Can a computer program register coffee without milk? — Slavoj Žižek

Alenka Zupančič was the first one who brought this example, I’m ashamed to mention it (in my already published books I mentioned it at least 5-6 times, it is an old boring joke) that one Ninotchka joke:

— Can you bring me a coffee without cream?

— Sorry, we don’t have cream, we only have milk, I can only bring you a coffee without milk.

This is for me the best introduction to Hegel, because what Hegel means by Bestimmte Negation, determinate negation, it’s precisely this. We get here in this joke (it’s more complex, Alenka developed it) we get three types of coffee. We get plain coffee, coffee without milk, coffee without cream. Although they are materially the same, you get just the plain coffee. But symbolically it’s not the same, coffee without cream, it’s not the same as just plain coffee. Now here things get so complex.

I had a serious debate with a couple of computer programmers, I said “Can a computer program register this? Can it define, incorporate, coffee without cream?” And a friend of mine, who is a very serious computer programmer, put some work into it and then e-mailed me the result, which is: Almost yes but basically no. (Audience laughs)

You have a coffee vending machine in an office, where you don’t pay but they just identify you with your eye scan or whatever, so the coffee vending machine identifies you. So you have your file there. And then you usually take coffee with milk. At some point, I don’t know why, you say “Today I will just take plain coffee” and it’s possible that the machine will register this “Oh today it’s coffee without milk” because this guy usually takes coffee with milk. But I will not go into subtle differences but it’s absolutely not the same, because here you already have habit. I don’t have time to go into it now.

But the true speculative notion comes where the only way to explain this negativity, coffee without milk, coffee without cream, the first thing is that, and here I refer to my good friend, I already mentioned him, Jean Pierre Dupuy, he is obsessed with this problem “Can we change the past?” Of course he is not a magical thinker, factually we can’t. But his idea is, we can counterfactually, that is to say, we can retroactively change, that would be his point, plain coffee into coffee without milk.

That’s how I read T. S. Eliot, I always quote him, you know that famous point that every real new break, invention in art, is not only something new but changes the entire past. Let’s say up to a certain point, we are so poor we don’t have enough cows we just drink coffee. Then all of a sudden we get enough cows, we drink coffee with milk, but retroactively the first coffee becomes coffee without milk, you know. You can change this virtual, counterfactual dimension in the past.

So I will not go into it too much in detail but the nice Hegelian speculative result is that the only way to account for coffee without milk is that already plain coffee is “without”. But not without anything determinate, it’s just “without”. So we have coffee without milk, we have this, and coffee is just a “coffee without”.

And I don’t have time to go into it, just to give you a hint into my crazy speculations, I think that we have this male chauvinist stupid theory: Men are fully humans with penis and so on and then women are men without penises, less, less than fully human, and so on and so on. My speculative answer would not be “No, women are fully human, more fully,” no. Women are not without penis, women are just “without”. They are pure subjectivity and we men are so stupid that we think if we add our stupid penis there will be something positive, you know. (Audience laughs)

In the terms of my favourite old example, Kinder chocolate eggs, our penis is like that stupid plastic toy that you get in it. Women are just chocolate, they know in the middle it’s a void, it’s nothing, that void is subject. We stupid men think if you add some stupid plastic toy to it, it’s whatever.


Note: I am the friend Žižek mentions here. — Işık Barış Fidaner

This part begins from 35:49 in this speech:

See also:

“From Milk to cream: Registering a difference of quality”, Işık Barış Fidaner


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