Have a look at this photo. What is it saying? The front page headline is out of focus but the clue is in the central subject poised with sanitiser dispenser at the ready. This staged mock up by the girls in my family would have made no sense to anyone before 2020. But now, one look and most people will recognise this photo is telling us something about COVID-19.
The headline on the front of the newspaper could be from any day over the last year. But what about the chair? (The chair is somewhat obscured to the left of the picture but you can make out its legs and back as it’s being held upside down.) That’s the question I asked. I get the concept but what’s happening with the raised chair poised to clunk the subject’s head?
You don’t need to understand what the chair means to get the drift. But if you’re like me, it bothers you because it doesn’t seem to make any sense.
I’m going to tell you the answer at the end of this post but first let me explain why you don’t – in fact why you can’t – understand what the chair means, even when I tell you.
I don’t know what it is about chairs but philosophers, particular the type that hang out in university lecture theatres (these days Zoom rooms), have a predilection for linking chairs to Plato’s cave. (I’ll come back to the cave in a minute.)
How do we know what a chair is? This is the sort of dumb question that philosophers love asking. The answer’s so obvious it’s hardly worth the energy to bother thinking what to answer. A chair? It’s something you sit on.
But you can sit on a couch which is not a chair or for that matter the grass in the park on a sunny day (as long as you’re not in Melbourne where it’s a lot harder to sit in a park without attracting suspicion in COVID-19 lock down).
OK, so a chair has four legs with a seat you can sit on. But so does a stool with three legs. And the chair I’m sitting on while writing this is supported by one upright pole resting on five arms with castor wheels on the floor. I could go on like this for some time but you get the idea.
Plato postulated we get our idea of what a chair is from the idea of a perfect chair that all other chairs are copies of. Well, he didn’t say it quite like that.
Plato told a story of slaves chained together facing a wall in a cave where all they could see was flickering shadows cast on the cave wall from the other side of a fire behind the slaves. If a slave was to break free from the chains, he would see the real cause of the shadows on the wall – that is, the people and objects on the other side of the fire from where the slaves were chained causing the flickering shadows on the wall side of the fire. But if the slave ventured further outside the cave, he would actually see the real world under the full light of the sun.
Plato’s point? That the shadows on the cave wall are only dim reflections of real things and it is only outside the cave under the full glare of the sun that we can see the real things as they are.
We are the slaves. But once we become enlightened to the nature of the ‘real’ or what Plato called the forms beyond this world, we can then break free from our ignorant illusions of our limited view of the world. Illusions that chain us to our perceptions and opinions, keeping us ignorant in the cave’s shadows.
Aristotle, Plato’s student, flipped this idea of perfect forms on its head. There is no perfect chair, just lots and lots of different kinds of chairs from which we get the notion of a universal chair.
Empirical science finds its roots in Aristotle. We discover the ‘real’ empirical universe by taking lots of samples and categorising our discoveries.
Now you might think this is the end of the matter and we can stop speculating about what a chair is and just be content with a generalised notion based on lots of different samples. But philosophers are rarely satisfied with a simple answer. Apart from anything else, if life was that simple, philosophers would be out of a job (forget that most don’t have one to begin with).
The whole conceptualised framework on the nature of existence and reality has become quite a problem for philosophers since Plato and Aristotle (which as a philosopher, you would be delighted with as this keeps you in a job for life – if, of course, you’re lucky enough to find a vacant philosophers’ job position in the first place).
Without going into the whole history of what philosophers call metaphysics, let me cut straight to the chase and discuss Slavoj Žižek – an exciting philosopher because, to start with, he’s still alive. Žižek is an original thinker ranging across psychoanalysis, philosophy and politics, embedding his philosophic discourse into the real world of pop culture and current affairs.
If you’re a Christian reading this, be warned. Žižek is an avowed atheist but what makes him fascinating for me is that he takes Christianity more seriously than some of our own Christian thinkers. The problem for much Christian analysis of the world today is that it doesn’t take Christ’s teaching radically enough.
Žižek’s notion of Christianity is misconstrued, theologically, but it offers a foil for some prominent Christian thinkers such as John Milbank who has dialogued with Žižek in a number of forums including The Monstrosity of Christ (2009).
In particular, I want to take a Žižekian inspired analysis of the girls pictorial take on COVID-19. And then I’m gong to explain the chair. Promise!
(If Žižek is offensive for anyone, don’t forget that Plato and Aristotle weren’t Christians either but that hasn’t stopped Christian theologians making a feast of their philosophies since the time of Christ.)
Žižek has his own ideas about what constitutes ‘a chair’. And as you might imagine, Žižek’s ideas are very different to Plato and Aristotle, given we have moved on several millennia. For Žižek, you can forget about caves and collecting lots of samples to figure out what a chair is.
Žižek’s reality outside Plato’s cave begins with the Real which he borrows from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.
For our purpose Žižek’s the Real is a close enough corollary of what constitutes the ultimate reality expressed by Plato’s idealistic forms and Aristotle’s empirical categories from lots of samples. I say close enough because Žižek gives it a radical twist, but not unusual in the deconstructed thought world of post modern philosophers.
Žižek says you can’t grasp the Real even if you break free of the cave of ignorance or collect a truckload of samples of what a real chair might look like. This is because the Real is located beyond the Symbolic. Signs allow us to express concepts in language and texts by binary opposites. A chair is not a couch, or a stool, or the grass we sit on… and so on until after a process of elimination we arrive at the idea of a chair.
But the Real is absolute, undifferentiated, beyond symbolisation. The Real is out there, absolutely. But the Real is beyond formulation as a form. The only way we can get some kind of a handle on the Real is through the symbolic order which is how we interpret the world through language and other signifiers.
We can now go back to my family COVID-19 picture. The symbolic is our interpretation of the world which is the headline news and the countless other interpretations of what is going on broadcast across countless social media channels.
The world we find ourselves in allows for endless interpretation which explains why the idea of fake news has so much appeal.
(News is only fake if you don’t want to believe someone else’s interpretation of the Real.)
We all want to know the real news. But what is real? Well, the chair is real, just as COVID-19 is real. But we still don’t know what the chair means in this picture, just as we don’t really understand what COVID-19 means with all its implications.
So we have to rely on the news headlines (which are out of focus) but can be substituted by any COVID-19 tag you wish to superimpose. Which leaves the focus on the central subject in the photo which is the most unambiguous (in focus and in meaning) of the three characters and provides the best clue to the meaning of the picture.
The subject is the ego which for Žižek comes from the Imaginary – how we interpret ourselves. Or more to the point, how we are defined by the Symbolic. (Žižek refers to three orders – the Symbolic, the Subject and the Real – we can only know the first two as the Real is unknowable for Žižek.)
In this case, in the picture, the Imaginary, the subject, is defined by hand washing. You can include mask wearing, social distancing and so on which defines the COVID-19, self disciplined (for most of us) self.
To use another Žižekian concept, we might even say the self in this picture is traumatised from the rupture of the Real. Trauma, both psychoanalytically and symbolically, is a disruption to the subject (you, me, which for Žižek is also the Imaginary). What happens when the world (our symbolic ‘reality’) is out of kilter, off balance, doesn’t make sense for us – I should really say me or you, not us. (How do I know what you might think or find traumatic?)
Most of us can live with minor inconsistencies but we all have our breaking point. Trauma occurs when a disruption leads to neurosis – we become obsessed, anxious. For Žižek, trauma is a rupture of the Real. Which is to say, a breakdown – both in interpretation but also mentally, psychologically – in the symbolic order.
In a sense, COVID-19 is mass trauma. But we don’t all interpret it the same way. Trauma is resolved when the rupture is re-interpreted and re-imagined. So, for some, the hope of a ‘new COVID normal’ will resolve the trauma. For others, the hope that COVID might alert us to ecological activism is a way out of the trauma. But without hope or belief in a re-symbolised reality we remained traumatised. (See my last blog post, Anxiety As Symptom, for how COVID is related to ecology.)
That is why I said before, I’m traumatised by the chair!
The chair in the picture didn’t make sense to me which prompted this blog post! In my mind anyway, I’ve been able to ‘rationalise’ and ’symbolise’ the chair with meaning. The meaning is that the chair has no meaning because you can never know the Real. The Real can only be imagined in the symbolic order of language and signs.
So now that I’ve argued the chair has no meaning because it’s beyond meaning, let me tell you the punchline (Žižek loves a joke with a good punchline).
The chair in the girls’ picture means, ‘you never know what life is going to hit you with!’
And that, in a round about way, is the whole point about the chair not being the chair. You just never know what’s real-ly out there until (or even when) it does hit you. COVID-19 for example. Or Afghanistan. (That brings us back to trauma – this time physical and not just psychological!)
How do I know this is the meaning of the chair? I asked the girls (after I wrote this post believe it or not). The girls should know as they staged the picture that started this post. Which just goes to show – sometimes meaning comes from just asking someone who knows more about the subject than you.
Watch out for my next post, The End Of Apocalypse, where we meet Žižek in The Matrix – coming 10 September.
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