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On Evil: An Interview with Alenka Zupancic

Christoph Cox and Alenka Zupancic


In the past several years, we have seen a marked return to "the question o evil" amon! philosophers and psychoanalytic theorists" Is there somethin! a#out our particular historical moment that orces us to rethink what "evil" mi!ht mean$ Or is the question o evil perennial, somethin! repressed that continues to return and assert itsel $ The theoretical necessity of rethinking the concept of evil is linked to the more general interest in the question of ethics. To a considerable extent, this interest is polemical: The way the word "ethics" has been used lately in public discourse is bound to provoke some theoretical and conceptual nausea. It is used either to back up some political or legal decision that nobody is willing to assume fully, or else to keep in check certain developments in science, for instance! that seem to move much more quickly than our "morals" do. To put it simply, "ethics" is thought of as something strictly restrictive" something that, in the hustle and bustle of our society, marks a place for our intimate fears. In philosophy as well as in psychoanalysis, a conceptual revolt against this notion of ethics took place. The question of evil and its possible definitions arose in reaction to this broader conceptual frame. The fact that something keeps returning usually means that we are dealing with a con#unction of the impossible and the necessary. $vil seems to be a perfect candidate for such a con#unction. %hy is this return happening today& The best I can do to provide a general answer to this question is to point out that the political, economical, and technological events of the recent past have had an important impact on our notion of "the impossible." The impossible has, so to speak, lost its rights. 'n the economic level it seems as if what was once referred to as an economic impossibility i.e. the limits that a given economic order sets to our pro#ects, as well as to our life in general! is being redefined as some kind of natural impossibility or natural law, i.e. as something that cannot be changed in any way!. The explosion of new technologies inspires something that one could call a "desperate optimism." 'n this level, it seems that almost everything is possible, but in a way that makes us feel that none of these possibilities contains what (acan calls a )eal, an "absolute condition" that could catch and sustain our desire for more than #ust a passing moment. 'n the political level, the fall of *ommunism has made western democracies lose sight of their own contradictions and all alternatives are declared impossible. +o, if we consider all this, what you call the return of the question of evil might be a way for the impossible to remind us that we have not yet done away with its necessity. The philosophical category of evil can also introduce some distance and reflection into what is,and always has been,an inherent bond between evil and the Imaginary. $vil has always been an ob#ect of fascination, with all the ambiguity and ambivalence that characteri-e the latter. .ascination could be said to be the aesthetic feeling of the state of

contradiction. It implies, at the same time, attraction and repulsion. "$vil" is not only something that we abhor more than anything else" it is also something that manages to catch hold of our desire. 'ne could even say that the thing that makes a certain ob#ect or phenomenon "evil" is precisely the fact that it gives body to this ambiguity of desire and abhorrence. The link between "evil" in the common use of this word! and the Imaginary springs from the fact that we are dealing precisely with something that has no image. This is not as paradoxical as it might sound. +trictly speaking,and here I am drawing more on (acanian psychoanalysis than on philosophy,the Imaginary register is in itself a response to the lack of the Image. The more this lack or absence is burdensome, the more frenetic is the production of images. /ut also and here we come back to the question of evil!, the more closely an image gets to occupy the very place of the lack of the Image, the greater will be its power of fascination. %ithin reality as it is constituted via what (acan calls the Imaginary and the +ymbolic mechanisms, there is a "place of the lack of the Image," which is symbolically designated as such. That is to say that the very mechanism of representation posits its own limits and designates a certain beyond which it refers to as "unrepresentable." In this case, we can say that the place of something that has no image is designated symbolically" and it is this very designation that endows whatever finds itself in this place with the special power of fascination. +ince this unrepresentable is usually associated with the transgression of the given limits of the +ymbolic, it is spontaneously perceived as "evil," or at least as disturbing. (et us take an example: %hen it comes to the stories that play upon a neat distinction between "good" and "evil" and their conflict, we are not only more fascinated by "evil" characters" it is also clear that the force of the story depends on the strength of the "evil" character. %hy is this so& The usual answer is that the "good" is always somehow flat, whereas "evil" displays an intriguing complexity. /ut what exactly is this complexity about& It is certainly not about some deeper motives or reasons for this "evil" being "evil." The moment we get any kind of psychological or other explanation for why somebody is "evil," the spell is broken, so to speak. The complexity and depth of "evil" characters are related to the fact that they seem to have no other reason for doing what they are doing but the fun or spite! of it. In this sense, they are as "flat" as can be. /ut at the same time, this lack of depth can itself become something palpable, a most oppressive and massive presence. In these stories, as well as in what constitutes the individual or the collective Imaginary, evil is usually precisely this: that which lends its "face" to some disturbing void "beyond representation." The important point to remember here is that this "void" is structural and not empirical. It is not some empty space or no man0s land that could be gradually reduced to nothing or conquered by the advance of knowledge and science. The fact that science itself can function as the embodiment or the agent of evil is significant enough in this regard. Take the recent example of 1olly, or of cloning in general. It is clear that here we are dealing with a striking transgression of the limits of our +ymbolic universe. In this example, we can also grasp what makes the difference between image and Image. 1olly looks like any other sheep" her "image" is #ust like the image of any other sheep. 2nd yet, her place in the +ymbolic, or rather, the fact that there is no established place for such a being in the given +ymbolic order, endows her image with a special "glow." +o, the first important thing that the philosophical as well as psychoanalytical! perspective can bring to the question of evil is thus to establish and maintain the

difference between this void, which is an effect of structure, and the images that come to represent or embody it. 3ot to confound the two is the first step in any analysis of phenomena that are referred to as "evil." I%m interested in the idea that "evil has no ima!e"" In our reservoir o ima!es, is there an adequate ima!e o evil$ Is there an ima!e o evil that "occupies the very place o the lack o the Ima!e"$ &hose ima!es that sprin! to mind 'monsters, the ace o (itler, representations o the devil) always seem somehow inadequate" (et0s start with 4itler. It is probably no coincidence that the two best movies about 4itler are comedies: (ubitsch0s To Be or Not to Be and *haplin0s The Great Dictator. The image of 4itler is funny. It is funny because it is so inadequate. In *haplin0s movie, the image of 4itler is the same as that of the 5ewish barber, which is precisely the point. Images of monsters and devils are inadequate because they try to "illustrate" evil. The point is not that real evil cannot be illustrated or represented, but that we have tendency to call "evil" precisely that which is not represented in a given representation. 2s to the question of whether there is an image of evil that occupies the very place of the lack of the Image, I would say yes, there is. It is what we could call a "sublime splendor," "shine," "glare," "glow," or "aura." It belongs to the Imaginary register, although it is not an image, in the strict sense of the word" rather, it is that which makes a certain image "shine" and stand out. 6ou could say that it is an effect of the )eal on our imagination, the last veil or "screen" that separates us from the impossible )eal. In To Be or Not To Be, (ubitsch provides a very good example of "the image that occupies the very place of the lack of the Image." 2t the beginning of the film, there is a brilliant scene in which a group of actors is rehearsing a play that features 4itler. The director is complaining about the appearance of the actor who plays 4itler, saying that his make7up is bad and that he doesn0t look like 4itler at all. 4e also says that what he sees in front of him is #ust an ordinary man. The scene continues, and the director is trying desperately to name the mysterious "something more" that distinguishes the appearance of 4itler from the appearance of the actor in front of him. 'ne could say that he is trying to name the "evil" that distinguishes 4itler from this man who actually looks a lot like 4itler. 4e is searching and searching, and finally he notices a photograph of 4itler on the wall, and triumphantly cries out: "That0s it8 This is what 4itler looks like8" "/ut sir," replies the actor, "this picture was taken of me." 3eedless to say, we as spectators were very much taken in by the enthusiasm of the director who saw in the picture something quite different from this poor actor. 3ow, I would say that there is probably no better "image" of the lack of the Image than this "thing" that the director but also ourselves! has "seen" in the picture on the wall and that made all the difference between the photograph and the actor. 'ne should stress, however, that this phenomenon is not linked exclusively to the question of evil, but to the question of the "unrepresentable" in general. *hy is it that evil captures the ima!ination #ut the !ood does not$ Ethics would seem to #e #ound to the idea that the !ood is attractive, allied with the #eauti ul and, as such, somethin! that solicits our desire" +ut, as you su!!est, the opposite is perhaps more plausi#le" &he com#ination o attraction and repulsion one inds in evil seems, perversely, more attractive to us" *hat does this tell us a#out our desire and a#out the nature o evil and the !ood$

4ere I turn to 9antian ethics, which utterly breaks with the idea that the good is attractive and, as such, can solicit our desire. 9ant calls this kind of attraction,this kind of causality,"pathological" or non:ethical. ;oreover, 9ant re#ects the very idea that ethics can be founded on any given notion of the good. In 9antian ethics, we start with an unconditional law that is not founded on any pre7established notion of the good. The singularity of this law lies in the fact that it doesn0t tell us what we must or mustn0t do, but only refers us to the universality that we are ourselves supposed to bring about with our action: "2ct only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law," goes the famous formulation of 9ant0s categorical imperative. The only definition of "good" in 9antian ethics is that of an action which, firstly, satisfies this demand of the universal and, secondly, has this demand for its only motive. The 9antian notion of the good has no other content. 'nly an action that is accomplished according to the moral! law and only because of the law is "good." If I act out of any other inclination sympathy, compassion, fear, desire for recognition, etc.!, my action cannot be called ethical or "good"!. The uneasiness that this aspect of 9antian theory often provokes springs from the fact that he re#ects as "non7ethical" not only egoistic motives but also altruistic ones. 9ant doesn0t claim that altruism cannot be genuine or that it always masks some deeper egoism. 4e simply insists on the fact that ethics is not a question of lower or higher motives, but a question of principles. ,ecall that, in (annah Arendt%s amous example, -a.i unctionaries like Eichmann took themselves to #e /antians in this respect: &hey claimed to act simply on principle without any consideration or the empirical consequences o their actions" In what way is this a perversion o /ant$ This attitude is "perverse" in the strictest clinical meaning of the word: The sub#ect has here assumed the role of a mere instrument of the %ill of the 'ther. In relation to 9ant, I would simply stress the following point, which has already been made by +lavo# <i-ek: In 9antian ethics, we are responsible for what we refer to as our duty. The moral law is not something that could clear us of all responsibility for our actions" on the contrary, it makes us responsible not only for our actions, but also,and foremost,for the principles that we act upon. )eturning to the question of the good, what is most intriguing in 9ant0s conception of ethics is that, strictly speaking, there is no reason or necessity! for the good being good. The good has no empirical content in which its goodness could be founded. The good is good for itself" it is good because it is good. %ith this conception, 9ant revolutioni-ed the field of ethics. /y separating the notion of good from every positive content, preserving it only as something which holds open the space for the unconditional, he accomplished several important things. 'ne that should interest us in this discussion is that he undermined the classical opposition between good and evil. In my reading of 9ant, this is related to the fact that the moral law is not something that one could transgress. 'ne can fail to act "according to the principle and only out of the principle"" but this failure cannot be called a transgression. This has some important consequences for the 9antian notion of evil. (et me briefly sketch this notion. 9ant identifies three different modes of "evil." The first two refer precisely to the fact that we fail to act "according to the moral! law and only because of the law." 'ne technical detail that will help us to follow 9ant0s argument: 9ant calls "legal" those

actions that are performed in accordance with the law, and "ethical" those which are also performed only because of the law. 3ow, if we fail to act "ethically," this can happen either because we yield to motives that drive us away from the "legal" course of action, or because our course of action, "legal" in itself, is motivated by something other than the moral! law. 2n example: (et0s say that someone is trying to make me give a false testimony against someone that he wants to get rid of, and he threatens to hurt me if I refuse. If I give the false testimony because I want to avoid being hurt, this implies the first configuration described above. /ut it can also happen that I refuse to give the false testimony because, for instance, I fear being punished by =od. %hich means that I do the right thing for the wrong 9ant would say "pathological"! reasons. ;y action is "legal," but it is not "ethical" or "good." 'ne can see immediately that these two modes of "evil" have little to do with what we usually call "evil." In these instances, "evil" simply names the fact that the "good" did not take place. 9ant goes on to formulate a third mode of evil, which he calls "radical evil." 2 simple way of defining this notion is that it refers to the fact that we give up on the very possibility of the good. That is to say, we give up on the very idea that something other than our inclinations and interests could ever dictate our conduct. 4ere again, the term "radical evil" does not refer to some empirical content of our actions or to the "quantity of bad" caused by them. In my view, it is completely wrong to relate this 9antian notion to examples such us the 4olocaust, mass murders, massacres, and so on. )adical evil is not some most horrible deed" its "radicalness" is linked to the fact that we renounce the possibility of ever acting out of principle. It is radical because it perverts the roots of all possible ethical conduct, and not because it takes the form of some terrible crime. I said before that the principal function of the 9antian notion of the good is to hold open the space for the unconditional or, to use another word, for freedom. )adical evil could be defined as that which closes up this space.