Okay, not really but close enough. Know my love for all things pertaining to dark science-fiction (none of that mystical and fascist good versus evil Star Wars crap for me!) and for all things post-apocalyptic, Mel has me reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I suspect this is her sly way of getting me to encounter something else she’d like me to see, but treating her reading suggestions as a sort of rebus is half the fun. At any rate, last night I came across the following passage which beautifully illustrates the Lacanian concept of the Imaginary:

“Use your neurons.” Said Crake. “Step one: calculate length of man’s arm, using single visible arm as arm standard. Assumption that both arms are approximately the same length. Step two: calculate angle of bend at elbow. Step three: calculate curvature of ass. Approximation of this may be necessary, in absence of verifiable numbers. Step four: calculate size of hand, using visible hand, as above.”

“I’m not a numbers person,” said Jimmy laughing, but Crake kept on: “All potential hand positions must now be considered. [They’re discussing whether a man’s hand is on their busty teacher’s ass at the mall.] Waist, ruled out. Upper right cheek, ruled out. Lower right cheek or upper thigh would seem by deduction to be the most likely. Hand between both upper thighs a possibility, but this position would impede walking on the part of the subject, and no limping or stumbling is detectable.” He was doing a pretty good imitation of their Chemlab teacher– the use-your-neurons line, and that clipped, stiff delivery, sort of like a bark. More than pretty good, good.

Already Jimmy liked Crake better. They might have something in common after all, at least the guy had a sense of humour. But he was also a little threated. He himself was a good imitator, he could do just about all the teachers. What if Crake turned out to be better at it? He could feel it within himself to hate Crake as well as liking him. (74 – 75)

And there, my friends, in these final bolded lines is a gorgeous example of the dynamics of the Lacanian domain of the Imaginary. The only flaw in this brief little vignette is that Jimmy is so aware of his ambivalence towards Crake and the source of that ambivalence. Jimmy senses that his identity or being is threatened and captivated by the fact that Crake shares the same identity, and perhaps better, as Jimmy. In this respect, he risks fading or disappearing in his relation to Crake.

Dylan Evan’s outlines the Lacanian Imaginary nicely in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis:

The basis of the imaginary order continues to be the formation of the ego in the MIRROR STAGE. Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, IDENTIFICATION is an important aspect of the imaginary order. The ego and the counterpart form the prototypical dual relationship, and are interchangeable. This relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification with the little other means that the ego, and the imaginary order itself, are both sites of a radical ALIENATION: ‘alienation is constitutive of the imaginary order’ (S3, 146). The dual relationship between the ego and the counterpart is fundamentally narcissistic, and NARCISSISM is another characteristic of the imaginary order. Narcissism is always accompanied by a certain AGGRESSIVITY. The imaginary is the real of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principle illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the affects are such phenomena. (82)

If there is an intrinsic alienation at the heart of the imaginary or the order of identification, then this is because one cannot coincide with their image. Here it is necessary to construe image broadly as pertaining to both the order of specularity and our sense of self-image or who we are. The image is a visage presented to an-other; an image of how we would like to be seen or how we imagine ourselves as being seen by others. If this aspect of the image is characterized by alienation then this is because we can never see ourselves being seen as the other, in fact, sees us. As such, this dimension of the imaginary is characterized by a constant frustration and insecurity by virtue of the fact that our image cannot be mastered. By contrast, insofar as we arrive at our image through identification with an-other, the imaginary is a site of alienation insofar as our image is always elsewhere or outside of ourselves. We can never quite live up to the statuesque image with which we’ve identified.

It is this alienation that generates the ambivalent love-hate and aggressivity at the heart of the imaginary. On the one hand, we experience a perpetual struggle between our image and ourselves as we strive to embody it, unable to ever full assume it or live up to it. As a consequence, the ideal of wholeness and identity that the image inaugurates within ourselves has the paradoxical effect of leaving us feeling perpetually incomplete. This incompleteness or hole that lies at the center of the (w)hole, in its turn, generates a profound defensiveness and sense of struggle with the other that threatens that image. Moreover, insofar as we arrive at the image through our identification with the other, we constantly experience ourselves as being in danger of being usurped. As such, a struggle with the other ensues which is essentially a struggle over ownership of the image. The tragic paradox is 1) that if the agent is successful in either getting the other to see oneself as one would like to be seen, the value of the others gaze is destroyed and one is no longer seen as one would like to be seen, or 2) if one is successful in destroying the other that threatens to usurp the image as in the case of Crake, the gaze required to sustain one’s own self is destroyed.

It is sometimes said that fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Hmmmm.