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  • The Real Happens
  • Jason B. Jones
Review of: Alenka Zupancic, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan. New York: Verso, 2000.

The point of Lacan’s identification of the Real with the impossible is not simply that the Real is some Thing that is impossible to happen. On the contrary, the whole point of the Lacanian concept of the Real is that the impossible happens. This is what is so traumatic, disturbing, shattering—or funny—about the Real. The Real happens precisely as the impossible.


Though they appear nowhere in her splendid first book, Ethics of the Real, these sentences neatly telescope the rigor, clarity, and good humor characteristic of Alenka Zupancic’s work.1 These traits will not surprise attentive readers of Slavoj Zizek’s collection, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lacan, But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, or the two volumes in the SIC series from Duke University Press, Gaze and Voice as Love Objects and Cogito and the Unconscious, all of which feature significant contributions by Zupancic. Beyond the obvious attraction for admirers of the particular Ljubljanian conjunction of philosophy, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and pop culture, Ethics of the Real merits the serious attention of anyone interested in one of the great ethical crises of our time: Why is nothing but fundamentalism deemed worth dying for any longer?

Ethics of the Real satisfies three quite disparate interests. First, it offers a fascinating Lacanian account of causality and freedom in the ethical domain. In this sense, it belongs in the tradition of works such as Joan Copjec’s Read My Desire and Charles Shepherdson’s Vital Signs. Second, Zupancic advances stimulating and novel readings of Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses, Molière’s Don Juan, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, and Claudel’s The Hostage. Zupancic’s reading of The Hostage is insightful in its own right; it should have the additional merit of attracting the attention of American scholars to Lacan’s extensive discussion of Claudel’s play in Seminar VIII: Le transfert. Finally, Ethics of the Real is also useful as a guide to two recent trends in Lacanian theory and scholarship: first, the argument that politics and ethics can be understood as a mode of traversing the (social) fantasy; and second, the increased attention to Alain Badiou’s philosophical and political thought.2 In this review, I concentrate on Zupancic’s interrogation of causation and her readings of tragedy.

Zupancic begins by quickly mapping the terrain laid out by Lacan in both Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis and “Kant with Sade.” For Lacan, psychoanalytic praxis must refuse any idea of “the good.” Analysis cannot center on the analyst’s conception of the good, because then it would turn into a gratification of the analyst’s narcissism, measuring progress in the treatment by the extent to which the analysand slavishly imitates the analyst’s ego. Then again, the analysis clearly cannot focus on the analysand’s idea of the good, either, because the suffering that drives the analysand to analysis in the first place indicates a disconnect between the analysand’s desire or drive and his or her idea of “the good”—an idea that is bound up with the ego. Finally, the analysis also cannot appeal to cultural ideals of “the good” without turning psychoanalysis into a strictly normative endeavor. Instead, by the end of the Ethics seminar, Lacan proposes that “the only thing one can be guilty of is giving ground relative to one’s desire [cédé sur son désir]” (321; see Dean 33n14 for a discussion of the stakes involved in this translation). This formulation has caused considerable controversy when applied to Antigone, the figure under discussion in the last section of the seminar. Are we to take Antigone as an ethical hero? Moreover, shortly after this seminar, Lacan begins increasingly to emphasize the drive, instead of desire, as the endpoint of analysis. In the later view, desire is understood as a defense against the satisfaction of drive. How can we reconcile these two arguments in a discussion of ethics? Zupancic shows with great clarity that the drive should be understood as the farthest point...

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