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.