Zizek, Slavoj. “Melancholy and the Act.” Critical Inquiry 26.4 (2000): 657-81.

Zizek begins by stating that the Lacanian Big Other designates explicit symbolic rules and unwritten rules as well. Example of Robert Ebert’s movie rules—in a foreign land, in a car chase, a fruit stand will get run over, the grocery bag rule, etc—the Big other regulates our speech and actions. While not stated outright, disobeying them can be very bad.

One of those rules is mourning and melancholia. The dominant opinion is: “Freud opposed normal mourning (the successful acceptance of a loss) to pathological melancholy (the subject persist in his or her narcissistic identification with the lost object). Against Freud, one should assert the conceptual and ethical primacy of melancholy” (658). In mourning, a remainder occurs that fails integration through mourning, “and the ultimate fidelity is the fidelity to this remainder” (658). Mourning kills the lost object (again), while melancholy stays faithful to the lost object. The melancholic refuses to renounce the attachment to the lost object. (((This point is elaborated on by Derrida—we carry the world of the other; the dialogue continues)). This idea of maintaining attachments to the lost object can be used in multiple ways: from the queer one—gays should maintain attached to the repressed same-sex libidinal economy to the ethnic one: where the ethnic  group might lose their culture as it is subsumed by the capitalist tradition.

“The melancholic link to the lost ethnic Object allows us to claim that we remain faithful to our ethnic roots while fully participating in the global capitalist game” (659).

Anamorphosis- distorted projection or perspective, requiring a specific vantage point. Zizek says ideology works off of anamorphosis, where if we look at the ideology from a certain standpoint, then it makes sense; example, anti-semitism—the Jewish plot is the cause of all our problems. Anamorphosis distorts the idea of subjective and objective reality, since “the subjective distortion is reflected back into the perceived object itself, and, in this precise sense, the gaze itself requires a supposedly objective existence” (659).

This paradox does not hold in the melancholic, who mistakenly asserts that something “resist the symbolic sublation”, and “locate[s] this resistance in a positively existing, although lost, object. ” The melancholic interprets his/her desire as a loss, when it is merely lacking. The melancholic thinks that he/she possessed the object and has now lost it when in reality, he/she never possessed it at all. The melancholic confuses the object as missing, but in reality, it is lacking. That lack causes the object to emerge in the first place. The paradox comes when the melancholic thinks the object loss when in reality it lacks. “The melancholic subject thus elevates the object of his longing into an inconsistent composite of a corporeal absolute; however, since this object is subject to decay, one can possess it unconditionally only insofar as it is lost, in its loss” (660).

Zizek looks to Giorgio Amamben who “emphasized how, in contrast to mourning, melancholy is not only the failure of the work of mourning, the persistence of the attachment to the real object, but also its very opposite: ‘melancholia offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object’” (661). The problem is that the melancholic thinks what he possesses is lost—he mourns the object before the object is lost. ((((This problem happens with Maximo, who always wonders while all the stories that begin with Cuban being pure and great turn into something dark—he is suffering from melancholy, and even in Miami, where he possess a Cuban identity, through his food, his wife, and his community—he feels his Cubanness lost; later, he maintains connection to his identity through playing with the Cubans, through old stories, and through his jokes, but feels this abstract object loss, so he suffers the attachment to it—Also, his sadness comes from knowing that his homeland has forgotten him; he is no longer the German Shepherd of Cuba, he is the mutt of America. Having suffered one loss (losing his home), he suffers the loss of his Miami identity, he suffers the loss of his children, his friends—all before any of them are actually lost))))

As Zizek further explains “the mourner mourns the lost object and kills it a second time through symbolizing its loss, while the melancholic is not simply the one who is unable to remounce the object but rather the one who kills the object a second time (treats it as lost) before the object is actually lost” (662).

The manner to explore this paradox comes in the Lacanian distinction between the object and the (object) cause of desire, the feature that has us desiring the desired object. Something that we are usually unaware, “even misperceived as an obstacle.” The melancholic posseses the object but has lost his desire for the object: “. . . the cause that made him desire the object has withdrawn, lost its efficiency” (662). Lacan’s object petit a, is the void in reality around which reality is displaced and centralized. “This object is the sublime object (of ideology), the object elevated to the dignity of a Thing, and simultaneously the anamorphic object (in order to perceive its sublime quality, we have to look at it awry—if looked at straight on, it appears as just another object in a series)” (662).

The void-lack- only works when when it is embodied in an object. The object keeps the gap open. The void of desire embodies itself in an object that serves as a stand in. This void is best embodied in post-sctructuralist, Derridian, deconstructionist ethics: an ethics that calls for the always-already withdrawn negative trace of its own absence. We can never be fully present, accountable, ethical enough in the face of the other. The other is a void around which to build this ethics. Another example happens in Derria’s view on Marxism: we must keep true to the spirit of Marx, not the letter. Derrida’s radicalization means only the theoretical Marx, any actualization of Marx betrays the “spirit.”  As Zizek explains “on account of its very radicalism, the messianic promise forever remains a promise, cannot ever be translated into a set of determinate economic and political measures” (665). We can never be responsible enough to the other, our answer to the other will always lack. This gap between ethical responsibility and action betrays the problem of totalitarianism because the party attempts to fulfill this ethical gap with actions that betray and go against the people.

Democracy works as a perpetual working-ING, a “to-come”: “The to-come (a venir) is thus not simply an additional qualification of democracy but its innermost kernel, what makes democracy democracy. The moment democracy is no longer to come but pretends to be actual—fully actualized—we enter totalitarianism” (665). This democracy to come refers to when one is urgently called to answer the call of the other in the face of injustice. Derrida addresses the gap between ethics and politics, where ethics is the impossible response to the call of the other and politics is the need to act/respond. Ethics is always to-come; politics is a “here/ now”—in politics, in having to make a choice, we risk doing the wrong thing: “The ethical is thus the (back)ground of undecidability, while the political is the domain of the decision(s), of taking the full risk of crossing the hiatus and translating this impossible ethical request for messianic justice into a particular intervention that never lives up to this request, that is always unjust towards (some of the) others” (666). Ethics, then, opens up the condition of possibility for politics, while closing it. When I have to act in politics because of the ethical call, my action my hurt (some) others—will be unethical. The decision to act works on two levels:

First, we open up the gap between the ethical call of the other, and the decision to decide. Zizek elaborates, “the first decision is identified with/as the injunction of the Thing in me to decide [the other’s call/ the other’s decision in me]; it is a decision to decide, and it still remains my (the subject’s) responsibility to translate this decision to decide into a concrete, actual intervention, to invent a new rule out of a singular situation, wehre this intervention has to obey pragmatic and/or strategic considerations and is never at the level of the decision” (668-9).  Zizek wants to say that the Lacanian act is not along the lines of this deconstructionist ethic, where the “other’s decision in me” is not some structuralist view of a decentered subject of abyss of otherness I can never reach; rather, the Lacanian act refers to the subject’s direct identification with the other’s Thing/ injunction to action. The subject becomes the Other-Thing for “a brief, passing moment of, precisely, decision—directly is the Thing” (669).

An ethical act changes the very nature of what we think about ethical acts, the very idea of what is good.