I have thought a lot about the first example in Zizek’s SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUE. Zizek summarises and comments on the short story THE WAISTCOAT, and concludes that it provides us with a good illustration of Absolute Knowing, the central concept of his book. This is high praise indeed!
This story comes at the start of Chapter One and is the incipit of the book as such. If the Introduction can be considered a retroactive summary then the paragraph on « The Waistcoat » is a prospective synopsis of the whole book, not just of Chapter One, and could just as well have come at the end.
It is rather hard to see the relation of the story with that particular chapter, and Zizek’s comments on it are brief and cryptic, as he talks of « Absolute Knowing », which is not the subject of that chapter.
(For a transcription of the paragraph see: https://www.reddit.com/r/zizek/comments/fdf2qq/russian_short_story_about_a_husband_dying_of/)
So I was puzzled as to the example’s relevance at that point of Zizek’s argument, and, given the terms of the story, as to its relevance to the book as a whole. Yet its position as incipit and its characterisation by Zizek as illustrating the central concept of the book give it salience, calling for careful consideration.
After much reflexion, I came to the conclusion that the « waistcoat » in the story functions as an analogue of our transcendentally constituted knowledge, and its relative fit to the husband’s torso corresponds to the « fit » of our knowledge with reality.
Seen in this light the story is emblematic of the fundamental problem and argument of the whole book, of its movement from the dangers of reductionism or relativism due to the parallax of the transcendental constitution of our knowledge to the resolution of this problem in the Absolute.
Since the couple’s knowledge of the progression of the wasting disease is mediated by the waistcoat, its adjustments and its fit, this knowledge can be manipulated accordingly. As the mediations pile up it becomes even more impossible for them to get at the true state of the disease’s progression.
So a displacement of investment takes place. The adjustments to the waistcoats bands lose their function as (well-meaning) manipulations, and become demonstrations of love. The move is from material game to formal game, but the game is also very concrete, its stakes are life and death.
Paradoxically it is these very concrete stakes that give an added twist of universality to the story. It takes on more general import concerning the negativity at the heart of life and of the couple as a lived experience and institution.
This general import is not limited to how we handle disease, but also (lack of) money, (frustrated ambitions), housework etc. and even « good » things, as radical negativity lies in the inescapable trauma of pure difference. (This is why a promotion, a marriage, the birth of a child, or winning the lottery can have a traumatic impact).
Our own versions of the Waistcoat predicament will be hopefully less tragic. Zizek likes to use pathological examples, but the lesson is also formal. We should not get too hung up on the concrete pathology of the content.
I would add that in accordance with Lacan’s formulas of sexuation Zizek describes the actions of the husband as being undertaken in order for his wife « not to worry », which corresponds to the masculine side of keeping up the pretence that everything is under control. Conversely, the woman acts so as to « give him hope », which corresponds to the feminine side of the « not-all », keeping the world, and thus also the future, open.
Conclusion: I admit to still being a little confused, but I wished to share my voyage of discovery. The story of the WAISTCOAT is deeper than it at first seems, as Zizek tries to convey. I try to discuss this example in a previous post, but my analysis is very tentative: