Look For The Hamster

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John Halton has some notes on a Žižek lecture he recently attended:

Look for the hamster

Žižek has little time for those who affect a cynical detachment from the world and call it “realism”. He sees this as “fetishistic”: not necessarily in the sense of a sexual fetish, but in the sense that what one really feels is dissociated from its true object and transferred onto another.

He gave a heartbreaking example of this: a friend of his whose wife had died, suddenly and very young, from breast cancer. Žižek and his friends were shocked at how, from immediately after his wife’s death, the man was able to speak openly and without emotion about the terrible suffering she had undergone in the final two months of her life.

Then they realised that, whenever he did so, the man was holding and stroking his wife’s pet hamster. On some subconscious level the man had “fetishised” the hamster so that it now represented his dead wife – and so he could feel that she hadn’t really gone. Six months later, though, the hamster died: and the man underwent a complete emotional and mental breakdown that resulted in his hospitalisation.

So Žižek claimed that when we encounter someone who claims to be totally detached and cynical, to see the world as it is, a meaningless void, then we should not engage with them on the level of rational argument (“The world has so much beauty and meaning!”). Rather, we need (as it were) to “look for their hamster”, the object or concept that enables them to distance themselves from what they truly feel.

As he put it: “We believe much more than we think we believe”.

There’s a deep recognition of the psychology of idolatry in there somewhere.