Conan struggles to make this speech. His feeling is obviously not bittersweet, but rather just sad; he really, really doesn’t want to leave, but thinks he should try to look on the ‘bright side.’

This form of optimism should be seen for what it is; it is not some ‘greater’ Cause that he chooses to believe in, but, rather, the obscene superego of social norms, weighing on his conscience, forcing him to feel a particular way about his situation.

(The parallels with workers going through massive layoffs should be obvious: we are told to think of being fired not as an affront to human dignity executed by huge corporations, but rather as a gift, a chance to develop a new skill, take up a new hobby, etc.).

What is meant by ‘superego’? In contrast to the ego-ideal (i.e., the Law, the explicitly stated, socially acknowledged ‘correct way’ of doing things), the superego is the unstated, a-legal or even illegal form of the law, the paradoxical supplement to the Law without which the Law could not operate, but which the Law ignores or even explicitly disavows.

Žižek explains this psychoanalytic notion in Metastases of Enjoyment:

Superego emerges where the Law […] fails; at this point of failure, the public Law is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment. Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers.

The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.

[….’Code Red’] condones an act of transgression — illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier — yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group — it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable — in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of the community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life.

[Therefore] what ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific form of enjoyment).

….the opposition of symbolic Law and superego points towards the tension between ideological meaning and enjoyment: symbolic Law guarantees meaning, whereas superego provides enjoyment which serves as the unacknowledged support of meaning” (54-56).

So back to Conan: he appears to break with the norm by choosing the ‘nobler’ or more ‘classy’ way of signing off of the show, but this behavior is merely the necessary underside – obverse, inversion, supplement – of the symbolic, stated Law of “you can say whatever you want;” the point is that he can enjoy (along with the crowd) ‘rebelling’ against the established way of doing things, only because this rebellion itself is already taken into account by the Law.

This ‘classiness’ is nothing other than a violent social injunction to enjoy a situation that is fundamentally alienating for him, a situation in which he is ultimately given a forced choice – it may appear that he is choosing to look on the bright side, but this choice is already decided for him; he only chooses it because it is the only option that society will allow him – everyone would hate him if he didn’t do the ‘classy’ thing.

So what looks like an exception (his ‘class’) is actually the norm. When we call him noble or kind, we are only encouraging the same kind of malicious ideology to be perpetuated in the next person who has to sacrifice in front of the crowd. What are they sacrificing?

The void of free choice, the freedom to walk off the stage, to shout out in anger – think of the scene from Network, in which the newscaster begins to chant, “I want you to get mad… I want you to say ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

That is what Conan wants to do: he jokes that, “even if we have to do it in a 7-11 parking lot,” the show will go on – and then immediately says in an understated, regretful, and even desperate way “I really don’t want to do it in a 7-11 parking lot!”.

This last exclamation is the sad truth of the entire show. It is the cry for escape from the social demand. This understated voice is what opposes his self-deception at the hands of the superego. But over all this superego-induced self-deception, the injunction to enjoy despite the traumatic excess of the imposition of the Law, is accomplished, and Conan himself buys into it, immaturely accepting the superego underside of the Law, even claiming it as his own, ‘classy’ gesture.

*Note: obviously it’s a bit absurd to worry about Conan’s dismissal, since his ‘desperate’ situation isn’t desperate at all; however, because of Conan’s popularity, and the publicity of the show, I think it makes sense to use it as an example.

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