Facemasks: Carl Jung Vs Slavoj Zizek

(Updated March 21, with some Reddit responses from Jungians, at the bottom)

Slavoj Zizek often expresses disdain for Carl Jung’s work and views, which used to be a bit puzzling to me, as some of Jung’s ideas appear sensible and worth considering. I hope this short post may shed some light on what I now think is the key divide in the perspective of these two.

As a summary of his opinions, Zizek has said that ”Jung is a New Age obscurantist reinscription of Freud” (I’m quoting from this 2018 interview) (*), a nutshell that he develops into something slightly longer here. He is explaining ways to grasp the difference between Freud and Jung:

…what Jung does is, precisely, in opposition to Freud. For example, apropos of the notion of libido, for Jung libido is precisely a kind of neutral universal notion and then you have the concrete forms of libido – different metamorphoses, as he says. You have sexual, creative, destructive libido, and so on. Whereas Freud insists that libido, in its concrete existence, is irreducibly sexual. So, the Althusserian title of Freud would be ‘Libido and its Sexual Existence’, or whatever. My point is what, here? My point is that with Lacan, sexual difference, man and woman, has to be conceived precisely in terms of this Althusserian ‘and’. Man is this universal, woman is the concrete existence, to put it this way. There are two ways. Either we do it this way: man and woman as ideology and ideological state apparatuses. Or we do it in this abstract, obscurantist way: man and woman, two polarities, complementing each other, etc., and we are very quickly in some kind of New Age obscurantism.

So, yes, Zizek has no time for Jung. Generally speaking, he makes short references to Jung in some of books, like this in “Disparities” (2016), of a disparaging nature:

As for the Unconscious, the point made by the ‘normativist’ Hegelians holds only for the nineteenth-century Lebensphilosophie and for Jung (who resubstantialized the Freudian Unconscious), but definitely not for Freud and Lacan. When Lacan repeatedly asserts that il n’y a pas de grand Autre, there is no big Other, he means precisely that the Unconscious is not an alienated substance determining subject: the Freudian Unconscious is a name for the inconsistency of Reason itself (Lacan even uses the shortened formula Ics which can be read as the condensation of inconscient and of inconsistance) of reason itself.

These are enough grounds for Zizek to reject Jung, on his own terms, but I don’t think these go the core of the divide. Facemasks, I believe, are that core disagreement between Zizek and Jung.

Facemasks are a fundamental point of reference in Zizek’s ouevre. He often cites them in all sorts of metaphors and comparisons. Take Zizek’s massive Hegelian door-stopper “Less than Nothing”. There, Zizek, following Schopenhauer, tells the story of a man at a ball, who all evening has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest — until at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself to be his wife.

Was she his wife all along? Does that count as a conquest? And, even more to the point:

For Schopenhauer, of course, the point of the comparison is that the masked beauty is philosophy and the wife Christianity—Kant’s radical critique is really just a new attempt to support religion, his transgression is a false one. What, however, if there is more truth in the mask than in the real face beneath it?

In the same book, there’s an anecdote repeatedly evoked by Lacan, about Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two painters from Ancient Greece, who compete to determine who can paint the more convincing illusion.

Zeuxis produced such a realistic picture of grapes that birds tried to eat them. But Parrhasius won by painting a curtain on the wall of his room so realistic that Zeuxis asked him to draw it back so that he could see the painting behind it. In Zeuxis’s painting, the illusion was so convincing that the image was mistaken for the real thing; in Parrhasius’s painting, the illusion resided in the very notion that what the viewer saw in front of him was just a veil covering up the hidden truth:

This is also how, for Lacan, feminine masquerade works: the woman wears a mask in order to make us react like Zeuxis in front of Parrhasius’s painting—OK, now take off the mask and show us what you really are!

In a nice, unusual detour into Chinese philosophy in “The sublime object of ideology”, Zizek gives his interpretation of that most famous passage in Chinese thought, about Zhuang Zi, the man who once dreamt who was a butterfly but couldn’t really decide, once he awoke, whether he now was a butterfly dreaming that she was Zhuang Zi.

The dream is complex and has given way to many interpretations I may sometime write about (a lot of English-language readers, in my experience, need to learn a lot about Chinese philosophy, a wonderful, unknown corpus). For Zizek, what one encounters in the dream — typically — is the Lacanian real (I agree with this interpretation completely, by the way). Thus:

(One) escapes into so-called reality to be able to continue to sleep, to maintain his blindness, to elude awakening into the Real of his desire. We can rephrase here the o ld ‘hippy’ motto of the 1960s: reality is for those who cannot support the dream. ‘Reality’ is a fantasy-construction which enables us to mask the Real of our desire! It is exactly the same with ideology. Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in its basic dimension it is a fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our ‘reality’ itself: an ‘illusion’ which structures our effective, real social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel.

So, regarding the butterfly…

As Lacan points out, this symmetrical relationship is an illusion: when Zhuang Zi is awakened, he can think to himself that he is Zhuang Zi who dreamed of being a butterfly, but in his dream, when he is a butterfy, he cannot ask himself if when awoken, when he thought he was Zhuang Zi, he was not this butterfly that is now dreaming ofbeing Zhuang Zi. The question, the dialectical split, is possible only when we are awake. In other words, the illusion cannot be symmetrical, it cannot run both ways, because if it did we would find ourselves in a nonsensical situation.

Such a nonsensical situation, Zizek continues, is best described in a story by the French absurdist humorist Alphonse Allais:

Raoul and Marguerite, two lovers, arrange to meet at a masked ball; there they skip into a hidden corner, embrace and fondle each other. Finally, they both put down their masks, and – surprise – Raoul finds that he is embracing the wrong woman, that she is not Marguerite, and Marguerite also finds that the other person is not Raoul but some unknown stranger.

So, we end up, in Zizek’s reading, with the difference between Hegel and Jacques Derrida at its purest: Derrida accepts Hegel’s fundamental lesson that one cannot assert the innocent ideal against its distorted realization. This holds not only for democracy, but also for religion—the gap which separates the ideal concept from its actualization is already inherent to the concept itself, Zizek writes in “A plea for a return to difference”:

The fundamental lesson of Hegel is that the key ontological problem is not that of reality but that of appearance: not “Are we condemned to the interminable play of appearances, or can we penetrate through their veil to the underlying true reality?”, but: “How could—in the middle of the flat, stupid, reality which just IS THERE—something like APPEARANCE emerge?”

Zizek follows this up with an oft-cited example he’s given in some speeches:

A supreme case of such an ontological comedy occurred in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, when Argentinians took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against Cavallo, the economy minister. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo’s building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian movement in Argentina—the fact that a thing is its own best mask. What one encounters in tautology is thus PURE DIFFERENCE, not the difference between the element and other elements, but the different of the element FROM ITSELF.

What is really striking about this complex interplay of facemasks in Zizek’s ouevre is that it comes after Carl Jung made what may be described as the opposite interpretation exactly.

This the interpretation that Zizek strives against, the one that Zizek contradicts, the one that is at the same time more common-sensical and more intuitive: the one you have heard many times before. This is from Jung’s “Four Archetypes; Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster” (1970), Princeton University Press:

When we analyse the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective; in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, exercises a function, he is this or that. In a certain sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality, a compromise formation, in making which others often have a greater share than he. The persona is a semblance, a two-dimensional reality, to give it a nickname.

A few years back, as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I wrote a profile of Alex Gianturco, an American corporate lawyer: a perfectly polite tax-payer in his “real life,” Gianturco, like Dr. Hyde, had a second life, a different existence as “The Mittani,” a space-tyrant who didn’t blink while ordering executions and mass destruction — within the multiplayer game “Eve Online.”

The question that really interested both me and Mr. Gianturco was: who’s the real Alex? Is it the corporate lawyer or the space-tyrant? Does he wear his space-tyrant mask to hide his humdrum real life essence of a bland corporate 9-to-5 wage slave, to make his reality bearable? Or is that mask his actual essence, his real reality? Is Mr. Gianturco just the leftover, the shell from which his real essence grew and took over? Is “The Mittani” Alex and Mr. Gianturco the fiction?

My impression is that Zizek would believe that “The Mittani” is the reality, while Jung would describe “The Mittani” as the interesting-looking mask under which the anodyne Mr. Gianturco hides. Hard as you try, there can be no compromise between these two views.

I don’t dare to say who’s right. All I can say is that, eventually, Alex left his corporate job and embraced his “The Mittani” existence, and now runs this website.

* Later in the same interview, Zizek has this to say, a short rant in which he doesn’t quote Jung even though I suspect he blames Jung for the ills he’s describing: ‘My old animosity to May ‘68, where the idea is perverts are radical. They even quote Freud, who wrote that hysterics are ambiguous, since they just provoke the master with a secret call for a new, more authentic master, while perverts go to the end. And here I think we should totally change the coordinates. No! Perverts are constitutive of power. Every power needs a secret pervert underground, backside… Remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, society confers on you a certain identity. You are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. The basic hysterical gesture is to raise a question and doubt your identity. “You’re saying I’m this, but why am I this? What makes me this?” Feminism begins with this hysterical question. Male patriarchal ideology constrains women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, “But am I really that?” Or to use the old Juliet question from Romeo and Juliet, “Am I that name?” Like, “Why am I that?” So hysteria is this basic doubting of your identity.”’ As any Zizekian known, the idea that perverts are the opposite of radicals is fundamental in Zizek’s philosophy, so this would represent yet another, insurmountable divide between Jung and himself.

(There are some interesting responses to this post by Carl Jung followers/admirers, in this Reddit thread here)

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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3 Responses to Facemasks: Carl Jung Vs Slavoj Zizek

  1. Matthew L. says:

    I admit that I am frustrated whenever I hear Zizek talk about his “masks” idea, because I simply don’t know what he is talking about.

    Jung’s idea of the persona seems perfectly clear to me, and I think it goes something like this: People can be viewed as a bundle of naturally occurring motivations and properties. Some of these motivations include the desire to fit in with society and put on an “appearance” which leads to positive societal feedback. Doing this successfully is the “persona”. Jung actually encouraged his patients to develop a well functioning persona because it leads to a more complete and better life in general. However we have often have other, deeper and more powerful motivations (which may be repressed or unconscious in those living out their “persona” life) that are more individual and may not fit on with society’s immediate expectations. You might refer to this as your “true passion” or “true self”. Jung wanted to emphasize the distinction between these more powerful inner properties and the more shallow instincts for pleasing society, because if you live an entire lifetime repressing your more powerful individual aspects, you may eventually have a midlife crisis in which you regret not pursuing those more powerful aspects of your self/desires. Jung’s idea of a “mask”, then, is not some obscurantist metaphysical claim as Zizek seems to make it out to be. It is simply practical psychology involving concrete issues. (In this paragraph I will also include that I have a problem with your example, because I think that Jung would have likely considered “The Mittani” to be closer to Mr. Gianturco’s “real” self. Eve Online was closer to what would be called his “true passion” than his business career which was the “persona” or “mask”. Jung would possibly have congratulated Mr. Gianturco for becoming a full time Eve Online player.)

    Zizek, on the other hand, when referring to “masks”, seems to be posturing as though he is making some deeply metaphysical point, but I don’t know exactly what that point is. Generally Zizek’s examples of the “mask” (He will use someone living out a highly passionate existence, Hitler, etc.) seem to correspond, in their details, with what Jung would find useful to label the “self” or the “anti-self” (the evil/negative version of the self), which are “high energy”, “highly passionate” (in terms of “satisfying your most natural desires”, or something like that) forms of existence. But then Zizek isn’t really saying anything original, he is just making it sound paradoxical and exciting by arbitrarily switching around what is labeled the “mask”. Unless I am misinterpreting him.


  2. David Roman says:

    This is a very good comment/response to my post, by Coleman Gariety https://hegelsbagels.net/posts/zizek-jung-masking-autism/


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