co-op-20th-eyes-february-112eyes1The epigraph to the second section of Lacan’s “Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” reads “Advice to a young psychoanalyst: Do crossword puzzles” (Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 220). If this is good advice for the psychoanalyst, then it is because formations of the unconscious– dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes, bungled actions, symptoms, etc. –are often themselves encrypted like the hints of a crossword puzzle. The hints of a crossword puzzle– roughly equivalent to formations of the unconscious in this analogy –are organized around a lacuna or the missing signifier that is to be found. These hints are traces of that signifier. However, in successfully completing a crossword puzzle it is often necessary to practice a horizontal or lateral relationship to language, an associative relationship, where one draws on equivocations, homonyms, and other figures of rhetoric to discover the missing signifier. Freud gives a nice example of how the symptom is organized around a lacuna or a missing signifier when discussing the case of a young woman during the initial stages of schizophrenia in his article “The Unconscious”:

A patient of Tausk’s, a girl who was brought to the clinic after a quarrel with her lover, complained that her eyes were not right, they were twisted. This she herself explained by bringing forward a series of reproaches against her lover in coherent language. ‘She could not understand him at all, he looked different every time; he was a hypocrite, an eye-twister, he had twisted her eyes; now she had twisted eyes; they were not her eyes any more; now she saw the world with different eyes. (SE XIV, 197 – 198)

Part of the significance of the schizophrenic from a metapsychological perspective is that processes that are ordinarily unconscious are all there on the surface. Where the neurotic might have a deep phobia of having his eyes “twisted”, this woman experiences her eyes as being literally twisted, as being unable to see the world as she would normally be able to see it. Granting that there is nothing physiologically wrong with her, the mystery then becomes why she has come to experience the world in this way. Taken literally, her words are unintelligible and have the feel of nonsense. The symptom makes no sense. But when we adopt a floating, horizontal, or lateral relationship to her speech, the lacuna or hidden signifier organizing the symptom begins to come into view. The key signifier in her speech is “eye-twister”. In German, the young woman’s language, the word for “eye-twister” is ‘Augenverdreher‘, which figuratively means “deceiver”. Through the work of the unconscious, the woman had “literalized” her relationship to her lover in a series of symptoms effecting her eyesight. Her symptom was a trace of the “desire of the Other”, a materialization of the desire of the Other– in this case the desire of her boyfriend –insofar as it was a set of symptoms embodying her lover’s desire to deceive her.

read on!

Freudian_slipsLacan’s advice to young analysts is also good advice to readers of Lacan himself. Like the analysand’s formations of the unconscious, reading Lacan requires a sort of horizontal or later reading, a sliding reading, that allows the reader to associatively infer the claim that he is making. Lacan does not directly present his claims or the meaning behind his concepts, but rather the reader must infer his meaning through a number of linguistic and conceptual transformations. Lacan began this practice around the time of his eleventh seminar. At that time he had opened his seminar up to the general public, so we can infer that part of the reason he adopted this rhetorical strategy was to acquaint an audience with no experience with the clinic directly with formations of the unconscious or the rhetorical processes by which these formations come to be. On the other hand, this practice requires the reader or interpreter to take responsibility for their interpretations. Just as the analyst must take responsibility for her analytic interventions in the clinic, recognizing the indeterminability as to whether she is creating this linkage or finding this linkage in her acts of interpretations (Lacanian interpretation does not represent but acts), the reader of Lacan must take responsibility for the Lacan she creates. Like the reader of Joyce’s later work, she directly experiences the polysemy of language or language outside the order of the imaginary where it is believed that there is a fixed and determinable meaning.

Along these lines, take Lacan’s formula for atheism: “…the true formula of atheism is not God is dead— even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father –the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious” (Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 59). Lacan gives us precious little information as to just how this aphorism is to be interpreted. Is Lacan making the claim that God is unconscious? If so, in what sense would God be unconscious? The aphorism occurs in the context of an analysis of a dream Freud provides in The Interpretation of Dreams and the “missed encounter”, where Freud talks of a dream one of his patients had related where his son had said to him “father, can’t you see that I am burning?” In this connection, we are reminded of another gloss on the father where Lacan remarks that the only father is a dead father. Clearly fathers are not always dead, so we must understand Lacan as referring to the father not as a living body, but in his function as a signifier, as a symbolic function, in the Oedipus, naming the enigmatic desire of the mother and enacting the prohibition against incest. In this respect, to say that God is unconscious would be to say that God is the dead signifier that establishes prohibition.

However, Lacan’s little aphorism can be taken in another sense as well. In his earlier seminars, Lacan had defined the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other.” “The discourse of the Other” is another way of saying “language”, for as Lacan famously argued, the unconscious is structured like a language. Within us, the story goes, we have this viral parasite, language, that uses our body as a host to replicate itself. It is not we who use language but language who uses us. As we are developing, prior to our own mastery of language, we hear all sorts of snippets of speech that come to form our “ur-language”. It is difficult not to be struck, for example, by the very young child, just beginning to acquire language, that repeats everything she hears in a way that has no sense or meaning. Similarly, we might think of Dr. Seuss books, where the aim is not to convey a sense or meaning, but a certain rhythm or music that characterizes the English language and which comes to function as the “infrastructure” of language. This language is a non-signifying language upon which signification becomes possible. It is language as pure materiality, as material cause, rather than language in a signifying or referential dimension. The Lacanian thesis is that these snippets of language come to organize the structure of symptoms and desire.

For example, I did not know my legal name, Paul Reginald Bryant, until I was about nine or ten years old. In fact, the discovery that I had a different name– literally the name of my father –came as something of a trauma for me. It was the first day of kindergarten or first grade and the teacher did not call out my name, but the name of my father. When I protested that my name wasn’t called out, she told me that my name was “Paul”, not “Levi”. When I told this to my sister on the bus later this day she became very angry and agitated, telling me that she was going to tell on me. In the meantime, I experienced a sort of “erasure” in the symbolic, no longer knowing who I was. Up until this point, my entire family, immediate and extended, along with all my teachers and friends had called me “Levi”. Now I came to discover that this was all a lie, that I was somebody else. At this point, I resolutely abandoned the name “Levi” and came to call myself “Paul”.

This seems like a minor affair, but later on it seemed to have rather significant consequences where the structuration of my desire was concerned. Around the Summer of 1999 I sat down to write my masters-thesis in graduate school. Within the space of a few months, after years of research, I pounded out a four hundred page manuscript that was later to become my book, Difference and Givenness. After reading the thesis, the people on my committee agreed that the manuscript was too good to be a mere master’s thesis and recommended that I set it aside and write another thesis, instead using the manuscript on Deleuze as my dissertation. I dragged my feet for a long time in writing the second thesis, not completing my thesis on Husserl, Derrida, and Peirce until the year of 2003. It was as if something was preventing me from getting any work done, even though I had plenty of ideas. In the mean time, prior to completing the second master’s thesis, the school awarded me my MA despite not having defended or completed the work, as if mysteriously the symbolic was telling me that I would complete this work and undergo this symbolic transformation whether I liked it or not.

Between 1999 and 2004 when I finally earned my PhD, I found it incredibly difficult to even look at my dissertation. It sat on a shelf on top of one of my bookcases gathering dust. I couldn’t even look at it. Around this time, having spent a lot of time reading Fink, Lacan, and Zizek, I also entered analysis, curious to understand the practice behind the theory and believing that I couldn’t write on the theory unless I knew something of this practice. The issue of my name came up relatively quickly in the course of my analysis, despite the fact that it was something I seldom gave thought to, and off and on was the center of my analysis. Over the course of analysis I recollected a picture that I had grown up with. It was taken by my Uncle Richard who had originally given me the name “Levi” and had the caption “Listening to Levi”. It was a black and white picture of my father kneeling before my mother, his ear pressed against her pregnant belly, both of them with radiant, goofy smiles on their face.

It is difficult to underestimate the effects that this picture and this little snippet of speech– “Listening to Levi” –had on the structuration of my desire. For years prior to recollecting this picture, I had participated heavily on internet discussion lists and I have always been outspoken in classes. I now blog compulsively. I chose the vocation of teaching and fall into deep depression whenever I am on long vacations away from teaching. As I was growing up, whenever I would get in trouble– which was a lot –my father would question me for hours in the living room, this picture sitting atop the baby grand piano. None of my answers were ever sufficient, each was refuted or overturned, and the grueling process would commence yet again, always with the same final outcome: a severe beating. No doubt this is why I react so strongly when I’m questioned in a particular way.

At any rate, around 2003 in a rather rash moment that I didn’t really think about at the time, I decided to start going by the name of “Levi” once again. This was an extremely odd thing to do that unsettled a number of my friends and colleagues. However, when I did this something remarkable happened. Suddenly I began writing copiously, I was filled with a boisterous sense of humor, able to laugh again at the smallest thing, despite not knowing laughter for years. I became filled with an unquenchable speech and writing that would fill entire pages. And above all I was able to finally edit, complete, and defend my dissertation. I am still not sure why it had been so difficult to bring my dissertation project to completion, but if I had to hazard a guess it would be that the completion of my dissertation under my father’s name, under the name of “Paul”, would have amounted to ceding authorship to him rather than assuming my own authorship. It would have been a double erasure.

Returning to Lacan’s aphorism about God, if the true formula for atheism is that God is unconscious, then this is because the unconscious is the discourse of the Other. However, completing the crossword puzzle, Lacan began to put forward, around his fifth seminar, his famous aphorism that “the Other does not exist”. When Lacan claims that the Other does not exist, this is not because there is no language, but rather because language cannot be totalized in a complete set. The reason for this can be found in Seminar 14, The Logic of Phantasy, where Lacan tells us that “the signifier cannot signifier itself”. In order for effects of signification to take place, we always require a second signifier, an S2, that allows effects of signification to be produced. But if the signifier cannot signify itself, it follows that language is structured like Russell’s paradox, where we cannot have a set of all sets that do not include themselves. Every attempt to form a totality out of language ends up falling into paradox by virtue of the fact that the signifier cannot signify itself.

If the true formula of atheism is that God is unconscious, then this is because it is impossible to consistently form a totality. As Badiou puts it, “the One is not”, “the whole is not”. However, it is here that the real mystery emerges, for in the same seminar Lacan remarks that “the gods belong to the field of the real” (Seminar 11, 45). How are we to reconcile Lacan’s thesis about the true formula for atheism with his claim that the gods belong to the field of the Real? In my next post I will attempt to tackle this question, proposing a distinction between theology, negative theology, atheism, and what I call “a-theology” and “A-theology”. Hopefully A-Theology and a-Theology will go some of the way towards distinguishing Lacan’s position from atheism, but will also show how it differs fundamentally from theology or negative theology. Moreover, I hope A-Theology will go some of the way towards answering Guavatree’s important questions:

My original question was whether Jesus was merely resolving his interrogation of the imaginary onto a higher plane (of Imaginary) — And it is indeed necessary to bring up the Symbolic and the Real in order to show what is happening to the structure of society under Jesus’ rhetoric. Where is he moving our desires our love our hate?

When you write about the Imaginary like this:

“where we strike at those other persons trying to destroy the source of this frustration. ”

It’s hard not to immediately think of “turn the other cheek”, which directly challenges the domain of the Imaginary. you also write this:

what would it mean to form a community that wasn’t organized at the point of overlap between the Imaginary and the Symbolic.

And I like your emphasizing this overlap or intersection as opposed to just “Imaginary social organization as the social is premised on a shared identity.”

Because I think the Symbolic is sort of the fulcrum here in more ways than one. (The original post focused mostly on Jesus versus the Imaginary). Not only is Jesus encountering his Jewish leaders and rabbis, but a whole Roman imperial state and all that goes with it.

There are still many issues to resolve, though. You end the post with this:

In encountering the other under the order of the Real, my relation to the other becomes an aleatory and inventive relation, a kairotic relation and event, situated in terms of the question of what is called for in this singular situation.

How do you situate the Jesus’ miracles and healing in this reading? These are events that are scientifically impossible and seem to contradict “a new vision of communal relations” because it’s so otherworldly and unReal (possible!). A new vision doesn’t seem to require the magical. Jesus also has a lot to say about “the kingdom of heaven” and I wonder how that plays against the shattering of the Imaginary.

More textual examples would be helpful, I’ll check some out tomorrow perhaps.

I still have a nagging question, tho: You seem to be arguing against the possibility that there is something inside Jesus’ language that leads or forces the multitude into forming a cult that is eventually embraced by the empire, sweeps the world and perpetrates all sorts of horrible crimes. You are arguing I think that there is something very radical and true and useful in the gospels if you look in the right way. But is this correct? Or more generally, to what extent does the theorization of new communities have to prepare for radical misreadings? Is Zizek (et al) writing about Jesus now like how he wrote about Mao, Stalin, the guillotine: “After historical failure after historical failure, nevertheless I still believe–there IS something here.”

Here I think much spins on the manner in which collective and psychic structure seeks to cover over or efface the Real.