Summer 2003

Human Rights in a Chocolate Egg

Welcome to the dessert of the real

Slavoj Žižek

The Kinder egg as today’s equivalent of the Greek vase. Photos Brian McMullen.

Kinder Surprise, one of the most popular chocolate products on sale all around Central Europe, are empty egg shells made of chocolate and wrapped up in brightly colored foil; after one unwraps the egg and cracks the chocolate shell open, one finds in it a small plastic toy (or small parts from which a toy is to be put together). A child who buys this chocolate egg often nervously unwraps it and immediately breaks the chocolate, not bothering to eat it at first and worrying only about the toy in the center. Is such a chocolate-lover not a perfect case of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s dictum “I love you, but, inexplicably, I love something in you more than yourself, and, therefore, I destroy you”? And, effectively, is this toy not l’objet petita at its purest, the small object filling in the central void of our desire, the hidden treasure, agalma, in the center of the thing we desire?

This material void in the center, of course, stands for the structural gap on account of which no product is “really it,” no product lives up to the expectations that it elicits. In other words, the small plastic toy is not simply different than chocolate (the product we bought); while materially different, it fills in the gap in chocolate itself, i.e., it operates on the same surface as the chocolate. As we know already from Marx, the commodity is a mysterious entity full of theological caprices, a particular object satisfying a particular need, but it is at the same time also the promise of “something more,” of an unfathomable enjoyment whose true location is fantasy. All advertising addresses this fantasmatic space (“If you drink X, you will experience not just a drink, but also...”). And the plastic toy is the result of a risky strategy of directly materializing, rendering visible, this mysterious excess: “If you eat our chocolate, you will not just eat a chocolate, but also have a (totally useless) plastic toy.” The Kinder egg thus provides the formula for all the products which promise “more” (“buy a DVD player and get 5 DVDs for free,” or, in an even more direct form, more of the same—“buy this toothpaste and get one third more for free”), not to mention the standard Coke bottle trick (“look on the inside of the metal tab and you may find that you are the winner of a prize, from another free Coke to a brand new car”). The function of this “more” is to fill in the lack of a “less,” to compensate for the fact that, by definition, a merchandise never delivers on its (fantasmatic) promise. In other words, the ultimate “true” merchandise would be the one which would not need any supplement, the one which would simply fully deliver what it promises—“you get what you paid for, neither less nor more.”[1]

The idea of a void in the middle of a dessert has a long history. In Elizabethan England, with the rise of modern subjectivity, a difference emerged between the “substantial” food (meat) eaten in the great banquet hall and the sweet desserts eaten in a separate small room while the tables were cleared (“voided”) in the banquet hall. Eventually, the small room in which these desserts were consumed came to be called “the void.” Consequently, the desserts themselves were referred to as “voids,” and, furthermore, in their form, usually in the shape of an animal and empty on the inside, they came to imitate the void. The emphasis was on the contrast between the substantial meal in the large banquet hall and the insubstantial, ornamental, dessert in the void: the void was a “like-meat,” a fake, a pure appearance. It could be, for example, a sugar peacock that looked like a peacock without being one (the key part of the ritual of consuming it was to violently crack the surface to reveal the void inside). This was the early modern version of today’s decaffeinated coffee or artificial sweeteners, and the first example of food deprived of its substance so that in eating it one was in a way “eating nothing.” The further key feature was that this void also provided the space for deploying private subjectivity as opposed to the public space of the banquet hall. The void was consumed in a place to which one withdrew after the public ceremony of the official meal; in this separate place, one was allowed to drop the official masks and abandon oneself to the relaxed exchange of rumors, impressions, opinions, and confessions, in their entire scope from the trivial to the most intimate. The opposition between the substantial “real thing” and the trifling ornamental appearance that only enveloped a void thus mirrored the opposition between substance and subject. No wonder then that, in the same period, the word void also functioned as an allusion to the subject itself, the Void beneath the deceptive appearance of one’s social masks. This, perhaps, is the first culinary version of Hegel’s famous motto according to which one should conceive the Absolute “not only as Substance, but also as Subject”: You should eat not only meat and bread, but also good desserts.

Should we not link this use of void to the fact that, at exactly the same historic moment, at the dawn of modernity, zero as a number was invented—a fact, as Brian Rotman has pointed out, that was connected to the expansion of commodity exchange and of the production of commodities into the hegemonic form of production, so that the link between the void and the commodity is there from the very beginning.[2] In Heidegger’s classic analysis of the Greek vase in “Das Ding,” to which Lacan refers in his Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Heidegger emphasizes how the vase as an emblematic Thing is formed around a central void, i.e., it serves as the container of a void.[3] One is thus tempted to read the Greek vase and the Kinder chocolate egg together as designating two moments of the Thing in the history of the West; the sacred Thing at its dawn and the ridiculous merchandise at its end. The Kinder egg is our vase of today. Perhaps, then, the ultimate image condensing the entire “history of the West” would be that of the ancient Greeks offering to the gods a vase containing ... a Kinder egg plastic toy. One should effectively follow here the procedure, practiced by Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectics of Enlightenment, of condensing the entire development of the Western civilization into one simple line—from prehistorical magical manipulation to technological manipulation, or from the Greek vase to the Kinder egg. What one must bear in mind is that the dawn of Ancient Greek philosophy took place at the same time (and place) as the rise of commodity production and exchange. One of the stories about Thales, the first philosopher, is that he set out to prove his versatility in “real life” by becoming rich on the market, after which he returned to philosophy. The double meaning of the word speculation (metaphysical and financial) is thus operative from the very beginning. One should perhaps then risk the hypothesis that, historically, the Greek vase to which Heidegger refers was already a commodity, and that it was this fact which accounted for the void in its center, which gave to this void its true resonance. It is as a commodity that a thing is not only itself but also points “beyond itself” to another dimension, which is inscribed into the thing itself as a central void.

No wonder, then, that there is a homology between the Kinder egg, today’s void, and the abundance of commodities which offer us “X without X,” deprived of its substance (coffee without caffeine, sweetener without sugar, beer without alcohol, etc.). In both cases, we are offered the surface form deprived of its core. However, more fundamentally, as the discussion of the Elizabethan void indicates, is there not a clear structural homology between this structure of the commodity and the structure of the bourgeois subject? Do subjects—precisely insofar as they are the subjects of universal human rights—not also function as these Kinder chocolate eggs? In France, it is still possible to buy a dessert with the racist name “la tête du nègre” [“a Negro head”], which is a round chocolate cake that is empty inside (“like the stupid Negro’s head”). The Kinder egg fills in this void, but the lesson here is that we in fact all have “negro heads” with a hole in the centre, that subjectivity is in fact structured around a central void.

The humanist-universalist reply to this claim would be to deny that we all have “negro heads” by positing precisely something very much like a Kinder egg theory of the human subject. As humanist ideologists would argue, we may be infinitely different—some of us are black, others white, some tall, others small, some women, others men, some rich, others poor, and so on—yet, deep inside us, there is a moral equivalent of the plastic toy, the same je ne sais quoi, an elusive X which somehow accounts for the dignity shared by all humans. To quote Francis Fukuyama:

What the demand for equality of recognition implies is that when we strip all of a person’s contingent and accidental characteristics away, there remains some essential human quality underneath that is worthy of a certain minimal level of respect—call it Factor X. Skin, color, looks, social class and wealth, gender, cultural background, and even one’s natural talents are all accidents of birth relegated to the class of nonessential characteristics. ... But in the political realm we are required to respect people equally on the basis of their possession of Factor X.[4]

In contrast to transcendental philosophers who emphasize that this Factor X is a sort of “symbolic fiction” with no counterpart in the reality of an individual, Fukuyama heroically locates it in our “human nature,” in our uniquely human genetic inheritance. And, effectively, is the genome not the ultimate figure of the plastic toy hidden deep within our human chocolate skin, so that we can have exteriors made of white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, with or without nuts or raisins, but inside there is always the same plastic toy? What Fukuyama ultimately fears is that if we mess too much with the production of the chocolate egg, we might generate an egg without the plastic toy inside. How? Fukuyama is quite right to emphasize that it is crucial that we experience our “natural” properties as a matter of contingency and luck: if my neighbor is more beautiful or intelligent than me, it is because he was lucky to be born like that, and even his parents could not have planned it that way. The philosophical paradox is that if we take away this element of lucky chance, if our “natural” properties become controlled and regulated by biogenetic and other scientific manipulations, we lose the Factor X.

Of course, the hidden plastic toy can also be given a specific ideological twist—say, the idea that, after one puts aside the chocolate in all its ethnic variations, one always encounters an American (even if the toy is in all probability made in China). Furthermore, the Factor X does not only guarantee the underlying identity of different subjects, but also the continuing identity of the same subject. Twenty years ago, National Geographic published a famous photograph of a young Afghani woman with fierce bright green-yellow eyes; in 2001, the same woman was identified in Afghanistan. Although her face was changed, worn out from a difficult life and by heavy work, her intense eyes were instantly recognizable as the factor of continuity. However, this thesis of continuity was empirically undermined two decades ago when the German Leftist weekly journal Stern conducted a rather cruel experiment: the magazine paid a homeless man and woman to allow themselves to be thoroughly bathed, shaved, and then delivered to the top designers and hairdressers. The journal then published two large photos side-by-side of each person—in his/her destitute habitat, dirty and with unshaved faces, and then dressed up by a top designer. The result was effectively uncanny: although it was clear that we were dealing with the same person, the effect of the different dress, etc. was that our belief that there is always one and the same person beneath different appearances was shaken. It was not only the participants’ appearances that were different: the deeply disturbing effect of this change of appearances was that we, the spectators, somehow perceived a different personality beneath the appearances. Stern was bombarded by readers’ letters accusing the journal of violating the homeless people’s dignity, of humiliating them, submitting them to a cruel joke. However, what this experiment undermined was precisely the belief in Factor X, the kernel of identity that accounts for our dignity and persists through changes in appearance. In short, this experiment in a way empirically demonstrated that we all have a “negro head,” that the core of our subjectivity is a void filled in by appearances.

So let us return to the scene of a small kid violently tearing apart and discarding the chocolate egg in order to get at the plastic toy. Is he not the emblem of so-called “totalitarianism” which also wants to get rid of the “inessential” historical contingent coating in order to liberate the “essence” of man? Is not the ultimate “totalitarian” vision that of a New Man arising out of the debris of the violent annihilation of the old corrupted humanity? Paradoxically, then, liberalism and “totalitarianism” share this belief in the Factor X, the plastic toy in the midst of the human chocolate coating. The problem with Factor X which makes us equal despite our differences is clear: hidden behind the deep humanist insight that “deep down, we are all equal, the same vulnerable humans,” lies the cynical statement, “Why bother to fight against surface differences when, deep down, we already are equal?” The scenario in fact resembles nothing so much as the proverbial millionaire who pathetically discovers that he shares passions, fears, and loves with a destitute beggar.

  1. No wonder, then, that these eggs are now prohibited in the US and have to be smuggled from Canada (and sold at a triple price): behind the official pretext (the eggs pose a danger to children), it is easy to discern the deeper reason—these eggs display too openly the inherent structure of a commodity.
  2. See Brian Rotman, Signifying Nothing (London: MacMillan, 1987).
  3. See Martin Heidegger, “Das Ding,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen: Neske, 1954).
  4. Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future (London: Profile Books 2002), pp. 149–150.

Slavoj Žižek is senior researcher at the Department of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana. Forthcoming publications include The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (The MIT Press, 2003) and Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (Routledge, 2003).

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