We are all castrated, but only Tony Blair is castrated by a Nicolas Cage film

It is not because they turn their back on washed-out existence that escape-films are so repugnant, but because they do not do so energetically enough, because they are themselves just as washed-out, because the satisfactions they fake coincide with the ignominy of reality, of denial.

                   – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

In the last piece I posted here, I quoted from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation by way of an epigraph, and briefly referred to his (in)famous essays on the Gulf War and its apparent unreality. I am always a little wary of referring to Baudrillard, because the reception of his work in the English-speaking world has led to an unfortunate characterisation of the late theorist as a kind of wilfully obscure purveyor of fashionable gibberish, the toast of turtleneck-clad undergrad cod-philosophers worldwide. Worse, Baudrillard will forever be associated with The Matrix, which features and quotes the aforementioned Simulacra and Simulation (Morpheus’ “Welcome to the desert of the real”), and which is based, in Baudrillard’s own words, on a “misunderstanding” of his work. Baudrillard himself realized the poetic irony in the fact that the great philosopher of simulation and (mis)representation was himself the victim of such misrepresentation, and eventually even proclaimed, “I am the simulacrum of myself.”

This isn’t a new idea at all. Lacan defined the hysteric as merely an extreme victim of the “symbolic castration” which assails every human subject from the moment she acquires language. This consists in the experience of a gap between one’s role in the symbolic order – i.e. one’s place in society: citizen, professor, father, etc. – and one’s real, contingent self, the “pissing, shitting, stinking, bleeding bastard” we all, finally, are (h/t Martin Rowson). The locus classicus for (Lacanian) hysteria in literature is more than four hundred years old: the title character’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

I have no name, no title,

No, not that name was given me at the font,

But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,

That I have worn so many winters out,

And know not now what name to call myself!

O that I were a mockery king of snow,

Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,

To melt myself away in water-drops!

The king experiences symbolic castration as a crisis of his very subjectivity: this is hysteria – when my entire existence becomes an experience of extreme doubt as to my place in the world, as to what I amount to once the symbolic titles and names conferred upon me – which always feel somehow external – are subtracted. At the same time, symbolic castration fulfils a crucial, and essentially positive, function in the psychoanalytic account of childhood development. The father can only assume his proper role in the Oedipus complex (his role as symbolic Father, as Father ‘as such’, through whom the Law speaks) if he accepts that he is himself castrated, separated, in his position in the symbolic order, from his substantial being. Within the discourse of psychoanalysis, this symmetry represents the fundamental cycle of civilisation itself: in order to castrate the child, to ensure that the child realises that he or she is not the be-all-and-end-all of the mother’s desire, the father must himself be castrated. The various ways in which this, the Oedipus complex, can go wrong define the clinical structures – neurosis, psychosis, perversion.

This brings us to Tony Blair. There is no doubt in my mind that Blair is, psychoanalytically speaking, a pervert. For Lacan, perversion is not an umbrella category for deviant sexual behaviours, but rather a structure which exhibits certain fundamental characteristics. Where the neurotic represses the knowledge that there is a ‘lack in the Other’, that is, that the symbolic order of language and laws is structured around an impossible, traumatic kernel which cannot be expressed in speech, the pervert goes a step further, disavowing this knowledge outright by identifying himself as that lacking object, as the instrument of the Other’s enjoyment, the object of its drive. So, as the clinical psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe writes, “In this respect, not only does he refuse the Oedipal law with its symbolic castration, he will challenge it as well and replace it by his own rules of engagement. The Oedipal law concerning castration does not apply to him, but only to the poor bourgeois.”[1] Because of this, “certain perverts will live their perversion solely within the realm of the propagation and installation of their law, without ever actually committing sexually violent acts.” [2]

When Tony Blair gave a two-hour press conference on the day of the Chilcot report’s publication defending his actions – even after that inquiry came out with judgements like, “At no stage did Ministers or senior officials commission the systematic evaluation of different options, incorporating detailed analysis of risk and UK capabilities, military and civilian, which should have been required before the UK committed to any course of action in Iraq” – he demonstrated perfectly the disavowal inherent to perversion; a refusal to assimilate a traumatic fact or experience into one’s psychical economy, instead maintaining that this trauma can be ‘plugged’ by the subject himself acting as the object-instrument of the will of the Other. This is why it is the case that when this structure is imported from the sexual field to the political, the pervert perhaps forms the most dangerous of all kinds of subject. As Slavoj Žižek has written, “The pervert claims direct access to some figure of the big Other (from God or history to the desire of his partner), so that, dispelling all ambiguity of language, he is able to act directly as the instrument of the big Other’s will.”[3] Žižek wants to use this to claim that religious fundamentalists can be ascribed a perverse structure, but the reality is that fundamentalists are much more cynical and ideologically weak than he gives them credit for. In reality, it’s leaders like Blair who believe they are acting on behalf of God and History, which is why they’re so terrifying. The pervert erects a fetish object to stand as a ‘veil’ in front of the traumatic Real; listening to Blair on Wednesday, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has reified the moralistic platitude of ‘doing the right thing’ (in removing Saddam Hussein, who, in the report’s words, posed “no imminent threat”) into a fetish object, obscuring the trauma of an invasion which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and destabilized a region which remains ravaged by unimaginable violence every single day.

If Blair was a normal person, he wouldn’t have appeared in public waxing lyrical about the “momentous… agonising” decision-making he faced when he plunged the UK into a pointless and stupid war, or have said things like “What I cannot and will not do is say we took the wrong decision”. A neurotic subject (the closest thing to normal in Lacan’s schema) represses the trauma of castration, of lack, so that what is repressed returns in the unconscious, in dreams, symptoms, slips of the tongue. Even the psychotic subject cannot uphold his foreclosure of symbolic castration, seeing the trauma return in the form of delusions and hallucinations. Only the pervert can maintain disavowal, which is why he almost never seeks treatment from the analyst (and why accounts of perversion are often based on analysis of criminals, instead of clinical patients). We all asked ourselves, “How can Blair continue with this charade? How can he be so crass on this of all days?” It’s because he doesn’t realize what he is. As Dylan Evans points out, “perversion is characterised by the lack of a question; the pervert does not doubt that his acts serve the jouissance of the Other.” In other words, Blair will never accept that he is not the instrument of the will of History. He will never recognize the sordid reality; that he is an reckless, messianic warmonger who is directly responsible for apparently interminable chaos and death.

The melancholia that accompanied the reappearance of the Iraq War in the media, not to mention the presence of Blair’s cartoon goblin face on the telly and the front pages, meant that it was hard to muster much amusement at the best and funniest revelation hiding in the pages of the Chilcot report, namely that MI6 intelligence on Iraqi chemical weapons was provided by a bogus source who probably lifted his account of “linked hollow glass spheres” full of nerve gas from the 1996 Nicolas Cage action thriller The Rock, Michael Bay’s least-worst film. This is actually what got me thinking of Baudrillard in the first place. That ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ is a banal cliché at this point; Baudrillard’s thesis was much more radical: society is now structured and dominated by the proliferation of images and signs, of simulacra, copies which have no original. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” [4] He would not have been surprised by the discovery of details from a Michael Bay film in the documents which justified the Iraq invasion, because he already believed that war had become a masquerade, a performance rehearsed and directed by the world order. This is only an unusually neat case of a general rule: military violence has become indistinguishable from pure spectacle.

Adorno was already aware of something like this in the 40s, in the passage up there from Minima Moralia. The problem with escapism is that it offers no real escape, as a film like The Rock shows. In it, the baddie is a Marine General who seizes control of Alcatraz and threatens to launch those aforementioned containers of nerve gas at San Francisco unless the US Government pays $100 million to the families of Recon Marines who died on clandestine missions and whose deaths were not compensated. So we are supposed to feel sympathy for the character, while also supporting the goodies (Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage) tasked with defeating him. This is Hollywood’s idea of ‘depth’. And of course, the rest of the film does not even try to fake this level of apparent complexity. Nothing is plausible, nobody speaks like an actual human being, nothing looks real – in short, just what we expect from this kind of movie. The result is a sort of unholy chimera: a stupid film that thinks it’s clever. This is the real poetic justice in the ignominious appearance of The Rock in the Chilcot report, the reflection of the “ignominy of reality” Adorno mentions. Even the film’s intellectual character – Cage’s chemical weapons specialist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed – ends up having to assume the mantle of the macho, murderous action hero. On this, elsewhere in Minima Moralia, Adorno writes:

“A certain gesture of manliness, be it one’s own, be it that of another, deserves mistrust. It expresses independence, surety of the power of command, the silent conspiracy of all men with each other. Earlier one anxiously called it, awe-struck, the whims of lords, today it is democratized and is played by film heroes for the benefit of the lowliest bank employee […] In Oxford one can differentiate between two kinds of students: the “tough guys” and the intellectuals; the latter are equated almost without further ado to those who are effeminate. There is a great deal of evidence that the ruling class polarizes itself according to these extremes on the road to dictatorship. Such disintegration is the secret of integration, of happiness of unity in the absence of happiness. In the end the “tough guys” are the ones who are really effeminate, who require the weaklings as their victims, in order not to admit that they are like them.”

The reference to Oxford points to the homology between the exaggerated masculinity of the action film and the exaggerated masculinity of our political leaders. This is something which Jacqueline Rose has written about recently, with regard to Brexit. She argues persuasively that both campaigns were based on an idea of masculine control and assurance which has only hindered the political process, turning it into a homosocial competition between elite males. In layman’s terms, a dick-measuring contest.

So we can castrate our leaders all we want; we can point to their failures, their stupidity, their manifest ridiculousness. We can publish a two-million word inquiry into the most disastrous British foreign policy expedition in living memory wherein it is suggested that crucial intel was provided by a prankster and based on a Nicolas Cage movie. And yet our leaders continue to strut into photo ops, into press conferences, into parliament, waving the phalluses they are certain they possess in front of our now-desensitized faces. Our next Prime Minister will be a woman, but a woman whose policies will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Anyone sceptical about the Oedipal facet of politics would do well to read Tom Whyman’s exegesis of the strangely maternal relationships at work in the Tory party right now. In Seminar XX, Lacan famously said, “There are men who are as good as women. It happens.” When it comes to politics, we might add that there are also women who are as bad as men. It is obvious to everyone sane that a female prime minister is no feminist victory if her government will be disastrous for those women at the highest risk in the UK – migrants, the poor, the disabled, single mothers. If there is the possibility for a better politics, a politics which might break us out of the terrible rut in which we have found ourselves, perhaps it depends, not on whether our leaders have dicks or not, but on the realization that, in the final analysis, none of us really do.

[1] Paul Verhaeghe (2001). “Perversion II: The perverse structure.” The Letter, 23, 77-95. 89.
[2] Ibid. 84.
[3] Slavoj Žižek (2007). How to Read Lacan. New York. 116.
[4] Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor. 2.

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