So reality has breaks in it; breaks produced by language; otherwise known as enigmas. Every signifying system recognizes these breaks in one way or another; enigmatic terms are used. Enigmatic terms are signifiers that indicate the excess in a purely formal, empty way. They are the stand-ins, the empty sets of an given system.
It is these breaks, these excesses, these swerves, that affect the normal functioning of perception. Zizek offers an example based on an anthropological study of a native tribe called Winnebago. The tribe is divided into two groups. One group describes the village buildings as being in two concentric circles; the other sees one circle, but a circle that is broken by a clear dividing line. The difference in their perceptions of the ground plan indicates a fundamental antagonism; the wealthier members see two continuous circles, while the poorer members see a clear split. This break in the community - the real - here is not the physical arrangement of the buildings, but the “traumatic core” of the social antagonism that distorts the tribe members view of the actual arrangement.” Put another way, the real is the swerve that distorts their perception.
The real here is doing double duty. It is not only the thing to which access is not possible, it is itself the obstacle that prevents the access. In other words, the breaks in the symbolic are not like Kantian antinomies - problems built into the structure of reason that cannot be resolved. Zizek's example is the tension between the individual and society; which comes first? Does the individual subject pre-exist, or does society? It is not that this is an unresolvable antinomy — this tension is itself one of the fundamental features of society.
This idea of the split, or the break, also informs a reading of Nietzsche’s ideas of truth. Borrowing from Zupancic, Zizek points out that in Beyond Good and Evil, there are two seemingly opposed views of truth. Truth is either a terrifying force, a blinding Platonic sun, or, truth is radically perspectival.
Is this a contradiction, or is there a third way? Well Zizek wouldn’t be a Hegelian if he couldn’t find one. Of course everything is not just the interplay of appearances; there is a real - this real, however, is not the inaccessible or horrible thing, but rather the gap that prevents our access to it, the rock of the antagonism that distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective. So truth isn’t the “thing in itself,” but rather the gap itself - for example, the social antagonism of the village. Truth is the perspectival distortion.
When it comes to perspectival truth, Zizek wants to read Nietzsche avec Lenin. True knowledge is possible, but only from an interested standpoint. Truth, as Badiou would say, always involves a decision. One must always make a decision to approach the real.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a dig at Bataille, so we shouldn’t let that go. There are two ways to approach the real. One is the limit experience; if you get to closed, you’ll be burned. Again, this is the passion for the real; the violence that peels back the layers of everyday life.
But there is, also, the real that we actually have to pass through - and in a manner of speaking, always already have. The example of this approach that Zizek gives is the connection between the death drive and creative sublimation. The excess, the void, can be a source of change and creativity. Perhaps also known as an evental site.
So, if we are going to briefly characterize the real before seeing how Zizek and Zupancic search for it in politics, religion and love, we’d have a list like this: the split in the identical, the excess in the system, the object of desire, the obstacle that produces multiple perspectives, and the traumatic kernel that can produce change.