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!
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.