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.