July 2006


Occasionally I have one of those days where a number of completely unrelated things come together to form something resembling a thought. This morning I had great fun antagonizing a friend of mine about modernist literature. She, of course, was antagonizing me about Lacan’s borromean knots (she always enjoys antagonizing me about Lacan) and his account of how Joyce avoided having a psychotic break. “Do you really believe that?”, she asked? “Of course!”, I responded, thinking, after all, that Lacan is one of my subjects supposed to know, so he must be right. “Well how do you know Joyce was psychotic, and how exactly did his writing forestall a psychotic break?” I didn’t really know the answers to these questions, though the answers must be there, so I gestured a bit and said something about stitching up a fault in the symbolic and made some allusions to Dubliners and the way the epiphanies fall outside the symbolic, in a way similar to early onset psychotic symptoms. “Have you read Ulysses?” she asked? I was starting to feel antagonistic now, which was good because being under the weather she needed someone to fight with to distract her from her pain and because feeling in the midsts of an existential malaise myself, wondering what it’s all about, I felt the need for a distraction as well, so I grumpily said that I hadn’t read all of it, but why would I want to waste my time on modernist tripe like that? I knew this would raise her hackles as she’s an English person that loves all that modernist tripe, and it gave me the pleasant opportunity to struggle with my superegoic guilt at not having read nearly enough of this “modernist tripe”… I can’t read everything, can I?

“So you see no point in reading literature?” “None at all, I only ever read literature for ideas and concepts and would prefer just reading theory”, I lie. “Well what about that novel I got you to read, Homes’ The End of Alice, you found that interesting didn’t you?” I sense that I’m in danger of being caught in a contradiction and being discovered of being guilty of not doing what my desire commands me to do. “Well yeah, that novel’s a little interesting.” “Why?” “Well, I’m interested to see whether she can write perversion.”

So somehow from there the conversation launched into a discussion about the structure of perversion. I mentioned that I was curious as to whether or not she’d depict the way in which perversion is a defense, or whether we’d just be left with a character that claims to have a knowledge of jouissance, which then generated a discussion about the geneological bent of psychoanalysis and thought in general. That is, we inevitably seem to look for some founding trauma, some childhood event, that precipitates the psychic structure in question. In response to this, I proposed the notion of a structural trauma, of a trauma without origin, of a trauma without beginning but which is a feature of the organization of the structure itself, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

So then I surf over to Jodi Dean’s blog and see that she’s strangely written about stupid 9-11 conspiracy theories. Between these two discussions I find that I’m unable to get the film Poltergeist out of my mind. I adore horror films. It doesn’t matter how bad the horror film is, I’m compelled to watch all of them that I can get my hands on. Now ostensibly I tell myself that this is research. Inevitably, I think, horror films are always about some conflict between jouissance and the symbolic law, some encounter with jouissance functioning as a trauma that upsets the smooth functioning of the symbolic. When, in Seminar 11, Lacan remarks that the unconscious strives to show the gap through which the symbolic recreates a harmony with the real (22), it can be understood that the formations of the unconscious attempt to symbolize a traumatic jouissance that escapes signification. Thus, for instance, films like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street inevitably depict teens going through puberty such that Jason or Freddie can be thought as the persecutory return of traumatic sexual desire, of that glitch in the symbolic universe that prevents everything from functioning smoothly. In The Ring, something’s rotten in the relationship between the son and mother. The son refers to his mother by her first name. The father is absent. There’s a clausterphobic feeling of overproximity in how the mother relates to her son. The girl from the well could be thought as the specter of feminine jouissance from which the boy must defend, like Little Hans defending against his mother. In The Sixth Sense, Willis’ character has not yet symbolized a trauma, etc. When given the choice, horror, natural disaster films, apocolypic films, and science fiction are always my fare of choice. With the first there tends to be a thematization of jouissance, with natural disaster films and apocolyptic films there’s generally a thematization of the impossibility of the sexual relation and how society must be destroyed to get the couple together, and finally with science fictions there tends to be a thematization of the core of inhumanity at the heart of the human (our essence as inhuman, in excess of the human) or a thematization of the void of subjectivity. Or, these are the fancy things I tell myself to justify my phillistine enjoyments.

I’m not aiming for sophisticated analyses here. My point is that there is an explanation, some sort of traumatic event, in all of these films.

Anyway, a few months ago I suddenly found myself obsessing over Poltergeist. I hadn’t seen it in years, but I had this overwhelming craving to watch it again. Why was it that this desire was plaguing me so much? Once I finally rented it, I watched it over and over again for a few days and found myself disturbed. What was it that was so disturbing about this film? Why was this film so different from any number of other horror films that I had watched? And then it hit me: Poltergeist has no precipitating trauma or cause. The family depicted in the film is the prototype of the ideal American family. They live in a surburban utopia in California that looks like the ideal place to live for a certain type of person. It’s fairly clear that the husband and wife love one another and have managed to maintain a degree of passion over the years. There’s nothing wrong with the children. Yet the poltergeist still appears, traumatizing the family, undermining the idyllic setting in which they live, riddling their life with conflict.

It could thus be said that Poltergeist is a film about the swerve of the real, about the constitutive antagonism characterizing the symbolic order, absent any sort of mythological explanation. In fact, I’m inclined to go one step further, and suggest that Poltergeist 2 (directed by Brian Gibson, not Spielberg) had to be filmed to retroactively locate a cause for this real. That is, we had to be given a story about the mad minister leading his congregation underground to prepare for the end of the world to cover over the trauma of the fundamental inconsistency of the symbolic, or the real that perpetually derails the smooth and harmonious functioning of the symbolic. And does not the youngest daughter respond to the enigmatic desire of the poltergeists by conceiving herself as objet a, as containing an “excess of life force” to which the poltergeists are attracted?

What we have here is another way of saying that there is no Other of the Other or that the big Other does not exist. Even when everything is idyllic as in the case of Poltergeist, there is still a fundamental antagonism that upsets the symbolic order and generates dissatisfaction. The function of the traumatic story would thus not be to explain the conflict (why Freddie or Jason appear, etc), but to cover over the impossibility that haunts the symbolic by giving a mythological account of how it came to be. In this respect, narratives of the origin of trauma would function in much the same way that the master-signifier functions. As Zizek remarks,

So what is a Master-Signifier? Let us imagine a confused situation of social disintegration, in which the cohesive power of ideology loses its efficiency: in such a situation, the Master is the one who invents a new signifier, the famous ‘quilting point,” which stabilizes the situation again and makes it readable; the university discourse which then elaborates the network of Knowledge which sustains this readability by definition presupposes and relies on the initial gesture of the Master. The Master adds no new positive content– he merely adds a signifier which, all of a sudden, turns disorder into order, into “new harmony,” as Rimbaud would have put it. Think about anti-Semitism in the 1920s Germany: people experienced themselves as disoriented, thrown into undeserved military defeat, an economic crises which eroded away their life savings, political inefficiency, moral degeneration… And the Nazis provided a single agent which accounted for it all– the Jew, the Jewish plot. Therein lies the magic of a Master: although there is nothing new at the level of positive content, “nothing is quite the same” after he pronounces his Word. (PV, 37)

The Nazis gave the Germans that word, “Jewish plot”, that allowed the German people to explain all the diverse things that they were suffering. After 9-11, something similar occured with the signifier “terrorism”, that could then be used to explain anything and everything breaking down or unusual within the social. For instance, even drugs were linked to terrorism (“don’t do drugs or you’re supporting terrorists!”). Those on the left refer to corporations, neo-fascists, and Christian nationalists to account for the antagonism of the social field, whereas those on the right refer to “secular humanists”, universities, feminists, etc to account for these antagonisms. In the psychoanalytic setting the analysand goes on and on about how his mother or father did this to him, thus giving an account of all his dissatisfactions in the present. “If only my father hadn’t interrogated me endlessly whenever I did something wrong, accepting no explanation, and inevitably whipping me, I wouldn’t be the mess I am today!”

What if the ultimate trauma is not the “cause”, but that there is no cause, that the conflicts of the symbolic sphere are constitutive, that there isn’t a grand story we can tell that would explain it all and offer the possibility of escaping it once and for all (while always deferring that overcoming)? What if any talk of causes is simply a way of minimizing anxiety and horror by suggesting the possibility of an alternative timeline where this dissatisfaction didn’t exist?

I confess that I find this thought horrifying. If every master-signifier or narrative I present is ultimately a mythological, fantasmatic frame designed to cover over the impossible real haunting my situation, how is it possible for me to act at all? Lacan liked to say that the idea of the world is a fantasy. “The world is symmetrical to the subject– the world of what I last time called thought is the equivalent, the mirror image, of thought. That is why there was nothing but fantasy regarding knowledge until the advent of modern science” (Seminar 20, 127). What then is the beyond of this fantasy, and how can we act in such a world?

Somewhere Zizek defines metaphysics as that operation in which a part takes on the function of ground for the whole. For instance, Form comes on to take on the function of the ultimate ground in Plato, while duration comes to take on the function of the ground in Bergson-Deleuze. What we have here is the masculine logic of the sovereign, where one element is except-ed from the totality allowing the totality to establish itself, just as Freud sees it as necessary to present the myth of the primal father who enjoys all the women in Totem and Taboo to explain how kinship relations or restrictions on who a man can enjoy comes into being. Here the parallel in Plato would be the form of the Good as described in book 6 of The Republic, that is unlike all the other forms and which functions as a condition for all the other forms (under Plotinus’ reading, anyway). It seems that fantasy obeys a similar logic. When we speak of terrorism or the red scare or Christo-fascism, aren’t we already engaging in a particular sort of metaphysics? Zizek had already entertained this possibility in The Sublime Object of Ideology in the context of discussing the quilting point, when he observes that,

To grasp this fully, we have only to remember the above-mentioned example of ideological ‘quilting': in the ideological space float signifiers like ‘freedom’, ‘state’, ‘justice’, ‘peace’… and then their chain is supplemented with some master-signifier (‘Communism’) which retroactively determines their (Communist) meaning: ‘freedom’ is effective only through surmounting the bourgeois formal freedom, which is merely a form of slavery; the ‘state’ is the means by which the ruling class guarantees the conditions of its rule; market exchange cannot be ‘just and equitable’ because the very form of equivalent exchange between labour and capital implies exploitation; ‘war’ is inherent to class society as such; only the social revolution can bring about lasting ‘peace’, and so forth. (Liberal-democratic ‘quilting’ would, of course, produce a quite different articulation of meaning; conservative ‘quilting’ a meaning opposed to both previous fields, and so on). (SO, 102)

Much earlier, discussing how this operation of quilting works in producing its own metaphysics, Zizek writes,

…a situation of metaphorical condensation in which it finally becomes clear to the everyday consciousness that it is not possible to solve any particular question without solving them all– that is, without solving the fundamental question which embodies the antagonistic character of the social totality. In a ‘normal’, pre-revolutionary state of things, everybody is fighting his own particular battles (workers are striking for better wages, feminists are fighting for the rights of women, democrats for political and social freedoms, ecologists against the exploitation of nature, particpants in the peace movement against the danger of war, and so on)… The basic feature of so-called ‘post-Marxism’ is, of course, teh break with this logic– which incidentally, does not necessarily have a marxist connotation: almost any of the antagonisms which, in light of Marxism, appear to be secondary can take over this essential role of mediator for all the others. We have, for example, feminist fundamentalism (no global liberation without the emancipation of women, without the abolition of sexism); democratic fundamentalism (democracy as the fundamental value of Western civilization; all other struggles– economic, feminist, of minorities, and so on –are simply further applications of the basic democratic, egalitarian principle); ecological fundamentalism (ecological deadlock as the fundamental problem of mankind); and why not?– also psychoanalytic fundamentalism… (SO, 3-4)

That is, political metaphysics, political theology, occurs at that moment in which one term is elevated above the rest and becomes the fundamental deadlock, such that if it is solved all the others are solved. The thesis, then, is that antagonism can be abolished once and for all. But if antagonism is real in the Lacanian sense of what “does not cease to be written” then there can be no question of ending antagonism once and for all. There can be a beyond of fantasy where we recognize that there are only partial struggles without overarching explanation or solution, but the real will always insist and write itself. Yet this seems to place us back in Laclau’s logic of hegeomonic struggles that Zizek has subsequently come to reject, favoring instead act and decision. During this period Zizek endorsed an ethics of separation: “we may denote the ethics implied by Lacanian psychoanalysis as that of separation. The famous Lacanian motto not to give way on one’s desire– is aimed at the fact that we must not obliterate the distance separating the Real from its symbolization: it is this surplus of the Real over every symbolization that functions as the object-cause of desire” (SO, 3). Here, however, I’m led to wonder whether Zizek, the Marxist, did not come to recoil from a traumatic truth that he encountered in his earlier work… That there isn’t a final revolution that resolves the real. It is difficult to say where Zizek stands today. When he speaks of drive as successful in its very failure, that it is the very failure of the drive that gives its satisfaction, that it is the very repetition of drive pulsating about its object that is the source of jouissance, it sounds as if Zizek has maintained fidelity to his earlier position. Yet in his increasingly dominant flirtations with Christianity, it sounds as if Zizek is searching for a new conception of revolution without the revolutionary fantasy of a society transformed once and for all and emptied of the impossible-real. At the very least, here is suggested a form of action that doesn’t simply fall into the fantasmatic frame of providing a ground and account of the All.


In my post “Hegel and the Logic of the Imaginary“, I try to articulate the deadlocks that emerge around social and psychic organizations strongly organized around the One inevitably lead to conflict insofar as they must define a boundary between themselves and the other so as to maintain their identity. The problem is that this boundary or distinction is inherently precarious, as the outside, the enemy, the other, is not extrinsic to the identity of the inside, but is internal to the inside in such a way that the inside is the outside and is thereby dependent on its outside. Whether the One be a family name, the name of a nation, the name of a team, the name of a movement or organization (“Lacanian”, “Deleuzian”, “Badiouian”, “Democrat”, “Conservative”, “Christian”, etc), every organization around a One leads to this sort of unstable logic and conflict.

What we have here is the logic of the sovereign, exemplified by Lacan’s graph of masculine sexuation, which attempts to totalize the social, political, or ontological sphere (think of the function of the Good in Plato, the unmoved mover in Aristotle, or God in Descartes, all of which exemplify this structure in their own way), through positing an exception– the One –to the field of law. It is this which Schmitt refers to as “political theology”, where a certain form of politics is premised on a secularization of theological concepts.

The natural question that emerges is whether it is possible to conceive a political space or form of community that is no longer premised on identification in this way. I have no answer to this question, though I do find the feminine side of Lacan’s graph of sexuation promising in this regard. What the logic of feminine sexuation seems to promise is a form of community that is beyond the theological and which is capable of relating to the alterity that inhabits any community as such.

Although identification and the logic of the One seem to be the source of a great deal of social conflict, the question of a form of community beyond identification or that identifies with the “not-all” as such, poses the equally vexing issue of social psychosis. This issue can clearly be seen with regard to Lacan’s final teaching of the borromean knot, depicted at the beginning of this post. In Seminar 22, R.S.I, Lacan emphasizes that the three orders of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary are to be conceived as equivalent, in that they all inter-relate with one another and depend upon one another in order for the subject to maintain itself. This marks a substantial departure from Lacan’s earlier teaching of the 50’s, prior to Seminar 11, where it was hoped that the effects of the imaginary could be largely bypassed and eradicated through the symbolic. Ignoring the fourth, orange string, depicting the sinthome, the difficulty lies in the fact that if I cut any of the other three strings, the other two fall away generating a collapse of the organization. Consequently, while it might sound appealing to imagine a politics or form of community beyond the obfuscations of the imaginary, the difficulty with this proposal is that it inevitably leads to the production of psychosis by undermining the fragile organization of the orders of the symbolic and the real.

In his essay “Towards a Political Theology of the Neighbor”, Kenneth Reinhard puts his finger on precisely this problem, although he doesn’t articulate it in terms of the borromean knot:

One problem with [Schmitt's] account of the political, where we divide the world into friends we identify with and enemies we define ourselves against, is that it is fragile, liable to break down or even to invert and oscillate in the face of complex situations. But it is precisely in this inadequacy to the world we live in that Schmitt’s account of the friend-enemy distinction is most useful: today, we find ourselves in a world from which the political may have already disappeared, or at least has mutated into some strange new shape. A world not anchored by the ‘us’ and ‘them’ oppositions that flourished as recently as the Cold War is one subject to radical instability both subjectively and politically. The disappearance of the enemy results in something like global psychosis: since the mirroring relationship between Friend and Enemy provides a form of stability, albeit one based on projective identifications and repudiations, the loss of the enemy threatens to destroy what Lacan calls the ‘imaginary tripod’ that props up the psychotic with a sort of pseudo-subjectivity, until something causes it to collapse, resulting in full-blown delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Hence, for Schmitt, a world without enemies is much more dangerous than one where one is surrounded by enemies. (The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, 16-17)

Reinhard’s point here is that the enemy, the other opposed to the One, functions as a necessary moment in establishing and maintaining identity. While I don’t agree with Reinhard’s conception of the political (he seems to associate it with social relations organized around the friend/enemy distinction, whereas I follow Rancierre, Badiou, and Zizek in seeing the political as occuring precisely with regard to the exception), his observations nonetheless seem to hit the mark here. With the end of the Cold War, the imaginary of the United States collapsed as well. This collapse was, I think, exacerbated by increasing globalization and internet technologies, which had the effect of further blurring national boundaries and the identities dependent upon these boundaries. It is thus not surprising that a growing sense of paranoid persecution emerged among American fundamentalist groups and conservative movements, as certain groups desperately searched for some sort of stability upon which to build their identity. Anyone who has spent significant amounts of time on conservative blogs and discussion groups will be familiar with running narratives about Christian persecution and paranoid fears about being infiltrated by “liberal double agents”. Reinhard’s observations here are interesting as he doesn’t simply suggest that terrorism allowed America to re-assert its imaginary in the face of a new enemy– the speed with which flags were pinned to people’s clothing, put on cars, and hung before houses after 9-11 is unforgettable –but his suggestion that this enemy, as non-localizable, has been unable to fill the hole in the imaginary.

I am still trying to figure out how to properly pose my questions, but it seems to me that one of the central questions is how to think a form of community that isn’t based on the friend/enemy distinction, the logic of the sovereign, and which doesn’t fall into the sort of paranoid psychosis that Jodi Dean seems to be thinking about in her Aliens in America. Not only is the idea of eradicating the imaginary unrealistically utopian, but, if Lacan’s later borromean formulation is correct, it is downright dangerous. From here I’m not at all sure where to go. Perhaps what is needed as a fourth knot, the sinthome, that would allow the other three orders to function even when unbound from one another. As Lacan suggests in Seminar 23, The Sinthome, one can get by without the name-of-the-father so long as one knows how to make use of it. But what would such a social sinthome be?

My apologies for the flailing nature of my posts the last few days. It seems that I have more questions these days than solutions.

Last weekend I went to a party. The people were terrific company in a down to earth sort of way, and the homemade bbq was outstanding, but I found myself highly disturbed by their home. Everywhere I looked there were decorations and wallpaintings depicting either the Texas states flag or the American flag. This is not the first time I’ve come across this. When I was searching for my home, I came across a number of homes that were filled with this overtly patriotic decor. For every discourse Lacan suggests that we should ask what jouissance is involved?, why do people get so worked up? The question that I’ve been revolving about ever since is what is it that leads people to so heavily identify with something as abstract as a piece of land in this way? I’ve been a nomad all my life, moving from place to place, so I’ve never had a firm sense of place. I like the idea of the cosmopolitan in its literal Greek signification as “citizen of the world”. The only place I’ve ever been strongly identified with is Boston. So what is it that leads one to have such a strong sense of place? What sorts of desires are evinced in surrounding oneself with these sorts of images? What is a person trying to remind themselves of? And what ontological consistency do these sorts of icons provide? If we think of patriotism as being something one gets “in” to like anything else, how does a person get “in” to this as one of the primary meanings of their life? I’m probably not much better as my home is filled with images of figures like Freud, Goethe, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, along with lots of framed leaves and impressionistic art… But all the same, I was a bit creeped out.

Lacan argues that neurosis is characterized by the confusion of demand with desire. That is, the neurotic relates to demand in such a way as to avoid having to confront the anxiety producing enigma of the Other’s desire. In the case of hysteria this occurs by evoking and then frustrating the Other’s demand (hence all the famous charges of being a tease), while in the case of the obsessional this occurs by striving to satisfy all the Other’s demands so as to preclude any encounter with desire. Often the obsessional takes this to absurd extremes, as if to signal the aggression or desire to negate the Other behind their activities.

Along these lines, is anyone else feeling “stuffed” by Zizek’s The Parallax View. Early in this text Zizek talks about directors whose work eventually failed because they began to imitate themselves. Likewise, I’m beginning to feel that Zizek is here imitating himself. I find that there is page after page of endless interpretations pertaining to art, philosophy, cinema, literature, and poetry, but not nearly as much theory as I might like. I’ve always valued Zizek for his illuminating examples, but it seems as if he’s become nothing but examples with moments, here and there, of shining clarity. To me it ends up becoming irritating and I find myself throwing my hands up in the air saying “make your damned point already!” I also find myself frustrated with the cuteness of it all, as if every interpretation has to carry a surprising twist contrary to the “standard reading”.

Granted, I’m in a frustrated, anxious, and aggressive mood today pertaining to operations elsewhere in the country, so I’m perhaps taking it out on Zizek. But for Christ’s sake, one example will do! I feel myself being negated and made to disappear in response to his endless interpretations and cleverness. Is anyone else experiencing a similar exasperation?

Deleuze and Guattari, following Reich, pose the question perfectly when they ask “why do we will our own oppression?” Here power is not simply an external impediment, unjustly imposed upon us, but it is an internal limit produced by the subject itself. As Zizek puts it,

Every parent knows that a child’s provocations, wild and ‘transgressive’ as they may appear, ultimately conceal and express a demand, addressed to the figure of authority, to set a firm limit, to draw a line which means ‘This far and no further!’, thus enabling the child to achieve a clear mapping of what is possible and what is not possible. (And does the same not go also for the hysteric’s provocations?) This, precisely, is what the analyst refuses to do, and that is what makes him so traumatic– paradoxically, it is the setting of a firm limit which is liberating, and it is the very absence of a firm limit which is experienced as suffocating. This is why the Kantian autonomy of the subject is so difficult– its implication is precisely that there is nobody out there, no external agent of ‘natural authority,’ who can do the job for me and set me my limit, that I myself have to pose a limit to my natural ‘unruliness.’ (90)

There is a vulgar notion of power that sees it strictly in opposition to the autonomous subject as something that is imposed on the subject from the outside. The aim is thus to undermine this power so that we might finally exercise our free autonomy and creative potential. What is here missed is the manner in which prohibition functions to solve a certain deadlock for the subject:

That is the crucial insight of Freudian metapsychology emphasized by Lacan: the function of Prohibition is not to introduce disturbance into the previous repose of paradisacal innocence, but, on the contrary, to resolve some terrifying deadlock.

It is only now that we can reconstruct the full sequences: primordial repose is first disturbed by the violent act of contraction, or self-withdrawal, which provides the proper density of the subject’s being; the result of this contraction is a deadlock that tears the subject apart, throwing him into the vicious cycle of sabotaging its own impetus– the experience of this deadlock is dread at its most terrifying. In Lacanese, this contraction creates a sinthome, the minimal formula of the subject’s consistency –through it, the subject becomes a creature proper, and anxiety is precisely the reaction to this overproximity of one’s sinthome. This deadlock is then resolved through Prohibition, which brings relief by externalizing the obstacle, by transposing the inherent obstacle, that bone in the subject’s throat, into an external impediment. As such, Prohibition gives rise to desire proper, the desire to overcome the external impediment, which then gives rise to the anxiety of being confronted with the abyss of our freedom. (89)

It seems to me that this moment of creating an external impediment– prohibition seen as something coming from the outside, through some sort of agency such as society, government, teacher, police, parents, etc. –so as to maintain desire is precisely what is missed in theories of subjectivization such as those proposed by figures like Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Butler, etc. These theories make it difficult to give an account as to why the subject would tolerate any inhibition of desire (in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of “desiring-production”) in the process of subject formation.

While it is certainly true that there are formidable forces of power characterizing the outside, there is also the manner in which prohibition solves a certain deadlock for the subject and allows the subject to escape the overwhelming anxiety that occurs in the absence of desire. Paradoxically, the whole point of the law is to invite its own transgression and give us clear coordinates for our desire. Transgression, far from overturning the law, is a way of obeying the law. For instance, Sade’s transgressions would lose their enjoyment, their surplus-jouissance, if they were not transgressions of prohibitions. It is precisely in this transgression qua transgression of the system of prohibitions, that these transgressions are able to produce surplus-jouissance.

While Zizek’s account of how prohibition solves a particular deadlock of subjectivity strikes me as undertermined (one would do better to refer to Van Haute’s account of desire as a solution to the terrifying and threatening jouissance of the Other in Against Adaptation), the anxiety that accompanies the absence of prohibition is readily identifiable in a number of contexts. This anxiety can, above all, be discerned in the analytic setting in relation to the analyst. An analyst is a largely silent figure, who gives neither praise nor blame, and who certainly gives no indication of how he judges the analysand if he judges him at all. From the standpoint of the analysand, this lack of constraints, this lack of any indication as to what ought to be talked about, is often accompanied with extreme anxiety. In the absence of a series of prohibitions and judgments from the analyst, the analysand is confronted with the manner in which her desire is her own production and not a longing to overcoming an external impediment. Those of us who teach are, no doubt, familiar with this phenomenon with regard to “free assignments” and experiments with not grading. Paradoxically, giving students absolute autonomy with their writing and getting rid of grades altogether turns out to be more oppressive rather than less oppressive, more superegoic rather than less superegoic. In response to such assignments and classroom assignments where the students as asked to “be herself”, one receives a litany of questions of the form “what do you want?” (Che vuoi?) and actually end up working harder on their assignments and in a more self-punishing way.

The difficulty is that in the absence of some system of prohibitions, the subjective-consistency of the subject falls apart. As Zizek puts it,

The role of fantasy is thus, in a way, analogous to that of the ill-fated pineal gland in Descartes’ philosophy, this mediator between res cogitans and res extensia: fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality: it provides a ‘scheme’ according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is, rather, how do I know I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. (40)


Here it’s worthwhile to recall that fantasy, in Lacan’s graph of desire, is a response to the enigmatic desire of the Other. Zizek’s reference to “strawberry cake” here comes from Freud’s discussion of his young daughter Anna in The Interpretation of Dreams, who had never before had strawberry cake. What might have prompted her to dream of strawberry cake when she had never before had it? The implication is that what’s important here isn’t the cake itself, but being seen enjoying the cake by her parents. In other words, we can say that the question of fantasy is always the question of which desires are the right desires? That is, it’s a question of which identifications are the right identifications in the eyes of the Other? What films and theory, for instance, should I like in order to be in the in?

Increasingly I’m coming to feel that the central question, pace Kant and rationalism, is that of how an autonomous subject is possible? What are the conditions under which an autonomous subject is possible. The lesson to be drawn from the Lacanian account of desire and fantasy is that leftist politics is at a disadvantage and is actually anxiety provoking, precisely by virtue of its calls for liberation, freedom, and creativity. Just as the analytic setting is experienced as a space of anxiety for many analysands precisely because it is a space of freedom, so too are free societies (if ever any have existed) anxiety producing precisely due to their lack of constraint and prohibition. I am not suggesting that prohibition ought to be embraced. Rather, the issue I’m trying to raise is that of how leftist political agendas can avoid producing reactionary flights into reassuring systems of prohibition. How might we produce a collective capable of tolerating freedom and creativity? Is it utopian to imagine a collective that no longer desires masters?

Recently, in another forum, I passingly expressed my perplexity with regard to Zizek’s conception of materialism. In The Parallax View, Zizek remarks that,

Materialism is not the direct assertion of my incusion in objective reality (such an assertion presupposes that my position of enunciation is that of an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality); rather, it resides in the reflexive twist by means of which I myself am included in the picture constituted by me– it is this reflexive short circuit, this necessary redoubling of myself as standing both outside and inside my picture, that bears witness to my ‘material existence.’ Materialism means that the reality I see is never ‘whole’– not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which indicates my inclusion in it. (17)

I confess that this definition of materialism causes me to scratch my head. First, I quite agree that I myself am included in the picture constituted by me. This is part and parcel of psychoanalysis. Perhaps one of the most jarring moments in analysis occurs when the analysand experiences the manner in which the moebius strip is, in fact, one-sided where before it appeared two-sided (i.e., that there was me in here and the world out there). If, for example, I encounter the world as a hostile place in which people are constantly denegrating my credentials, dismissing my views, and generally find nothing of worth in me, psychoanalysis brings us to the point where we come to see that I constitute this world, that this world is a product of my own desire and not in the things themselves. This is seen most strikingly in cases of paranoia.

I also quite agree that the world is not whole, that it doesn’t form a totality (though Zizek seems to articulate this thesis in epistemological terms, not ontological terms). What I have difficulty following is why these two claims taken together constitute materialism? If anything, these remarks sound far closer to traditional idealism in its Kantian formulation than anything like a thorough-going materialism. Moreover, why does the claim that we are included in material reality necessarily lead us to posit the view of an outside observe (Descartes’ God) as an observer that can grasp the whole of reality?

A few pages earlier, Zizek gives a slightly more explicit formulation of his materialism, when he writes that,

In all three cases, the problem is how to think this gap in a materialist way, which means: it is not enough merely to insist on the fact that the ontological horizon cannot be reduced to an effect of ontic occurances; that phenomenal self-awareness cannot be reduced to an epiphenomenon of “objective” brain processes; that social antagonism (“class struggle”) cannot be reduced to an effect of objective socioeconomic forces. We should take a step further and rach beneath this dualism itself, into a “minimal difference” (the noncoincidence of the One with itself) that generates it.” (10-11)

Once again, all of this sounds terrific, but what is specifically materialist about this project? For instance, when Zizek strives to argue that phenomenal self-awareness is not reducable to brain states, this strikes me as being exactly the opposite of materialism. And if we argue that being cannot be reduced to ontic beings, then we seem to find ourselves in a similar position as well.

I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something here. However, with his characteristic brilliance and penetrating insight, David shot back the following in response to my perplexity:

What if the emperor is naked and and Zizek really does not know himself what he means by materialism (why place him in the position of the subject supposed to know in the first place?) ? I have a suspicion that there is very little philosophical depth behind Zizek’s use of the concept. In these parts of Europe, and Slovenia is not far off, in the pedestrian sense of the word, openly acknowledging that one is a materialist usually means just two possibe things – A) yes, you are right, I am money-obsessed and proud of it B) I am an atheist. Usually with regard to B), especially for older generations, the concept still has the good ol’ nostalgic taste of Marxist-Leninist pseudo-scientific dialectical materialism to it.

Throughout his writings (can’t track this down now for the lack of time) Zizek often plays on the Leninist motto ‘fighting materialism’, where ‘materialist’ is freely interchangeable with ‘atheist’. In short, I read Zizek’s materialism as just another name for rather vulgar atheism. But then again I am a rather vulgar atheist myself, so maybe it’s just my imaginary ego-talk :)

In other words, David points out that Zizek himself might not be clear as to what, precisely, he means by “materialism”. The possibility that I hadn’t really entertained was that Zizek’s conception of materialism might not itself be clear or have any substantial content behind it. I find David’s observation interesting as it is the perfect example of academic transference at work. When presented with the work of a great theorist, one often encounters the points of vagueness and incoherences in that body of work not as stemming from the theorist, but as arising from our own lack or incompleteness. That is, the tendency is to assume that the master knows what he’s talking about, that it’s clear to him and that it’s simply because we haven’t read enough or can’t think deeply enough that we fail to understand the theorist on this or that particular point.

This is one of the hallmarks of neurotic thought structure: rather than face the lack in the Other, the neurotic instead assumes this lack himself. Faced with the lack in the Other, the neurotic experiences guilt. Verhaeghe explains this logic well in his brilliant Being Normal and Other Disorders. The search for a complete Other already emerges structurally in infancy, as the infant, being born helpless, relies on the Other so as to have its demands satisfied. If the Other were lacking, incomplete, desiring, then the infant would risk being unable to satisfy its demands. Consequently, it’s far more reassuring to experience oneself as lacking and incomplete, than the Other, and we thus spend our lives passing from master to master, hoping to finally find that complete Other.

This occurs in the world of theory no less than any other domain of social life, and is the lynchpin of transference. It is precisely in attaching ourself to a subject supposed (believed) to have knowledge, that that figure comes to have power over us. Thus, Lacan suggests that it is precisely in de-supposing someone from knowledge that good readings become possible. Referencing Nancy’s and Lacoue-Labarthe’s Title of the Letter, and remarking that he’s never been read better despite the fact that it’s clear that they hate him and are trying to “de-suppose” Lacan’s knowledge , Lacan suggests that de-supposition is itself a condition for reading:

In analysis, we deal with nothing but that [love], and analysis doesn’t operate by any other pathway. It is a singular pathway in that it alone allowed us to isolate what I, I who am talking to you, felt I needed to base transference on, insofar as it is not distinguished from love, that is, on the formulation of the “subject supposed to know”.

I cannot but mention the new resonance this term “knowledge” can take on for you. I love the person I assume to have knowledge. Earlier you saw me stall, back off, and hesitate to come down on one side or the other, on the side of love or on the side of what we call hatred, when I insistently invited you to read a book whose climax is expressly designed to discredit me– which is certainly not soething that can be backed away from by someone who speaks, ultimately, but on the basis of “de-sideration” and aims at nothing else. The fact is that this climax appears sustainable to the authors precisely where there is a “desupposition” of my knowledge. If I said that they hate me it is because they “desuppose” that I have knowledge.

And why not? Why not, if it turns out that that must be the condition for what I call reading? After all, what can I presume Aristotle knew? Perhaps the less I assume he has knowledge, the better I read him. (Seminar 20, 67)

Now, I am not suggesting that Zizek isn’t himself clear as to what he means by “materialism”. I’m holding out for a better answer and hopefully some plausable reasons as to why more traditional materialist philosophies– say Lucretius’ –are mistaken. However, I do find it interesting that it’s so difficult to avoid supposing the knowledge of the Other and assuming the lack in the Other in oneself.

In a number of places Zizek argues that it is merely our belief that sustains social reality. As Zizek puts it in The Parallax View,

…how does shared meaning emerge? Through what Alfred Schutz called “mutual idealization”: subjects cut the impasse of endless probing into “do we all mean the same thing by ‘bird’?” by simply taking it for granted, presupposing, acting as if they do mean the same thing. There is no language without this “leap of faith”.

This presupposition, this “leap of faith” should not be conceived, in the Habermasian vein, as the normativity built into the functioning of language, as the ideal for which the speakers (should) strive: far from being an ideal, this presupposition is the fiction, the as if…, that sustains language– as such, it should be undermined again and again in the progress of knowledge… its “truth effect,” its positive role of enabling communication, hinges precisely on the fact that it is not true, that it jumps ahead into fiction– its status is not normative because it cuts the debilitating deadlock of language, its ultimate lack of guarantee, by presenting what we should strive for as already accomplished. (51-2)

What holds for the institution of meaning in language, holds likewise for any social institution. It is merely our beliefs, this leap of faith, that sustains these institutions. When Lacan says that there is no Other of the Other, he is essentially claiming that there is no authority, no outside, no sovereign that legislates truth and meaning after the fashion of Descartes’ God that establishes mathematical and natural truth. Thus, when Christian nationalists argue that “marraige, by definition, is between a man and a woman” and appeal to a dictionary, etc., it is clear that they are appealing to an Other of the Other to make such an argument. The joke, of course, is that dictionaries are not authorities but take their authority from the speakers of the language.

I confess that I find this line of thought very attractive as it suggests that if only we give up our belief in certain institutions, these institutions will dissipate and float away like so much fog. This is the paradox of the social: It transcends individuals but exists only in and through individuals. However, as David has pointed out in response to one of my other posts, it is possible that Zizek has a “hopelessly outdated conception of belief.” It seems to me that there are at least three major difficulties with Zizek’s conception of belief:

  • Systemic Interdependence: The paradox of the social is that it is composed entirely of individuals and without substance of its own, but nonetheless transcends any single individual in isolation. In a manner similar to Stephen Johnson’s conception of emergence, social institutions are composed only of elements but cannot be reduced to their elements. It might very well be that only our beliefs sustain social institutions, but changing my beliefs alone will not dissipate the efficacy of the social. Thus, heeding what Zizek here argues, I might resolve to heretofore use the word “dog” to refer to my cats (I actually do this). The problem is that others about me immediately push back, correcting my error and regulating me to return to the conventional usage. That is, I encounter the phenomenon of social feedback. Of course, I might eventually win the others responding to me over and they might accept my convention or treat it as merely a silly idiosyncracy of my character, but the point is that it is not up to me alone. The big Other certainly does not exist, but it does produce effects. This is what makes the question of change so difficult. It seems that in order for social change to be possible, it must occur all at once or not at all. The attractive counter to this thesis would be that all sorts of micro changes can be produced, eventually generating a breaking point, much like the way speciation occurs through population isolation where eventually two populations that once belonged to the same species can no longer reproduce with one another.

    Irreversability: It seems to me Zizek’s conception of belief fails to take into account the arrow of time. Perhaps my assumption that others mean what I mean is only based on belief, but looking at an institution like language, is it possible for me to suspend my belief in language altogether? That is, once I’ve acquired language can I unacquire language through anything short of a serious accident? Is it possible for me to cease thinking linguistically? It seems that once language is there it is irreversable, such that while it perpetually mutates and changes in the course of my speaking the one thing I can’t do is undo language altogether. This would seem to be the same with many other social institutions as well, such that once they have established themselves we cannot return to the prior state (though new states can emerge). This brings me to the third problem:

  • Habitus: It seems to me that Zizek attributes too much efficacy to propositional attitudes or mental judgments. That is, Zizek seems to labor under what Bourdieu would call a certain intellectualism or subjectivism with regard to social institutions. Here I think Bourdieu’s conception of habitus provides a far more accurate picture of just how social institutions sustain themselves:



“One of the major functions of the notion of habitus is to dispel two complementary fallacies each of which originates from the scholastic vision: on the onehand, mechanism, which holds that action is the mechanical effect of the constraint of external causes; and, on the other, finalism, which, with rational action theory, holds that the agent acts freely, consciously, and, as some of the utilitarians say, ‘with full understanding’, the action being the product of a calculation of chances and profits. Against both of these theories, it has to be posited that social agents are endowed with habitus, inscribed in their bodies by past experiences. These systems of schemes of perception, appreciation and action enable them to perform acts of practical knowledge, based on the identification and recognition of conditional, conventional stimuli to which they are predisposed to react; and, without any explicit definition of ends or rational calculation of means, to generate appropriate and endlessly renewed strategies, but within the limits of the structural constraints of which they are the product and which define them.” (Pascalian Meditations, 138)

Of course, Zizek, approaching these issues from the side of psychoanalysis and in light of the unconscious, Zizek does not fall on the side of the utilitarians, yet there does seem to be something strongly intellectualist in his conception of social institutions. Elaborating elsewhere on habitus, Bourdieu remarks:


The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices– more history –in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. This system of dispositions– a present past that tends to perpetuate itself into the future by reactivation in similarly structured practices, an intral law through which the law of external necessities, irreducible to immediate cvonstraints, is constantly exerted –is the principle of the continuity and regularity which objectivism sees in social practices without being able to account for it; and also of the regulated transformations that cannot be explained either by extrinsic, instantaneous determinisms of mechanistic sociologism or by the purely internal but equally instantaneous determination of spontaneist subjectivism.” (The Logic of Practice, 54)

The point to note here is that these schemes of action, perception, taste, etc., are inscribed in the very body of subjects in a non-reflective and unconscious manner (though not in the Lacanian sense of “unconscious”) that is quite different than a propositional attitude or belief. Here we have the subject producing the social and the social producing the subject in endless feedback loops that become self-regulating as an emergent system, while still allowing for deviations and new emergences.

It seems that this level of organization is lacking altogether from Zizek’s discussions of ideology. It could be that we here have something of a “parallax”, where if we adopt the perspective of habitus or micro-power, ideological formations become entirely impossible to see , and where if we adopt the perspective of ideology, habitus becomes indiscernable. How might we think this gap? And what repurcussions does admitting something like habitus have for the Lacanian conception of the subject?

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