Zizek 04

Organs without bodies by Zizek 紀傑克:沒有身體的器官

Translated by Springhero 雄伯譯



Memes, Memes Everywhere



In the 1990s, a Japanese toy called tamagochi was very popular. It reduced the other with whom we communicate ( usually a pet animal) to a purely virtual presence on a screen. The game played with it involves acting as if there is a real, living creature behind the screen—we get excited, cry for it, although we know very well that there is nothing behind, just a meaningless digital network. If we take seriously what we just said, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the Other Person with whom we communicate is ultimately also a kind of tamagochi. When we communicate with another subject, we get signals from him, we observe his face as a screen, but, not only do we, partners in communication, never get to know what is “ behind the screen”; the same goes for the concerned subject himself ( i.e., the subject does not know what lies behind the screen of his very own ( self) consciousness, what kind of a Thing he is in the Real! ( Self) consciousness is a surface-screen that products the effect of “ depth,” of a dimension beneath it. And yet, this dimension is accessible only from the standpoint of the surface, as a kind of surface-effect; if we effectively reach behind the screen, the very effect of the “ depth of a person” dissolves. What we are left with is just a set of meaningless processes that are neuronal, biochemical, and so forth. For that reason, the usual polemics about the respective roles of “ genes versus environment” ( of biology versus cultural influence, of nature versus nurture) in the formation of the subject misses the key dimension, namely, that of the interface that both connects and distinguishes the two. The “ subject” emerges when the “ membrane,” the surface that delimits the Inside from the Outside—instead from the Outside—instead of being just a passive medium of their interaction—starts to function as their active mediator.




   The conclusion is then that, even if science defines and starts to manipulate the human genome, this will not enable it to dominate and manipulate human subjectivity. What makes me “ unique” is neither my genetic formula nor the way my dispositions were developed due to the influence of the environment but the unique self-relationship emerging out of the interaction between the two. More precisely, even the word is not quite adequate here, insofar as it still implies the mutual influence of two given sets of positive conditions ( genes and environment), thus failing to cover the crucial feature of Selbst-Beziehung ( the self-referential loop due to which, in the way I relate to my environment, I never reach the “ zero-level” of being passively influenced by it, since, instead, I always –already relate to myself in relating to it, that is, I always-already, with a minimum of “ freedom,” determines in advance the way I will be determined by the environment, up to the most elementary level of sensible perceptions). The way I “ see myself,” the imaginary and symbolic features that constitute my “ self-image” ( or, even more fundamentally, the fantasy that provides the ultimate coordinate of my being), is neither in the genes nor imposed by the environment but in the unique way each subject relates to himself, “ chooses himself,” in relationship to his environs, as well as to ( what he perceives as ) his “ nature.”




   We are thus dealing with a kind of “ bootstrap” mechanism that cannot be reduced to the interaction of myself as a biological entity and my environment; a third mediating agency emerges ( the subject, precisely), that has no positive substantial Being since, in a way, its status is purely “ performative” ( i.e., it is a kind of self-inflamed flame, nothing but the outcome of its activity—what Fichte called a Tathandlung, the pure act of self-referential Selbst-Setzung). Yes,  I emerge through the interaction between my biological bodily base and my environs—but, what both my environs and my bodily base are  is always “ mediated” by my activity. It is interesting to note how today’s most advanced cognitive scientists take over ( or, rather, develop out of their own research) this motif of minimal self-reference that the great German Idealists were trying to formulate in terms of “ transcendental spontaneity.” So, in the case of human clones ( or, already today, of identical twins), what accounts for the uniqueness of each of them is not simply that they were exposed to different environments but the way that each of them formed a unique structure of self-reference out of the interaction between his genetic substance and his environment.




   The Deleuzian topic of pseudo cause can thus be correlated to the Hegelian notion of the ( retroactive) positing of presuppositions: the direct causality is that of the real interaction of bodies, whereas the pseudo causality is that of retroactively positing the agent’s presuppositions, of ideally assuming what is already imposed on the agent. And what if this also accounts for the emergence of the Subject as a free/autonomous agent? The only “ real” causality occurs at the bodily level of interacting multitudes, while the Subject acts as a “ pseudo cause” that creates events in an autonomous way—again, Deleuze here comes unexpectedly close to Hegel. In the modern sciences, this closed circle of the self-referential “ positing ( of ) the presuppositions,” which Hegel already perceived as the fundamental characteristic of a living entity, is designated as “ autopoiesis”; in a kind of retroactive loop, the result ( the living entity) generates the very material conditions that engender and sustain it. In the tradition of German Idealism, the living organism’s relation to its external other is always-already its self-relationship ( i.e., each organism “ posits” its presupposed environment.)




    The problem with this autopoietic notion of life, elaborated by Maturana and Verela in their classic Autopoiesis and Cognition, does not reside in the question “ Does this notion of autopoiesis effectively overcome the mechanistic paradigm?” but, rather, in the question “ how are we to pass from this self-enclosed loop of Life to ( Self) Consciousness?” Other ( Self-consciousness also reflexive, self-relating in its relationship to an Other. However this reflexivity is thoroughly different from the organism’s self-enclosure. A ( self-) conscious living being displays what Hegel calls the infinite power of Understanding, of abstract ( and abstracting) thought—it is able, in its thoughts, to tear apart the organic Whole of Life, to submit it to a mortifying analysis, to reduce the organism to its isolated elements. ( Self) consciousness thus reintroduces the dimension of Death into organic Life; language itself is a mortifying “ mechanism” that colonizes the Organism. ( This, according to Lacan, is what Freud was after in his hypothesis on the “ death drive.” It was ( again) already Hegel who formulated this tension ( among other places) at the beginning of the chapter on Self-Consciousness in his Phenomenology of Spirit, in which he opposed the two forms of “ Life” qua self-relating through relating to the Other: ( organic-biological) life, and ( self) consciousness. The true problem is not ( only ) how to pass from preorganic matter to life but how life itself can break its autopoietic closure and ex-statically turn into the mortifying objectivization of Understanding). The problem is not Life but the Death-in-Life ( “ tarrying with the negative”) of the speaking organism.




    Within the history of biology, this topic of autopoiesis is part of the “ idealist” tendency of hylozoism: everything that exists, the whole of nature, is alive—it suffers and enjoys. There is no death in this universe; what happens in the case of “ death” is just that a particular coordination of living elements disintegrates, whereas Life goes on, both the Life of the Whole and the lif of the elementary constituents of reality. ( The Sadean “ absolute crime” aims at destroying precisely this second life that survives biological death. We find this position from Aristotle ( his notion of soul as the One-Form of the body) and traditional Soticism through Denis Diderot ( for whom even stones feel pain; it’s just that we don’t hear them—reminding us of the ingenious Patricia Highsmith short story about a woman who wa able to hear the trees shouting when being cut down) and the Schellingian Romantic notion of the World-Soul, up to the whole panoply of today’s theories, from the notion of Gaia (Earth as a living organism) to Deleuze, the last great philosopher of the One, the “ body without organs” that thrives in the multitude of its modalities. One should also add to this series thinkers as different as Francisco Varela, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger, who all search for the unity of body and subject, the point at which the subject directly ( is” his or her body.




    Against this tradition stands the Cartesian tradition to which Lacan fully subscribes: the body exists in the order of having I am not my body, I have it, and this gap renders possible the Gnostic dream of Virtual Reality in which I will be able to shift from one to another virtual body. For Lacan, the key implication of the Cartesian reduction of the body to res extensa is that jouissance is evacuated from bodies, in contrast to mylozoism, in which the body enjoys itself; “ ca jouit,” as Lacan and Deleuze put it. In today’s science and technology, a “ body in pieces” is emerging, a composite of replaceable organs ( pacemakers, artificial limbs, transposed skin, heart, liver, and other transplants—up to the prospect of genetically cultivatd reserve organs). This trend culminates in today’s biogenetics: the lesson of the genome project is that the true center of a living body is not its Soul but its genetic algorithm. It was already Wismann, one of Freud’s key references, who, more than one hundred years ago, established the distinction between an organism’s “ mortal” and “ immortal” parts; its “ soma,” the external body-envelope that grows and disintegrates, and the “ germ-cells,” the genetic component that reproduces itself, remaining the same from one to another generation. Richard Dawkins provided the ultimate formula of this distinction with his notion of the “ the selfish gene”: it is not that individual organisms use their genes to replicate themselves; it is, on the contrary, individual organisms that are the means for the genes to reproduce themselves.




   The properly materialist problem is, How does subjectivity emerge in this reproductive cycle of genes? The line from germ to genome radicalizes the notion of the body within a body, of the real “ immortal” body persisting, reproducing itself, through the generation and corruption of passing mortal bodies. The Lacanian subject is neither the organic Form-Soul—one of the body, nor the germ-genome, the body within the body. The emergence of subjectivity introduces a complication here. Richard Dawkins tries to elaborate a parallel between genes and memes—in the same way bodies are just means for the reproduction of genes, individuals are just means qua elementary units of meaning. The problem here is that, with the symbolic order, the passing individual is not just S, the soma, the disposable envelope, but $ , the barred subject, the self-relating negativity that perverts/inverts the natural order, introducing a radical “ pathological “ imbalance. It is the individual who uses the memes for his or her own purposes. “ Memes” the ( symbolic tradition) are a secondary attempt to reintroduce a kind of stability and order, to reestablish the proper subordination of the particular to the universal, that was disturbed by the emergence of subjectivity: “ subject” is the mortal vanishing accident that posits itself as a infinite end-in-itself.




    One should be careful not to miss the specific level of the notion of memes. A “ memes” spreads neither because of its actual beneficial effects upon its bearers( say, those who adopt it are more successful in life and thus gain an upper hand in the struggle for survival) nor because of its characteristics that make it subjectively attractive to its bearers ( one would naturally tend to give privilege to the idea that promises happiness over the idea that promises nothing but misery and renunciation). Like a computer virus, the meme proliferates simply by programming its own retransmission. Recall the classic example of two missionaries working in a politically stable and opulent country. One says, “ The end is near—repent or you will suffer immensely, “ whereas the other’s message is just to enjoy a happy life. Although the second one’s message is much more attractive and beneficent, the first one will win—why? Because, if you really believe that the end is near, you will exert a tremendous effort to convert as many people as possible, whereas the other belief does not require such an extreme engagement in proselytizing. What is so unsettling about this notion is that we, humans endowed with mind, well, and an experience of meaning, are nonetheless unwitting victims of a “ thought contagion” that operates blindly, spreading itself like a computer virus. No wonder that, when talking about memes, Dennett regularly resorts to the same metaphors as Lacan apropos of language: in both cases, we are dealing with a parasite that penetrates and occupies the human individual, using it for its own purposes. And, effectively, does “ memetics” not ( re)discover the notion of a specifi symbolic level that operates outside ( and, consequently, cannot be reduced to) the standard couple of objective biological facts ( beneficent “ real” effects) and subjective experience ( the attraction of the meaning of a meme)? In a liminal case, an idea can spread even if, in the long term, it brings only destruction to its bearers and is even experienced as unattractive.




    Is there not a surprising parallel between this notion of memes and the Marxist-Hegelian notion of alienation? In the same way memes, misperceived by us, subjects, as means of our communication, effectively run the show ( they use us to reproduce and multiply themselves), productive forces, which appear to us as means to satisfy our needs and desires, effectively run the show. The true aim of the process, its end-in-itself, is the development of the productive forces, and the satisfaction of our needs and desires( i.e., hat appears to us as the goal) is effectively ust the means for the development of the productive forces. This reversal, unbearable to our narcissism, is paradigmatic of modern science, of its production of knowledge that is, in a way, too traumatic t be incorporated into the beliefs which structure our daily lives. Already, quantum physics can no longer be : understood: ( its results cannot be integrated into our everyday view of reality). The same goes for biogenetics. Although we accept its truth, we simultaneously maintain toward it the attitude of fetishist disavowal. We refuse to believe not in a religious doctrine beyond scientific knowledge but in what scientific knowledge itself is telling us about ourselves.



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