Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.
Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.
This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Take, for instance, the gap that separates the biological from the mental, nature from culture — the gap that Freud designates as the space of “drive.” The negativity of drive is what allows for the emergence of something like culture, but it also changes what it means to have a body. The “body” as such, as it occurs (at least) among humans, is a product of the distortion introduced by that negativity. The drive is logically prior even if we must concede that the matter that makes it up in some sense existed “before” the introduction of the gap. Drive “posits its presuppositions” — it transforms the “purely natural” body into something fundamentally different. (Indeed, drive is what creates the fantasy of a “purely natural” body that would simply exist in an unproblematic way.)
We can read Agamben’s treatment of the oath in The Sacrament of Language in a similar light. It’s not as though the oath marks a primordial correlation between words and things that is then disturbed by the intrusion of perjury. The oath grows out of an originary experience of the gap between words and things, which must then be forcibly brought into some kind of balance or correspondence. The lack is constitutive, and it produces our very sense of what words and things are — whatever material reality underlay them is completely transformed by the negativity that originally brings them into relationship.
In her recent book Why Psychoanalysis?, Alenka Zupancic argues that the task of psychoanalysis is precisely analysis, separation — and never synthesis. We come to analysis due to the fall-out of a failed synthesis, and the goal of analysis is not to produce a (more) successful one, but to get us to give up on the synthesis altogether, to let the gap be the gap. The goal is not to finally and definitively interpret that analysand’s unconscious, to extract all their drives and translate them into the realm of the Symbolic or big Other, but to get them to give up on meaning, to recognize the meaningless core. Similarly, Agamben calls for us to rethink our privileging of language, to stop trying to find something like meaning or purpose in our relationship to language.
For both, there is the counterargument that they are knocking at an open door. In Agamben’s case, he explicitly starts the book with the admission that the oath is losing its hold on Western culture, and Zupancic must face the commonplace observation that in our contemporary world, the big Other has lost its charge amid a culture of universalized transgression. Aren’t we already living in their proposed solution? I’d suggest that we can understand their critique better if we refer to the commonplace claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Many religious critics of this stance emphasize the fact that people who self-identify in this way don’t want to do the hard work of committing to a particular tradition, etc., and that is certainly part of it — but their reason for doing so is to preserve some abstract sense of believing-ness that is free from any fallible real-world instantiation and thus can never be disappointed. Far from being a cheapened form of belief, the “spiritual but not religious” stance elevates belief to a transcent and absolutely unassailable plane. Yes, such a person wants to keep all options open — except facing up to non-belief, to lack of meaning.
Hence the solution is perhaps to become “religious but not spiritual,” to let our various cultural rituals be meaningless. This is something different from ironic distance, which presupposes some “other supposed to believe” — enshrining the idea of sincerity through the negative reference to the presumed naive sap who “really believes” (the person who would really like the bad movie, who would take the shitty job seriously, etc.). Ironic distance is the last refuge for sincerity, which preserves it by elevating it to an impossible standard to which we can relate only negatively. What we need is neither to affirm nor deny meaning or sincerity, but to deactivate it, to render it inoperative, to stop the endless work of balancing.