At the end of every film a small notice reminds us that, even if we have been watching something based on a real occurrence, none of the characters or incidents in the picture are intended to represent actual people or events. It is, of course, just a legal formality. As willing as we are to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the film and accept it on its own terms, no-one thinks that even the greatest cinema is anything but pure invention. Why, then, does Slavoj Zizek declare at the end of The Pervert's Guide that 'if you are looking for what is in reality more real than reality itself - look in to the cinematic fiction?'
Zizek's starting point for this grand yet contradictory claim about cinema is the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The most significant figure in psychoanalysis since its founder Sigmund Freud, Lacan furnishes much of the terminology and conceptual framework with which Zizek tackles the objects of his analysis. Psychoanalysis is usually narrowly conceived as a field of knowledge, one that comprises a method for treating neurotic patients and a set of theories about mental processes. In the hands of Lacan, however, psychoanalysis assumes cosmic ambitions, vaulting over the boundaries of its own discipline and engaging with politics, philosophy, literature, science, religion and almost all other areas of life to form a vast theory that has a hand in analysing every field of endeavour in which human beings take part (c.f. How to Read Lacan). The foundations Lacan laid for this hubristic enterprise are the three 'Orders' by which all mental functioning can be classified: the Imaginary Order, the Symbolic Order and the Order of the Real.
It is perhaps easiest to think of these three Orders as force-fields which permeate every mental act, each one bringing to bear its own particular type of influence on an individual's well-being. The Imaginary, which is the Order of least interest to Zizek, refers both to the process by which the ego is created in infants, (the process through which an alien humanity comes to colonise the body, as Zizek points out in The Pervert's Guide), and to the restless seeking after self which is its legacy in adulthood. In Zizek's works, the 'other' with a lower case 'o' designates this Imaginary alterity within ourselves, whereas the 'Other' with an upper case 'O' refers to the Symbolic Order and those who represent it.
The Symbolic is perhaps the most ambitious of all the Orders because its purview includes everything from language to the law, taking in all the social structures in between. As such, the Symbolic constitutes a good part of what we usually call 'reality'. It is the impersonal framework of society, the arena in which we take our place as part of a community of fellow human beings. For example, most people are inscribed in the Symbolic before they are even born, because they are given a name, belong to a family, a socio-economic group, a gender, a race and so on. As Zizek points out in The Pervert's Guide, 'we humans are not naturally born in to reality' and the price we pay for entry into reality conceived as the Symbolic Order is metaphorical castration (c.f. On Belief).
What gets castrated, so to speak, is the Real. The Real is the world in its fullness before it is carved up by language and the rest of the Symbolic Order. For Zizek, it is also what is left after this process - the excess or remainder that resists Symbolization, appearing only as a failure in the Symbolic, or, more appropriately, as what returns as trauma when flushing the toilet doesn't work. The fact that the Real is both what precedes and comes after the Symbolic is part of its oxymoronic or contradictory character - in the Real things can simultaneously be their opposites (c.f. The Parallax View).
Zizek is sometimes called 'the philosopher of the Real'. This reference is partly a play on the word 'real', in so far as Zizek discusses 'real' topics, such as toilets (c.f. The Plague of Fantasies) or Keanu Reeves' films, rather than abstract ideas with no immediate bearing on the way we live our lives. However, it also refers to the Lacanian Real, a concept which he has expanded and made his own. Not only does the Real form the object of many of Zizek's analyses, it also infuses his style of thinking with a particular oxymoronic flavour, enabling him, for example, to watch some of the greatest fictions of all time and declare they are more real than reality.
When discussing or writing about the Real, Zizek almost always does so in relation to the Symbolic. Crucially, it is in the productive tension between these two Orders that he locates the subject (c.f. The Ticklish Subject). Zizek defines the subject as a void, a point of complete negation. This void is what mediates between the Real and the Symbolic - it is the negation of everything in the Real that allows us to assume our Symbolic mandate as individuals. As Zizek points out in The Pervert's Guide, what you sometimes see behind another person's eyes is this terrible void, the fatal 'abyss of the depth of another person' (c.f. The Abyss of Freedom) Literally, everything is not there. The profile shots of Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo encapsulate something of this disturbing truth about subjectivity precisely because they are profiles. The plenitude of her face is hidden in shadows, leaving the outline of a blank nothingness upon which Scottie can project his fantasies about the wealth of personality within. Zizek alludes to the fact that in this regard Madeleine/Judy is emblematic of all femininity, because woman is another name for the subject as such. Whereas masculinity stands for the persistence of the myth of the plenitude of subjectivity, woman is the authentic subject of 'the night of the world' - the abyss of nothingness which enables us to exist as independent beings at all (c.f. The Metastases of Enjoyment).
Another way of looking at this is to say that whereas there is a limit or boundary against which man is defined, there is no such limit for woman. For man, this limit is defined by the myth of the primal father from Freud's Totem and Taboo. The primal father has unbridled access to enjoyment, or jouissance as it is otherwise known (c.f. They Know Not What They Do). Enjoyment or jouissance is to be distinguished from mere pleasure. It is the pleasure beyond mere pleasure itself - a pleasure that has an orgasmic charge, indexing the point where pleasure becomes pain. The fullness of this enjoyment is denied men generally by virtue of castration, their accession to the Symbolic. However, the exception that guarantees the rule of castration is the primal father, the man with ungovernable lust and life energy whom Zizek identifies in the absurd paternal figures of David Lynch's films - Frank in Blue Velvet, Baron Harkonnen in Dune, and Mr Eddie in Lost Highway (c.f. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime).
There is no equivalent female figure to the primal father - nothing, in other words, to guarantee the identity of woman. She is not therefore fully Symbolized. This resistance to the Symbolic, according to Zizek, is hysterical. In psychoanalysis, hysteria designates an attitude of questioning, specifically a questioning of the big Other (c.f. Tarrying with the Negative). Such questioning in Zizek's work is often rendered in Italian shorthand as 'Che vuoi?' - 'What does the big Other want from me?' By its very articulation, this question creates a distance between the questioner and the big Other, the Symbolic Order. It thus designates the failure of the Symbolic Order. This failure in the Symbolic is also what castration represents - the incommensurability between the Symbolic and jouissance, the fact that the big Other can never fully Symbolize the Real of enjoyment. In this sense, the terms man and woman designate two modes of failure of Symbolization.
How, then, do we cope with this gap in the Symbolic? The answer, for Zizek, is that we cover it up with fantasies. One example of this can be found in the contrast between Judaism and Christianity. In Judaism, God is unknowable. The Judaic prohibition on making images of God means that, for Zizek, the Jewish God persists as the incarnation of 'Che vuoi?' - we never really know what He desires from us. Even when this God pronounces a comprehensible order, such as when he demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, it remains unclear what he actually wants from Abraham, what God's intention is behind this command. Abraham's position in this respect is emblematic of the position of the Jews as a whole. Why were they picked by God to be the 'chosen people'? In themselves they were not special, but they became 'the chosen ones' when they assumed their Symbolic mandate, the role that God had chosen for them. The starting point for a Jewish believer is thus the perplexity of the 'Che vuoi?' - 'What does God want from us?' In contrast to the bewilderment of Judaism, Zizek asserts that Christianity is founded upon the pacification of the 'Che vuoi?': the Passion of Christ, the image of Christ upon the Cross, is a kind of fantasy scenario which fills in the void of the question of the desire of the Other. By sacrificing His son, God reassures Christian believers that He loves them and thus makes His desire clear (c.f. The Sublime Object of Ideology).
If hysteria is marked by a radical uncertainty, then, in psychoanalysis, the certainty that one knows what the Other desires, and the concomitant offering of oneself as an instrument of its jouissance, is known as perversion. In this sense, Zizek describes the scene in The Matrix where Neo awakes to find himself part of a massive battery of human beings giving energy to the Matrix as the ultimate pervert fantasy. It is a fantasy of utter passivity where we are nothing more than instruments of the Matrix's or big Other's jouissance (c.f. Enjoy Your Symptom). What Zizek is careful to point out about fantasy is that it is not merely an imaginative exercise in opposition to the reality of things. Rather, fantasy is our window onto reality - it is the little piece of imagination through which we gain access to reality (c.f. The Plague of Fantasies). Without fantasy our sense of reality would collapse. And an exemplary form of fantasy is, of course, cinema. This is partly why, at the end of The Pervert's Guide, Zizek claims we need films and enjoins us to 'look into the cinematic fiction' if we wish to understand 'what is in reality more real than reality itself'. For, just as, according to Zizek, the sexual act is always mediated by a fantasmatic support, so too is all our understanding of reality. As he points out, 'we need the excuse of a fiction to stage what we truly are.'
As most of the clips Zizek discusses in The Pervert's Guide show, what we get when fantasy disintegrates is not a return to reality, but a much more traumatic return to the Real (c.f. Looking Awry). As always, any encounter with the Real is indexed by the presence of overwhelming anxiety - the one true emotion. This is what happens to Julie in Blue when she discovers that her dead husband, for whom she is in mourning, was actually cheating on her with a woman who is pregnant with his child. As a result of this, Julie's sense of reality collapses around her. Her subsequent encounter with the newly born mice and their mother in a cupboard then takes on a truly traumatic dimension, as she 'is too excessively exposed to life in its brutal meaninglessness'. Eventually, Julie manages to regain a foothold in reality, to confer sense upon the world, through the interposition of fantasy, one that allows her to maintain the proper distance between herself and the Real (c.f. The Fright of Real Tears). It is precisely this distance which cinema affords us. As Zizek asserts, we are never merely watching fiction, but rather the fiction that supports reality itself.
All references in parentheses refer to a Zizek book where the respective topic is explored in more detail.
Tony Myers is author of Slavoj Zizek, for the Routledge Critical Thinkers series.