Over at Pagan Metaphysics, Paul has posted a couple of great quotes from Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Hopefully he won’t mind if I reproduce his post here. Paul writes:

I was reading through Dennett’s Breaking the Spell again yesterday and came across an endnote that raised a laugh. Dennett is reflecting on the value and uses of incomprehensibility, mystification and paradox in religion, specifically as mechanisms for bedazzling the mind (effective marketing strategies or tools of transmission), when he notes in a side comment his first secular experience of this phenomenon.

My introduction to this somewhat depressing idea came in 1982, when I was told by the acquisitions editor of a major paperback publishing company that her company wasn’t going to bid for the paperback rights for The Mind’s I, the anthology of philosophy and science fiction that Douglas Hofstadter and I had edited, because it was “too clear to become a cult book.” I could see what she meant: we actually explained things as carefully as we could.

OK, not funny so far (although perhaps evoking a knowing smile). Dennett then proceeds to explain a related story.

John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: “Michel, you’re so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?” To which Foucault replied, “That’s because in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault’s candor: eumerdification.


I don’t know if Foucault actually said this or not, but it’s the sort of thing I strangely want him to have said and to be true. Nor am I denouncing such style, as I think such “eumerdification” is a rhetorical technique that functions to produce an effect within the reader. All of this reminds me of an allegory that Lacan relates when discussing the nature of gaze as object a. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan writes,

In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Pharrhasios, Zeuxis has the advantaga of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrhasios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it. By this he showed that what was at issue was certainly deceiving the eye (tromper l’oeil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye. (103)

The secret of the veil is that it causes us to wonder what is behind us. And, of course, Lacan’s example here is particularly delicious as it is a painted veil, and therefore veils nothing. There is nothing behind this veil, but rather the veil produces the effect of something hidden. The veil here functions as objet a, the object-cause of desire, becoming the engine of desire. Objet a is not the object of desire, but rather that which causes or occasions desire, that which evokes desire. In this connection, I remember a friend from graduate school who was obsessed with the Girls Gone Wild commercials. Finally, at a certain point, he broke down and decided to buy one of the videos. To his great surprise and disappointment, the videos evoked none of the desire the commercials elicited precisely because the black bars screening the women’s breasts were absent in the videos. It was precisely the censorship of the veil, of the black bar, that evoked or caused his desire, not the object of desire itself (the breasts). In the absence of the object-cause of desire, my friend could no longer desire the object of his desire.

This seems to be what Dennett’s editors were getting at with respect to the issue of whether or not to buy the rights to Dennett’s early book Minds Eye I. Because the book was written so clearly, the editor contended, it was unlikely to become a cult or classic book. Our initial reaction to this anecdote might be anger or outrage. “How dare they reject a book because it’s clear! Isn’t clarity a virtue to be admired?!?!” However, the editor has a point. Part of what allows a book to endure, part of what gives a book the power to last, is precisely a sort of opacity, a presence of the veil, that allows, over time, all sorts of heterogeneous meanings to be projected on to the book as we endlessly wonder what it is that is behind the veil. The veil here functions like an engine or productive device that ensures that the text continue to produce meaning for readers and that we return to it again and again.

I’ve always thought that Lacan’s parable of Zeuxis and Pharrhasios was the core of his analytic teaching, perfectly exemplifying the aim of psychoanalytic treatment. We’re all familiar with the Lacanian thesis that the end of analysis consists in traversing the fantasy and discovering that the big Other does not exist. But what does that really mean? With Lacan the point that should always be borne in mind is that the three different subject positions– neurosis (hysteria/obsession), psychosis, and perversion (there is no “normal”) –are structures of intersubjectivity or ways of relating to the Other. The neurotic relates to the Other’s demand, trying to repress the enigma of the Other’s desire, the pervert relates to the Other’s jouissance, and the psychotic has foreclosed the Other altogether. The neurotic suffers from desire. Here we should recall that, according to Lacan, “desire is the desire of the Other”. The ambiguity of the genitive in this little aphorism drawn from Kojeve allows us to interpret desire as the desire of the Other as simultaneously signifying that the subject desires the Other (that the Other is an object of the neurotic’s desire) and, more fundamentally, that the neurotic desires to be desired by the Other. The neurotic therefore suffers from a persistent and frustrating question: “what am I for the Other?” “what does the Other want from me?”

read on!

The neurotic attempts to defend against the desire of the Other. Why? Doesn’t this sound strange? Isn’t it nice to be desired by the Other? Isn’t that what we want? No, according to Lacan. The desire of the Other is always non-specific, enigmatic, and therefore anxiety producing. Here you might think of the tinge of anxiety you experience on a first date, or upon meeting new people, at a job interview, or on your first day of class. It is in those moments, there, that you encounter the desire of the Other. In Seminar 10, L’Angoisse (in my opinion, Lacan’s richest seminar), Lacan compares desire to being before a female preying mantis and not knowing whether you’re wearing the mask of a male preying mantis or a female preying mantis. That is the desire of the Other. It is this against which the neurotic strives to defend. The neurotic thus tries to convert the enigmatic desire of the Other into a specific demand so as to escape the anxiety produced by the mystery of the Other’s desire.

Yet the neurotic ends up suffering from this demand, around which he constructs his symptom. In other words, the neurotic attempts to “make the Other exist” by transforming the Other’s desire into a specific demand. The neurotic then behaves in such a way towards the Other to get the Other to make this demand. We find ways to get the other to reject us, hate us, love us, fight with us, laugh at us, to beat us, etc. These are all ways to convert the enigma of the Other’s desire into a specific demand. They might be unpleasant, but they are nonetheless preferable to the overwhelming anxiety we encounter in the face of the opacity of the Other. Adam Kotsko expresses this phenomenon well in a recent post he’s written on the academic job market. There Adam writes:

My approach has been that the job market is apparently very random. We can follow all the best advice in the world, but it still comes down to the preferences of a handful of people at some randomly-chosen department and the outcome of a power struggle that probably no one outside the situation could ever fully understand or predict. So aside from broad guidelines (try to publish in good journals! present at conferences! get teaching experience! finish!) that 95% of PhD candidates are following anyway, there’s essentially no way of tailoring yourself to the job market.

Under such circumstances, the only thing you can do is be true to yourself. Use your grad school years (and as many years after as you can hold out without going crazy) to do what you want to do and what you probably wouldn’t be able to do under other circumstances. For me, that included language work, serious reading in the intellectual traditions most important to me, and serious writing that intervenes into debates I find compelling and important — and more recently getting the privilege of introducing young people to those intellectual traditions and debates.

Lurking in the background of Adam’s good advice, I think, is a thesis about neurotic suffering with respect to the job market. The neurotic wants to believe that you can calculate the job market, that the job market is demanding something specific, and that you could figure out what this specific thing is. In other words, the neurotic– which is the majority of us, remember there’s no “normal” –believes that the Other exists. In relating to the market we try to convert the desire of the Other into a specific demand. The symptomatic results of this are predictable in a number of respects. There’s an odd way in which the person on the market becomes pervaded by a combination of anxiety and guilt. The anxiety we experience in relation to pursuing jobs is understandable: despite our attempt to determine what jobs are specifically demanding, the opacity of desire still stands through and we find ourselves once again in the preying mantis situation. But why the guilt? Why do we so often find ourselves wracked with guilt? In Seminar 7, Lacan argues that the ethics of psychoanalysis consists in not giving way on your desire. Guilt is a sign that you have betrayed your desire in some way. As we try to mould ourselves into what we take the Other’s demand to be, to formulate research along the lines of what we believe the Other wants, etc., we end up betraying our own desire. All sorts of symptoms begin to flare up. Perhaps we bomb an interview, perhaps we act like a heel at an interview, perhaps we start drinking heavily, perhaps we find ourselves unable to complete anything, etc., etc., etc. Something comes to occupy the place of our repressed desire and this is the symptom, the marker of a desire that we have betrayed and that comes back to haunt us.

Back then to the parable of Zeuxis and Pharrhasios. How does this parable encapsulate the core of analytic treatment and what it means to traverse the fantasy? Traversing the fantasy consists in coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing behind the veil, that the idea that there is something behind the veil is already an effect of the veil itself. If the Other does not exist, then this is because the Other itself does not know what it wants or desires, does not have an answer to the question, does not have a specific demand. It was, we discover in analysis in a manner not unlike the film Angel Heart as analyzed by Zizek (cf. Tarrying with the Negative), us ourselves all along that were formulating this demand. It is not the Other that formulates the demand, but rather we who project the demand on to the Other. This is why the analyst conducts himself in such a strange way. She constantly positions herself so as to prevent any impression that she wants something specific from the analysand and so as to keep the analysand guessing as to what her desire might be so that the analysand might discover the manner in which he projects a specific demand on to her. And through this discovery it becomes possible for the analysand to both separate from the demand that torments him and avow his own desire or become an agent of his own desire.

In a world where there is no specific demand, where there is no answer to what the Other desires, where the Other does not even exist, the only route, as Adam suggests, is to be true to yourself or become an agent of your own desire. As Lacan will put it in the title of one of his later seminars, the alternative is Ou Pire!, “or worse”, in that the repressed is always accompanied by a return of the repressed. Traversing the fantasy consists in discovering that there is no support that would guarantee or tell you that your desire is the “right” desire. In Seminar 11, Lacan will quip that psychoanalysis is the only true atheism and that God is unconscious. What does this mean? It means that, unlike Descartes who finds a guarantee of knowledge in the third meditation, God itself, if it exists, is split, fissured, or doesn’t know what it desires.

In one of his later seminars (15 or 16, I think), Lacan begins the session by recounting a dream he had the night before. In his dream, he says, he arrived at his seminar only to find that none of his students had shown up. Far from being upset by this dream, he remarks, he woke up filled with happiness and a sense of content, only to be filled with disappointment when he arrived at the seminar to find that his students were there. A dream, of course, is the fulfillment of a wish or a desire, so what is the wish that animated Lacan’s dream. Was it simply that he simply no longer wished to teach? I don’t think so. The week before he had discussed objet a in relation to Fibonacci numbers and was slotted to discuss objet a once again that day. My hypothesis is that Lacan’s disappointment arose from his students behaving like Zeuxis in relation Pharrhasios’s painting of the veil. Lacan had revealed that there was nothing behind the veil, that the veil is a sort of an illusion, yet still his students continued to show up, awaiting him to reveal what is behind the veil. As his seminar, following Seminars 10 and 11 continued, Lacan would paint more and more elaborate and enigmatic veils “upon the wall”, veils that literally defy any understanding, while simultaneously insisting everywhere and always that there is nothing behind the veil, that the veil is an illusion, that the sense of something behind the veil is an effect of the veil itself. We can sense this even in the very style of speech in his unedited seminars. As you read these seminars there’s a sort of breathless anticipation, as if he’s just about to reveal the Truth. Yet the truth never arrives. However, Lacan would again and again repeat that the Truth never arrives and that it is constitutively impossible for the Truth to arrive because it doesn’t exist. There is no Cartesian God to support us and free us from traumatic doubt. If Lacan was disappointed, I suspect this is because his students continued to situate him in the position of Master, as containing some mysterious agalma or secret, and had not traversed their fantasy.