Rest in Peace, Prince of Song

Whoever he was who first painted Love as a boy, don’t you think it was a wonderful touch? He was the first to see that lovers live without sense, and that great good is lost in trivial cares. Also, with reason, he added the wings of the wind, and made the god hover in the human heart: true, since we’re thrown about on shifting winds, and the breeze never lingers in one place.

– Propertius

In truth, nobody was Leonard Cohen’s contemporary. He was always closer to the great classical poets: like them, he knew that the only way to kneel at Love’s altar is with one’s fingers crossed behind one’s back, that Love is a real force in the world – ineffable, harrowing and divine – that can only be pierced with the mortal arsenal of verse. Which is also to say: Leonard Cohen is timeless. Yes, he was a soldier, but he was at the same time a profoundly tender and dexterous poet. He wove words together like a cloth, exposing love in all its folds and contours: the strange objects it infuses, the savage longings it fuels and confounds, the obscure operations by which it holds us together and holds us apart. All its pledges, all its interdicts, and more than anything, its movement – its absolute propulsive drive. Master of metaphor, he saw that love’s promise could only be understood by the infinite dissemination of its disclosure, by never remaining in one place. Through the combined resources of the finitude of the song and the infinity of metamorphoses in language, he treated love’s enigmas such that the secret truth whose intensity often dissimulates its exactness might be revealed. He did not shy away from darkness, but practised the most painful incisions, in order to make the song into the machine of truth. Yes, he is the one who painted Love for us, and yes, his touch was wonderful.

RIP Leonard Cohen. Our most important spy.

“Ah, lover come and lie with me, if my lover is who you are,
and be your sweetest self awhile until I ask for more, my child.
Then let the other selves be wrong, yeah, let them manifest and come
till every taste is on the tongue,
till love is pierced and love is hung,
and every kind of freedom done, then oh,
oh my love, oh my love, oh my love,
oh my love, oh my love, oh my love.”

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Universal Horror

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.

– James Baldwin 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Slavoj Žižek has responded to Hamid Dabashi’s piece, ‘Fuck You Žižek!’, which as you can imagine was sent to me by quite a few people, considering my recent history with the Slovenian. In his reply, he is joined by the young philosopher Michael Marder (editor of The Philosophical Salon), who also came under Dabashi’s fire, in the course of he latter’s general attack on Eurocentrism in philosophy.

Žižek’s portion of this short response is in fact largely taken from another piece, also entitled ‘The Breakdown of Rational Argumentation’, published in the International Journal of Žižek Studies in response to (friend of this blog) Sam Kriss. It seems that, whenever someone strongly disagrees with Žižek online, his current favoured approach is to claim rational argumentation itself has broken down. It’s a bold strategy, but does it pay off for him?

 
Žižek’s main criticism of Dabashi here is that he mistakenly attributes a section of text by Frantz Fanon to Žižek himself. It’s a careless and embarrassing mistake, which betrays the fact that Dabashi has an incompetent (or most likely deferential) editor, but this only makes it exactly as bad as most things Žižek has published in the last decade. In fact, to reduce Dabashi’s argument to this glaring error doesn’t do much to address his major point, which of course he has sustained over the length of a book (Can Non-Europeans Think, from which the piece is taken).

 
In truth, Dabashi is an anti-philosopher, in the precise sense, and philosophy must rise to the challenge posed by anti-philosophy, as it has always had to. As Alain Badiou defines it, “Anti-philosophy is any system of thought which opposes the singularity of its experience to the properly philosophical category of truth.” Many of the great thinkers of history have been anti-philosophers: Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Dabashi’s is the classic anti-philosophical move of contrasting philosophy’s claim to a universal discourse of truth to the historical and geographical particularity of certain philosophers. And so he writes: “Young European philosophers like Zabala and Marder, who think that as Europeans they own the world of ideas, feign the authority of their colonial forebears as if anything anyone says anywhere in the world is about them.” Or, more generally, in the original Al Jazeera essay that spawned the book: “There is thus a direct and unmitigated structural link between an empire, or an imperial frame of reference, and the presumed universality of a thinker thinking in the bosoms of that empire.”

 
To his credit, Marder points out the obvious shortcoming here: any critique that proceeds from a presumption about the identity, and concomitant privilege, of the person speaking, is doomed to fail. Marder is himself from an Eastern-European Jewish background, and his ‘forebears’ were killed in pogroms and concentration camps. Does that fact mean his thought is more ‘authentic’? Less ‘Eurocentric’? Must we know the biography of any theorist whose work we pick up – a conclusion which seems backward, not to mention intensely reactionary? As a good friend of mine once put it, “if demand for authenticity means that we have to flash our credentials like we’re going through customs and make our personal lives public before expressing an opinion, then maybe ideology is winning out.” Art and philosophy are supposed to be the antidotes to this kind of thinking. As Ralph Wiley famously put it, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus – unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” By contrast, Dabashi’s mode of critique – proceed first from identity, then to thought – is exactly what reproduces the very thing he has railed against, which is the relegation of literature (philosophical and otherwise) from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to the status of a particularity, of a special interest group which must be taken separately, as its own canon (ethnographic or postcolonial). It must be maintained that a work by Aimé Césaire or Chinua Achebe or V.S. Naipaul has as much of a claim to inclusion in the universal canon of human culture as anything else. Perhaps Dabashi should take more note of the words of his own intellectual hero, Edward Said:

 
“Let us begin by accepting the notion that although there is an irreducible subjective core to human experience, this experience is also historical and secular, it is accessible to analysis and interpretation, and – centrally important – it is not exhausted by totalizing theories, not marked and limited by doctrinal or national lines, not confined once and for all to analytical constructs. If one believes with Gramsci that an intellectual vocation is socially possible as well as desirable, then it is an inadmissible contradiction at the same time to build analyses of historical experience around exclusions, exclusions that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience.”

 
Dabashi’s thought, by contrast, tends towards statements like this:

 
“There are emerging measures of truth from four corners of the world, from the cyberspace to the outer space, with fragile earth and a deeply vulnerable humanity in between. We need to allow these realities to expose themselves and teach us how to read them. From Plato and Aristotle (who saw themselves as Greek, not as “European”), down to subsequent generations of thinkers and philosophers: they were reading their own time, with little to no attention to what their predecessors had said. We too need to do as they did—though with a far more cautionary attitude not to universalise too much our passing particulars.”

 
It hardly needs to be said that this is bullshit. There can be no “measures of truth”, there are only truths themselves, which proceed via fidelity, not ‘measurement’; indeed, how could a truth, eternal and outside the predicates of any one historical situation, be submitted to measurement? Then there is the astonishing move of particularizing Plato and Aristotle, who very explicitly were speaking from the position of what was (is) universal, and not what was specific to “their own time”; moreover Dabashi references other unnamed philosophers who have, like the Greeks, apparently paid “little to no attention to what their predecessors had said”; this certainly isn’t true of Plato or Aristotle, whose philosophy is conceptualised as a break with their predecessors that certainly takes the latter into account – look, for example at both’s repeated engagement with their predecessor Heraclitus. The truth is that to do philosophy is to do the history of philosophy, and the solution to Eurocentrism in the academy is not to reject the contributions made by the canonical philosophers. It is impossible not to sympathize with Dabashi’s complaint that non-European thought has been ignored, or relegated to an object of ethnography, but the solution is not yet more particularism. Indeed, it is not far to go from the idea that philosophers should pay no attention to their own predecessors to Dabashi’s next step, a warning “not to universalise too much our passing particulars”, which is really just another form of the general weakening of philosophy to the status of perspectivism. Here it might be best to point to Badiou again, who writes:

 
“…[I]t is necessary to maintain that every universal presents itself not as a regularization of the particular or of differences, but as a singularity that is subtracted from identitarian predicates; although obviously it proceeds via those predicates. The subtraction of particularities must be opposed to their supposition. But if a singularity can lay claim to the universal by subtraction, it is because the play of identitarian predicates, or the logic of those forms of knowledge that describe particularity, precludes any possibility of foreseeing or conceiving it.”

 
Dabashi is unable to think the universal precisely because he remains attached to a preoccupation with identitarian predicates, with the position from which someone is speaking. A universal is never a sublation of a particularity, but a subtraction from all particularities. In other words, a piece of art or science is universal as a result of the fact that no predicate can pin it down: Greek tragedy speaks to us today because it is not primarily a meditation on the particular experience of an ancient Athenian, but of a human being tout court; James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room – about a homosexual love affair, and written by a gay black man – is as universal a love story as Romeo and Juliet. To collapse a universal truth into an identity is to deny it all of its potency. As Badiou puts it, with a more overtly political edge, in an interview with Peter Hallward (and this long section is worth quoting in full):

 
“When I hear people say ‘we are oppressed as blacks, as women’, I have only one problem: what exactly is meant by ‘black’ or ‘women’? … Can this identity, in itself, function in a progressive fashion, that is, other than as a property invented by the oppressors themselves? … I understand very well what ‘black’ means for those who use that predicate in a logic of differentiation, oppression, and separation, just as I understand very well what ‘French’ means when Le Pen uses the word, when he champions national preference, France for the French, exclusion of Arabs, etc. … Negritude, for example, as incarnated by Césaire and Senghor, consisted essentially of reworking exactly those traditional predicates once used to designate black people: as intuitive, as natural, as primitive, as living by rhythm rather than by concepts, etc. … I understand why this kind of movement took place, why it was necessary. It was a very strong, very beautiful, and very necessary movement. But having said that, it is not something that can be inscribed as such in politics. I think it is a matter of poetics, of culture, of turning the subjective situation upside down. It doesn’t provide a possible framework for political initiative.

 

The progressive formulation of a cause which engages cultural or communal predicates, linked to incontestable situations of oppression and humiliation, presumes that we propose these predicates, these particularities, these singularities, these communal qualities, in such a way that they be situated in another space and become heterogeneous to their ordinary oppressive operation. I never know in advance what quality, what particularity, is capable of becoming political or not; I have no preconceptions on that score. What I do know is that there must be a progressive meaning to these particularities, a meaning that is intelligible to all. Otherwise, we have something which has its raison d’être, but which is necessarily of the order of a demand for integration, that is, of a demand that one’s particularity be valued in the existing state of things …

 
That there is a remnant or a support of irreducible particularity, is something I would acknowledge for any kind of reality … But in the end, between this particularity present in the practical, concrete support of any political process, and the statements in the name of which the political process unfolds, I think there is only a relation of support, but not a relation of transitivity. You can’t go from the one to the other, even if one seems to be ‘carried’ by the other … It is not because a term is a communal predicate, nor even because there is a victim in a particular situation, that it is automatically, or even easily, transformed into a political category.”

 
In short, “the existence of victims cannot by itself found a political process”. Dabashi himself comes close to a point like this when he encourages a movement “beyond postcoloniality”, beyond an ideology of reaction to the terms laid down by Europeans.

“There is a new condition beyond postcoloniality that these Europeans cannot read, hard as they try to assimilate it back into the condition of coloniality. The task is not a mere critique of neo-Orientalism, which always is commensurate with immediate and short-sighted political interests, but to overcome “Europe” as an idea and make it behave as one among any number of other exhausted metaphors, neither less nor more potent, organic, or trustworthy. Europe was “the invention of the Third World,” as Fanon fully realized – both in material and normative senses of the term. I have already argued that we need to change the interlocutor with whom we discuss the terms of our emerging worlds. We should no longer address a dead interlocutor. Europe is dead. Long live Europeans. The Islam they had invented in their Orientalism is dead. Long live Muslims. The Orient they had created, the Third World they had crafted to rule and denigrate, have disappeared. If only those who still see themselves as Orientals would begin to decolonize their minds too.

 
Ironically, this point, and especially the last sentence, which I have italicized, reads as markedly Hegelian to me, relating to a point in the unfolding of the dialectic described in the Science of Logic, which is summarized pithily in the statement “the activity is essentially reactive against itself”. In his Theory of the Subject Badiou takes up this point, writing that “an individual only arrives at his or her singular force within the given circumstances by entering into conflict with the network of inert habits to which these circumstances previously confined him or her”, and thus that we must “come to understand that what raises me up reactively against the active of the Other must also be the active of a force in which the Other is no longer represented”. But of course, Dabashi would chide me for relating his words back to philosophers working in the apparently homogenous Western tradition. He tells us we must learn “to read other thinkers’ thoughts without assimilating them backward into what they already know – like learning a new language that has its own grammar, syntax, and morphology. We should not approximate and assimilate the new language we are learning back into the grammar of the language we already know.” This is a lofty prescription, but even in spite of its hermeneutic ambition, we might ask ourselves whether Dabashi himself follows through on what he encourages from us. Take this paragraph for example, from the ‘Fuck You Žižek!’ essay:

 
“The transmutation of classical Orientalism to Area Studies and thence into disposable knowledge produced at US and European think tanks, I propose, was coterminous with the rise of an empire without hegemony. This epistemic endosmosis – or interested knowledge manufactured in think tanks and percolating into the public domain – is, I suggest, conducive to various modes of disposable knowledge production, predicated on no enduring or coherent episteme, but in fact modeled on disposable commodities that provide instant gratification and are then disposed of after one use only.”

 
Does this Foucauldian discourse, composed in what has been the lingua franca of postcolonial theory for decades, really represent the embracing of a new language free from contamination by the familiar frameworks of European critique, or does it in fact represent the absolute status quo of the academy, the academy of which Dabashi, installed in his Chair at Columbia, could only be called an elite member? Let us end by returning to Badiou, and to a profound and beautiful statement hidden about halfway through Theory of the Subject. It is perhaps even more pertinent now than when it was written, and it bears returning to it time and time again, as a mantra for what must be avoided and what must be done.

 
“Hand over education to those who got tired of antagonism, to all those who, after joining their fate to that of the workers, have since then come back to their prescribed place as intellectuals, and you will make the wish of state functionaries come true by keeping thought for the next two decades within the narrow confines of the usual course of affairs. It will be everyone for him or herself, nobody will pretend to speak for anyone whatsoever.

 
This is the surest road towards the worst. When one abdicates universality, one obtains universal horror.

 
With regard to this mediocre challenge I see two attitudes among the different people I know: to defend oneself or change oneself.”

Skirting around love

This is why at this point we are faced with a severe expository problem: the correlation of the heterogeneous cannot be schematised. It can barely even be expressed.

– Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject

It’s not working out and the whole world talks about it and a large part of our activity is taken up with saying so.

– Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX

“I know it’s a bad title / but I’m giving it to myself as a gift…” 

Why should talking about love, as near as universal, be such a reliable source of mortification and mystification? It is no accident that Lacan intonated “The Limits of Love and Knowledge” in the title of his twentieth seminar. “It seems to me that it is difficult not to speak stupidly about language,” he says; it is even more true of language’s obscure motor, desire. Eventually, words fall short. They must. Perhaps it is even the case that I cannot talk about love, I can only point towards it as what escapes my discourse.

It is for good reason that love so stubbornly evades meaning. I have said over and over that to understand something means to assimilate it into the chain of signifiers which constitutes knowledge. It is at base an egoic process; I become the one who understands, I can receive in the mirror the image of a subject who knows. Love moves in the opposite direction, it is a challenge to my representation of myself to myself, because it touches on what supplements this, which is finally what we aim at by calling it real. In love, I am given over to the part of myself which exceeds the representation, the object which is the locus of that which is in me more than me. “Love is giving what one does not have.”

But we are already getting ahead of ourselves.

Love and desire – where to draw the distinction? It is an essentially Platonic problem, in that it was a problem for Plato himself. Badiou suggests that desire is like systole, a contraction towards the atomic element which is common to the heterogeneous subjects in their mutual misunderstanding of the obscure object which brings them together even in their absolute disjunction, which Lacan called a. Desire is fantasy, I only relate to something the other person has. Aristophanes was wrong, there is no relationship between the sexes.

Love is what comes to supplement this lack. It is like diastole, the movement outwards into the world, an investigation from the point of view of Two. “Love is neither trivial nor sublime”. In the metaphor of diastole we find the work of love, as an everyday construction on the part of Two, held only by the statement which fixes a totally contingent encounter. This is at once its strength and its fragility.  

“The limping rhythm of love can be described as the diastole of its expansion around the conjoined excision of u [the atomic element], and the systole of what, irresistibly, leads to the central atomicity of what was subtracted.”

And this scene of Two causes something to change even on the side of desire:

“One can pose then, that, in the systole which ineluctably leads a love toward centering on its sexual indeterminacy, something of the scene constructed of the Two “sticks” to the M and W positions, in such a way that it is not exactly in the same configuration that the misunderstanding inscribes. […] love prescribes the aura which its atomicity lacks. The result is that sexual non-rapport is topologically situated in another configuration than that in which it was originally deployed. Or, if you wish, it is saturated by the construction of the scene of Two.”

It is not even ever a experience of the other, but first of the object, and then of what is external to both from the point of view of the subject-Two.

What is passed over in Badiou’s account is all too conspicuous. What of the thematic of the unrequited love? We find no place here for the failure of the amorous event. Elsewhere he takes as a rule: “Make sure that your category admits the great love stories, like a syntax made from its semantic fields.” What about The Sorrows of Young Werther? Great Expectations? Peanuts? There is subjectivation to be extracted from failure. Insofar as every site at which there is the potential for an event positions one on the ‘edge of the void’, poses an immanent threat to the construction of a world in which everything is ‘in its right place’, even unrequited love lays the seeds of the subject.

You find you have already laid your cards on the table.

So it cannot be the case that we can oppose the obscure misrecognition of an object, a burning concupiscence, with a two-structure in which the advent of a mutual expansion dignifies even that. Too much is at stake.

***

Whenever one talks about the pain inherent in love, one has to turn to Barthes. In the following he contrasts the ‘unreality’ of one form taken by love to the ‘disreality’ of another:

“In the first case, my rejection of reality is pronounced through a fantasy: everything around me changes value in relation to a function, which is the Image-repertoire; the lover then cuts himself off from the world, he unrealizes it because he hallucinates from another aspect the peripeteias or the utopias of his love; he surrenders himself to the Image, in relation to which all “reality” disturbs him. In the second case, I also lose reality, but no imaginary substitution will compensate me for this loss: sitting in front of the Coluche poster, I am not “dreaming” (even of the other); I am not even in the Image-repertoire any longer. Everything is frozen, petrified, immutable, i.e unsubstitutable: the repertoire is (temporarily) foreclosed. In the first moment I am neurotic, I unrealize; in the second, I am psychotic, crazy, I disrealize.”

It is the Heideggerian problematic of Befindlichkeit, of the way we find ourselves already having been disposed, something which “comes neither from ‘outside’ nor from ‘inside’, but arises out of Being-in-the-world, as a way of such being”. But very much hinges on the passage between the first and the second disposition.

It must not be underestimated to what extent one can nourish oneself with the Image, or for how long – long after transactions in the symbolic would seem to render it futile. These are the hazy powers of retroaction and introjection. I take care of myself by taking care of the image of the other in me. The image is not even abnegated, in the active sense this would imply. The structure is dialectical: there is a unity of the terms underpinned by a contradiction. Scission: the Image as such, hallucinatory and transcendent, and the place in which the Image repeats itself, in which it finds itself falling short. The two twist around each other, and form a knot. ‘A knot in the stomach’ as we say.

Can it be untied? Or is the only solution Alexander’s, namely the ruthless cut? I do not think it is definitely this severe, and perhaps because we have not even isolated the right questions. Untying: this is, as we know, the etymology of analysis. And everything we have said has pointed towards an unanalysable component, insisting, untouched, after all talk dries up.

It cannot be something given over to subjective understanding. It is not something to be worked out. It is not to be subsumed. It is not to be abjected. It is not what I make an aspect of myself, but simultaneously I am nothing without it.

It is not a part of your world. Rather, you build your world around it.

Interrogating the père’s version: a response to Slavoj Žižek

You are looking for a master. You will surely find one.

– Jacques Lacan, 1968

I was pleased to read Slavoj Žižek’s response to my piece(s), published at The Philosophical Salon yesterday. The first thing that strikes me here is the way in which Žižek has increasingly tempered his attitude towards transgender identity in his written work. In this newest piece, he refers to the “ethical greatness” of trans people; indeed, he seems now to want to portray them as a kind of human subject par excellence, a concentrated expression of the sexual antagonism which befalls the human subject as such – a point which, of course, strikes a similar note to my original observations vis-a-vis trans identity as congruent with psychoanalytic notions of sex. For comparison, when I first heard Žižek speak on ‘transgenderism’, at the LSE a few months ago, his pithy verdict was a lot more direct: “I am against it.”

So the difference now comes in our subsequent conclusions regarding how Lacanian theory is to respond to trans people’s expression of this antagonism – namely, the identification with the opposite sex to that assigned at birth, or the complete rejection of a binary sexual configuration as applicable to one’s gender identity. Though he never explicitly states this, we would have to assume that Žižek, if he does indeed remain “against” transgenderism, believes that trans people ought to – or at least, would do just as well to – remain as they are, irreducibly subjected to the symbolic castration that assails all of us, without recourse to a modified sexual identification. If he does not believe this, it is hard to see what has motivated his interventions.

By contrast, I suggest that the identificatory decision made by trans people is – both manifestly and in a manner consistent with psychoanalytic theory – a potential source of positive resolution. Although Lacan famously denied that analytic discourse would have an inherently therapeutic function, it seems to me somewhat limiting for Lacanians to become so wrapped up in the impossibilities and aporias of sex as to reject the idea of any positive or beneficial sexual resolution. This is what draws me to work like Alain Badiou’s supplementations of Lacan in his essays on love: Badiou provides something affirmative to Lacan’s often alienating (and I choose this word cognisant of its connotations) theories of desire, and shows that there is something in sex beyond mere failure, even for the Lacanian, which we might call “love”.

Žižek zeroes in on the often-contested distinction between the symbolic and the real in Lacan, accusing both me and Tim Dean of misusing the Lacanian thesis of a ‘lack of a sexual relationship’ in the symbolic to minimize the (real) predominance of sexual difference in the unconscious. The difficulty arises because Lacan both stated that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” (the Other referring in one sense to the symbolic order itself) and suggested that sexual difference, which is not symbolic but real, is the very antagonistic condition ‘underlying’ the speaking subject. I might emphasize that I am under no illusions of the real being anything other than the index of a failure immanent to the symbolic, as I have repeatedly made clear. But, contrary to Žižek’s criticisms of me and Dean, we can certainly speak of a ‘cut’ in Lacan’s teaching, namely in 1959, which precipitated the increased emphasis on the real and its concomitant attributes (I speak of course of objet a) in his subsequent seminars, in (supplementary) opposition to the phallic signifier. As Jacques-Alain Miller, the editor of Lacan’s seminars, has said, “the whole development of his teaching from the cut introduced by Seminar VI onwards goes in the direction of the dismantling, of the deconstruction of the paternal metaphor.” Once Lacan has proclaimed that “there is no Other of the Other”, the inconsistency of the symbolic order becomes what conditions the very direction of analysis. This is why we might remark on, in Miller’s words, “the permanence, as object petit a, of a jouissance which does not derive its meaning from the paternal metaphor,” as an immanent challenge to the supremacy of the symbolic law, and this is what Dean and I mean when we refer to the lack of a signifier. For, as Miller goes on to write:

“… the solution is not located at the level of the paternal metaphor. For, at this level, all that the subject encounters is the lack of a signifier, the lack of the signifier that would designate his being in designating the law of this being. […] It is a question of elements or rather of substances that produce jouissance and which are outsides of the signification of the phallus, let us say an infringement in relation to castration.”

It seems clear to me that it is this orientation which Lacan’s teaching took on in the 1960s onwards that opens up the possibility of a subjective position, with regard to the Other, precisely like trans identity, as an ‘infringing’ relation to castration which can serve as a possible direction of analysis, or, more broadly speaking, of the self-preservation of the subject. Let us not forget that in Seminar XX Lacan formulated a mode of jouissance that was ‘Other’, “beyond the phallus”.

Moreover, I reiterate my belief that Žižek conflates sexuality and gender in his first piece. As others have pointed out, there seems to be an odd slippage in terms; see, for example, a phrase like, “the multiplicity of gender positions (male, female, gay, lesbian, bigender, transgender, …)”. It only muddies the water further to fail to distinguish between two separate (although obviously interrelated) domains. Indeed, a lack of nuance harms Žižek’s thesis, because it imposes an ideological homogeneity on the entirety of that portion of the population which identifies itself as “transgendered”, which is unsustainable once we recognize the multiplicity of ideas – sometimes mutually-exclusive – held by the people being discussed, and I do not speak here simply of a multiplicity of identities, but of that which sustains any sexual identity itself. I myself, I should add, have been accused of using too broad strokes in this regard.

Ultimately, I must come back to the fundamental problem. Žižek and I agree on the theoretical fundamentals, because we both agree with Lacan (and here I must refute the charge of “preaching” to Žižek, when I was rather laying out the theory in order to make a response on the shared ground of Lacanianism). And it is precisely because of this agreement that I am bemused by Žižek’s anti-transgender conclusions. It is a question of an inescapable real… and then what? A question of how to deal with this impasse in the behaviour and identifications we choose for ourselves. So, why is there a leap from the affirmation of a sexual deadlock to an actual critique of trans identity itself? If Žižek wanted simply to critique the ever-multiplying proliferation of sexual labels, or the deconstruction of sex in toto, this would not in fact amount to the same thing as criticising trans identity or the decision to transition. The two must be separated. 

Žižek goes on to invoke the unconditionality of the sexual “choice” between the mutually-exclusive, “parallactic” masculine and feminine sexuated positions. Okay. But what of the consequences of this choice? Can the ‘real-ly’ feminine male subject assume a feminine identity? If not, why not? And what of those who refuse to affirm this choice? What is the explanation for this? Are they suppressing the real sexual choice? Is the problem, then, one for the psychoanalytic clinic? What is Žižek trying to say, exactly, about these people? It would benefit the discussion for him to clarify these points, I think.

Objet a is indeed, as Žižek says, the object that fills the lack in the Other, and not the residue of some presymbolic polymorphic sexual jouissance – I have certainly never claimed otherwise. The point is that the object will always be a ‘mythical’ supplement by which the subject (and that is any kind of subject, with any kind of sexual identity) can navigate the lack of a sexual relationship, the lack of an answer in the Other. I quite simply do not understand why transgender identity poses a case which must be specifically criticized, when we all cope with lack through some kind of fantasmic supplementation: why is trans identity not simply one case among many? Why is it illegitimate to relate to lack in this particular individualised manner (the sort of relation which is precisely what I believe the notion of the sinthome to evoke)? This is what the discussion really turns on.

Before Žižek published his response to me, I was in the early stages of drafting an article on Lacanian discourse theory, and the fundamental failure of communication inscribed therein. I think Žižek would agree with Deleuze, that debate is a format which is not, finally, suited to philosophical discourse, a discourse filled with self-doubt and antithetical to the clear, boldly-proclaimed oppositions of a parliament or a debate club. I have the feeling that Žižek did not really respond to me, and that I have not really responded to him. As Lacanians, we both know that there is something that will forever elude our discourse. We can even perhaps speak of a “narcissism of small differences”, animating a dispute between two people who, in the end, share an affinity for this obscure, much-derided theorist. Does our correspondence confirm our master’s theories that the truth will always remain, at best, ‘half-said’? And if Lacan is indeed our master, what are we to say of the surplus-jouissance he produces, the jouissance which is precisely the truth of my discourse when I ‘hysterically’ question the master Lacanian, Žižek? The impossibility/impotence here is unavoidable. If we are, as speaking subjects, inescapably doomed to failures of communication, failures of sexuality, failures of identity, if we are, in the final analysis, subjected to such a fate, well, I am in no hurry to deconstruct someone’s desire to use a certain toilet. We all have our symptom.

A brief further note on Žižek, Lacan, and transsexuality

This will be short, because I’m just about to leave on holiday, but since I will likely be without internet for the next two weeks I wanted to put something up, at least, this morning.

Firstly, I’d like to thank everyone who has read, shared and discussed my critique of Žižek’s remarks on transgenderism. Most things I write on here receive numbers in the low hundreds, so the popularity of this piece has been a pleasant surprise.

I was disappointed to see that, instead of engaging with my Lacanian critique, Žižek chose to respond to a single Reddit comment about his article, so that he could dishonestly claim that he has “searched in vain for a minimum of argumentation,” only to find that “[t]he attackers mostly just make fun of a position, which is simply not mine.” While he has retreated somewhat from some of his previous arguments, I still find many problems with this newest article, though I cannot really respond to him until he is willing to reply to those who pose a challenge to his conclusions on their own terms. Yes, Slavoj, one can understand what you are saying and disagree with you.

Since I published my first response, it has occurred to me to conceptualise trans identity in relation to Lacan’s concept of ‘sinthome’, that is, the identification with the symptom – without recourse to ‘belief’ in the symptom – through which one is able to (at least partially) individuate the lack in the Symbolic (Other) that characterizes jouissance (in this sense, ‘jouis-sans’, as Lorenzo Chiesa has named it, whom I follow on this theoretical point). In essence, the notion of ‘sinthome’ allows Lacan, at the end of his career, to conceptualise the goal of analysis as an act of creation on the part of the analysand by which she is able to come to terms with the lack of a final signifier (i.e. the lack of an absolute answer to the hysteric’s question, “Who am I?”) and the concomitant fact that desire can never be fully satisfied. As a matter of fact, this is particularly timely, since Lacan’s seminar on the ‘sinthome’ is being published in translation next month by Polity.

As is often the case, I discovered that more learned men and women had already explored this idea. In the past couple of days, several people have pointed me toward’s Oren Gozlan’s recently-published Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning, which is by all accounts a thoughtful and intelligent discussion of transsexuality in a Lacanian register, and indeed contains a discussion of ‘Transsexuality as sinthome’. I very much look forward to reading this book when I get the chance! Even more recent is Sheila L. Cavanagh’s excellent “Transsexuality as Sinthome: Braccha L. Ettinger and the Other (Feminine) Sexual Difference”, which can be read as a (pre-emptive) response to Žižek, and is much more detailed and sophisticated than anything I would be capable of. In fact, I will quote the abstract in full:

“This article uses Bracha L. Ettinger’s theory of the matrixial borderspace in relation to Jacques Lacan’s analytic of sexuation to argue that transsexuality isn’t reducible to psychosis. Rather, transsexuality taps into an Other (feminine) sexual difference that is subjectifying and can be understood in relation to Ettinger’s conception of metramorphosis and the matrixial. Transsexuality involves the somatization of the Other sexual difference and the creative use of this difference as sinthome. The sinthome of transsexuality can enable the subject to negotiate the aporia of sexual difference. I establish parallels between the (neurotic) hysteric and the transsexual to argue that transsexuality can be a subset of neurosis. The transsexual transition (which often involves Sex Reassignment Surgery) can be understood as a metramorphical becoming, a borderlinking enabling separation and distance in proximity. It is not as Catherine Millot (1990) contends an attempt to abolish the “nature” of the Real but rather a means to achieve a sinthomatic reknotting of the 3 Registers such that one’s relation to a parental image and to an Other’s primordial traces can be reconfigured.”

This way of thinking transsexuality and trans identity (and indeed, the interrelation and differences between these terms, as well as further designations like genderqueer, genderfluid, bigender, pangender and agender, is a challenge to which psychoanalysis must rise, and which Žižek utterly fails to appreciate) offers Lacanian psychoanalysis a useful avenue of both academic thought and clinical treatment. The recent proliferation of considered interventions, which challenge earlier psychoanalytic doxa on transsexuality as a problematic attempt to “abolish” the real, perhaps indicate that Lacanian studies have decisively moved beyond Žižek and his generation. How appropriate that, in the field of psychoanalysis, we have killed the Father.

Slavoj Žižek is wrong about stuff

Žižek’s latest article is bad. Really bad. A trainwreck. Almost every paragraph is – to a greater or lesser extent – wilfully ignorant, deliberately offensive, and ill-thought-through to the point of absolute redundancy. But no one needed me to tell them that; so why even bother responding to it? The first reason is personal. Žižek’s early books (The Sublime Object of Ideology, Looking Awry, etc.) were particularly influential on my academic development, and, like many, I was first exposed to Jacques Lacan through Žižek. I still believe he has done work which is sharp, insightful, and enlightening, and there are even some Žižekian turns of phrase that creep into my writing, owing to the amount of time I have spent reading him. So a particular pathos accompanies my reception of his recent interventions, to say the least. Secondly, as his most famous disciple, Žižek remains for many readers the predominant or even sole encounter with Lacan. It is profoundly unfortunate if the only Lacan a person comes across is Žižek’s, and even more so if this Lacan is seen as the support for ultimately reactionary conclusions on subjects as diverse as the refugee crisis and transgenderism. It falls on us as Lacanians to challenge Žižek’s (ab)use of the man’s theories, to reclaim Lacan on his own terms.

What this is not is a comprehensive, ‘line-by-line’ critique of Žižek’s article. Many of his arguments are essentially rehashes of familiar (homo/trans)phobic lines (“Why not even a marriage with animals?” is a sentence which actually appears therein, for example) and do not really warrant a response. Nor am I going to discuss Žižek’s baffling points about ethnic identity and class politics, or for that matter his conflation of transgenderism and postgenderism – again, I think every reader will see the shortcomings here without me having to highlight them. Besides, the famous political commentators Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman have already done this for us. Instead I would like to sketch some points about the (possible) relationship between psychoanalytic (and specifically, Lacanian) theory and transgenderism, and suggest that the framework Žižek has used to attack the latter can be turned in the opposite direction, against his conclusions.

Whenever we talk about psychoanalysis, what must not be passed over is its rejection of the apparent dichotomy between biological essentialism (gender as a biological fact synonymous with sex) and discursive constructionism (gender as a historico-social construction); faced with these two options, it chooses the third, so to speak. This is why it in fact seems to me that there is a certain congruence between psychoanalytic thought and the logic of transgenderism. Trans people are clearly not absolute constructivists – if they were, having acknowledged the historicism and contingency of ‘gender’ as such, they would not be so invested in carving out a place of possible identity within its framework, be it of the opposite gender to that corresponding to their biological sex (as in the case of trans men and women) or of a refusal of this binary altogether (as in the case of all that is gathered under the umbrella term ‘genderqueer’). They would simply dismiss the notion that anything related to gender had any fundamental bearing on their identity separate from performativity. Nor are they biological essentialists, as is evident from the separation of gender and biological sex inherent to transgenderism, and the mobility of gender therefore prescribed. What a trans person knows is that sex/gender cannot be reduced to biology, but also cannot be discarded altogether as purely rhetorical/performative. This is precisely Lacan’s own view, and why we can see the reasons Tim Dean has called Lacan “a queer theorist avant la lettre.”

Lacan was of the opinion that sex cannot be reduced to a discursive construction, because it is opposed to sense itself, occurring at (or as) the limit internal to signification: “Everything implied by the analytic engagement with human behaviour indicates not that meaning reflects the sexual, but that it makes up for it.” “Sex,” as Joan Copjec eloquently puts it, “is the stumbling block of sense.” This is what Lacanians mean when they say that sexual difference is ‘real’ – not that it maps onto a biological (prediscursive) reality, but that it designates the very failure of symbolisation itself. The symbolic is like a torus, structured around the hole of the real, which Lacan ingeniously described as “extimate” to it, and as such there is no signifier of sexual difference in the unconscious, only the phallus, which stands for this very impossibility. This is passed over by many gender theorists, who note that the symbolisation or discursive construction of sex is an ongoing process without end, but do not acknowledge that sex does not simply designate this discursive process, but rather the failure of this process altogether.

That there is no signifier of sexual difference in the unconscious means that, as Tim Dean writes, “sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire.” This is why Žižek’s conflation of gender identities and sexualities is particularly surprising; the Lacanian formula of the sexual relationship he quotes – “1+1+a” – has nothing to do, per se, with the genders of the people involved. Besides, the ‘third element’ he is so keen to centre his argument on, objet a, is radically unsexed, as Tim Dean has also pointed out: insofar as the subject’s relationship to the object operates via fantasy, no fantasy (cis- or transgendered, hetero- or homosexual) has any more claim to ‘authenticity’ or success than any other. In Lacanian theory, “masculine” and “feminine” describe not biological positions but rather positions assumed in relation to the deadlock of sex. As Lacan himself says, when explaining the graph of sexuation: “On the other side, you have the inscription of the woman portion of speaking beings. Any speaking being whatsoever, as is expressly formulated in Freudian theory, whether provided with the attributes of masculinity—attributes that remain to be determined—or not, is allowed to inscribe itself in this part.” A heterosexual male could very well be a feminine subject in terms of psychoanalysis, in a way which is crucially non-behaviourist. Insofar as they respond to a ‘real’ impossibility, both of these positions index a failure, and are bound to be equally (un)successful, albeit in asymmetrical ways.

The fact that the unconscious contains no signifier of sexual difference means that it is essentially bigendered/bisexual (as Freud himself already suggested), which is why Shanna T. Carlson has concluded that one way a transgendered person might be viewed in terms of psychoanalysis is as personifying “the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.” Žižek (and, before him, Catherine Millot) obviously wants to argue that this solution is in fact a doomed attempt to escape the anxiety of castration. I do not understand why he comes to this conclusion. He seems to be suggesting, implicitly, that trans people fail to assume a position with regard to the phallus (‘having’ – masculine, or ‘being’ – feminine). But I see no reason to believe this once we understand that sexual position and gender identity are not synonymous in Lacanian theory. A heterosexual cisgendered man has no stronger claim or likelihood to have assumed his castration than anyone in any other sexual position, and indeed insofar as the only clinical structures available to the Lacanian subject are neurosis, perversion and psychosis, every subject comes to be defined by a complication or impasse with regard to the Other, that is, in relation to castration. It doesn’t make sense for Žižek to suggest that transgenderism is somehow a symptom which stands apart from all others. When Žizek writes that the “LGBT trend” to “deconstruct” sexual norms “reduces this tension to the fact that the plurality of sexual positions are forcefully narrowed down to the normative straightjacket of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine, with the idea that, if we get away from this straightjacket, we will get a full blossoming multiplicity of sexual positions (LGBT, etc.), each of them with its complete ontological consistency,” he makes an unwarranted leap, implying that trans people do not assume the same ontological lack as everyone else, even in spite of their gender identity, with as much or as little acknowledgement of this as is present in the cisgendered subject. Trans people have no illusions of being ‘more complete’ or fully realized sexually than their cisgendered counterparts. Žižek cannot simultaneously maintain that the “trend” he identifies attempts to both “de-ontologize” sex and provide the resulting sexual positions with “complete ontological consistency”. Indeed, Lacan – ‘anti-philosopher’ that he was – did not ascribe ontological consistency to sex at all, since, as we have already said, it marks the point at which logos itself fails. It seems that Žižek has found himself caught up in the same dated nature/culture dichotomy psychoanalysis exists to render obsolete.

The truth is, Lacan’s theory of sexual difference represents perhaps the most complex facet of his entire life’s work. I do not have space to do it justice here, and I am not even attempting to introduce Lacan’s graph of sexuation (which would indeed take a whole other essay). Lacan’s seminars on sexual difference contain many of his most notorious, provocative, and misunderstood statements: “There is no sexual relationship,” “Woman does not exist,” “Woman is a symptom of man”. This is part of the problem with Žižek’s article: he attempts to mount a Lacanian critique of transgenderism while only making vague gestures in the direction of what Lacan actually said. Too often, Lacan has become for Žižek a rhetorical flourish, or (in a case of sublime irony) a Big Other to appeal to for authenticity; the actual content of Lacan’s work is lost. In truth, Lacan has a lot to offer queer theory, and a genuinely Lacanian queer theory would be a large and fruitful undertaking, which can only take place if Lacanians are willing to listen (like actual analysts) to the accounts of trans people, instead of forcing them to conform to a pre-decided theoretical framework. If psychoanalysis cannot account for the existence of trans people without reducing them to a pathological version of the already-pathological cisgender human subject, it risks becoming the obsolete science its opponents claim it already is.

Further reading

I would point anyone who wants to read further on this subject to Shanna T. Carlson’s thoughtful essay, “Transgender Subjectivity and the Logic of Sexual Difference”. On Lacanian sexual difference, Sean Homer’s Jacques Lacan provides a good introduction, and Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance is incredibly useful. Joan Copjec’s “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason” is perhaps the definitive Lacanian response to Butlerian gender theory. And of course, Lacan should be read in his own words; in this case, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973.

N.B. I have written a little more about this here, with further reading recommendations. 

Only a suffering ape can save us: variations on variations

“God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. Without the concept of a humanly suffering God, all of history remains incomprehensible.” 

F.W.J. Schelling, “Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom”

Sam Kriss’s essay about Harambe, the ape who died, is a weighty intervention into several fields: cultural studies, linguistics, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, theology, anthropology, ethology. Kriss places numerous dots on the field of interpretation, connects some, and leaves many for us to contemplate – in their singularity, their intersections, their divergences. It is not so much a case of the Harambe variations themselves, but where these several Harambes stand in relation to each other, where they stand in relation to us, and finally what discovery – grave, monstrous, profound – the deceased creature installs in us. This is an essay about salvation, and this is an essay about the dead gorilla Harambe. But we have to start elsewhere. 

Part 1: The ape I am, the ape I am not

The famous and beloved gorilla Koko, who is able to recognize herself in a mirror, understands 2,000 words of spoken English, and can communicate through sign language, is also a deeply unsettling proposition. Does this ape, who has passed through the mirror stage and integrated herself into a symbolic system, actually have an unconscious mind? Baudrillard writes, “Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory … the unconscious is the individual structure of mourning in which this loss is incessantly, hopelessly replayed – animals are the nostalgia for it.” The unconscious acts as the melancholic organising principle of an existence forever cut-off from the vital, shameless, impassive experience of animality, of a divine unity between inside and outside, a mythical ‘real’ object we never possessed but believe we must have once, a screaming fever dream from within the torture-house of language. Where, then, is the place for Koko, this impossible animal in the symbolic? Lacan says in his very first Seminar: “…at the junction of the symbolic and the real, ignorance”, a passion greater than love or hate, a passion to not know, to remain in the bliss of not knowing. I look at Koko, and I am reminded of the very different animal that therefore I am, who knows all too much, the “animal lacking in itself”, to quote Derrida. The ape becomes as a fairground mirror, revealing to us the fatal shortcomings our ego elides in the specular image. Koko, the liminal animal, illuminates the path between us and our tragic other: Harambe, the gorilla who was shot and died. 

Through Darwin, we discovered that man’s ancestor was not the Adam of Eden but a series of increasingly ape-like primates stretching back to an ancestor common between us and the gorilla, during the late Miocene epoch, 8 to 10 million years ago. An even more startling discovery was that this changed virtually nothing. We see in the ape everything we have lost to gain everything we have gained. St. Augustine thought that sexuality was in fact part of the penitence for the Original Sin; had Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden, they would have performed intercourse instrumentally, as a simple task, free from the shame, pathology, and aporias of human sexuality. What are the great apes if not this Edenic Adam, this image of lost harmony? As Kriss reminds us, the gorilla Harambe resembles the mythical primal father; the violent, hypersexual totalitarian who controls all the women and experiences no shortcomings in desire, an object of envy and then of contempt, who must be killed but only returns, even more malevolent, in the form of the superego. The ape is a symbol of awe in every sense. Freud realized that the totem animal is firstly a surrogate for the father, and only then morphs into a God; Kriss is too quick to elide the diachronicity of this phenomenon. Before we can attempt to reach God Himself, we must pass through something else. In this case, that something is shit.

Part 2: Of excrement

To his credit, Kriss realizes this dimension of the Harambe situation, relating it via Bataille’s fascination with simian anal scrags. But there is more to be said about this. The great apes are famous for their attitude towards their faeces – touching, handling, throwing; they delight in it. By contrast, humans are very embarrassed about their excrement, flushing it away and inventing infantile names for it which turn out to be even more nauseating than the thing itself. These antithetical relationships denote a fundamental asymmetry between man and ape, and it is not for nothing that faeces is listed in psychoanalysis as one of the partial-objects of the drive. In “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, Lacan remarks that such objects “have no specular image”, that is, they cannot be assimilated into the subject’s narcissistic illusion of completeness. They are objects which, in the subject’s psychical economy, coincide with their own loss, and thus stand for the loss inherent in castration itself. In Freud’s words, “The surrender of faeces in favour of (out of love for) another person, for its part, becomes the model of castration and is the first case in which a part of one’s own body is renounced in the hope of winning favour from a beloved other. And so faeces, baby, penis, all come together to form a single entity, one unconscious concept – sit venia verbo – that of something small that can be separated from the body.” Serge Leclaire, the first Lacanian, notes that Freud’s “unconscious concept” was the prototype for Lacan’s theory of the signifier, and adds: “every separation, cut or loss, whatever it may be (even and especially that of parturition) necessarily refers back to the time of conception, to the phallus; and the phallus, as master signifier, cannot be other than lost with respect to the efficacy of sexual difference.” 

Here then is the unidentified homology between Kriss’s “ape of tumult” and “ape of fixation”. For when we speak of the signifier in psychoanalysis, we are already also speaking in the register of the somatic; psychoanalysis rejects any nature/culture dichotomy, and the psychoanalytic ‘body’ is not, after all, the biological ‘organism’. The drives are a bodily phenomenon caught up with the signifier. As Charles Shepherdson writes, the erotogenic zones of the drive “are understood not as biological parts of the organism, but as anatomical regions which serve as the locus for representation – regions that are not determined in advance by nature, but subject to symbolic displacement and substitution.” “The symptom,” in Lacan’s own words, is “a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element.” If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that there is not somehow an ape of excessive anal freedom and a separate ape of symbolic displacement, of irony. The two in fact exist synchronically, in the image of that terrifyingly uncastrated creature, slinging its faeces with all the purity of the ethical act: the image of Harambe, the slain gorilla.

(On the subject of signification, Kriss writes, “[The ape’s] differential nature is expressed not as a relation between signifiers but as one between ‘Harambe’ and the systematicity of the signifying system itself. As Laclau points out, however, the outside which is from within the system constituted as ‘pure negativity, pure threat to the system’ is in fact ‘the simple principle of positivity – pure being.’ … Something called irony occurs, but rather than being in the form of any kind of antiphrasis or anything that could be understood as a substitution of meanings, meaning itself is challenged by its other.” It is interesting to read this from Kriss, a Derridean, since Derrida famously proclaimed that “there is no outside-text”, no outside of the ‘system’, just more text. The idea of “pure being” is a fiction inherent to the symbolic itself. I am curious, therefore, as to what he is pointing towards with this ‘other of meaning’. It occurs to me to suggest a Lacanian concept here; Lacan initially placed language and jouissance in opposition, but late in his career came to admit a certain type of jouissance within language itself, lalangue, the (truly Derridean) jouissance of a kind of linguistic chaos: homophones, puns, unintended linkages and resonances. It does not seem inconceivable to me that part of what has happened with the word ‘Harambe’ can be illuminated through this notion of ‘jouis-sens’; read the lyric substitutions linked to in Kriss’s piece – here is a form of enjoyment in the signifier itself, the mere act of substitution. Of course, we are again in the zone between the body and the signifier. As Žižek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, “In so far as the sinthôme [the modality of jouissance] is a certain signifier [lodged in an ‘empty signified’, as Daniel Bristow has pointed out] which is not enchained in a network but immediately filled, penetrated with enjoyment, its status is by definition ‘psychosomatic’, that of a terrifying bodily mark.” Inasmuch as jouissance denotes a kind of ‘pleasure in pain’, the storm of Twitter wisecracks denote the strange jouissance extracted not simply from the death of Harambe, but the mass powerlessness, the dull, pointless, quotidian injustice, that the death of this creature symbolises.)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We are not yet done with faeces. 

Part 3: The death of God, and of Harambe, the gorilla

Responding to Lacan’s characterisation of of objet (petit) a – the (partial-) object of the drive – as “ejected” or “dejected” in Seminar XIII, Leclaire, in his own seminar (‘Reckoning with Psychoanalysis’), gives three alternative models: “One could describe it as the body of the child, as a wailing object, fallen from the body of its mother, or as an object designed on the model of an anal object (dropped, expelled, etc); or even as a detached, separated, cut-off object, which is in itself nevertheless indivisible.” 

Leclaire was not the first to draw a similarity between the imperfect, pathetic human body and the expelled anal object. In fact, this was none other than Martin Luther, who sometimes described man as like a divine shit, which fell out of God’s anus. By incarnating himself as Christ, God came to identify with His own excrement, His own partial-object. This is very close to Hegel’s conception of the Incarnation, wherein God alienates Himself from Himself primarily so that he can examine Himself from the perspective of his ‘excrement’, man – and of course, the gaze is itself also a partial-object according to Lacan. I think this is the point at which the theological section of Kriss’s analysis is lacking. He writes, “Christ on his cross cries out: eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was he not told the entire plan?” What Kriss misses is the fact that Christ’s abandonment at the hands of God is the plan, he must make this exclamation, because, as Catherine Malabou writes apropos of Hegel, “The suffering of God and the suffering of human subjectivity deprived of God must be analysed as the recto and verso of the same event … consciousness only represents God because God represents itself; consciousness is only at a distance from God because God distances himself from himself.” This is how Jesus Christ differs from earlier spiritual teachers: where they represent the becoming-essential of the accident, Jesus represents the becoming-accidental of the essence, the universal embodied in the individual; as Hegel noted in his early work Life of Jesus, the moment of Jesus’ aforementioned exclamation is the exact moment when He knew sin and evil, for evil is the separation of the individual from the universal.  

So it is not the case that “the Godhead in its entirety suffered and perished on Golgotha”, but rather that, as Žižek is so keen to remind us at every available opportunity, it was God Himself as transcendent being who died on the cross. This is the ultimate case of Hegelian sublation: God and Jesus are sublated into the third term, the Holy Spirit, whose positive content is identical to the community of believers, and does not exist beyond them. Hegel himself writes, “it is in the finite consciousness that the process of knowing spirit’s essence takes place and that the divine self-consciousness thus arises. Out of the foaming ferment of finitude, spirit rises up fragrantly.” This is the material side of Hegel which is often missed. The Holy Spirit is like the Nation, like the Party. It only exists insofar as people act as though it exists, insofar as people are willing to wager their lives on it. 

Two Harambes died in Cincinnati. The first, Harambe the Father – the primal, savage father of the Oedipal fantasy, for a strange moment ambivalent towards the young child he found in front of him, torn between the protective paternal instinct and the violent urge to reaffirm his supremacy as king of the tribe, to embody the substance which finally makes up the superego. The second, Harambe the Son – the emblem of a presymbolic innocence, a beautiful shamelessness, a unity with the body and its partial-objects, free from the deception of the ego. And through this double death, a sublation. What is left? Not a gorilla, but a spirit, a community, which takes as its substance nothing other than the name of this dead ape, ‘Harambe’; a scream into the void of a dead universe in which weaponised irony is the closest thing to salvation. And under his flag coalesce the injuries and indignities of an international mass of people united by the dull, constant pain of living in this hellscape of a world, where injustices only multiply without end, where to participate in the political process, to stand firm in loyalty to even a moderate democratic socialist, is to be smeared as blind, violent, misogynistic, cultist, to be called responsible for the encroachment of fascism into mainstream politics, a fascism which you always claimed to see present under the surface of everyday, damaged life, only to be branded insane, extremist. And all of this senselessness, all of this pointless violence, all of this hatred, it all gathers, and manifests itself in Cincinnati, on 28th May 2016, in one gunshot wound to the head of a 440-pound silverback gorilla. The flesh made word, the ape who died, the dead ape. Harambe.