I have been fighting a brutal cold for the last week, so I apologize for the disjointed nature of this post…
In an enigmatic passage from Seminar 11, Lacan remarks that “…the gods belong to the field of the real” (45). This passage is all the more enigmatic in that later Lacan declares that “…the true formula of atheism is not God is dead –even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father –the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious” (59). I’ve provided commentary on these two passages elsewhere, so I won’t repeat them in detail here. In referring to the real, of course, Lacan is not referring to “reality”, but to the impossible. As is so often the case in his thought, Lacan will speak of the real in a number of senses. However here he asks,
Where do we meet this real? For what we have in the discovery of psycho-analysis is an encounter, an essential encounter –an appointment to which we are always called with a real that eludes us. (53)
It seems that the central mark of the real is that it is that which eludes us. Indeed, Lacan will go on to say that the real is a missed encounter. At the level of the signifier, the real is that which eludes symbolization. No matter how thorough we are in our inscriptions and images, something always slips away. There is something the signifier fails to catch or retain. Moreover, the system of temporality involving retentions and anticipations as described Husserl is always subject to the surprise event, to that which was not anticipated; the missed encounter. This is true whether we are speaking of the arrows of fate or fortune.
Lacan associates this with trauma and sees it as connected with repetition. Here I’m reminded of my daughter. She must have been about two years old. She contracted pink-eye and I had to hold her down to put drops of medicine in her eye. This was, of course, incredibly unpleasant for her. After she overcame her illness, I was surprised to see her invent a game where she used the mustard bottle from her kitchen to put drops in the eye of her favorite stuffed animal. She took great delight in this. She repeated the trauma, but now in the form of a game, transforming her state of passivity into one of activity. Here we might think of Freud’s analysis of the logic of fantasy, where the subject and object positions are interchangeable. We might say that the repetition of the trauma is an attempt to arrive at the encounter, to avoid missing it.
In glossing Lacan’s claim that the true formula of atheism is that God is unconscious, we should refer to the definition of the unconscious as the discourse of the Other. Lacan tirelessly repeats that the Other does not exist. The gods thus name those sites of the missed encounter where the symbolic and the system of anticipations and retentions break down. The gods refer to that which doesn’t work. Is this not exactly when we evoke the gods? Do we not evoke the gods precisely at that point where some improbable fortune, some impossible fortune, descends upon us or, conversely, where we suffer the bitter arrows of fate? We call upon them precisely in relation to the eruption of the impossible with the field of experience; the missed encounter.
The same could be said of monsters. Monsters are real, or rather belong to the field of the real. I’m not sure why I’ve been pre-occupied with monsters lately and I confess that my thoughts here are only half-formed; but it seems to me that the figure of the monster marks that place within cultural systems where the symbolic fails, where we have an encounter with the trauma of the real or materiality. The monster marks a site of excess within a symbolic or cultural order; that place where the order is disordered or goes awry. There is a sort of return of the repressed with respect to monsters, where the symbolic system bends back on itself and is encountered as defiling the pretensions of that order defining a world.
Here I wonder if there aren’t ages of monsters and, if so, what they might signify. Here, I add, that while these ages can be dated and periodized, none of theme ever really disappear. Thus, for example, classical monsters still appear in the contemporary age, though perhaps with less frequency. Perhaps the first age of monsters would be that of the classical monster. The classical monster can really only be understood against the backdrop of something like an Aristotlean metaphysics where nature is teleological. In the movement from potentiality to actuality, the organism in the Aristotlean universe is teleological. Develop consists in the realization of a form defined by the species as its form. Thus the fertilized egg develops along a trajectory where it eventually becomes an adult chicken. There is a form or pattern that it is supposed to embody by nature. Development there consists in realizing the essence or form of the species. Nature is orderly, defined by essences and identities.
The classical monster thus is an abomination of form. It refers to a formlessness that rumbles within nature, a real, a death drive, that betrays this teleology. It speaks to an excess within nature, that which is in nature more than itself, that the human mind everywhere seeks to disavow. Sometimes the monstrous will consist in mixtures of forms as in the case of the chimaera or minotaur. At other times the monstrous will consist in the being that does not descend from its own kind as in the case of Damien from The Omen who is born of a dog. At yet other times, the monstrous will be the de-formed or mal-formed, like a chicken with teeth or a two-headed pig. Everywhere with the classical monster there is anxiety with respect to the multiple that rumbles beneath the statistical regularities of nature; there is a sense of a chaos that rumbles within nature that defies calculation. This, in turn, reflects worries about the social order. For the classical universe is not only one where there are teleologies in nature, but also one where people have essential identities defining where they belong in the social order. In the classical universe, society does not make one a serf, peasant, or slave; one is born with this identity. The classical monster speaks to a queerness within order. It points to the possibility that there is no order, code, or law. This is why, in the classical universe, we encounter the repeated theme of monstrous nuptials, of couplings between beings that ought not be coupled whether god and humans or humans with other species as in the case of the werewolf.
Perhaps the classical monster is followed by the emergence of the modern monster. Here I feel very tentative as I need to do more research over figures of the monstrous in this time period. It seems to me that the monstrous here becomes human, all too human. Where the monstrous in the classical period is a sort of anarchy or chaos the rumbles beneath well-formed form in nature or phusis, the modern monster seems to be a madness that rumbles within Man. However, this is a very peculiar madness. It is not so much the madness of delusion or the ravings of the mind, but rather a madness that resides within reason. Perhaps the modern monster achieves perfection in Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom; for what we encounter in this text is not people that succumb to animal appetites and passions, but rather a careful rational demonstration of the rational necessity of these acts regardless of whether or not they’re enjoyed or desired. In this period we have the emergence of the nature/culture distinction. The Modern monster seems to speak to a culture, a reason, a rationality completely stripped of all natural sympathies that wrecks havoc on humankind through Man. It is the monstrosity of Man.
I’m beginning to fade, so I will not say as much as I should. The contemporary monster, our monster, is perhaps culture that has become natural or material. With the modern monster, reason, culture, is still cerebral, a matter of thought. It culminates in acts, but acts that are conceived in thought. With the modern monster, we are the ones doing it (as Kant said, we’re calling the shots). With the contemporary monster, by contrast, thought and reason become natural or material. The contemporary monster is the golem. With the contemporary monster thought, reason, and culture achieve what Hegel called “objective spirit”. In Hegel objective spirit consists of the objectivization of thought through labor. Our thought is given material form, objective form, through forming the world about us through, for example, the building of architecture and infrastructure. However, objective spirit becomes monstrous insofar as it takes on a life of its own. No doubt the greatest monstrosity would here be the anthropocene; for while human agency has engendered this age, it has a dynamic all its own that we no longer control or master.
The contemporary monster is what Latour refers to as the “hybrid”. With hybrids such as GMOs, atomic elements only created in the laboratory, artificial intelligences, etc., we cannot say whether they are nature or culture. They have taken on a life of their own. And everywhere we encounter these monsters, whether in the form of genetically created organisms that threaten us with destruction as in the case of The Fly or Splice, artificial intelligences as in the case of Terminator or The Matrix, monstrous children as in the case of AI, or terrifying instances of becoming-machine as in the case of Transcendence. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett observes that memes require our minds as hosts, but speculates that perhaps some day the memes will develop the capacity to create bodies of their own. The contemporary monster is the meme that has created a body of its own, that no longer requires us to exist and that develops aims of its own. In this regard, climate change would be the most potent of contemporary monsters.