I was inspired to write this after reading one of Zizek’s articles on Lacan.com, titled “Deleuze and the Lacanian Real.” I think it’s the clearest thing Zizek has ever said about the Real, mostly because he’s focusing on it and illuminating it by reading Deleuze and Hegel side by side.

The Real is the minimal gap between the appearance of one and the same thing at time N compared to some later time. We patch over the gap so that, ontologically, the house we see today appears to be the same house tomorrow, even though, since we see them at different times, they are not strictly identical.

It gets more interesting when we consider that the minimal gap gets filled in by the subject, who renders it as object a; repetition is the process by which the stubborn Real gets patched over by an X, just as mathematics puts an ‘i’ to stand in for an imaginary number (since such a number doesn’t actually make any sense).

So, with regard to trauma/repression, it is not the case that, as Freud proposed, ‘that which we cannot remember, we are doomed to repeat;’ rather, it is only after we repeat something that we can forget it, because only then does the thing acquire an ‘existence of its own’ outside any particular instance of it; only after repeating the thing can the two instances, side by side, support a third, middle term that mediates between the two instances of the act or object, relieving the subject of the burden of creating a virtual screen/supplement for the thing in its bare, meaningless actuality.

In other words, the middle term swallows up the minimal difference between the two instances such that, regardless of what those instances actually were or will be, the middle term becomes and remains an elusive ‘je no se qua,’ or, in Lacanian terms, the object petite a.

Thus only if a thing is repeatedly encountered can the subject forget about it, in the sense of enjoying it via the virtual screen/supplement of object a; otherwise, the thing is laid bare, absent any significance. Conversely, forgetting is impossible when the thing is utterly unique: it is this uniqueness which is traumatic, haunting the subject as if the encounter with the thing must be repeated so that the subject can turn it into an object of knowledge, a thing with sense, versus the non-sense of bare, inhuman(e) reality (to be clear, this is a reality in which any one instance appears to be the result of a purely mechanical, unnecessary succession of events with no actor, lacking the support of the (virtual) depth of meaning, the supplementary object a, provided by a human being, the only being capable of ‘virtualizing’ reality, adding meaning where there is none).

When we cannot repeat our gesture, that is the truly traumatic thing: without repetition, the thing can’t be processed by the subject, since, without the gap in time, there is no second version of the object that could be compared with the first, the both being absolutely crucial for the time ‘in between,’ the third term, to become the minimal distance between the two versions of the identical object. This ‘distance’ can then be translated into object a and therefore rendered enjoyable.

But in order to avoid a direct encounter with the traumatic kernel of the Real in everything (the object a or das Ding that we posit), which, up close, turns into excessive enjoyment (jouissance) and threatens our ability to comprehend/enjoy, the subject repeats the same appearance/gesture over and over in order to, as it were, see the self-posited object a from all possible angles, swirling around it by repeating the confrontation with the Thing in as many new contexts as possible, in order to avoid directly encountering it (it seems a bit like centripetal force). I think David Cronenberg’s Crash would be a good source to look to for a representation of this return/repetition.

Also, Zizek makes it very clear in the same article that the Lacanian Real is not the same as the notion of a great Reality beyond any of our modes of grasping it, an infinite depth. In fact, it is nearly the opposite: the Real is, again, a minimal content, a minimal difference; and it is just this gap itself, not something beyond the gap of which the gap shows us merely a glimpse; essence is appearance.

Interestingly, Zizek uses Badiou’s terms to help illustrate this minimal difference. Badiou explains that Hegelian negation involves two parts, first destruction, then subtraction. Negating a positive social order does not mean the rejection of the entirety of that order. It is the move away from the standard form in which the social order is maintained (Badiou’s example is the invention of atonal music, which, while still working with music per se, worked with it in a different form than the previous standard, tonal music). Subtraction is negation’s mature self-becoming, the move from in-itself to for-itself. Badiou calls this subtraction because the negative force (e.g., atonal music) becomes a movement of its own, which, as a definitive movement, can be isolated as the equation of the normal symbolic order minus all that was before in the standard form. In other words, after subtraction, we’re left at the fringes of the symbolic order, the eye-sore that the symbolic fails to acknowledge.

This failure of knowledge is the same as in the above case in which the Real is patched over with signifiers and perceptual-representational anomalies, like object a. Zizek says that this exposed fringe of the symbolic threatens to directly represent the minimal difference that keeps the symbolic working. The Real is less than its representation; it is the ‘kernel’ that, as we’ve agreed, is never shown directly. But because negation approaches the level of the absolute minimal difference (since its actor is merely the sum left after the subtraction from the symbolic of the standard form of that which the symbolic struggles to represent) the position of the actor in negation is a good way to think of the Real.

The important thing to see is that, even in subtraction, negation is still part of the symbolic (it never actually is the Real). Zizek makes this clear when he uses another quasi-analogy, the difference between sacrilege and profanation. Sacrilege is the breaking of religious rules, the failure to follow customs. Although this example isn’t quite apt, I’m thinking particularly of the inept mishandling of a sacred object or ritual by, say, a young, inexperienced member of the clergy. The point is that this is simply a failure to live up to ideals that aren’t themselves challenged — in fact, they’re reinforced. In music, it would be the equivalent of writing tonal music, but writing it poorly or incorrectly.

Atonal music, on the other hand, is more similar to profanation; profanation involves the perfect execution of the law, except it takes place in an unexpected, even unwanted, context (just think of taking high culture to the streets, ‘vulgarizing’ it not by poorly representing it, but by representing it in the wrong kind of place, to the wrong kinds of people).

So whereas sacrilege still stays within the framework of positing reflection (that which comes before negation), profanation is reflexive in the way that only negation can be; it is something absolutely true of the symbolic, but which is formally disavowed. As such, it is the act that threatens to reduce the symbolic to the Real, the minimal difference, which can only occur after an act’s repetition in multiple contexts.