The Dark Side of Enlightenment: Arendt, Kant, de Sade and The Frankfurt School

The problem of evil has always been a central concern of human thought. Philosophy has dealt with evil in various ways even though religion has been the most accessible source of answers to this question through the ages. But confronted with actions of such unprecedented, unimaginable horrors as were the Nazi concentration camps, Hannah Arendt evoked harsh criticism with her understanding of evil as „banal.“ Even though the implications of her understanding are disturbing enough, later theorists have exposed deeper complexities which go to the root of modern society and the subjects which it produces. The philosophers I here want to focus on are the Frankfurt school theorists Adorno and Horkheimer on the one hand, and the psychoanalytically minded Lacan and Žižek on the other. Both revealed, in different ways, more complex and dark impulses beneath the facade of modernity and progress. I will begin my discussion with Arendts understanding of Eichmann and his surprising appeal to the Kantian imperative. Next I will discuss Kant‘s ethics briefly before I move on the critique of Enlightenment from Adorno and Horkheimer. The final part will surpass the earlier philosophers and argue rather for a psychoanalytic understanding of the atrocities of our age and the people who commit them. In so doing, I hope to show how Arendt misunderstood the source of the horrors she was faced with. Rather than lack of thinking, the capability and willingness of Eichmann to carry out the final solution is a capability which is to be found in the unconscious of the modern subject and has it‘s root in our cultural and philosophical tradition.

Arendt and Eichmann: Genocide as Kantian Morality?

Hannah Arendt‘s philosophical legacy is now unavoidably intertwined with that of Adolf Eichmann, the infamous organizer of the Nazi death camps. Her covering of Eichmann‘s trial raised a storm of controversy, and the debate over her (at the time) surprising and original account of the source of Eichmann‘s „evil“, and how the unimaginable horror of the camps was possible, still occupies the work of many academics trying to understand sufficiently the dangers lurking under the surface of ordinary, modern men.
To summarize Arendt‘s position, for her Eichmann was not evil in the standard sense at all. That is to say, Eichmann was certainly not filled with any kind of diabolical evil, he didn‘t have any overwhelming urge to commit immoral acts or harm anyone as far as she understood him. He seemed to be, on the contrary, quite normal: „Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a „monster“, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.“1 So, Eichmann, even though he certainly did give rise to feelings of perplexity and disgust because of his actions, did not provoke any kind of feeling of being in the presence of great evil in Arendt. On the contrary, in Eichmann, Arendt saw a very normal person. It was precisely this normality of Eichmann which, in her view raised a much more disturbing aspect of the Holocaust. If the capability of carrying out these kinds of crimes did not come from a rare, inherently evil source it raises the question of whether they could be performed by anyone given the right circumstances. As she writes:

„Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.“2

With her concept „the banality of evil“ Arendt means precisely this ordinariness of evil. It‘s most disturbing factor is the fact that there is nothing inherently special about it, it is capable of laying within anyone, even someone as mundane and (otherwise) uninteresting as Eichmann. It‘s chief features are blindly going with the flow of things, just following orders without thinking of the consequences of your actions. This is precisely what Eichmann was most guilty of, seeing his unconditional obeying of orders, without regard to the content of those orders, and despite his own feelings and desires, as a virtuous act. Arendt writes:

„When he said in the police examination that he would have sent his own father to his death if that had been required, he did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he also meant to show what an „idealist“ he had always been. The perfect „idealist,“ like everybody else, had of course his personal feelings and emotions, but he would never permit them to interfere with his actions if they came into conflict with his „idea.“3

So, Eichmann, as he himself explains it, wasn‘t necessarily in agreement with the policies that he carried out and was responsible for, the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime. But, he saw his own personal opinion and wishes as irrelevant. What mattered was orders and the law. As he said: „He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.“4

It is here we come to the main point for our purposes. Eichmann, in explaining his ideological motivation, appeals to the Kantian categorical imperative. As Arendt explains, during police examinations: „he suddenly declared with great emphasis that he had lived his whole life according to Kant‘s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty“5 Needless to say, Arendt found this attempt, trying to use Kant to justify undeniable atrocities and genocide, „outrageous“ even though, to her and the examiners surprise, Eichmann did not necessarily misunderstand Kant or have some vague, unclear idea of his moral philosophy but remembered it quite well and could explain it and his position sufficiently correctly.6 But Eichmann went on later to explain that, by appealing to the imperative he meant that he always tried to do his duty and thereby he was appropriating Kant: „for the household use of the little man.“7

Rather than dismissing Eichmann‘s appeal to Kant outright and finding it pathetic or ridiculous, she rather views it as a peculiar distortion of the real Kant. For her, Kantian ethics and the categorical imperative, if followed, would prevent figures like Eichmann from committing the deeds he did because it would precisely prevent moral agents from following orders blindly. Kant identified the moral law as having it‘s origin in reason but for Eichmann the moral law, which he followed blindly and unconditionally, was reinterpreted as being the orders of the Führer, they were unconditional and had to be obeyed. For this reason she writes that: „in one respect Eichmann did indeed follow Kant‘s precepts: a law was a law, there could be no exceptions.“8
In light of this discussion, I find it necessary to move briefly on to Kant and his categorical imperative as it will become central for the remaining part of the article. But before I do I find it necessary to mention that Arendt herself came to find her concept of the banality of evil to be much misunderstood by later commentators. In a later writing, she claimed that she: „meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale“ and that the perceived monstrousness of the perpetrators lay not in the fact that they were monsters but in a: „curious, quite authentic inability to think.“9

The radicalness of Kant‘s ethics lies in the fact that he, unlike previous moral philosophies of, for example, eudaimonia10 (Aristotele‘s virtue ethics) or ataraxia11 (Epicurus, Pyrrho and stoicism), dispenses with any kind of grounding of morality in man‘s natural surroundings. That is to say, Kant doesn‘t come to his understanding of ethics by looking at man in his actuality, his passions and desires and the environment and context that he is always inevitably caught up in. On the contrary, Kant sees ethics, how moral agents should behave, as being derived wholly and entirely from reason. In this sense Kant completely ruptures the link between moral agency and any kind of appeal to „the good“, or the desire or happiness of the subject. As he says: „all moral concepts have their seat and origin completely a priori in reason, and indeed in the most common reason just as in reason that is speculative in the highest degree; that they cannot be abstracted from any empirical and therefore merely contingent cognitions.“12

The moral law that Kant derives from reason is universal and places it‘s burden on the shoulders of every rational, thinking agent. It is a categorical (as opposed to merely hypothetical, concerning particular, optional ends) imperative and as such unconditional. As he formulates it: „There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.“13 So, an action is moral if, and only if, it can satisfy this demand, that the agent can at the same time will that his action be a universal law. Thereby typical immoral acts are excluded such as lying, murder and theft for example. The agent cannot possibly will that these actions become universalized as the very acts presuppose that they are not (a thief would not want to have his possessions stolen, a lier would not want lying to be a universal law as it would undermine the basis for his lying, and so forth.)
This view of morality is revolutionary in the sense that the law that the agent should follow does not come from an outside source according to Kant, whether it is the patriarch, contingent circumstance, a head of state, a divine Other and so forth. The law is derived entirely from within the agent himself, from his reason. In this sense the agent is autonomous as he acts according to a law which he himself constitutes. For Kant: „A rational being belongs as a member to the kingdom of ends when he gives universal laws in it but is also himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign when, as lawgiving, he is not subject to the will of any other.“14 So even though every rational agent is bound by the unconditional, categorical imperative, this does not diminish his autonomy, but precisely establishes it.

Another crucial feature of Kant‘s moral philosophy, which is important to stress here as it will become important later, is the condition which an act must fulfill to count as a moral act. An act must of course satisfy the categorical imperative in Kant‘s formulation but another important condition is that it must not only be an act which is in agreement with the imperative but must be carried out because of it. Any kind of pathology underlying an act would preclude it from counting as moral as such. A moral agent obeys the imperative because he recognizes it as his duty and acts accordingly. Therefore an act isn‘t necessarily moral even though it could be universalized. It must be an action from duty only. As Kant writes:

„…an action from duty is to put aside entirely the influence of inclination and with it every object of the will; hence there is left for the will nothing that could determine it except objectively the law and subjectively pure respect for this practical law, and so the maxim of complying with such a law even if it infringes upon all my inclinations.“15

So feelings, desires and all personal goals and ambitions must be put aside in Kant‘s moral philosophy. The agent precisely renounces his own insignificant motivations and gives himself up to the universal moral law. This he does without any kind of assurance or worse yet, anticipation of a favorable outcome or consequence for his own sake. The law must be obeyed for its own sake whatever the circumstance. Kant even goes so far as to claim that thinking about the consequences of the act is already a tainting of the purity of the act as it is concerned with something merely empirical and contingent, whereas the moral law is much higher and more significant than any such concerns.16

In this elementary overview of Kant‘s moral philosophy I have tried to draw out and emphasize the elements which will now become important. But the disturbing parallel between Eichmann‘s explanations, his justification of his actions and Kant‘s morals should also be apparent. Eichmann‘s dispensing of all of his own desires, acting according to a law unconditionally with no concern for the consequences of these very actions and even seeing nobility and goodness in so acting rhymes almost too well with Kant. The difference, as pointed out by Arendt, is that in place of the universal law as understood by Kant, Eichmann placed the command of the Führer. In so doing he was perfectly capable, despite his normality, to commit unspeakable evil, acts: „so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies capacities for human understanding.“17

But as mentioned before, Arendt has been much criticized by later commentators, criticisms which she herself found at times to be perplexing or frustrating as they often were derived from complete misunderstandings or based on claims which she never made.18 But one of the biggest criticisms of her work on Eichmann is that she is all too willing to believe what he says, his justifications and explanations for his actions. Moreover, her view of evil as „banal“ is based on Eichmann‘s apparent normality but her understanding of his normality is largely based on his own self-description, attained through interrogation after the fact, which she doesn‘t seem to seriously doubt. I will now proceed to argue, on the contrary, that Arendt didn‘t take Eichmann seriously enough.19 In his reference to, and discussion of Kant, Eichmann hinted at a disturbing link which other twentieth century philosophers also noticed. We will now move on to the first of these.

Kant and Sade

For Adorno and Horkheimer, who both fled Europe because of the Nazi tyranny, something horribly wrong had gone wrong in twentieth century Europe. As they understood it, this modernity, which has led to catastrophe and unspeakable horrors, has it‘s roots back in intellectual and philosophical history and, to understand how we arrived at the current situation and point to possible emancipation, they find it necessary to conduct a historical analysis of european intellectual history. As they explain their project: „It turned out, in fact, that we had set ourselves nothing less than the discovery of why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.“20
Their influential work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, seeks not only to locate the genesis of the problems that modern, liberal and technological society faces, but also the very irrationality which is inherent in it. That is to say, for them the Enlightenment, a project for human emancipation and prosperity based on universal reason as a guiding light with the aim of: „the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fancy“21, has reverted into irrationality, alienation and misery for the modern subject. That is not to say that the Enlightenment was a wholly negative turning-point but rather, the progressive elements which the Enlightenment emphasized unleashed at the same time certain negative, regressive traits which have been completely overlooked or supressed by western self-understanding. But the root of these traits they diagnose as going to the heart of western rationality and self-understanding itself, a problem which has been unfolding dialectically through historical change and has now culminated in science and it‘s technical domination of nature. As they write:

„Myth turns into Enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them. In the metamorphosis the nature of things, as a substratum of domination, is revealed as always the same.“ 22

It is this instrumental rationality, as they call it, which has led to a modern society of technology and domination, and this rationality has also dialectically developed to allow the possibility of an event like Auschwitz, a distinctly modern, all too rational project. Therefore, in Adorno and Horkheimers understanding, the horrors witnessed in the Second World War, were the consequence of the culmination in modernity of the dialectical development of society and culture which has as it‘s underlying basis domination of nature through rational understanding. The Enlightenment was an important turning point in western history, a development which is still unfolding, but the instrumental rationality, domination and resulting alienation from nature, goes all the way back to Homer‘s Odyssey and the figure of Odysseus, which they give a comprehensive analysis of and see as the beginning of the modern subject.23

But in their work are several essays, each dealing with a certain topic, either of modern society or European history and culture, in which they reveal the hidden, darker aspect of our history and present. I will now mainly focus on one of these as it reveals a disturbing, hidden connection between Kantian moral philosophy and one of the Enlightenments most notorious offsprings, The Marquis de Sade.

In Adorno and Horkheimers analysis, the Enlightenment came fully to fruition in Kant. It was through him that rationality reached it‘s modern form as the guiding endeavour of all human thought and action. In Kant‘s philosophical system, reason systematizes all human experience, synthesising concept and intuition. After this philosophical groundwork, Kant believed himself to have put human knowledge and science on a sure footing, an unshakeable ground in philosophy, the mother of sciences. But Adorno and Horkheimer see another consequence of Kants philosophy:

„With Kant‘s consequent, full confirmation of the scientific system as the form of truth, thought seals its own nullity, for science is technical practice, as far removed from reflective consideration of its own goal as are other forms of labor under the pressure of the system.“ 24

Modern science, the proud offspring of the Enlightenment, is a method, a technical practice which is completely blind to it‘s own goals. What is most important is the systematization, not any particular desirable telos which has human well-being in mind. Individual or collective human aspirations are wholly irrelevant. In this sense Kant‘s ethics are the perfect realization and formulation of the Enlightenment and science. What matters is precisely not feelings and desires, individual hopes and goals, but the empty, formal law of reason which is itself devoid of all purpose or content. The subject in all its diversity and multiplicity is neutralized, subsumed under a general universal law, a system. The Enlightenment seeks to emancipate the subject by way of reason but: „Reason is the organ of calculation, of planning; it is neutral in regard to ends; its element is coordination.“25

But the Kantian imperative, though derived from reason, still guards against the reduction of the subject to a mere object of domination as it compels respect for the others reason and prohibits treating him as a mere means. Fascism, a further development which still has it‘s origin in the Enlightenment, has broken away from this limitation and has culminated in total domination. It dispenses with the imperative as it: „saves its subject peoples the trouble of moral feelings.“26

Fascism and its totalitarianism is a realization of the potential hidden in science, it unleashes it totally and in so doing reveals what, to the Enlightenment thinkers, Kant especially, was not fully grasped. Totalitarianism should therefore not be understood as appropriating science and twisting it for it‘s own evil and perverted ends. The calculation, planning and efficiency governing the death camps are not a distorted and immoral use of science but science as such, seen in its full realization. Adorno and Horkheimer point out that the groundwork had been laid by philosophy, from Kant to Nietzsche: „but one man made out the detailed account. The work of the Marquis de Sade portrays „understanding without the guidance of another person“: that is, the bourgeois individual freed from tutelage.“27

Kant put forth and formulated the rationalization of experience but he did it in philosophical reflection and grounded the ego transcendentally. Sade goes further and follows Kants systematizing to its inevitable end empirically. For Sade, in his depraved attempt to break through every boundary, whether natural or moral, conducts his sexual orgies in his writings rationally and scientifically. The satisfaction is not to be derived from any end goal, the acts do not serve any final purpose. The enjoyment comes precisely from the organization and structures themselves, they are the most important aspect. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis:

„The architectonic structure of the Kantian system, like the gymnastic pyramids of Sade‘s orgies and the schematized principles of the early bourgeois freemasonry – which has its cynical mirror image in the strict regimentation of the libertine society of the 120 Journées – reveals a organization of life as a whole which is deprived of any substantial goal. These arrangements amount not so much to pleasure as to its regimented pursuit – organization…“28

Through their analysis of Sade‘s writings, Adorno and Horkheimer disclose, not the incoherent and demented perversion of a sadistic writer, but an expression of the underlying logic of the Enlightenment. In proclaiming all values as meaningless and indulging in immoral acts, Sade‘s character Juliette shares certain characteristics with Nietzsche, in that she is: „properly a child of the new age: for the first time she is consciously performing a transvaluation of values.“29 Juliette is a rational agent, a product of the Enlightenment. Employing her reason, she dispenses with values and human goals, seeing them as illusions. This is precisely what the Enlightenment reveals itself to end in. In its formalization of reason and through science, instrumental rationality dispenses with all ends and all value as they lose any kind of objective status, whither away when held up to its scrutiny. In so doing: „The means is fetishized, and absorbs pleasure“ and „Domination survives as an end in itself, in the form of economic power.“30

Therefore Sade can be seen, along with Kant, as one of the key thinkers of the Enlightenment. In this sense Sade is fully in line with Enlightenment philosophy and Kant, revealing the Enlightenment and the instrumental rationality driving it, as leading quite unproblematically to obscene perversion, to acts traditionally conceived of as immoral but, after Enlightenment, cannot be argued to be against morality or societal values. Adorno and Horkheimer view Sade‘s work as: „a spur to the salvation of the Enlightenment“ because „he did not leave it to the Enlightenment‘s opponents to make it take fright at its own nature.“31

How does Eichmann appear when viewed through The Frankfurt schools conception of Enlightenment and modern society? Eichmann is then precisely not abnormal or some kind of exception but his response to the interrogations rather reveal how modern he really was. He carried out his project with the utmost care and to the best of his abilities, without any regard to the consequences of his actions. What mattered the most was the means, the method, the planning, calculation, efficiency. Ends are wholly irrelevant. This is also apparent in Eichmanns description of the Wannsee conference, where the final solution was discussed and planned, as a: „cozy little social gathering“32. Transfixed by the method of execution the participants were completely devoid of any concern for the consequences of their planning.

Here we can see a disagreement with Arendt which, in her more existentialist leaning philosophy, placed greater importance on the power of the judgement and thinking of the individual. The Frankfurt school theorists reveal the determining power of the subjects environment and its grounding in historicity. Modern societies, both fascist and totalitarian on the one hand and liberal and capitalist on the other, are forms of domination and oppression, producing subjects which are incapable of even perceiving this domination as they are pacified by the culture industry33 or under the spell of a transfixing ideology. In this respect it is not surprising at all that Eichmann followed his orders and had little difficulty playing a large role in the extermination. Oppressive and dominating societies inevitably produce subjects which follow the societies logic. The conditions of society must be changed. Adorno, in a later writing, placed special importance on education in preventing the conditions which gave birth to the Holocaust. He wrote: „Barbarism continues to exist as long as the conditions that called forth that relapse essentially persist. This is the horror in it all. Social oppression continues to weigh heavy despite all lack of perceiving any peril today.“34

The Frankfurt school saw the need for a critical theory, which would dialectically critique modern, technological, dominating society and the achievements it prides itself on. Even though there can be found a glimmer of hope in their writings, for the most part they remained profoundly pessimistic about modernity and the possibility of significant or even revolutionary change. Indeed, Adorno even famously claims in his later, major work that the moment to realize philosophy (its marxist promise of changing the world) was missed and for this reason philosophy remains important.35

But despite the pessimism of the Frankfurt school there arose a different understanding of the issue of totalitarianism, genocide and its perpetrators. This (I will argue) even darker view of humanity has its roots in the psychoanalysis of Freud.36 We now move on to the psychoanalysis of mainly Lacan, which appropriated but also changed many of Freud‘s key insights, and Žižek, perhaps Lacans most famous and influential student.

Psychoanalysis and the Critique of Ideology: the „Unknown Knowns“

Before we move on to a discussion of Lacanian psychoanalysis, a few words on Freud, its father, are in order. The psychoanalysis of Freud and his discovery and theorization of the unconscious37, led to a very serious critique of society and the effect of it on modern subjects and their reality. In short, Freud came to see civilization and progress as a necessary repression of its subjects deeper, darker impulses and urges. Because of this the modern man can never be truly happy and content as he will always be under the painful spell of a dominating, repressive super-ego which counter-acts the more primordial pleasure principle. This is the unavoidable price of civilization which gives rise to all sorts of psychological hysterias and anxieties which psychoanalysis tries to bring to the surface. As Freud writes: „Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.“38 But it is precisely this dark, pessimistic view of the modern subject which Lacanian psychoanalysis appropriates and elaborates on.

Lacan also discovered a link between Kant and Sade39 but he understands it differently from the Frankfurt school. For them, Kant and Sade revealed the Enlightenment basis which then developed into fascism, while Lacan reads Sade as being complementary to Kant. In Lacan‘s psychoanalytic reading Sade should be understood as a Kantian. The notorious Sadean motto that everyone has the right to enjoy everyone else‘s bodies takes the form of an unconditional imperative in the Kantian sense. The Sadean imperative involves a maxim for jouissance40, understood by Lacan as a traumatic, excessive enjoyment beyond the limit of simple pleasure, the achievement of which always necessarily results in a painful experience for the subject. Therefore jouissance is always unescapably painful but also involves a certain perverse pleasure in the pain itself. As Žižek explains the concept: „The basic paradox of jouissance is that it is both impossible and unavoidable: it is never fully achieved, always missed, but, simultaneusly, we can never get rid of it – every renunciation of enjoyment generates an enjoyment in renunciation… „41

Even though the Sadean imperative for excessive enjoyment shares almost all of Kant‘s, such as the possibility of it being universalized into a law applying in every case at all times for every subject, and the dismissing of all pathological inclinations, Lacan sees a slight difference. The Kantian imperative speaks to an inner voice, the voice of conscience whereas the Sadean is necessarily spoken by an Other. In so doing Sade‘s maxim: „by pronouncing itself from the mouth of the Other, is more honest than appealing to the voice within, since it unmasks the splitting, usually conjured away, of the subject.“42

As we have seen, the Kantian imperative imposes an unconditional command for the subject to obey it at all costs for its own sake and discards all pathological motivations. Kant thereby divorces morality from any concern for the pleasure or happiness of the subject, the good is conceived as an unattainable Thing-in-itself, not approached by following the moral law. But, for Lacan, the subject, in renouncing its own pleasure in this way, experiences another form of enjoyment, jouissance which is intimately connected to the Freudian death drive. So the Kantian imperative should be understood as obscene. But in what does this obscenity consist? As Žižek writes: „The moral law is obscene in so far as it is its form itself which functions as a motivating force driving us to obey its command – that is, in so far as we obey moral law because it is law and not because of a set of positive reasons“43 For Lacan then, within the Kantian imperative to obey lies a concealed command to enjoy. Desire is the other side of the law as Sade realized it and therefore the two imperatives complement and support each other.44 „Obey!“ on the one hand (Kant) and „enjoy!“ on the other (Sade) are two different universal imperatives which still take on the same form. Kant implies Sade with the unconditional character of his moral law. Sade takes advantage of the radicalness of Kant‘s ethics to realize its potential.

With his radical autonomy of the subject Kant therefore, in his seperating of the moral law and the good, introduced a radical break into ethics and the subjects understanding of it‘s own actions. This is an irreversible development according to Lacan, bringing about „the great revolutionary crises of morality“ 45, a change which opened up the space for Sadean excessive enjoyment. In this sense Lacan claims that Sade is the truth of Kant, the consequence Kant could not face but Sade realized empirically. This development in the actions of the subject and the motivations behind them after Kant, Žižek understands in the following sense: „the free act in its abyss is unbearable, traumatic, so that when we accomplish an act out of freedom, in order to be able to bear it, we experience it as conditioned by some pathological motivation.“46

But Žižek, even though he recognizes this connection between Kant and Sade discovered by Lacan, does not follow the Frankfurt school to a similar conclusion, that their respective ethics lead to the horror of the camps. There is, of course, an obscene jouissance involved in the subjects renouncing his own inclinations to follow an external, unconditional demand of a big Other.47 But Žižek claims that Kant and Sade, even though they opened up the possibility of Sadean enjoyment with his moral law and the rupturing of the natural order, would precisely prevent the avoidance of responsibility by people like Eichmann, by an appeal to a big Other. That is why there is not a line that can be drawn from Kant/Sade to the Holocaust because they highlight the importance of autonomy. His conclusion is that:

„…this is absolutely not the case with Nazism. Nazism, on the contrary, is the ultimate perversion of logic of the supreme good. Nazism is not about the ultimate idiosyncratic assertion of autonomy. Nazism means that everything, even the worst crimes, should be undertaken for the good of the nation. The positing as a supreme good some entity, like the nation, is exactly opposite of Sadean ethics. The logic of the holocaust is, rather, inscribed in the tension between law, moral law and its obscene underside superego.“48

So there is precisely a kind of perverse enjoyment in the Lacanian sense that Žižek finds at work in totalitarian societes. Arendt, in her understanding of Eichmann, failed to take into account the concealed psychological and ideological motivations which governed his actions. These motivations are concealed, not only from observers but in most cases the subject itself, buried deep in his unconscious. It is centrally important to reveal these „unknown knowns“ (Žižek‘s saying by which he means the Freudian unconscious).49 Therefore psychoanalysis should be seen as an indispensable tool in understanding totalitarian societies, for it is capable of shedding light on the motivations and causes which have its roots in the unconscious of the subject. In one commentators words, Arendts account: „absent of psychoanalytic insights, it is unable to account for the workings of fascism on the level of the subject. This task can only be shouldered by a politically informed psychoanalysis.“50

Žižek, even though he recognizes the importance of Arendts account of Eichmann, dismisses the link between Kantian ethics and the Nazis as: „The Kantian autonomous subject precisely cannot say that this is simply an order, that it is an injunction based on fear or that it is good for the nation. The Kantian position is that you are fully responsible.“51 Arendt’s account does not penetrate the veil of banality and bureaucracy which she saw as the main feature of Eichmann‘s evil. Žižek sees the Nazis as rather playing a kind of perverse, obscene game:

„The elaborate bureaucracies and rituals of power were all part of this obscene economy of enjoyment. The Nazis were in this sense playing bureaucratic roles in order to enhance their pleasure. Secretly, they knew that the rituals of duty were a pretence to disguise the enjoyment derived from doing something horrible – even the guilt feelings generated here served to enhance their pleasure. So it was a kind of perverted game.“52

Žižek, in this vein, continues Lacan’s reading of Kantian moral law as obscene by seeing it as being carried out practically in a perverse way in totalitarian societies. There the demand placed on the shoulders of its citizens is precisely a command to obey despite all personal motivations or desires. The duty toward the state and it‘s leader is sacred, the most profound expression of citizenship and belonging. This command to obey is incomprehensible to the subject and opposed to his desire. But in his renunciation of his own desire for another, external law, the subject experiences perverse gratification. As Žižek claims:

„…the fascist ideology is based upon a purely formal imperative: Obey, because you must! In other words, renounce enjoyment, sacrifice yourself and do not ask about the meaning of it – the value of the sacrifice lies in its very meaninglessness; true sacrifice is for its own end; you must find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in its instrumental value: it is this renunciation, this giving up of enjoyment itself, which produces a certain surplus-enjoyment.“53

This surplus-enjoyment is what Lacan called objet petit a, an unnameable X factor, a remnant left-over of the subjects symbolization of reality which can never be symbolized fully and is therefore always unattainable even though the subjects desire is structured around it. The objet petit a embodies jouissance which means that the subject is always inescapably attracted to and horrified by it simultaneously.

But fascist ideology is characterized by this strict formality, the value of which is to be found in its structure itself, solely serving its own means without any regard to an end. This is why Žižek finds it important to undertake a critique of ideology54, unveiling the underlying motives which are often (but not always) hidden to the subject which still acts in accordance with it, thereby maintaining and upholding it. If a proper unmasking of the ideological motivations which determine them is successful, when the realization that the purpose of acts derived from ideology serve only the purpose of sustaining the ideology itself, it leads to self-defeat. Why is this? Because this unmasking: „would reveal the enjoyment which is at work in ideology, in the ideological renunciation itself. In other words, it would reveal that ideology serves only its own purpose, that it does not serve anything – which is precisely the Lacanian definition of jouissance.“55

Lacanian psychoanalysis, for Žižek, also reveals a different understanding of anti-semitism56. In the traditional conception, the anti-semitism of the Nazis is seen as a kind of useful excuse for all the ills that plagued German society. In this sense the Jews were scapegoats which the Nazis used conveniently to unify the rest of society around. In their hatred of the Jew as outsider, the community was strengthened around the Nazi leaders and the Führer particularly, at the same time increasing solidarity (amongst the „real Germans“ only of course.)

But this understanding doesn’t go deep enough. For Žižek it is not that the Jew is perceived as a threat to the harmony of the established, fascist ideology and by denouncing him it thereby guards against the threat and works at its self-preservation. On the contrary, fascist ideology, in its essence, recognizes the unattainableness of its utopia and the Jew represents this impossibility at the heart of the ideology itself. For this reason anti-semitism is so rampant and brutal, it is the ideological edifice sub-consciously confronting and trying to come to terms with its own necessary and unavoidable incompleteness, the realization that its proper actualization will never come to pass. As he explains: „The whole Fascist ideology is structured as a struggle against the element which holds the place of the immanent impossibility of the whole Fascist project: the ´Jew´ is nothing but a fetishistic embodiment of a certain fundamental blockage.“57

From this angle, how should we understand Eichmann’s claim that he was not an anti-semite, indeed that he had nothing personally against the Jews?58 In this sense, his claims are both right and wrong. They are right in the sense that he personally most likely had nothing against Jews, the subject itself has no real stake in upholding the reigning ideology. On the other hand, Eichmann still did support and uphold the fascist ideology. His claims that he did it despite his own feelings would be understood by Lacan and Žižek not only as a painful act of renunciation, but as an opening up of a jouissance on behalf of the big Other. Eichmann, like the other citizens of totalitarian societies was under the spell of a fascist ideology and the way fascist ideology works is that it imposes itself on the subjects understanding to such an extent that: „we do not feel any opposition between it and reality – that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself. „59

Žižek, using Lacan, reveals much more complex causes and motivations for fascist, totalitarian societies and how they are made possible by the subject. For him, the reasons many perpetrators of various horrors gave for their complicity in the atrocities, that they were afraid of their life or well-being, afraid of punishment etc., is insufficient to explain the unconscious motivating factors. Psychoanalysis reveals a different picture of the deep, unconscious libidinal forces (discovered by Freud) which, although consciously unknown to the subject, assert immeasurable importance on its actions and motivations. These libidinal forces can be harnessed and exploited by totalitarian societes and lead to catastrophe such as the death camps of Nazi Germany or the purges of Stalinism. As he writes in this connection:

„The question to be raised concerns power (domination) and the unconscious: how does power work, why do its subjects obey it? This brings us to the (misleadingly named) „erotics of power“: subjects obey not only because of physical coercion (or the threat of it) and ideological mystification, but because they have a libidinal investment in power. The ultimate „cause“ of power is the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire, the surplus-enjoyment by means of which power „bribes“ those it holds in its sway. This objet petit a is given form in the (unconscious) fantasies of the subjects of power…“60


Where does this leave us with respect to Adolf Eichmann? Arendt, in her formulization of „the banality of evil“ did not go far enough. It was not only that Eichmann lacked the ability of thinking and proper judgement, but he was rather a perfect example of modernity and the modern subject whose thinking is determined, for a large part, by a reigning ideology which the subject itself, in most cases, is blind to. The fault in Arendt‘s account lies both in her over-willingness to take Eichmann at his word, thereby missing the deeper motivations which were concealed even from himself, and in her over-emphasization on him as an individual and his personal responsibility, discarding the historical, dialectical development of the society which produced him and the unconscious driving forces.
Lacan and Žižek on the one hand, and Adorno and Horkheimer on the other give a much more comprehensive and detailed account of the conditions which gave rise to the horrors of the camps. Even though this is not done in the same fashion, the Frankfurt school emphasizes the importance of a historicist and holistic understanding of modern society, while Lacan‘s psychoanalysis focuses on the subject and its unconscious motivations, both isolated Kant and his unlikely companion Sade, and their Enlightenment philosophies, as crucial precursors to our modern situation. Even though these two different schools of thought come from the same, continental philosophical tradition, there is much disagreement between them and their perspectives cannot be integrated completely without numerous theoretical difficulties. As an example of these disagreements, Žižek dismisses the dialectic of Enlightenment in Adorno and Horkheimers analysis as shooting over the mark, seeing as the underlying driving force of modernity an „instrumental rationality“ which has its beginning in ancient times and underlies both capitalism and communism. Žižek dismisses this analysis and focuses rather on „the inherent structure of capitalist reproduction“ and sees societal ills stemming from „the concrete totality of today‘s global society“ where „capitalism is the determining factor“.61
Adorno on the other hand, in a later writing, understood Eichmann as belonging to a sort of people who: „blindly adjust themselves to collectives“ and „already make themselves into something like material and invalidate themselves as self-determined beings.“62 Psychoanalysis precisely reveals this tendency to be an all too human tendency exploited by totalitarianism, rather than constituted by it.

The picture which psychoanalysis gives of the subject is certainly not optimistic. But the importance of Freud, Lacan and Žižek comes precisely from being willing to face this dark side of the subject head on, not shirking away when things become too disturbing. Although the Frankfurt school gave a necessary and important insight into the holistic, dialectical development of modernity through history and the basis in the philosophical tradition for an event like Auschwitz, psychoanalysis completed the picture by plunging into the deep recesses of the individuals psyche, his unconscious desires and motivations. Therefore, both narratives, the Frankfurt schools critical theory and Freud‘s psychoanalysis as developed by Lacan and Žižek, are necessary for truly getting to the bottom of the most traumatic and incomprehensible events of our times. Of course there are differences between them, but both reveal important sides of the pressing issue. Arendt‘s account of Eichmann, while important and revealing, should be seen as a starting-point which still didn‘t go far enough, to the heart of the matter. Therefore, her account was necessarily surpassed and expanded on by the two traditions which I have here discussed.


1 Arendt 2006: 54

2 Arendt 2006: 150

3Arendt 2006: 42

4Arendt 2006: 135

5Arendt 2006: 135-136

6 Arendt 2006: 136

7Arendt 2006: 136

8Arendt 2006: 137

9 Both quotes: Arendt 2003a: 159

10 Commonly translated as happiness although a more direct translation would be human blossoming or flourishing.

11 An ideal state of being which is characterized by an absence of any kind of worry.

12 Kant 2002: 23

13 Kant 2002: 31

14 Kant 2002: 41

15 Kant 2002: 13-14

16 Kant 2002: 35

17 Nieman 2002: 2

18 Arendt 2003b: 17-18

19 I wish to make clear that Arendt‘s political philosophy, which her account of Eichmann ties into, is far too wide-ranging and comprehensive for me to do justice to in the limited space I have here. I am well aware of the limited discussion Arendt receives which may not do her the justice she deserves, and will undoubtedly leave my thesis wide-open for various criticisms to the effect that my view of Arendt is too limited or mistaken as it does not consider her other writings. But, I find this unavoidable limitation not to be all-too serious as I am considering Arendt and her account of Eichmann more as a starting point which later philosophical traditions surpassed. Therefore I am not necessarily trying to refute Arendt, I rather read the Frankfurt school and psychoanalysis as complementing and deepening her basic account of Eichmann. See the concluding remarks.

20 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: xi

21 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 3

22 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 9

23 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 43-80

24 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 85

25 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 88

26 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 86

27 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 86

28 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 88

29 Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 103-104

30 Both quotes: Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 104

31Both quotes: Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 117

32 Arendt 2006: 113

33 See their discussion of the role the culture industry plays in modern society in: Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 120-168

34 Adorno 1997: 11

35 Adorno 2006: 3

36 The Frankfurt school was by no means unaware or dismissive of Freud‘s theories. One of it‘s members, Herbert Marcuse, saw both Freud and Marx essential to understanding modern society. The complex connection between psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt school is too big a topic to elaborate on here, but suffice to say they did recognize the need, in understanding society holistically, of joining together not only sociology and philosophy, but psychology also. But the emphasis here will be on Lacanian psychoanalysis, a later development.

37 Although, of course, the unconscious had been anticipated by earlier philosophers, most notably Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.

38 Freud 1989: 84

39 Dialectic of Enlightenment made its first appearance in 1944 while Lacans discovery of the link laid out in „Kant avec Sade“ came later. It is not clear whether Lacan had read the Frankfurt school and was influenced by them or made the discovery of the link between Kant and Sade independently. Whatever the truth of the matter, this question will not be discussed as I do not find it to be centrally important.

40 Lacan 1989: 58

41Žižek 2010: 304

42 Lacan 1989: 59

43 Žižek 2008: 89

44 Lacan 1989: 73

45 Lacan quoted in: Cutrofello 2005: 173

46 Žižek 2009: 92

47 The big Other is the outside source which structures our symbolic reality and grounds meaning, such as the will of the Führer in Nazi Germany, God for religious communities or the market in our capitalist ideology. The big Other does not have any ontological status in itself, it is always an illusion on the part of the subject but still has very serious effects on the subjects actions and symbolic reality which gives it its importance. It is: „the thick symbolic texture of knowledge, expectations, prejudices, and so on….“ Žižek 2010: 338

48 Daly & Žižek 2004: 126

49 Žižek 2010: 292

50 Maccannell 1996: 65

51 Daly & Žižek 2004: 127

52 Daly & Žižek 2004: 128

53 Žižek 2008: 89

54 It is necessary to point out that, although I am here primarily focused on Žižek‘s conception of fascist ideology and its function, ideology plays no lesser role in modern, liberal, societies in his view. It exceeds the purpose of this paper to give a sufficiently comprehensive view of his account of the importance of ideology but suffice to say that ideology is always an accompaniment of the subjects reality because: „The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.“ Žižek 2008: 25

55 Žižek 2008: 92

56 But of course, Adorno and Horkheimer also devote an entire chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment to this issue so it wasn‘t only important to psychoanalysis. I do not have the space for a detailed comparison but, in short, the Frankfurt school also emphasizes the role of ideology and see anti-semitism as an obvious clue to deeper problems in modern society. See: Adorno & Horkheimer 2010: 168-209

57 Žižek 2008: 142-143

58 Arendt 2006: 26

59 Žižek 2008: 49

60 Žižek 2010: 400

61All quotes: Žižek 2010: 188

62 Both quotes: Adorno 1997: 16



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Adorno, T.: Negative Dialectics, E.B. Ashton transl. Routledge, London & New York, 2006.

Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M.: Dialectic of Enlightenment, John Cumming trans. Verso, London & New York, 2010.

Arendt, H.: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin books, New York, 1994.

Arendt, H.: „Thinking and Moral Considerations“. In Responsibility and Judgment, J. Kohn ed. New York, Shocken Books, 2003a, pp.159-189.

Arendt, H.: „Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.“ In Responsibility and Judgment, J. Kohn ed. New York, Shocken Books, 2003b, pp.17-48.

Cutrofello.: Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge, New York & London, 2005.

Daly, G. & Žižek, S.: Conversations with Žižek. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Oxford, 2004.

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Maccannell, J.F.: „Fascism and the Voice of Conscience“ in Radical Evil, Joan Copjec ed. Verso, 1996, p. 46-73.

Nieman, S.: Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2002.

Žižek, S.: Living in the End Times. Verso, London & New York, 2010.

Žižek, S.: The Parallax View. The MIT Press, Cambridge & London, 2009.

Žižek, S.: The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, London & New York, 2009

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