Pathological Stains and Moral Law

Review by

Christopher Hanlon

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Copyright (c) 1997 by Christopher Hanlon, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

S2: Radical Evil. Ed. Joan Copjec. New York: Verso, 1996.


  1. One of the most unfortunate consequences of the late-twentiet- century academy's reproach of the metaphysical has been the attendant loss of any operative sense of evil. It seems counter-productive, that is, to attempt to historicize or deconstruct events like the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the Jewish holocaust, or the Rwandan massacres because of a general reluctance to define any given act as "evil." Yet an air of dismissiveness about the Kantian notion of evil can provide a climate for a greater misanthropy than the world can withstand. For the early Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason, of course, evil is only a name for a certain lack within the ethical field of the subject. Evil, in other words, is entirely without metaphysical properties; it manifests itself at those moments when we stumble in our pursuit of the categorical imperative, and this failure is to be considered "pathological" insofar as it is predicated on a certain misrecognition within the subject, who turns attention from the Absolute Good to the merely pleasurable or the coveted. But in the later essay Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant appears to revise his earlier optimism concerning the perfectibility of human nature. He now posits that on close examination, human beings appear ready to succumb to the darkest proclivities, that the Universal itself seems pathologically stained, that there exists
    a secret falsity in even the closest friendships, . . . a propensity to hate him to whom one is indebted . . . a hearty well-wishing which yet allows the remark that "in the misfortunes of our best friends, there is something which is not altogether displeasing to us." (qtd. in Radical Evil, vii)
    And on the larger scale of human relations, Kant finds this radical evil at work not only within Empire itself, but--one suspects, more crucially--in the mass-cynicism Empire breeds:
    Each separate state, so long as it has a neighboring state which it dares hope to conquer, strives to aggrandize itself through . . . conquest, and thus to attain a world-monarchy, a polity wherein all freedom . . . virtue, taste, and learning, would necessarily expire. Yet this monster (in which laws gradually lose their force), after it has swallowed all its neighbors, finally dissolves of itself, and through rebellion and disunion breaks up into many smaller states. . . . The result is that the philosophical millenium, which hopes for a state of perpetual peace based on a league of peoples . . . which tarries for a completed improvement of the entire human race, is universally ridiculed as a wild fantasy. (qtd. in Radical Evil, vii)

  2. The essays of the second volume of Joan Copjec's S series, Radical Evil, stake out a position of enunciation located between the Kant of Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and the Lacan of Seminar VII, who teaches us that the ethical subject is that subject who does not "give way" on his or her desire. In her introduction, Copjec explains that the stakes in mapping "radical evil" are bound to the fate of the "international situation" Kant addresses in his late essay, even while she points out that the "international situation" itself was only an emerging possibility at the moment of Kant's writing. That is, as Copjec points out, "the contemporary ring of his complaint is slightly off" (viii); the end of the eighteenth century marked the moment when Imperial expansionism was undergoing a shift from monarchical egotism to popular, "democratic" will, where Empire itself could only continue to exist by enlisting the will of the (European) people, and hence could become more bloody, more cruel, more evil than anything that had come before. Hence, for Copjec, the phenomenon of modern evil. The possibility of redemption, then, depends upon our ability to interrogate the bond between evil and will; her exploration is finally geared toward the question, "Does evil consume will entirely or does it leave behind something that might positively strive toward good?" (ix) Copjec's answer, as she notes, is measured in more optimistic tones than those held by many of her Kantian/Lacanian colleagues. In opposition to Slavoj Zizek, for instance, who has repeated on several occasions his view that radical evil is, in some sense, the Kantian modality of the Lacanian "answer from the Real"--the emergence of which consumes the entire landscape of Kant's prior thought--Copjec insists that "radical evil" is itself only theoretically possible if we are willing to phenomenalize the (moral) Law. Copjec is unwilling to do any such thing, and instead makes Freud and Deleuze her glosses to the Kantian moral law, in order to point out how the Law or Superego itself only exists at those moments when the subject has transgressed. In the absence of a moral law qua positive injunction, then, we are forced to discount the possibility of an evil "commandeering" of the positive injunction.

  3. For Copjec all of this is weighted toward her larger anti-historicist/anti-deconstructionist project, which readers may recall from her recent work, Read My Desire. The onus of the argument here falls on the re-definition of the the moral law as that which exceeds itself, in some sense. That is, the condition of its possibility is the very condition of its impossibility, and this excess must be understood as that alone which can deliver our post-Enlightenment universe from the spectre of modern evil. Readers should make no mistake about the polemical tone here. In Copjec's view, the New Historicism and deconstruction are responsible for the "deferral" of Kantian Universalism, insofar as this deferral has been attendant to the emptying out of the "postmodern" subject--and this very deferral, for Copjec, is that which makes the dissolution of the "final judgment" possible, and it is this dissolution which prepares the ground of history for the coming of modern evil.

  4. Radical Evil begins with the Beginning, apropos of Kant's conception of the historic reach of radical evil; Slavoj Zizek's contribution to the volume approaches the problematic of evil by way of F.W.J. Schelling's commentary on the Gospel according to St. John: "In the beginning there was the Word." For Zizek, Schelling's conception of the Beginning as the moment when the eternal, psychotic, "chaos of drives" were crystallized in the Actual--that is, in Creation itself--is homologous with the passage of the Lacanian subject into the register of the Symbolic. That is, there is that element, within Schelling's system of thought, which "flies off" from the transformation of the Infinite Ground to Finite Existence--that element expressable as the Lacanian object a, the "indivisible remainder" or unsymbolizable X which is lost in the passage from the fathomless depths of the Real to the structural register of the Symbolic. Zizek claims that the production of this "remainder" amounts to a perversion of both the Infinite and the Finite, or rather, a condensation of the two in which we should recognize the core conceptual issue for Schellingian Evil: Evil is not to be conceived as a Kantian, "pathological" attachment to the Finite (i.e., "sensual," "obscene" pleasures such as money, sex, etc.), an attachment which in turn distracts subjects from their pursuit of the Infinite Good; rather, Evil is conceived by Schelling as evidence for the "split subjectivity" of "God Himself," or, in more secular terms, the "pathological" stain on the Infinite. Evil, in other words, is for Schelling (and for Zizek) an ontological entity, grafted on to the Infinite itself. The crux of Zizek's argument is his notion that we witness the emergence of such "ontological Evil" at those moments where the Infinite is "actualized" or invoked qua finite space. The example Zizek invokes is that of the State official who aligns the interests of the Party with the interests of the Nation as such. In such situations, "Evil" (as that "self-interested," "partisan" smear on the discourse of the State) becomes sublimated, in a sense, insofar as it becomes coextensive--to use Kantian tones--with the maxim of universal will.

  5. Alenka Zupancic's "Kant with Don Juan and Sade," along with Zizek's chapter, probably does most of the theoretical heavy lifting in Radical Evil's project of defining the special contours of a Lacanian/Kantian category of evil. For Zupancic, Voltaire's Don Juan shows us how evil itself can conform to the formal structure of Kant's categorical imperative even while dialogically opposing itself to the "moral law" in which the early Kant found the constitution of the Absolute. That is, just as Lacan shows (in his seventh Seminar) that Sade's ferocious "will-to-jouissance" can--indeed, must--be understood as a modality of the "Universal will" (insofar as the Sadist maintains the right to enjoy others absolutely while simultaneously recognizing the other's absolute right to enjoy him or her), Zupancic argues that Don Juan's libertine philosophy also meets Kant's precepts for ethical behavior, insofar as Don Juan's evil cannot be considered the least bit "pathological" (as someone who is convinced of God's existence, he ought to have a profound interest in repenting himself, in doing everything within his power to attain grace), but rather, radical (insofar as his refusal to pursue this repentance acquires the status of a non-pathological, quasi-moral "reproach" of God, or the Universal Good).

  6. Three essays in Radical Evil center on the holocaust--as Copjec comments, "the single most agreed upon example of modern evil." Andrew Hewitt's "The Bad Seed" maintains that the project of the physical annihilation of the Jews requires that we formulate a physiology of evil. Michael Geyer's "The Politics of Memory in Contemporary Germany" is an informative study of Germany's discursive project, during the post-holocaust era, of re-configuring its own national identity while still maintaining accountability for national identity's flip side (the possibility of fascism), but the connections to "radical evil" remain cryptic, so that the essay finally seems out of place in this volume. Juliet Flower MacCannell's "Fascism and the Voice of Conscience," however, is one of Radical Evil's strongest chapters. In some sense, MacCannell's seems to supplement Lacan's famous "Four Discourses" (the discourse of the Master, the University, the Hysteric, the Analyst) with a fifth discursive category, what we might call "the discourse of the Fascist." MacCannell's decision to examine Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem through the lens of Lacan's Seminar VII leads her to find in Eichmann's infamous defense (during his trial, Eichmann didn't simply maintain that he was a helpless subject "following orders"; he went on to explain that he had "lived his whole life according to Kant's ethical precepts" and even recited long tracts from the Critique of Practical Reason from memory and almost verbatim) a "will to jouissance" which reveals fascism's re-tooling of Kant's categorical imperative, somewhat along the lines of Lacan's "Kant avec Sade." The "universal will" so crucial to Kant (to behave ethically, one must not simply behave in a way which is applicable as a universal maxim; additionally, one must be able to make the step of identifying with the will behind such a maxim) becomes for the fascist the "will of the führer," so that the categorical imperative becomes translatable thus: "One must behave in such a way so that if the Führer knew, he would approve." For Eichmann, in other words, the Kantian ethos of the holocaust required that one must not merely "follow orders" in an automatic capacity, but that one must identify with the will behind the orders themselves. Eichmann's protestation that he had no "pathological" hatred of the Jews, as did many around him, that indeed, he had "special reasons" for liking the Jews, is for MacCannell the definitive earmark of the radicality of his evil.

  7. Taken seriously, Radical Evil is an alarming collection. In spite of the almost uniform theoretical rigor of the book, one is tempted to consider it a beginning, or even--to appropriate the militarized language of Empire--a reconnaissance mission into foreboding territory. While the essays themselves are rarely as contentious as Joan Copjec's introduction--which calls for a re-vamped cultural criticism more capable of recognizing evil when it sees it and thus of dusting off the old notion of "responsibility"--the reader should leave Radical Evil with the sense that this is a text with the makings of a major intervention.

Back to Contents Page || Back to Jouvert Mainpage