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An Idiotic Act: On the non-example of Antigone

The Letter, Issue 34, Summer 2005, Pages 1 - 28


Calum Neill

Antigone, Medea, Selma Jezkova, Mary Kay Letourneau, Andrea Yates... Zizek has over the years utilised a number of characters, both fictional and existent, and usually female, to illustrate various aspects of his Lacanian-derived conception of ethics. The contexts in which these characters are to be located and the actions they engage in determine them, for Zizek, as suitable ethical examples. This article will focus on one such example, perhaps the most obvious: Antigone.

For Zizek, the crucial aspect of both Sophocles' Antigone, the play, and Antigone, the character within the play, lies in what he, following Lacan,[1] terms her 'act'.[2] The term 'act', in Lacanian theory, is differentiated from the sense of "mere behaviour"[3] by the location and persistence of desire. This is to say that the act is necessarily a subjective undertaking and that it can be understood to be coterminous with the assumption of subjectivity and the responsibility entailed in such an assumption, the Freudian Wo Es war, soil Ich werden. Where behaviour would describe the response to needs, for example, the act is defined by the impetus of desire. Desire makes the subject act and as such the weight of responsibility for the act committed lies with the subject. Desire cannot be treated as a given which would determine the subject's act without the subject's volition. The very subjectivity which would be taken to act cannot be described without the manifestation of desire which would allow its constitution. But such desire must always be particular to the subject; it is the subject's desire. The act would be the moment of subjective assumption in which the desire which is in one is manifest and thus brought into existence. The act in this sense should be understood to be coterminous with the emergence of desire; the act is desire made manifest. It is in this sense that the Lacanian act is always, necessarily, idiotic, in the etymological sense, wherein idios would designate 'one's own'.

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