Internalize My Law!


I have been reading Terry Eagleton’s Holy Terror in the last couple of days, and I think I’m enjoying it, despite having a bit of an ambiguous initial encounter with Eagleton’s work earlier in life. It is full of great literary references and it makes for an enjoyable read when you recognize and understand the allusions, having been brought up on mostly Russian and Soviet literature, and Eagleton’s allusions coming primarily from Western tradition, it makes for a good self-esteem boosting exercise. The first couple of chapters deal with Dionysus, Greek tragedy, law, sublime, order, chaose and all kinds of other cool subjects, it’s quite a feast. However, when reading about law I kept remembering Zizek’s favorite example that, in some or other variation, sounds something like that: Imagine a father asking a young child to go see grandma, the child refuses (hates grandma) and father forces him to go anyway. Father is the law in this scenarios, the child is the constituents in a state of law, their refusal is overcome with enforcement yet they retain a sort of internal rebellious attitude toward the law because they realize that they are forced to obey. In Zizek’s scenario then a second variant has a different twist: a father, upon hearing of the child’s refusal to go, leaves the final decision up to the child- “Well, if you don’t want to go, it’s ok, it’s up to you.” Zizek’s comment is usually something like this: “Look at this permissive parent, he thinks he’s leaving the decision up to the child, but in fact he is pressing for an internalization of the law, now any decision of the child will be supposedly his/her decision, he will most likely agree to go, but the enforcement will come from within, and therefore with it will come the guilt.” Lately Zizek’s been adding another example from a movie where a girlfriend is yelling at the boyfriend: “I don’t want you to do the dishes, I want you to want to do the dishes.”

Eagleton’s take – not on this particular tale, but in general – is that “the law must not be seen naked” (50). In a sense, a father’s command is a naked forceful law yet without the sophistication of internalized authority that most of the legal situations require. However, in another sense, father’s command is still too particular, too specific to be counted as law, i.e. to internalize one command does not mean to internalize the very authority of the command, the commanding force of the command. If the next scenario is for a father to ask the child if he wants to go visit their other relatives, the child might refuse again and in the response to a choice – “You choose then if you want to go” – say something like: “Nope, you’re not going to get me again this time, you’re the father, you decide and I will follow your command regardless of my desire.” Refusal to be in a situation in which one must decide is in this case a much more potent response to the need to force one to internalize the law, to “dress it up,” if we use Eagleton’s metaphor of garment. So how would father proceed in this case? Zizek’s example is a kind that sort of got stuck in my head. So what if in the scenario described above, a totalitarian father did not become permissive father but became a speculative father, that is, instead of asking the child to make a decision and therefore to potentially creat internal law and guilt associated with breaking it, he woudl say something like this: “Well, I see, so you don’t want to go see grandma, but you do realize how it would make grandma feel when I tell her that you did not want to come?”

It might be all in Zizek’s example there and I misremembering, but in this scenario with a ghostly grandma present as a witness of the child’s decision, not only is the command internalized but also a cultural/familial context is introduced, a number of concepts like relatives, obligations, freedom to choose etc are present. The child’s decision is now proceeding in a correct internalizing direction because it is not really dealing with one particular decision but with the very issue of having to make decision, with the very fabric of lawfulness (and corresponding lawlessness). The absent figure of the grandma is now the other, the third, the ever-present object of any present and future decisions – all future lawful behavior is thus presented as “What would grandma say?” – and if in the case of external enforcement the law is not internalized and in the case of permissive allowance the law in not internalized, in the case of speculative scenario both this command and any other commands are successfully there, because the child is given a skill, a tool, a strategy to deal with any future command. Why speculative? It seems to me that the child has to posit the future consequences as a constitutive part of the present decision-making, the consequences that are not on the plane of simple sanctions/rewards, but on the scale of speculatively posited plane of future harmony/disarray in the familial relationships. In this sense, the child appears to self-legislate yet this decision is made in the presence of an invisible authority of those already affected by the decision, decision that is yet to take place but that has already taken place as soon as the father posited the ghostly grandma.

If we are to believe Kant, this is precisely the scenario in which conscience comes into existence, because conscience is nothing but an imaginary scenario of “adjudicating a case before a court” in which the other serves as an imaginary judge (judging yourself in a court is weird) and “this other may be an actual person or a merely ideal person that reason creates for itself.” (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:438) Reason creates this ideal person for itself speculatively, i.e. not through imagining it, but by positing it as a sort of principle of reason – eventually we will get an idea of God in Kant, but at this point it seems that we are still in a situation where the father’s “imagine what grandma would say” gives the child’s reason a sort of  push in the right direction, the direction of internalizing any future judgment and therefore of the very structure of reasonable decision-making and thus lawfulness of reason itself.

Or something like that…

5 thoughts on “Internalize My Law!

  1. I believe that this is the Zizek quote from the film, though he’s given it any number of times:

    “In the old days, when a father was going to take a son to see grandmother, and the child did not want to go, the father would simply say, ‘you must go, I don’t care if you’re not going to enjoy it. Nowadays, a postmodern parent might ask, ‘son, how would you like to go to see your grandmother?’ That question carries the implication that the child must answer in a certain way (yes), but it also carries the implication that they must enjoy the visit to their grandmother.”

    It seems to me that your Kantian/Speculative version (the middle way) is also an invitation-command for enjoyment. That is, the child is taken to subsume the mantel of rightful subjectivity, and enjoy the one pleasure that is granted to the Kantian law-follower, the pleasure of full-filling the law itself, of manifesting it. Eventually the child simply won’t have to even do the imagining, but can become a sheer Jouissance machine if automated law fullfillment…ah, Sade. Again.

  2. Imagination isn’t really there to begin with, the child doesn’t really need to have a mental image of the disappointed grandma – but I do get your point about enjoyment, I think your version of Zizek’s example is more about enjoyment than the one I recall, but maybe I just twisted it around in my Kantian head to fit in with my view of reality.

    Can you say more about “Kantian pleasure”? I find this kind of interesting as a “phrase” – Kant does talk about happiness and the worthiness to be happy, but I’m presently blanking on a discussion of pleasure…

  3. I’m sure you’ve run into this but as I see it…

    It precisely is that Kant does not talk about pleasure, but rather works to a ultimate evacuation of pleasure, particularly in the first and second maxims of the C. I. Much as in his disinterested nature of aesthetic judgments, moral acts refuse to make other persons (not only means but ends), or situations (must be universalized unto a law), as specific cites of pleasure taking. In a sense, there is no “pleasure content” in the moral act. If you push the logic of the law far enough, the child shouldn’t even have the pleasure of making his grandmother happy (hence the totalitarian form of the law). In Zizek’s view, at least as I understand it, the Indulgent form of the law is even more incidious, for it seeks out even your hidden book-keeping of pleasures (you can’t even keep a little on the side), forcing you to turn your pocket’s inside out.

    What is interesting about this is that there is indeed pleasure in the fullfillment of the Law, it is the perverse pleasure of simply being a tool of the Law. The pleasure is not found in the content of what the Law produces, but is inscribed in the very surface, in the circulation of the Law. For Lacanian Zizek this is the pleasure of the pervert/saint, being simply the instrument of power. We see this in all forms of self-less “carrying out orders”. It is the unacknowledged pleasure of evacuating the Law of all self-interested pleasure, as a motivation.

  4. Kevin, I agree with you that Kant excludes “inclinations” as he calls them from any sort of incentive vis-a-vis moral law, and I think there’s a certain very solid argument behind it, i.e. in Kant’s peculiar formulation of morality, it’s important (whether we agree with this or not, but it’s his formulation, so it seems only fair to let him do it) that one acts only out of respect for the law, and in some cases even a person who acts out of genuine empathy would be “evil” precisely because the act is grounded in an inclination.

    But of course the next step is to ask a series of questions about Kant’s formulation and see if it indeed hides a certain enjoyment of doing things for the sole sake of doing them, although even putting it this way is a bit simplistic – I would say however that it would be quite strange to say that a great diversity of inclinations, feelings, motivations, incentives etc should be reduced to a simple idea of “pleasure”…

    I don’t know if I even agree with my comments in the post anymore, it was a sort of a thinking aloud post, but I think these are all interesting questions – not being very organized, I can’t remember the precise context, but I wanted to reread that “Kant with Sade” essay last week, but now I forget why…

  5. M: ” I would say however that it would be quite strange to say that a great diversity of inclinations, feelings, motivations, incentives etc should be reduced to a simple idea of “pleasure”…”

    Kvond: Well, we say pleasure here in the absolute context of the concept of jouissance, the pleasure that is unbearable. It seems to me that there is the unacknowledged “pleasure” of renouncing pleasure the stains the law itself. Something is importantly captured then by the Lacanian concept of perversion, that pleasure of being the petit a in the hands, mouth or other organization of the Other. It is the stain one cannot remove as one goes about attempting to remove all stains, the incrimination of your own guilt which inscribes you within the law in the first place. Even as you push yourself towards the absolute fullfillment of the Law (or God’s will), all one can do is come in contact with that circulation of jouissance.

    That is what Sade so expertly masters. He grabs hold of that absolute limit, sees that Nature is fundamentally a destructive, transforming force whose only directive is the circulation of its own power, and seeks then to embody that vivacity in a kind of almost machinic boredom (how boring, or banal becomes the deathcamp, evil).

    I don’t think that this is all there is to say about the Law, but it does bring out some of the factors of hidden, and at times unbearable investment.

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