intrigue, from morality its own degeneration, from art "incomprehensible" avant-gardism, and from the Jew the name. This name enables us to recognize behind the multitude of external conditions the activity of the same ground.

Here we also find at work the dialectic of contingency and necessity: as to their content, they fully coincide (in both cases, the only positive content is the series of conditions that form part of our actual life experience: economic crisis, political chaos, the dissolution of ethical links ... ); the passage of contingency into necessity is an act of purely formal conversion, the gesture of adding a name which confers upon the contingent series the mark of necessity, thereby transforming it into the expression of some hidden ground (the "Jewish plot"). This is also how later- at the very end of the "logic of essence" -we pass from absolute necessity to freedom. To comprehend properly this passage, one has to renounce thoroughly the standard notion of "freedom as comprehended necessity" (after getting rid of the illusions of free will, one can recognize and freely accept one's place in the network of causes and their effects). Hegel's point is, on the contrary, that it is only the subject's (free) act of "dotting the i " which retroactively installs necessity, so that the very act by means of which the subject recognizes (and thus constitutes) necessity is the supreme act of freedom and as such the self-suppression of necessity. Voila pourquoi Hegel n'est pas spinoziste: on account of this tautological gesture of retroactive performativity, So "performativity" in no way designates the power of freely "creating" the designated content ("words mean what we want them to mean," etc.): the 11 quilting" only structures the material which is found, externally imposed. The act of naming is "performative" only and precisely insofar as it is always-already part of the definition of the signified content.

This is how Hegel resolves the deadlock of positing and external reflection, the vicious circle of positing the presuppositions and of enumerating the presuppositions of the posited content: by means of the tautological return-upon-itself of the thing in its very external presuppositions. And the same tautological gesture is already at work in Kant's analytic of pure reason: the synthesis of the multitude of sensations in the representation of the object which belongs to "reality" implies an empty surplus, i.e., the positing of an X as the unknown substratum of the perceived phenomenal sensations. Suffice it to quote Findlay's precise formulation:

<block quote> We always refer appearances to a Transcendental Object, an X, of which we, however, know nothing, but which is none the less the objective correlate of the synthetic acts inseparable from thinking self consciousness. The Transcendental Object, thus conceived, can be called a Noumenon or thing of thought [Gedankending]. But the reference to such a thing of thought does not, strictly speaking, use the categories, but is something like an empty synthetic gesture in which nothing objective is really put before us. </block quote>

The transcendental object is thus the very opposite of the Ding-an-sich: it is "empty" insofar as it is devoid of any "objective" content. That is to say, to obtain its notion, one has to abstract from the sensible object its entire sensible content, i.e., all sensations by means of which the subject is affected by Ding. The empty X which remains is the pure objective correlatele ffect of the subject's autonomous-spontaneous synthetic activity. To put it paradoxically: the transcendental object is the "in-itself" insofar as it is for the subject, posited by it; it is pure "positedness" of an indeterminate X. This "empty synthetic gesture" -which adds to the thing nothing positive, no new sensible feature, and yet, in its very capacity of an empty gesture, constitutes it, makes it into an object-is the act of symbolization in its most elementary form, at its zero-level. On the first page of his book, Findlay points out that the transcendental object "is not for Kant different from the object or objects which appear to the senses and which we can judge about and know ... but it is the same object or objects conceived in respect of certain intrinsically unapparent features, and which is in such respects incapable of being judged about or known."

This X, this irrepresentable surplus which adds itself to the series of sensible features, is precisely the "thing-of-thought" (Gedankending): it bears witness to the fact that the object's unity does not reside within it, but is the result of the subject's synthetic activity. (As with Hegel, where the act of formal conversion inverts the chain of conditions into the unconditional Thing, founded in itself.) Let us briefly return to antiSemitism, to the synthetic act of apperception" which, out of the multitude of (imagined) features of Jews, constructs the anti-Semitic figure of "Jew." To pass for a true anti-Semite, it is not enough to claim that we oppose Jews because they are exploitative, greedy intriguers. That is, it is not sufficient for the signifier "Jew" to designate this series of specific, positive features; one has to accomplish the crucial step further by saying "they are like that (exploitative, greedy ... ) because they are Jews." The "transcendental object" of Jewishness is precisely that elusive X which "makes a Jew into Jew" and for which we look in vain among his positive properties. This act of pure formal conversion, i.e., the "synthetic act" of uniting the series of positive features in the signifier "Jew" and thereby transforming them into so many manifestations of the "Jewishness" qua their hidden ground, brings about the appearance of an objectal surplus, of a mysterious X which is "in Jew more than Jew," in other words: of the transcendental object. 17 In the very text of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, this void of the synthetic gesture is indicated by an exception in the use of the pair constitutive / regulative:" in general, 11 constitutive" principles serve to construct objective reality, whereas "regulative" principles are merely subjective maxims which guide reason without giving access to positive knowledge. However, when he speaks of existence (Dasein), Kant makes use of the pair constitutive / regulative in the midst of the very domain of the constitutive, by way of linking it to the couple mathematical/ dynamical: "In the application of pure conceptions of understanding to possible experience, the employment of their synthesis is either mathematical or dynamical; for it is concerned partly with the mere intuition of an appearance in general, partly with its existence" (CPR, B 19q).

In what precise sense, then, are dynamical principles "merely regulative principles, and [are] distinguished from the mathematical, which are constitutive" (CPR, B223)? The principles of the mathematical use of categories refer to the intuited phenomenal content (to phenomenal properties of the thing); it is only the dynamical principles of synthesis which guarantee that the content of our representations refers to some objective existence, independent of the flux of perceiving consciousness. How, then, are we to explain the paradox of making objective existence dependent not on 11 constitutive" but on "regulative" principles? Let us return, for the last time, to the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew. Mathematical synthesis can only gather together phenomenal properties attributed to the Jew (greediness, intriguing spirit, etc.); then dynamical synthesis accomplishes the reversal by means of which this series of properties is posited as the manifestation of an inaccessible X, "Jewishness," that is to say, of something real, really existing. At work here are regulative principles, since dynamical synthesis is not limited to phenomenal features, but refers them to their underlying unknowable substratum, to the transcendental object; in this precise sense, the existence of "Jew" as irreducible to the series of predicates, i.e., his existence as pure positing (Setzung) of the transcendental object qua substratum of phenomenal predicates, hinges on dynamical synthesis. In Lacanian terms, dynamical synthesis posits the existence of an X as the transphenomenal "hard kernel of being" beyond predicates (which is why the hatred of Jews does not concern their phenomenal properties but aims at their hidden "kernel of being")- a new proof of how "reason" is at work in the very heart of "understanding," in the most elementary positing of an object as "really existing." It is therefore deeply significant that, throughout the subdivision on the second analogy of experience, Kant consistently uses the word Objekt (designating an intelligible entity) and not Gegenstand (designating a simple phenomenal entity): the external, objective existence achieved by the synthetic use of dynamic regulative principles is "intelligible," not empirical-intuitive; i.e., it adds to the intuitive-sensible features of the object an intelligible, nonsensible X and thus makes an object out of it.

In this precise sense Hegel remains within Kant's fundamental framework. That is to say, in what resides the fundamental paradox of Kant's transcendentalism? Kant's initial problem is the following one: given that my senses bombard me with a confused multitude of representations, how am I to distinguish, in this flux, between mere "subjective" representations and objects that exist independently of the flux of representations? The answer: my representations acquire "objective status" via transcendental synthesis which changes them into the objects of experience. What I experience as "objective" existence, the very "hard kernel" of the object beneath the ever-changing phenomenal fluctuations, independent of the flux of my consciousness, thus results from my (the subject's) own "spontaneous" synthetic activity. And, mutatis mutandis, Hegel says the same thing: the establishment of absolute necessity equals its selfcancellation, i.e., it designates the act of freedom which retroactively "posits" something as necessary.

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