Perhaps thinkers and artists shouldn’t be evaluated by influences within their art or discipline, so much as by their idiosyncratic fetishes and obsessions that fall outside of their work. What are we to make, for example, of Graham’s obsession with Gibbon? As I read Harman’s daily posts about Gibbon, I can’t help but feel that I’m encountering something purely singular and inarticulable. As Graham himself would admit, I’m sure, there is something deeply libidinal in this obsession, a jouissance that falls outside of language, even though it seems to be all about language. If the suggestion of a jouissance outside of language that is all about language seems paradoxical, we need only think of Joyce’s final work. As Lacan observed, Finnegans Wake is a pure jouissance, a sinthome rather than a symptom.

Where a symptom is either a metaphorical substitution or a metonymical displacement susceptible to interpretation, a sinthome is a jouissance that admits of no interpretation. Lacan, perhaps influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, referred to the sinthome as a haecceity. When a woman continuously has fits in public where she falls down and where there’s no medical condition that accompanies this malady, we probably won’t be far off the mark in concluding that the signifier “fallen woman” is at work somewhere in her unconscious. This symptom is a message to the Other, indicating perhaps the manner in which she has betrayed her desire. The sinthome by contrast, does not function in this way. When Lacan says Joyce cannot be interpreted, he is not saying that he is so difficult that his work defies any analysis. Clearly this is not the case. What he is saying is that the relation to language in Joyce is that of the sinthome or a pure jouissance in language itself, without this language being organized around a series of metaphorical and metonymical substitutions that would allow for an interpretive master key. And indeed, to read the late Joyce you have to read him at this level. If you are looking for meaning in Joyce’s later work (i.e., the relation between the Imaginary and the Symbolic), you’re going to be tremendously frustrated and outraged. Joyce has to be enjoyed at the level of the rustle of his language itself, at the level of the texture of that language. While the later work of Joyce is capable of producing a great deal of meaning (it’s almost like hyper-text), it does not contain pre-delineated meaning that would lie beneath the shimmer of the text as its secret key.

This is what I have in mind when I refer to analyzing a thinker in terms of his or her obsessions and fetishes rather than their intellectual influences. While I am sure Graham gets all sorts of things from his forays into Gibbon, there’s something else going on here. What are we to make of this jouissance? What does it say about Graham’s jouissance? Graham has often remarked on my unusually high tolerance for dealing with assholes, for my tendency to get into ridiculous discussions and debates that are of little or no worth. What does this say of my jouissance? What are we to make of Zizek’s obsession with film or Bogost’s love of video games? Or how about Shaviro’s delight with science fiction and Harold & Kumar? We all find ways to integrate our jouissance with our work, yet jouissance is always strangely outside of that work. If someone some day writes a biography of Harman there will be endless perplexity and debate about the place of Gibbon in his thought. And that’s exactly how it is with jouissance. Beyond what is transmissible about a person, it is the haecceity of a person, never summarizable in a single feature or obsession, but fractally present throughout all acts of that person, functioning as a sort of ghostly mark of that which withdraws from all relation and interpretation.


kochOne of the things that absolutely fascinates me about discourse, and, in particular, Lacan’s theory of discourse is that it has a fractal nature that seems to iterate itself at all levels. Thus, to the same degree that you can have interpersonal or speaker to speaker relations that have the same formal structure outlined by Lacan with many different contents, you can have entire social structures that are organized around these formal relationships. And indeed, there’s a strange way in which the appearance of one discourse structure somehow generates the appearance of all the other discourse structures. For those interested in a brief introduction to Lacan’s theory of discourse you can consult my article on discourse theory here, beginning with page 40. Formally we can see why the other three discourses emerge “a priori” wherever there is the appearance of one discourse. If this is the case, then it is by virtue of the fact that discourses form what mathematicians call a group. That is, through a simple clockwise permutation, you are able to generate the other three discourses simply by rotating the symbols in each position one position forward. 180px-MadisThus, if you begin with the discourse of the master, you are able to generate the discourse of the hysteric, the analyst, and the university through a simple clockwise rotation of the terms in each of your initial positions:

Unidis For those unacquainted with Lacan’s discourse theory, look carefully at the succession of these four discourses, you will note that beginning with the discourse of the master and then shifting to the discourse of the hysteric, then moving to the discourse of the analyst, and finishing with the discourse of the university, the relations among the terms remains invariant. The terms change their position in each of the four positions they can occupy, but with respect to one another they always maintain a constant position. In this particular universe of discourse (again, see my article for the concept of a “universe of discourse”, which you won’t find in Lacan, but which is a logical extension of his own thought regarding discourse), for example, a can never appear, to put it metaphorically, before the term S2. Consequently, given one discourse, you already have the other three.

As Deleuze put it speaking in the context of Levi-Strauss, “In whatever manner language is acquired, the elements of language must have been given all together, all at once, since they do not exist independently of their possible differential relations” (Logic of Sense, Handsome Continuum Edition, 58). So too with Lacan’s discourse structures. Even if each discourse were to appear diachronically in the order of history in such a way that the others were absent or not present in the social order, nonetheless these other discourses would be virtually there or would exist virtually, simply “awaiting” their opportunity to manifest themselves. What is remarkable, however, is that the discourses don’t seem to arise sequentially with the establishment of a single discourse. Rather, the moment one discourse is instituted you get the sudden actualization of the other three discourses within that universe of discourse.

Take the discourse of the master. What is it that the discourse of the master does? Does it master, dominate, control? No, not really. If you refer back to the discourse of the master you note that on the upper portion of the discourse there is a relation between S1 and S2. S2 refers to the battery of signifiers. We might think of this as a disorganized, chaotic mass of signifiers that float about willy nilly, almost at random. What the discourse of the master does is provide a master-signifier, loosely something like what Derrida referred to as a “transcendental signifier”, that organizes this chaotic mass of signifiers into a unified structure. Thus, for example, when Kant formulated the position of “transcendental idealism” he was situated in the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he provided a signifier that unified philosophy in a particular way, generating a coherent structure or organization. Similarly, when an activist characterizes a series of conflicts as a revolution, he is occupying the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he is unifying a mass of disconnected acts and events under a single signifier that render them capable of generating a sense or an organization.

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Pierre-Simon_LaplaceIn my last post I localized a paradox at the heart of Lacan’s teaching. On the one hand, Lacan puts forward a “true formula of atheism” that states that God is unconscious. There the line of reasoning seems to run that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other and that the Other does not exist. This would be a clever, indirect way of saying “God does not exist”. On the other hand, Lacan says that the gods belong to the order of the Real. How is it possible to reconcile these two claims. With respect to God and religion, I think Lacan can be seen as proposing what I call an “A-Theology”. A-Theology is not atheism, though it is related to some standard claims of atheism. Most generally, atheism is the denial of any sort of supernatural causation in the world and the existence of anything supernatural. In debates with religious belief, it generally points to the lack of evidence for miracles, the supernatural, souls, etc., and therefore the absence of reasons to believe in such things.

Of course, in relation to the findings of contemporary ethnology, it has become possible to charge the atheist with missing the point with respect to myth. Here the argument would run that myth is a particular way of understanding the world that was never intended to be taken literally. As I heard Caputo once put it at a conference when defending religion, “Of course the figures and miraculous events we see depicted in sacred texts and myths did not take place. Rather, the myths and stories of religion are closer to comic book stories, representing struggles between good and evil, the nature of the world, the meaning of life, etc.” Caputo’s thesis, of course, begs the question of why, if this is all myths are, we don’t choose better literature such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, etc. But whether we go with a somewhat unsophisticated thesis like Caputo’s or a more well developed thesis like Levi-Strauss’ approach to myth, the point remains the same: When we criticize these stories on the grounds that they violate the natural order and that there is no evidence in support of their truth, we have made a category mistake. We have failed to understand that myth is relating to truth and meaning in a different way. While there is certainly a great deal of truth to this thesis, it’s obvious shortcoming is that many followers of particular religious beliefs do take these stories literally rather than figuratively. Nonetheless, were this way of relating to myth to become the dominant paradigm in actual religious practices, it would be a substantial advance allowing for a much different dialogue between atheists and believers.

A-Theology, by contrast, differs from atheism in that its aim is not to refute or debunk claims about the supernatural. Where atheism focuses obsessively on religion as an explanatory hypothesis about the nature of the world, A-Theology, by contrast, is directed at a particular structure of thought and a particular form of social organization that it refers to, for lack of a better word, as “theological”. In this connection, it is crucial to emphasize that from the standpoint of A-Theology the conditions under which a particular structure of thought or social organization contains elements of the supernatural matters not a whit. In other words, a structure of thought or a form of social organization could be entirely secular in character, it could be an ultra-materialism, and nonetheless remain theological from the standpoint of A-Theology. Likewise, a form of social organization or thought could be pervaded by appeals to all sorts of supernatural phenomena and nonetheless be characterized as “a-theological” from the standpoint of A-Theology. The arch-materialist and determinist Pierre-Simon Laplace is an excellent example of a materialistic account of the universe that is nonetheless thoroughly theological. This is not because Laplace attributed the workings of matter to God– when Napoleon asked him about the place of God in his system, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse. –but rather because of the curious role that Laplace’s Demon plays in his understanding of nature. Similarly, perhaps Greece, prior to Platonic thought can be understood as A-Theological, despite being pervaded by all sorts of deities and supernatural phenomena. Given these two examples, it is clear that the distinguishing mark between the A-Theological and the Theological has nothing to do with the supernatural or the sorts of causality that function in the world.

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In response to my post “Deleuze and Guattari avec Lacan“, Reid asks “What is the Borromean Clinic?” I confess that I am working through this myself, so I do not have a completely adequate answer. In many respects, this is the most and dense and difficult period of Lacan’s teaching, but it is also a period where he completely exceeds what he had developed in prior years, developing both an entirely new diagnostic system and new possibilities for the end of analysis.

In his Borromean period, Lacan shifts to a topology of the subject based on the borromean knot:


The first thing to notice with this curious knot is that no two of the rings are directly tied together as in the case of a Hopf chain:


Consequently, in the borromean knot, if any one of the rings are severed the other two rings fall away as well. In short, the consistence of the borromean knot arises only from the knotting of the three and the manner in which the strings pass over and under one another in the proper way. Lacan equated each of the three rings with one of his three orders– the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary (RSI) –corresponding to the order of ex-sistence (the real) or that which exists outside the symbolic, the order of the hole or lack introduced into being (the symbolic), and the order of consistency (the imaginary). However, it will be noted that each of the rings overlaps with the others forming points of intersection with the other rings like a Venn diagram:


Consequently, we can think the different orders together getting various combinations between the elements. Thus, for example, there can be a hole in the real, just as there is an ex-sistence in the symbolic (the letter as opposed to the signifier). Likewise, there can be a consistence in the symbolic (meaning), just as there can be a hole in the imaginary. And so on. As I said, I am still working through this myself, so I have not yet worked out the implications of all this.

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I came across the following passage from Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary: Translated from the Original MS in Roberto Harari’s brilliant How James Joyce Made His Name: A Reading of the Final Lacan.

Twain tells the story in Eve’s words. Having caught sight of the male creature, she thinks “it” must be a reptile, and tries to attract its attention by throwing clods of earth:

One of the clodes took it back of the ear, and it used language. It gave me a thrill, for it was the first time I had ever heard speech, except my own. I did not understand the words, but they seemed expressive. When I found it could talk, I felt a new interest in it, for I love to talk; I talk all day, and in my sleep, too, and I am very interesting, but if I had another to talk to I could be twice as interesting, and would never stop, if desired.

…She goes on: “I think it would be a he. I think so. IN that case, one would parse it thus: nominative he; dative him; possessive, his’n. Well, I will consider it a man and call it he until it turns out to be something else.”

Eve now goes on to the subject of nomination. “I have taken all the work of naming things off his hands, and this has been a great relief to him, for he has no gift in that line, and is evidently very grateful.” (41 – 42)

What a marvelous illustration of Lacan’s mysterious feminine jouissance… An enjoyment in language as such without the need for the phallic dimension of totality. At any rate, Harari’s book is well worth the read. He deftly navigates Lacan’s theory of the borromean knots, the sinthome, the different orders of jouissance, and proposes a new end of analysis beyond traversing the fantasy in identification with the sinthome, where the process of analysis is conceived as an untying and retying of the three orders and the formation of a purified symptom, an inexchangeable singularity, from which the subject draws its jouissance. This is a far more optimistic account of the end of analysis than that of traversing the fantasy where the subject undergoes subjective destitution and lives on in a sort of tragic and masochistic position with respect to the jouissance circumscribed by the fundamental fantasy. Compared to Harari’s book on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis and Seminar 10: Anxiety, both of which presuppose a strong background knowledge in Lacanian theory and which are replete with mathemes (a boon, I think), this text is very accessible… Though all the books of the Argentinian analyst are valuable and illuminating, and well worth the read.

Between Drive and Signifier

The first post on sexuation and the logic of sexuation can be found here.


Between The Interpretation of Dreams and the Three Essays on Sexuality there was a great tension within Freud’s thought, almost as if there were two entirely different psychoanalytic theories. On the one hand, the Three Essays developed the theory of the drives (trieb) and the various forms that they could take over the course of development and beyond. Freud’s early drive theory was a thoroughly embodied theory pertaining to the baroque displacements the drives can undergo in order to satisfy themselves. By contrast, The Interpretation of Dreams unfolded almost entirely in the order of the signifier, the semiotic, and its vicissitudes, with little that directly pertained to the drives. In certain respects, Freud’s work here was prescient. In his final essay, Analysis Finite and Infinite, Freud would wonder whether it was possible for analysis to come to an end. Despite the fact that interpretation would go as far as it could go over the course of analysis, despite the fact that the transference would have been thoroughly worked through, Freud would find that something in the analysand’s psychic system continued to repeat. In other words, there was something other at work in the analysand’s psychic system that could not be resolved through interpretation alone. No doubt it was observations such as these that led Freud to theorize a death drive in contrast to the pleasure principle and instincts.

Lacan’s thought underwent a very similar trajectory. Up through Seminar 6, Lacan focused primarily on the order of the signifier, ignoring almost entirely the order of drive or jouissance. During this period, Lacan optimistically argued that the symptom could be entirely resolved through analytic interpretation, even defining the symptom as a metaphoric condensation of signifiers. This is the period where Lacan believes that the big Other exists. During this period, as can be observed in the graph of desire, Lacan assimilates drive to the signifier, to the symbolic, rather than seeing it as belonging to the order of the real. It is not until Seminar 10, L’angoisse, that Lacan will begin to develop a rich account of drive as that which both accounts for signifying formations in the unconscious (an animating principle), and as a real and jouissance entirely other than the order of the signifier.

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In a previous post I suggested that psychoanalysis became a pre-occupation for Marxist thought due to a certain impasse at the heart of Marxist theory. Here, in response to Nate’s excellent remark, my aim was not to suggest that psychoanalysis became a pre-occupation of a Marxist praxis, but rather to account for a certain strain of French Marxist theory characterized by figures like Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lyotard. What was at issue was a two-fold question: First, why did the Soviet situation lead to such dire results? Indeed, why did the French communist party take on such a repressive structure despite its explicit egalitarian ideals and ideals of liberty? And second, why, despite changing conditions at the level of production did certain social formations remain the same. The conclusion of these thinkers, while varied, was that accounts of political economy were not enough, but that a theory of desire, micro-power, etc., was necessary to account for our attachment to certain forms of power. As Deleuze and Guattari so beautifully put it in providing one possible answer to this question (Foucault gives a very different answer in terms of micropower),

The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors, any more than for libido to go by way of metamorphoses. Hitler got the fascists sexually aroused. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused. A revolutionary is nothing if it does not acquire at least as much force as these coercive machines have for producing breaks and mobilizing flows. (Anti-Oedipus, pg. 293)

In other words, revolution at the level of production is not enough, there must also be a revolutionary desire as well, an analysis of desire, and all of these micro-attachments that bind us to a particular world. In a lovely aside about love, Deleuze and Guattari will say that we do not fall in love with persons, but with the worlds another person envelops. And likewise in our attachment to certain institutions, forms of social organizations, and all the rest. If Deleuze and Guattari treat Kafka as a privileged political theorist in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, then this is because Kafka was the cartographer of this universe of desiring-machines or the eroticism that lies beneath our attachment to certain social formations. Indeed, in one incarnation Joseph K even is a cartographer… And, of course, the books of law contain pornographic pictures in The Trial. However, my aim here is not to discuss how Deleuze and Guattari solve this problem– in the first part of this essay I begin with the remark “Take the example of Deleuze and Guattari” –but to show how Deleuze and Guattari’s solution to this problem leads to a certain impasse at the level of political theory. What I ultimately hope to argue is that Lacan’s account of the sinthome provides the means for responding to these difficulties without falling back into models of Oedipally structured social formations or sovereignity as the only possible way in which the social can be organized. In other words, the sinthome provides the means of knotting the three orders of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic in a way that 1) is cognizant that the big Other does not exist (in contrast to Oedipal totalization and obfuscation of the lack in the Other), and 2) that need not resort to the structuring function of the name-of-the-father as the only way of avoiding a fall into paralyzing psychosis that negates the social relation. In short, the work of the late Lacan with the borromean knots leads to a “psychotic solution”, where psychosis is no longer the absence of the social relation (psychoanalysts refer to this form of psychosis as “Ordinary Psychosis”), and where psychosis now becomes a generalized state (universal psychosis common to all subjects), such that neurosis and perversion are not other than psychosis but rather specific ways in which the knot of the three orders are tied together. I set this issue aside for the moment.

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