The Real as Virtual

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


December 27, 2010

The Real as Virtual

€”Slavoj Žižek in Are Catastrophes Virtual?

The Real as virtual - what does this mean? I want to recall the old Catholic strategy to guard men against the temptation of the flesh. They told you “When you see in front of you a voluptuous feminine body, imagine how it will look in a couple of decades: the dry skin, sagging breasts, and so on. Or even better, imagine what lurks now already beneath the skin: raw flesh and bones, inner fluids, half-digested food, excrement and so on.” Far from enacting a return to the Real, destined to break the imaginary spell of the body, such a procedure equals the escape from the Real, the Real which announces itself in the seductive appearance of the naked body.

That is to say, in the opposition between the spectral appearance of a sexualized body and the repulsive body in decay, it is the spectral appearance which is the Real and the decaying body which is reality. We take recourse to the decaying body in order to avoid the deadly fascination of the Real, which threatens to draw us into its vortex of jouissance, of excessive pleasure.

One should even turn around the opposition between true art as deep and commercial kitch as superficial. The problem with kitsch is that it is all too profound, manipulating deep libidinal and ideological forces, while true art knows how to remain at the surface, how to subtract it’s subject from it’s deepest context of historical reality. The same goes for contemporary art, where we often encounter brutal attempts to return to the Real, to remind the spectator or reader that he is perceiving a fiction, to awaken him from a sweet dream. This gestures has two main forms, which although opposed amount to the same. In literature and cinema, there are especially in post-modern texts, self-reflexive reminders that what we are watching is a mere fiction, like the actors on screen addressing us directly as spectators, thus ruining the illusion of the autonomous space of the narrative fiction. Or the writer intervening directly in the narrarative through ironic comments. In theatre there are occassional brutal events which awaken us to the reality of the stage - like when I was young it was fashionable to slaughter a chicken on stage, allegedly to shock you, that you are aware that this is just a fiction. But instead of conferring on these gestures a Brechtian dignity, perceiving them as versions of extraneation, of being liberated of ideological imaginary fixations, one should rather denounce them for what they are: the exact opposite of what they claim to be, escapes from the Real, desperate attempts to avoid the Real of the illusion itself, the Real that emerges in the guise of an illusory spectacle.