He gave a heartbreaking example of this: a friend of his whose wife had died, suddenly and very young, from breast cancer. Žižek and his friends were shocked at how, from immediately after his wife’s death, the man was able to speak openly and without emotion about the terrible suffering she had undergone in the final two months of her life.
Then they realised that, whenever he did so, the man was holding and stroking his wife’s pet hamster. On some subconscious level the man had “fetishised” the hamster so that it now represented his dead wife – and so he could feel that she hadn’t really gone. Six months later, though, the hamster died: and the man underwent a complete emotional and mental breakdown that resulted in his hospitalisation.
So Žižek claimed that when we encounter someone who claims to be totally detached and cynical, to see the world as it is, a meaningless void, then we should not engage with them on the level of rational argument (“The world has so much beauty and meaning!”). Rather, we need (as it were) to “look for their hamster”, the object or concept that enables them to distance themselves from what they truly feel.
As he put it: “We believe much more than we think we believe”.
Let us take, for instance, the often-rehearsed Zizekian argument that in their different guises all totalitarian systems rely on an instance of fetishistic disavowal. Particularly in his early production, Zizek tackles the question of ideological efficacy in both Nazi-Fascism and Communism, frequently resorting to Octave Mannoni’s formula on the contradictory nature of belief: ‘Je sais bien, mais quand-même …’ [I know very well, but nevertheless …] (see Mannoni, 1969). Zizek maintains that in totalitarian societies the power of ideology is, as a rule, reflected in the cynical attitude of the subjects, who know full well that the official ideological line (‘the Jews are responsible for all evils’; ‘the Communist Party represents the people’) is false, and yet they stick to it as a matter of belief – since, as both Pascal and Althusser knew very well, belief has less to do with reason and knowledge than with habit and senseless (from Zizek’s standpoint: unconscious/traumatic) enjoyment.
The same principle of ‘totalitarian disavowal’, Zizek frequently argues, is also in place in liberal Western societies, where the cynical distance we are encouraged to take from any form of traditional ideological belief effectively suggests that we are being caught in the system’s ideological loop. The more we pride ourselves on being ‘free thinkers in a free world’, Zizek argues, the more we blindly submit ourselves to the merciless superegoic command (‘Enjoy!’) which binds us to the logic of the market. As with Hegel’s ‘Beautiful Soul’, the display of purity turns out to be the measure of impurity, innocence the measure of evil. From this angle, the very notion of ‘free will’ (extensively exploited, for example, by modern advertising) might be said to function, today, as a supremely ideological formula, since it binds the subject precisely to that deterministic universe it seeks to escape. Zizek, however, does not deny the existence of free will. His understanding of the notion is predicated upon the German idealist account of the concept developed especially by Schelling. Against the philosophical cliché that there is no place for free will in German idealism, since the world operates according to laws that are ultimately inaccessible to us, Zizek argues that the idea of subjectivity constructed by the German idealists does endorse access to freedom of will – provided, however, that we conceive of this freedom as a traumatic encounter with an ‘abyssal’ choice that has no guarantee in the socio-symbolic order. Zizek’s point is that free will implies the paradox of a frightful disconnection from the world, the horror of a psychotic confrontation with the radical negativity that ultimately defines the status of the subject.