January 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Via Dr. X’s Free Associations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Liberal Ideals…

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

  • Conservative Ideals…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Absent Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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