SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE (5): a puzzling example of absolute knowledge

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 ».

Epistemology I

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

Epistemology 2

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.

Cet article a été publié dans Uncategorized. Ajoutez ce permalien à vos favoris.

8 commentaires pour SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE (5): a puzzling example of absolute knowledge

  1. As one prone to tangential thoughts, I’ll reframe the narrative and discussion. There is knowledge of the Absolute, but there is the more fundamental issue of our relationship to reality. Tuberculosis and the ideology that formed around it is a great focal point. Bear with me while I attempt to explain the relevance to your post, as this is more than a philosophical debate about epistemology or love.

    This was part of an era that I’ve referred to as the crisis of identity. It was the period of revolution and post-revolutionary backlash, the long 19th century that began with the colonial revolts (e.g., 1765-71 North Carolina War of the Regulation) and extended into the populist and labor revolts (e.g., 1912–21 West Virginia coal wars). During this time, the erasure of the last remnants of feudalism was completed. What followed, in the wake of enclosure and privatization, was the radicalizing and moderniziing force of capitalism, industrialization, and the nation-state.

    This was an ongoing revolution that created not only a new kind of society but a new kind of mindset, with literacy and abstract thought taking over. Secularization was also becoming a greater force, at the very moment the experience of fairies was disappearing among the English. Hyper-individualism was replacing the older communal identity and porous self, a change first felt among the stressed-out emerging middle class of professionals, writers, artists, etc.

    The casualties were immense. It was seen in the increase of already known diseases (obesity, diabetes) and the rise of entirely new diseases of civilization (nerves, nostalgia, neurasthenia, depression), along with wasting diseases like tuberculosis. But these weren’t merely diseases. How people talked about them touched upon numerous issues of citizen-making, childrearing, racial politics, eugenics movement, social identity, gender roles, sexual knowledge, declining birthrates (and increasing abortion rate; about 1/5 or 1/6 pregnancies were aborted right before the Civil War).

    There were many responses to this. Following the Civil War, laws were passed to censor public discussion of sexuality and the selling of sex toys. There was also a renewed obsession with dieting and physical health culture. Many remedies were sought. An example of this was the ‘rest cure’ (mostly for women) and the ‘west cure’ (mostly for men), both having been used for the treatment of neurasthenia and tuberculosis as the two diseases overlapped to a great degree, overlapped in terms of symptoms and in terms of ideological framing.

    There was moral panic about Western civilization being in decline and whites, especially WASPs no longer being up to the task — not to mention worries about boys becoming effeminate and girls masculine. This carried over into the early 20th century. It was what motivated Theodore Roosevelt to take up the ‘west cure’ and to enforce it as a national ideology, a new state religion. This was the impetus behind creating the federal park systems, gun clubs, boy scouts, girl scouts, etc.

    There was a sense that everything was out of control and so needed to be put back under control. And that connects back to the story, in how the couple attempts to control knowledge and perception when faced with a disease they don’t control.

    If you want the background to my thought, you can check out some posts where all of this is discussed in great detail:

    Aimé par 1 personne

  2. Ping : SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE (6): ontology and epistemology of the concept | AGENT SWARM

  3. ailiosjorge dit :

    This is an absolutely amazing post Terence! It left me thinking of the psychoanalytical process as an experiencing of the absolute. For instance, do you think that what you describe (following Zizek) can be seen as unfolding in the analysis of hysteria by Freud?: hysteria is a matter of faking, of pretending, of simulating on the part of the hysteric, until it suddenly turns into a « dead-serious » game (what else is fantasy and desire as desire of the Other, but also transference and the operation of working-through?)

    Aimé par 1 personne

    • terenceblake dit :

      Thanks for your interest. I do not have anything in particular to say about hysteria in this context, and I am trying to remain as generic as possible. I agree that the unfolding of the psychoanalytic process, as one of the figures of love, is one of the ways of experiencing the absolute, but I agree with Badiou that other ways are open to us:


    • By the way, during the late 19th to early 20th century, hysteria was part of the same set of ideologically-framed diseases that included neurasthenia and tuberculosis. Silas Weir Mitchell who invented the ‘west cure’ and ‘rest cure’ (for the former, think of Doc Holiday going to the Wild West to treat his tuberculosis; and for the latter, think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s « The Yellow Wallpaper »; Gilman was treated by Mitchell). Such diseases were interpreted according to many interpretations — physiological, psychological, and social. It is out of that public debate and moral panic that Freud’s theorizing arose. As with Freud, many of the scientists and doctors of that era were obsessed with sexuality and libido, either it being too agitated or depleted, typically according to an economic model of health and psychic energy (saving, investing, etc).

      Also, based on Galenic humoral theory that was Christianized during the Middle Ages, the Seventh Day Adventists became leaders in nutrition studies and still are major financial backers of dietary research. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was an Adventist who treated tuberculosis, among other diseases, and ran a sanitarium/health spa. To suppress an over-active libido (‘blood’ in humoralism) that would ‘burn’ up the individual, he believed that invigorating meat should be replaced with calming fiber, and so he invented cereal. Among other things, it was supposed to help prevent masturbation in boys so that they wouldn’t waste away. Similarly. Mitchell thought epilepsy was caused by sexual vice. In women, imbalanced libido was seen as the cause of hysteria. As Gilman suggested, Mitchell’s ‘rest cure’ might make a woman go crazy, if she wasn’t already.

      Interestingly, Galen who articulated the most influential theory of humoralism also studied, treated, and wrote about hysteria. In the following passage, you can see how the issue of control comes up, but in this case the uterus is out of control and is considered to move around, as if it had a mind of its own. Humoralism was one way to reassert control by influencing the activity and balance of humors. Susan P. Mattern writes about this in The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (pp. 232-233):

      “He mentions speaking with many women who described themselves as “hysterical,” that is, having an illness caused, as they believed, by a condition of the uterus (hystera in Greek) whose symptoms varied from muscle contractions to lethargy to nearly complete asphyxia (Loc. Affect. 6.5, 8.414K). Galen, very aware of Herophilus’s discovery of the broad ligaments anchoring the uterus to the pelvis, denied that the uterus wandered around the body like an animal wreaking havoc (the Hippocratics imagined a very actively mobile womb). But the uterus could, in his view, become withdrawn in some direction or inflamed; and in one passage he recommends the ancient practice of fumigating the vagina with sweet-smelling odors to attract the uterus, endowed in this view with senses and desires of its own, to its proper place; this technique is described in the Hippocratic Corpus but also evokes folk or shamanistic medicine.”

      Aimé par 1 personne

  4. Ping : SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE (9): « The Waistcoat  and Absolute Knowing | «AGENT SWARM


Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Google. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s