Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment As a Political Factor. London: Verso, 1991.
Zizek analyzes the nation in terms of the Lacanian triad: Real, Imaginary and Symbolic, in which Nation is a form of the symbolic. Zizek investigates the motivations behind the creation of the nation as a reactionary phenomenon. In “On the One,” the nation is understood within the terms of the symbolic.
First it’s important to note that nation is only used as an example of the symbolic among many other examples, along with “God”, “The Law”, “The Jews” and “The King.” The first observation made about the symbolic is that it is a purely formal order of differential features. The role that these concepts play is in a higher form of the symbolic order as something beyond differential features, rather, the presence of the nation is an attempt to represent these differences metonymically.
The symbolic “God” is a reaction to earthly fears, by introduCHRIScing a symbol “God” as “an additional fear that retroactively cancels all the others” (17). The notion of God emerges from an excess of its opposite: earthly fears. The symbolic explain everything, it is the space where all becomes clear—the ego-ideal that casts power over all that is seemingly beyond our own power (18). This instance of ‘quilting’ is an effort to conceptualize that which is impossible to conceive, in the same way that . In this sense nation too can be seen as an excess of its opposite.
The first appearance of the nation comes on page twenty, as an example of a “suturing” ego-ideal: “the only thing that actually de-sutures is suture itself,” meaning that as an effort to unify concepts, the symbolic in turn “de-sutures” concepts from each other. If God is excess fear, and law is excess crime, then nation too can be defined in its opposite: as excess separation. The unifying concepts of the nation (that we are all ‘citizens’) is feeble compared to the “de-suturing” effects of the subjects to their traditional ‘organic’ ties of unity: “family, religious group, and so on” (20). Nation then springs up as the general equivalent of all separation, producing an ‘organic inveteracy’ that unites subjects under modern, post-traditional imagined substance that operates “within the universe of the substanceless…subjectivity,” just as “the fear of God springs up as the general equivalent of all fears” (20-1).
How does the nation “spring up”?
Zizek further expands his idea of the nation within a value-system, where nation takes the “general form” of the symbolic, where “one signifier represents the subject for all other signifiers” (24). For the nation, the “suturing” effect can only take place after the “de-suturing,” where by alienating the subjects from their ‘traditional’ unities, the subjects all become a part of a series of equivalences within the imaginary. The “nation” then “springs up” as a metonymic reversal of pure equivalences into one signifier that represents the subject for all the others, which Zizek defines as the Master Signifier (God, Law, Nation).
The Master Signifier is constituted within a fundamental value system, engendered from the instant when the subject recognizes that he/she is not represented, or rather that “every signifier misrepresents the subject” (24). The MS then emerges as a response to the desire for cohesion of concepts. The MS is a “general equivalent” which “does not represent the subject at the same level, within the same logical space” (24). “Nation” operates at a higher level , though fundamentally, it is still only reflexive, it is still taken as the highest form of value (something worth killing/dying for).
To sum up the argument of part I in terms of the nation, the nation comes from an excess of separation, and is the ultimate form of separation, because it is a culturally constructed reaction to excess separation. The nation also functions in a sphere above logic, an alogical sphere. In other words, a subject chooses to believe in nation because they know that “nation” is an impossibility, since nation is only an excess of its opposite. In Part II, nation is taken as an alogical phenomenon and therefore, in order to preserve it, “nation” can in no way be a fixed concept, and must avoid the constricting tendency of language altogether.
As an organic body, nation is an excess of separation, which means that it becomes a constantly re-emerging concept within separations, and therefore becomes an organic symbol, like God, Jews, Money, Law. Nation is constantly readjusting itself as a manifestation of a physical inversion—an excess separation. Therefore, when that separation is in flux, so is the concept “nation”.
How does the nation avoid definition?
The nation becomes an identity that appears “when predicates fail” (36). The nation cannot be defined because there always occurs “a doubling of the universal when it is confronted with its own contents” (34). Referring to the God analogy, God is created by an excess of fear in order to totalizing all the equalizing fear into a higher concept that suffocates all fear, by appearing both “all loving” as well as something that must be feared. The concept of God, when it is faced with its contents, must then bifurcate into “God of peace” and “God of hatred” (36). In order to maintain itself, the symbolic must avoid its contents altogether, which include a determinable definition. An definition of the symbolic must be purely tautological.
God is both all-loving/God is an object of totalizing fear. – God is God
Nation is unifying principles/Nation is excess separation. – Nation is nation.
Marc Redfield sees the nation similarly to Zizek, as an idea beyond ideas, untied to specific characteristics, only used as an affinity group, which is a necessity to produce organic unity. The culture of nationalism is then an aesthetic culture within a biological continuity, created in order to establish the concept of “nation” as one of total mobilization. This mobilization is achieved through the refusal of nation to be defined. As Schiller says “the certain characteristic of the German” is the desire to “form an opinion for himself about that which concerns Germans,” through Schiller, Redfield sees that “the German is he who can posit Germany” (93) The definition is tautological because it can only define itself by referencing itself, and therefore avoids any characteristics at all, “the subject is trained up to perceive an unperceivable nation” (95).
In this tautological definition of nation, it can easily be concluded that Nation functions on a higher, alogical sphere, by making us all perverts. How? We are perverted because nationalism avoids definition, because its ability to avoid a predicate, of fully satiating our desires, makes us all the more intrigued to discover nation as a whole, in the same way that a Boddhisatva is always “on the cusp” of obtaining nirvana, but nirvana can never be attained, because by definition, a Boddhisatva cannot even desire nirvana. “The very impossibility of the signifier’s representation is reflected into this representation itself” (24). Nation then, according to Zizek’s Master Signifier, becomes a pure possibility that can never be fully understood, because it escapes definition entirely, yet operates on a plane of pure desire, because it masks itself as a fixed, universal concept, in the same way that Hitler presented the Jews, or that God, money and the law are still presented today. It is then on a higher sphere and above logic.
The only attempts to define nation are by increasing its fundamental origins as “excess separation,” where the “the very identity of the ‘British character’ constitutes itself by reference to [an] intruder,” or as Schiller says “a man who does not want to hear or think about [the German nation] may rightly be regarded…as not belonging to us”(38, 93).
To sum up, the efforts to define nation must be obsolete so that nation can continually re-emerge as a reactionary phenomenon according to what is historically imperative. The nation only has “identity-with-itself,” which is ”nothing but [an] impossibility of predicates” (36). The concept of the nation becomes both an abstract negation of itself and a vanishing point, a pure singularity. For nation, “words can only be squandered; they are spirit’s inessential, if necessary, supplement,” and language is only used as “superfluous noise” in order to reaffirm the impossibility of discovering nation(93). Nation is the purest type of contradiction, because it both represents all, though “the void is its only content” (52).