Paul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:
Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.
There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.
Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.
Two points are worth noting here. The first revolves around the Lacanian category of the symbolic and the function of fantasy. If the Lacanian Real– not to be confused with reality –is so disturbing, then this is because it explodes all the boundaries of the symbolic. Very roughly, the symbolic can be thought of as a sort of web thrown over the world that allows the world to appear organized, totalized, and well sorted into a system of categories. Here there is no better reference for understanding the symbolic than Levi-Strauss and, in particular, The Savage Mind and The Raw and the Cooked. Through the simple semiotic categories of the raw (nature) and the cooked (culture), contends Levi-Strauss, the “primitive” mind is able weave a web of signs and narratives that creates an interface between nature and culture. Through this activity, the alien world of nature becomes heimlich or a “home” with familiar coordinates and relations that we can navigate.
The unheimlich, by contrast, are those moments where this symbolic skein breaks down either through the appearance of some Thing that fits in none of these categories, or that paradoxically twists the categories. In his essay on the uncanny or the unheimlich, Freud relates a story where he’s sitting on a train and looks over and sees an unsavory looking man that he did not like, that he did not like at all. A moment later he realizes that the man he’s seeing is actually himself reflected in the mirror of the door of the closet to his cabin. The door had come ajar without him noticing. If this experience was an unsettling experience of the unheimlich, then this was because in this brief moment, this glance of the eye, he had encountered himself as an other. For that brief moment Freud had an encounter with the real— again not reality –where the coordinates of his world had momentarily fallen apart as a result of encountering himself as an other. Where ordinarily we identify with our specular image, encounter it as ourselves, he had now encountered himself as an other or as foreign. Since the body-image is a locus of our “heimlichness” or “being-at-home” in the world, that around which we organize our world, the familiarity of his world had momentarily collapsed. No doubt an experience of this sort is at the root of so many myths surrounding dopplegangers and superstititions about twins. In the case of Levi-Strauss’s sorting of the world into the opposed categories of the raw and the cooked, the moment of the uncanny would perhaps lie in something raw (natural) that is nonetheless cooked (cultural), or vice versa. This, for example, might lie at the root of the horror we experience in science fiction films, where aliens are simultaneously “raw” or experienced as something outside human culture, while simultaneously being cooked in a way uncannily close to human culture but absolutely foreign. This horror is heightened even more in those science fiction films where the human comes to be placed in the category of the “raw” for aliens as food or livestock to sustain their existence. It is not simply horror at the prospect of being eaten, but horror at the prospect of being shifted from the category of the cooked (the encultured) to the raw so as to be cooked within an entirely different cultural framework. Here a possibility excluded by the cultural skein thrown over the world by humans is suddenly made manifest in a way forbidden within the framework of that cultural skein.
In this connection, Paul’s evocation of anxiety— in the Heideggerian sense –in relation to his encounter with psychoanalysis and speculative realism is especially interesting. In Seminar 10, L’angoisse, Lacan engages heavily with Heidegger’s account of anxiety. For Lacan anxiety is closely related to the structure of fantasy. Anxiety is what invades us when the coordinates of fantasy fall away and cease to function due to the obtrusive and startling emergence of the real. Within the Lacanian context, fantasy is not opposed to reality, but is that through which reality supports itself. Where ordinarily we treat fantasy as the opposite of reality, according to Lacan fantasy is instead that which allows reality to be organized and to sustain itself.
This point can be seen a bit more clearly with reference to the discourse of the master depicted to the left in the paragraph above. On the bottom line of the discourse of the master we see two mathemes: $ and a. “$” refers to the barred subject, whereas a refers to the scrap or remainder that falls away with our entrance into the symbolic order. Lacan’s formula for fantasy is ($ * a) read as “subject punch a”. What we have here is the idea of the subject related to or conjoined with that scrap or remainder that escapes him. Returning to the example of Freud’s experience on the train, in our day to day experience we experience ourselves as united with or identical to our image. If our image is a “remainder” or excess that escapes every representation of ourselves, then this is because we cannot see ourselves being seen or we cannot see ourselves from a second or third person perspective.
If Freud is overwhelmed by anxiety when he accidentally catches his image as an other in the mirror, then this is because the fantasy that sustains this identity momentarily breaks down and he encounters the excess of his image over his self-presentation or the manner in which there is an element of specularity that escapes his self-representation. This throws greater clarity on the sense in which fantasy falls on the side of reality in the Lacanian schema. For Lacan a fantasy is not a pleasant imaginary scenerio that we languish privately in the shower. No. Fantasy refers to the frame through which we organize our relation to the world and to others. This in two ways. On the one hand, others are opaque to us. We never know what they’re thinking, what they want, or how they see us. Fantasy provides the answer to that question, creating a sort of schema, not unlike a mathematical function where any random variable we encounter can be placed in the argument position to generate a value according to a rule, that allows us to thematize how others see us, what they want, and what they think of us. If Freud’s encounter with his image as other is uncanny, if it explodes the sustaining framework of his unconscious fantasy organizing interpersonal relations, then this is because, in this fleeting moment, he encounters the otherness of the other or the fact that he cannot master his own image. He sees himself as an other might see him, not as his narcissistic fantasy structure portrays him to himself. His image becomes an object in excess of his self; an object that he cannot master.
On the other hand, if fantasy falls on the side of reality in Lacan, then this is because it totalizes the world into a coherent system where everything is familiar and has its proper place, filtering out those chaotic elements of the world that do not fit with this structure. The world is a bewildering chaos and confusion. Fantasy sustains the notion of an organized reality by suppressing that bewildering chaos and creating the view that the world is an organized system. It matters little whether the subject himself knows the reason behind the madness of the world. All that is necessary is that the subject believes that such a logos exists. Thus, the subject can experience the world as nothing but chaos. So long as the subject believes that there is someone else that knows the logos underlying this bewildering chaos– dear leader, “scientists”, God, the priests, daddy, etc. –the chaos of the world is tolerable. In other words, fantasy is not the de facto possession of a logos, but an belief in the existence of order in principle. Fantasy thus functions as a frame through which we view reality, sorting it into symbolic categories.
It is not by mistake that I choose the discourse of the master to illustrate the Lacanian concept of fantasy. The discourse of the master is the discourse of socialization. It is that discourse that takes the bewildering and confusing world (the S2’s depicted in the right hand portion of the graph above) and totalizes them under a master-term or totalizing signifier that organizes that confusion into a consistent reality. What this discourse masks is the divided subject ($) that lacks the mastery he purports to have. In other words, the truth of the discourse of the master is that the master is divided like everyone else, but the discourse actively dissimulates this truth and strives to exclude it. Although the discourse of the master strives to totalize the world into a consistent system, there is always some element that escapes or that fails to fit (a). The fantasy underlying this structure ($ * a) is the unconscious frame organizing the master’s relation to the other wherein it is believed this remainder can be situated in the system.
All of this, I think, goes straight to the heart of what Paul is getting at in his post with respect to speculative realism. In Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan claims that philosophy is the quintessential discourse of the master. If this seminar is called “the other side of psychoanalysis”, then this is because, when the four discourses are placed in the form of a matrice, the discourse of the master is the exact opposite of the discourse of the analyst. Where the discourse of the analyst addresses the other from the standpoint of the remainder or excess (a) and addresses the other as split ($), the discourse of the master strives to suppress the split subject and exclude the remainder. If philosophy is the discourse of the master, then this precisely because it strives to transform the world into the heimlich through either a totalizing system or through a form of thought where humans stand at the center.
When thematized in this way it is possible to suggest that speculative realism is an ontology consistent with the discourse of the analyst. As discussions of speculative realism have intensified, we have continuously heard charges of “scientism” and been confronted with the question “how do you know?”. The question “how do you know?”, however, misses the entire point. Far from delivering a knowledge of objects, speculative realism unsettles our certainties about objects. This is especially true of onticology and object-oriented ontology, where OOO does not claim to know objects, but rather proclaims that “we do not know what an object can do! We do not even know what objects populate the universe!” On the one hand, contemporary thought is saturated by new age obscurantisms such as those we find in Kaufmann’s brilliant and irritating At Home in the Universe, or some of the less attractive movements in ecological thought. These forms of thought enact the discourse of the master by preaching a sort of cosmic harmony that knows in advance that nature is a harmonious place where it is simply a matter of humans living in accord with nature. On the other hand, we have the reign of the correlationisms that place humans at the center of all relations, preaching that we can never talk of objects independent of their relation to human language, social forces, power, history, minds, etc. This discourse enacts the discourse of the master by suppressing the uncertainties that characterize objects and feeding us a bromide wherein we will always be able to trace unsettling objects back to human categories. Here philosophy remains Ptolemaic. We even get nice terms like “fundamental ontology” where the human necessarily precedes any other engagements. Object-oriented ontology, by contrast, presents a strange ontology where we never know what objects can do, where we cannot decide who or what is acting, and where there is no question of mastery because we’re perpetually caught up in imbroglios and controversies emerging as the result of strange new objects that demand to be heard. As such, onticology occupies the position of the analyst, refusing to say in advance what the world is or what objects populate it, instead siding with the remainders that do not fit with categories of mind or language, signs, encyclopedias, or any other pacifying bromides we might concoct to render the world heimlich.