In his closing remarks on our recent discussion, Andrew writes:
Wow, a friend told me you went berzerk, but this is so much worse than what I imagined. Racist? ‘Classist’ and ‘elitist’ I can see, but ‘racist’? Did you just throw it in for good measure? I’m struggling to put this nicely, Levi, but you need professional help. No, not the Lacanian type, clearly it did nothing for you. I mean drugs and counseling. If so many people keep running into the same issues with you, it’s very likely that it is not them, but you. Part of me felt responsible for this falling out, but now having read your insane rants at the end of this exchange, I am actually relieved: I am not crazy, you are a paranoid and insecure man-child.
Since people told me of your incredibly restrictive comment policy, I don’t expect this to actually appear on your website, so here’s a bit of personal advice: beware of ruining your career with your temper, your lack of pause and reflection will one day lead you to an unfortunate situation in which you will do and say things you will later regret.
I would like to thank Andrew for his remark, as it provides me with a very concrete and clear example of the very logic behind juridical discourses I’ve been talking about. However, before getting to this, it’s important to briefly comment on his remarks about racism, classism, as elitism. As has been well documented in linguistics, the approach to language in terms of idealized grammatical rules always privileges a particular class, race, and standard of education as the norm where language is concerned. Where linguists approach language in terms of how groups of people actually use language, grammarians approach language in terms of an idealized normative model that implicitly presupposes the privilege of a particular race and class. A nice discussion of this can be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s essay “Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus. Insofar as Andrew evoked grammar as an example of a priori normative rules he was, in my view, evoking this type of normative discourse. Hence my remarks.
Returning to the issue of models of juridical normativity and their unconscious logic, Lacan, in his essay “Kant avec Sade”, argues that the unconscious truth of Kant is Sade. In other words, Sade articulates the unconscious logic embodied in juridical normative discourses. Kant claims that moral reasoning is supposed to exclude all “pathological” motivations (sympathy, kindness, partiality, empirical wants, etc), and act purely out of respect for the law itself. Lacan argues that this action out of respect for the law itself actually embodies an illicit jouissance or enjoyment that is sadistic in character and that is supposed to be excluded from the moral law. This unconscious dimension of the juridical model produces very specific effects.
What it dreams of is an erasure of particularity, its absorbtion in the universal, that destroys the particular or individual. If you’re read any Sade, especially Philosophy in the Bedroom, you’ll be familiar with this. Three features characterize Sade’s procedure: first, the torments he inflicts on his victims are conceived as following from the necessity of reason. They aren’t done for the sake of pleasure, so much as out of a sense of duty that follows from necessity. This is one of the reasons that Lacan describes the pervert as an agent or tool of the law. In the economy of perversion, the subject derives his jouissance not so much from the acts that he engages in, so much as from experiencing himself as a tool or agent of the Other. Second, these actions are to be exercised without the consent of the victim. This is a part of the necessity embodied in the first feature. Where, in Masoch we have all sorts of focus on contracts and the writing of contracts, in Sade we have the necessity of the complete exercise of the law, regardless of whether the patient of the law consents to the law. In Sade’s writing you will thus find elaborate and careful demonstrations of all the tortures inflicted on the patient of necessity. And indeed, when we look at Kant’s moral law we see it as an unconditional command of reason that’s experienced as shrinking the subject and as infinite. Finally, third, Sade dreams of an exercise of this necessity that is so thorough that it brings about the absolute annihilation or erasure of the subject.
These are all themes we also find in Kierkegaard’s exploration of the contradiction between the universal embodied in the law and the singular embodied in the subject in his discussion of Bourgeois subjectivity in The Sickness Unto Death. The universal embodied in the law calls for the erasure of the singularity of the subject, for its complete absorption in the universal, for the singularity of the subject is precisely that which is not universal and therefore that which is at odds with the universal. As such, insofar as the universal defines the law, the individual or singular necessarily becomes a priori sin. It is that which cannot be integrated into the law or the medium of the universal.
At this point, juridical moral psychology becomes predictable. In the initial stage, it’s command is to submit to the universal or general, to become identical to the law and everyone else, and therefore to erase your being as an individual. This is the lesson of Lacan’s discourse of the university that I outline in “The Ethics of Difference“, where the product of that discourse is a divided subject.
The structure of this discourse is alienation incarnate. The universal (S1) seeks to domesticate and erase the particular (objet a), thereby producing an alienated or divided subject ($): a subject that is no longer itself but rather an entity that has been reduced to an embodiment of the universal. Such, I believe, is what juridical models of normativity always and everywhere necessarily strive for: this complete erasure of the singular in the generality of a universal identity.
Of course, this erasure is doomed to failure as a remainder, something that cannot be integrated in the universal– objet a will always be produced. This is the lesson of Lacan’s discourse of the master:
Because, dialectically, the universal can only function as universal based on an exception (an irrational individuality), the fulfillment of the universal will always fail. In the relation of one universal term to another, a remainder, something that does not fit, something that cannot be integrated, will always be produced. Since the universal implicitly or explicitly only recognizes itself as real– the mark of all idealisms is to treat only what is intelligible or thinkable as real –this remainder will then come to be seen as an accidental element, an illicit contingent element, that must be eradicated.
The logic that arises from this dialectic has been extensively explored in the philosophical tradition. Kant senses it in his phenomenology of moral consciousness and postulate of immortality. On the one hand, Kant recognizes that the more we obey the moral law the more commanding, the more sadistic, it becomes and the more guilt we experience. This is the logic of objet a, where the more we attempt to submit to the universal the more we encounter the particular or singular, such that the command to submit becomes ever the more voracious the more we try to obey it. It is for this reason that Kant claims that immortality is a necessary postulate for all juridical moral thought. For Kant we must postulate immortality not because moral action requires a reward– recall that for Kant, genuinely moral action cannot have any incentive beyond itself, i.e., it’s categorical regardless of whether we benefit from it –but because, by virtue of the endless return of singularity we require infinite time to morally perfect ourselves.
Both Hegel and Sade, in their own ways, show the concrete implications of this dialectic. In the Phenomenology, Hegel shows this logic at work in the terror of the French Revolution, where the attempt to instantiate the pure universal in the world transforms everyone into entities that fall short (precisely because they are particular), thereby necessitating their destruction. In other words, we get an endless repetition that perpetually seeks the universal, leading it to endlessly find the particular, thereby requiring the execution of particularity after particularity. In Sade we find a similar phenomena in the monotony of his prose. Anyone who’s read Sade will be familiar with this monotony in the form of endless torture scene after torture scene without cessation. This repetition follows from the nature of the universal as it functions in his thought leading to the perpetual discovery of the singular that can’t be subsumed under the law, thereby calling for renewed efforts of destruction. Finally, Kierkegaard analyzes a similar logic in his discussion of the “ethical stage” of subjectivity that, due to its inability to become identical with the universal or moral law, experiences itself as stained or sinful. The sin of this subject is nothing like stealing, lying, killing, or having impure thoughts, but rather lies in being an individual.
This dialectic tends to produce very precise effects at the social and the psychological level. At the social level this dialectic tends to generate a logic of scapegoating and persecution. Those elements that won’t submit to the social substance, the law, the universal are treated as what undermines the social order and which must be eradicated. Here the objet a is seen as contingent or accidental such that if these elements are eradicated true universality can be produced. The first stage is thus the call for erasure through submission to the social order. When that fails or can’t be achieved, the next stage is, as in the case of Sade, active destruction. This is essentially the point that Andrew reaches with me in his comment above. Having encountered my refusal to submit to the discourse of norms as he understands it, the next recourse of our Knight of Norms is to try and symbolically destroy me, taking away my dignity as a person and rational subject, but attacking my mental health, integrity, etc. “If he won’t submit then he must be excluded from the realm of the social altogether by being stripped of his status as a subject.” The more his particular conception of normativity was questioned and critiqued the more overt this next moment became.
At the psychological level, this dialectic generates endless and escalating guilt. The more the subject strives to perfectly submit to the law or universal, the more it discovers its particularity or individuality, that remainder that doesn’t fit with the universal. Often it’s the best of people, those that are least culpable for any wrong, that experience the most guilt. In the best of circumstances this leads to a masochistic self-relation, where one’s reason acts as sadist punishing the subject. In the worst of cases, this dialectic leads to “projective displacement”. Here the subject strives to eject the stain of guilt or sin out of themselves by displacing it onto some other group or person. They then set upon persecuting this other person or group in hopes of eradicating the stain. Here we need only think of the cliched closeted homosexual that endlessly persecutes homosexuals as a way of trying to eradicate his own desires. We might also think of Heinrich Kramer, author of the Malleus Maleficarum or “Hammer of Witches”, a text used to identify witches, interrogate them, and kill them. A central theme of the Alleus Maleficarum is female sexuality. Women are said to become witches so as to satisfy their sexual desires with demons and Satan. Here it’s fairly clear that the desire at work in Kramer has nothing to do with women themselves and everything to do with his own attempt to submit himself to the sexual moral law and the remainders or desires that keep arising within him. He then displaces these desires on to the objects of his desire and seeks to destroy women to eradicate this stain within himself.
This is why the most moralistic people are often the cruelest and most sadistic. It is not, as people sometimes suggest, that such people are cynical hypocrites that use the moral law to advance their own crass agenda (though that happens too). Rather, it’s that there’s a very systematic logic or dialectic at work in juridical subjectivity that leads to these sorts of projective displacements and persecutions of others. This is what the drive for identity in the form of the universal produces.
Now clearly the point is not that we should abandon rules, norms, laws, regulations, etc. These are certainly needed. The point is that we need a form of normativity that doesn’t fall into these horrific traps. Part of the problem here, I believe, lies in how concepts are hierarchialized. Do we place Law at the top of our hierarchy of norms, treating Law as absolute? Or do we place flourishing or the good life at the top of our hierarchy, treating Law as derivative from this? In the first instance, Kant tells us that the moral law is an end in itself and is not to be considered in relation to any other ends or goals a person might have such as flourishing. Duty here should be done for the sake of duty alone, even if it brings about severe misery in oneself or others. This way of approaching normative issues seems to generate a sort of legalism, a sort of fixation on the letter of the law, that leads to the sort of dialectics I’ve described here. By contrast, where it is flourishing that’s placed at the top of our conceptual hierarchy we generate an attitude that attends to the spirit of the law, recognizing that the law is for the sake of flourishing, that it cannot be mechanically followed or attended to, that it admits of exceptions, and that the point is not to bring about submission and obedience, but rather to promote flourishing. This latter approach to normativity generates, I believe, a very different subjectivity premised on generosity, love, and compassion.