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…