January 2007


I’ve just received confirmation from Northwestern University Press that my study of Deleuze, The Transcendental Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze: Between Aesthetics and Representation has finally been fully confirmed and is due out in Fall of 2007.

Well folks, I’m back from Las Vegas and am overwhelmingly pleased to be home. This was my first trip to Vegas and I have to confess that it simply is not my sort of city– Too many people, too much noise, and too many lights. Give me a nice secluded beach, a mountain path, or a desert vista any day! To make matters worse, I was deathly ill when I returned from some bug the details of which I’ll spare you, and spent all of today hovering somewhere between a state of coma and a state of cold sweats. The upside of this is that I got to practice my moaning and fetal position. On the other hand, there’s something brilliant about this city. One night I had dinner in “Paris” under the “Eiffel Tower” (which probably made me sick). What could be the premise of this if not the American idea that anything can be commodified, that place and geography make no difference and contain nothing singular? The architects behind Las Vegas had a brilliant idea: Get in cahoots with the airlines so cheap flights are always available, keep hotel prices down, prevent any restrictions on where you can smoke and drink, and have cheap buffets with halfway decent food… As a result you get a city filled with drunken midwesterners and Southerners walking back and forth down the strip having a delightful time.

The paper went well, though the turnout was small. I get the sense that this conference is a sort of pretext pop-culture people use to go enjoy the city. I’ve toyed with the idea of mythologizing the paper in the way Lacan mythologized his mirror stage essay. You might recall that Lacan first presented this article in Zurich at the same time Ernst Jones was speaking, such that no one attended the talk. Lacan later spoke of this article as nonetheless being an event. Of course, my paper is certainly not the mirror stage, but I do think it gets at something of the real defining our contemporary situation.

I’ve posted the unedited version below for those who are interested. I’m pleased to see that discussion of these themes is proliferating throughout the blogosphere. I’m always excited when I see this occur, as it’s beautiful to see the way in which certain themes, fractalize and proliferate throughout this sphere, generating all sorts of interesting variations such that the topic takes on a life of its own. I believe this concept of “theme”, as opposed to “concept”, is important as themes can be widely displaced and developed heterogeneously among different authors, and we also know from music that themes can develop themselves immanently, almost as if they have a life of their own. The blogosphere is a world of themes in this sense.

Of special note are Joseph Kugelmass’s recent posts (here and here) on both his own blog and over at Valve (here and here). Both links are worth reading for the posts themselves and the dialogue that’s ensued. Adam Kotsko has recently written a tongue and cheek piece on how the blogosphere will eventually replace the academic manuscript and journal article. While I’m not sure I would go this far, I nonetheless think he’s alluding to something important with regard to the generative power of this medium, and how all this playfulness is also extremely productive. There’s still a lot of work to do on this particular paper– which I hope to submit for publication in a pop-culture journal somewhere –especially with regard to the concept of the real that N.Pepperell and I have been exploring in our own specific vocabularies. In particular, I’m pleased to take from her, her reading of Hegel pertaining to the immanent positing of standards and the contradictions and antagonisms that emerge in the unfolding of these standards. But that’s another discussion (see here in particular, but all the links on Hegel are excellent and well worth exploring). Some of this will be familiar, some will be new, and some will contain typos. Without further ado… Be kind!

Enjoy Your Apocalypse! Apocalyptic Fantasies, Jouissance, and Social Symptoms in Life Under Post-Industrial Capitalism

One of the things I began noticing a few years ago is that I was encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful (struggling to survive, to rebuild the world, etc). As I reflected on this phenomenon a bit, I began to notice that these sorts of fantasies populate the social space everywhere. In cinema there is an entire genre of apocalyptic films from both rightwing and leftwing perspectives such as Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact, the Terminator trilogy, the Matrix trilogy, I, Robot, War of the Worlds, and many more I cannot remember. In the world of “literature” the Left Behind novels have been a stunning success, selling millions of copies and leading to popular television shows and made for television movies. In news media, of course, we are perpetually inundated with apocalyptic threats from eco-catastrophe, to the bird flu, to the threat of massive meteors hitting the earth or supervolcanos exploding or even a star going supernova and evaporating our atmosphere, to terrorist attacks employing nuclear or bio-weaponry. The Discovery and Science Channel regularly devote shows to these themes.

In the world of Theory, analyses of apocalyptic politics have become very common as well. In Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism, Sharon Crowley gives a marvelous and eye-opening analysis of our contemporary rhetorical situation in the United States– a sort of “meta-kairos” or kairotic situation –where she treats the conflict between rhetorical practices emerging from fundamentalist apocalyptic discourses and classical Enlightenment discourses as the defining political conflict of our time. In the academic blogosphere, luminaries such as Jodi Dean of I Cite (author of Zizek’s Politics, Aliens in America, The Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism After Identity Politics, and other works), K-Punk, and Rough Theory, have had ongoing discussions surrounding the dangers of apocalyptic religious discourses within both American politics and world politics (for an excellent summary of this discussion, see High, Low, & In Between here, here, here, and here… Thank you, HLIB!).

However, while these discussions of religious apocalyptic narratives are of intrinsic interest, they tend to suffer from three major shortcomings. First, in focusing on religious apocalyptic narratives, other pervasive forms of apocalyptic narrative are ignored, leaving unasked the question of just why these fantasies are so pervasive. It is remarkable that there are a wide variety of secular apocalyptic narratives, which suggests, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that apocalyptic narratives are something of a social symptom. Second, in focusing on religious apocalyptic narratives as a threat against which liberal democracy must defend, we foreclose questions of how apocalyptic narratives might function as a fantasy and a symptom responding to some fundamental conflict or antagonism characterizing contemporary social existence. Finally, third, the focus on the political impact of apocalyptic narratives tends to cover over questions of why these narratives have become so pervasive at this particular juncture of history.

While I am certainly not dismissing the danger that a politics based on apocalyptic narrative can pose, the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenarios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions of the present rather than others. As Lacan somewhere quips, “just because your wife is cheating on you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not paranoid.” That is, some of these narratives could possibly be true in the non-analytic sense, but we must nonetheless account for how they have come to so pervasively occupy the contemporary mind. How is it that we are to account for the ubiquity of these scenarios in popular imagination– An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room?

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we’re to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that,

Another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative– for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

We need not consider dreams of the first of these classes, for they have no claim to be regarded as ‘typical’. If we analyse them, we find that they have some meaning other than their apparent one, and that they are intended to conceal some other wish. Such was the dream of the aunt who saw her sister’s only son lying in his coffin. (p. 152) It did not mean that she wished her little nephew dead; as we have seen, it merely concealed a wish to see a particular person of whom she was fond and whom she had not met for a long time– a person whom she had once before met after a similarly long interval beside the coffin of another nephew. This wish, which was the true content of the dream, gave no occasion for grief, and no grief, therefore, was felt in the dream. (SE 4, 248)

No doubt this woman experienced some guilt for her desire for this man and therefore preferred to dream her nephew dead as an alibi of seeing him once again, rather than directly facing her desire. Indeed, in an earlier discussion of the same dream, Freud speaks of how the woman had a desire to suppress her wish to see this man, though he gives no indication as to why this is so. Could not a similar phenomenon be at work in apocalyptic scenarios? In short, Freud’s point is that we should look at horrifying manifest content such as this as enabling the fulfillment of some wish. My thesis here would be that whenever confronted with some horrifying scenario or fantasy that troubles the analysand’s minds or dreams, the analyst should treat it like a material conditional or “if/then” statement, seeking to determine what repressed wish or desire might become possible for the analysand were the scenario to occur (e.g., being fired would allow the analysand to pursue his true desire, the loss of a limb would allow the analysand to finally escape her father’s desire for her to play violin, etc).

According to Lacan, the primary function of fantasy is a defense against castration. By castration, we should not understand anything having to do with the penis. Rather, the castration that Lacan has in mind is the constitutive incompleteness of the Other, the fact that the Other is lacking and does not have the answer to the analysand’s problems or the solution that would finally yield satisfaction to the subject. Each of the subject-positions– neurosis, psychosis, and perversion –are different ways of negating this castration. Thus in the case of neurosis we have negation as repression of the Other’s castration or lack. The fundamental fantasy of the neurotic functions as a response to the traumatic enigma of the Other’s desire, giving him an answer to the question of what the Other wants of him. In the case of perversion, the castration of the Other is negated through disavowal, such that the pervert situates himself as having a knowledge of enjoyment and transforms himself into the object of the Other’s enjoyment. And finally, in the case of the psychotic, the castration of the Other is disavowed. This castration or constitutive incompleteness of the Other is what Lacan would later refer to as the “impossible-real”, and is the motor around which both symptom formation and fantasy are organized. As Lacan will say in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis with respect to neurosis, “…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (22). The symptom is what results from this gap and is an attempt on the part of the unconscious to recreate a harmony between the real and the symbolic through a symbolization of this real. The fantasy is the framework defining the manner in which the subject relates to the Other and the lack in the Other, modulating both his own jouissance and the jouissance of the Other.

Bearing the Lacanian theory of fantasy in mind, we can hypothesize that apocalyptic fantasies are a symptomatic response to the specific form of castration characterizing the social field– Namely, the fact that “society does not exist.” When thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek and Ernesto Laclau claim that “society does not exist”, their point is that the social field is riddled with antagonisms and conflicts in such a way that a harmoniously functioning society cannot be represented. The fact that we have various and conflicting theories of the social is itself a symptom of the antagonistic nature of the social or the way in which the social is organized around what Lacan calls an “impossible-real”. In this regard, apocalyptic fantasies can be seen as theories of both why society is failed and fantasies as to how this failure, this antagonism, might be surmounted once and for all. Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. That is, could not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have “given way on our desire” or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? These visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenarios, even if reduced to fundamentally primitive living conditions… a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement). As such, these fantasies serve the function of rendering our dissatisfaction tolerable (a dissatisfaction that mostly consists of boredom and a sense of being cheated), while fantasizing about an alternative that might someday come to save us, giving us opportunity to be heroic leaders and people struggling to survive rather than meaningless businessmen, civil servants, teachers, etc. Perhaps the real question with regard to this pessimism, then, is that of how the utopian yearnings underlying these representations and the antagonisms to which they respond might directly be put to work.

What is perhaps most interesting here is that these fantasies are organized precisely so as to preclude any engagement with directly transforming dissatisfying social conditions. Apocalypse always comes about through some sort of foreign, divine-like agency and instigates the collapse of the social field calling for people to rise up and heroically respond to these new social conditions and transform their social relations so as to produce a new people. The transformation of the social field is not to be undertaken by social subjects themselves. Perhaps here we encounter a bit of mourning with regard to the failure of previous revolutionary attempts that led to horror and unimaginable human suffering. Apocalypse could then be seen as the fantasy of revolution without revolution, of a foreign element that disrupts social life and creates ripe conditions for a reconfiguration of the social world, while allowing us to keep our hands clean of a violent revolutionary upheaval of society. At the level of logical syntax, apocalypse is experienced as the “if”, such that were it to occur, “then” society could be transformed and righted, freed of the antagonism that haunts it and perpetually upsets social relations. If apocalypse is simultaneously something that is both resisted and invited, then this is because on the one hand apocalypse promises the possibility of satisfaction, of a new society free of antagonism, while on the other hand it is threatening in that the actual occurrence of apocalypse might reveal castration in the sense that the old antagonisms would continue to persist. In describing the real, one of the aphorisms Lacan employs is that “the real is that which always returns to its place.” What must be defended against at the level of fantasy is the possibility that the real of social antagonism, the impossibility of a harmonious and satisfying fantasy, might return to its place in the post-apocalyptic order. The revolutionaries traversed their fantasy by bringing about the revolution, only to discover that post-revolutionary society continued to be pervaded by antagonism. By contrast, apocalyptic fantasy functions as an effective defense against this traumatic encounter with the real by perpetually holding open the possibility that apocalypse might occur, that it is right around the corner, while also rendering social transformation the result of an aleatory event sans intentional human engagement, that might never occur. It thus renders social life bearable by holding out the ever present possibility of another social organization, while perpetually deferring the disappointment that might come from fulfilling that desire.

When describing psychic fantasies, Freud argues that these fantasies are infantile theories concerning fundamental questions that admit of no ready answer for the infant. These questions are questions such as the question of origins (where did I come from?), the question of sexual difference, and the question of the sexual relation. Similarly, social fantasies and symptoms can be seen as implicit theories as to why the social has failed. Not surprisingly, there are both rightwing and leftwing variants of apocalyptic fantasy. This distinction is important as it gives insight into two competing theories as to just why the social has failed.

Rightwing variants of the social present the social world as a world that should be an organic and harmonious, but which is failed due to the invasion of some foreign force that disturbs this organic order. That is, as Carl Schmitt notes, it is the friend/enemy distinction that functions at the heart of the social relation and consolidates the community. The antagonisms the pervade society would be overcome were the enemy defeated. The film Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, presents an excellent example of this vision of social antagonism. Armageddon, of course, stages a scenario in which a planet-killing asteroid is hurdling towards earth. However, the real focus of the story should not be sought in the heroic acts of the crew saving the planet from the asteroid, but rather in the vision of the social world that it presents as the backdrop to the story. The film opens with Bruce Willis’ character hitting golf balls at a Greenpeace ship, protesting his ocean oil drilling operation (Joseph nicely brings this plot point to its point of explicit dialectical articulation, pointing out the irony of how it’s oil men who save the world, thereby indicating that the film implicitly suggests that environmentalists are pursuing a red herring like Don Quixote. Interestingly, The Day After Tomorrow was filmed by the same director). Willis mocks these activists for their hypocrisy, pointing out that their ship uses a tremendous amount of polluting diesel each hour that it’s at sea. There is a conflict between Affleck and Willis over his romantic involvement with his daughter. Willis had vowed that a “roughneck” would never marry his daughter, thus there is a paternal conflict between Affleck and Willis (Willis is symbolically Affleck’s father), and a conflict in the sexual relation, upsetting Affleck’s and Liv Tyler’s possibilities of getting together, thereby echoing Lacan’s thesis that “there is no sexual relation.” Willis’ crew consists of men who all violate the law in some way, who all have been in and out of trouble throughout their lives, but who nonetheless are competent and work hard. When Willis is summoned to the Whitehouse for advice on how to drill on the asteroid, he discovers that the government has both stolen his patent for the drilling device, and that they could not put it together correctly.

Recognizing that the government cannot do the job correctly, Willis and his crew agree to accompany the astronauts on their mission, but only on the condition that they never have to pay any taxes again, ever. Finally, when the crew successfully complete their mission, all nations of the world are united (behind America, of course), Affleck gets to be with Tyler, another crew member reunites with his wife and son, and yet another, a philanderer, marries a stripper, the woman of his dreams, and decides to have lots of children. Although apocalypse doesn’t occur in Armageddon (a very similar film where it does occur would be Independence Day or War of the Worlds), the threat of apocalypse and subsequent triumph over the alien invader renders the sexual relation possible, overcomes alienation with respect to the government, and unites all nations of the world. At the end of the film, for instance, there are moving scenes depicting people throughout the world cheering, children playing, the American flag, and so on as the asteroid explodes over the earth creating an awe-inspiring firework show, all depicting the newfound unity of all nations, and, certainly, the infinite debt of all other nations to the United States. Through the apocalyptic threat, the fundamental antagonisms of society are surmounted.

By contrast, leftwing apocalyptic fantasies inevitably represent the antagonism that disrupts society as being self-reflexive, which is to say, as a result of the actions of that society itself rather than a marauding outsider threatening the organic fabric from the outside. This would be the theme of films such as the Terminator and Matrix films, where we become victims of our own technology, or The Day After Tomorrow, where capitalism and industrialism conspire to destroy the planet. In the case of leftwing, apocalyptic narratives, it is not the outsider that upsets the organic, harmonious balance of society, but rather there is an internal excess at the heart of the social system itself, not unlike Lacan’s plus-de-jouier or surplus-jouissance, that perpetually drives the social to exceed its own limits as in the case of the drive of capital to perpetually produce new markets and profits, transforming even transgressions into forms of profit, or the drive of technology to perpetually develop itself. This surplus thus comes to be seen as a danger to the very continuance of the system itself as it threatens to explode it from within, destroying the identity of that social system.

This can be seen clearly in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, where unbridled pursuit of capital and exploitation of nature reach a tipping point that plunges the globe into new ice age, destroying civilization as we now know it. Indeed, when towards the beginning of the film, Quaid’s character, a passionate and self-sacrificing climate scientist, presents his thesis at a United Nations climate conference arguing that the emission of greenhouse gasses could lead to a new ice age, the vice president of the United States responds by pointing out that the global economy is every bit as fragile as the climate and that Quaid would do well to avoid making sensationalist claims that might adversely affect that economy. What we have here is a conflict between, on the one hand, knowledge as wisdom- I say “wisdom” as environmental knowledge is pitched as generating harmonious living with the planet –and the unbridled, vociferous pursuit of profit. This theme is confirmed in the director’s cut of the film, for as it turns out, the original version of the film contained a sub-plot in which the wealthy businessman who bribes the bus driver to escape the New York, right before the massive tidal flow that kills thousands (who, incidentally, is presented as a stereotypical Jew), is engaged in insider trading with the Japanese businessman who is killed by the softball sized bits of hail. In the original cut of the film, the Japanese business man was not talking to his worried wife on his cell phone, but rather to the American businessman, and was expressing fears that stock market watchdogs were suspicious of their activities. Further confirmation of this point is found in the fact that Gyllenhaal’s character finds refuge in the New York City library, where one of the librarians seeks to “save civilization” by rescuing a copy of the Gutenberg Bible that represents the birth of the Age of Reason as it was the first book printed by the printing press. What the film thus stages is the conflict between the unbridled pursuit of wealth, destructive of the environment, and wise, self-limiting reason, capable of living with the environment. As Quaid quips in response the Vice President’s incredulousness at the thought of evacuating everyone south of the Mason Dixon line, this would not have been necessary had the administration been willing to listen to his knowledge and council prior to the onset of the tipping point.

However, once again, we should not look to the central plot of survival during a major climate change, but rather to the background plots as a means of determining what the film is about. On the one hand, throughout the film there are themes of class division or class antagonisms. One of the central characters in the film is an African American homeless man and his dog, who are excluded from society to such an extent that he is even prevented from standing in doorways to keep out of the rain and is forbidden from standing with the other refugees in the New York library. This man eventually plays in important role in allowing the students and library staff to survive by teaching them how to protect themselves in cold weather conditions and identifying dangerous forms of sickness. The theme of class antagonism is repeated in the romantic conflict between Gyllenhaal and Nichols’ character over the young woman played by Rossum. Nichols attends classes at an elite private school and is born into wealth. It is clear that early in the film he captures Rossum’s eye, as she is impressed with his school and wealth. Gyllenhaal’s character is a shy young man that comes from an ordinary middle class background. However, it is also clear that he is the better of the two men. Not only is Gyllenhaal’s character exceedingly intelligent- he’s able to solve differential equations in his head without doing the work on paper –but later he becomes the leader of the group, engaging in all sorts of heroic acts. The global storm gives Gyllenhaal’s character the opportunity to rise to the occasion, revealing his true essence as a confident and heroic man, thereby earning the love of Rossum’s character and surmounting the false value system of class and economics. Additionally, Gyllenhaal earns the respect and admiration of Nichols’ character, and the black homeless man becomes a part of the group. Finally, the divide between the third world and the first world is erased, as the third world countries house the displaced refugees of the world. In addition to these themes of class antagonism, Quaid’s character’s relationship to his wife is in shambles due to his passionate commitment to environmental science, that takes him far away from home for long stretches of time on research expeditions to save the world. It is not that he does not love his wife, but rather that he has a higher moral duty to saving the world. This estrangement is reflected elsewhere in the film by a strained relationship with his son as well. At one point in the film, his son tells Rossum’s character that his happiest vacation was a research trip where it rained the whole time, preventing his father from doing his work and allowing the two of them to spend time together. At another point in the film, his wife chastises him for believing it more important to save the world than be a father to his son. Indeed, he arrives late to take his son to the airport for his trip to New York, reflecting the manner in which his son comes second. However, when the storms come, Quaid is finally freed from his obsessive commitment to saving the world, and treks from Washington to New York, mostly on foot, in extremely poor weather conditions to save his son. This act has the effect of healing his relationship with both his wife and son. Apocalypse is thus seen in this instance as rendering the sexual relationship possible, healing the wound of kinship relations upset by Oedipal antagonisms, and abolishing class antagonism.

In both of these cases we are presented with a theory as to why society fails and how this failure might be surmounted, providing us, at last, with our lost jouissance. Both rightwing and leftwing apocalyptic scenarios, religious or secular, present us with a theory as to why jouissance is absent from the social field. However, what if this absence of jouissance, this antagonism at the heart of the society, is not a contingent feature of the social resulting from the alien that disrupts the polis or the excesses of the members of the polis who fail to heed the wisdom of those who know? What if this antagonism is constitutive of the social itself? In the Science of Logic discussion of the category of “something” in the Doctrine of Being, Hegel argues that something can only distinguish and define its identity against the other. In order for there to be a valley, there must be hills. According to Hegel, every identity relies on the logic of the boundary or limit, grenze, that is neither inside the something, nor outside the something. As such, from the Hegelian perspective, the outside is a constitutive feature of the inside and the inside is a constitutive feature of the outside as the limit or boundary is a necessary condition for both the identity of the outside and the inside. Put in the language of semiotics, identity is diacritical in the sense that it can only define itself as identical in terms of what it is not (for more on this, see here and here). The consequence of this diacritics of identity is that identity is inherently unstable and precarious, riddled by antagonism, as a result of the manner in which it must perpetually refer to an other to define itself. Insofar as a social system strives to define itself as an identity, it is thus necessarily subject to this dialectic, which would be one of the meanings of the real of the social or the aphorism “society does not exist”. If society does not exist then this is because it is subject to the logic of the boundary or limit, thereby perpetually encountering its own undoing and inner antagonism. Rightwing and leftwing apocalyptic fantasies are two ways of trying to heal this constitutive wound, or antagonism at the heart of the identical: The first by striving to destroy the other that would destroy itself (as the boundary would thus be erased), the second by seeing a fundamental disequilibrium inside the heart of the social itself and trying to surmount this antagonism which would, again, lead to its demise by leaving it without an identity to distinguish itself. Yet, as Hegel shows in demonstrating how this dialectic culminates in “bad infinity” or the endless repetition of an operation without reaching completion, this antagonism never resolves itself.

When discussing the shift from desire to drive that takes place when traversing the fantasy at the end of analysis, Lacan suggests that the subject of desire is embroiled in fantasy in the sense that he or she believes that a final end state will be reached where satisfaction will be achieved. The subject of desire believes that jouissance exists. Along these lines, Zizek relates the vulgar joke of a man learning how to have sex for the very first time. First the woman tells him to put it in, then she tells him to pull it out, then she tells him to put it in, and so on. At a certain point the man explodes in exasperation, demanding that the woman make up her mind. This is the subject of desire who believes that one or the other option is the true one. By contrast, the subject of drive is that subject that finds jouissance in the failed repetition of the act itself. Apocalyptic fantasies in both their secular and religious, leftwing and rightwing forms, indicate, in a profound way, that the space of the present has withdrawn where social action is concerned, such that the space of the living present is no longer seen as a space where action and change are possible. This is not such a surprise for today, more than ever, we seem subject to forces beyond our control such as global market forces that generate layoffs from corporate positions every few years and a sense that workers are entirely powerless in the face of the market. Is it any surprise that religious apocalyptic thought and Stoic peace of mind today seem to be the only feasible options? Change is here seen as something that resides only in the future, and as something that can only result from some alien force such as the invader or the unintended consequences of our own actions. In this regard, the subject of apocalyptic fantasies is the subject of desire. The question suggested by apocalyptic fantasies is that of how we might shift from being subjects of desire to subjects of drive, giving up on fantasies of total social transformation where antagonism might be eradicated once and for all, such that an actionable space of the present (to use a word drawn from the Administration) might be redeemed.

A colleague of mine alerted me to this interview with Chris Hedges, author of American Fascism, which discusses the danger of far right extremist fundamentalist movements. Of particular interest, I think, is his focus on the relationship between economic woes and growing economic anxiety, and the emergence of these apocalyptic movements, which I find to be both an interesting and important observation:

In the beginning of the book, you write briefly about covering wars in Latin America, the Middle East and the Balkans. How did that shape the way you understand these social forces in America? What similarities do you see?

When I covered the war in the Balkans, there was always the canard that this was a war about ancient ethnic hatreds that was taken from Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts.” That was not a war about ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a war that was fueled primarily by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia. Milosevic and Tudman, and to a lesser extent Izetbegovic, would not have been possible in a stable Yugoslavia.

When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.

People have a very hard time believing the status quo of their existence, or the world around them, can ever change. There’s a kind of psychological inability to accept how fragile open societies are. When I was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, at the start of the war, I would meet with incredibly well-educated, multilingual Kosovar Albanian friends in the cafes. I would tell them that in the countryside there were armed groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who I’d met, and they would insist that the Kosovo Liberation Army didn’t exist, that it was just a creation of the Serb police to justify repression.

You saw the same thing in the cafe society in Sarajevo on the eve of the war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic or even Milosevic were buffoonish figures to most Yugoslavs, and were therefore, especially among the educated elite, never taken seriously. There was a kind of blindness caused by their intellectual snobbery, their inability to understand what was happening. I think we have the same experience here. Those of us in New York, Boston, San Francisco or some of these urban pockets don’t understand how radically changed our country is, don’t understand the appeal of these buffoonish figures to tens of millions of Americans.

As I argue in the conclusion to my recent paper on apocalypticism, the central feature of apocalyptic narratives seems to be that they present the time of action as deferred, as if we are powerless in the present, unable to do anything now to transform our social conditions as the forces of capital are too strong to be resisted and fought against. The time of the now, of the present, has disappeared. Or, put otherwise, the present no longer appears as an actable space. The middle class worker working for the corporation encounters lay-offs every few years as a result of stockholder decisions, shifts in global economy that require downsizing, and changes in technology, making them much like the Stoic slave Epictetus who can only endure his fate and turn inward, rather than change life under empire. So too with lower class workers who increasingly find themselves in competition with outsourcing and technologies that render their jobs obselete. This echoes, Poetix’s, K-Punk’s, and Jodi Dean’s thesis that today it is impossible to imagine a beyond or alternative to life under contemporary global capitalism. Fundamentalist apocalyptic narratives become powerfully attractive under such conditions, as they promise the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world where these antagonisms are resolved and the disruption at the heart of the social is finally pacified. The problem, of course, is that in being seduced by these narratives, the followers are led to endorse a number of other downright frightening things at the level of policy… Policies that are often directly against their own self-interests.

It seems to me that an element commonly missing from these discussions is the role played by the contemporary hegemony of the “discourse of the victim”. One of the uncanny points of identity between both left and right is the primacy of victim discourses as the only authentic position from which to formulate an ethics and politics. Thus we have victimhood as minority status on the left, and the perceived persecution of Christians and white heterosexual males as the dominant trope on the right. One question worth asking is why politics must today take the form of a discourse of the victim. I haven’t come up with any answers to this question, yet it does seem that “being-a-victim” confers one a minimal ontologically substantiality or identity in a world where identity has progressively been virtualized and rendered precarious by the collapse of the big Other. The dangers of rightwing discourses of the victim are, I think, readily apparent in terms of the sorts of action they thereby authorize.

The entire interview can be read for free if you watch and advertisement.

A scathing critique of religion from Sam Harris in response to Andrew Sullivan. Worth the read.

Via Dr. X’s Free Associations

This weekend I’ll be in Las Vegas for the 19th annual Far West Popular and American Cultural Association Conference, where I’m presenting a paper entitled:

Enjoy Your Apocalypse! Apocalyptic Fantasies, Jouissance, and
Social Symtpoms in Life Under Post-Industrial Capitalism

Basically I’ll be engaging in a lame analysis of how apocalyptic narratives are ciphers for the subject’s relationship to the impossible-real of society, to the fact that society doesn’t exist, envisioning the possibility of surmounting this real through a collapse of the current social configuration. Through an analysis of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow, I hope to show the structure at work in rightwing and leftwing versions of this fantasy, where in the former apocalypse results from the alien outsider or invader (the meteor hurtling towards earth) such that defeating this invader allows society to reallign itself in terms of an organic community no longer beset upon by intrusive government or misguided liberals (the film begins with Bruce Willis hitting golfballs at a Greenpeace boat protesting his oil drilling); whereas in the latter apocalypse results from the self-reflexivity of the social where our own acts lead to our destruction (thus films such as Terminator, the Matrix, and I, Robot belong to this genre as well), and the apocalypse functions to overcome nationalistic and ethnic tensions (the famous celebration scene in the third Matrix film, Mexico hosting U.S. citizens in The Day After Tomorrow), and re-establish familial and sexual bonds. K-Punk has argued that the films I describe as apocalyptic are, in fact, survivalist. However, I would argue that all apocalyptic narratives are survivalist, in that they all envision a form of post-apocalyptic subjectivity that now lives in peace, prosperity, and harmony. For instance, in many Christian apocalyptic narratives, a thousand years of peace are said to follow the final battle between good and evil or Christ and Satan.

Ultimately I would like to end with a brief discussion of Zizek’s parallax, arguing that what these films represent is the impossibility of the social itself, or, rather, that the social is not one or the other (communitarian organic bonds versus collections of autonomous and self-determining individuals), but rather the very tension between these two conceptions of the social. Somewhere in there I plan to plug our discussions here in the academic blogosphere, but I really won’t have the time or space to develop them as they should be developed.

Generally, I don’t like to present at these sorts of conferences as I always feel a bit silly in my pop-cultural analyses, always finding them a bit facile (K-Punk, Jodi Dean, and Foucaultisdead are far better at this sort of thing), and feeling more at home in the arid world of theory. But a friend asked me to be on his panel and it’s a chance to see Las Vegas, which I’ve never before visited. At any rate, I probably won’t have much time to write over the next couple of days as I’m busily pulling all this together at the last minute. If any of you happen to be at this conference, drop by and have a gander. Our panel is entitled “Religious Appeal(s)” and is at 1:45 on Saturday… My paper was originally entitled “Secular Theologies” and I was going to argue that certain forms of religion are a structure of thought (it’s necessary for me to defer to Anthony Paul Smith’s claim that religion is not a univocal concept or that religion does not exist), not a set of ontological commitments to the divine, but rudely changed the topic at the last minute.

In the meantime, N.Pepperell has written a beautiful and challenging summation of where we’re at in our ongoing dialogue over at Rough Theory, that is well worth the read. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this when I return. Siren’s song indeed. I’d much rather be thinking of those issues than working on this paper.

* Picture shamelessly filched from K-Punks blog. My friend Melanie tells me that people like visual aids. The Platonist in me recoils.

I hate people who use the term “kafkaesque”, but I simply don’t know how else to describe the sort of jouissance embodied in this little nugget in a post entitled “Liberals ARE Patriotic” that I came across over at R*dst*te (I would link to the original article, but having witnessed the moderators of this blog go after academics and those with whom they disagree by posting personal information and contacting employers, I simply don’t want any attention from them). Trying to be “reasonable” by explaining how liberals conceptualize patriotism (rather than dismissing them outright as being unpatriotic… why this should be a criteria for involvement in political discourse is beyond me), the author presents the following list of democratic beliefs:

  • Liberal Ideals…

    * It is the job of the Federal Government to bring both order and fairness to society.
    Every demographic group has a right to an equal outcome.
    * Every person has the right to a living wage, to quality healthcare and to a comfortable retirement.
    * It is the responsibility of the Federal Government to take the measures it deems necessary to insure equality of outcomes.
    * Every individual has the right to live their lives without interference from other groups within the society, except where the Federal Government determines such interference is necessary in order to assure equal outcomes.
    * We must respect the right of every other nation to order their society in a way that seems right to them and we have no right, and certainly no obligation, to impose any set of “values” on another group of people.
    * The sole purpose of “diplomacy” is to understand the motivation and values of other societies and to find ways to accommodate them in order to live peacefully.
    We are just one member of the Community of Nations that make up the World.
    * All conflicts between nations must be decided by an independent third party who can rule on the issues between the various States in a manner that will best serve all States. The appropriate channels for resolution of disputes would be the United Nations and/or the World Court.
    * No nation has the right to act in their own “national interest” when such action does perceived harm to another nation’s “national interest”. In such cases, the dispute must be resolved by the UN or WC.

  • Conservative Ideals…

    * The fundamental job of the Federal Government is to protect national security.
    * Every individual should have equal opportunity based on their individual abilities.
    The Federal Government has no responsibility or inherent right to equalize outcomes or to economically provide for individuals.
    * The Federal Government should seek to implement policies which promote and reward the values of individualism and entrepreneurship.
    * It is the responsibility of individuals within the society to order their own lives and to determine how society shall be ordered.
    * In all dealings with other nations, the Federal Government must first consider the national interest of the people of this country.
    * The Federal Government must never submit to an independent third party in dispute resolution where such resolution is not in the national interest of this country.
    * A strong and effective military, and the willingness to use it, are critical to our national interest and our national survival.

Having read this author for a few years now, he’s genuinely trying to understand the liberal perspective in this post and is trying to give an accurate representation of what those on the left believe. This comparison is not intended as a parody, nor is it an intentional distortion of leftist positions.

If I’m led to describe his portrayal of liberal ideals as “kafkaesque”, then this is because the literature of Kafka always represents bureaucracy in a distorted and larger than life form, where the faces of the various functionaries are elongated and twisted in different ways, where the ledgers of the law contain pornographic pictures, where speech is incomprehensible, etc. What Kafka manages to capture is the phantasmatic dimension unconsciously underlying the subject’s relationship to bureaucratic mechanisms, where institutions are experienced as all powerful, impersonal, machines relating to the subject as objects of its jouissance. Here the bureaucracy doesn’t have the subject fill out this or that form that must then be taken to this or that office, only to be faced with filling out another form, for some pragmatic reason, but precisely because this machine draws jouissance from relating to me in this way, from making me jump through these hurdles. Similarly, when I go to the department of motor vehicles to renew my license, I am not made to wait in a long line because the process is technically slow, but rather just because the institution enjoys making me wait in long lines and exerting its control over me.

This is the dimension of fantasy as it relates to bureaucracy. I might very well know that forms take a long time to process and that the department of motor vehicles lacks the funding to upgrade its computers to speed up the process, but at the level of my unconscious experience of the institution, I cannot help but believe that the institution draws sadistic enjoyment from making me wait in this way, that the forms are purposefully designed to be confusing and misleading, that I am purposefully being made to feel that I am nothing, that I am a mere subject of the instutition’s power, with no power of my own. Try as I might to rationalize why the line is moving so slow, when I finally get before the civil servant I can’t help but be short and irritable, unable to shake myself of the belief that somehow he’s enjoying the time I lost standing in line for hours and my confused anxiety over whether or not I filled out the paperwork correctly. Unconsciously I feel like Schreber in relation to God… A subject of God’s sadistic jouissance, where God himself is completely unaware that I am a subject or have thoughts.

The structure of how this conservative experiences liberals is akin to the sort of phantasmatic universe described by Kafka. Moreover, this experience of liberals isn’t confined to the author of the post, but is echoed by a number of other conservatives that frequent the site. On the one hand, all of the ideals listed under conservatives are ideals of autonomy, where the agent retains his own freedoms and ability to determine his life, while others aren’t given advantages that they do not deserve and have not earned. On the other hand, all the ideals listed under liberals are premised on relinquishing others of their autonomy, outrightly humiliating Americans (the attitude of liberals towards the United States is portrayed as one of inherent guilt), and on unjustly giving others benefits and advantages they don’t deserve. Note, for instance, how equality is somehow shifted to equality of outcome such that liberals are saddled with the belief that no one can achieve more than others, and how they are portrayed as advocating the view that everyone should be comfortable without any work. Liberals are thus portrayed as stealing the enjoyment of those who have worked hard and of enjoying the manner in which they humiliate hard workers and the United States (as can be seen in the discussion of the role to be played by the United Nations).

What’s interesting here is that a number of self-identified liberals spoke up, criticizing this list, and pointing out the many ways in which it is inaccurate, but even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, the conservative defenders of the list said “This list is not about you, but those you support. The description is true even if it doesn’t fit you.” Thus, like Sade’s heroines, liberal jouissance is understood to remain identical and eternal in all possible universes, even when faced with counter-examples. Just as Sade’s heroines can endure the most abusive tortures and retain all their beauty– thereby marking a distinction between the sublime object of desire and its material embodiment –there’s a sublime figure of the liberal that all liberals contain even when they say otherwise.

Like Kafka’s universe, it must be horrible to live in a universe where one experiences oneself as perpetually having to defend against this theft of enjoyment. Two questions jump out to me: First, what kind of rhetorical gesture, what sort of dialogue, can target this sort of phantasmatic jouissance? It is clear that ordinary rational means of communication are impotent when faced with such fantasies as protestations to the contrary always fall on deaf ears. Second, what is it that produces such a phantasmatic experience? What unconscious deadlocks, what social antagonisms, lead one to believe something like what is stated above? What defensive function does this fantasy serve and how does it function to prolong and sustain desire?

This piece was written as a more generalized companion piece to Social Sciences and Apres Coup. It suffers from granting too much privilege to the symbolic, to the detriment of the subject and the real, which is inevitable given the manner in which it relies so heavily on Seminars 4-6. However, I think there is much here that is worthwhile and that continues to be relevant to questions of reflexivity and symbolic systems.

The Absent Third

It is a central thesis of Lacanian psychoanalysis that there can be no desire that is not supported by the letter (L’identification, Seminar 9, 6.12.61). Of course, Lacan’s concept of the letter will undergo a substantial evolution between 1961 and the seventies, but at this point in his development, we can simply treat the letter as the signifier. It is this special relationship between desire and language that differentiates desire from need. For if desire is different than need, then this is because desire is a relationship to an absence that can never become present. Where the privation encountered in need can be satiated and filled, desire desires only to desire. Desire maintains itself in its desire in such a way as to actively flee placing itself in a situation in which it could finally satisfy or complete itself. Here we might think of the way in which Bill Gates continuously accumulates money. It is clear that Gates’ relationship to money long ago ceased being a relationship of need. There is no amount of money that would ever satisfy Gates. Rather, we here have a ravenous desire with a limitless appetite. Gates seems to be seeking something quite different than money in his pursuit of money. Gates searches for the objet a “in” or “behind” the money. What this is could only be discerned in the course of an analysis. None of this is meant as a moral critique of Bill Gates. Desire, for everyone, is always this way. Desire is always singular and limitless.

If desire has a special relationship with the letter, then this is because only the letter sustains the possibility of absence. In order to understand this, it is first necessary to understand something of the Freudian conception of the wish. In his opus The Intepretation of Dreams, Freud had contendend that in addition to the manner in which the dream functions as a wish-fulfillment of a latent dream thought, the dream is also the expression of an eternal infantile wish around which the subject’s entire psychic life is organized. Freud is very mysterious as to the nature of this wish or how we might go about discovering it, but we can see that Lacan’s account of desire is designed to respond precisely to this question. If desire, the eternal infantile wish, can only be supported by the signifier, then this is because only the signifier can support an eternal wish. Only the signifier is capable of preserving something in its absence and through the infinite variations (substitutions) that desire undergoes in passing through its myriad substitute objects (the endless metonymy of desire).

This marks an essential difference between need and desire. There is no such thing as an eternal and persistant need, because a need disappears the moment it is satisfied. By constrast, a desire persists even when it appears to be satisfied by its object. This is the truth of the anorexic. The anorexic is the one who refuses to eat because she literally eats nothing… Which is to say the desire of the Other. The anorexic knows the manner in which food is caught up in those relations of desire belonging to the Other and seeks to express the real object of her desire or this lack embodied in the Other. She shows the difference between the demanded food (or demand to eat) and the response to the demand as an expression of love. In not eating, she symptomatically attenuates the manner in which eating itself is an expression of desire insofar as desire is the desire of the Other (the first moment of this desire being witnessed in the mother’s demand that the infant sup at her breast).

Desire thus shares a special relationship to lack or absence that is sustained through the instance of the letter. This allows us to give a very precise definition to the notion of a “complex”. A complex is a structure of desire insofar as it is sustained by a set of relations among letters. It is because something has a place that it can be missing from its place. However, having a place is a symbolic function or a function of the letter. The number on the spine of a library book marks its place within the library. This number is a letter in the Lacanian sense. If, then, desire can only be sustained by the letter, then this is because language produces the possibility of an absence or lack around which desire might circulate.

Thus we encounter one of the ways of distinguishing between reality and the real. According to the definition of the real Lacan provides in his earliest seminars, the real is that which is without lack or fissure. Another way of saying this would be to say that the real is an absolute plentitude in which nothing is out of place (since it has no place to which it belongs). At the level of the real a book can never be missing from its place because a book just always is where it is. By contrast, reality is defined by the system of places and positions inaugurated by the signifier in which lack and absence become possible. It is for this reason that Lacan claims that reality is not the real. Reality is a symbolic structure, while the real (at this point in his career) is that which is anterior to all symbolic structuration. If it is claimed that the world is a trace of language rather than language a trace of the world, this is not an idealist statement that is meant to suggest that somehow language creates matter, the planet earth, etc., but is simply the thesis that the organized experience we rely upon on a day to day basis is made possible through the agency of language that imposes an organization upon the world. Here “world” must not be thought of as the ontic object or entity “earth”, but must be thought as Heidegger thinks it as the manner in which our experience is characterized by significance, meaning or sense.

Here Deleuze, contrary to the belief of some of his enthusiasts, is thoroughly consistent with Lacan. In his masterpiece, Difference and Repetition, Deleuze argues that lack isn’t a primary term, but rather all lack is based on a prior affirmation. Lacan does not disagree with this. In order for lack to be possible, says Lacan, there must a symbolic code or network defining a system of places from which something might be lacking or out of place. This symbolic system or language is thus the affirmation upon which lack is founded.

What, then, is it about the relationship between desire and the letter that leads Lacan to claim that desire is forever cuckold by language or that the relationship between the organism and its umwelt is forever off kilter as a result of the intervention of the signifier? A man is cuckold when his wife cheats on him with another man. The wife, who is the object of his desire insofar as she is thought to return his desire, instead has a desire that lies elsewhere. Consequently, completing the analysis of the metaphor, language is to the wife as desire is to the husband. In other words, there is something about the nature of my desire that is out of step with what I seem to desire. My desire, in its dependency on language, serves ends other than those I think it serves.

There can be little doubt that Lacan’s little formulas often look like Zen koans, representing a paradox of thought which is impossible to resolve. So long as we think of language as a tool for communication, it is impossible to understand what Lacan could possibly mean by his suggestion that desire is cuckold by language. In fact, if we think of language as a mere tool used to represent our mental or psychic states, then Lacan’s entire psychoanalysis must appear completely mysterious and absurd. For this reason it is helpful to resort to analogies and metaphors to better help us locate or develop a vision of various regions of our experience that might be overlooked or ignored. Like all analogies, these analogies fail to be complete, but they have the benefit of allowing us to see something that we might not have seen before. In this respect, the relationship between a game player and an arcade game provides a nice analogy for understanding what Lacan has in mind.

When I play an arcade game such as Mortal Combat, I, the player, experience myself as simulating some great warrior (usually someone versed in martial arts or possessing a great expertise with weapons like battle axes and swords) thrown into competition with other warriors (often gorgeous, scantily clad women that are nonetheless deadly). The game provides an entire virtual space in which my virtual body is capable of things that my real body is not and in which I am allowed to do things that I would never do in day to day life. Video games give us a perfect way of thinking about the relationship between subject and object. Here the player is the subject, while all that unfolds on the screen can be understood as the object. In playing the game, the would-be warrior’s experience is thus organized in terms of a specific set of desires: namely, the desire to beat his opponent, advance levels, gain prizes and increase in strength and power, etc. Desire is thought of as what appears on the screen.

This is exactly how we tend to think of our desire in day to day life. When we speak of desire, we are speaking of either those things we want or those persons towards whom our amorous favours are directed. My desire is a desire for this or that car, for this or that book, for these clothes, etc. Similarly it is this or that person I desire or I am unsure whether I am desired by that person and so on. Just as my desire is directed towards objects and persons in day to day life, my desire is directed towards acquisition and gaining power in the realm of arcade games.

Lacan does not deny the thesis that our desire alights on objects and persons– in fact, Lacan, in seminar 5, Les formations de l’inconscient, claims that we can only arrive at knowledge of desire by tracing the metonymical shards of the object; which is to say, the manner in which desire endlessly dances from one object to the next –but complicates this thesis in a decisive and far reaching fashion. Amusingly, it is the arcade game that allows us to see this other dimension of desire that Lacan has in mind when he claims that desire is cuckold by language.

What the naive relationship to the arcade game fails to take into account is the manner in which the programming of the game moulds and structures the relationship of the player to the game. The programming of the game is the absent third mediating between the player and the events that take place in the game. As the player plays the game, all of his attention is directed towards the events taking place on the screen and the goals that he has set for himself. However, without the programming or that massive system of zero’s and one’s, the game would not take place at all.

I am not here suggesting that we need to give more respect to programmers. Rather, I am seeking to underline an analogy between the symbolic order, language or the big Other and the programming that renders the relationship of the gamer to the game possible. One feature of the programming is that it is invisible while I play the game. I do not see the zero’s and one’s or lines of code involved in the game while playing the game. These lines of code are all there, but hidden such that they seem to be taking place in another scene. When Zizek claims that the unconscious is the form of thought that is external to thought who’s ontological status is not that of thought itself, he has something like this in mind. The programming is not the actual thought of the player, but the exterior form in which that thought has to be expressed in order for the game to be played. Thus, while the player is directed towards the events on the screen, he fails to see the manner in which these events and the goals that drive his relationship to these events, are molded by the invisible code working in the background. This code or program is neither a property of the mental life of the subject (the game player) nor the events taking place in this specific instance on the screen (the object), but that which mediates and enables the relationship between the subject and object.

Perhaps the most important feature of the program as it relates to Lacan’s concept of the big Other or the symbolic order is that it cannot be changed by playing the game. No matter how poorly or how well I play Mortal Combat (and presumably I play pretty poorly), the outcome of my game fails to modify the programming of the game itself. The programming of the game remains exactly as it was before after each instance of playing the game.

This, then, gives us a glimpse of what Lacan has in mind when he claims that desire is cuckold by language. From the standpoint of my conscious experience as a subject, I naively experience my desire as being a direct relationship to an object or the other person. I fail to see the manner in which my desire is caught up in the “programming” of the culture I live in, embodied in language. I fail to see that third that intervenes between me and the object. Consequently, in pursuing my desire I am really pursuing something else. And this is unavoidable, for insofar as desire only comes into being through the intervention of language in the life of the subject, it follows that there can be no desire independent of language. Language is the absent third that mediates and informs all of my desire.

We can thus see the seriousness of Lacan’s conception of desire as it applies to our individual lives and social struggle. For if playing the game (i.e., myopically fixating on the object of my desire) leaves the nature of the game unchanged, social struggles that fixate on some particular object are doomed in their possibility of effecting real social change. If I kill the king, this might make for better social conditions under the new king, but it is still a fact that I’m playing the same game and continue to live under a Monarch. Killing the king does not get rid of the position of the king. The only real object of political struggle should be the code itself or the symbolic Order, the system of language, that informs and structures our relations to ourselves and others. But if such struggle is to be possible, then it is necessary that we become aware of that absent third, or the discourse of the Other which functions as the social unconscious.

The brilliant Foucaultisdead and I have been having an interesting conversation surrounding asperger’s syndrom and my recent remarks on the symptom that reminded me of this piece I wrote a number of years ago surrounding concerns about how diagnosis functions in contemporary American clinical contexts. In response to his call take opportunities to make Lacanian psychoanalysis more available to the mainstream media and lay public, I wrote a rant worthy of my recent mood, that reminded me of this piece:

I tend to be a bit more pessimistic about what is easy from the standpoint of the mainstream media and lay people, as it seems to me that a good deal of the contemporary constellation in the United States where therapy is concerned is premised on the complete eradication of the subject from discourse. From the side of the various therapeutic orientations, not only do we have the vested economic interests of insurance companies that would like to see the minimization of lengthy costly treatment through medication and a set number of consultations (usually around twelve, sometimes more though at a frequency of every two weeks to every month), but also the rise of the predominance of the discourse of the university where every patient must be neatly subsumable in a diagnostic category in advance such that there are no surprises (hence the DSM-IV, which is largely for the benefit of insurance companies, not practitioners).

On the side of those seeking treatment, the growing collapse of various identities due to globalization in economics and media technologies and the continued crumbling of the big Other, has led to a corresponding increase in symptoms of hysteria such as anxiety disorders, as well as omnipresent depression (what’s being mourned here?). As a result, rather than a discovery of oneself as a subject as in analysis, therapy– which I always distinguish from analysis –has precipitated the search for a master capable of naming the subject, thereby guaranteeing a minimal ontological substantiality. The new names of the subject are strange indeed: Borderline, depressive, schizoid, dissociative, panic, etc. In being given these names– the name of the symptom here always comes from the guru therapist, and is not an act of self-naming with respect to the symptom as in the case of analysis… One wonders why the therapist feels compelled to diagnose at all –the patient assumes a minimal identity.

Or to put it a bit differently, one wonders why it isn’t more widely recognized and thought about that nomination or diagnosis is not simply descriptive of a pathology, but also is performatively formative of identity for the patient that then identifies with the nomination and takes it as a descriptor of his being. Addiction becomes all the more powerful in *nominating* myself as an addict, for instance; and, of course, we can recognize the performative and ritual aspects of this performativity in 12 Step programs where the first step is “admitting you have a problem”, i.e., agreeing to nominate yourself and bring a certain identity into being, thereby positing the Other or making it exist at one and the same time (it’s not a mistake that one of the steps consists in placing oneself in the hands of a higher power).

Although they have no idea what they are in their day to day interpersonal relations (how could they in a world where there are layoffs every couple of years, where family relations continously crumble, where relationships are virtual, and where ethnic and national identities progressively recede) their new name as “depressive”, “anxious”, “dissociative”, “borderline”, etc gives them an identity, a *knowledge* (in the imaginary), of who they are that then serves both as a self-reinforcing feedback loop (the patient must enact the identity and begins to read up on their “disorder” in the self-help section to play the role and disover who they are), and a new set of rights and protocols surrounding victimhood in their interpersonal relations. These are unheard of nominations that have come to replace the older and failing nominations like family names, national names (American, German, French, English, etc), and ethnic names (Jew, Catholic, and so on…), and therefore provide the new ideal ego (for the ego ideal of the therapist’s gaze) of a very peculiar sort.

All of this functions as a massive defense formation against the void and singularity of their unconscious and the way in which life in contemporary capital calls for us to give way on our desire. The focus on the subject has always been what has guaranteed psychoanalysis the status of a “ghetto science” and has always invited a sense of defensive horror. “What, no master to name me or university to categorize me? What, an auto-elective nomination? Gasp!” As Kurtz says at the end of Apocalypse Now, “The Horror! The Horror!”

Although I’m not entirely sure that my argument fully holds up in terms of more recent developments in my thinking about psychoanalysis, I think much of it remains solid. I believe this post also converges with some of N.Pepperell’s thoughts on self-reflexivity and critique. Hopefully others will find it of some interest. I’m really rather shocked that no one has written a Foucaultian style analysis of the history of the DSM-IV and how it’s used in Anglo-American clinical contexts. Without further ado:

Social Sciences and Apres Coup

There can be little doubt that the division between hard and soft sciences functions as an unbridgeable chasm defining the division between objectivity and subjectivity for conventional wisdom. The standard rap seems to be that hard sciences are able to present an impartial view of the phenomena they seek to describe, whereas soft sciences (the human sciences) are unable to objectively represent their phenomena due to the inherent complexity of what they seek to describe. In other words, the human science are thought to contain too many variables, to be too complex, to be properly described.

No doubt there is a measure of truth in this evaluation, but, as is so often the case with conventional wisdom, this point is true for the wrong reasons. The standard fantasy underlying the opposition between hard and soft sciences is the thesis that these sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, history, etc.) are themselves ultimately reducible to the principles of the hard sciences, but have not yet been reduced by virtue of our inability to pierce the complex set of variables involved in these phenomena. Thus we look to fields like neuroscience and the field of genetics as possibly offering us the bridge through which social phenomena will finally be reducible to physical phenomena.

The dream is that someday all psychic phenomena will be reducible to brain events and interpretable in terms of electro-chemical reactions. This has already had a tremendous impact on both psychological theory and practice, where mental disorders are regularly reduced to certain electro-chemical profiles in the brain and treated through various chemical cocktails. This approach is regularly supported through observations of the brains of people suffering from these disorders, coupled with studies of families in which these disorders appear.

Two points should be made at this juncture: First, patients suffering from disorders such as obsessional neurosis, psychosis, depression and whatever other illness we might like to cite will show certain electro-chemical profiles in their brain. The person influenced by psychoanalysis should not be ashamed of admitting this point. Though, as we shall see, it should be admitted with reservations. Second, it is likely that in many of these cases certain mental disorders will appear consistently in the families of those suffering from these disorders. Psychoanalysis should unabashedly admit both of these points.

However, as is so often the case, the problems with the physicalist approach to the study of human phenomena are to be found at the level of certain fundamental theoretical assumptions that are not philosophically or theoretically sound. In short, physicalist psychology and the therapeutic practice that accompanies it is based on a fundamental confusion surrounding the notion of causality and how it functions in the field of social phenomena.

Here– deviating a bit from Lacan’s analysis of causality as it functions in psychoanalysis (“Science and Truth”), though not disagreeing with him –we might say that physicalist psychology confuses what Aristotle called “material causality” with what he called “efficient causality”. For Aristotle, the material cause of something consists of the substance that thing is made of. Thus, for instance, the material cause of a statue might be the bronze of which it is fashioned. By contrast, the efficient cause of something is that by which the thing comes to be. In the case of the statue, the efficient cause would be the artist who fashioned the statue.

The problem with physicalist psychology is that it treats the material cause (the brain, genetics) as if it were the efficient cause of mental disorders and then proceeds to treat the material cause rather than the psychic structure itself. If this approach is mistaken, it is mistaken first because the simple presence of an electro-chemical profile in the brain is not enough to establish that the brain is the cause of the mental disorder. All we have established here is that all psychic phenomena require an inscription of some sort. This does not establish the origin of the inscription. Assuming that we adopt some sort of materialist ontology (in other words, that we reject any mind/body dualism), it should come as no surprise that any psychic phenomena will express itself as a trace in the brain. But this is not enough to establish that the brain is the cause of the mental disorder, only that the mental disorder is inscribed, as it were, in the brain.

The case is similar with respect to genetics. The fact that a certain mental disorder can be found to repeat in a family is not sufficient to establish that the disorder is genetically grounded or caused. The very mark of the social is to be located at the level of language or the transmission of “codes” that, like DNA, replicate themselves and proliferate through the field of those upon whom they supervene. In fact, such structures are a necessary condition for something being a family at all. As Lacan has shown us, these symbolic structures inform the nature of self-identity and interpersonal relationships in a way that cannot be underestimated, and thus can produce the repetition of disorders (in much the same way that a curse repeats throughout the family of Oedipus) through a family. This is true even in the case of adoptive children that display mental disorders found in their biological parents. The simple fact of being the adopted child, of being the child without a parent or the abandoned child, can produce far reaching effects in the psychic economy of the child. There is no reason to suppose that these mental disorders could just as easily be explained from a social or environmental perspective (a symbolic, rather than genetic perspective).

It seems to me that these variables tend to go unexplored in the field of US psychology. No doubt this is for the reasons that Derrida has cited regarding the nature of the signifier… Namely, that the very fact that in speech I hear myself speak tends to produce the illusion of a relation of immediacy between the act of speaking and hearing myself speak such that I overlook the constitutive role the signifier plays in structuring my thought and self-identity. I efface my alienation in the act of speaking, but in such a way as to further alienate myself.

The problem with contemporary psychology is that it is founded on what might be called the medical gaze. This has profound consequences for how therapy is actually practiced in the United States. The medical gaze is that gaze in which the doctor treats himself as being independent of the illness from which is patient suffers. Thus, for instance, when a doctor diagnoses his patient with cancer it is clear that the doctor cannot be thought of as a part of the patients cancer or that his diagnosis has any causal effect on the patient’s cancer.

The medical gaze is uncritically extended to the practice of therapy in the US as well. Thus, for instance, when the therapist (not the analyst) diagnoses someone with a particular mental disorder they do so on the assumption that they are not a part of the disorder and that their diagnosis has no effect on the disorder. In other words, the therapist thinks of him or herself as being independent of the person that they diagnose… As being numerically or ontologically unrelated to that person. This is equivalent to saying that the relation between the suffering patient and the therapist is conceptualized as an external relation such that the patient would be what they are regardless of whether or not she entered the therapist’s office.

The therapist/psychologist is thus the one who subtracts herself from the equation. In doing so she adopts an observational view of the patient, in which the patient is conceived as being something simply looked upon such that the looking does not effect that which is looked at. While I am certainly simplifying things here, there can be little doubt that there’s more than a little truth in this evaluation of how therapy is today organized. This is immediately evident the moment you walk into a therapists office and are given a five hundred question test to take in which your disorder is neatly categorized according to the prevailing wisdom of the then current university discourse.

Here, then, in this final point, we at last reach Lacan. For it is with respect to 1) the material causation of psychic phenomena, and 2) the belief that diagnosis has no effect on the person diagnosed, that we find the difference between psychoanalysis and psychology. As the sociological theorist Niklas Luhmann has pointed out, social systems differ from classical physical systems in that they 1) have the ability to represent themselves, and 2) the manner in which they represent themselves can have an effect on how the system itself is organized. Zizek makes a similar point in his amusing discussion of what he calls “the subject supposed to believe.” From the perspective of the functioning of social systems, what is at issue is not what I myself believe, but what I believe my neighbor believes. Thus, for instance, at the beginning of Bush’s term I, being a savvy, intelligent person, might very well believe that Bush’s rhetoric about the waning economy is really a lot of hot air, but I think that my friend Larry and a lot of his friends are complete morons who will take this rhetoric seriously (i.e., believe it) and start selling their stocks madly. For this reason, if I am prudent, I too will sell my stocks lest I become the victim of the ignorant belief of my fellows. Here the description of the system (Bush’s description of the economy) comes to have an effect on the economy even if I think descriptively that it is nonsense.

The therapist, as opposed to the analyst, is someone who believes that the normative and descriptive use of concepts can be clearly kept apart. In other words, they fail to take account of the self-referentiality of social systems or the manner in which descriptions of social systems are themselves causal variables of these systems. In their use of diagnostic categories drawn from the DSM-IV, the therapist believes that their act of naming or diagnosing their patient is a purely descriptive act, with no normative dimension (Here U.S. psychological practices scream for a Foucault-style genealogical analysis that examines the relations of power implicit in these categorizations. An academia myopically fixated on the continent as if it were the only place where history takes place, has not yet taken on such an important task… At least, not to my knowledge). Why else would the therapist reveal her diagnosis to the patient? The only rationale for revealing a diagnosis is the belief that the diagnosis is a purely descriptive affair that has no effect on the patient and how the patient comports herself.

Unfortunately, social and psychic systems, unlike physical systems such as those found in two billiard balls hitting one another, are such that it is impossible to clearly separate the normative and descriptive functioning of categories. The minute that a descriptive category is applied to a patient, it already begins to function as a normative category.

For instance, when a patient is diagnosed as suffering from borderline bi polar depressive disorder, that diagnosis comes to function as a norm for the patient in which all actions are evaluated. Suddenly the patient finds a way to comprehend and understand all their past actions, as well as a way of determining their future actions. For instance, we can imagine a patient that begins to let herself run loose a little bit more simply because she is a borderline bi polar manic depressed person.

Moreover, these diagnoses have great importance in interpersonal relations as well, given that they allow the patient to change their social status, getting benefits for their disorder and sympathy for their suffering. In other words, diagnosis proves to be a path to jouissance or enjoyment. For this reason, mental illness might today be one of the real forms of protest against the system of capital and the way in which it shackles us to interminable labor. Through mental illness we are able to recoup some of our stolen jouissance by forcing business and state to afford us special privileges. Could the person suffering from mental illness be one example of the modern proletariat or subject of revolution? How might the plethora of multiplying symptoms be transformed from mute inscriptions of alienation to revolutionary subjectivity? In other words, how might this proletariat be brought to consciousness about the true meaning of their symptom… Or how might they move from “enjoying their symptom” in an unconscious way, to becoming the agent of their symptom?

Regardless of whether or not this is the case, the category thus begins to function as an imperative of how I act and behave and thus effects the psychic system that it originally set out merely to describe. This is an example of the strange logic of apres coup or the manner in which the signifier functions in terms of “what it will have been”. The odd thing about social and psychic systems as opposed to physical systems is that they do not obey the ordinary temporal logic of cause and effect. In physical systems (at least those at the Newtonian scale) we are accustomed to the notion that the effect follows the cause. However, strangely, in social and psychic systems what is taking place in the present can have effects on what is taking place in the past such that the manner in which the past functions with respect to the present is itself transformed. This, for instance, is what occurs when we arrive at a new picture of what happened in the past such that we transform how we behave in the present. Reinterpretations of the colonization as they’ve functioned in the struggles of American-Indians here come to mind. On the one hand we have pre-critical theories of colonization in which matters were framed in terms of the famed meeting of the Pilgrims and the Indians, on the other we have the pictures of brutal colonialist exploitation that have served as a catalyst for rethinking the status of existing American Indians today. The signifier thus does not simply describe past events– it is not merely descriptive or referential –but has an entirely different temporal structure than the sort of structure we find in ordinary physical phenomena such that it can actually PRESCRIBE certain phenomena. It is precisely this dimension that is overlooked in the contemporary field of therapy, where words are thought to function in a way that is only referential, for the sake of communication. The simple act of naming something, already transforms the way in which that thing behaves.

Closely connected with this phenomenon of apres coup, is that of imaginary transference. The issue here would be that the patient already approaches the therapist as the one who has knowledge of their symptom and, who’s favor, they would like to win. In other words, they look at the therapist as a potential friend or figure of authority who’s favour could be beneficial and serve as a source of pleasure. A failure to take account of this intersubjective dimension of the relationship between patient and analyst leads to further complications with diagnosis in that we can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which the patient imagines themselves into the symptomology of the disorder as a way of filling what she believes the therapist desires her to be. A great deal more should be said on this. What is here important is that the therapist subtracts herself from the therapeutic setting at both her and her patients peril.

It is very simple to see what follows from ignorance to the interrelated phenomena of apres coup and transference in the therapeutic setting: A failure to be aware of how these things function and effect psychic and social systems cannot but lead to alienation. The first alienation would be at the level of the university discourse, in which the patient is alienated in an abstract system of significations (S2, the system of medical knowledge) that prevents him from discovering the concrete way in which his own psychic system is structured or even discovering that his symptoms are in fact meaningful (physicalist psychology is distinct from psychoanalysis is that it is based on the premise that symptoms do not mean or signify anything, but are just accidents of electro-chemical and genetic malfunctions). Second, it is alienation incarnate in that the relation between therapist and patient is asymmetrical in that the therapist is held to have knowledge of the patients symptom while the patient is ignorant. In short, it does not lead the patient (now analysand) to that point in which they discover that the only real authority or subject supposed to know is the unconscious itself. For this reason, the patient never reaches that moment of separating from the big Other or discovering that the big Other does not exist. Their very attempts to heal themselves, thus further lead to alienation such that their actions themselves come to reinforce the power of the very forces against which they were originally fighting. This is what Judith Butler, following Foucault, has referred to as the danger that arises should it be true that subjects are themselves produced by the juridical systems of power in which they seek representation. This suggests that the very attempt to seek representation produces further subordination to power and domination in that the categories of psychological knowledge are themselves discursive constructions that produce particular subjectivities. The value of psychoanalysis, in this context, is that the silence of the analyst with regard to diagnosis and the emphasis on the speech of the analyst allows the analysand to separate from the big Other (as represented by analyst) and discover those hollows or spaces where the Other lacks as those places where it, the analysand, might come to be. Analysis provides the possibility of a leap out of these infantalizing power relations.

It is for these reasons that psychology can be nothing but alienation incarnated. So long as these things are not taken into account, psychology cannot but maintain us in an infantile state in which autonomy and singularity are never reached. No wonder that the only solution currently offered to us is that found in chemical cocktails, in which one is prescribed the life of a waking dream, rather than knowledge of the real of their desire and the separation from the big Other that comes with it… No wonder the only thing offered to us is further alienation in the big Other or the set of diagnostic categories prescribed by the DSM-IV in which our sole consolation is that our psychic structure comes to be normalized by being medicalized and thereby socially acceptable. This is not nothing, but it also cannot compare to discovering the real of one’s desire.

One of the great joys of blogging is that you open yourself to a public that can then descend upon your comment boxes and email account with their pet obsessions and concerns, furious about some imagined slight that you can hardly comprehend and which is, at any rate, quite unrelated to your project. In the last couple of days I’ve been fortunate to become acquainted with this pleasure, having my blog obsessively visited by a particular blogger and my email account filled with endless rantings about Slavoj Zizek. Proceeding on the basis of quotes such as the following, the offended interlocutor informs me that Zizek is inherently racist and that dialectics necessarily leads one to advocate positions such as Zizeks:

Because the Balkans are part of Europe, they can be spoken of in racist clichés which nobody would dare to apply to Africa or Asia. Political struggles in the Balkans are compared to ridiculous operetta plots; Ceausescu was presented as a contemporary reincarnation of Count Dracula. Slovenia is most exposed to this displaced racism, since it is closest to Western Europe: when Kusturica, talking about his film Underground, dismissed the Slovenes as a nation of Austrian grooms, nobody reacted: an ‘authentic’ artist from the less developed part of former Yugoslavia was attacking the most developed part of it. When discussing the Balkans, the tolerant multiculturalist is allowed to act out his repressed racism.)

The disgruntled interlocutor then goes on to say,

I have to elaborate a bit more because you may not be aware of the cultural context (Yugoslavia) – where I come from. Zizek had a stormy fight with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica, who made the film ”Underground” about the break-up of Yugoslavia. IRRESPECTIVE of the politics I would like you to notice how Zizek’s dialectics puts him into an incredible absurdist loop that I find not only irresponsible but downright shocking for an intellectual of his stature (or of the stature he enjoys at the Western academia). Zizek is here blaming Kusturica for acting out his repressed racism on Slovenia. (And as I said let’s not discuss this politically). Then, he calls Kusturica ”an authentic artist” (a derisive notion referring to so-called ethnic culture and Kusturica’s love of anarchism and the Gypsy culture) who attacked the ”most developed part of Yugoslavia” (Zizek puts Slovenia in the position of cultural superiority here). In effect, Zizek is the one who is projecting his repressed racism towards the ”less civilized” Balkan ”tribes” on Kusturica’s film. He slams his own thesis here right into his own face.

If this sounds like a promising dialectic to you, I wish you luck with Zizek! I gave up on him a long time ago.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to the 12 comments and emails I’ve received within the last 24 hours, which, I fear, are actually causing me to become more stupid than I already am. I confess that I am completely baffled by this correspondent or what his aims might be. In the first place, I fail to see the racism that the author is referring to. Rather, Zizek makes the simple point that talk of the Balkans is somehow exempted from the prohibition against using crass stereotypes that are forbidden in discussions of other groups such as blacks, Jews, women, Asians, etc. Zizek may be right, he may be wrong. Zizek does seem right about this much: That during the war it was considered permissible to talk about those in the Balkans employing the most crass stereotypes. Those from the Balkans were described as being primative and tribalistic, as riddled with ancient conflicts, subject to emotional outbursts and innate brutality, etc., etc. In the States there was even a best selling book that based itself on this very thesis: Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts. If my unsolicited interlocutor is bothered by what Zizek has to say, he ought to read this book. Perhaps he might gain a little perspective as to what Zizek is trying to say. Nor am I quite clear as to what, precisely, is dialectical about the above cited quote from Zizek.

But more basically, I’m simply not deeply invested in any of the various cultural analyses Zizek presents in his writings. Rather, I’m interested in Zizek because of his rather unique understanding of Hegelian dialectic and because of the various insights he gives me about Lacan which I sometimes agree with and sometimes disagree with. What is it that this correspondent hopes to accomplish with his interventions? Does he wish to convince me that Zizek is worthless? Well that certainly won’t happen as I’ve already found too much of value in Zizek. Is he trying to convince me that Zizek is racist? Is he just looking for someone to listen to him as others won’t? All of it is quite tiresome. If you want to level critique, by all means do so, but please proceed in a philosophical fashion, informed by actual psychoanalytic theory and by the philosophers being discussed… A link to an article by someone who only has rudimentary background with Lacan and Hegel certainly doesn’t cut it, nor does it resolve the question of alternative interpretations. But above all, leave your pet obsessions at home. I’m just not interested.

The author seems to believe that somehow dialectics inherently leads to claims such as that quoted above. This is a bit like suggesting that because some use formal logic incorrectly, formal logic inherently leads to these unsound conclusions, or that because Heidegger became a Nazi, anyone who talks about “being-in-the-world” is destined to become a Nazi. Or, drawing on another example, Freud has some pretty unkind things to say about Eastern Europeans, going so far as to say that they cannot be analyzed due to their lack of morality. Does this suggest that Freud, in toto, should be consigned to flames, or that this particular thesis should be rejected as a prejudice among truths? Or what of Nietzsche’s attitude towards women? At any rate, what baffles me most of all, is why these claims are being addressed to me or how they have anything to do with issues I’ve been discussing here on this blog. Somehow I feel as if I’ve been caught in the cross-fire of a rightwing nationalistic ideologue whose ire was raised by some interpretation or other of Zizek’s that hit the mark. Take it elsewhere please! Somehow I’ve become a surrogate for Zizek, becoming the object of this person’s hostility towards the Slovenian.

There are days when others and their immersion in conflicts of jouissance deeply try my patience and sense of charity, when I find myself clearly understanding the motivation for unfolding intellectual projects in the serene space of journals and presses with limited run prints. Whatever. Yeah, Zizek says some pretty stupid things sometimes. He also says some pretty illuminating things. Get yourself a threshing machine please and leave me alone!

UPDATE: My interlocutor has kindly clarified his aims here and in my email with regard to Zizek. I suspect that Zizek’s take on Balkan politics isn’t even on the radar for most readers of his work, but it would be interesting to hear more from others who know a bit more about Zizek and the history of the Balkan political constellation. An important point here is that Zizek’s analysis of the role that jouissance plays in ideology certainly does not exempt him from being caught up in those same mechanisms of jouissance and fantasy. As Lacan liked to say, there is no metalanguage. On the other hand, the fact that an analyst is herself caught up in transference and the unconscious does not delegitimate analysis either. It would be interesting to hear Dejan to give a more complex analysis of what he believes to be going on in Zizek’s observations of The Sound of Music. What does he believe Zizek is claiming and how does he think Zizek is relating it to racism?

In my previous post I spoke of how Lacan’s Borromean knot can be mapped on to Adorno’s sorting of concepts, remainders, and the whole in terms of the symbolic, the real, and the imaginary, yet I strangely said nothing of the fourth loop in Lacan’s Borromean knot. Compare Lacan’s original version of the Borromean knot, with the one I presented yesterday… A knot that Lacan somewhere refers to as the “Lacanian knot”. If we examine the original version of the Borromean knot depicted on the right, we notice that the three orders are linked together in such a way that if any one of the rings are cut, the other two fall away. This, then, would be a model for psychosis. The cutting of one of the rings leads the structural relations among the orders to fall apart. In yet another poorly drawn depiction of this version of the knot– I call it poor as it fails to show how the knots are tied together –we see how the Borromean knot can be used to locate the various forms of jouissance that we encounter in the clinic– JA or the jouissance of the Other, a or surplus-jouissance, and J-phi or phallic jouissance –which allows us to localize the various forms of jouissance involved in the symptom and allows us to devise techniques for properly handling these forms of jouissance.

With the so-called “Lacanian knot”, everything changes. As Colette Soler puts it,

[The]… Borromean clinic not only involves a reformulation of traditional clinical issues, but also introduces new categories of symptomatology… These diagnoses relied no only on the three categories of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real that he already had at his disposal, but also crucially dependend on the three modes of jouissance: the Jouissance of the letter as One [JA], the jouissance in the chain of meaning, and the jouissance which can be said to be Real because it exists as a subtraction from the two preceding ones. In light of these distinctions, it is not enough to say that the symptom is a mode of jouissance; one must define which mode, and thus produce a new declension of grammar of symptoms according to the jouissance that gives them consistency. Then one will be able to speak of Borromean symptoms in the case where the three consistencies and the three jouissances are bound (neurosis and perversion), of symptoms that are not Borromean (psychosis) and others still that simply repair a flaw of the knot. For this last type of symptom, using the example of Joyce, Lacan produced the new category of the sinthome, which he used afterwards in a more general way. (The Cambridge Companion to Lacan, “The Paradoxes of the Symptom in Psychoanalysis”, 94)

With the Lacanian knot the first thing we observe is that a new ring has appeared, labelled Sigma, the matheme for the sinthome, and that the three rings of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real are no longer tied to one another as in the case of the original Borromean knot. Rather, Sigma, the sinthome, supplements the three rings, binding them together despite the fact that they aren’t tied, repairing the flaw in original knotting. As Soler notes, an entirely new symptomology opens up as a result of this new knot, for now we can imagine scenerios in which not only the three orders are untied from one another, but where one order is tied to another– such as the symbolic to the imaginary or the imaginary to the real –while neither are tied to the third. Sigma then intervenes to make up for this deficit, this lack of a tie, and can repair the lack of a relation in a variety of ways. As J.A. Miller notes, the shift from the Borromean knot to the Lacanian knot marks a fundamental shift in Lacan’s thought about the symptom, for now we have a generalized theory of the symptom– A theory where everything, as it were, becomes a symptom, including the name(s)-of-the-father. As a prelude to this development in Seminar 23, The Sinthome, Lacan will declare in Seminar 22, RSI, that “there is no subject without a symptom”. This new symptomology is largely unexplored to date and is fertile ground for productive clinical and theoretical work.

Unlike traditional psychotherapeutic approaches, Lacan, like Freud, begins with the thesis that the symptom is a solution and a form of satisfaction. The symptom is not a alien invader preventing the subject from attaining normality, nor is it a disease to be cured through medication. In this regard, there is no “normal” or “healthy” subject, and it is a mistake to believe that the aim of psychoanalysis is to cure someone from their neurosis, perversion, or psychosis. These are fundamental stances of subjectivity defining the relationship of the subject to the Other and jouissance, not diseases.

The question that thus begs to be asked is what leads the analysand to enter analysis at all? If the symptom is a form of satisfaction, if it is a solution, why does the analysand enter analysis? In Negative Dialectics, Adorno remarks that,

If a stroke of undeserved luck has kept the mental composition of some individuals not quite adjusted to the prevailing norms– a stroke of luck they have often enough to pay for in their relations with their environment –it is up to these individuals to make the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom they say it cannot see or, to do justice to reality, will not allow themselves to see. Direct communicability to everyone is not a criterion of truth. We must resist the all but universal compulsion to confuse the communication of knowledge with knowledge itself, and to rate it higher, if possible– whereas at present each communicative step is falsifying truth and selling out. (41)

Here Adorno seems to speak of a sort of privileged experience, a sort of person embodying a failure in the social order, as the place from which critique can emerge. In my brief gloss on the Borromean knot, I did not discuss the forth loop represented by the greek letter “Sigma”, which denotes the symptom holding together the other three strings. In psychoanalysis the symptom is that form of sense-laden enjoyment that holds the psychic-system together, compensating for the frustrations that occur as a result of socialization and is a way of attaining satisfaction by other means. For instance, drawing on a favorite example of obsessional jouissance from Freud, rather than masturbating, I wash my hands hundreds of times a day (a form of phallic jouissance, insofar as it’s not dependent on the Other). Handwashing comes to serve a dual function– On the one hand, it functions as a substitute for my masturbatory desire. However, on the other hand, it bows to the punishing demands of the super-ego, by marking the “uncleanliness” of my desire and punishing me for my transgression (my hands become painfully raw and cracked). “But you haven’t transgressed if you don’t actually masturbate.” Recall that the unconscious makes no such distinction, that the primary process knows no difference between reality and fantasy– I am every bit as guilty of my fantasized acts as I am of my actual acts.

Similarly we can speak of social-symptoms as serving a like role, such as the Jew in anti-Semitism serving the function of marking the place of failed utopian aspirations and the overcoming of antagonism, while allowing the social order to maintain itself and reproduce its identity by maintaining extant social relations through persecuting the Jew rather than directly targeting the social system itself. My social space is riddled with contradictions and conflicts. An ideology or community never delivers exactly what it promises, but always brings with it disappointment and requires sacrifice on my part. I cannot live among others and act directly on my jouissance, but must either defer jouissance as can be seen in the crass example of toilet training where I no longer go immediately, or sacrifice certain forms of jouissance altogether. Of course, jouissance itself is indestructable, which means that sacrifice is impossible and the sacrificed jouissance will always return in some other form. The point is that even though I experience frustration and antagonism with regard to whatever social field I identify, my very identity, my very being, is nonetheless dependent on this identification. Consequently, there is little choice to surrender these identifications. The figure of the Jew thus functions as the supplement that allows me to exercise (in both the literal sense of “act” and the figurative religious sense of an exorcism) my antagonism to the social order. I simultaneously punish myself for the jouissance I possess through my persecution of the Jew (I covertly identify with the Jew as with myself, attributing my own disavowed jouissance to him), fantasize that somewhere someone enjoys (the Jew is seen as enjoying what I have sacrificed), fantasize that my social order that I resent is persecuted by this foreign invader thereby providing myself with the enjoyment I would like to possess in attacking that order, and treat the Jew as a figure that would allow my social order complete enjoyment were I to destroy him. The symptom is an overdetermined supplement that renders my relation to this order tolerable.

Another glaring example would be Mel Gibson’s pornographic film The Passion. It is not difficult to notice that Gibson is just a bit too fascinated with the suffering of the Christ, that the focus on Christ’s torture has the status of a snuff film, as if compensating for the overly repressive dimension of Pauline Christianity, and covertly taking revenge on this body of doxa and these attitudes towards sexuality nowhere genuinely present in the Gospels themselves or the “red script” of Jesus, by imagining the worst possible suffering descending upon He who is responsible for this. Perhaps proof of this is the fact that the content of the Gospels, Christ’s actual words and teachings, strangely fall under the bar of repression and are notably absent, as if Christ’s death, not his life, were all that mattered. Such a fantasy simultaneously allows one to exact their pound of flesh or revenge for their sacrifice in entering the Catholic church or the Pauline community, while also reaffirming their commitment to the very community that is the source of their dissatisfaction, through the guilt they seek to overcome in enjoying the spectacle of this suffering.

When an analysis begins it is always of vital importance to determine what precipitated the person’s entrance into analysis. From a normal psycho-therapeutic perspective this is paradoxical, as we normally think of therapy as aiming at “curing the symptoms”. Under this view, one seeks treatment for their symptom. However, from the analytic perspective, a person enters analysis precisely at that point where their symptom fails, where it no longer provides the “satisfaction” it once provided (even if a painful satisfaction), when the person encounters the real that the symptom was designed to clothe and “metabolize”. Adorno here seems to speak of something similar at the social level… The critic, as maladjusted individual, is that one who has had an encounter beyond the social symptom, where the symptom allowing individuals to maintain their relations has collapsed and something other has peaked through, revealing that the social system is “not-all”, pas-tout, riddled by underlying antagonisms that ideology and symptoms struggle to hide from view and gentrify. Analysis begins where the symptom fails. This too would be the case with social and philosophical analysis. Is it a mistake that social theorists and philosophers have so often come from the interstices, the gaps, and the non-places of various empires? In this case, the thinker would be the real of the symptom embodied.

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