Desire


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I sometimes feel as if I go through a sort of eternal return, where I repeat things I have said before yet experience myself as having just thought them for the very first time. Hopefully, despite these repetitive iterations, despite these re-loops of loops, each iteration is nonetheless somehow producing something new or allowing some other thought to emerge that, for whatever reason, could not before emerge. As Spinoza argues, ideas can only produce ideas. Yet why is it that ideas sometimes get fixed or repetitive like a skipping record? Why is it, I wonder, that we obsess over certain themes and ideas– almost as if our life is a musical variation –such that we perpetually return to these things without realizing that we’re doing so? The Bird and the Bee song: “Again and again and again and again… Do it again! Do it again!” In his preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Badiou remarks that in a true work of philosophy,

…it is possible to detect the sense of something new– texts which respond to the question: “What wound was I seeking to heal, what thorn was I seeking to draw from the flesh of existence when I became what is called ‘a philosopher’?” It may be that, as Bergson maintained, a philosopher only ever develops one idea. In any case, there is no doubt that the philosopher is born of a single question, the question which arises at the intersection of thought and life at a given moment in the philosopher’s youth; the question which one must at all costs find a way to answer. (After Finitude, vi)

This is a surprisingly Deleuzian thought for Badiou; one that almost stands in contradiction with his charges of a Deleuzian “aristocratism” in The Clamor of Being. I do not know that I follow Badiou in the thesis that the wound is unique to the philosopher, but, as I argued in Difference and Givenness, I would certainly agree that the wound– what I there called “the encounter” –is constitutive of thought. To think is to be wounded. That is to say, to think is to be out of step with the world, to not be at home in the world, to experience the world as unheimlich. We think because we are not at home and perhaps the degree of our homelessness marks the degree of our thought’s intensity… Unless we are consumed by a homelessness so profound that it ends in catatonia or mute autism. Thought then would be a way of attempting to sublate or overcome that wound, that crack that prevents any adaptation to the world.

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It is this that is fundamentally missing from accounts of collective assemblages such as we find proposed in Spinoza. Conatus, the endeavor to persist in one’s being, lacks– at least on the surface –the dimension of death drive in speaking-being. While the Spinozist body is indeed excessive rather than homeostatic or adaptive in its active drive to promote its power to act, what seems to be missing is this dimension of repetition, of death drive, that is at odds with action premised on benefit or enlightened self-interest.

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This can be sensed above all in Spinoza’s conception of love, where the madness of love, the willingness to destroy everything else for the sake of love, is entirely absent. Despite the fact that Spinoza asserts love can be excessive, one gets the sense that for him, the difference between a good meal (which he also characterizes in terms of love) and mad love is a difference in degree rather than kind. If, as speaking beings, we are constitutively wounded, divided by language, and therefore subjects of an irrepressible question that we cannot escape, how must we understand collective assemblages and the perils that haunt them? Clearly these assemblages will perpetually be perturbed by the repetition, the eternal return, that haunts the subjects that inhabit these assemblages. On the one hand, this will be one of the prime sources of those lethal identifications with demagogues, tyrants, and dictators where the body of these figures is encountered as an answer to the repetitive question of the wound, as that which can sublate the wound and produce the “heimlich” in the world.

On the other hand, the wound, the death drive, will be the source of our most profound creativity, political struggles, thought, love, invention, etc., as we choose the wound over adaptation. Is there a way to channel the wound, the death drive, in one way rather than another? Certainly this is one of the aims of psychoanalytic practice– to transform painful, paralyzing, and intolerable incarnations of the death drive manifested in the symptom, into productive, liveable, creative symptoms or forms of repetitive jouissance. Witness Joyce.

Or is it, as I asked months ago in another post, that the death drive, the symptom, repetition, jouissance is simply psychoanalysis’ own myth of original sin: a reactionary ideological mystification that argues that lethal and mal-adaptive repetition is natural and necessary, rather than contingent? Spinoza argues that our collective irrationality arises not from original sin, but from a set of cognitive processes that take place at the level of how our emotions function. Death drive is something quite different than the simple confusion of two things that resemble one another as in the case of an object confused with love object or object of hate that shares a quality with these objects without possessing any of the same causal properties, e.g., Hating one’s student named Tom, because one was the victim of a childhood bully named Tom, and failing to realize this completely contingent connection. Death drive is not a confusion, but a sort of ever repeating glitch in a system, that causes the perpetual return of an insistent question that places the subject out of step with the world. One might think of the people obsessed with a certain image in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the image, ultimately, of the mountain), to such a degree that they completely neglected their bodies, families, jobs, and all the rest (viz., they were completely disjointed from the world) trying to figure out why this image would not leave their mind and what it might represent. The difference here, of course, is that for the characters in Close Encounters, they do get an answer. There is no answer to the death drive, only the repeated failure of any and all such answers– Which can be a source of a positive jouissance. “Do it again!”

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From roughly June until a few weeks ago I was in the midst of a deep and black depression. The strange thing was that I did not feel sad, but simply disengaged from everything. I wasn’t, as it were, even aware that anything had changed. I had lost all desire for everything. I no longer read. I felt no inclination to respond to emails. No books, shows, movies, or ideas interested me. Whenever I got a new paper published or received some sort of praise for my book, it left me feeling cold. I had no desire to be around other people. I slept a lot and just walked through the world like a sort of zombie. There was no malice in any of this. If I didn’t respond to an email, it wasn’t because I harbored animosity towards the person. I didn’t respond to anyone unless it was a professional matter I couldn’t ignore. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care.

The worst part is that you blame yourself for this state and experience it as a moral failing. You tell yourself that perhaps your brain has hardened and you simply can’t think fluidly in the way you once did. You tell yourself that you’ve become lazy, ceased caring, etc. Somehow it is something that you’re doing that’s led to this malaise. But just as anger in the midst of a nicotine fit seems absolutely convincing and like a matter of your will, the depression is not experienced as depression, but as some set of choices you are making. Of course, from a psychoanalytic perspective this is because somehow, at some level, you have betrayed your desire and repudiated yourself as a subject. The question is how?

Perhaps now I am in a manic period– I’ve certainly been writing a lot –but something seemed to break a few weeks ago. And even if it is manic, it feels good. It feels good to care. It feels good to write. It feels good to draw connections, to find images to represent things, to read, to dance with others in thought. I began exercising and this seemed to produce significant changes. Who knew? But what was it that brought this on? Why did I fall into this pit? In her beautiful essay, Why Psychoanalysis?, Elizabeth Roudinesco argues that depression, melancholia, is the unique malady of our time, produced by our contemporary ideological conditions and conditions of production.

If neurosis– a loud, noisy, antagonistic symptom in protest of the reigning social order — is the symptom of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, argues Roudinesco, depression is the reigning symptom of an era where great causes have collapsed, where alternatives to the social organization of this world have disappeared, where there is nothing to protest as all norms have collapsed, and where all that is left is the pursuit of happiness, the improvement of one’s body and health, and the endless pursuit of ever new and novel forms of exotic enjoyment. The depressive age is an age where the Soviet Union has collapsed and China has become capitalistic, such that the only [once] credible alternatives to the world of liberal democratic capitalism and the promise of “happiness” and a life without risk, have disappeared. Likewise, with the death of God we get a world closed to transcendent possibilities, to ideals higher than those of appetite.

Insofar as all symptoms are a protest, of sorts, against the Other– a trace of the lack in the Other or the fact that the Other is a sham, a semblance, an impostor, that the Other does not provide the answer or jouissance promised –depression, the disappearance of desire, the fading of desire, is a protest against such a closure where all alternatives have disappeared. But, like so many symptoms, what a painful symptom! Perhaps depression is what occurs in the absence of being able to even articulate what is missing, what is absent. Depression would be a sort of silent speech, a mute speech, that speaks the absence of signifiers worthy of desire. Or better yet, depression would be a marker of that which falls outside of language or that for which there are no signifiers. As such, in the borromean clinic, depression would be located at the intersection between the circles of the imaginary and the real: A mute witness of the imaginary body in response to a certain real that haunts the symbolic.

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Is there a way in which depression can be made active? Is there a way in which this mute withdrawal of the subject from the empty world of “bodies and pleasures”, this existence as undead, as zombie, that capitulates to the closure of possibilities, the absence of alternative, can make this silent and passive resistance an active resistance? Such a resistance would no longer be one that assaults the body of the depressive, such as in the case of the depressive subject that blames himself, but would be a subject that might find a way to reject the idea that happiness, exotic enjoyments, and bodies and pleasures are the only alternatives, the only things, we can hope and live for… Or rather, that we can hope and be dead for.

As I think more about Deleuze and Guattari’s account of desire in Anti-Oedipus, I find myself wondering if it doesn’t risk becoming another apologetics for reigning organizations of power. On the one hand, no contemporary political thought can afford to ignore the manner in which desire is manufactured, regulated, and organized given the manner in which we live in a media saturated environment.

On the other hand, the implications of Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of desire become disturbing when juxtaposed with the writings of the Stoic Epictetus. Those familiar with Epictetus’ Enchiridion will find it impossible to forget his opening paragraph. There Epictetus writes,

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Now, the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent, and take what belongs to others for you own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own, and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, towards the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.

Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power, or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Do not Deleuze and Guattari, despite all their talk about the creative and productive nature of desire, share an uncanny resemblance to Epictetus? The liberal ideologue tells us that we must resign ourselves to all the ugliness of the world in advance because we exist in a world populated by scarce resources, such that we are necessarily plunged into competition and its attendant social hierarchies. However, wouldn’t it also be the case that Deleuze and Guattari, like Epictetus, tell us that if we suffer then this is because we have created the wrong desires and were we simply to modify our desires we would be capable of tolerating whatever circumstances we might find ourselves in? Like Deleuze and Guattari, Epictetus seems to suggest that desire is not something natural or inborn, but is a product of our creative freedom. Deleuze, of course, has a strong connection to the stoics through his relation to Spinoza and his development of a stoic ontology in The Logic of Sense. The risk here is that we find ourselves perilously close to claiming that true revolutions are not revolutions in how material conditions or social relations are organized, but rather are revolutions of desire that transform our relations to these conditions.
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One of the key claims of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is that the functioning of capitalism is premised on the expenditure of abundance rather than the allocation of resources under essential conditions of scarcity. This premise, of course, accompanies their more generalized critique of lack as a foundation of desire.

Anyone who pauses to reflect on the logic of non-academic discussions of political thought can discern just why this critique of scarcity is so important. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, if we falter on this point, “…all resignations are justified in advance” (AO, 74). Where the social comes to be understood as a response to scarcity, then politics becomes the means by which decisions are made as to how scarcity is distributed. While there might indeed be many different ways of distributing scarcity, what is ineradicable or impossible is inequity. In short, all inequity is justified in advance and a priori.
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Update: The Madisonian, a legal blog, weighs in.

Update II: Andrew of The Transcontinental weighs in.

These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom. At the end of the semester, for example, your department might be required to gather assignment samples from students in each professor’s class. Tenured faculty then review these copious materials, evaluating whether or not they meet the learning outcome criteria, put together a report and then send this report on to division deans, where these reports are further distilled and sent to the administration. At the end of each year I thus find myself beset by a weighty pile of papers from our adjunct and full time faculty that I must evaluate in terms of our student learning outcomes that we spent a year or so devising to meet state accreditation requirements. There, across the room, the books I have had to set aside gaze longingly at me, giving me their coy seductive looks, inviting me to read them, but I am awash in student papers that must be evaluated.

The galling part of this whole process is that it really has no impact on what we and our professors actually do in our classroom. Perhaps I should not say this publicly. The issue is not one of of being opposed to high standards. We already do have high standards. We believe strongly in pedagogy and teaching excellence. The issue is that the assumptions and thought process behind this sort of modeling is fundamentally wrong-headed, diminishing, rather than enhancing education. What we have in United States educational philosophies today is a shift towards a sort of “pedagogical Taylorism”, where it is assumed that education can be codified, instrumentalized, and quantified, such that assignments necessarily take on a generic and simplified structure– for this is what can easily be replicated –and where gradually these reforms have a morphogenetic effect that feeds back on the classroom, giving form to what is taught, how it is taught, and how assignments are structured. In short, these reforms are molarizing machines, designed to create regularities in the Brownian motion of students and faculty, insuring that there is little change or deviation from a pre-delineated form. All the while it is assumed that every discipline can be taught in the manner of the various sciences and branches of mathematics, or that students compose a “smooth space” that can be manipulated and moulded freely, without any singularities.

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Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.

On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.

Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).

It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.

Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?

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Dr. X over at Dr. X’s Free Associations has an interesting post up on recent research into why people enjoy horror films despite the fact that they cause unpleasant affects.

Last week, Laura Freberg offered an interesting discussion of why some people like to watch horror movies. She cited the research done by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen who ask “How can the hedonistic assumption (i.e., people’s willingness to pursue pleasure and avoid pain) be reconciled with people choosing to expose themselves to experiences known to elicit negative feelings?” Although the authors are not clinicians, their research is germane to appreciating that clinical framework management is required if the patient is to go forward with a thorough exploration of highly disturbing unconscious perceptions and meanings of his or her internal experience.

Andrade and Cohen argued that a growing body of evidence indicates that people can experience both positive and negative feelings simultaneously. To lay persons, this might seem like an assumption that should have never been in doubt, but many psychologists, biologists and economists have assumed that positive and negative feelings cannot coexist simultaneously. Moreover, it was long assumed by many that we always seek pleasurable experiences while avoiding painful ones.

To explain behaviors that appear to contradict the hedonistic hypothesis, its defenders often argued that when we accept painful experiences, we do so in a rational manner, deferring present reward for some greater future reward. For example, people might attend a horror movie because they so enjoy the relief subsequent to the fear. With a few exceptions outside of psychoanalysis, the idea that pain and pleasure, fear and exhilaration could simultaneously coexist as part of a more complex inner experience was not widely accepted by experts who assumed we operate as relatively rational hedonists.

In a series of studies involving viewers of horror movies, Andrade and Cohen found strong evidence that negative and positive feelings can be co-activated. They also note that some individuals are attracted to watching horror movies while others consistently avoid them. They argued that the latter group avoids horror movies because they are unable to co-activate positive and negative feelings within the context of viewing these movies.

This is a fascinating post and a topic dear to my own heart as I both enjoy horror films myself and often wonder about the role that monsters and horror play in the social space as cultural artifacts that potential speak to antagonisms haunting the social field. As Unemployed Negativity has recently so beautifully put it in a post on the sudden profusion of zombie films, “each period in history gets the monsters it deserves.” I’m heartened to see empirical research done on this topic. However, I wonder if the researchers aren’t unduly limiting the question by looking at feelings or affects alone. Those of us coming from clinical psychoanalytic background are intimately familiar with the phenomenon of nightmares that simultaneously punish a person for a particular desire while also allowing that person to gratify a particular desire. That is, the nightmare scenario can function as an alibi allowing the person to gratify a forbidden desire. By focusing on the affects that accompany watching a horror film– it’s “material cause” –it seems to me that we risk ignoring the signifying structure of horror films– it’s “formal cause” –and therefore risk missing all sorts of questions pertaining to the mixed variety of identifications at work in the film (the viewer can simultaneously identify with the villains and the protagonists) as well as the desires and antagonisms the film might be striving to navigate. As Lacan puts it in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, “…what the uconscious does is… show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (22). This is true of symptoms and the various other formations of the unconscious such as jokes, slips of the tongue, dreams, and bungled actions. In all cases these formations can be thought as the work of the symbolic striving to symbolize the real.

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Returning to the debate surrounding Zizek’s analysis of 300, it seems that this passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is highly relevant. Towards the end of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write that,

The most general principle of schizoanalysis is that desire is always constitutive of a social field. In any case desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology: desire is in production as social production, just as production is in desire as desiring-production. But these forms can be understood in two ways, depending on whether desire is enslaved to a structured molar aggregate that it constitutes under a given form of power and gregariousness, or whether it subjugates the large aggregate to the function multiplicities that it itself forms on the molecular scale (it is no more a case of persons or individuals in this instance than in the other). If the preconscious revolutionary break appears at the first level, and is defined by the characteristics of a new aggregate, the unconscious or libidinal break belongs to the second level and is defined by the driving role of desiring-production and the position of its multiplicity. It is understandable, therefore, that a group can be revolutionary from the standpoint of class interest and its preconscious investments, but not be so –and even remain fascist and police-like –from the standpoint of its libidinal investments. Truly revolutionary preconscious interests do not necessarily imply unconscious investments of the same nature; an apparatus of interest never takes the place of a machine of desire.

A revolutionary group at the preconscious level remains a subjugated group, even in seizing power, as long as this power itself refers to a form of force that continues to enslave and crush desiring-production. The moment it is preconsciously revolutionary, such a group already presents all the unconscious characteristics of a subjugated group: the subordination to a socius as a fixed support that attributes to itself the productive forces, extracting and absorbing the surplus value therefrom; the effusion of antiproduction and death-carrying elements within the system, which feels and pretends to be all the more immortal; the phenomena of group ‘superegoization,’ narcissism, and heirarchy– the mechanisms for the repression of desire. A subject-group, on the contrary, is a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary; it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the form of power to desiring-production; productive of desire and a desire that produces, the subject-group invents always mortal formations that exorcise the effusion in it of a death instinct; it opposes real coefficients of transversality to the symbolic determination of subjugation, coefficients without a heirarchy or a group super-ego. (348-349)

A bit earlier Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to social investments and preconscious investment of class or interest (343). The central problem that Anti-Oedipus sets out to tackle is that of why we will our own repression:

why do many of those who have or should have an objective revolutionary interest maintain a preconscious investment of a reactionary type? And more rarely, how do certain people whose interest is objectively reactionary come to effect a preconscious revolutionary investment? Must we invoke in the one case a thirst for justice, a just ideological position, as well as a correct and just view; and in the other case a blindness, the result of an ideological deception or mystification? Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolutions out of desire, not duty. Here as elsewhere, the concept of ideology is an execrable concept that hides the real problems, which are always of an organizational nature. (344)

One of the central theses of Deleuze and Guattari’s social thought is that the people are not duped, but at a certain level desire fascism and their own repression. What is at issue here is that we can have social movements that are revolutionary at the level of their preconscious class investments, yet nonetheless reactionary at the level of their unconscious libidinal investments. The situation is analogous to issues surrounding the death of God as described by Nietzsche; which is to say, the issue is structural. As Nietzsche somewhere puts it, it is not enough to kill God, but the place itself of God must be abolished. Nietzsche here distinguishes between a certain theological concept of God as a transcendent being presiding over being, and a God-function as a certain structural placeholder in thought, social organization, and practice that other things can come to fill without apparently having anything to do with the divine or supernatural. In short, there is a sort of structural theology of transcendence, a “theology before theology”, that is a form of thought, not an adherence to any particular popular religion. This structural theology, this structural transcendence, is what Lacan represents with the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation, where masculine desire is premised on the phantasm that there is at least one entity that is not subject to the phallic function or castration.

This idea of a structural transcendence without a folk religious conception of God that nonetheless haunts atheism can be elucidated with reference to Laplace. Laplace was, of course, famous for pushing the Newtonian laws to their limit, arguing that we live in a perfectly deterministic universe, such that if we knew the position of all particles at any particular moment along with their velocities, we could perfectly predict all past states of the universe and all future states. When asked about the place of God in his system by Napoleon, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse: I have no need of that hypothesis. One of the revolutions effected by the early Enlightenment thinkers was the thesis of movement immanent to the universe, requiring no transcendent intervention in order for it to occur. Laplace here echoes that thesis, and thus endorses an atheistic position. However, we should not be so quick to come to this conclusion. In putting forward his deterministic thesis, Laplace makes an appeal to what is referred to as “Laplace’s Demon“, which is the idea of an entity capable of observing and calculating all the states of the universe. There is thus a theology that continues to haunt Laplace’s thought, a structure of thinking, which posits a transcendence capable of surmounting castration. Although Laplace’s being is not a creator, does not intervene in the world, does not judge or condemn, does not define a set of moral laws, it is nonetheless a transcendence that, in principle, surmounts our embeddedness in the world.

Deleuze and Guattari appear to be drawing a similar distinction between concrete actual social formations and movements and whether these are reactionary or revolutionary, the structure of social movements that remain reactionary even when undertaken through revolutionary pre-conscious investments. This concern emerges in response to the history of the Soviet Union, where we had a revolutionary movement at the level of preconscious class investments and interests, but nonetheless ended up with a social system organized around highly reactionary unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to power and the party. No doubt Deleuze and Guattari are thinking of the highly disappointing role that the French communist party played in the events of the student revolutions during Spring of 68. The question then becomes that of how it is possible to form a revolutionary movement that does not fall prey to these sorts of unconscious reactionary investments that simply reproduce oppressive systems. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, how do we avoid simply re-instituting one and the same structure with differing decorations?

This was a problem Lacan encountered as well in the formation of his school. As Lacan remarks at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, analysis aims at a beyond of identification with the master-signifier:

It is not enough that the analyst should support the function of Tiresias. He must also, as Apollinaire tells us, have breasts. I mean that the operation and manipulation of transference are to be regulated in a way that maintains a distances between the point at which the subject sees himself as lovable– and that other point where the subject sees himself caused as a lack by a, and where a fills the gap constituted by the inaugural division of the subject. (270)

That point from which the analysand sees himself as lovable is the master-signifier, or the place from which the analysand sees himself as being seen by the various authority figures with whom he identifies. In traversing the fantasy and discovering the Other does not exist, that the other is fissured, desiring, lacking, the analysand discovers a beyond of identification in drive. With regard to an organization like a psychoanalytic school or association, the obvious question is that of how it might be possible to form a collective or society premised on the non-existence of the Other. This is a difficult and paradoxical question to say the least. Clearly Lacan himself was a point of identification for the members of his school. He was treated as “the subject supposed to know”. Yet analysts of the school are supposed to have traversed the fantasy and thus worked through the transference, no longer positing a subject supposed to know or a master. This, incidentally, is why I’ve sometimes playfully suggested that Deleuze and Guattari are the real Lacanians: they do not slavishly repeat every word of the master, but work with the thought of Lacan and contribute to the development of a problem and set of concepts. At any rate, Lacan’s various declarations and letters in Television all revolve around this question of the production of a revolutionary collective. The history of Lacanianism since Lacan’s death suggests that the problem has never been completely resolved.

It would appear that we are still caught in this bottleneck. One of the difficulties with Deleuze and Guattari’s proposals– at least as they were taken up by the academy –is that they do not seem to generate any organized activist collectives, and therefore it’s worried that they provide no real tools for struggling with capitalism (I am not suggesting this is true). This would be the concern with a number of other post-structural theorists as well, where political theory is thick on critique and analysis, but provides very little in the way of workable praxis. Enter Badiou and Zizek. In a number of respects, I think Badiou, despite his fascination with figures such as Saint Paul, manages to skirt worries of re-instituting desires at the level of unconscious libidinal investments. Badiou is quite clear in his discussion of political events and in his thesis that a true politics is outside the “state” (Deleuze and Guattari’s preconscious class investments). However, with Zizek and his flirtations with figures such as Robespierre, Mao, and Stalin, the worry emerges that once again we’re moving down the path of a paradoxical “reactionary revolution”, where the new boss is the same as the old. The concerns that motivate Zizek are, I think, well founded: change requires organization, movement. Yet he seems to move in the opposite direction, turning questions of mobilization and organization in fascist directions. I have no answers to solution to these issues, but it does seem to be that one of the central questions is that of how revolutionary movements can avoid falling into reactionary traps.

I don’t do vacations well. For the last few weeks I’ve had a brief respite from the duties of teaching. During the academic year I dream of the summer when I’ll finally have the time to read what I wish to read and write what I wish to write, yet strangely, when vacation finally comes along, I find myself strangely disengaged, unable to think, concentrate, or do much writing. In a number of respects I think this relates to my “Symptom”. Here the Symptom should not be thought as a tick such as repeatedly washing ones hands, the inability to say a particular word (like Charlie’s inability to say anything pertaining to parents or fathers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or a moment of hysterical blindness. These too are symptoms, yet there are symptoms and then there’s the Symptom. Where symptoms are these various ticks and idiosyncracies that inexplicably trouble the life of a subject, the Symptom should instead be thought as the complex theme animating a subject’s life. In Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes that,

…analysis progresses by means of a return to the meaning of an action. That alone justifies the fact that we are interested in the moral dimension. Freud’s hypothesis relative to the unconscious presupposes that, whether it be healthy or sick, normal or morbid, human action has a hidden meaning that one can have access to. In such a context the notion of a catharsis that is a purification, a decantation or isolation of levels is immediately conceivable. (312)

This hidden meaning of ones action is desire. We find ourselves repeatedly doing something– repetitively washing our hands, unable to enjoy vacation –and analysis is that process by which this meaning is finally delivered to us, where we are finally able to understand the meaning of what it is that we’ve been doing all this time. As Lacan will put it a few pages later, this activity is a complex theme pervading our lives that has the status of being a sort of destiny.

Doing things in the name of the good, and even more in the name of the good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us not only from guilt but also from all kinds of inner catastrophes. To be precise, it doesn’t protect us from neurosis and its consequences. If analysis has a meaning, desire is nothing other than that which supports an unconscious theme, the very articulation of that which roots us in a particular destiny, and that destiny demands insistently that the debt be paid, and desire keeps coming back, keeps returning, and situates us once again in a given track, the track of something is specifically our business. (319)

Lacan contends that the only thing we can ever be guilty of is having given way on our desire. If I experience guilt, then in some way, somehow, I have given ground relative to my desire or betrayed my desire. Guilt thus does not arise as a consequence of betraying some moral rule or principle– for instance, stealing something or having impure thoughts –but rather results from a betrayal of one’s desire. This simultaneously explains both why those who are truly wretched morally so often have such clean consciences and why those who are so upstanding morally have such ferocious and persecutory guilt. All of us are familiar with jokes about Catholic and Jewish guilt. If the phenomenon of ferocious guilt so often accompanies devoutly religious lifestyles that are free from moral infraction, then this is because these lives so often entail a betrayal of ones desire by virtue of their very structure. Moral consciousness, in its obedience to the moral law– what Lacan refers to as the “order of Creon” or the “service of goods” –leads to a renunciation of desire. “The morality of power, of the service of goods, is as follows: ‘As far as desires are concerned, come back later. Make them wait'” (315). Yet desire insists regardless of whether one wishes to renounce desire or not. And it returns one way or another in the form of either guilt or symptoms, which are themselves way of maintaining ones desire.

It would thus seem to be an easy matter to avoid the return of desire in the form of the symptom and guilt: Forget morality and pursue what one wants. The analysand reading Lacanian psychoanalytic literature concurrent to his analysis thus reasons that,

If the ‘service of goods’, established morality, modesty, and the system of consumption lead me to betray my desire and thereby produces symptoms and guilt, then I should simply pursue what I want, and live a deliciously hedonistic life, full of the most profound debaucheries and transgressions.

It would be nice were such a simple solution available, however no sooner does the analysand pursue such a course of action than does he find himself consumed by guilt and populated by symptoms far worse than those he knew before. “Why,” he wonders, “does he now feel more miserable than I did before? Why have these boils (I kid you not) break out all over my body, am I now impotent, and do I suddenly find myself beset by all sorts of unfortunate accidents such as the loss of my wallet, minor car accidents, leaving my computer open to porn at work, etc?” It sounds fantastic, but it happens in analysis.

The error that such an analysand has fallen into is the confusion of want with desire. The analysand believes that he knows the meaning of his action and thus knows the true nature of his desire. But analysis shows that the reason for our repetitions, the desire animating our action, is hidden from us. Our desire is embodied in our repetitions and symptoms, yet the whole problem is that we do not know why it is that we repeat. For this reason, the way out of the deadlock of guilt and symptoms cannot be a simple determinate negation of the service of goods or the established system of morality. Rather, we must come to that point where we are in a position to make a decision with regard to our desire. We must come to know our desire. In describing desire as a theme we should think of something like a complex theme in music or Jazz that repeats itself while varying itself. What we have here is the identity of difference, a pattern that plays again and again throughout a person’s life, functioning as the secret cipher, the meaning, the sense, the Sein-zu-Tode, animating a person’s life and imbuing it with meaning. Here I cannot agree with Zizek’s politicization of the ethics of psychoanalysis, for this politicization strikes me as one of the surest ways to give way on ones desire. There might indeed be unconsciousnesses that are political in the way Zizek describes, but we can just as easily imagine a woman named “Rose” who has betrayed her desire by becoming deeply involved in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas– as would have been (dis)approved of by her parents and colleagues –when she should have been cultivating roses. Desire is often banal such that the outsider is unable to fathom why one pursues a particular activity with such zeal– think of how thoroughly Kinsey was obsessed with his research on dung-wasps… Do you understanding it or share this intense fascination? –but it is nonetheless singular and specific to that subject. As Lacan will later say in Seminar XXIII, The Sinthome, “we are never interested in another’s symptom.” It is in this connection that Lacan’s distinction between writing and sense is to be situated: Writing opens on to the real, to the senseless, and refers to a set of traces in the unconscious that take on a libidinal charge irregardless of any sense they might have.

In Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan draws an example from Serge Leclaire to illustrate this point:

One must interpret at the level of the s [signifier, not the signified], which is not open to all meanings, which cannot be just anything, which is a signification, though no doubt only an approximate one. What is there is rich and complex, when it is a question of the unconscious of the subject, and inteded to bring out irreducible, non-sensical— composed of non-meanings –signifying elements. In the same article, Leclaire’s work illustrates particularly well the crossing of significant interpretation towards signifying non-sense, when he proposes, on the subject of his obsessional neurotic patient, the so-called Poordjeli formula, which links the two syllables of the word licorne (unicorn), thus enabling him to introduce into his sequence a whole chain in which his desire is animated. (250)

The case Lacan is referring to can be found in Serge Leclaire’s Psychoanalyzing: On the Order of the Unconscious and the Practice of the Letter, and is well worth the read. If Lacan’s remarks here seem incomprehensible, then this is due to the fact that he is working at the level of writing, writing in the unconscious, rather than at the level of sense. To fully understand the claim made here with regard to Leclaire’s obsessional patient, we would have to follow the case notes and trace how a writing (note the indefinite article) unfolds in this analysand’s formations of the unconscious. Similarly, Rose should not be cultivating roses because this is what “rose” means, rather this is one possibility through which the desire animating the writing “r-o-s-e” might unfold itself in the life of a particular analysand. It is the homonym that matters here, not the sense. Moreover, the sense follows upon the senseless writing– as Deleuze argues in The Logic of Sense, sense arises from nonsense –not the reverse. Another trajectory might have had Rose obsessively researching the Knights of the Rose, or Gillian Rose, never noticing the proximity to her name, going on and on about the underappreciated socio-historical-political significance of the Knights of the Rose without drawing any connection between the unconscious desire, the unconscious writing, that animates her and this particular academic pursuit.

It is in this connection that Lacan’s reference to “destiny” ought to be situated. To speak of destiny in this context is not to speak of astrology or the gods defining one’s future. Rather, destiny here refers to the agency of the signifier in the unconscious. Among his many aphorisms describing the unconscious, is that where Lacan defines the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other”. Before being born, prior to being a subject, the infant is already surrounded by a discourse not of his own making. For Lacan, like Whitehead, the subject is a superject– A product rather than an underlying substance defining a trajectory. A writing weaves itself around the body of the young infant, laying the groundwork of nonsense that will function as the ground from which sense might be produced. As Whitehead will say, “No actual entity can rise beyond what the actual world as a datum from its standpoint– its actual world –allows it to be” (Process and Reality, 83). This too will hold for the writing woven around the infant, functioning as a constraint on the becoming of that subject. However, this should not be taken as a deterministic or grim statement, for the play of language embodied in puns, double entendres, homonyms, equivocations, etc., allows for indefinite variability emerging from this writing. Without constraint and limitation, without selection, there can be no creation. Consequently, the writing populating the unconscious, this discourse of the Other, should not be understood to be akin to a computer program that simply sets on its course once initiated. Nonetheless, this writing insists throughout all subsequent action in much the same way that Oedipus finds himself unable to escape Loxias’ prophecy despite every effort to escape it. Desire returns in the form of the symptom and one can either make a decision to follow ones desire– which requires coming to know ones desire– ultimately one enters analysis because they do not know what they want –or to strive to evade ones desire.

After causing all manner of turmoil with my reading group last week by shifting our meeting from Saturday to Tuesday, I noticed that I am often at the center of maelstorms such as this. Whether it be the various religion and theory wars here, the madness of the last academic year with administration, personal email disputes that emerge from time to time with those whom I love, and so on, I repeatedly find myself in the midsts of some sort of conflict. Indeed, I seek it out. The first thing I open to in the newspaper is the editorial page. I gravitate towards religious and political debates. I often continue engagement with persons I actively dislike or believe to have little that is genuinely interesting to say, despite the unpleasantness of conflictual discussion with such persons. And perhaps, above all, I chose to pursue philosophy, an agon seconded only by the political arena. There is a repetition here that has woven itself all throughout my life, and in suddenly discerning this repetition my desire to write or engage with anyone suddenly disappeared (hence my silence this last week). Strangely however, I felt no guilt in not engendering conflict for a week, indicating that this action, in being articulated, had found a different trajectory through which to unfold itself. In discerning this repetition, I do not thereby discern my desire. Indeed, the relationship between agon and desire might be quite oblique– like the relationship between the manifest- and laten-content of a dream in the dreamwork –and difficult to understand without extensive analysis. Falling into conflict is an action, yet the meaning of the action, the desire that animates it, is opaque to me. What obscure desire animates such an action? This is a question that cannot be answered generically such that someone on this list– a Jungian, no doubt –could say “oh, that means x”. Rather, like Leclaire’s analysis of his obsessional, it is something that can only be revealed in tracing the furrow of a signifier in symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, or a life.

I haven’t had much time to write lately as I’m inundated with grading and a host of other things. Basically I’ve been a nervous wreck waiting to find out about the job. I know, I know, it’s only been a week… After all, I just returned from Ohio on Friday 16th and the last candidate was interviewed on Monday the 19th, but nonetheless… The fun part of these things is that all my obsessional symptoms begin to come to the fore. In his case study on the Rat Man and elsewhere, Freud underlined the strong relationship between superstitious or magical thought and obsessional neurosis. For instance, the Rat Man would worry that thinking certain thoughts would lead to the death of his father, despite the fact that his father was already dead! I won’t trouble you with the sorts of connections playing about in my mind. They aren’t pretty.

At any rate, some of you might recall that one of my first posts here was about the relationship between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis. Indeed, it was the thoughts behind this post that motivated me to start this blog, on a whim one night, in the first place. My friend Melanie had been gushing about the whole blog phenomenon– in particular she had been lurking about on I Cite and Infinite Thought –so lest I lose my “hip factor” I decided, with bottle of wine in hand, to poke about one night while I was on vacation (it must have been Spring Break). I had participated for years on academic discussion lists– indeed I am even the moderator of a few such lists –but had never ventured forth into the daunting land of theory blogs. Was I hip enough to be a blogger, I wondered? Did I have what it takes to rant endlessly and in a self-absorbed fashion about the minor drama that is my life? Could I write freely and of my own accord, without having the instigation of other list members annoying the hell out of me with their particular thoughts and thus prompting me to respond? At any rate, as I poked about in my semi-drunken stupor, I came across a blog devoted to Deleuze and Guattari, and was enraged by the sort of standard claims you come across in these venues about psychoanalysis (this wasn’t, of course, on I Cite or Infinite Thought). When I tried to post my rejoinder, pointing out how heavily Deleuze and Guattari draw on Lacan and how Anti-Oedipus tends to except Lacan from the sorts of criticisms they level against folk like Melanie Klein and Freud, the computer froze and I lost the comment.

In that moment Larval Subjects was born. Basically I said screw it, quickly set up a blog with blogger, wrote a post on the death of god and then another on Deleuze, Guattari, and Lacan. Having gotten it out of my system, I didn’t give the blog another thought, yet to my great surprise someone posted: Orla. “Whoa, perhaps people actually read these things!” A few days later I got the courage to post on Jodi Dean’s I Cite with a link to something I’d written. She frontpaged me and then a few other blogs followed in kind, and voila! So I kept writing. It would be no exaggeration to say that Jodi Dean and Sujet-barre made me in more ways than one when they front paged me. The traffic that ensued and the comments that arose encouraged me to continue writing and to explore my ideas in ways that I never had before, pushing me to develop my own thoughts rather than simply engaging in commentary. While my style is still very citational, I nonetheless continue to develop thoughts of some sort, for good or ill. My interactions here have motivated me to submit far more papers and have made me more confident in my professional interactions. Blogging has been, for me, a life changing event. Such is the power of networks. At any rate, my rage about an offhand comment from an enthusiast of Deleuze and Guattari was the result of years of frustration borne out of my own interactions with Deleuzians on various online discussion lists and at conferences. As Deleuze and Guattari point out,

Let us remember once again one of Marx’s caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and the relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends. (AO, 24)

Perhaps this is one of the quasi-transcendental sources of stupidity that I was lamenting in my recent post on learning: our tendency to think in terms of products and results, rather than processes of production. I always try to remind myself of this, that I do not know their field of individuation or from whence they have come, when I encounter someone who is responding to something in a particularly impassioned way, though I am seldom good at keeping this in mind. In a similar vein, if my irritation with the treatment of Lacan by American enthusiasts of Deleuze and Guattari is so impassioned, then this is due to years and years of hearing the same tired points trotted out again and again, when what is written there on the page in black and white says something completely different.

And, of course, there is my own sympathy towards psychoanalysis, having spent years in analysis myself, having struggled with Lacan’s own difficult and imposing theoretical edifice, and practicing as an analyst myself. Sometimes I cannot prevent myself from having dark and self-serving thoughts, smugly thinking of certain Deleuzians as academic dilettantes playing a game of letters, who have never sat before and been responsible to another genuinely suffering person and had to assume responsibility for the consequences of their own interventions. As Lacan remarks in his tenth seminar, L’angoisse, the analyst must learn, above all, how to use her own anxiety as a productive principle. And anxiety is certainly legion on the analyst’s end of things. It is my view that every thinker, every philosopher, should have a concrete practice so as to remind themselves of that little bit of the real, or so as to encounter a point of opacity and resistance within the otherwise “smooth” world of conceptual creation where we are all little gods. I know these are ugly thoughts and I try not to have them. Spinoza had his lenses to grind. Kant had his physics. Descartes had his mathematics. Leibniz all his inventions. And Lacan his patients. I do not like that I sometimes conceitedly think such things. Yet I get frustrated.
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In a seldom mentioned passage from his seventh seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan remarks that,

We must see right away how crude it is to accept the idea that, in the ethical order itself, everything can be reduced to social constraint, as is so often the case in the theoretical writings of certain analysts– as if the fashion in which that constraint develops doesn’t in itself raise a question for people who live within the realms of our experience. In the name of what is social constraint exercised? Of a collective tendency? Why in all this time hasn’t such social constrained managed to focus on the most appropriate paths to the satisfaction of individuals’ desires? Do I need to say anymore to an audience of analysts to make clear the distance that exists between the organization of desires and the organization of needs? (225)

It is impossible to read this passage and not think of the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. That is, Lacan here alludes to a critique of the so-called repressive hypothesis on two axes: On the one hand, we have the question of what would ever lead the individual to tolerate such repression, constraint, or law in the first place. Certainly the individual would unilaterally rebuke such a repression in a mythological state of nature. What is it that leads the individual to tolerate, accept, and even will these repudiations of basic biological needs? On the other hand, we have the question of why the social order has not yet delivered satisfaction and what function this dissatisfaction might serve. This disconcerting experience of finding in Lacan what one takes to be a critique of psychoanalysis is common throughout the seminar. For instance, in Seminar 9, L’identification, we will find Lacan developing an elaborate account of the trace and writing. This is in 1961-62. Derrida’s magnificent Speech and Phenomena and Grammatology will be released in 1967.

Passages such as this underline just why there has been so much tension between Marxist orientations of thought and psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is in the context of a discussion of Marx that Lacan makes this remark. If this tension emerges, then this is because Lacan here suggests that there’s something constitutive at the heart of human experience that produces dissatisfaction. Where a vulgar reading of Marx sees our discontent as the result of alienated social relations, Lacan here sees something ineradicable at the heart of our experience.
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