In works of fine art, sometimes there is an interplay between what is seen and that which is hidden behind the displayed front. The interplay between a veil and the object behind it.

Quite a few years ago an environmental piece was installed opposite the Jerusalem old railway station. I recall thinking at first it was a parked car covered with a sheet of canvas.

It was a very convincing statue in fact, but soon it turned out that the piece was nothing but a statue of an empty sheet of canvas. At a first glance, this piece made one assume the canvas was covering something that would soon be revealed, something which was hinted at through the sheet. Clearly, this piece worked as a trompe l’oeil, as an eye’s entrapment, a well-known phenomenon in art.

This entrapment functioned as a symbol of absence, of some “nothing” which is supposedly hiding. It seems to me that in speech, too, there may be a similar rhetorical figure, which functions as an entrapment. In fact, we know that speech is certainly unable to cover or hide the whole truth, nor the speaker’s intention, and that meaning is discovered only après-coup.

Benyamin Netanyahu’s famous response [to numerous legal investigations regarding suspicions of bribery and corruption], ” There would be nothing, since there is nothing, because there was nothing“, makes one wonder, among other things, about the use of future, present, and past tenses with “nothing” as what connects them. It is brought up over and over again as a defensive phrase, which refutes any argument, any criticism, even any evidence.

It is an ironic phrase, in which the “nothing” acts as a curtain, apparently revealing what is behind it and is not exposed to view, like a veil. But in fact, the veil exposes that behind this “nothing” something is hiding indeed.

Irony is defined as a form of rhetoric which makes one understand the opposite of what is being said or written. It is an expression of ridicule or derision.

This phrasing functions as an imperative dictate of a master, demanding of his listeners total loyalty, trust, demanding even that they work for him and protect him, while at the same time denying the listeners the liberty to voice criticism or think differently. This phrasing undoubtedly creates a segregating effect in his listeners, segregating between those trying to identify with the speaker and perpetuate his power, and those who possibly see the rhetorical manipulation.

Even if words could function as a limit to violence, it seems to me that this phrase operates in the opposite direction. It attacks discourse in a disguised way. J.-A. Miller, in his 1988 lecture on irony says that, “the irony is not the Other’s [I am referring in this passage to the Other as the symbolic dimension as a whole, to the social], it is the subject’s, and goes against the Other. It argues that the Other does not exist, that social relation is a fraud [….]. Irony is the comic form which knowledge takes on regarding the Other who does not know, that is, as the Other of knowledge, he is nothing.”[1] Indeed, Netanyahu’s phrase actually turns his listeners to nothing, because he ignores the other’s place, as opposed to humour, which is the comic facet of the superego, that is, one which renders the others, the social relation, present.

Speech has an outstanding strength, words can incite, annihilate, kill, sometime imperceptibly. This is the most dangerous form, since it is a hypnotizing way of speech.

In the period preceding the last presidential elections in France, when there was a tangible danger of Marine Le Pen being elected, J.-A. Miller pointed out that this was what some people’s speech was aiming at: “Let everything explode, once and for all”[2], and that the death drive lay within this kind of speech, related to the jouissance of self-destruction. In my view, the death drive indeed lies within this phrase of Netanyahu’s, not in order to explode everything, as Miller notes, nor as jouissance in self-destruction, but rather as destructiveness directed at others, and thus, in a disguised, subliminal way, the attempt to argue that there is nothing becomes an extremely violent phrase.



[1]  Miller, J.-A., “Ironic Clinic” [1993], Psychoanalytical Notebooks, No. 7, 2001.

[2]  Miller, J.-A., “Le querelle Votutile”, Lacan Quotidien, No. 639, March 2017.