Signifier


Of late I’ve occasionally grumbled about education reform here in the United States. Given the sort of readership I have, I suspect that some look at me sidelong when I go on these rants wondering why I get so worked up. After all, there are much sexier issues to discuss like global capitalism and empire. Nonetheless, I think the No Child Left Behind act has been an unmitigated disaster and I am filled with cold chills whenever I think about it. I wish some talented Foucaultian would come along– you know the type, those that don’t simply talk about what Foucault himself wrote, but continue the project of rigorously studying forms and organizations of institutional power such as, perhaps, the way the DSM-IV functions and so on –and analyze the sorts of subjectivizations produced as a result of these agendas. These are the contemporary forms of micropower. Are they being studied and strategized?

What will the minds of Americans be like ten or fifteen years from now, after these children have grown up and entered the work world? Apparently this movement isn’t restricted to the secondary schools, but now there are entire groups of university administrators who believe this would be a good idea at the college level as well. In my cynicism I might not be surprised to hear of community or junior college administors pursuing such reform… But administrators at four year institutions with graduate programs? Now whenever I hear some well meaning person speak of “rubrics” and “performance outcomes” I shiver and dig my heels in, terrified that this is what is lurking right around the corner. I have a dirty confession to make: I passionately believe in traditional liberal arts education and the formation of critical thinkers that do not simply repeat but that are capable of posing problems and creatively generating solutions. The aim of pedagogy should be the formation of free men and women or self-directing agents. This is not accomplished by producing good test-takers. Indeed, listening to the horror stories of the pressures that are placed on students to perform well on these tests, it’s difficult to escape the impression that the very aim of this program is to thoroughly destroy any love of learning so that we might have a perfectly docile populace. The minute I hear words like “rubrics” and “performance outcomes” I suspect that the person using them has little or no understanding of what pedagogy is. At any rate, if you’re in the mood to be outraged, read this and this.

These are prime examples of what I have in mind when I speak of forms of action and policy arising out of stupidity, where the dimension of mediation has been ignored. In the development of this legislation teachers have systematically been cut out of the process as there’s been a working assumption that teachers are the problem and that the businessmen and lawyers that make up Congress know better what is required of education than those who teach. The first stupidity then lies in reducing education to a simple exchange of information, memorization, or “facts”. The second lies in the belief that the source of our education problems are the result of poor teachers. In both cases these are the results of “thingly thought” that pitches problems in terms of abstract immediacy, failing to appreciate the broader network of relations embodied in its object. I’m thoroughly baffled that parents and teachers everywhere aren’t filling the streets and marching with torches as a result of these disgusting policies. I get so angry thinking about this and what I’m seeing in my classroom from students freshly out of highschool that I can hardly even pull together words to say anything of value on the issue.

blog trackingJodi Dean has a very interesting post over at I Cite on what holds discursive communities– especially academic communities –together, and what is required to critique these communities. There she writes,

The same holds when one talks about political theory. In American political science, theorists are a separate subfield and generally treated as separate by the rest of the discipline. We are sometimes considered a field among ourselves, perhaps because we read Aristotle and Hobbes while the others think that politics can be a science and try to find formal models that do something besides stating the obvious. Yet, political theorists disagree among ourselves. A big division is between those who do a kind of analytic political theory–or who are still oriented toward Rawls–and those who do continental. Yet, among continental theorists there are also huge debates and disagreements. The Habermasians don’t read Deleuze or Zizek (not to mention Ranciere, Laclau, Agamben, or Badiou). And, while I’m on a journal with a bunch of Deleuzians, they are generally non-sympathetic to Zizek (they think he is not immanent enough and that the notion of the lack is both dangerous and wrong).

Can it mean anything, then, to reject or criticize political theory as a whole? If one is a formal modeler, yes. One is saying that only with formal methods can anything significant be said about politics. But, this is not a critique. It is simply a rejection. I don’t critique formal modeling in my work. I simply reject it. I find it uninteresting and irrelevant. (I’ll add that I do think there is an important role for a lot of empirical political science although I don’t do that sort of work myself.)

Ray Davies makes an interesting point in a thread over at faucets and pipes:

Words aren’t solid tokens which can be extracted from one game and used in a different game while meaning the same thing. Precise definitions are important when rationally arguing against a supposedly rational argument, but can be toxic to community formation, as I’ve personally seen in attempts to establish the boundaries of “science fiction” or “poetry”. A social term is, finally, defined socially, and, in healthily varied communities, allows for unpredictable outliers.

I agree. Terms are markers of discursive communities.

So, can one criticize an entire discursive community by invoking one of their terms? Yes, if one is rejecting the community per se. Here one would be making an institutional argument, that is, an argument about the group existing as a group. But one would not be addressing any of the discursive content through which the group is constituted. Why–because it is precisely the contestation over the content that designates membership in the group. (This is why I never take a stand on alien abduction or 9/11 truth; that would constitute me as a member of the group/discursive community I’m trying to understand.)

I don’t have a whole lot to add to her post; however, in addition to these discursive factors of how a master-signifier is attached to a specific set of signifiers (S2’s) for this or that variant of feminism or variant of Lacanians or group of political theorists, it seems to me that we should also include a discussion of jouissance, or the particular form of enjoyment that bounds a community together. This would include not just the way the community itself enjoys, but also the manner in which the community perceives other groups enjoying and seeks to defend against this enjoyment… That is, the shared fantasy of the group pertaining to how the Other illegitimately enjoys.
(more…)

The last few days I’ve been rather amiss in blogging. I’ve been heavily immersed in research and just haven’t had much time to write. Happily, however, I received a call for an on-campus interview today. Hopefully it won’t be the last such call.

In a rather pointed post, Kenneth Rufo responds to one of my queries as to how it is possible to be influenced. Kenneth quotes me from my Forcing the Event entry, where I write,

I think this really gets to the core of the issue. To put it in Kantian terms: “What are the conditions for the possibility of being influenced.” I’ve seen some work done among the systems theory that’s promising in that it analyzes the manner in which systems are selectively open to their environment, but the problem here, I think, is that there’s a tendency among systems theorists to place too much emphasis on the agency and autonomy of the system to the detriment of the environment. In many instances I did not explicitly choose my own influences, yet I wasn’t simply a passive formation of pre-existent influences either.

To this Kenneth responds,

You know, there is a field that actually spends a fair amount of time on this exact question: rhetoric. It’s got a long tradition, it precedes philosophy, and there’s a subfield that deals with social movements, though I can’t speak to the quality of that scholarship. For particular people you might enjoy, I suppose I’m obligated to suggest Kenneth Burke, though he’s hardly my cup of tea. I’d also recommend a few contemporary scholars: Celeste Condit (she’s done some ideographic studies of abortion, genetics, and a few other topics), Barb Biesecker (articles more than book, though her Addressing Postmodernity is pretty good), Michael Hyde (more of an ethical, Levinas/Heidegger influenced version of rhetoric), John Durham Peters (his Speaking Into the Air is masterful), and Christine Harold (who’s book OurSpace comes out in April). I can be more specific if you have a particular example of symbolic structuration you’re grappling with, or if you can clarify what such a structuration might be in practice. Not that rhetoricians have any particularly final answer, but it might be useful to look at the stuff. As for the dialectical arrangement you’re alluding to, I’d at least advocate some engagement with Bourdieu, since his theory of structuration is predicated on a conception of agency as a dialectic between habitus and agent.

I think, perhaps, Kenneth here misses the focus of my original question and elides two distinct concepts: The concept of influence and the concept of persuasion. While these two concepts are interrelated, they are nonetheless distinct and respond to different issues. It is impossible for me to be persuaded without being influenced, however, I can quite easily be influenced without it being a matter of persuasion. What is at issue here are questions about the selective openness of organizations to the world. That is, an organization, whether it be a biological organism, a subject, a social system, etc., is only selectively open to the world and thus can only be selectively influenced. For instance, I am unable to perceive ultra-violet light.

As I see it, one of the central assumptions of vulger historicist approaches is the idea that we are unilaterially conditioned by an environment. That is, the idea is that we’re born in an environment and somehow this environment makes us what we are. This view is common, for instance, to both Foucault and Bourdieu. What this account of individuation misses is the way in which subjects are only selectively open to an environment such that there’s a way in which we always choose our cultural and historical influences. Zizek expresses this point brilliantly in Tarrying With the Negative through the lense of Hegel’s “doctrine of essence” in the science of logic. There Zizek writes that,

Another way to exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’ is the spontaneous ideological narrativization of our experience and activity: whatever we do, we always situate it in a larger symbolic context which is charged with conferring meaning upon our acts. A Serbian fighting Muslim Albanians and Bosnians in today’s ex-Yugoslavia conceives of his fight as the last act in the centuries-old defense of Christian Europe against Turkish penetration; the Bolsheviks conceived of the October Revolution as the continuation and successful conclusion of all previous radical popular uprisings, from Sparticus in ancient Rome to Jacobins in the French Revolution (this narrativization is tacitly assumed even by some critics of Bolshevism who, for example, speak of the ‘Stalinist Thermidor’); the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea or the Sendero Luminoso in Perud conceive of their movement as a return to the old glory of an ancient empire (Inca’s empire in Peru, the old Khmer kingdom in Cambodia); etc. The Hegelian point to be made is that such narratives are always retroactive reconstructions for which we are in a way responsible; they are never simple given facts: we can never refer to them as a found condition, context, or presupposition of our activity. Precisely as presuppositions, such narratives are always-already ‘posited’ by us. Tradition is tradition insofar as we constitute it as such. (126-7)

The point here is subtle but important: The subject is never simply a product of history or the result of conditioning, but rather posits those conditions through which it might be influenced and constitute itself. Or, where the writing of history is concerned, there is always an invisible subject– invisible insofar as there is no signifier for the subject –that posits x as history. Along these lines, my dear friend Melanie enjoys poking fun at me for my psychoanalytic narratives here on Larval Subjects, as she sees something false or contrived in the way I narrate myself. Here she is absolutely correct in that I often portray myself as a product of the events I narrate, as a sort of emergence, rather than as positing these events myself as a way of producing my presents. Indeed, my narratives are a sort of buffoonery. Sadly I haven’t yet developed the literary talent of Lars in his narrative conventions. Whatever the case may be, the Lacanian subject is a void, a lack, that animates the signifying chain. In short, the Lacano-Hegelian subject is– unlike the historicists –never simply a product of conditioning individuation such that it could be reduced to being a historically determined subject position. The question is one of how this lack, this nothingness, this absence of any successful identification, is handled and lived.

Zizek makes this point well apropos Hegel’s discussion of identity in the science of logic. Quoting Hegel, Zizek writes,

Father is the other of son, and son the other of father, and each only is as this other of the other; and at the same time, the one determination only is, in relation to the other… The father also has an existence of his own apart from the son-relationship; but then he is not father but simply man… Opposites, therefore, contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another. (SL 441)

The inattentive reader may easily miss the key accent of this passage, the feature which belies the standard notion of the ‘Hegelian Contradiction’: ‘contradition’ does not take place between ‘father’ and ‘son’ (here, we have a case of simple opposition between two codependent terms); it also does not turn on the fact that in one relation (to my son) I am ‘father’ and in another (to my own father) I am myself ‘son,’ i.e., I am ‘simultaneously father and son.’ If this were the Hegelian ‘contradiction,’ Hegel would effectively be guilty of logical confusion, since it is clear that I am not both in the same respect. The last phrase in the quoted passage from Hegel’s Logic locates the contradiction clearly inside ‘father’ himself: ‘contradiction’ designates the antagonistic relationship between what I am ‘for the others’– my symbolic determination –and what I am ‘in myself,’ abstractedly from my relations to others. It is the contradiction between the void of the subject’s pure ‘being-for-himself’ and the signifying feature which represents him for the others, in Lacanian terms: between $ and S1. More precisely, ‘contradiction’ means that it is my very ‘alienation’ in the symbolic mandate, in S1, which retoractively makes $– the void which eludes the hold of the mandate– out of my brute reality: I am not only ‘father,’ not only this particular determination, yet beyond these symbolic mandates I am nothing but the void which eludes them (and, as such their own retroactive product). (130-1)

This, then, is one of the meanings of Lacan’s discourse of the master:

S1—>S2

$

When Lacan remarks that “the signifier represents the subject for another signifier” it must be understood that the subject as such never appears in the signifier or that the subject is always effaced by the signifier. That is, when the subject falls under the signifier it suffers an aphanisis or disappearance, which is why Lacan will claim, in “Position of the Unconscious” that the subject is a temporal pulsation that disappears the moment that it appears and that can only be tracked through the traces it leaves (traces in symptoms, bungled actions, dreams, slips of the tongue, etc). These formations of the unconscious, in effect, are attempts to fill the void that is the subject, to produce a signifier that would be adequate to that void once and for all or that would be capable of naming it. However, this void is ineradicable (i.e., it’s a constitutive result of the individual’s subordination to the signifier). As Lacan will write, “For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real– a real that may well not be determined” (Seminar XI, 22). There is always one signifier too few and it is for this reason that there is no subject without a symptom (Seminar 22: RSI).

It is here that Lacan differs most radically from the postmoderns. Where the general trend of theory today is to reduce the subject to power, history, language, subject-positions, etc., Lacan demonstrates that between symbolic identity and the subject there is always a gap. The “cash-value” of this move is immense– On the one hand, Lacan is able to answer the question of why the subject is led to identify in the first place. As Freud had already argued well before Lacan, the ego dimension of the subject (which is always a misrecognition) is the precipitate of identifications. But what is it that motivates these identifications? Lacan’s answer is that my flight to the Other, to the signifiers of the Other, is the attempt to fill my “want-to-be” through identification. I look to the Other to tell me what I am. However, just as the central hole in a torus can never be filled, every identification is ultimately a failed identification (which is yet another reason that the formation of symptoms such as the symptom of the “Jew” for the German nationalist) as the hole insists and subverts the identification. As a result, there is always a kernal of resistance to any field of identification. The aim of the cultural critic should therefore be to lay bare these tensions, these antagonisms, so as effect a change in the symptom and how the symptom is organized. From the historicist standpoint this would be impossible as historicism is essentially Leibnizian: “Everything has a reason!” What it is unable to think is the kernal of contingency, of non-being, at the heart of any positive formation. The question here becomes one of devising technologies to shift the symbolic coordinates of narrative fields of identification so that antagonism as such might become thinkable.

None of this, of course, is to deny Kenneth’s observations about the importance of rhetoric. I work closely with rhetoric and with rhetoricians– at my school they’re my primary interlocutors. In my view, the central insight of the rhetoric tradition is that the subject is inherently intersubjective… Which is to say, the subject is constituted in the field of the Other. Even if poorly executed, this is part of Zizek’s own brilliance. On the one hand, Zizek has recognized the central importance of Lacan in giving us a truly rigorous intersubjective conception of the subject that thoroughly breaks with the tradition of seeing the questions of philosophy posed strictly in terms of subject-object relations. The minimal dyad is a triad: not subject-object, but rather subject-Other-object. No one has gone further than Lacan in thinking through the manner in which the subject’s desire, all its object relations, it’s very being in the world is thoroughly caught up in relations to the Other. This insight was glimpsed in philosophy beginning with the progressive shift towards language, history, and power in philosophy– all of which led to a philosophical crisis surrounding questions of presence –but it is with Lacan that this topology is thoroughly elaborated. On the other hand, Zizek has clearly seen that only something like Hegelian dialectic– beginning with the lord/bondsman dialectic in the genesis of self-consciousness –is successful in escaping the metaphysics of presence insofar as it conceives the subject’s relation to the world and the Other in terms of self-relating negativity capable of discerning itself in difference itself. This is a project that needs to be worked out far more thoroughly and rigorously. It is to the credit of the rhetoricians that they recognized from the beginning that questions of epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., were questions of intersubjectivity and relations to the Other, such that any posing of these questions in restricted subject-object terms were bound to be truncated and mutilated.

However, where Kenneth’s remarks seem to suggest an opposition between rhetoric and philosophy, I would prefer to see something like a Lacanian real or parallax. As Zizek describes it,

The key problem here is that the basic ‘law’ of dialectical materialism, the struggle of opposites, was colonized/obfuscated by the New Age notion of the polarity of opposites (ying-yang, and so on). The first critical move is to replace this topic of the polarity of opposites with the concept of the inherent ‘tension,’ gap, noncoincidence, of the One with itself. This… is based on a strategic politico-philosophical decision to designate this gap which separates the One from itself with the term parallax. [already extensively thematized in the brilliant For They Know Not What They Do…, that no one bothers to read]. There is an entire series of the modes of parallax in different domains of modern theory: quantum physics (the wave-particle duality); the parallax of neurobiology (the realization that, when we look behind the face into the skull, we find nothing: ‘there’s no one at home’ there, just piles of gray matter– it is difficult to tarry with this gap between meaning and the pure Real); the parallax of ontological difference, of the discord between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological (we cannot reduce the ontological horizon to its ontic ‘roots,’ but neither can we deduce the ontic domain from the ontological horizon; that is to say, transcendental constitution is not creation); the parallax of the Real (the Lacanian real has no positive-substantial consistency, it is just the gap between the multitude of perspectives on it)… (7)

And so on. And to this I add the parallax of language between rhetoric and philosophy, or language in its address to an-Other where I can use the truth to tell a lie– WIFE: “Were you out with that redhead at the bar lastnight?” HUSBAND: [Sarcastically] “Of course darling, and after we rented a hotel room and had sex that’s illegal in 42 states all night long.” WIFE: “Sorry, I just thought I smelled perfume on you and my imagination got away with me.” –and language in its demonstrative and referential function to the world. The key point, of course, is that we are not to choose one or the other horns of the parallax but are rather to think them in their very gap, in their very heterogenoues irreducibility to one another. My rhetorician colleagues always express a sort of bitterness and hostility towards philosophy (no doubt they’re still angry over Plato banishing them from the Republic), and philosophers, of course, express a disdain for rhetoric, as can be witnessed in the solipsistic rigor of texts such as Descartes’ Meditations, Hegel’s Logic, or Husserl’s Ideas, where a palpable negation of the Other (as reader) seems to take place in the deductive meditations. Likewise, the rhetor often seems to reject questions of Truth. Indeed, today it increasingly seems that the most audacious and unforgivable thing one can do is proclaim a Truth. There is a veritable prohibition against Truth. Yet if the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, if the subject is an effect of the signifier in the real of the biological body, then there can be no question of choosing between rhetoric or philosophy. Rather, there can be no worldly statement that doesn’t already make reference to both the Other and the other, no demonstrative statement that is a solipsistic intellectual reverie. Rather, it’s high time that the parallax gap, the central antagonism motivating this inaugural division of disciplines and practices, be thought in its own right.

I previous posts I have expressed a sort of philosophical schizophrenia or malaise with regard to the question of where to begin in philosophy that perpetually has me batting about like a fly in a bottle. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes that, “[w]here to begin in philosophy has always– rightly –been regarded as a very delicate problem, for beginning means eliminating all presuppositions” (DR, 129). In advancing this assertion, Deleuze ties himself to a long philosophical tradition stretching all the way back to Plato. As Plato writes in Book VI of The Republic:

Understand then, said I, that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which the reason itself lays hold of by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas [forms] moving on through ideas [forms] to ideas [forms] and ending with ideas [forms]. (511 b2-c1)

For Plato, philosophical discourse must break with all custom, authority, and mythological narratives to arrive at the assumptionless and demonstrable. An excellent example of this can be found in the early dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates is surprised to encounter Euthyphro at the Hall of Kings where legal matters are addressed. After a brief conversation, Euthyphro informs Socrates that he is there to prosecute his father for murder. Apparently one of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and murdered another servant. His father had bound the servant and thrown him in a ditch while dispatching another servant to determine what legal actions should be taken. While waiting for the authorities to arrive, the servant died from either the bonds or exposure to the elements.

Surprised that Euthyphro would prosecute his own father– here an anthropological knowledge of kinship relations would be important to the analysis of the dialogue –Socrates asks why Euthyphro would do such a thing. Euthyphro quickly responds that it is his pious or religious duty to do so. Socrates points out that only a man of very great wisdom (knowledge) would so confidently proceed in such a course of action and asks Euthyphro to explain piety to him so that he might better defend himself against the charges of impiety levelled against him by Meletus in his own court case. If Euthyphro can teach him the meaning of piety, then Socrates will be able to defend himself against Meletus’ charges as he will be able to show that he does, indeed, know what piety is (the presupposition here– common in the Ancient world –is that we only do wrong on the basis of ignorance, confusing what is good with its simulacrum). If, on the other hand, Euthyphro is mistaken, Socrates will be innocent as his soul will have been corrupted by a bad teacher.

The manner in which Euthyphro defends his first attempt at a definition of piety is of special interest with regard to the question of breaking with presuppositions. Having agreed to take Socrates as his pupil, Euthyphro remarks that,

…I say that the pious is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious roberry, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father, or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be impious. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among the gods? And these same men admit that Zeus shackled his own father [Cronus] for swallowing his [other] sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had gelded [castrated] his father [Uranus] for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceed against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me. (5d6 – 6a5)

In this first attempted definition of piety, it is clear that Euthyphro is an advanced ethical thinker deserving of praise. Euthyphro affirms the universality of moral principles irregardless of kinship, nationalistic, or tribal relations such as those one enjoys with respect to one’s mother and father. In this regard, Euthyphro sounds like Jesus, when he remarks “[i]f any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, his wife and children, his brothers, and sisters– yes, even his own life –he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The implication of this difficult saying seems to be that genuine moral uprightness requires a break from tribal and kinship relations– the Lacanian would add a break from identification with the master-signifier –so as to affirm the Jewish exhortation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). So long as this break with what Badiou calls the logic of the encyclopedia is not accomplished, the dimension of the egalitarian universal cannot be encountered.

However, Socrates is quick to point out that there is both a problem with this definition of piety and more importantly with how it is defended. On the one hand, this definition fails insofar as it gives only an instance of piety (prosecuting someone for murder) and not the feature or rule that would allow us to identify all instances of piety. Interestingly, the Euthyphro ends in aporia without a definition, suggesting that perhaps piety is not a domain of knowledge and therefore not a domain of obligation with regard to the other (recall that the Oracle at Delphi is the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, the god of reason and truth). An important philosophical decision seems to be made later in the same dialogue when Socrates asks whether piety is pious because the gods love it or if the gods love it because it is pious. If the former, then we must await the revelation of the gods in order to know our ethical duty. If the latter, we can examine ethical questions without requiring recourse to the revelations of the gods. Socrates and Euthyphro both choose the latter option, and it is this decision that will mark all subsequent ethical theory to present and open the door for the Enlightenment critique of Church authority.

Of greater concern is the way in which Euthyphro defends his definition. Socrates quickly points out that Euthyphro appeals to myth, and remarks that he has a difficult time believing these stories to be true. In short, Euthyphro enjoins Socrates to accept as a duty something based on a myth that he cannot himself validate. This is an act of intellectual violence or disrespect to his interlocutor. So in this brief exchange the gauntlet of philosophy is thrown: break with myth so as to know through reason. Moreover, in the same dialogue Euthyphro has presented himself as an expert in all things pious, thereby defending his claims on the basis of his authority. In suggesting that he become Euthyphro’s pupil, Socrates effectively rejects the acceptance of authority on the basis of authority’s own claim to recognition, but instead calls for authority to legitimate itself.

Philosophy thus demands, in principle, a break from authority and myth. However, there is a genuine question as to whether this is possible. Insofar as the Lacanian subject is split, it is always decentered from itself. The manner in which the subject is decentered is structured in two ways: On the one hand, the Lacanian subject is not immanent to itself as a consciousness due to the manner in which the ego (not to be confused with the subject) is alienated in the imaginary, misrecognizing itself in its imago. The ego confuses itself with its image of itself rather than with its genuine being and is forever unable to coincide with this image. On the other hand, insofar as the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, it is alienated with regard to language such that it is not master of its own language. Because the signifier cannot signify itself, it follows that no origin or ground of language can ever be articulated that would meet Plato’s requirement for dialectic. For every signifier I articulate there will always be (n+1) or (n-1)… One more to say or one too few. The dream of a subject that would be immanent to itself and thus completely grounded such as we find in Descartes or Husserl is thoroughly undermined by the Lacanian subject. This goes straight to the heart of my concerns, for I recognize the validity of what I’ll loosely call “sociological thought”, undermining the dream of a subject immanent to itself (with the possible exception of Badiou), while also recognizing the philosophical ambition of breaking with doxa… If only as a critical regulative ideal.

What is required is some gesture that is able to rigorously establish the identity of the subject with what is most other or foreign to it (the symptom, social constitution, objective conditions, etc). The best candidate I’ve seen for a solution to this problem is Hegel’s “identity of identity and difference”. As Hegel expresses this identity of identity and difference,

The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general. This can be regarded as the defect of both, though it is their soul, or that which moves them. That is why some of the ancients conceived the void as the principle of motion, for they rightly saw the moving principle as the negative, though they did not as yet grasp that the negative is the self. Now, although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and Substance shows itself to be essentially Subject. When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its exitence identical with its essence; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the ‘I’, it is self-like or the Notion. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 21)

When the analysand recognizes themselves in a slip of the tongue such as the statement “I cannot before myself”/”I cannot be-for myself”, subject is recognizing itself in substance. The analysand had intended to express the thought that he is unable to be prior to himself, but instead ended up saying, despite his intentions, that he cannot support himself. The work of the “negative” (relation) occurs when the analysand recognizes himself in this slip of the tongue, despite the fact that this slip was not what he intended. Similarly, when the sociologist demonstrates that the personal motives of individuals pursuing their own aims ends up producing economic inequalities such as the way in which American consummerism ends up reinforcing third world poverty and conflict despite the fact that the American consumer does not intend this result, a dialectical identity or an identity of identity and difference is being asserted between these large scale social organizations and these personal intensions. The truth expressed in the slip of the tongue (substance) differs radically from what the subject knows of himself (knowledge in the imaginary), just as the truth of one’s social actions (class inequalities) differs radically from what the consumer believes he knows of himself; yet there is nonetheless an identity between the two. Dialectic is able to demonstrate these relations. Even presuppositions themselves stand in a dialectical relation with the presuppositionless.

Yet while Hegel’s logic of the negative, his logic of alterity, promises a way of surpassing the difficulties posed by a subject that is no longer immanent to itself, there are two further problems: On the one hand, the Lacanian, unlike Hegel, rejects any claim that truth and knowledge can be brought into harmony with one another. Truth always outstrips knowledge, or we always say more than we intend to say. On the other hand, and what amounts the same, the Lacanian account of the real precludes any totality, whole, or completeness. What, then, would a dialectic look like that didn’t fall prey to the manner in which Hegel’s thought remains mired in the imaginary. For Lacan, the imaginary does not refer to the fictional such as an imaginary friend, but to the dimension of meaning, completeness, and the desire for wholeness. How is this to be philosophically surmounted? Or is there a discourse of the philosopher that escapes that of the master and enters the discourse of the analyst?

Being the narcissist that I am, I use a webtraffic service to monitor traffic on this site, which gives me all sorts of nifty information about how many visitors I have a day and where they are from. This provides me with some evidence that I exist, thereby supplementing the failure of Cartesian immediacy now that we know the subject is a perpetually displacing void. I’m gratified to see that the traffic on this blog has steadily increased since I began using the service two months ago, but also sometimes find myself disturbed by the websearches that led people here and, more recently, by certain repeat visitors. Don’t get me wrong, repeat visitors are the true measure of any blog, but this visitor in particular has my mind awhirl with paranoid fantasies. About a month ago I wrote this post on Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and ever since then I have been repeatedly visited by someone in Herndon, Virginia. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not prone to paranoid fantasies and have never gotten worked up about net deception, but this visitor is particularly interesting. You see, this visitor signs on without fail at the precise moment I sign on whenever I check my web traffic. They sign on at the precise minute I sign on. How is this possible unless they are somehow monitoring traffic to my website and perhaps my traffic in particular? Perhaps the webmap is simply recording my visits, but why would it record them in Herndon, when I’m located outside of Dallas?

Having done a little research on Herndon now, I’ve discovered that it is located outside of Washington, D.C. and is one of the emerging hubs of internet technology. Of course, this particular visitor doesn’t seem particularly advanced technologically, as they’re using Windows ME and have a monitor that measures 600 x 800 (don’t worry, the webtracking service does not give me your name or personal information, nor does it give me much more information than what I’ve just listed). Anyway, being the self-important narcissist that I am, this odd occurance generates fantasies in my mind that I am now being watched by the government and homeland security for having written on Marx. Now, the important point isn’t whether the fantasy is true (unlikely I think). This is, after all, just a fleeting thought that passes through my mind. Rather, when encountering a fantasy such as this, a fantasy of one’s relation to the Other or how the Other regards you, the question to ask is what sort of desire this speaks. Returning to the theme of my name (here and here), I’ve sometimes wondered how the signifier “Paul” functions in my unconscious with respect to the Biblical namesake. I confess that I have a great admiration for Paul’s revolutionary work in walking from one end of the world to the other, and the manner in which he was able to become nameless by being all things to all people. Wouldn’t I need an oppressive empire to do such a thing? Perhaps part of the reason if find Lacanian psychoanalysis so appealing is that there’s a genuine practice attached to it and a concerted effort to further its growth around the world, all of which feeds mightily into my Pauline fantasy. Moreover, is there a way in which such a dark fantasy– a situation that could be very costly were it true –allows me some jouissance that I’m otherwise forbidden or punishes me for some jouissance that I already enjoy. When analyzing fantasy, the point is not to focus on the fantasy itself, but rather what the fantasy would render possible were it to take place. Often fantasies are extremely disturbing to those that have them and are not pleasant scenerios that make up the space of daydreams. The place to look in fantasy is not so much these masturabatory daydreams, but rather in the thoughts we have about how others are evaluating us and seeing us. Clearly there’s something megalomaniacal in this fantasy, as it inflates my importance by seeing me as worthy of government scrutiny. But perhaps, were such a scenerio to occur, other things would become possible that were not formerly possible for me. Or perhaps I’m just punishing myself for not having yet responded to N.Pepperell’s beautiful, challenging, and provacative recent posts (here and here). Certainly these are grounds for being sent to a secret European prison or Guantanamo Bay, and certainly such punishment would relieve me of some guilt.

I really must be mad to write these things on a blog. I hope no one is watching.

On occasion I’ve been known to resemble myself, though instances of this are few and far between. This lack of resemblance started quite early in my life, as I did not know my true name until I was about nine years of age. Prior to nine I had always answered to the name of “Levi”, yet around the age of nine a teacher brutally informed me that my true name is “Paul”. As it turns out, I had been named after my father, “Paul Reginald Bryant”. Before I was born, my uncle had visited the family graveyard with my grandfather– this is not as pretentious as it sounds, as the family graveyard was a small plot of land in the woods on a small old farm in Virginia that they didn’t even own anymore –and had seen the name of my great uncle who had died of some nasty fever very early in his childhood.

Apparently he liked the name “Levi”, so before I was even born he began referring to me as such, and apparently it caught on with the entire family. There’s even a black and white photograph of my mother, while pregnant, standing in the front yard with my father’s ear pressed to her stomach. Both of them have enormous and silly smiles on their faces, and the caption that reads “Listening to Levi”. I grew up with this picture gazing at me in the house and these days I often wonder what impact it might have had on the structuration of my unconscious. Listening to Levi… Is it a mistake that I chose a career as an educator? Is it an accident that I detest loud places such as dance bars or concerts as I am unable to hear; or, better yet, be heard? Is it a mistake that my primary jouissance consists of talking and that I often find myself bored and discontent when attending outings where there is little talk or opportunity for me to talk? Does it come as a surprise that I would later choose “talk therapy” and become captivated by Lacanian psychoanalysis, where the analyst occupies such a passive role? Might this be why I find myself most infuriated when I experience myself as not being heard– I recall the rage I felt many months ago when Jodi Dean had not responded to a couple of my posts on her blog and the rage and dark fantasies that swirled about this silence –and that when I am heard I suddenly feel as if I lose my voice, unable to continue speaking, as if I must walk a fine line between being heard and not being heard so as to sustain my desire. There is also, of course, my obsessive participation on blogs and email lists, my inability to resist responding. On those occasions when I’ve contemplated having a child I’ve often said to myself that I would like him or her to have a name that “they could make for themselves”, like Elizabeth that could be “Beth”, “Liz”, “Lizzie”, “Ela”, etc, or “Finnegan” that could be “Fin”. It wasn’t until recently that I recognize that “making a name for oneself” also signifies something quite different, as if I willfully did not wish to hear what I was saying or recognize my own desire.

And what of the picture itself? My father’s ear is pressed against my mother’s stomach. In a way this is a sort of “primal scene”, a vision of myself being born through the ear of my father or of surmounting the impossibility of witnessing one’s emergence into the world, thoroughly demolishing Kant’s first antinomy which argues that both the claim that the world has a beginning in time and space and does not have a beginning in time and space are false. To be born of an ear and to see oneself born of an ear. And yet the fact that my name issued not from my father, but from my uncle perhaps allows me to sustain the unconscious fantasy that my father is not my father.

I am not sure whether the discovery that my name was not my name, that “Levi =/= Levi”, was traumatic or not. I argued with the teacher, yet she insisted. Later, on the way home, I told my younger sister on the bus, and she was furious, convinced that I was lying. She even declared that she would “tell on me”, ran into the house, and was shocked when my mother said that indeed it was true. I felt betrayed and immediately set about insisting that everyone call me “Paul”. Yet in making this decision, I effaced my own name– what’s in a legal name? –and underwent an aphanisis, a fading, behind the name of my father. Where the extension of a name is = to 1 in most cases, the extension of my legal name was = to 2. Yet since 1 = 1, perhaps I confused myself with the one who had bequeathed me my name, preventing me from discerning any of my own accomplishments as my own. For instance, prior to analysis, my completed dissertation sat on a shelf for many months gathering dust, despite the fact that after I’d written it by mistake– I originally intended it as my master’s thesis, but five hundred pages popped out and my director insisted that I use it as my dissertation and write another master’s thesis –and I was unable to complete the editing until I re-took my name “Levi”. In retrospect I must have looked quite mad to those around me, as once again I went about insisting that I be referred to as “Levi”, that I was no longer “Paul”. From that point on, my intellectual production increased massively, and I no longer felt the crushing anxiety that had before accompanied my engagement on discussion lists or the writing of articles and conference papers. In short, it seems that my psychic structuration precisely mirrored that of masculine sexuation. Even today I still feel the need to crush my name– my original name –and do things such as writing this post that humiliate that name; as if I must cede to my father that which is rightfully his and am committing an act of transgression by embracing my name.

In this regard, I wonder when work is. I phrase this question in this way purposefully. When is work? Last week I posted a diary entitled The Diacritical Production of Identity, that received a good deal of praise and interest both on this blog and in email. Rather than experiencing delight from this recognition, I instead felt rage, anger, and depression, for I had written this article for the Yahoo Lacan list in 2003, and was simply posting it here so as to get my work on Lacan in one easily locatable place. This is a rare thing for me to do. Only a handful of articles on this blog were written previously and many of my other posts receive similar recognition– such as a post a few months ago about Deleuze and individuation or another on Lacan and sexuation –yet strangely I fixate on this post. If I experienced melancholia at the reception of this article, then this was because this reception made me feel fallen, as if I was doing genuine work in the past and was no longer capable of this sort of work. Will I ever do work again that matches the sort of work I was doing in 2003 at the height of my engagement with Lacan or when further back yet when I was writing my book? Has my mind grown thick and slow from age or my nightly glass or two of wine? Are the exingencies of life too pressing, leaving me with no leisure to think? Am I finished?

For me, it seems that work is always something I once did or always something yet to come in the future after I have finally gained intellectual mastery of theory and philosophy. It is never what I am doing now. Peas porridge hot. Peas porridge cold. Peas porridge in my bowl, five days old. I have either already done work or am yet to do work. So in this experience of work that I have done, I experience a hatred of my semblable, of that person that I once was and would like to crush and best that person, exceeding their work… I would like to resemble myself, as perhaps I have done on occasion.

Yet in experiencing my work in this way, it seems that I sustain my desire. Lacan argues that we have a desire to desire, that the aim of desire is not to satisfy desire, but to continue desiring. In obsession, the obsessional has a desire for an impossible desire… A desire that is impossible to fulfill such as seeing oneself born or being alive while being dead. In hysteria the neurotic has the desire for an unsatisfied desire so that he might continue to desire. Occasionally I overcome the idea that work will finally commence at some point in the future, only to find myself in the opposite situation of feeling that work is past. When describing the difference between desire and drive, Zizek tells the joke of a man having sex for the first time. The woman instructing him first tells him to push it in, which he eagerly obeys. She then tells him to pull it out. Again he obeys. Then in again, and so on. Finally, in a moment of exasperation, he exclaims “Make up your mind, woman! Is it to be in or out?” This subject is a subject of desire insofar as he believes that there is a final state, one action he is supposed to engage in. By contrast, the subject of drive is that subject that finds his jouissance not in one or the other state, but rather in the repetition of the idiotic action itself. Why did I use the signifier “fallen” to describe my relation to my previous work. Bruce Fink pointed out that this term has connotations of sin.

During the final phase of his work extending from roughly 1964 to the end of his life, Lacan came to focus increasingly on the role of the Real in the triad composing the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real. This entailed understanding the formations of the unconscious– roughly symptoms –as attempts to recreate a harmony with the Real. As Lacan puts it,

Whenever we speak of cause… there is always something anti-conceptual, something indefinite. The phases of the moon are the cause of tides– we know this from experience, we know that the word cause is correctly used here. Or again, miasmas are the cause of fever– that doesn’t mean anything either, there is a hole, and something that oscillates in the interval. In short, there is a cause only in something that doesn’t work. Well! It is at this point that I am trying to make you see by approximation that the Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong. The important thing is not that the unconscious determines neurosis– of that one Freud can quite happily, like Pontius Pilot, wash his hands… For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 22).

The product of this attempt to re-create a harmony is of course the symptom. A symptom can be anything from the dramatic compulsion to repeatedly wash one’s hands to a simple slip of the tongue or dream. What is important is that the symptom is a response to a gap, lack, or absence which is characteristic of the Real.

Lacan gives two key formulations in characterizing the specific difference of the Real: On the one hand Lacan claims that the Real is that which always returns to its place. In the middle Lacan something qualifies as real if it has this quality of always returning to its place. Here, then, we might think of the movement of the planets. We can see how this characterization of the Real evolves over the course of his thought insofar as the symptom comes to increasingly be conceived as that which always returns to its place. In fact, we might even think of that final moment of analysis which involves identification with the symptom, as consisting in the eternal return of the symptom. While it is certainly true that the movement of the symptom produces an endless variety of symptomatic formations, the lack or absence around which these formations occur is always the same. Analysis thus consists in the mapping of this lack in its sheer nonsensical being (the movement from symptoms imbued with meaning and the sinthome as a pure process). This mapping of the real was what was at stake in Lacan’s discussions of zeros and ones in seminar II and the Seminar on the Purloined Letter. Part of traversing the fantasy consists in coming to stand before this fundamental void borne of castration covered over by fantasy.

On the other hand, Lacan characterizes the Real as what is impossible. It is with this formulation of the Real that we truly enter Lacan’s mature thought. Here the claim that the Real is the impossible should not be equated with idiotic common sense platitudes to the effect that man will never fly or pigs and donkeys cannot mate. As Lacan remarks in Seminar XX, impossibility is not to be understood as the opposite of possibility. Moreover, we ought not understand impossibility as being defined in terms of what people or a given culture believes is possible or impossible. Rather, the sort of impossibility Lacan has in mind are formal impossibilities like the sort that arise in logic or mathematics. Most often these formal impossibilities have to do with sets that do not include themselves like the set of all sets that do not include themselves. Such entities generate irresolvable paradoxes. Thus there is a special relationship between paradox and impossibility as it pertains to the Lacanian Real. The graphs of sexuation, along with the stances of hysteria (“am I a man or a woman”) and obsession (“am I alive or am I dead”) can be seen as variations of these set theoretical paradoxes.

Thus, for instance, the problem with the set of all sets that do not include themselves is that if the set of all sets that do not include themselves includes itself, then it is simultaneously a part of itself and its own whole. On the other hand, if the set of all sets does not include itself as a member of itself, then it would appear that it is not, in fact, the set of all sets that do not include themselves. The set of all sets us therefore a paradoxical notion. We encounter a very concrete example of this in the paradox of the Barber of Seville. If the Barber of Seville cuts everyone’s hair but those who cut there own hair, who cuts the Barber’s hair? According to this proposition the Barber cannot cut his own hair because he cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair. Yet someone else cannot cut the Barber’s hair because he cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair. The symbolic thus generates paradoxes, these paradoxes express formal impossibilities, and these formal impossibilities are what characterize the Real. Moreover, these impossibilities are intriguing in that they always return to their place. They always occur in the same place and thus mark a certain invariance in the symbolic which otherwise does not exist (cf. Seminar XX where Lacan remarks that language does not exist. We’ll see why in a moment). Lacan will define three fundamental fantasies revolving around these paradoxes: the non-existence of the sexual relation, the origin of our being as subjects, and the non-existence of Woman.

Although Lacan would not explicitly formulate this position until the sixties, he had already been moving in this direction with respect to his understanding of neurosis as early as the mid fifties. For Lacan a neurosis isn’t a pathological deviation from normality, but is rather a specific structure organizing a specific sort of symptom. In Seminar III, The Psychoses, Lacan articulates these structures in terms of specific questions. Thus, in the case of obsession, the structure is expressed by the question of whether I am alive or dead. Am I alive or am I dead? This question is only intelligible when thought in terms of how the obsessional relates to the master or the mythological primal father as articulated in the masculine side of the graph of sexuation. By contrast, hysteria is expressed in terms of the question of whether I am a man or a woman, which only becomes intelligible in terms of how feminine desire is organized in terms of identification with the desire of the Other. Now, what might not be evident at first glance is that both of these questions are expressions of specific impossibilities or the Real.

If we refer obsession to the masculine pole of the graphs of sexuation presented in Seminar XX, then we see that the paradox characterizing obsession has to do with the nature of castration and jouissance. According to Lacan, the claim that there is no being that is not submitted to the phallic function implies that there exists at least one being that is not subordinated to the phallic function. The male side of the graphs of sexuation can therefore be understood as involving the dialectic between the master and the slave. Recalling that obsession is closely related to the discourse of the master, when the obsessional asks whether he is alive or dead, we can translate this as a question as to whether all jouissance is ceded to the master (that mythological being that isn’t subordinated to the phallic function) or whether he, the slave, maintains some jouissance for himself. The question of whether I am alive or dead is thus a question about whether or not I must sacrifice all my jouissance, and is premised on the fantasy that I might eventually obtain total or complete jouissance by besting the master. What we have here is a formal impossibility characterizing the logic of the phallic function or castration. When I enter the symbolic order I am forced to sacrifice my jouissance (by observing the laws of kinship exchange), yet I still imagine (unconsciously) that somewhere there is some being that makes no such sacrifice. It is this that leads Lacan to characterize obsession as the desire for an impossible desire.

The case is similar with respect to hysteria, for in asking whether I am a man or a woman the formal impossibility encountered is the non-existence of The Woman. La Femme n’existe pas. I will not get into the details of Lacan’s claim that The Woman does not exist or that there is no unified category of Womanness capable of including all women. Most fundamentally Lacan’s claim is premised on the claim that there is no signifier for Woman or that the big Other is incomplete, thereby entailing that L’Autre n’existe pas. In this connection, Lacan, in seminar XX, equates Woman as such with the Other. In a moment we’ll see why the big Other cannot be said to exist. For the moment it’s important to note that this formal impossibility gives rise to the hysterical desire for an unsatisfied desire. For in his search to discover what Woman is, the hysteric’s desire is referred to the desire of he who desires Woman so as to discover what Woman is. In short, the unsatisfied desire desired by the hysteric isn’t simply her own unsatisfied desire, but the unsatisfied desire of an Other through which she might learn what Woman is and thereby become the semblance of Woman as such. It is in this regard that Lacan was led to claim that “The Woman is the symptom of man” (Seminar 22: RSI). For insofar as The Woman does not exist– meaning their is no consistent category of women capable of including all women –any woman (note the case) is but a semblance of Woman arrived at through identification with an-Other’s desire. The symptoms encountered in the treatment of hysterics and obsessionals are thus products of the specific form that these formal impossibilities take. Identifying with your symptom entails identifying with the specific formal impossibility or Real governing your subject position.

Beginning in 1964-65, with Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, Lacan came to focus more seriously and intensively on the formal structure of these impossibilities characterizing the Real. Here what we have is a sort of Goedelian psychoanalysis, or a psychoanalysis founded on the formal impossibility of producing a closed system. Lacan expressed this impossibility with the aphorisms that “there is no universe of discourse” and “there is no metalanguage”. Although these two claims are closely related, they both express slightly different points. Thus when Lacan says “there is no universe of discourse” what he is essentially claiming is that discourse, language, can never form a closed totality, unity, or whole. This refers to Cantor’s paradox or the impossibility of forming a set of all sets insofar as the subsets of such a set would always be greater than the initial set by the power-set axiom. It can also be taken to refer to Russell’s paradox, insofar as the signifier has the feature of not belonging to itself and thus cannot form a totality.

Language is always constitutively incomplete. This isn’t simply a contingent accident such that we could finally rectify it by adding one more (encore!) signifier, but is an essential feature of any system or the mark of systematicity as such. From a psychoanalytic perspective this logic is seen most clearly in Totem and Taboo and Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego. The consistency of the social system is only made through the subtraction or addition of a particular element, such that this element has the paradoxical status of simultaneously being a part of the system and outside the system. By contrast, when Lacan claims that there is no metalanguage, he is essentially claiming that there is no point of view one can adopt on language that would allow one to survey the whole from the outside. We are always already inside of language such that we are dialecticized by language. Thus we have two formal impossibilities or Reals characterizing the being of the symbolic.

Why, then, is there no metalanguage or is it impossible to take a point of view on language that would survey the totality from outside of language. There is, of course, the mathematico-logico demonstration that there is no whole of any formal system whatsoever. Consequently, if there is no whole of any formal system whatsoever, there can be no whole to survey. However, if there is no metalanguage, this is also by virtue of the fact that language is diacritical such that every “element” of language takes on its identity by virtue of its difference to the other elements. Insofar as each element only takes on its identity with respect to the other elements, no element is every simply present, but is already dispersed or “contaminated” by the other elements.

In Seminar XIV, The Logic of Fantasy, Lacan expressed this point with the aphorism that “the signifier cannot signify itself” which is equivalent to the matheme S1 —> S2. Every signifier only produces effects of meaning through its relation to other signifiers. Insofar as every signifier only produces effects of meaning through its differential relation to other signifiers, it follows that any attempt to formulate a metalanguage, to give a description of language from the “outside”, is already differentially included in language and thus a part of the very thing it seeks to describe. Thus we encounter another formal impossibility or Real, characterizing the impossibility of ever arriving at simple identity with oneself. As many post-structuralist thinkers have observed, identity is always already contaminated by difference by virtue of the diacritical play of language. This is just another way of saying S1/$ in the discourse of the master.

Zizek gives a terrific example of this principle in his magnum opus, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. As Zizek remarks in the context of a discussion of Hegel’s distinction between boundary and limit,

National identification is an exemplary case of how an external border is reflected into an internal limit. Of course, the first step towards the identity of the nation is defined through differences from other nations, via an external border: if I identify myself as an Englishman, I distinguish myself from the French, Germans, Scots, Irish, and so on. However, in the next stage, the question is raised of who among the English are ‘the real English’, the paradigm of Englishness; who are the Englishmen who correspond in full to the notion of English…However, the final answer is of course that nobody is fully English, that every empirical Englishman contains something ‘non-English’– Englishness thus becomes an ‘internal limit’, an unattainable point which prevents empirical Englishmen from achieving full identity-with-themselves. (110)

Zizek’s point is that insofar as a nation is defined by a boundary, it’s identity can only be established in its difference to other nations. We can readily observe this phenomenon at work in personal identity as well; for as Lacan shows in the second cell of the graph of desire, my identity is only arrived at differentially in relation to others.

What we have here is thus the Real of identity or the way in which identity, properly speaking is impossible. Neither a nation nor a person is able to ever arrive at identity with itself insofar as it is differentially structured with respect to other nations and identities. Thus when Zizek claims that social antagonisms are always structured around an impossible Real, one way of understanding him would be to point to this formal impossibility of achieving identity. This impossible Real is not without consequences; for as a traumatic impossibility it turns the accomplishment of identity into an insistent demand. Despite the fact that identity is formally impossible insofar as it is always-already contaminated by difference, identity or respite from the play of diacritics is nonetheless demanded. Just as the Real of castration produces desire in the subject, the Real of impossible identity produces a sort of collective desire or fantasy. Identity must be accomplished even if impossible. In this respect, identity is not established through a totalization of the system in question, but is instead produced by having some contingent entity stand for the totality of entities. For instance, some particular type of Englishman– perhaps the working man –comes to stand for all Englishmen. This addition to the system is simultaneously a part of the system and outside it, and functions in such a way as to grant the system a semblance of identity with itself. It is notable that the unconscious functions in exactly this way. The function of the symptom is in fact that crazy addition that allows the otherwise untotalizable unconscious to hang together as a consistent whole. The symptom is always a +1 that stands in the place of the absence lying at the center of the unconscious structured like a language. It is therefore a S(-A-) or a signifier of the barred Other. Yet in functioning in this manner it simultaneously reveals and conceals the fact that the Other is barred. In this respect, the symptom recreates harmony with what would otherwise be infinite deferral. This is why the symptom can also be understood as a metaphor. By contrast, the operation of addition by which an untotalizeable system takes on the semblance of totality is itself subject to the diacritical movement which effaces identity and is therefore in danger of collapsing. For this reason the addition of one element is never enough. In addition to this +1 there must also be a subtraction (-1) which accounts for the failure of this totalization in advance. It is here that the logic of contamination emerges in connection to those fantasies of collective wholeness. For in every semblance of totality there is always a contamination or cries of a virus corrupting the identity of the system. This contamination is a strict corollary of the crazy identity established through the addition of that one extra signifier and functions to account for the failure of this signifier or the manner in which this signifier itself is effaced by the diacritical play of differences. The subtracted signifier or contaminant is always the immigrant, the ethnic other, women, liberals, etc. It is for this reason that those discourses most characterized by the call for identity (nationalistic discourses, individualistic discourses premised on the ego, etc.) are always most characterized by discussions of their Others or those supposed invaders contaminating the identity of the discourse. In fact, what the discourse encounters in these Others is its own disguised Real or the manner in which it always already differs from itself. In short, these Others are the objets a that the identity has had to sacrifice in order to constitute itself in the semblance of totality. For that which is repressed always returns.

In Seminar 23, The Sinthome, Lacan remarks that no one is interested in another person’s symptom. This moment marks a substantial transition from Lacan’s earlier work, a transition that he’d been approaching for a number of years. In earlier seminars, following on the wake of the famous Rome Discourse, Lacan had argued that the symptom could be entirely resolved at the level of the signifier through interpretation. This position was not unlike that of the early Freud, who believed that the neurotics symptom could be entirely eradicated through interpretation. However, just as Freud eventually encountered the death drive or the compulsion to repeat, so too would Lacan discover that there’s something that resists over the course of analysis, a remainder that can’t be eradicated. In some circumstances, the so-called “negative therapeutic reaction” would take place, and analysis would suddenly take a left-turn for the worse, characterized by extreme hostility towards the analyst. In other cases, the analysand would leave analysis only to have the symptom flare up once again with all the force and drama that it had possessed prior to analysis. Or, as Freud had worried in his late essay Analysis Terminable and Interminable, the work of analysis could go on infinitely, with analysand and analyst (it’s always the analysand that does the majority of interpreting in genuine analysis) endlessly interpreting new slips of the tongue, symptoms, dreams, etc.

Lacan would discover this as well– crushing the happy dream of analysis in confronting an analysis that goes on for years, even decades –leading him to rethink the end of analysis. In Seminar 22, RSI, Lacan will present two options: Either the analysand believes in the symptom (in which case analysis has failed), or the analysand identifies with the symptom. If the first option marks a failure of analysis, then this is because it marks a residue of transference that has not fallen away over the course of analysis. To believe in the symptom is to believe that there is a final signifier, a last interpretant. Yet this is equivalent to believing that the Other exists, that there is an answer to the symptom that could tell us what we are once and for all. On the other hand, identification with the symptom would consist, perhaps, of two things: 1) the subject that identifies with the symptom is the subject that says “I am that”, and 2) the subject that identifies with the symptom is the subject that identifies with the process by which symptoms are produced, with the nonsense and the activity of meaning making that is called for in this nonsense. In other words, the late Lacan has carried out a separation of the symptom from the field of meaning, from the field of the Other, which is what will lead him to create the new concept of “sinthome” as a sort of symptom purified of all meaning with respect to the Other, a pure process, such as what we find in the literature of Joyce. I identify with this nonsense at the heart of my being. This is the Lacan that will begin to focus on writing and the letter, in contrast to the signifier and the signified. It is the literality of the letter as opposed to the play of the signifier, and it is a literality that promises the subtraction of a mute jouissance of the letter, no longer caught up in the web of the Other. For more on this, I refer readers to the extraordinary collection of essays edited by Luke Thurston in Re-Inventing the Symptom.

If no one is interested in the symptom of another, then this is because the sinthome is nonsensical, a silent jouissance, a jouissance that has been subtracted from the field of meaning and the Other. Sinthome is symptom that has become drive. I find it impossible to be interested in Joyce, for even when I’m interested in Joyce, I am interested in myself. The jouissance of the letter embodied in Joyce’s text functions as a rorschach for my own symptom, which is why interpretations of Joyce are always the pet projects of their authors. One might say something similar of Lacan’s reading of Freud or any reading of Lacan. The beauty of any reading of Lacan is that one is singularly responsible for what Lacan will have been. In this regard, Lacan’s writing performatively enacts his theory of “oracular interpretation”– interpretations that can be taken in a variety of different ways –making the reader, like the analysand, responsible for what they find in the text.

It is this inability to maintain interest in any other’s symptom that leads me to surprise when I read Spurious’ diary today. There, in an uncharacteristic vein, Lars writes,

Do you see – I’ve cursed myself now, and this will be a bad post, I will have confided too much and at too great a length and should lead it home now, like a horse by its nose. Home: you have been out, and now it’s time to come home; the Law opens to enclose you. The Law welcomes you back.

Such an astonishing thing to say! I suspect that there’s an element of seduction or challenge in such remarks, perhaps even a wish. These fragments that Spurious has been writing lately have less the feel of illumination, than walking into the room of someone you hardly know, a room filled with all sorts of random, yet ordinary things, and wondering what they are all about. In other words, in their very act of confiding, they seem to confide nothing, but only multiply questions. A few months ago, on a beautiful post written by Blah-feme, Lars had responded to some remarks I had made that were quite obviously attempting to display some intellectual muscle (as Blah-feme rightly pointed out over at his blog where I posted the same comment). There I wrote,

What I find myself wondering is how we can get at this materiality at all or how we can even speak of it. It always seems to escape. I believe I referenced Hegel’s account of sense-certainty over at your blog. As I’m sure you’re aware– and please forgive my obsessive spelling out of details or “tutorial style”, I have a tendency to go into too much detail in responding to anything, as my blog amply demonstrates, not out of any attribution of ignorance –the opening of the Phenomenology begins with sense-certainty or the sensuous-immediacy of the things itself as the ground of knowledge (and clearly you’re not talking of knowledge but the thing itself). However, the moment I attempt to *say* this sensuous-immediacy, I find it slips away in the universals of language. I say “this” thing here, but “this” can just as easily be used for something else. I try to fix it with “now”, “here”, “I”, etc., but I find myself in the same dilemma each time. I am thus unable to say sensuous immediacy but always feel to the formal and universal. The materiality thus seems to perpetually elude our attempt to indicate it, always slipping elsewhere. Doesn’t precisely the same thing happen in the case of voice? I agree that all of the features you describe (in this and your more recent post) are central to the uncanny phenomenon of voice, yet they slip away in one and the same moment I try to articulate them.

Returning to my pet example of the trauma of the paternal voice that shatters the calm and pleasant world of the young child, this same child, when an analysand years later, tries to articulate the materiality, the trauma, the uncanniness, of those ringing knocks at his bedroom door, or the muffled, stern voice behind the wood, yet encounters himself as frustrated and defeated, unable to quite explain it or convey it. The materiality perpetually eludes him yet it is also perpetually there. How do we escape this Hegelian deadlock?

Very interesting stuff and beautiful writing.

To which Lars responded,

How, as Sinthome puts it, to write about the singular, or (from the perspective of ‘Sense Certainity’ for Hegel) the immediate without losing the materiality of the voice? By allowing that materiality to carry through into writing – to emphasise, in language, its musical aspects – sonority, rhythm – as it repeats (in Kierkegaard’s sense) the thickness of the voice. Without this repetition, there is always the risk of an arid formalism, an endemic problem to philosophy and to philosophical discussions of the voice, of art etc.

I think Blah-Feme is right to suggest that engagement with specific voices is necessary. And I think Blah-Feme is also right to invoke the materiality of the voice in a language that thickens itself.

I will not say that Lars is trying to write the specific, the singular, but rather that his writing is specific. It is for this reason that there can be little or no interest in Lars’ writing, though that writing might generate a good deal of interest (here I hope someone gets the double entendre, the homonym). It is a writing that has no small amount of “sinthome” in it.

All of this, I think, poses, in very vague form, a philosophical question I’ve been revolving about: How is it possible for an analyst to be a philosopher? Lacan, of course, is legendary for his critiques of philosophy. For Lacan philosophy is a discourse of the imaginary, an attempt to totalize the world, a discipline that disavows the constitutive split of the subject. Yet when Lars evokes “specific voices”– so many of which we find here: Spurious, Blah-feme, Jodi Dean, Yusef, Glen, the Yak, N.Pepperell, K-Punk, $, IT, and so on –there is already a challenge to thought, for a specific voice is precisely that which evades the determination of the conceptual. A few months ago I wrote a post asking whether or not Badiou could be called a materialist. There the argument was that something is added to a mathematical space when it is materially instantiated, and this seems lost in Badiou’s onto-logy. The issue is the same with philosophy in general. In the analytic setting you are concerned with the specific voice of the analysand, sans conceptuality… With it’s pure materiality, it’s saying, and its having been said. Lacanian concepts do not appear in the analytic setting, unless the analysand evokes them. Indeed, it’s not unusual to undergo an entire analysis without being told whether you’re obsessional, hysteric, psychotic, perverse, phobic, etc. All of this is irrelevant to the analysand’s act of saying and to what the analysand says. Yet philosophy, it seems, institutes the regime of the exchangable and the equivalent through its formation of the concept. It effaces the singularity of the event of saying so as to institute that which might be comparable in the said. It seems to me that this is one reason that philosophy must always be at odds with literature, for literature sings the psalm of the remainder, of the materiality of the voice and the event, or of that which cannot be exchanged under the umbrella of a concept. A literary event can only be a spur for thought. What is always lost in philosophy is the event. Is it possible for philosophy to preserve the event?

Recently I had the good fortune to come across Fido the Yak’s excellent blog. Not only is this blog outstanding for the depth and earnestness of its philosophical content, but I also have a soft spot for it as he was kind enough to post my papers on Transcendental Empiricism and the Transcendental Field a year or so ago. In a recent post Fido the Yak takes Judith Butler to task for her account of subjectivization and her thesis that social norms mediate and precede dyadic self-other relations. I have no real commitment to Judith Butler, nor is she a major theoretical reference for me. I’ve read Gender Trouble, Excitable Speech, and once taught The Psychic Life of Power (which was a disaster), but she is not a theorist who often comes to mind when I think about social and political theory. However, it does strike me that Butler’s thesis is very close to Lacan’s account of the role that language plays in the structuration of desire. Thus, while I might not be “Butlerian”, I do endorse some variant of this thesis.

What strikes me as missing in this criticism is the recognition that the infant is alienated in language from the beginning. That is, prior to the infant being born there is already a discourse woven about the infant, articulating why the parents desire (or do not desire) the child. Now it is true that the child can repudiate this discourse as it grows older. However, what it cannot do is refuse to take an attitude towards this discourse altogether. If I was born to be the engineer my father was never able to become, and if this desire is manifested in engineering toys being bought for me, being referred to as “daddy’s little engineer”, and so on, I can certainly reject this destiny, but this negation is still formative of my sense of self as a subject. Now, we can argue that this relation is still dyadic as it is a relation between child and parent. However, this misses the point that the parent as well is caught up in these symbolic relations in a way that exceeds their intentionality. I wrote about these properties of the signifier long ago elsewhere, so I’ll post them here to make my point, as it would be silly to rewrite the argument all over again. Very roughly the argument is that the intersubjective nature of the signifier or symbolic systems is such that it exceeds our conscious intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) and embroils us in certain forms of social relations regardless of whether we’re aware of it. For instance, the newborn infant dressed in blue is treated different by those about it, than one dressed in pink. Niether the infant nor the people interacting with the infant degree this principle, yet those interacting with the infant immediately treat it as a boy, and the infant unware that it’s embroiled in a signifier (blue as opposed to pink), must respond to how it is treated.

Signifying Nothing

How, then, are we to conceive the nature of the signifier and why is it of such crucial importance for our understanding of social relations and the manner in which the subject relates to itself? Perhaps the best metaphor for thinking about the nature of the signifier would be to think of it as a sort of virus or alien invader that always places us out of step with both the world around us, our own needs and our relationship to our own psychic states. Not only is the signifier like the uncanny body snatchers that inhabit our bodies while leaving us in appearance exactly as we were before, the signifier casts its net over the entire world, decisively transforming it, enabling the possibility of lack and absence where there was no such possibility before. As we’ll see in a bit, the signifier introduces the possibility of lack into the world, because it introduces a system of positions or places into being in which something might be present or absent (Lacan’s mustard pots that are built around a void). With the signifier, objet a is born.

As Lacan suggests in Seminar Five, Les formations de l’inconscient, our desire is cuckold by language; which is to say our desire is never simply related to the object that we desire. In fact, in these early seminars organized around the dialectic of need, demand and desire, Lacan will go so far as to say that our relationship to all objects is mediated first by our relationship to the Other. My desire must first pass through the circuit of the Other– it must manifest itself as desire OF the Other –before it can be a desire FOR an object.

The signifier is thus neither the subject’s mental states or representations nor an object out there in the world, but is rather a third entity (or better yet, a third in the form of a system of relations) that intervenes BETWEEN the organism and the world, mediating the relations that obtain among the two. This third domain (what Lacan calls the symbolic) is not a mental entity because it is transubjective or social (meaning the psychic individual does not create language and the codes of culture, but finds herself enmeshed within these codes from the very moment she is born), but it is also not an object because a signifier (as Derrida has pointed out and as Lacan emphasizes) is not a thing that can be seen, touched, held or even heard (as Saussure reminds us, the signifier is not the actual sounds we hear in speech). Rather, the signifier is a bundle of differential relations organized into a system. For this reason, we can never say “this is a signifier”, because it’s impossible for a signifier to appear alone. Unlike a rock that can appear all by itself, a signifier is such that any so-called individual signifier (which is already a metaphorical or analogical way of speaking which invites confusion of the signifier with sound) already entails the entire system of signifiers. For if the signifier only arrives at its identity through its difference to other signifiers, then it follows that no signifier can appear without implying immediately these other relations.

In the Course in General Linguistics, Saussure remarks that, “A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a ‘material’ element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions” (98). Saussure here makes two decisive points. First, Saussure rejects the common notion that the sign is primarily a referential entity or that it serves to represent objects or states-of-affairs in the world. Where C.S. Peirce had defined a sign as that which stands for something in some respect or capacity, thus emphasizing the indexical/referential nature of the sign (this is not quite fair to Peirce), Saussure distinguishes the sign from objects in the world. If, claims Saussure, the sign refers to anything, it is not the object but rather a concept. And for good reason.

As Derrida points out in “Signature Event Context”, the condition for the possibility of something functioning as language/code is that it must be able to SIGNIFY in the ABSENCE of that which it signifies. In other words, a message must be able to 1) convey its message in the absence of the object it denotes (as seen, for example, when a friend tells me the story of what happened to him at the post office. I receive his message even though I wasn’t there to witness the event), and 2) a message must be able to convey its message in the absence of the person sending the message (meaning is not intention. I must be able to understand a letter even though the person sending the message isn’t present to me). Consequently, the mark of language is not its referential capacity, but rather its ability to signify in the absence of objects and persons signified. Here, already, we find Lacan’s notion of aphanisis in a latent form. If I disappear behind the signifier, if I come to be alienated in the signifier, then this is because I can never be identical to my name and the discourse I weave around my name. These signifiers already imply my absence, alienation or fading.

The second important point to be observed in the above passage is Lacan’s distinction between sound and sound-pattern. The signifier is not the actual sound that we hear when we speak to another person, but the sound-pattern organizing this sound. The sound-pattern is a trace belonging to a bundle of traces, and functions to organize a language into a system that renders signification possible. Thus, for instance, if we take the two terms “bat” and “cat”, we can see that they differ in respect of a single sound /b/at and /c/at, such that this one minimal difference produces a transformation in the signification of the word (Freud’s logic of parapraxes IS a logic of these minimal differences). The signifier here is not “b” nor is it “c”, but rather “b/c”. That is, the difference between “b” and “c” or the differential relation between these terms. We individuate one language from another on the basis of these differential relations. Thus, while the German language may well indeed have the graphic letter “b” just like English, the difference between German and English is found on the basis of how these phonemes are organized in differential relations with other phonemes of the language. Linguistic competence consists in the ability to be able to make use of these minimal differences in producing effects of signification. Thus, it is not the phenomenon of “meaning” that individuates languages, but rather meaning is an EFFECT of these non-meaning networks of differential relations.

Lacan radicalizes these Saussurean insights in a manner that is already implied in Saussure’s Course. First, in Seminar IX, L’identification, Lacan distinguishes between the sign and the signifier in a manner that is decisive for understanding cultural formations and psychic structures. According to Lacan, where a sign represents SOMETHING for SOMEONE (and is thus a psychological entity or mental representation) a signifier presents nothing but a difference and thus entails that the thing is effaced (Seminar of 12.6.61). The signifier is, according to Lacan’s well chosen mode of expression, a trace that effaces itself as a trace. In order to follow Lacan on this point, we must bear in mind that the notion of a trace refers to the concept of origins. When my pencil draws a line on a piece of paper, that line is a trace OF the pencil. Or, drawing on C.S. Peirce’s famous example, smoke is a sign of fire. Smoke is the trace left by fire. A sign, then, attempts to present an origin of its trace. Lacan will often discuss how the neurotic thinks in terms of signs in that, in recounting their histories, they seek the origin of the traces characterizing their psychic structure, thereby failing to see how their symptom is a stupid effect of signifying structures that, strictly speaking, have no origin (here we have one of the meanings of subjective destitution). By contrast, to say that the signifier is a trace that effaces its status as a trace, is to say that the signifier has no origin or refers to no origin. In fact, from the first years of his seminar to the very end, Lacan will consistently argue that reference to the world is only possible on the basis of the signifier, not the reverse. In a very special sense that will be clarified in a moment, the world, for Lacan, is only possible on the basis of the signifier. The signifier is not a trace drawn from the world, but rather the world is a “trace” of the signifier (hence the necessity of distinguishing between reality and the real). It is for this reason that Lacan claims that the signifier is a presence of a difference. Like the difference between 0 and 1 or 0 and {0}, the difference is a minimal difference that refers to nothing but the relation between the elements, not a perception or object or mental representation.

As we saw above, Saussure claims that the sign is composed of a sound-pattern and a concept. It is this conception of the sign that Lacan calls into question. A concept is a psychological entity and thus unfit for scientific study or psychological investigation. The concept is forever beyond my grasp, such that I can never determine once and for all whether another subject does in fact share the same concept which I possess. Thus, in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”, Lacan reverses the Saussurean algorithm for the sign, claiming that the sign can best be read as S/s which is to be read, signifier over the signified. Lacan claims that this reversal captures the essence of linguistics, remarking that “The major theme of this science is thus based, in effect, on the primordial disposition of the signifier and the signified as distinct orders initially separated by a barrier resisting signification” (Ecrits, Fink translation, 141). Consequently, unlike Saussure who holds that the sign conveys a signified, Lacan argues that the signified of the signifier cannot be directly grasped or apprehended in language. It is always marked by a bar that resists signification. Hence, Lacan will remark that, “We can take things no further along this path than to demonstrate that no signification can be sustained except by reference to another signification. This ultimately leads us to the remark that there is no existing language whose ability to cover the field of the signified can be called into question, one of the effects of its existence as a language being that it fulfills all needs there… And we will fail to sustain this question as long as we have not jettisoned the illusion that the signifier serves the function of representing the signified, or better, that the signifier has to justify its existence in terms of any signification whatsoever” (141-142). Here then we have Lacan’s famous definition of the signifier: The signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier. The signifier does not represent a signified nor an object, but rather refers to other signifiers. As such, there is no metalanguage, for there is no view we can adopt outside of language that would allow us to survey language and master it.

However, why are these features of the signifier of such decisive importance. On the one hand, the relational nature of the signifier suggests that we can be caught up in relations and organizations that exceed our conscious intentions. This is what Lacan means when he claims that our desire is cuckold by language. For instance, a particular woman might be the conscious object of my desire, but my desire might function in this way precisely as a means of fulfilling the demands of kinship relations. While kinship organizations are the furthest thing from my mind, there seems to be a logic that exceeds me that incessantly pushes me in the direction of fulfilling my place in this logic as if it were a destiny. Simply by being named I become caught up in social and cultural logics of which I am not aware.

And this brings us to the second important feature of the signifier: The signifier introduces identities and places into the world. In one of the most powerful passages of his Course, Saussure raises the question of what constitutes synchronic identity. This is an ancient philosophical question and of central importance to anyone who is honestly interested in ideology, group formations and phenomena pertaining to nationalism and ethnic strife. The question of identity in its set theoretic, linguistic and philosophical formulations cannot be ignored. Classically the problem is formulated in terms of the famous ship of Tarsius thought experiment. Suppose that I have a beautiful wooden ship, the ship of Tarsius, and every day I remove one board of this ship and replace it by another. After, say, five years, it turns out that my ship is no longer made of any of the boards that originally composed it. Is my ship still the ship of Tarsius or is it another ship?

We can see what the question is: What constitutes the identity of the ship? What is it that constitutes the relation of sameness or being-identical throughout time? We can also see that there are a number of options for answering this question. If I suppose that identity is to be found in the matter of a thing, then I will claim that it is not the same ship, that it is no longer what it was. Of course, this leads to the uncomfortable situation of being forced to claim that I am not who I am, since all of my cells are replaced about every five years. I could say that what constitutes the identity of the ship is its continuity over time. In other words, while the ship comes to be made up of different elements, the elements that come to replace the other elements overlap with those elements over the course of the ships history. However, this account seems to fail in that we can imagine the ship being taken apart altogether (thus annhilating it) and then being put back together such that we would say it is the same ship. Finally, we might suggest that it is the structure that constitutes the identity of the ship. It is not what it is made of or its continuity in time, but the fact that it shares the same structure throughout time. Yet this account too seems to fail in that two ships can share identical structures and are still not the same ship (paradox of twins).

Saussure’s response to this problem is that it is language that introduces these identities into the world (hence the thesis that there is no world without language. While it is certainly true that there is a Real without language, there is no Reality without language. We’ll see why presently). As Saussure puts it,

The mechanism of a language turns entirely on identities and differences. The latter are merely counterparts of the former. The problem of identities crops up everywhere… We assign identity, for instance, to two trains (‘the 8.45 from Geneva to Paris’), one of which leaves twenty-four hours after the other. We treat it as the ‘same’ train, even though probably the locomotive, the carriages, the staff etc. are not the same. Or if a street is demolished and then rebuilt, we say it is the same street, although there may be physically little or nothing left of the old one. How is it that a street can be reconstructed entirely and still be the same? Because it is not a purely material structure. It has other characteristics which are independent of its bricks and mortar; for example, its situation in relation to other streets. Similarly, the train is identified by its departure time, its route, and any othe features which distinguish it from other trains. Whenever the same conditions are fulfilled, the same entities reappear. But they are not abstractions. The street and the train are real enough. Their physical existence is essential to our understanding of what they are. (151-2)

Saussure’s point is that it is the name, the position within the differential system of language, that establishes identities. Even if the trains between yesterday and today are physically different in every possible way, they are still the SAME train in that they are the 8.45 train. We might make the same point in another way: How is it possible for a book to be missing while still existing? For the book itself, of course, it is far from missing insofar as it continues to exist. Rather, if the book is to be missing then it can only be because the book has a place (as in a place in the dewey decimal system). But having a place is a symbolic function or a function that it is only made possible through a symbolic system. Therefore a book can only be missing insofar as there is a language through which the place of the book might be alloted. Here language does not simply serve a representational or referential function, but language structures reality itself. This cannot be seen unless one relinquishes the representational conception of language.

Consequently, wherever there are identities, there is language. And moreoever, these identities never simply stand alone, but always belong to heirarchical systems of differences that define places and which normatively function to sanction and forbid different forms of interaction and self-relation. In fact, we here find what Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, referred to as the narcissism of minor differences. What is the minor difference around which two small towns are organized? For instance, what is the minor difference between Shelbyville and Springfield in the Simpsons? As many episodes show, the two towns are nearly identical, so it is not really physical differences that form the ground for narcissistic rivalry and struggle. Rather, it is the names of the towns themselves which function as points of identification (what Freud referrred to as identification with the unary trait). Consequently, the analysis of ideology must be organized around the analysis of these signifying systems, these differential networks, to determine how they sort and organize persons (set theory).

In fact, the manner in which language forms and moulds reality goes far beyond the organization of differences that were already there. For as Lacan shows with his example of the two doors in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”, the introduction of a signifier is capable of introducing a difference into two things that are in fact identical. Simply by naming one door “Gentlemen” and another “Ladies” two separate universes are brought into existence that are accompanied by an entire system of rules and prohibitions. The doors were identical, but now on the minimal difference of the signifier, they are radically different. The difference here has nothing to do with the physical objects (the doors), nor is it a matter of my mental states (the prohibitions are real and transindividual, such that I do not get to choose what makes one door Ladies and the other Gentlement), but are instead an EFFECT of signification itself. This form of differentiation is the very essence of culture. It requires an eye that can see horizontally or which can see the mist that floats on the ground in order to be discerned. It is on the basis of these effects that I wonder what is behind the door called Ladies (objet a).

Wherever there is language, there is thus a system of place and identities. Wherever there is a system of places and identities, something can be missing from its place. As Lacan remarks in Seminar IX, the subject which is organized like a torus (a tire tube) always forgets to count the inner circle of his tire (a place/space) when seeking the missing object of his desire. It is for this reason that I idiotically seek my missing object, failing to not that nothing can fill the PLACE where this object comes to be lodged. There is no object for this place, just the place itself. And it is this place that makes me a creature of desire. The signifier carves up the world, filling it with places and voids. It names the different regions of my body eroticizing them and gentrifying them. It names different groups, occupations and identities and the heirachical relations among them. It creates geographies and effects of meaning surrounding these geographies. The world is a net of signifiers forming reality, while the real is the scream that sometimes emerges through this net, showing that not everything is accounted for and something new is possible.

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