I’ve written about this in the past, but a friend asked me to tell Dock the story in Toronto and I never got to it, so I’ll tell it again (because, well, I’m narcissistic that way). Then again, this is every bit as much a tale about the erasure of narcissism as well. If it’s worth repeating, then that’s because I think it gives a little insight into the nonsense that takes place in analysis. I entered analysis in the second to last year of graduate school. There were two reasons for going into analysis. On the one hand, I had been reading a great deal of Zizek, Freud, Lacan, Fink, and assorted other psychoanalytic thinkers in the Lacanian tradition. I ardently felt that there was no way I could understand this theory unless I went through analysis myself. Therefore I found an analyst and spent an obscene amount of money over the course of six or seven years. I think that might have been an alibi, however. What could be more of the order of the ego, of secondary narcissism, than going into analysis for the altruistic aim of understanding the theory? No, you see, I was also having trouble finishing my dissertation (and a lot of other things were going on as well that I’ll probably never talk about publicly).
This is a perfectly common state of affairs, a situation that many graduate students go through, so why bother going into analysis over it? Well, you see, I had already written my dissertation. My dissertation was Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. I wrote it as my master’s thesis. After reading it, my master’s committee told me it was of dissertation quality, and that I should therefore put it on a shelf and go back and write a master’s thesis. That’s right, I wrote my master’s thesis— “The Semiotic Structure of Objects: Derrida, Husserl, Peirce and the Sign-Structure of Things” —after I wrote my dissertation. It gets more comic. Because I’d put my paperwork in for my dissertation defense with the university, while I was writing my master’s thesis Loyola sent me a master’s diploma, even though I hadn’t defended anything! I was doing everything I could not to graduate because I believed I would never get a job, but the big Other had other ideas.
Anyway, I wrote my master’s thesis and defended it– despite having already been granted a degree by the big Other –yet I couldn’t bring myself to edit my dissertation. It just sat there on a shelf, gathering dust, even though I just needed to copy-edit it and get it in the proper format. In the meantime, I was experiencing a general paralysis where writing was concerned. It wasn’t just my dissertation I couldn’t bring to completion, but I was having trouble writing anything, whether it be a conference paper or an article. So I went into analysis. I wanted to know something about this symptom.
What did I find in analysis? One thing– and I found many other things as well –I discovered was that I’d been “erased in the symbolic order”. You see, “Levi Bryant” isn’t my real or legal name. My real name, after my father, is “Paul Reginald Bryant”. I’m a “junior”. Of course, I didn’t know this until I was about 8 or 9. Before I was even born, my entire family– immediate and extended –called me “Levi”. I grew up with the picture at the top above, to the right. My parents hung it in the bathroom and I would look at it every morning. It’s a picture of my mother pregnant with me and my father’s ear pressed against her belly. How did I get the name “Levi”? As my friend Noah once said when I told him the story, “my god, that’s like a photograph of the primal scene where you’re literally being born out of your father’s ear!” He was horrified, but in a good way. It’s true. Is anyone surprised I rabble rouse so much and teach? My uncle had gone to the family graveyard on the old farm in Virginia with my grandfather. “Family graveyard” is not nearly as illustrious as it sounds. The Bryant side of the family consisted of Irish dirt-farmers. Most of the children died as a result of diseases like yellow fever and the war (I think there were 13 in all). At any rate, one of my grandfather’s brother’s names was “Levi”.
My uncle Richard liked the name so much that he began calling me that when I was still in the womb. It stuck and my entire family on both sides called me that from the beginning. I had no idea my name was “Paul” until kindergarten or first grade (so maybe I was six or seven, not nine), when a teacher called out “Paul Bryant, Paul Bryant” and I responded that she didn’t call my name, but I’m “Levi Bryant”. She said “No, you’re Paul Bryant, that’s your real name!” (or perhaps my name in the real!). I told my sister on the bus that day and she immediately broke out in tears and called me a liar (she’s two years younger than me). “Nut uh! That’s Dad’s Name!!!” “Nope, that’s my name!” From that moment forth I went by “Paul Reginald Bryant”, abandoning the name of “Levi”. The thing is, the name of Levi– which is also anagramatic with “vile”, “live”, “evil”; and let’s not even start on phonetic resonances! –never left me. Indeed, occasionally family members would call my house in college and my roommates would have no idea who they were asking for because they asked for “Levi”, while they knew me as “Paul”. Incidentally, I was teased mercilessly for the name “Levi” in elementary school before I switched to “Paul”.
Somehow all of this came up in analysis and I decided that I had erased my name by taking on the name of “Paul” (there’s probably a reason Badiou resonates with me, I’m sad to say). So I decided to do something insane. I decided to go back to the public name of “Levi” rather than reserving it for my family. I told all of my fellow grad students, people online that I regularly interacted with, my dissertation committee, that henceforth I am to be called “Levi”. They all thought I was insane and some of them got really upset about this– I really learned about the social function of names in this experience –and many others were very gracious and said “yes, henceforth you will be known as ‘Levi'”. When I returned to the name of “Levi” a funny thing happened. Suddenly I began to actually laugh and make jokes (I hadn’t since childhood), I edited my dissertation, and I began to write like a maniac. The last was the most striking. I couldn’t stop writing. Someone would send me a short two or three sentence email, I’d respond with twelve pages. Article after article tumbled out. I would post massive manifestos on the various lists I participated on. And, of course, this blog happened a few years later. I couldn’t stop writing. Words tumbled out of me. Maybe it was all placebo, but my theory is that I couldn’t write under the name of Paul because “Paul” is my father’s name and I would be ceding all my work to him. There are a variety of unconscious reasons that was intolerable to me (though my dad’s a great guy). If I wrote under “Levi”, my work would be mine. I’d be “making a name for myself” (as Lacan puts it with Joyce) in the sense of weaving a place for myself where before I was absent.
I’ve found since, much to my amusement, that I still get erased in the symbolic order. My name is pronounced “Leave-eye” (like the jeans), but folks want to pronounce it “Levy” like we pronounce “Levi-Strauss”. I confess I like the “Levy” pronounciation and have begun to adopt it for myself. I hope doing so doesn’t lead to more bizarre symptoms. But then again, a symptom is always a solution.