Žižek never tires of repeating the English proverb, `the light at the end of the tunnel is from an oncoming train’. The quip conflates hope with despair, optimism with fatalism, romanticism with nihilism, and optimism of the will with pessimism of the intellect. But the argument here is that Žižek misses the point repeatedly, that a proverb is meant to be just that, a saying. Its wider contours can be grasped but its specific essence has been historically lost to us. It is an empty master signifier so to speak. Žižek presumes that a proverb communicates meaning just like ordinary everyday language, which it never does. The essence of the proverb is not inherent in it like toothpaste within a tube of toothpaste, to be manifested on applying a bit of interpretive pressure. A proverb cannot be historicized either. It is what in computer parlance would be called WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. There are aphorisms that contain misogyny, sexism, minor forms of hatred and various other kinds of bigotry. But the meaning is clear in that, they are not meant to be taken literally. There is a parallax here between what the aphorism about the train in the tunnel conveys and the semantic-historical meaning of the statement. Here the proverb in its historical context conveys the advent of industrialization, large scale engineering projects such as building of tunnels, mild luddism, lifeworld of the human in conflict with the mechanical as a trope just as it is manifesting in the digital sphere today with AI, and so on. But the truth, or the wisdom of the saying is on the surface. Žižek gets this eminently in the case of jokes, that a joke is just that, a formal instrument sans inherent consistency as linguistic artefact, no matter whether they are sexist, racist or homophobic etc. But just as the literal explanation ruins a joke (like is does an orgasm) here Žižek’s harnessing of the proverb for semantic edification, throws light on certain areas in Žižek’s oeuvre that need closer examination, particularly his treatment of Eurocentrism, the refugee crisis, multiculturalism, human rights etc.
Obviously the fact that this proverb is not meant to be semantically harnessed (outside of linguistic scholarship), has been pointed out to Žižek. Žižek has berated received notions of wisdom, where everything and its opposite appear wise, like `no hands clapping’. The philologist in Žižek overlooks the possibility that hyper magnification via an electron microscope can possibly kill the organism. But in this critique of wisdom, even the misreading has been used by Žižek’s lime squeezer hermeneutic to produce a valid and interesting outcome. The cartography of Žižekian misreadings is too vast and copious and productive of meaning at the same time.
Žižek also treats the proverb as a joke. There is a non-reciprocal relation between a proverb and a joke where a joke can be made into a proverb with some alterations, but a proverb as a joke fails owing to its context and linguistic popularity in its lifeworld. The metamorphosis of the joke into a proverb is formally akin to the hystericization of the pervert, which is a valid move. On the other hand, treating a proverb as a joke is the reverse and it makes a pervert out of the hysteric, to be avoided at all costs. The barred nature of the impasse of the `proverb as joke’ is similar to the impossibility of the double cross-dressing male (male masquerading as female masquerading as male) in Shakespearean theatre, whereas the same is possible in a female iteration (female-male-female) which Žižek uses to illustrate the nature of belief. The monist edifice in Žižek segues into a dualistic one as if they were two sides of a mobius strip.
Umar Nizarudeen teaches at the Government College Madapally, University of Calicut in Kerala. He was a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.