I don’t do vacations well. For the last few weeks I’ve had a brief respite from the duties of teaching. During the academic year I dream of the summer when I’ll finally have the time to read what I wish to read and write what I wish to write, yet strangely, when vacation finally comes along, I find myself strangely disengaged, unable to think, concentrate, or do much writing. In a number of respects I think this relates to my “Symptom”. Here the Symptom should not be thought as a tick such as repeatedly washing ones hands, the inability to say a particular word (like Charlie’s inability to say anything pertaining to parents or fathers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or a moment of hysterical blindness. These too are symptoms, yet there are symptoms and then there’s the Symptom. Where symptoms are these various ticks and idiosyncracies that inexplicably trouble the life of a subject, the Symptom should instead be thought as the complex theme animating a subject’s life. In Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes that,
…analysis progresses by means of a return to the meaning of an action. That alone justifies the fact that we are interested in the moral dimension. Freud’s hypothesis relative to the unconscious presupposes that, whether it be healthy or sick, normal or morbid, human action has a hidden meaning that one can have access to. In such a context the notion of a catharsis that is a purification, a decantation or isolation of levels is immediately conceivable. (312)
This hidden meaning of ones action is desire. We find ourselves repeatedly doing something– repetitively washing our hands, unable to enjoy vacation –and analysis is that process by which this meaning is finally delivered to us, where we are finally able to understand the meaning of what it is that we’ve been doing all this time. As Lacan will put it a few pages later, this activity is a complex theme pervading our lives that has the status of being a sort of destiny.
Doing things in the name of the good, and even more in the name of the good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us not only from guilt but also from all kinds of inner catastrophes. To be precise, it doesn’t protect us from neurosis and its consequences. If analysis has a meaning, desire is nothing other than that which supports an unconscious theme, the very articulation of that which roots us in a particular destiny, and that destiny demands insistently that the debt be paid, and desire keeps coming back, keeps returning, and situates us once again in a given track, the track of something is specifically our business. (319)
Lacan contends that the only thing we can ever be guilty of is having given way on our desire. If I experience guilt, then in some way, somehow, I have given ground relative to my desire or betrayed my desire. Guilt thus does not arise as a consequence of betraying some moral rule or principle– for instance, stealing something or having impure thoughts –but rather results from a betrayal of one’s desire. This simultaneously explains both why those who are truly wretched morally so often have such clean consciences and why those who are so upstanding morally have such ferocious and persecutory guilt. All of us are familiar with jokes about Catholic and Jewish guilt. If the phenomenon of ferocious guilt so often accompanies devoutly religious lifestyles that are free from moral infraction, then this is because these lives so often entail a betrayal of ones desire by virtue of their very structure. Moral consciousness, in its obedience to the moral law– what Lacan refers to as the “order of Creon” or the “service of goods” –leads to a renunciation of desire. “The morality of power, of the service of goods, is as follows: ‘As far as desires are concerned, come back later. Make them wait'” (315). Yet desire insists regardless of whether one wishes to renounce desire or not. And it returns one way or another in the form of either guilt or symptoms, which are themselves way of maintaining ones desire.
It would thus seem to be an easy matter to avoid the return of desire in the form of the symptom and guilt: Forget morality and pursue what one wants. The analysand reading Lacanian psychoanalytic literature concurrent to his analysis thus reasons that,
If the ‘service of goods’, established morality, modesty, and the system of consumption lead me to betray my desire and thereby produces symptoms and guilt, then I should simply pursue what I want, and live a deliciously hedonistic life, full of the most profound debaucheries and transgressions.
It would be nice were such a simple solution available, however no sooner does the analysand pursue such a course of action than does he find himself consumed by guilt and populated by symptoms far worse than those he knew before. “Why,” he wonders, “does he now feel more miserable than I did before? Why have these boils (I kid you not) break out all over my body, am I now impotent, and do I suddenly find myself beset by all sorts of unfortunate accidents such as the loss of my wallet, minor car accidents, leaving my computer open to porn at work, etc?” It sounds fantastic, but it happens in analysis.
The error that such an analysand has fallen into is the confusion of want with desire. The analysand believes that he knows the meaning of his action and thus knows the true nature of his desire. But analysis shows that the reason for our repetitions, the desire animating our action, is hidden from us. Our desire is embodied in our repetitions and symptoms, yet the whole problem is that we do not know why it is that we repeat. For this reason, the way out of the deadlock of guilt and symptoms cannot be a simple determinate negation of the service of goods or the established system of morality. Rather, we must come to that point where we are in a position to make a decision with regard to our desire. We must come to know our desire. In describing desire as a theme we should think of something like a complex theme in music or Jazz that repeats itself while varying itself. What we have here is the identity of difference, a pattern that plays again and again throughout a person’s life, functioning as the secret cipher, the meaning, the sense, the Sein-zu-Tode, animating a person’s life and imbuing it with meaning. Here I cannot agree with Zizek’s politicization of the ethics of psychoanalysis, for this politicization strikes me as one of the surest ways to give way on ones desire. There might indeed be unconsciousnesses that are political in the way Zizek describes, but we can just as easily imagine a woman named “Rose” who has betrayed her desire by becoming deeply involved in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas– as would have been (dis)approved of by her parents and colleagues –when she should have been cultivating roses. Desire is often banal such that the outsider is unable to fathom why one pursues a particular activity with such zeal– think of how thoroughly Kinsey was obsessed with his research on dung-wasps… Do you understanding it or share this intense fascination? –but it is nonetheless singular and specific to that subject. As Lacan will later say in Seminar XXIII, The Sinthome, “we are never interested in another’s symptom.” It is in this connection that Lacan’s distinction between writing and sense is to be situated: Writing opens on to the real, to the senseless, and refers to a set of traces in the unconscious that take on a libidinal charge irregardless of any sense they might have.
In Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan draws an example from Serge Leclaire to illustrate this point:
One must interpret at the level of the s [signifier, not the signified], which is not open to all meanings, which cannot be just anything, which is a signification, though no doubt only an approximate one. What is there is rich and complex, when it is a question of the unconscious of the subject, and inteded to bring out irreducible, non-sensical— composed of non-meanings –signifying elements. In the same article, Leclaire’s work illustrates particularly well the crossing of significant interpretation towards signifying non-sense, when he proposes, on the subject of his obsessional neurotic patient, the so-called Poordjeli formula, which links the two syllables of the word licorne (unicorn), thus enabling him to introduce into his sequence a whole chain in which his desire is animated. (250)
The case Lacan is referring to can be found in Serge Leclaire’s Psychoanalyzing: On the Order of the Unconscious and the Practice of the Letter, and is well worth the read. If Lacan’s remarks here seem incomprehensible, then this is due to the fact that he is working at the level of writing, writing in the unconscious, rather than at the level of sense. To fully understand the claim made here with regard to Leclaire’s obsessional patient, we would have to follow the case notes and trace how a writing (note the indefinite article) unfolds in this analysand’s formations of the unconscious. Similarly, Rose should not be cultivating roses because this is what “rose” means, rather this is one possibility through which the desire animating the writing “r-o-s-e” might unfold itself in the life of a particular analysand. It is the homonym that matters here, not the sense. Moreover, the sense follows upon the senseless writing– as Deleuze argues in The Logic of Sense, sense arises from nonsense –not the reverse. Another trajectory might have had Rose obsessively researching the Knights of the Rose, or Gillian Rose, never noticing the proximity to her name, going on and on about the underappreciated socio-historical-political significance of the Knights of the Rose without drawing any connection between the unconscious desire, the unconscious writing, that animates her and this particular academic pursuit.
It is in this connection that Lacan’s reference to “destiny” ought to be situated. To speak of destiny in this context is not to speak of astrology or the gods defining one’s future. Rather, destiny here refers to the agency of the signifier in the unconscious. Among his many aphorisms describing the unconscious, is that where Lacan defines the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other”. Before being born, prior to being a subject, the infant is already surrounded by a discourse not of his own making. For Lacan, like Whitehead, the subject is a superject– A product rather than an underlying substance defining a trajectory. A writing weaves itself around the body of the young infant, laying the groundwork of nonsense that will function as the ground from which sense might be produced. As Whitehead will say, “No actual entity can rise beyond what the actual world as a datum from its standpoint– its actual world –allows it to be” (Process and Reality, 83). This too will hold for the writing woven around the infant, functioning as a constraint on the becoming of that subject. However, this should not be taken as a deterministic or grim statement, for the play of language embodied in puns, double entendres, homonyms, equivocations, etc., allows for indefinite variability emerging from this writing. Without constraint and limitation, without selection, there can be no creation. Consequently, the writing populating the unconscious, this discourse of the Other, should not be understood to be akin to a computer program that simply sets on its course once initiated. Nonetheless, this writing insists throughout all subsequent action in much the same way that Oedipus finds himself unable to escape Loxias’ prophecy despite every effort to escape it. Desire returns in the form of the symptom and one can either make a decision to follow ones desire– which requires coming to know ones desire– ultimately one enters analysis because they do not know what they want –or to strive to evade ones desire.
After causing all manner of turmoil with my reading group last week by shifting our meeting from Saturday to Tuesday, I noticed that I am often at the center of maelstorms such as this. Whether it be the various religion and theory wars here, the madness of the last academic year with administration, personal email disputes that emerge from time to time with those whom I love, and so on, I repeatedly find myself in the midsts of some sort of conflict. Indeed, I seek it out. The first thing I open to in the newspaper is the editorial page. I gravitate towards religious and political debates. I often continue engagement with persons I actively dislike or believe to have little that is genuinely interesting to say, despite the unpleasantness of conflictual discussion with such persons. And perhaps, above all, I chose to pursue philosophy, an agon seconded only by the political arena. There is a repetition here that has woven itself all throughout my life, and in suddenly discerning this repetition my desire to write or engage with anyone suddenly disappeared (hence my silence this last week). Strangely however, I felt no guilt in not engendering conflict for a week, indicating that this action, in being articulated, had found a different trajectory through which to unfold itself. In discerning this repetition, I do not thereby discern my desire. Indeed, the relationship between agon and desire might be quite oblique– like the relationship between the manifest- and laten-content of a dream in the dreamwork –and difficult to understand without extensive analysis. Falling into conflict is an action, yet the meaning of the action, the desire that animates it, is opaque to me. What obscure desire animates such an action? This is a question that cannot be answered generically such that someone on this list– a Jungian, no doubt –could say “oh, that means x”. Rather, like Leclaire’s analysis of his obsessional, it is something that can only be revealed in tracing the furrow of a signifier in symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, or a life.