These two sections seem to constitute an expositional groundwork for Zizek’s argument, setting up what is by now a familiar pattern in Zizek’s reading of German Idealism: Kant gives us the fundamental problem, but we need Hegel to think it through to the end. In this case, the problem is the relationship between discipline and freedom. Kant believes that freedom is the goal of history but that people are not yet ready for it and need to be trained, yet Zizek points out that “in order to be educated into freedom (qua moral autonomy and self-responsibility), I already have to be free in a much more radical, ‘noumenal,’ even monstrous, sense” (96) — and he links this immediately to the Freudian (which for him means Lacanian) death drive.
The problem is not that humans are animals whose instincts need to be subdued, but that they have a fundamental “unruliness” that is actually foreign to the animal nature (97). In order for this “unruliness” to become actualized as freedom, it must first go through the discipline of habit, which is a kind of second-degree instinct. Due to the fundamental wound of the death drive, human nature can only be a “second nature” (100); there is no immediate connection to one’s Umwelt of the kind that we tend to imagine animals having.
Zizek lays out the poles of this problem in terms of two “zero-degree” humans. The first is Hegel’s racist vision of the “pre-historical” African: “a kind of perverted, monstrous child, simultaneously naive and extremely corrupted…; part of nature and yet thoroughly denaturalized; ruthlessly manipulating nature through primitive sorcery, yet simultaneously terrified by the raging natural forces; mindlessly brave cowards…” (97). This fantasy vision provides a kind of pure unruliness, the “vanishing mediator” between the animal and the human. The second is the zombie, who is nothing but pure habit, bereft all consciousness and thus going through the motions in the pure sense (100).
Authentic habit, however, far from turning us into mindless zombies, gives us control of our bodies by freeing us from the burden of consciously thinking about how that control works. This is so fundamental to human experience for Hegel that “living itself” becomes “something we should learn as a habit, starting with birth itself. Recall how, seconds after birth, the baby has to be shaken and thereby reminded to breathe — otherwise, it can forget to breathe and die….” (101; typos corrected). The remainder of section 1 explores further implications of this paradoxical status of habit as simultaneously pure mechanism and yet the ground for freedom.
I’m sure there will be more to discuss as we work through the rest of the essay, but for now I’m hung up on the question of the animal. How do we know, for instance, that the life of the animal is the “pure instinct” that we tend to imagine? How do we know that animals don’t also have something like “death drive”?
Zizek doesn’t mention it explicitly here, but in Parallax View he provides a kind of argument in favor of the uniquely human nature of death drive in his discussion of cognitive science. Long story short: the human brain developed to such a degree that it wound up with a kind of reflexive “short-circuit” — i.e., death drive. (I talked about this at length in a couple posts back in the early days of AUFS and people didn’t seem very favorably disposed, but perhaps I just hadn’t digested it very well at that point. My exposition in Zizek and Theology is probably better.)
Zizek doesn’t say it in Parallax View, but a conclusion one could draw is that obviously animal brains haven’t evolved so far, and hence wouldn’t be so gifted/afflicted. Be that as it may, I am still continually impressed by how much philosophers claim to know about the mental lives of animals.