Symbolic


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

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

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

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

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

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In what sense can Guattari’s thought be understood as a radicalization of Lacanian psychoanalysis? And what does it mean to say that Guattari’s thought is a radicalization of Lacanian psychoanalysis? First, to characterize Guattari’s relationship to Lacan as a radicalization of Lacanian thought is not to claim that Guattari was an orthodox Lacanian. Rather, Guattari’s schizoanalysis is a radicalization of psychoanalysis in the sense that Hegel is a radicalization of Kant or Spinoza is a radicalization of Descartes. Just as Hegel and Spinoza deeply transform the thought and projects of their most important predecessors, Guattari significantly transforms Lacanian thought. However, before such a question can even be posed it is first necessary to determine just where Deleuze and Guattari share common ground with Lacan.

While it is certainly true that Guattari transforms Lacan’s thought in radical ways, it is also true that this relationship between the two has been presented as being one that is deeply antagonistic and hostile. Nietzsche pointed out that we arrive at the perspective of substance ontology, that there are substantial things composed of predicates, due to a set of illusions produced through language where words create the belief that there are unchanging things corresponding to these words. In the secondary literature on Deleuze and Guattari, one gets the sense that something similar occurs with reference to psychoanalysis. Often psychoanalysis is treated as if it is a monolithic entity, as the arch-enemy, characterized by homogeneity, despite the fact that psychoanalysis is characterized by a heterogeneous diversity of different schools and orientations often at odds with one another.

This is extremely odd for two reasons: First, it is odd that followers of the champions of difference would require identity in their enemy. It is as if somehow the ontological claim of the ontological primacy of multiplicities gets entirely forgotten and the target gets reduced to a molar and simplified identity without heterogeneous vectors and tendencies of its own. Second, it is especially odd that American Deleuzians seem so intent on toppling psychoanalysis, as if it were the most pressing political struggle within the American situation. Psychoanalysis is hardly anywhere to be found in the United States at the level of practice or predominant theory. Indeed, what we instead get in the States is the complete exorcism of the subject from the clinical setting, treating diagnostic categories as if they were natural kinds and signs, the ignorance of anything like a symptom, and a therapy that tends to be premised on the normalization of its patients so that they might tolerate normal, married, heterosexual conjugal relations, go to work and produce, and be good little consumers. One would think that were Deleuzians looking for a worthy project along the lines of Anti-Oedipus, they would begin not with psychoanalysis– which at least provides the possibility of providing a space where all that resists the “normal” might at least be enunciated, where the treatment isn’t 8 meetings with a cognitive-behavioral psychologist with tried and trusted methods to get rid of the symptom, where the solution isn’t a chemical straight-jacket –but rather with a Foucault and Bourdieu style analysis of the evolution of the DSM-IV, the relationship between therapeutic practice and insurance companies, the relationship between therapeutic practice and the legal system and work, an analysis of the statistical methods through which certain diagnostic categories are produced and generalized, and an analysis of the discourses through which certain attitudes towards life, the body, and mental health are produced. This sort of critique would potentially reveal something about American life in general, something un-thought and at the level of the unconscious in the structural or systematic sense, and would have potential for generating more active struggles, transforming what appear to be individual problems into collective symptoms. But alas, apparently psychoanalysis is the arch-enemy.

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In many respects it can be said that Žižek is a consummate ironist with all of the problems attendant to irony as a rhetorical strategy. In this respect, his rhetorical strategy is not unlike that of Socrates’, where he rhetorically strives to always turn the question back to the questioner, getting them to question their own assumptions behind the question, shifting the frame of the question (and therefore the possibilities following from the question) itself. Through this rhetorical maneuver Žižek strives to effect a sort of transcendence of reigning conditions and ideology, introducing new alternatives into the social system. In this respect, Žižek’s texts can be thought as not unlike Plato’s famous allegory of the cave (which Žižek often references), where the participants, the interlocutors, cease playing the ideological game (trying to name what image will appear on the wall next), and instead leap into an entirely different game. It was this that I tried to argue in my article “Symptomal Knots and Evental Ruptures” (warning pdf), where I attempted to argue that where Badiou’s political strategy consists in the affirmation of an undemonstrable event and the truth-procedures that follow from that declaration, Žižek’s political strategy consists in trying to force the event, to produce the event, or in opening a void space within the hegemony of the ideological structure where new alternatives become available.

As an ironist, just when you think you’ve pinned down his position, he reverses everything and articulates yet another position contradicting the first. Hence the sense that he never gets anywhere. The paradox is that the more Žižek tries to disavow and undermine this position of being the subject-supposed-to-know, the more he tends to provoke transference in his audience, convincing them that he must contain some secret (just as Socrates’ interlocutors invariably thought that he knew and was just withholding the answer).

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I do think that while I do not agree with the notion of revolution as the only aim of politics (advocating a more classically Marxist position pertaining to tendencies populating the social field and their possibilities), and while I find Žižek’s references (and often celebration of) figures like Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, etc., as well as violence distasteful, this talk of revolution does serve a rhetorically important function within debates over political theory. In other words, in the absence of the belief that society can be fundamentally transformed and that we should commit ourselves to the project of transforming society– i.e., a desire for the real or impossible –we descend into a pacifying neo-pragmatism not unlike that of Critchly or Rorty, where we become apologists for liberal democracy and all of its attendant problems. Under this neo-pragmatic liberal democratism, any form of engagement envisioning an alternative form of society is excluded a priori as necessarily doomed to produce disaster and simultaneously as impossible. There is thus a closure of political possibility and the best we can hope for is a pacifying “communicative action” that dare not work for something else.

One of Žižek’s points is that liberal democracy is every bit as obscene and brutal as these other political systems so often denounced within western democracies as being “the worst”. The problem is that Žižek doesn’t do the necessary legwork in order to demonstrate this. Yes he shows the ideological mechanisms creating the straight-jacket of capitalism and liberal democracy as the only alternative, but he doesn’t do a very good job demonstrating just what is so obscene about liberal democracy and capitalism. To see this you need to read someone like Naomi Klein or other empirically oriented writers who document the actual effects of this system. It is disappointing that many of the theorists working in the post-Althusserian tradition of structuralist Marxism (and ultimately in the Gramscian tradition of Marxist thought where everything eventually came to be reduced to the cultural or semiotic register) look down on this sort of hard empirical and historical work practiced by people like David Harvey or Naomi Klein.

I do not think, however, that Žižek genuinely advocates the violence he often glorifies, or the totalitarianism he so often celebrates. What I think he’s doing is trying to make alternative possibilities available within political discourse. Proof of this, I think, can be seen in his recent article on Obama (here and here). A standard radical leftist stance, premised, as it so often is on a sense of cynicism and distrust of any establishment power, might be that we should reject Obama or should not have voted for him as he will simply be a continuation of the same. Badiou goes so far as to argue that we shouldn’t vote at all as this confuses the domain of the political with the state. A radical leftwing Žižekian political activist might argue that support for Obama amounts to giving way on one’s revolutionary desire, betraying that desire, and therefore betraying the cause (objet a). Yet surprisingly in his writings on Obama we find Žižek defending support for Obama as one avenue through which the coordinates of the symbolic can be changed even if, at the level of policy, these policies continue to support standard liberal democratic and capitalist platforms. This defense alone should give us significant pause in our interpretation of just what Žižek is up to.

Of course, the problem is, as Nathan asks, what happens when irony is not understood as irony?

UpdateBryan, over at Velvet Howler, presents an excellent response to my post on Žižek’s political strategy.

As Dr. Sinthome goes on to explain, Žižek’s key rhetorical tactic used to subvert conformist liberal democratic discourse is irony. This involves something peculiarly Žižekian, something that is palpable in every book he has written and every article he has published. The first move involves a rejection of the (typically hegemonic) liberal response to a given issue. One might think that, given Žižek’s political commitments, the next move would be to assert the far Left/Marxist view to counter the liberal position. Instead, Žižek often takes a stance that is uncomfortably close to the right-wing position, but then argues that the right-wing position simply makes a much stronger case for the far Left position.

Read the rest here. The piece is very rich and contains far more than this brief passage.

Update 2:Mikhail of Perverse Egalitarianism adds his own scathing rejoinder in a style only Mikhail can pull off.

Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy

In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.

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As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.

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

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

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

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Today finds me teaching once again, back in the classroom, in an endlessly surprising dialogue with students. It seems that I persistently find myself trapped in paradox, yearning for time off when I am teaching, yet despondant and depressed when I have time off. I suppose I should just accept that I need some sort of minimal conflict, some sort of obstacle to complete satisfaction, in order to maintain my desire.

In response to my post on attractors and vectors, a friend angrily said that she does not believe that change takes place at the level of the human and that I am utopian. I was quite taken aback by this criticism as I couldn’t see where I had suggested that change takes place at the level of the human (presuming this to mean the human individual) or how I was being utopian. If anything, I worry that there might be a pessimistic undercurrent to these thoughts. I think this issue is brought out with relative clarity in my reference to the friend and the alcoholic:

I am not simply a friend, but rather I am made a friend and make myself a friend through my interactions with the other. The organization and identity is emergent and ongoing. This is one of the reasons why social change is often so difficult or why social systems are often so resistant to change. An agent might have made an internal transformation, yet the other agents composing the social system continue to relate to the agent in the same way. Thus, an alcoholic might have made an internal resolution to no longer drink, yet the alcoholic’s relations continue to relate to him as an alcoholic, steering him back into this activity.

What is at issue here is that the attractors defining subject-positions are never simply a matter of the individual occupying these positions, but are rather the result of ongoing processes of individuals in relation to one another, such that a change in subject position is not simply a matter of the individual decision, but of the ongoing processes by which the subject is produced as a subject in relation to other subjects. What I am trying to think through in this connection is the issue of the ontological status of social structures or systems. It is all well and good to study social structures after the fashion of Saussure or Levi-Strauss as a structure, but what, ontologically, are these structures? A language, for instance, is not in any particular individual. Language, as it were, is not up to me. Yet language nonetheless could not exist without individuals. It only exists in and through the individuals that use the language. As such, language only exists through the ongoing operations of language in its use by speakers. Ontologically there is nothing but individuals, nothing but bodies, yet certain relations of feeback emerge among these individuals such that language takes on an emergent reality.

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Adam Kotsko has written an interesting post over at An und fur sich on God, the big Other, and Calvinism. There is much that is commendable and of value in this post, however I disagree with Adam’s claim that the big Other cannot be treated as God. God is one way in which the symbolic manifests itself in the thought of human subjects. Yet, since he has banned me from the site I will instead outline my reasons here as this point is important from the standpoint of how psychoanalysis conceives structuration of the subject. Adam writes:

A common misconception in the early stages of learning Lacanian theory is to assume that “the big Other” is God. In point of fact, this is not the case. The big Other refers to the realm of officiality and quasi-officiality, and the use of the word “big” rather than, say, “grand” in translating this concept testifies to a fundamental silliness. We all know objectively that the social order is impersonal, but we act like there’s a person out there — not like all the other others, but a really big Other — whose recognition we need and who, in some cases, must be kept in the dark.

This is not quite accurate. Adam is right to argue that the symbolic refers to the realm of officiality and the impersonal world of the social. However, there are social and individual instances where God is experienced as serving this function as an element in a structure. God can be one instance of the big Other. The most compelling proof of this comes from the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation. This side of the graphs of sexuation represent symbolic castration or the manner in which subjects are subordinated to the symbolic. You’ll note that the lower portion of the graph reads “all subjects are subject to symbolic castration” whereas the upper portion reads “there is at least one subject that is not subject to the law of symbolic castration”.

It is this upper portion of the graph of sexuation that is here of interest. Lacan’s analysis of masculine sexuation closely follows the logic of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Many of you will recall that there myth tells the story of the primal father who had exclusive rights to the enjoyment of all women (i.e., he’s bound by no symbolic law and therefore there’s no limit to his enjoyment). Frustrated, the brothers band together and kill the primal father so that they might regain their enjoyment. However, out of a combination of guilt towards what they have done (they also admired the primal father) and practical necessity (they don’t want a repeat of this situation), they agree to institute a limitation to their jouissance, such that it is forbidden for each of the members to enjoy his own mother or sister.

Here then we have a myth of how the symbolic is born or how these prohibitions come to emerge. Lacan’s point is that the symbolic always has a supplement or a fantasmatic shadow that grounds the symbolic and prevents it from sliding all over the place. This limit point is the idea of a being– a fantasmatic idea –that is not castrated or limited or bound by the symbolic. The point, then, is that we have a structure here that can be filled out in many different ways. To understand the concept of structure, we have to think in terms of functionalist mathematics. In a mathematical function you have something of the form F(x), such that for any value of the variable x you get an output. The point is that the function remains the same regardless of whatever is put in the place of the variable. Identity is thus not detemined by the variable or entity in the x position, but rather by the function. The function remains the same across variations.

The Lacanian thesis is thus that any symbolic structure necessarily has an element that fills the place of the upper portion of the graph of sexuation. One example of this is the primal father. Another example of this– from Hegel –is the sovereign king that occupies by his position by nature, thereby functioning as an exception to all other law that is determined by convention. Yet another example of this is how students think of definitions. Some students, when writing papers, begin with something like “According to Webster’s” and then cite a definition. The underlying, unconscious thought process is that language is based on the authority of a grand dictionaire that knows the true meaning of all terms. The point here is that at the level of the lived experience of language we’re all a bit confused about meaning and uncertain of what words mean, and meaning is a product of our collective activities that is always in flux. Nonetheless, we project a figure that does know, a figure that is not “castrated” by this uncertainty, as a fiction of someone that knows the true meaning. This, for instance, is the underlying fantasy of the anti-gay marriage movement that perpetually brays “marriage, by definition is between a man and a woman”. When they claim this they are implicitly claiming that there is an eternal dictionary floating about in Platonic heaven somewhere that isn’t the product of how collectivities or assemblages define terms. Another example would be those social formations that make reference to God as what founds or establishes the law. Thus, for instance, you have Mosaic law as articulated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy on the one hand, and then the supplement that grounds this senseless set of stipulations. Descartes’ third meditation also follows this logic, where God serves the function of grounding the realm of natural law, thereby allowing us to posit an order behind the apparent chaos of our experience. In short, a masculine subject is a subject that believes in God, transcendence, or some functional equivalent.

Yet another example of this structure would be Freud’s analysis of church and military in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. There Freud examines group formations where the leader functions as a necessary principle. It is interesting that for Freud an ideal can serve a similar role, thereby underlining that what is being talked about is a structural function, not a concrete thing (Lacan will make much of this in his account of the unary trait and master-signifier, starting with Seminar 9: L’identification. It could be said that a good deal of psychoanalysis has consisted in the exploration of how alternative social formations without this structure might be possible. Thus, when Lacan denounces the Oedipus in Seminar 17, he is denouncing this structure. Similarly, Lacan’s various attempts to form a psychoanalytic school revolved around the question of how it’s possible to form a social organization that isn’t organized around a master or belief in the big Other, but which squarely recognizes the “hole” in the Other, it’s non-existence.

Finally, it’s important to note the close tie that both Lacan and Freud observe between obsessional neurosis and religious belief. For Lacan, obsessional neurosis is closely connectioned to masculine sexuation (subjects that are biologically male or biologically female can nonetheless be sexuated in a masculine way). This close tie has to do with how obsessionals relate to the symbolic and the fantasmatic supplement they project into the symbolic in the form of a “god-function”.

All of this casts light on Lacan’s claim that psychoanalysis is the only true atheistic discourse (I’m not sure I agree) and what he means when he claims that psychoanalysis is an “atheology”. Lacan defines the end of analysis as traversing the fantasy and overcoming belief in the big Other. No longer believing in the big Other does not mean giving up the symbolic, but relating to the symbolic in a new way. Lacan develops this theme beginning with Seminar 22: RSI, where he distinguishes between believing in the symptom and identifying with the symptom. A subject that believes in the symptom is one that believes there’s a final interpretant out there that would finally unlock the secret of the unconscious process. That is, it presupposes a God function or that the Other is complete. In this regard, many theologies are symptomatic. A subject that identifies with the symptom is a subject that identifies with the unconscious process– not unlike Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic as a process –and draws jouissance from the endless play of the symptom. More needs to be said about this, but I am here merely pointing to it. Rather than supplementing the big Other with the fiction of an uncastrated figure that floats behind it and guarantees order behind the apparent chaos of our social interactions, one no longer believes that there is a true order behind this chaos. In short, one moves to the feminine side of the graphs where encounters with others are evaluated on a subject by subject basis. Joyce, for Lacan, is an instance of a relation to the symbolic that is no longer premised on the belief in the big Other. This is why psychoanalysis is, for both Freud and Lacan, contrary to most monotheistic forms of religiosity… At least as commonly understood. In a nutshell, these formations are, for Lacan, fetishes (recall that a fetish is designed to hide or disavow castration). For Lacan fantasy is designed to cover over castration, and the first of these fantasies is the belief that the big Other exists… That somewhere, somehow, there is an Other that both enjoys and that knows its own desire. God can be one example of this fantasy (I allow that there might be sophisticated theologies that avoid this criticism). I suspect that this is the reason that Adam was compelled to argue that God is not an instance of the symbolic, as Adam’s religious commitments certainly disallow the claim that God is a fetish. Moreover, I find Adam’s rhetoric in the paragraph cited below very interesting. He refers to the “beginning student of Lacan” which has perjorative connotations and functions as an unsupported enthymeme, correcting the wayward and unexperienced student. The problem is that there are numerous places in the seminar where Lacan actually treats God in this way. It is fine that Adam rejects the thesis that God is a fetish or a symptom. There are arguments to be made. But one cannot simultaneously be a Lacanian and advocate a position where God is conceived as transcendent, unlimited, all knowing, outside the flux and bustle of the world, etc. Zizek goes some of the way towards developing a theology that wouldn’t be subject to these criticisms by staunchly treating Jesus as a man and by arguing that Christianity is premised on the impotence of God the father. I suspect that this understanding of Christianity where Christianity becomes a materialism and God is understood as impotent wouldn’t be endorsed by many Christians but would in fact be a heresy. I cannot, however, say this with certainty.

Adam might respond by pointing out that Lacan also says God(s) is the real. Yes he does, but the “also” is important here. On the one hand, Lacan formulates claims in a variety of ways throughout the seminar, so we can’t reduce his claims to just one. On the other hand, this statement entails that God(s) are the impossible or the constitutive deadlock and antagonism that inhabits the heart of any symbolic system. The point is that we place the Gods in the place of these antagonisms as a way of covering them over or hiding them, thereby giving the symbolic some minimal consistency. This aphorism thus returns us to the symbolic function of the God-fetish.

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