Guest column: Slavoj Žižek reviews ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

by Sam Kriss

It would be tempting to perform a crude Freudian analysis of the Harold & Kumar films, to say that in Harold and Kumar we find the basic categories of superego and id respectively, with Kumar as the hedonist that leads the two into a state of peril, and Harold as the rational law-abider who constrains the desires of his friend, and so on, and so on. But this is not the case. We must always be conscious of the fact that the ultimate command of the superego is to enjoy, to fulfil your fantasies; and because the object of desire cannot be attained, it is that same superego that is the source of anxiety. Is it not Kumar, then, who is then the superego? Our desires lead to neurosis only when they are consciously articulated.

We must ask: what is desire in this film? It is not the smoking of marijuana, that forms only a kind of subcultural backdrop to the narrative. Rather, the Harold & Kumar films take the form of the heroic quest: the heroes must go off and find something, they have escapades along the way, eventually it is retrieved and there is the happy ending. In Lacanian terminology this ‘something’ is the objet petit a, the transcendent object of desire. It is the eventual obtainment of this object that renders the first film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a work of fantasy. What is desirable about the objet petit a is intrinsically linked with its quality of unattainability; it is only in the fantasy-space of the film that such desires can be realised. In the film, the attainment of the hamburger is bound up with the attainment of other fantasies – Harold stands up to the bullies of the workplace, he talks to the girl he is attracted to, and so on, and so on. White Castle is therefore a symbolic representation of all desire. One could comment on the imagery of the white castle itself – in medieval poetry the white castle is a symbol of Heaven or the Kingdom of Truth; then as now the white castle is a transcendent Utopian image – or, as Derrida would have it, a messianic image, an image of that which is always yet to come – in which is encoded our very earthly desires, as in the Islamic fantasy of the seventy-two virgins.

But see what happens in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. This is not at all like the first film, the two heroes are not acting on their own desires. Rather, Harold must find a replacement Christmas tree for his father-in-law: he is acting out of a sense of duty towards the Other. The pivotal moment of the film is when Harold tells Kumar that he does not have to replace the tree, rather, it is that he wants to. And again further on, when Kumar faces his responsibility for his unborn child: it is not because he has to, but because he wants to. This is not, I think, a casting aside of duty so much as a reinterpretation of duty. Here, we see the old Kantian conception – Du kannst, denn du sollst! – being dispensed with, it is too rigidly compulsive, it does not sit easy with our liberal individualism. What we get instead is a strange inversion: Du sollst, denn du wollst! – you must, because you want to!

I find this despicable, almost totalitarian, even – far more so than Kant’s formulation. Even our desires are not our own, the hegemonic order insists not only that we do our duty, but that we really want to do so. It is like when Saddam Hussein published his novels under a false name: his megalomania was such that he did not just want good reviews because he is the dictator, he wanted the people to genuinely love his writing. Only when the novels were derided in the newspapers did he republish under his own name and shoot the critics. Is what we see here not the same thing? If there is a message in this film, is it not that we must genuinely love the duties imposed on us by capitalism, that we must find jouissance in the fulfilment of duty?

Where A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas fails is precisely in this attempt to reconcile duty with desire through the matrix of capitalist institutions: the family unit, the workplace, Christmas, and so on, and so on. Duty towards the Other must not be subject to desire! What we must instead admit is that under capitalism our desires are different to our duties, or, in the language of vulgar Marxism, our desires are superstructural to the economic base. Our duty consists of confronting and changing our desires, not in the alienating manner of the Freudian superego, but through the radical project of overturning the current socio-economic order in the name of the Other. Against the false union of duty and desire we must proclaim the primacy of duty, we must, in effect, return to the old Kantian formulation. It is significant that the finale of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas requires the intervention of the supernatural in the form of Santa Claus: under capitalism, duty and desire cannot ordinarily be reconciled. What is needed in our situation is another form of supernatural intervention – the intervention of Benjaminian divine violence. Only then can this antinomy be untangled.