By now I’m sure most have heard about the Laura Schlessinger controversy. For those who haven’t, here’s a clip giving the gist:
I don’t want to talk about this rant, but something I just heard a (critical) pundit say on television. This pundit said that she could not say whether “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger is a racist or not because she cannot know what is in her heart of hearts. The idea here is that racism (homophobia, misogyny, etc) must be a conscious thought where someone sits around consciously thinking hateful thoughts.
I hear this sort of thing a lot. It is here, perhaps above all, that Lacan’s split-subject has something really important to offer. One of the best things Zizek ever wrote appears in The Sublime Object of Ideology, when he writes,
Where is the place of ideological illusion, in the ‘knowing’ or in the ‘doing’ in the reality itself? At first sight, the answer seems obvious: ideological illusion lies in the ‘knowing’. It is a matter of a discordance between what people are effectively doing and what they think they are doing– ideology consists in the very fact that people ‘do not know what they are really doing’, that they have a false representation of the social reality to which they belong (distortion produced, of course, by the same reality). Let us take again the classic Marxian example of so-called commodity fetishism: money is in reality just an embodiment, a condensation, a materialization of a network of social relations– the fact that it functions as a universal equivalent of all commodities is conditioned by its position in the texture of social relations. But to the individuals themselves, this function of money– to be the embodiment of wealth –appears as an immediate, natural property of a thing called ‘money’, as if money is already in itself, in its immediate material reality, the embodiment of wealth. Here we have touched upon the classic Marxist motive of ‘reification’: behind the things, the relation between things, we must detect the social relations, the relations between human subjects.
But such a reading of the Marxian formula leaves out an illusion, an error, a distortion which is already at work in the social reality itself, at the level of what the individuals are doing, and not only what they think or know they are doing. When individuals use money, they know very well that there is nothing magical about it– that money, in its materiality, is simply an expression of social relations. The everyday spontaneous ideology reduces money to a simple sign giving the individual possessing it a right to a certain part of the social product. So, on an everyday level, the individuals know very well there are relations between people behind the relations between things. The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are doing, they are acting as if money, in its material reality, is an immediate embodiment of wealth as such. They are fetishists in practice, not in theory. (30 – 31)
What is in Laura Schlessinger’s heart is irrelevant. This is precisely because what is in “our heart” (as conventionally understood) is merely how we narcissistically view ourselves so as to appear likable to ourselves. Rather, our unconscious is to be located in our doings. Indeed, psychoanalysis even understands speech in these terms. The meaning of my speech, the analyst says, is not my intentions (what is in “my heart”), but rather what is spoken regardless of whether or not I intended (hence the reason that slips of the tongue, jokes, bungled actions, etc. can signify). I recall a person at a rhetoric conference once saying that in his heart Bush is a good Christian. Isn’t this the logic of agalma par excellence? Bush’s Christianity is not to be evaluated in terms of how he feels, what he thinks, what he says about it, whether he’s ardent about it, etc., but by his actions alone. So too with Laura Schlessinger’s speech and actions. I really wish we could get past this idea that somehow racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., have something to do with whether or not people consciously think of themselves as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on. A little lesson from Zizek and Lacan is in order here.