This evening I watched part of a show about Nostradamus. As I wrinkled my nose in disgust at the tenuous interpretations advocates would wring from his opaque and obscure prose, it occurred to me that this is really just an extreme version of what takes place in all reading and discussions. The disciples of Nostradamus find the meanings they want to find in Nostradamus in much the same way that we see many different figures when we look up at the passing clouds in the sky. Moreover, they are able to be persuaded by Nostradamus and to find things in him because they already see him as a source of knowledge and wisdom before even reading him.
The point is that reading and persuasion seem to necessarily involve a dimension of transference. In vulger terms, transference is a phenomenon governing our relations to other persons and things that leads us to see them as containing some secret hidden treasure that we desire even where there is no evidence in words or deeds that provides evidence of this. Recall the way ardent Bush supporters talked about him during his presidency. Whatever Bush did, even when his actions and words appeared cruel or stupid, his supporters would say that he had good reasons for what he did (even though they couldn’t be fathomed) and that he was a good man in his heart. That’s the essence of transference: seeing the reasons as necessarily being there even where they are unknown, and seeing the intentions as being good and wise, even where they appear otherwise. Transference is this attribution of something in excess of the “appearance” that would render the appearance worthy and desireable. And, of course, negative transference would be the converse, where actions and deeds are perpetually attributed negative motives and a lack of good reason, despite how they might appear: “He bought my lunch but I know he’s really just trying to soften me up so I’ll let my guard down and he can stab me in my back!”
Transference is a pervasive way in which we relate to the world. We see it in academics who have devoted their scholarship to a particular figure. In these cases there’s always a sort of operative distinction between the concrete and real text and the sublime “transferential text”. Regardless of what the concrete text might seem to clearly say, the axiom of the transferential text is that it answers all objections “a priori” and that it covers all the bases even where it seems to contain lacuna. This is why arguing with disciples of a particular philosopher can be so frustrating. They tend to operate at the level of the transferential text, not the concrete text. And the axiom of the transferential text is that it is never lacking or incomplete. We see it in the classroom as well. It is impossible for a student to learn if he doesn’t have any transference to the subject (ie, he doesn’t think the subject possesses what he lacks) or if he doesn’t have transference to the teacher. In the absence of this our minds just fuzz up and it sounds as if we’re being talked to in Greek.
The same is true of texts. There’s a really bizarre way in which we already have to believe in a thinker or a text before reading it to learn from it. When I first began reading Lacan I couldn’t make heads or tails of him. Nonetheless, I was able to learn from Lacan because I already had a transferential relationship with him that led me to see him as containing truth even though I didn’t know what that truth was. There are other philosophers, by contrast, that I am unable to learn frkm at all. It is not because they are particularly difficult, but rather that I don’t have any transference to them and therefore nothing they say “sticks”. It’s literally as if what I read by such philosophers falls out of my ear a moment after reading it. This can, of course, change when you encounter the same philosopher at a different point in life and your libidinal cathexes and desires have changed.
And finally, the same is true with discussions. If there is no transference between the participants in discussion it seems as if it is impossible for them to hear one another, for things to sink in or be processed, even though they are addressing to one another and responding to one another. I’ve often witnessed this on political blogs, especially since the division that took place among democrats following Obama’s appointments. Democrats split into those that support him and those enraged by his appointment of Rubanite economic advocates. Ever since the two sides have coded each other as enemies and seem constitutively unable to hear one another as a result. Each side sees the other side as empty of any truth and therefore are unable to hear one another (and as an aside, I do not think this is something to be deplored. There are real and fundamental differences here and one has to take sides. It’s simply false when people suggest that “we’re all fighting for the same thing” or that “we’re all on the same side”, just as it’s false to say all religions share the same values. Those that support Rubanite or neoliberal policies are not fighting for the same things I am, no matter how many excuses they might give for the necessity of pursuing these things).
What produces transference is always mysterious and can be wildly unrelated to the thing one transfers onto. It can be the presence of a mere signifier. It can be transference to some other person who is, in some way, associated to this thing. It can arise from some childhood trauma or joy that creates a passion for something. Who knows? The source of the transference, however, is never first in the thing to which we attach itself. When the atheist sets upon the believer, systematically destroying those beliefs, for example, he would do well to remember that it’s never just about the beliefs but that there’s a whole network of libidinal attachment to family, spouses, lovers, friends, rituals, festivals, etc, of which the beliefs are but the tip of the iceberg. Tenacious attachment to these beliefs might very well be, in many cases, tenacious attachment to these other libidinal investments.
I am not deploring the existence of transference or the role that love plays in our social relations. Besides, to do so would be futile as it seems largely inescapable and because love or transference is a condition for all learning. We can only learn from that which we love. Rather, being aware of transference allows me to attain a little bit of sanity. The philosopher in me, of course, is offended by transference. I would love it if rational and well constructed arguments could win the day and produce persuasion in both myself and others. But the phenomenon of transference dictates that these arguments can’t even be heard by the addressee unless some transference is already operative. Nothing an atheist says to a Christian funda,entalist is going to persuade them and vice versa because the addressee in either case does not see the speaker as containing that “secret treasure” that carries knowledge and truth.
If this helps me to retain a little sanity in an otherwise mad world, then this is because it councils me to step away from certain discussions and arguments because the “communicative conditions” are not present there for anything productive to take place. And knowing when to step away also helps me to “soldier on” or continue doing what I do as a function of my own transferences. And lest anyone wonder, this diary is not prompted by any discussions I’ve recently had but arose from reflections on my experience of blogging and online interaction in general. Rather than being demoralized that persuasion does not always take place, I instead recognize that the world is saturated with many different loves and that these loves carry people in many different directions… Often in directions contrary to my own. The best I can do is continue to speak and write and hope that in doing so I encounter those from whom I can learn and grow.