Identification


Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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David1-744682.gifPaul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:

Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.

There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.

Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.

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Laughing_buddha_statue_Buddha_gift_mRecently some charges of Orientalism have been floating about the blogosphere with regard to a particular thinker. I don’t care to get into the nuts and bolts of this discussion, but I do think it might be of value to raise some issues about some of the sociological, anthropological, and linguistic assumptions that might underlie this sort of charge. As the Wikipedia article on Orientalism succinctly puts it, “Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.” In response to this short definition, we might ask “what are the conditions for the possibility of Orientalism?” On the one hand, we are told that Orientalism is an essentializing interpretation of Eastern cultures and peoples; while, on the other hand, we are told that this interpretation is an outsider interpretation.

picture_kafka_drawingBeginning with the second criteria or feature characterizing the “phenomenology” of Orientalism, I think we should ask “who is the outsider?” When it is claimed that someone or some mode of discourse is an “outsider” mode of discourse we are implicitly claiming that an inside exists. Put otherwise, what we are suggesting is that cultural identities, cultural “types”, cultures themselves, exist. But is this a warranted assumption? Are we not every bit as much strangers or outsiders within our own culture as we are with respect to other cultures? Do we not wonder how to be Americans, English, Egyptian, Chinese, etc? Or put otherwise, in Lacanian terms, do we not find ourselves perpetually fraught with the hysteric’s question of what we are for the Other? Quoting Zizek quoting Hegel, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries for the Egyptians. The mistake of the sort of culturalism presupposed by the charge of Orientalism is that it implicitly advocates a sort of immediate and non-mediated relationship to cultural identity such that insiders and outsiders actually exist. But if the aphorism that the big Other does not exist means anything, it is that there is no internally consistent and totalized set of signs and signifiers capable of defining a cultural identity and fixing one’s identity as a member of a group. Our encounter with our own cultural system is every bit as fraught and mysterious as our relation to the so-called “other”.

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narcissusMuch to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,

By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?

More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?

Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.

Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:

So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.

The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.

If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.

I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.

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Our Carl gives a nice analysis of the mechanisms of textual identification with respect to the issues I raised on style over at Dead Voles. There Carl writes:

At one level there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this dynamic of text identification except the fact that all these smart people seem to think it’s remarkable. Every text from Dr. Seuss on up, difficult or not, has the charismatic potential to generate reverent reading communities that might be described as ‘priesthoods’. My own experience is with Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist who wrote about complex things quite clearly, all in all. There are a lot of pages of Gramsci, most of them in prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit into a linear text, many of them on topics that very few people could care less about. This of course creates the opportunity for a mystery cult for those few who have virtuously read through all of it, sort of like the Kabbalah or the Hadith. Here are instances where the reading community in effect ADDS difficulty to the sacred text by digging out and canonizing every little detail, aside, and tangent. The characteristic assertion is that the plainish meanings of the core writings must be supplemented or even amended in light of these exclusive arcana. (Translation fetishists from the Qur’an to Weber and Foucault work the same way. Translations are not just workably second-best but unacceptable in comparison to the sacred revelation of the original.)

People choose these texts and these reading strategies for all the usual reasons they choose religions (and reject other religions). They may be born into them, or disposed toward them by cultural marking of the text. They may be seeking identity and collective effervescence in a community. The text may be culturally marked as normative or transgressive, enabling the effervescence of dominant or rebellious subculture identification. There may accordingly be a component of acceptance and/or rejection of authority, be it the father’s or the group’s. These are choices within structured fields of options and decision strategies. All of this falls under the sociology of what Weber called elective affinity and Bourdieu elaborated as the schemes of the habitus.

For some reason this makes me think of Virno’s discussion of fear in A Grammar of the Multitude. In the third chapter of A Grammar of the Multitude Virno argues that anguish/anxiety is one of the predominant affects of our time. I hope to write more on this later when I am not inundated with grading at the end of the semester and thoroughly exhausted. At any rate, as Marx and Deleuze and Guattari argued, one of the marks of capitalism is the manner in which it decodes all social relations and codes through processes of deterritorialization. By “decoding” Deleuze and Guattari do not mean the activity of finding the meaning behind some coded fragment of speech as intelligence officers and cryptographers do. Rather decoding is the process by which social codes are undone and destroyed.

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Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.

On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.

Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).

It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.

Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?

Returning to the debate surrounding Zizek’s analysis of 300, it seems that this passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is highly relevant. Towards the end of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write that,

The most general principle of schizoanalysis is that desire is always constitutive of a social field. In any case desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology: desire is in production as social production, just as production is in desire as desiring-production. But these forms can be understood in two ways, depending on whether desire is enslaved to a structured molar aggregate that it constitutes under a given form of power and gregariousness, or whether it subjugates the large aggregate to the function multiplicities that it itself forms on the molecular scale (it is no more a case of persons or individuals in this instance than in the other). If the preconscious revolutionary break appears at the first level, and is defined by the characteristics of a new aggregate, the unconscious or libidinal break belongs to the second level and is defined by the driving role of desiring-production and the position of its multiplicity. It is understandable, therefore, that a group can be revolutionary from the standpoint of class interest and its preconscious investments, but not be so –and even remain fascist and police-like –from the standpoint of its libidinal investments. Truly revolutionary preconscious interests do not necessarily imply unconscious investments of the same nature; an apparatus of interest never takes the place of a machine of desire.

A revolutionary group at the preconscious level remains a subjugated group, even in seizing power, as long as this power itself refers to a form of force that continues to enslave and crush desiring-production. The moment it is preconsciously revolutionary, such a group already presents all the unconscious characteristics of a subjugated group: the subordination to a socius as a fixed support that attributes to itself the productive forces, extracting and absorbing the surplus value therefrom; the effusion of antiproduction and death-carrying elements within the system, which feels and pretends to be all the more immortal; the phenomena of group ‘superegoization,’ narcissism, and heirarchy– the mechanisms for the repression of desire. A subject-group, on the contrary, is a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary; it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the form of power to desiring-production; productive of desire and a desire that produces, the subject-group invents always mortal formations that exorcise the effusion in it of a death instinct; it opposes real coefficients of transversality to the symbolic determination of subjugation, coefficients without a heirarchy or a group super-ego. (348-349)

A bit earlier Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to social investments and preconscious investment of class or interest (343). The central problem that Anti-Oedipus sets out to tackle is that of why we will our own repression:

why do many of those who have or should have an objective revolutionary interest maintain a preconscious investment of a reactionary type? And more rarely, how do certain people whose interest is objectively reactionary come to effect a preconscious revolutionary investment? Must we invoke in the one case a thirst for justice, a just ideological position, as well as a correct and just view; and in the other case a blindness, the result of an ideological deception or mystification? Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolutions out of desire, not duty. Here as elsewhere, the concept of ideology is an execrable concept that hides the real problems, which are always of an organizational nature. (344)

One of the central theses of Deleuze and Guattari’s social thought is that the people are not duped, but at a certain level desire fascism and their own repression. What is at issue here is that we can have social movements that are revolutionary at the level of their preconscious class investments, yet nonetheless reactionary at the level of their unconscious libidinal investments. The situation is analogous to issues surrounding the death of God as described by Nietzsche; which is to say, the issue is structural. As Nietzsche somewhere puts it, it is not enough to kill God, but the place itself of God must be abolished. Nietzsche here distinguishes between a certain theological concept of God as a transcendent being presiding over being, and a God-function as a certain structural placeholder in thought, social organization, and practice that other things can come to fill without apparently having anything to do with the divine or supernatural. In short, there is a sort of structural theology of transcendence, a “theology before theology”, that is a form of thought, not an adherence to any particular popular religion. This structural theology, this structural transcendence, is what Lacan represents with the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation, where masculine desire is premised on the phantasm that there is at least one entity that is not subject to the phallic function or castration.

This idea of a structural transcendence without a folk religious conception of God that nonetheless haunts atheism can be elucidated with reference to Laplace. Laplace was, of course, famous for pushing the Newtonian laws to their limit, arguing that we live in a perfectly deterministic universe, such that if we knew the position of all particles at any particular moment along with their velocities, we could perfectly predict all past states of the universe and all future states. When asked about the place of God in his system by Napoleon, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse: I have no need of that hypothesis. One of the revolutions effected by the early Enlightenment thinkers was the thesis of movement immanent to the universe, requiring no transcendent intervention in order for it to occur. Laplace here echoes that thesis, and thus endorses an atheistic position. However, we should not be so quick to come to this conclusion. In putting forward his deterministic thesis, Laplace makes an appeal to what is referred to as “Laplace’s Demon“, which is the idea of an entity capable of observing and calculating all the states of the universe. There is thus a theology that continues to haunt Laplace’s thought, a structure of thinking, which posits a transcendence capable of surmounting castration. Although Laplace’s being is not a creator, does not intervene in the world, does not judge or condemn, does not define a set of moral laws, it is nonetheless a transcendence that, in principle, surmounts our embeddedness in the world.

Deleuze and Guattari appear to be drawing a similar distinction between concrete actual social formations and movements and whether these are reactionary or revolutionary, the structure of social movements that remain reactionary even when undertaken through revolutionary pre-conscious investments. This concern emerges in response to the history of the Soviet Union, where we had a revolutionary movement at the level of preconscious class investments and interests, but nonetheless ended up with a social system organized around highly reactionary unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to power and the party. No doubt Deleuze and Guattari are thinking of the highly disappointing role that the French communist party played in the events of the student revolutions during Spring of 68. The question then becomes that of how it is possible to form a revolutionary movement that does not fall prey to these sorts of unconscious reactionary investments that simply reproduce oppressive systems. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, how do we avoid simply re-instituting one and the same structure with differing decorations?

This was a problem Lacan encountered as well in the formation of his school. As Lacan remarks at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, analysis aims at a beyond of identification with the master-signifier:

It is not enough that the analyst should support the function of Tiresias. He must also, as Apollinaire tells us, have breasts. I mean that the operation and manipulation of transference are to be regulated in a way that maintains a distances between the point at which the subject sees himself as lovable– and that other point where the subject sees himself caused as a lack by a, and where a fills the gap constituted by the inaugural division of the subject. (270)

That point from which the analysand sees himself as lovable is the master-signifier, or the place from which the analysand sees himself as being seen by the various authority figures with whom he identifies. In traversing the fantasy and discovering the Other does not exist, that the other is fissured, desiring, lacking, the analysand discovers a beyond of identification in drive. With regard to an organization like a psychoanalytic school or association, the obvious question is that of how it might be possible to form a collective or society premised on the non-existence of the Other. This is a difficult and paradoxical question to say the least. Clearly Lacan himself was a point of identification for the members of his school. He was treated as “the subject supposed to know”. Yet analysts of the school are supposed to have traversed the fantasy and thus worked through the transference, no longer positing a subject supposed to know or a master. This, incidentally, is why I’ve sometimes playfully suggested that Deleuze and Guattari are the real Lacanians: they do not slavishly repeat every word of the master, but work with the thought of Lacan and contribute to the development of a problem and set of concepts. At any rate, Lacan’s various declarations and letters in Television all revolve around this question of the production of a revolutionary collective. The history of Lacanianism since Lacan’s death suggests that the problem has never been completely resolved.

It would appear that we are still caught in this bottleneck. One of the difficulties with Deleuze and Guattari’s proposals– at least as they were taken up by the academy –is that they do not seem to generate any organized activist collectives, and therefore it’s worried that they provide no real tools for struggling with capitalism (I am not suggesting this is true). This would be the concern with a number of other post-structural theorists as well, where political theory is thick on critique and analysis, but provides very little in the way of workable praxis. Enter Badiou and Zizek. In a number of respects, I think Badiou, despite his fascination with figures such as Saint Paul, manages to skirt worries of re-instituting desires at the level of unconscious libidinal investments. Badiou is quite clear in his discussion of political events and in his thesis that a true politics is outside the “state” (Deleuze and Guattari’s preconscious class investments). However, with Zizek and his flirtations with figures such as Robespierre, Mao, and Stalin, the worry emerges that once again we’re moving down the path of a paradoxical “reactionary revolution”, where the new boss is the same as the old. The concerns that motivate Zizek are, I think, well founded: change requires organization, movement. Yet he seems to move in the opposite direction, turning questions of mobilization and organization in fascist directions. I have no answers to solution to these issues, but it does seem to be that one of the central questions is that of how revolutionary movements can avoid falling into reactionary traps.

In his forward to Anti-Oedipus, Foucault points out that fighting fascism does not simply consist in fighting fascist social organizations, but rather it above all consists in fighting the fascism within: Our own fascist desires. In this vein, I’ve begun to notice that I think all of you are lunatics. That’s right, I think you’re all absolutely crazy, off the wall, and completely nuts. I’m not proud of this, and it certainly doesn’t make me a very good Lacanian. After all, as Lacan says at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, the desire of the analyst is not a pure desire, but is rather a desire for absolute difference. The thought that makes me shudder, the thought that makes my stomach burn with acid, is the thought that I don’t desire difference.

Of course I can say abstractly that I desire difference, that I aim for difference, that I would like to promote difference. But the simple fact that I, for the most part, encounter each and every person that I talk to as being mad reveals, I think, the truth. I confuse the symptoms of others– or better yet, the sinthomes of others, their unique way of getting jouissance –with insanity. I am confusing difference with madness. What I am interpreting as madness– in my bones, in my gut, in the fibers of my being –is in fact difference. And, of course, if I think all of you are mad in your desires, your fixations, your obsessions, your persistant fears, themes, and anxieties, then this must mean that I believe myself to be sane. That’s right, I must believe myself to be normal and healthy. Yet in reflecting on my day to day life, with the way I obsess, the things that I fixate on, the dark fantasies that sometimes inhabit me, the way I don’t allow myself to sleep or enjoy, the varied forms of abuse I heap on my body, and so on, I can hardly say that I am a model of health. No, I don’t have a particularly nice sinthome. I don’t suppose that this is a sinthome that many would want or care to exchange with me. Of course, as Lacan says in Seminar 23: The Sinthome, we are only ever interested in our own symptoms… Which is another way of saying that we never hear the symptoms of others. The symptoms of others are always filtered through our own symptoms.

Perhaps this is “progress”. Perhaps the fact that it is dawning on me that what I so often consider a bit of madness in other persons is really difference or an encounter with otherness qua otherness, is in a way, a traversing of the fantasy, such that I’m recognizing that the frame through which I view the world is just that: a frame. Yet no matter how ashamed I am to admit it as it thoroughly undermines any “theory cred” I might posses (which is scant, to be sure), I wonder if I will ever be able to desire difference. It is one thing to recognize that what one takes as madness is an alternative organization of jouissance. It is quite another thing to find the other’s jouissance tolerable or desirable.

I notice just now, as I write the preceding sentence, that I have not capitalized “other”. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, of course, the typographical convention between “Other” and “other”, makes a vast difference, as “Other” refers to, among other things, the abyss of others or the inscrutability of their desire. The neurotic attempts to convert the desire of the Other into the demand of the Other so as to escape an anxiety producing encounter with the enigma of the Other’s desire. By contrast, “other” refers to the semblable in the imaginary, the logic of identity, or what I take as being the same as myself. The other is my sense that others are like me or the same as me. This failure to capitalize thus marks the work of repression in these ruminations, as it marks a disavowal of the Otherness of the other or the recoil I experience when confronted with the Other’s sinthome. Is it truly possible, I wonder, to ever desire the difference of the Other, or is this simply impressive sounding talk? Perhaps there are others that truly desire Otherness and I’m simply a fascist pig. Lacan liked to poke fun at philosophy, calling it a paranoid discourse striving to establish a regime of the same and identical: The hegemony of the imaginary, striving for the whole, completeness, and an eradication of difference. Perhaps my sickness has been produced by philosophy, or perhaps my sickness, my inability to desire difference, is what has drawn me to philosophy. I would like to stop thinking everyone is insane. Or perhaps it’s just my singular misfortune to attract the company of people who really are lunatics!

Every semester I begin my introductory courses with Plato’s Euthyphro. There are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, the Euthyphro is exemplary as a model of philosophical analysis, argumentation, and critique. On the other hand, this dialogue stages the manner in which action and belief interpenetrate, such that actions are based on beliefs and false belief leads to false action. Additionally, there are geographical reasons as well. Teaching in the Dallas Texas area– home of the megachurch and the central hub of apocalyptic variants of Evangelical Christianity –teaching the Euthyphro exposes students to questions of religion and faith that perhaps they have never before encountered. Finally, the Euthyphro inaugurates some basic and fundamental distinctions as to how all subsequent ethical and political philosophy will be conducted. However, it is also possible to see the Euthyphro as a criticism of ideology and as a sort of therapy strategically designed to both reveal Euthyphro’s attachments and precipitate a separation from those attachments. Socrates aims at nothing less than producing a sort of void in Euthyphro… A void, perhaps, that would have the effect of producing the possibility of freedom.
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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.

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