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Superego who says ‘thou shalt enjoy’

In all my years of reading Slavoj Žižek, I somehow managed not to read his (Lacanian?) interpretation of superego until a few weeks ago. His distinction between the Law (the external prohibition) and the superego (the internalised injunction to enjoy) is probably the biggest and most delicious idea I’ve encountered all year. Here:


Superego emerges where the Law – the public Law, the Law articulated in the public discourse – fails; at this point of failure, the public is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment.

Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers. The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.

The function of this ‘Code Red’ is extremely interesting: it condones an act of transgression – illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier – yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group – it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life. (…) Where does this splitting of the law into the written public Law and its underside, the ‘unwritten’, obscene secret code, come from? From the incomplete, ‘non-all’ character of the public Law: explicit, public rules do not suffice, so they have to be supplemented by a clandestine ‘unwritten’ code aimed at those who, although they violate no public rules, maintain a kind of inner distance and do not truly identify with the ‘spirit of community’.

As numerous analyses from Bakhtin onwards have shown, periodic transgressions of the public law are inherent to the social order; they function as a condition of the latter’s stability. (Bakhtin’s mistake – or, rather, that of some of his followers – was to present an idealized image of these ‘transgressions’, while passing in silence over lynching parties, and so on, as the crucial form of the ‘carnivalesque suspension of social hierarchy’). What ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific forms of enjoyment).

Let us return to those small-town white communities in the American South of the 1920s, where the reign of the official, public Law is accompanied by its shadowy double, the nightly terror of Ku Klux Klan, with its lynchings of the powerless blacks: a (white) man is easily forgiven minor infractions of the Law, especially when they can be justified by a ‘code of honour’; the community still recognizes him as ‘one of us’. Yet he will be effectively excommunicated, perceived as ‘not one of us’, the moment he disowns the specific form of transgression that pertains to this community – say, the moment he refuses to partake in the ritual lynchings by the Klan, or even reports them to the Law (which, of course, does not want to hear about them, since they exemplify its own hidden underside). The Nazi community relied on the same solidarity-in-guilt induced by participation in a common transgression: it ostracized those who were not ready to take on the dark side of the idyllic Volksgemeinschaft: the night pogroms, the beatings of political opponents – in short, all that ‘everybody knew, yet did not want to speak about aloud’.


the superego is the law ‘run amok’ in so far as it prohibits what it formally permits.


(…) The hero is immoral, yet ethical – that is to say, he violates (or rather, suspends the validity of) existing explicit moral norms in the name of a higher ethics of life, historical Necessity, and so on, whereas superego designates the very opposite of othe hero, an unethical moral Law, a Law in which an obscene enjoyment sticks to obedience to the moral norms (say, a severe teacher who torments his pupils for the sake of their own good, and is not ready to asknowledge his own sadistic investment in this torment).

This, however, in no way entails that, in the ethical domain, there is no way to avoid the tension between Law and superego. Lacan’s maxim of the ethics of psychoanalysis (‘not to compromise one’s desire’) is not to be confounded with the pressure of the superego. That is to say, in a first approach it may seem that the maxim ‘Do not give up your desire!’ coincides with the superego command ‘Enjoy!’ – do we not compromise our desire precisely by renouncing enjoyment? Is it not a fundamental thesis of Freud, a kind of Freudian commonplace, that the superego forms the basic, ‘primitive’ kernel of the ethical agency? Lacan goes against these commonplaces: between the ethics of desire and the superego, he posits a relationship of radical exclusion. That is to say, Lacan takes seriously and literally the Freudian paradox of the superego – that is, the vicious cycle the characterizes the superego: the more we submit ourselves to the superego imperative, the greater its pressure, the more we feel guilty. According to Lacan, this ‘feeling of guilt’ is not a self-deception to be dispelled in the course of the psychoanalytic cure – we really are guilty: superego draws the energy of the pressure it exerts upon the subject from the fact that the subject was not faithful to his desire, that he gave it up. Our sacrificing to the superego, our paying tribute to it, only corroborates our guilt. For that reason our debt to the superego is unredeemable: the more we pay it off, the more we owe. Superego is like the extortioner slowly bleeding us to death – the more he gets, the stronger his hold on us.

The exemplary case of this paradox of the superego is, of course, the literary work of Franz Kafka: the so-called ‘irrational guilt’ of the Kafkaesque hero bears witness to the fact that, somewhere, he compromised his desire. In order to avoid commonplaces, however, let us rather refer to Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses: when Valmont offers the Marquise de Montreuil his famous ‘c’est pas ma faute’, ‘it’s beyond my control’, as the excuse for his falling in love with the Presidente de Tourvel, he thereby confirms that he ‘compromised his desire’ and yielded to a pathological passion – that is, he is guilty. In order to redeem himself in the eyes of the Marquise, he then proceeds to sacrifice the Presidente, rebuffing her with the same words (‘c’est pas ma faute’ if I no longer love you, since it’s beyond my control). This sacrifice, however, in no way enables him to get rid of his guilt – quite the contrary, his guilt is redoubled; he betrays the Presidente without reducing his guilt in the slightest in the eyes of the Marquise. Therein consists the vicious cycle into which we are drawn once we ‘give up our desire’: there is no simple way back, since the more we endeavour to exculpate ourselves by sacrificing the pathological object which induced us to betray our desire, the greater is our guilt.

Lacanian ethics thus involves the radical disjunction between duty and giving consideration to the Good. This is why Lacan refers to Kant, to the Kantian gesture of excluding the Good as the motivation of an ethical act: Lacan insists that the most dangerous form of betrayal is not a direct yielding to our ‘pathological’ impulses but, rather, a reference to some kind of Good, as when I shirk my duty with the excuse that I might thereby impair the Good (my own or common) – the moment I invoke ‘circumstances’ or ‘unfavourable consequences’ as an excuse, I am on my way to perdition. Reasons on account of which I compromise my desire can be very convincing and well-founded, even honourable; I can invoke anything, up to and including ecological damage. The artifice of looking for excuses is boundless; it may well be ‘true’ that the well-being of my fellow-men is jeopardized by my act, but the abyss that separates ethics from the consideration of the Good none the less remains insurmountable. Desire and Kantian ethical rigour coincide here in their disregard for the ‘demands of reality’: neither of them acknowledges the excuse of circumstances or unfavourable consequences, which is why Lacan ultimately identifies them (‘the moral law, looked at more closely, is simply desire in its pure state’).

Freud’s infamous assertion that women are without superego – or, at least, that a woman’s superego is weaker than a man’s – appears, therefore, in an entirely new light: women’s lack of superego bears witness to their ethics. Women don’t need a superego, since they have no guilt on which the superego can parasitize – since, that is, they are far less prone to compromise their desire. It is by no means accidental that Lacan evokes as the exemplary case of a pure ethical attitude Antigone, a woman who ‘didn’t give up’: already, at a pre-theoretical intuitive level, it is clear that she does not do as she does because of superego pressure – superego has no business here. Antigone is not guilty, although she does not trouble herself at all about the Good of the community, about the possible catastrophic consequences of her act. Herein resides the link between the male superego and the fact that in man the sense of the Good of the community is expressed far more than it is in woman: the ‘Good of the community’ is the standard excuse for compromising our desire. Superego is the revenge that capitalizes upon our guilt – that is to say, the price we pay for the guilt we contract by betraying our desire in the name of the Good.

This ethics of persisting in one’s desire irrespective of the common Good inevitably gives rise to anxiety: is not such a radical attitude the preserve of a few ‘heroes’, while we ordinary people also have a right to survive? Consequently, do we not also need an ‘ordinary’ ethics of ‘common Good’ and distributive justice that would meet the requirements of the majority, despicable as it may appear in the eyes of the suicidal heroic ethics advocated by Lacan? The fear of this ‘excessive’ character of the Lacanian ethics of desire (…) can be detected even in Kant who, according to Lacan, was the first to formulate an ethics of desire that ignores pathological considerations: is not the restraint imposed by ‘What if everyone were to do the same as me?’ the elementary form of the way we give up our desire? Renounce your desire, since it is not universalizable!

Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, pp. 54-68.

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