In response to my post on Commodities, Objects, and Persons, Andrew and I have been having an interesting discussion about Brandom and normativity. As many who have followed me for some time know, I have a nearly allergic reaction whenever issues of normativity arise. On this blog and elsewhere, discussions of normativity have easily been the ugliest in which I’ve been involved. These discussions of normativity literally give me the hives.

I’m as perplexed as anyone as to why I have this strong reaction to this particular theme. Clearly this issue is, for me, saturated with affect. In the past, old friends have said that there’s a red ethical thread that pervades all my writing, yet somehow when these issues become explicit I find myself filled with horror and loathing. The reason for this arises from a profound sense that discussions of normativity are animated by the desire to police, judge, legislate, and normalize. These are desires that make me shudder and recoil. What kind of subject, what sort of conceptual persona, is animated by these desires? What subject or conceptual persona fixates on these things in particular? I don’t think the answers to these questions are very nice, but then I’m incredibly suspicious of all moralists, whether they are moralists in the field of ethics or moralists in the domain of reason. I’m suspicious of all of those which wish to legislate. In Lacanian terms, they strike me as perverts or agents of the big Other seeking to subordinate others to the superegoic Law of the big Other and, like Sade that great agent of the Law, seeking to submit, in the cruelest possible terms, others to the ineluctable necessity of what follows from the Law (cf. Lacan’s “Kant avec Sade”, Klossowski’s Sade My Neighbor, and Deleuze’s Coldness and Cruelty).

Yet I would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that my own reactions to discussions of normativity (as they’re dominantly posed) are themselves borne of normative commitments. My own ethical position, if such it can be called, is thoroughly pervaded by my experience of the Lacanian clinic. At the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan remarks that,

The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire. It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it. There only may the signification of a limitless love emerge, because it is outside the limits of the law, where alone it may live. (276)

The Lacanian clinic is unique in its reverence for the singularity of the subject. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, the Lacanian clinic does not begin by diagnosing patients under a set of diagnostic categories such that symptoms are treated as signs. For example, a patient may enter analysis due to the symptom of repeatedly washing his hands. The Lacanian analyst does not summarily conclude that the symptom of hand washing means or “stands for” the disorder of obsessional neurosis, but instead leaves the significance of the symptom entirely open. Only the analysand will be able to determine the significance of this symptom and the desire it embodies. As a consequence, second, the analyst does not present himself as a master that knows better than the analysand. Over the course of analysis the analyst might gain knowledge of the analysand’s symptoms in a way that renders her capable of intervening well, but the only subject that knows is the analysand’s unconscious. Unlike a psychotherapist that claims to have knowledge and a solution, an analyst begins from the standpoint of ignorance.

read on!

Finally, and most importantly, third, the analyst is not a guru claiming to have an answer as to what is best for the analysand. The analyst, as Lacan says, is a advocate for the analysands (unconscious) desire. She does not have a model of what the analysand should be, or what the outcome of analysis should be. She does not desire that the analysand should be successful at his job, that he should become a great artist, that he should be politically active in this or that way, or that the analysand should stay with his wife and family. The analyst sides with the analysand’s desire and is a midwife that assists in bringing that desire to articulation. If the analyst knows one thing, it’s that the failure to live and acknowledge one’s desire will be worse for that analysand. As in the case of the closeted homosexual, that failure will mean the intensification of the symptom, involving self-destructive activity in the form of masochistic substance abuse, abuse of others, etc., etc., etc. As midwife, the analyst thus assists the analysand in avowing his desire. The outcomes of analysis, judged from the standpoint of bourgeois society, might be less than happy, yet at least the analysand will be true to the desire that animates him.

Psychoanalytic ethics is thus a queer ethics. It is an ethics of difference, an ethics that valorizes the singular, rather than an ethics that pursues normalizing sameness. The difference between these ethics is profoundly evident in the difference between the discourse of the university and the discourse of the analyst:

The upper discourse is the discourse of the university, while the lower is the discourse of the analyst. In each of Lacan’s four discourses, the upper left position is the position of the agent, the upper left is the position of the addressee or other, the lower right is the position of the product, and the lower left is the unconscious truth of the discourse. In the discourse of the university we see S2 (the agent) addressing objet a (the remainder or difference). In the position of the product is $, the barred, alienated, or divided subject. This is the essence of the university discourse: the domestication of difference (objet a) within a system of categories (S2), so as to produce a divided or alienated subject. I am no longer this singularity “Levi”, but am instead now reduced to “depressive”, with all the institutional consequences that follow from this categorization. Within the discourse of the university, the singularity of my desire, person, and drive means nothing. Rather all that is relevant is how I can be sorted and categorized in a system of knowledge (S2) for the sake of the bureaucratic system.

In the discourse of the analyst, by contrast, the analyst approaches the analysand ($) from the standpoint of difference (objet a). The analyst strives to occupy the position of the analysand’s singular differences, to allow these differences to speak, rather than alienating the analysand in a system of pre-existent categories or knowledge (S2). The product of this discourse is S1 or the analysand naming his or her own desire. What the analyst attends to is the singularity of this analysand here, refusing all identificatory knowledge.

In discourses of normativity we too often hear the desire embodied in the discourse of the university: the desire to identify, categorize, domesticate and, above all, to erase difference under pre-existent identities in the form of norms and concepts. These discourses dream of a correspondence so thorough that representation and thing would be exchangeable with one another. Put differently, the dream of a reign of identity so thorough that all difference is erased and, like good idealists, we need only deal or attend to representations.

This Lacanian ethics, this desire to attend to difference or the remainder, pervades all of my thought. This, I think, is what I find so appealing in Harman’s concept of withdrawal. It could be said that Harman’s ontology is the only ontology adequate to an ethics of difference precisely because it is an ontology that refuses idealism or the reduction of thing to its concept. Yet clearly this picture of normativity puts me in a difficult position. If I endorse an ethics of singularity or difference, then I am unable to articulate the principle upon which my ethics is based precisely because singularity disappears with articulation. As a consequence, the priests of the university will always be able to say “you have no norms, you have no ethics” because I can’t formulate a general principle that would cover all cases precisely because each case is singular.