žižek on kafka & the typology of stupidity

There are two contrasting figures of idiocy in our lives. The first is the (occasionally) hyper-intelligent subject who “doesn’t get it,” who understands a situation “logically,” missing its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I visited New York for the first time, a café waiter asked me: “How was your day?” Misunderstanding the remark as a real question, I answered him truthfully (“I’m dead tired, I’ve got jetlag ..”), and of course he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot. One exemplary case of such idiocy was Alan Turing, a man of extraordinary intelligence, but also a proto-psychotic unable to follow implicit contextual rules. In literature, it is hard to ignore Jaroslav Hasek’s good soldier Schwejk, who, when he saw his comrades shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no man’s land shouting: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The archetype of such idiocy is, however, the naive child from Andersen’s tale who points out that the emperor is naked —thereby missing the fact that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked underneath our clothes.

The second and inverse form of idiocy is that of those who fully identify with commonsense, who are wholly in favor of the “big Other” of appearance. In a long series of figures —beginning with the Greek Chorus in the role of canned laughter or canned crying, always ready to comment on the action with some commonplace wisdom — one at least should mention the classic “stupid” partners of the great detectives: Holmes’s Watson, Poirot’s Hastings. These figures do not only serve as a foil for the detective’s greatness; indeed, in one of the novels, Poirot tells Hastings that he is indispensable to the detective work: immersed in common sense, Hastings reacts to the scene of a crime the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react; it is then only by including in his analysis this expected reaction of the “big Other” that the great detective can solve the crime. The greatness of Kafka resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present the first figure of idiocy in the guise of the second figure, as something entirely normal and conventional (recall the extravagantly “idiotic” reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable on the Door of the Law*). 

 —from Slavoj Žižek, Living In The End Times (Verso, 2010)

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