From the sublime to the obscene: Modalities of totalitarianism and jouissance

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Drawing on Yan's novella Serve the People (2005), the author examines the metamorphosis of the titular master signifier that has served as a central moral mandate in the Chinese Communist Party's ideological discourse. Relying on a Lacanian framework via Žižek's and others' writings, this paper attempts to show that totalitarian ideological transformation hinges on the organization of jouissance (enjoyment) that has undergone three ideological modes - proto-, post-, and neo-totalitarianism. In the first mode, the subject procures enjoyment from the symbolic order through a gesture of sacrifice. Due to the collapse of the imaginary of the Socialist New Man that sustains the totalitarian gaze, the post-totalitarian subject's cynical distance from the "official" ideology functions as the very support for the effectiveness of the ideological apparatuses. Finally neo-totalitarianism is characterized as the inverse of proto-totalitarianism: the obscene underside that supports the totalitarian order is brought to the front stage as the new symbolic mandate to enjoy. The manifestations of such metamorphosis in literary and filmic works follow the path that starts from the sublime and ends at the obscene.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-191
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Journal of Semiotics
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - 2007


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