After a general introduction (The Unorientable Space of Dialectical Materialism) which sets the context and summarises the argument, the book begins with a chapter entitled THEOREM I: THE PARALLAX OF ONTOLOGY. The incipit of this chapter contains a brief summary and even briefer analysis of a short story, « The Waistcoat », said to illustrate the concept of Hegelian « Absolute Knowing ».
The relation between this first example and the rest of the chapter is not evident, and the analysis proposed by Zizek is very compressed. Given that he praises the story as giving us an example of Absolute Knowing it may be better to see it as illustrating the whole of the book, and not just this one chapter.
The husband is sick, he is suffering from tuberculosis and ultimately dies of this disease. To hide his loss of weight he shortens the cinch of the waistcoat on one side. He does this « in order not to worry his wife ».
First Twist: Ruse
The man’s wife does the same on the other side, shortening the other band, not to give her husband the illusion that he is not losing weight, but that it is not happening as fast as he fears, that there are periods of remission, « in order to give him hope ».
The waistcoat analogises our knowledge of the real. if we are constantly adjusting our knowledge to gain a better « fit » with the real and the other is doing so too, we cannot know the real, our knowledge is mere convention.
Instead of throwing out the waistcoat and substituting another each partner « fudges » the size to make it fit. Knowledge is instrumental.
This corresponds to Theorem I: the parallax of the waistcoat keeps us separate from the real as we are unable to know all the moves of adjustment at play in the game.
Asymmetry: Formulas of Sexuation
Each of the partners is hiding their ruse from the other, i.e. they are not content with just producing an appearance of (relative) health, they are trying to induce the other in error. However, the symmetry is only apparent, the result sought by each partner corresponds to the formulas of sexuation.
1) The husband is trying to produce an illusion that everything is under control, to close off the need to worry.
2) The wife is trying to produce an impression that despite his weight loss things may be more open than they seem, hope is possible
Second Twist: Redoubling
The second twist comes with the discovery by each partner of the other’s ruse: instead of the obvious reaction of calling the other out, halting the ruse, and discussing the problem openly, they continue the ruse as a new game. From material and instrumental the game becomes formal and pragmatic. We are not just confronted with errors that can be either involuntary or deliberate. We are faced with an ocean of anomalies and adjustments
If I take into account the moves of the other players in the knowledge game and I am still obliged to make further adjustments then something of the real is being touched on. The adjustments in knowledge are required by transformations in the real.
By including within our purview both the waistcoat and the ongoing adjustments a non-conventional, non-instrumental knowledge of the real is possible.
This corresponds to Theorem II: the mutual failure to observe and know the real across an « unaltered » instrument amounts to the inscription of the subjective moves within the real to be known.
Third Twist: Unoriented Thinking
These two twists are redoubled in thought, as emblematic of a space of thinking that is opened up by the redoubling of the ruse.
The progression of the consumptive weight loss is no longer unknown degree (subjective uncertainty), it is unknowable to an unknowable degree (objective uncertainty).
This corresponds to Theorem III: the ruse itself when redoubled produces an uncertainty that becomes a mode of knowing. The wish to reassure the partner by dupery as to the progression of the illness is transformed into a wish to assure him or her of one’s love.
1) Möbius Strip: the redoubled play of ruses and adjustments leads to a situation of the coincidence of opposites (dupery/sharing, secret/explicit, silence/avowal).
2) Cross-Cap: the two ways of managing the traumatic situation of the fatal disease and its progress introduce the cut of sexual difference: a determinate state of affairs in the real becomes indeterminate in reflection.
3) Klein Bottle: the becoming aware of the game needed to continue the game displaces the object of reflection from the « game » (formal moment), which has as object disease and death, to the love of the couple playing the game (moment of subjectivity).
Fourth Twist: Retroactive Negativity
These adjustments, adaptations, twists, cuts, redoublings and paradoxical subjectivations are moments of a subtending negativity, that is reached not only at the end but at every moment along the way.
The couple of the story have been proceeding as if they were surrounded by substantial « normal » couples, and that their traumatic state of affairs is an exception to this rule. So they act to normalise their situation, by at least keeping up appearances. This is fated to fail, as no couple is normal, all couples have an absolute traumatic kernel.
This corresponds to Theorem IV: what they learn from these twists and redoublings is that negativity is there from the beginning, and is constitutive of the couple. As long as the couple perdures there is no way out, the ruses resolve nothing, nor does treating the whole thing as a game, for the game is itself deadly serious. The husband dies at the end and the waistcoat is sold back to the original merchant.
Final Remarks: On Abstraction
I hope this post has gone some way towards unpacking the sense of this story, and why Zizek could call it a figure of Absolute Knowing in a book titled SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE. Where is the sex? one may ask, and what’s so « absolute » about this foolish-seeming game? Why does Zizek conclude with « abstraction »?
I realised that the sex is to be found not in any transgressive excess of sexual passion, but in the modes of coping with the trauma, from closure and control under the conditions of exceptionality to openness and hope under the conditions of reflexivity.
The absoluteness is to be found in the passage from « faking » it to playing it through. The trauma of negativity is not something that we can talk through to resolve, as it resists full and convergent symbolisation.
The abstraction lies in acknowledging that our attempts to patch up or to cover over the cracks are empty (formal) but necessary (ritual) gestures.
In sum: love is a figure of real abstraction, moving in the unorientable space of traumatic divergence, hoping for moments of reprieve beyond our ability to provoke and control.