In response to my diary Visceral Reactions, Eric from Recording Surface and I have been having a productive discussion as to just what Lacan, Zizek, Mouffe, and Laclau (one could add Badiou as well) have in mind when they claim that something does not exist. Expressing perplexity over Laclau and Mouffe’s claim that “society does not exist”, Eric writes:

I’m not sure what’s at stake here–probably not much–but I find the Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek thesis just weird. Society can only be called such if it is pure cohesion and harmony? But isn’t that the very point of a society, that it’s not cohesive, that it’s made up of divisions, tensions, heterogenous forces? It’s hard to not read into this the desire for a homogenizing force to come in and smooth out the differences. That force, of course, is the state–and for me, that’s where the problem lies, not with the differences themselves.

Although I do not share his reading, I think Eric here makes an excellent observation, an observation that places him very close to Lacan. What, exactly, are we to understand when Lacan remarks that “the Other does not exist”? Certainly Eric is Other to me and certainly Eric exists, if by “existence” we are speaking about the common-sense notion of something that is independent of the mind, material, and doesn’t depend on something other than itself to endure like a color depends on an object in which to inhere. Lacan spoke in particularly potent and striking aphorisms that require careful unpacking in order to be understood, and this practice has been taken over by a number of other thinkers such as Zizek, Badiou, and Laclau who have varied the “x does not exist” aphorism to their own ends.

In his discussion of aphorism in Nietzsche & Philosophy, Deleuze writes:

The poem and the aphorism are Nietzsche’s two most vivid means of expression but they have a determinate relation to philosophy. Understood formally, an aphorism is present as a fragment; it is the form of a pluralist thought; in its content it claims to articulate and formulate a sense. The sense of a being, an action, a thing– these are the objects of the aphorism… Only the aphorism is capable of articulating sense, the aphorism is interpretation and the art of interpreting. In the same way the poem is evaluation and the art of evaluating, it articulates values. But because values and sense are such complex notions, the poem itself must be evaluated, the aphorism interpreted. The poem and the aphorism are, themselves, objects of an interpretation, an evaluation. (31)

These same principles apply to Lacan’s aphorisms. Not only do they express the sense of a being, action, or thing, but they require interpretation and must be read at least twice. Indeed, I would go one step further and argue that Lacan’s aphorisms are not simply fragments of his thought, but are fractal instantiations of his thought in extremely condensed form, articulating the whole of some element of his topology from a particular vantage. Thus, for example, when Lacan says that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”, are we to understand that the unconscious is what others are saying about us when we’re not around? Clearly this is not what Lacan is getting at. Similarly, when Lacan articulates the aphorism that “desire is the desire of the Other”, are we to understand that desire desires other people? Are we to understand that desire always desires something other than what it has? Are we to understand that my desire is what another person whom I am identified with desires, such that I desire as that other person desires? Or are we to understand that this aphorism articulates all these claims and yet others as well?

There is thus a pedagogy of the aphorism. On the one hand, the aphorism is a mental gymnastics that calls us to deduce the fractal pattern that it both belongs to and alludes to, tracing the terrain of the topology of intersubjective relations. On the other hand, the aphorism is a training in psychoanalytic practice itself, teaching the difference between the signifier and the signified, undermining our tendency towards literalism (though training us in the lettre-alism or reading according to the letter), and acquainting us with the surface of discourse (homonyms, double entendres, etc., all of which enjoin us to hear not what is intended but what is said) that makes up the daily matter of the analytic setting.

In unfolding Lacan’s aphorism that “the Other does not exist”, let us return to a set of questions I posed yesterday in response to Spurious‘ love letter. There I wrote:

I suspect that I’m traumatized by my writing and that one of the reasons that I write as much as I do here is to unwrite what I’ve written by pushing it down the page or by assaulting my readers with so much mass that they lose interest and cease reading. What is it that might render the experience of writing traumatic? Why do I always suspect that I might have unwittingly written something that I shouldn’t have written, as if my words might rearrange themselves when I’m not looking? Transferentially, what is suggested in suspecting that one’s writing always harbors the seeds of disaster and one’s own destruction? What is the unconscious desire or intention behind such paranoid thoughts?

The point to note here, I think, is how this series of questions revolve around a certain relationship to the Other. On the one hand, in suggesting that I write as much as I do to exhaust the reader with the sheer mass of what I’ve written, I suggest that writing functions as a defense against the Other. Clearly this messsage is registered by some. In response to one of my overly lengthy posts, Jodi Dean recently responded by saying “I wonder if your ‘difficulty coming to terms with postmodernism’ accounts for the lecturing on Socrates/Plato.” Here reference to “lecturing” suggests that she took my posts as condescending or as negating her. Similarly, in an exchange with Blah-feme months ago, he responds to my post remarking, “Thanks for the tutorial on Lacan (which I don’t need), all of which is fine and makes sense on its own terms, but still does not address my core point here.” The term “tutorial” indicates that he experienced me as talking down to him or as “educating” him. My father likes to joke that my rhetorical strategy is to wear opponents down by obsessively talking them to death so they walk away, and I’ve heard similar sentiments from others. It seems that I am constitutively unable to express myself in a pithy way, and I suspect there’s a defensive dimension to this designed to put others off.

This point comes out clearly, I think, in the phantasies I mention above of unwittingly writing something that I shouldn’t have written, or in sowing the seeds of my own destruction through my writing. As Spurious points out in a post today, this isn’t half bad. Writing always is the writing of one’s destruction, as in writing one is writing what one “will have been”, and thereby grinding up and destroying what one is. In writing you’re grinding yourself up and making yourself something other than you are. Thus the activity of writing isn’t a production of something that’s already there in you, but is the actual constitution of a being retroactively; just as the symptom doesn’t pre-exist analysis, but is produced retroactively over the course of analysis. The reference of my writing– whether that reference be myself or something in the world –is performatively produced in the activity of writing or speaking it. Or as Lacan says in Encore, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (56). Or as Deleuze and Guattari put it in What is Philosophy, concepts auto-posit their objects (11). I do not discover my true desire in analysis, but rather constitute my desire over the course of analysis. Or as Lacan will say in Seminar 6, Desire and its Interpretation, desire is its interpretation.

However, while this dark phantasy of destruction indicates something positive in desire, indicates a disavowed or repressed desire (what would become possible were I to destroy myself? How would destroying myself provide a means to other desires that I see as prohibited or forbidden?), it can also be taken in the much more mundane sense of indicating a belief that the Other wants something specific from me. That is, if I believe that there is something that I shouldn’t write, that I am forbidden to write and fear that I’m unconsciously writing it anyway, this implies also that I think there’s something I should write or that the Other wants me to write. This is the essence of transference. Transference is my beliefs about what the Other wants, believes, enjoys, or knows such that I situate my own action vis a vis the Other as either fulfilling that demand or thwarting it. For instance, I mow my lawn not because I desire to do so, but because I believe the Other (in this case my neighbors) desire me to do so. After all, I see them mowing their lawns. Of course, they, no doubt, do so because they believe I desire them to do so as they see me mowing my lawn.

Over the course of analysis, this has appeared very clearly in relation to Fink. Whenever issues of my ambitions come up, whenever I speak about my desire to write, whenever I express pride over something I’ve accomplished or some recognition from someone I respect I’ve earned, I suddenly find myself feeling silly and ashamed. Suddenly everything I’ve accomplished looks to me like a self-delusion. I grow silent and he has to prod me to speak. Thoughts race through my head that he thinks I’m ridiculous to even think about writing, that he thinks I have nothing to offer to the world of philosophy and theory, that I will never accomplish anything. I imagine that he is laughing at my delusional pride. And presumably these thoughts and affects proliferate in all other social relations in my life. For instance, I recently expressed shock when discovering how much traffic this blog is getting, indicating that I believe everything I write here is garbage, so much trash to be thrown out. I assume that everyone sees what I see in a particular text, so I don’t see much point in writing about it. This is transference and this indicates a certain relationship to the Other around which my desire is organized or structured.

Now Fink gives no indication as to what he thinks one way or the other about anything I say. For the most part sessions consist of him saying “hmmmm” and “huh” while I babble on about something. Generally his interventions are very sparse, and when they do occur they can be taken in a number of different ways. In short, there’s no evidence to support the thesis that he does think these things when I talk about my writing and ambition. Indeed, he’s even given me opportunities to participate in psychoanalytic organizations, conferences, and write papers relating to psychoanalysis, indicating that he sees something of value in my work. Consequently, if I experience him in this way, this indicates that I believe he has a specific desire and that I do not fit the space of that desire. That is, in relating to him in this way, I fit him into the space of my fantasy, by formulating an answer to the question of what I am for him or for the Other in general.

Or put a bit differently, fantasy isn’t a fantasy of what I would like to have or do: that I would like to write a book of the order of Hegel’s Science of Logic, engage in this or that erotic encounter, have this or that ideal job, etc. Fantasy is a fantasy of what we are for the Other, how the Other desires us. In the fantasies I describe above, I am nothing for the Other, I hold the position of always being the wrong thing. Often I feel like Kevin Kline’s pathetic character in A Fish Called Wanda, who is driven into a fury whenever someone insinuates that he’s stupid: “Don’t call me stupid!” I place myself in situations where I might enact my fantasy, seeking out conflict and finding myself particularly fascinated with those who show me no respect. I find myself unable to walk away from these situations as I described in my post on schismogenesis. My strongest friendships have been with people who tend to be abusive, condescending, and mocking in their discussions with me. And in revealing all these ridiculous things about my fantasy life publically, I’m enacting that fantasy structure right here and now by humiliating myself for all the world to see. That is, the fantasy has a fractal structure that extends throughout all relations in my life pertaining to intersubjectivity. Or perhaps the shame I feel when speaking about writing and ambition indicates that these desires are organized around a fundamental hostility towards the Other, and that the desire to write is linked to some other desire that is less than pretty or nice.

Now the point is that we suffer our desires or that our desires bring us to suffer. I do not enjoy these fights and scuffles that I find myself in. I do not enjoy when I make myself look petty and small when responding as I did to Jodi. I don’t enjoy feeling shame when expressing my desires to Fink. This unpleasantness is one form of jouissance. It is in relation to this suffering of one’s desire that we should understand what Lacan has in mind by traversing the fantasy. In traversing the fantasy one comes to see how the coordinates of their action have all been organized in terms of their fundamental fantasy, and also come to see that the Other does not exist. In saying the “Other does not exist” it is not being said that other people do not exist, but rather that there is no one specific demand that the Other has. Put differently, it is discovered that the Other itself is desiring and doesn’t know what it wants. As Zizek so nicely puts it:

Today, it is a commonplace that the Lacanian subject is divided, crossed-out, identical to a lack in a signifying chain. However, the most radical dimension of Lacanian theory lies not in recognizing this fact but in realizing that the big Other, the symbolic order itself, is also barre, crossed-out, by a fundamental impossibility, structured around an impossible/traumatic kernel, around a central lack. WIthout this lack in the Other, the Other would be a closed structure and the only possibility open to the subject would be his radical alienation in the Other. So it is precisely this lack in the Other which enables the subject to acheive a kind of ‘de-alienation’ called by Lacan separation: not in the sense that the subject experiences that now he is separated for ever from the object by the barrier of language, but that the object is separated from the Other itself, that the Other itself ‘hasn’t got it’, hasn’t got the final answer– that is to say, is in itself blocked, desiring; that there is also a desire of the Other. This lack in the Other gives the subject– so to speak –breathing space, it enables him to avoid the total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with the lack in the Other. (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 122)

That is, God is dead. Now, this observation might appear obvious and trite. However, let us take up the example of Kafka. Kafka’s novels depict the phantasmatic unconscious world of how subjects experience bureacracy as all powerful, all knowing systems, to which subjects are idiotically and mercilessly subjected without rhyme, reason, or any prospect of escape save death. In The Trial Joseph K. entertains the vain fantasy that he might discover why he has been accused of a crime and what his crime is, and only escapes when being axed to death at the end. In The Castle, Joseph K. literally drives himself to exhaustion, finally collapsing in the snow and dying, pursuing the vain task of discovering what job he has been hired for. “What have I done and what should I do” are the two elusive questions of phantasy. Phantasy functions in this way with respect to the Other by supplying an answer to these questions. For instance, the bizarre story of John Mark Karr’s false confession to killing JonBeney Ramsey suggests someone who was desparately looking to give body to his experience of guilt. Phantasmatically it could be said that Karr was guilty, in the sense that Joseph K. is guilty, just not of the murder of Ramsey.

In discovering that the Other itself is barred, desiring, lacking, and without the answer, I both gain something and lose something. On the one hand, so long as I believed in the existence of the Other I could believe in a fullness and completeness that someone else possesses and that I myself might obtain. In traversing my phantasy, this belief collapses, and I lose the prospect of attaining completeness and total fulfillment. This collapse in the Other is also accompanied by a collapse of my very identity or sense of being, as my identity was constructed like a projective space as a response to the demand I attribute to the Other, of what I believed the Other was demanding of me. All of Joseph K’s actions are organized around discovering the truth of the Other’s desire. This is his being and his identity, and were he to discover that the Other does not itself know– as in the parable of the Law in The Trial –he would undergo subjective destitution. On the other hand, in discovering that the Other does not exist, there is also a profound relief that leads to a transformation in the symptom and a loosening of a number of other “sub-symptoms” related to the symptom. Insofar as I no longer work on the premise that the Other wants something specific, I am freed to more directly pursue my desire and to focus on what little islands of jouissance really are available, rather than pursuing a mythological complete jouissance that doesn’t exist. That is, the sort of shame and anxiety I described in relation to Fink disappears.

It is in this spirit that I would propose Laclau’s thesis that “society doesn’t exist” should be read. What this discovery promotes is not the pursuit of a complete and full society, where wholeness is finally possible, but rather the exact opposite: traversing the social fantasy that such a society is possible, that there is a social order that would be complete, and directly facing the intrinsic antagonisms that populate all social relations. Everywhere we look we see social movements that dream of harmony and completeness, and it is these fantasies that produce so much horror. Traversing the social fantasy means being done with these fantasies once and for all, so that genuine work might begin.