the_fallIn an interesting response to my post on A-Theology, Nikki over at Prosthetics writes:

levi, hello…
I am interested in what you wrote here:

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.

First i would like to propose that, in light of what you and Lacan are working in this vicinity ‘dead signifier’ is a redundant phrase – but at the same time, perhaps redundancy is where living takes place, or more precisely, where living shows up on the radar? This is the case for Badiou, and also for Jean-Luc Marion… Yet as Derrida points out in limited. inc signification, signing, the desire to underwrite what cannot be insured, is always a hollow(ing) enterprise. I am thinking redundancy, repetition and ritual.

Nikki makes an interesting point about the nature of the signifier, death, and life that had not occurred to me in quite these terms. For the sake of those not very familiar with Lacan’s work, early Lacan– the Lacan of the first two seminars and of Function and Field of Speech –often emphasized that the signifier “kills the thing”. I read this in somewhat Derridean terms. With the advent of the signifier in our subjective economy absence is introduced into the world. It becomes possible to refer to the thing in its absence, but every relation between word and thing necessarily requires the institution of this sort of a priori absence. Moreover, where the thing is perpetually changing and becoming over the adventure of its existence, there is a way in which the signifier freezes the thing, turning it into a fixed statue.

read on!

The paradox that emerges here is that in naming the thing, even if we happen to get the thing we still do not have the thing as it embodies this absence that contaminates its plenitude. Consider, for example, the sense of disappointment you experience on a birthday. Even if you get everything you wanted, even if you get something beyond your wildest expectations, it still seems as if somehow what you got falls short. You have gotten the object of your demand, but what your demand aimed at, unbeknownst to yourself, was the object of desire. But here the object of desire can never be acquired because it is not an empirical object, but rather a sort of retroactive lack that never existed in the first place.

There is thus a difference between lack and loss. The idea of loss would be the idea that we once had the thing– seen especially in the phenomenon of nostalgia or narratives of the Fall –and that the thing can be regained. By contrast, lack is this a priori lack, a retroactive effect of our entrance into the world of language, that is the absence of a thing we never had.

torusIn Seminar 9, L’identification, Lacan illustrates this difference between loss and lack through the topology of the torus or inner tube. Taking Freud’s references to topography very seriously, Lacan pushed them further by delving into topology. In his view, questions of subjectivity had historically been premised on the topology of the sphere, where you have an inside (our subjective inner world) and an outside (the world of real objects).

Lacan believed that the topology of the sphere systematically distorted our understanding of psychic phenomena and thus sought more appropriate topologies to describe these structures and interpersonal relationships.mobius For example, if Lacan so often made recourse to the Mobius strip when describing relations between the signifier and the signified, or alternatively, between the subject and the Other, then this was because these relations are not relations of inside to outside, but rather of a continuous surface that nonetheless appears to have two sides. Thus, in my relations to the Other, I encounter the Other through the frame of my fantasy, such that I “hear” all their words within this framework of what I believe I am for them. The intentions and desires I attribute to others are really my own inverted desire encountered on the outside. Similarly, the signified of a signifier is not something other than relations between signifiers such that we could speak of “pure meanings” independent of expression as Husserl would have it, but is, according to Lacan, is a retroactive effect of these relations among signifiers themselves.

In his engagement with the torus, Lacan sought a model of desire– and he presented many different models in the ninth seminar –capable of illustrating this difference between loss and lack as it functions in desire, and that would avoid the perils of conceive desire in terms of the model of a sphere. It will be noted that the torus or inner tube contains two circles, an inner circle around an internal void– the “doughnut hole” –and the outer ring about this internal void. Lacan likens the tube surrounding the void to the domain of demand, and treats the internal void the tube encircles to desire. In his earlier work, Lacan had argued that demand is always a demand for love. We request a particular object from another or give a particular object to another, but in this exchange, it is not the object that is at stake, but the object as a carrier of the other’s love. In his essay “Signification of the Phallus”, Lacan remarks that desire is what remains when we subtract need from demand. Need aims at a particular object. Over the course of our childhood development, objects get bound up with the love of the other insofar as our caregivers give or refuse these various objects. It is thus as though objects come to have a certain sort of penumbra about them that is in excess of the empirical properties of the object. If a little compass from a Cracker Jack box can be a profound gift, then this has nothing to do with its use-value or exchange-value. Rather, it is a pure surplus-value intertwined with the subject’s relation to the Other.

However, and this is the key point, this surplus of desire is often invisible from the standpoint of the subject. The subject, in his day to day dealings, takes himself to be pursuing the object of a specific demand. If only he were able to acquire this thing, he thinks to himself, he would be complete. For Lacan, this dimension of demand can be represented by lines encircling the tube of the torus. They aim at surmounting a loss, at regaining something we once had, but each time the demand ends with failure or disappointment. “That was not it!” This, at least, is the nature of the structure in the case of obsessional neurosis. In the case of hysteria, the subject presents himself as the object of the Other’s demand, and sets about frustrating that demand so as to bring to the fore the Other’s desire. Where the obsessional conceives himself as being reunited with the lost object, such that the traumatic and enigmatic dimension of the Other is occluded, the hysteric offers herself as the object of the Other’s demand so as too bring to the fore the Other’s desire. Each of these relations to demand is a strategy for both defending against desire– desire is always enigmatic and opaque –and for sustaining desire by not being swallowed up in satisfaction.

The point is that demands repetitively insist no matter how well they are satisfied because what the demand aims at is not the empirical object of the demand, but this internal void at the heart of the torus. Yet this void, like a black hole that can only be inferred through the curvature of light in its vicinity, is invisible from the standpoint of the subject. If the subject compulsively repeats– and this repetition is the core of the symptom –despite getting the object of his demand, then this is because the demand is always subtended by this void which is literally no-thing. This structure can be seen with particular clarity and purity in the case of the collector who might buy endless copies of the same figurine, thereby underlining the manner in which the desire is not about the object but something in the object that is more than that object or in excess of the object.

the_architectIt is here, I think, that the interest of Nikki’s observation between death, life, and ritual is to be situated. Freud associated ritual with repetition and obsessional neurosis, but also associated the compulsion to repeat with the death drive. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that the death drive is other than life. While a repetition, the death drive is nonetheless creative. This can be seen, for example, in the endless creativity of the formations of the unconscious, which repeat the same missing link in the signifying structure, striving to create a harmony between the real and the symbolic, producing an infinite number of unique formations that are nonetheless tied back to this “glitch” or inconsistency at the heart of the system. From this perspective, perhaps, ritual could be understood as the creative repetition of an a priori failure or lack that organizes even as it disorganizes.