Lacan


A great deal of the anguish I feel over the BP oil catastrophe lies not only in the ecological damage it has wrought, but in what a missed opportunity this is turning out to be. As I remarked in a previous post on the disaster, this is a prime moment to enact a progressive version of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine“. The Obama Glee Club has focused on how he’s doing everything he possibly can to stop the link and ensure that clean up proceeds apace. However, this misses the point. Discontent with Obama’s handling of the oil spill revolves not so much with how he’s dealing with the spill itself– though there’s plenty to be discontent with there as well –but with his failure to seize this opportunity.

One of my central reasons for voting for Obama was his profound rhetorical ability. It is my view that we exist at a point in history where it is of crucial importance to shift the reigning commonplaces underlying American politics. For thirty years our airwaves have been filled with neoliberal propoganda, convincing us that the primary function of government is to create an optimal business environment and that the best way to achieve this goal is through the privatization of government functions and through the deregulation of all markets and industries. On the one hand, the thesis runs, the private sector knows best how to run things and government botches everything it puts its hands on. As Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” And indeed, in the late 70s when neoliberalism began to ascend from a wacky fringe position defended by only a few cranks to a hegemonic ideology constituting the common sense of the American public, there was good reason for being suspicious of the government. On the other hand, the argument runs, where business flourishes money will trickle down to average people, improving their standard of living. As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

The BP oil disaster is not simply an ecological and economic catastrophe, but is a symptom or a symbol of all the failures of neoliberal ideology. And this is precisely what has been largely missing in Obama’s handling of the issue. What we need right now is not someone who seeks bipartisan legislation, nor someone who works quietly and competently behind the scenes. No, what we need right now is a Lacanian master.

Perhaps the best way to understand Lacan’s discourse of the master is in terms of the moment of kairos in rhetoric. In Greek, kairos means the “right or opportune moment.” The rhetor is the person who is adept at taking advantage of the opportune moment to generate action that leads in the right direction. Situated in terms of Lacan’s discourse of the master depicted above, we see the top portion of the graph pointing from S1 to S2. S1 refers to the master-signifier, whereas S2 refers to the battery or collection of free floating signifiers. The function of the master, the kairotic act of the master, lies in unifying the chaotic and free floating battery of signifiers (S2’s) under a master-signifier that renders them structured and intelligible.

And this has been precisely what is missing in Obama’s presidency so far. If Obama has failed to step up to the plate, this is not because he is dealing with a recalcitrant congress or an obstructive opposition party, but because he has failed to step up to the plate and perform the kairotic act. Here we have an event that is going to have massive economic and ecological impact that will reverberate for years, an event is a direct outcome of deregulation and corporate greed, an event that will, in one way or another effect all Americans, and we have an administration that refuses to quilt this event into a whole series of events that have buffeted both the country and the world. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze speaks of repetition in terms of resonances, echoes, and reflections of the past. In repetition the present actuality somehow is haunted by all sorts of other past events.

It is precisely something like this that is the case with the BP oil catastrophe. The oil catastrophe echoes and resonates not only with past oil catastrophes, but with the financial collapse, the West Virginia mining disaster, the exploitation of American tax payer dollars by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exploitation of American citizens by insurance companies, and on and on. If there were ever a moment to quilt together our economic woes, the impending environmental apocalypse, and rampant corruption among the corporations and government as a result of neoliberal ideology, this is that moment. Obama needs to step up to the plate and take advantage of this moment, performing a Kennedyesque moment not unlike that of persuading the American people to go to the moon.

The point isn’t that Obama will necessarily be successful in all that he asks for, but that asking for it plays an important function in structuring the dialogue and changing popular consensus as to what the function of government is and whether or not corporations truly are the best at running things. Now is the time to ask for big things. While I am aware that he has put more money into funding public transportation, why is he not linking the use of public transportation to patriotism? Here he would have a way of quilting the use of public transportation to the war in the Middle East, the death of soldiers and innocent civilians, massive expenditures on that war, and the environment. And here, also, he could make a call for boosting public transportation in the suburbs, encouraging us to take the bus or a train to work, rather than drive our cars. And while he’s at it, he could address highschool kids, who are much more environmentally minded than the older generations, and encourage them to take the bus to school rather than driving their car. He could work to make this a “cool” or “hip” thing to do for the environment.

In addition to public transportation, he could call for a radical shift in the trucking industry. In the United States alone trucks travel trillions of miles a year. Now is the time to call for a shift from diesel to natural gas in trucks, or, ideally, some environmentally friendly, biodegradable fuel. It is also the time to call upon congress to give large tax cuts to families that buy hybrid cars and who do things to make their homes more energy efficient.

These are just a few things that come to mind. Once again, the point is not that Obama will get all that we want. We won’t. The point is that things have to be put out there to get anything. As a result of all that’s taken place in recent years, I believe Americans are gradually waking up to the devastation wrought by neoliberalism economically, environmentally, in terms of political instability throughout the world and so on. However, we need a kairotic act that links these things together and that registers them for the big Other as a sort of force field in the symbolic order. Nor can we drag our feet at this time in history. We are not living in times of business as usual where incrementalism and political pragmatism is an acceptable way of proceeding. As the environmental apocalypse continues to intensify we will witness massive economic instability as the result of food shortages and the scarcity of water and fossil fuels, more pandemics unleashed as a result of the world heating up, and political instability and war as a result of the scarcity of these resources. Perhaps Obama will find the courage to engage in such kairotic acts if he is lucky enough to be elected for a second term, but it’s increasingly difficult to see him getting re-elected. There is nothing pragmatic or realistic about proceeding in such a wishy washy manner where winning the support of the electorate is concerned. The damage is largely done in the Gulf, but perhaps something good can nonetheless come of this catastrophe.

Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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In my view one of the most under discussed aspects of Harman’s variant of object-oriented philosophy is his theory of the structure of objects and the division within objects between real objects and sensuous objects. The tendency is simply to talk about objects simpliciter, ignoring this complexity that resides in objects. I suspect that a lot of this will become clearer with the release of The Quadruple Object.

Graham schematizes the relation between real objects and sensuous objects in the following diagram:

I can’t give a complete commentary on Harman’s diagram as it would require a book in itself (indeed, there is not just one diagram but ten diagrams in The Quadruple Object), so I’ll limit myself here to a few brief indicative remarks. First, the distinction between real objects and sensuous objects is not the traditional distinction between appearance and reality. In the traditional distinction between appearance and reality the task is to pierce the veil of appearances so as to reach true reality. For Harman, the key points not to be missed are 1) that real objects are always withdrawn (Harman) or in excess (me) of any of their sensuous (Harman) manifestations (me), and 2) that objects only encounter each other as sensuous objects, never as real objects.

This brings me to another important point. When Harman refers to sensuous objects, he is not simply referring to objects as they are for humans or for animals, but objects as they are for any object. Thus, for example, a real rock no less encounters another rock as a sensuous object than a human encounters a dog as a sensuous object. The domain of what Harman calls “the sensuous” is a genuinely ontological domain pertaining to relations among all objects, not a domain restricted to philosophy of mind or epistemology. Moreover, the domain of the sensuous is not the domain of the unreal, but is perfectly real in its own right.

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Okay, not really but close enough. Know my love for all things pertaining to dark science-fiction (none of that mystical and fascist good versus evil Star Wars crap for me!) and for all things post-apocalyptic, Mel has me reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I suspect this is her sly way of getting me to encounter something else she’d like me to see, but treating her reading suggestions as a sort of rebus is half the fun. At any rate, last night I came across the following passage which beautifully illustrates the Lacanian concept of the Imaginary:

“Use your neurons.” Said Crake. “Step one: calculate length of man’s arm, using single visible arm as arm standard. Assumption that both arms are approximately the same length. Step two: calculate angle of bend at elbow. Step three: calculate curvature of ass. Approximation of this may be necessary, in absence of verifiable numbers. Step four: calculate size of hand, using visible hand, as above.”

“I’m not a numbers person,” said Jimmy laughing, but Crake kept on: “All potential hand positions must now be considered. [They're discussing whether a man's hand is on their busty teacher's ass at the mall.] Waist, ruled out. Upper right cheek, ruled out. Lower right cheek or upper thigh would seem by deduction to be the most likely. Hand between both upper thighs a possibility, but this position would impede walking on the part of the subject, and no limping or stumbling is detectable.” He was doing a pretty good imitation of their Chemlab teacher– the use-your-neurons line, and that clipped, stiff delivery, sort of like a bark. More than pretty good, good.

Already Jimmy liked Crake better. They might have something in common after all, at least the guy had a sense of humour. But he was also a little threated. He himself was a good imitator, he could do just about all the teachers. What if Crake turned out to be better at it? He could feel it within himself to hate Crake as well as liking him. (74 – 75)

And there, my friends, in these final bolded lines is a gorgeous example of the dynamics of the Lacanian domain of the Imaginary. The only flaw in this brief little vignette is that Jimmy is so aware of his ambivalence towards Crake and the source of that ambivalence. Jimmy senses that his identity or being is threatened and captivated by the fact that Crake shares the same identity, and perhaps better, as Jimmy. In this respect, he risks fading or disappearing in his relation to Crake.

Dylan Evan’s outlines the Lacanian Imaginary nicely in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis:

The basis of the imaginary order continues to be the formation of the ego in the MIRROR STAGE. Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, IDENTIFICATION is an important aspect of the imaginary order. The ego and the counterpart form the prototypical dual relationship, and are interchangeable. This relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification with the little other means that the ego, and the imaginary order itself, are both sites of a radical ALIENATION: ‘alienation is constitutive of the imaginary order’ (S3, 146). The dual relationship between the ego and the counterpart is fundamentally narcissistic, and NARCISSISM is another characteristic of the imaginary order. Narcissism is always accompanied by a certain AGGRESSIVITY. The imaginary is the real of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principle illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the affects are such phenomena. (82)

If there is an intrinsic alienation at the heart of the imaginary or the order of identification, then this is because one cannot coincide with their image. Here it is necessary to construe image broadly as pertaining to both the order of specularity and our sense of self-image or who we are. The image is a visage presented to an-other; an image of how we would like to be seen or how we imagine ourselves as being seen by others. If this aspect of the image is characterized by alienation then this is because we can never see ourselves being seen as the other, in fact, sees us. As such, this dimension of the imaginary is characterized by a constant frustration and insecurity by virtue of the fact that our image cannot be mastered. By contrast, insofar as we arrive at our image through identification with an-other, the imaginary is a site of alienation insofar as our image is always elsewhere or outside of ourselves. We can never quite live up to the statuesque image with which we’ve identified.

It is this alienation that generates the ambivalent love-hate and aggressivity at the heart of the imaginary. On the one hand, we experience a perpetual struggle between our image and ourselves as we strive to embody it, unable to ever full assume it or live up to it. As a consequence, the ideal of wholeness and identity that the image inaugurates within ourselves has the paradoxical effect of leaving us feeling perpetually incomplete. This incompleteness or hole that lies at the center of the (w)hole, in its turn, generates a profound defensiveness and sense of struggle with the other that threatens that image. Moreover, insofar as we arrive at the image through our identification with the other, we constantly experience ourselves as being in danger of being usurped. As such, a struggle with the other ensues which is essentially a struggle over ownership of the image. The tragic paradox is 1) that if the agent is successful in either getting the other to see oneself as one would like to be seen, the value of the others gaze is destroyed and one is no longer seen as one would like to be seen, or 2) if one is successful in destroying the other that threatens to usurp the image as in the case of Crake, the gaze required to sustain one’s own self is destroyed.

It is sometimes said that fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Hmmmm.

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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In response to my post on Nature and Its Discontents, Joseph C. Goodson posts a terrific comment on what he sees as the significance of OOO/SR. Joseph writes:

Precisely. As Gould puts it, the history of our evolution is a history of catastrophes, one after the other. I wonder, thinking along these lines, that in the wake of the death of God, this transcendentalizing of our fissures, breaks, discontents, etc, was done in such a way that the effect was one of making the human (so to speak) another exception (even if this exception is fundamentally “negative”). “Man” was still allowed this exceptional place even though the theological backdrop was lost. Part of what is exciting about SR and OOO in particular, and why the continuing backlash against it is so interesting, is that it takes these fundamental antagonisms of Marx, Freud, Lacan, et al, completely seriously — if anything, *its* wager seems to be that we have not taken them far enough, and that the death of God must imply, at one and the same time, the death of a theological concept of nature (this self-consistent sphere which would allow the -1 of humanity to appear).

Another very productive thing I have noticed about OOO is that, even in order for this ontology to begin, in its positivity, it also critiques much of these unsaid philosophical prejudices which, even in some of the most critical philosophies, still operate. This often subtle culture/nature hierarchy is one such prejudice that is very nicely displaced in a flat ontology.

Joseph here gets at one of the key aims or ambitions of the flat ontology I’ve tried to formulate in my version of OOO. I restrict this flat ontology to onticology because Graham, in the past, has expressed reservations about just how flat my ontology is. This difference, for example, comes out in our respective differences with respect to fictional entities. Graham draws a distinction between sensual objects (roughly intentional objects) and real objects. The latter are, if I’ve understood Graham correctly, dependent on minds to exist. In my case, however, symbolic entities are real actants or objects no less than rocks or stars. In my view there are collective entities like symbolic entities, pure mental relations, and nonhuman objects or actors like technologies, stars, quarks, cells, etc. I do not think that symbolic entities can be properly thought by reducing them to a mind-intention sort of relation. This, I suppose, is part of my debt to structuralism and semiotics. If I’m interested in fictions and the ontological status of fictions then this is not out of any sort of perverse wish to say that fictions are real, but rather because fictions provide a sort of exemplary case of a purely symbolic entity that is not a representation of something else. As a consequence, fictions shed light on what symbolic entities are in general. Hopefully Harman and I will work through some of these issues together at the Object-Oriented Ontology event at Georgia Tech in April (please come if you’re able! You’ll get to see me, Shaviro, Harman, and Bogost go at it!).

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Both Ben and Austin have posts up responding to some claims Zizek makes about nature. Ben writes:

For Zizek nature must be non-all or barred, but this nature never goes beyond the range of the earth. Zizek those go on to argue that the appearence of the whole in nature, that the very possibility of nature-in-itself is merely a result of subjective experience, an argument he ties to the experience of the sublime. Zizek then argues for ecology without nature thereby following Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature. I have unfortunately not yet read his text of the same name. From what I have read it seems that what he attacks as the concept of nature is a dominant mode of nature – one stemming from the rationalist tradition where is an immense but separate entity. Zizek writes: “what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.”

Here my largest issue (which seems to come up with many commentators on nature and ecology) is that the ecology of concepts of nature is severally narrowed for the sake of argument. Zizek seems to make a reversal when discussing the films of Tarkovsky and in particular Stalker but then shifts back to focus on transcendental subjectivity.

The ontological priviledge of the subject remains a serious stumbling block for any approach to nature that is not too shallow or too obfuscated. The finitude of the subject has become increasingly transcendentalized at the expense of nature, nature becomes merely an elaborate background. Nature goes right through the subject.

Following up on Ben’s criticism, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambiguity in how Zizek refers to “nature”. When Zizek critiques nature is he referring to nature as such or the discursive concept of nature as it functions in a particular ideological discourse? If the former, it is completely appropriate for Zizek to critique this concept of nature and how it functions ideologically. Within this discursive framework, nature is treated as a whole that is harmonious and independent of culture. That is, culture is treated as something other than nature and outside of nature.

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