Do I Know You? I Can’t Remember: Zizek on Autism, Alzheimers, Psychosis and Post-Traumatic Birth

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What can we learn from madness? And what does it imply when thinkers, writers, or artists suggest that we go mad or look to the mad for truth or insight? Many Continental writers, artists, and thinkers have found madness a source of thought and reflecting. Think of Antonin Artaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, or George Bataille. Think of Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, Gilles Deleuze’s schizo-analysis, or Maurice Blanchot’s essays on madness.   Slavoj Zizek has also ventured into this territory. In his book, The Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept, Zizek suggests that we pay close attention to the “birth” that emerges in the wake of psychosis, autism, and alzheimers.   This birth, in the wake of mental destruction or trauma, is an example of what he calls “the event.”

Using Lacanian language, Zizek turns to psychosis as giving the subject “passage” from the Real to the Symbolic:

The true point of “madness” is thus not the pure excess of the “night of the world,” but the madness of the passage to the Symbolic itself, of imposing a symbolic order on to the chaos of the Real. (Freud, in his analysis of the paranoiac judge Daniel Paul Schreber, points out how the paranoiac ‘system’ is not madness, but a desperate attempt to escape madness – the disintegration of the symbolic universe – through an ersatz universe of meaning.) If madness is constituative, than every system of meaning is minimally paranoiac, ‘mad.’….What is the madness caused by the loss of reason when compared to the madness of reason itself? (85)

Building on this, Zizek argues that we are daily beset by trauma:

First, there is external physical violence: terror attacks like 9/11, the U.S. ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Iraq, street violence, rapes, etc, but also natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, etc (85)

He also lists diseases and brain tumors such as Alzehimers, organic cerebral lesions, etc side by side with “social-symbolic violence through social exclusion.” All of these forms of trauma give birth to the post-traumatic subject who, as he argues (in a Hegelian manner), survives its death.

A post-traumatic subject is…a victim who, as it were, survives its own death: all different forms of traumatic encounters, independent of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbolic), lead to the same result: a new subject emerges which survives death (erasure) of its symbolic identity. There is no continuity between this new post-traumatic subject (the victim of Alzheimer’s, say) and its old identity: after the shock, a new subject emerges. (86)

Zizek describes this subject as Zombie-like:

It features a lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment; it is a subject who is no longer ‘in-the-world’ in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. The subject lives death as a form of life. (86)

While this post-traumatic zombie may seem monstrous for many a reader, Zizek celebrates the post-traumatic subject as a “new birth” and as “living proof” that a “subject cannot be identified” with the “stories it is telling itself about itself.” The subject of Alzheimer’s is what Zizek is alluding to here as the clearest example of this new birth. What remains, according to Zizek, is the “pure subject.” And it is the “erasure of content,” especially in a living person with autism or Alzheimers – that for Zizek is terrifying for “us” since we see a “living-dead” subject.   When we look at an autistic person or someone suffering from Alzheimers, says Zizek, we have a sense that “nobody is home.”   And this feeling exposes us to a process that is far away from the world which bases itself on maintaining stories about itself and identity.

But what do we learn from this “new birth”? Zizek indirectly suggests that by exposing ourselves to this worldless post-traumatic subject that our “frameworks”(based on technology, culture, ideology, etc) will rupture and that we too may go through this journey.   The problem, however, is that in doing so our “memory” will be erased. To be born anew, means that the previous narrative we lived by must be destroyed. We must feel a vertigo of sorts, but this must be at the expense of history.

And this is troubling.

What would Zizek say about people or groups that develop narratives from out of the past? Even though a narrative may challenge a dominant narrative, will it completely or should it completely erase that past narrative? And isn’t a new narrative being created? Will that new narrative – regardless of what subaltern space it emerges from – also need to be destroyed if it is to become “pure subjectivity?” More importantly, how can people relate to each other if they are without a narrative or if they have lost all memory?  They would look at each other, scratch their heads, and wonder: Do I know you? I Can’t remember.

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