Slavoj Zizek: Description without Place

In her memoirs, Anna Akhmatova describes what happened to her when, at the height of the Stalinist purges, she was waiting in the long queue in front of the Leningrad prison to learn about her arrested son Lev:

One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

The key question, of course, is what kind of description is intended here? Surely it is not a realistic description of the situation, but what Wallace Stevens called “description without place,” which is what is proper to art. This is not a description which locates its content in a historical space and time, but a description which creates, as the background of the phenomena it describes, an inexistent (virtual) space of its own, so that what appears in it is not an appearance sustained by the depth of reality behind it, but a decontextualised appearance, an appearance which fully coincides with real being. To quote Stevens again: “What it seems it is and in such seeming all things are.” Such an artistic description “is not a sign for something that lies outside its form.”  Rather, it extracts from the confused reality its own inner form in the same way that Schoenberg “extracted” the inner form of totalitarian terror. He evoked the way this terror affects subjectivity.

– Slavoj Zkizek, Violence