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.

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. 

Tarkovsky and Lacan help me explain why I write

I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe … once the right vein has been found, no more toil…

– Jacques Derrida, Circumfession

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, inhabitants of a ruinous, unnamed nation enlist the services of ‘stalkers’ to guide them into and through the Zone, a mysterious area of anomalous, supernatural activity said to contain a room which grants one’s innermost wishes. One of the titular stalker’s clients is a writer who professes to be in search of the inspiration that will break his block and propel him to widespread recognition. Yet halfway through the journey, he comes to realize that this cannot really be his true desire at all, saying:

A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?

If the writer gains the unassailable talent and insight to compose flawless, universally-praised literature, he will lose the very thing which compels him to write in the first place: doubt. I would go as far as to say that doubt, radical self-doubt, is the thread connecting virtually all great authors. Catullus called his poems ‘nugas’ – ‘trifles’. Virgil requested that all his remaining manuscripts be burned, unpublished, after his death (Kafka did the same, already having burned 90% of what he wrote during his life). Chaucer famously ended the Canterbury Tales by apologising for the whole thing. In what might be his most personal work, Shakespeare admitted that he felt unable to convey through his poetry the beauty of the object of his first 126 sonnets, writing, “There lives more life in one of your fair eyes/ Than both your poets can in praise devise.” Joyce described the mind of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, as “a dusk of doubt and selfmistrust”. Beckett called his work “a desecration of silence”. You get the picture.

Obviously, I am far from proclaiming myself to be a great writer, or even a particularly good one. But I have sometimes turned to people who were, like the aforementioned, to try and understand why it is that some of us are, for better or worse, compelled to write, and to keep on writing. Somehow we got caught up in this compulsion, our brains short-circuiting on language, feeding off the delusion that if we just keep putting down words we will find that one day we have, at last, said what we meant to say.

As a child, I was consumed with self-doubt: I refused to go to playgrounds, quit sports teams, and pretended to be sick to avoid attending parties. It wasn’t because I didn’t have friends – I had plenty – but because of a strange, amorphous fear of public humiliation, of doing the wrong thing, which never manifested itself in imagined scenarios of embarrassment, but rather functioned as the spectre of failure in-itself. This is how Freud defined Angst: fear without object. Growing up, my ability to write relatively well vacillated between being the safeguard of my self-esteem and the apex of an anxiety centred on the prospect of being ‘found out’ as a fraud; everything was a source of fear, especially something that might be construed as a source of pride. As I got older, I became less socially anxious, less concerned about other people’s perceptions of me, and yet the writing-compulsion only grew. I would overstretch myself in assignments, sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible, irritating, even. Praise lost most of its benefit, and I became convinced that only I was aware of the fundamental failure that inhabited all my attempts. My writing had no impetus external to a self-perceived inadequacy, as if every word was a finger plugging a hole in a sinking ship. As Deleuze wrote in one of his last published essays, “The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?”

There’s a Slavoj Žižek quote somewhere where he explains that the reason he is so prolific is that every time he finishes a book, he is struck by the feeling that he didn’t quite manage to articulate what he was trying to say. In other words, there is always an elusive part left over, fuelling the next project, in a chain which continues, necessarily, without end. Žižek would be aware that his master, Jacques Lacan, theorised this phenomenon in detail. For Lacan, the subject is itself ‘barred’ as an effect of language, since the chain of signifiers never reaches an end in signification – think of a dictionary: the definition of a word points to another word, and so on and so on, forever. We are split between the collection of images and signifiers by which we represent ourselves to ourselves and the surplus that eludes signification, which Lacan calls the ‘Real’. And it is this surplus that gives rise to desire in the first place. In Lacanese:

[I]t is the connection between signifier and signified, that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with desire aimed at the very lack it supports.

The difficulty of Lacan’s prose and the arcane theoretical framework he built for himself, replete with unique concepts and neologisms, mean people often take his theories to be more complex and obscure than they are. Think of someone you’ve fallen in love with; if I asked you why you loved them, you might list a collection of attributes (pretty eyes, kind, funny, also passionate about Weimar German architecture, etc.) but you’d never arrive at what precisely it is about them that makes them so special. Any number of people might share those features, but none of them is them. This little leftover bit, this phantom extra thing, is what Lacan called objet (petit) a, the ‘object-cause’ of desire. Our illustration makes it easy to see why this object is not an ordinary one, with qualities and attributes, but something altogether more mysterious, the ‘object proper to the Real’.

I think this surplus which animates desire is embodied by the room in Stalker. When they arrive at its threshold, neither of the stalker’s clients dare enter, because to enter would mean to confront one’s desire head-on. Objet a must always be kept at a distance; this is what Lacan’s matheme $ ◊ a (‘the split subject in relation to objet a) indicates, the lozenge (◊) standing simultaneously for conjunction and disjunction, the mediating factor of fantasy, which facilitates any object-relation, any relationship of desire. In fact, Lacan modified Freud’s theory of Angst by suggesting that it did indeed have an object, but that this was the phantasmic objet a: when an object occupies its place, anxiety is liable to arise. Being in love is an experience which induces anxiety, but so is being loved, because it forces us to ask what it is about us that makes us desirable to the other, and indeed whether we can hold onto that thing when we never fully know what it is. It is as if our partner has taken possession of something in us which we didn’t know was there – Lacan describes objet a in precisely these terms when he says that it consists of what is “in you more than you”. I think Jason Molina hit on a very similar idea in his song “Being in Love”:

Being in love

Means you are completely broken

Then put back together;

The one piece that was yours

Is beating in your lover’s breast,

She says the same thing about hers.

Why all this talk of love and desire? One of the things I think Stalker shows is that the desire that animates creativity and the desire that animates romantic love are not very far apart: the writer is afraid of coming into contact with desire itself, of having something manifest itself in the place of the lack which stimulates his life’s work; the stalker’s wife stays with him despite the incredible grief and hardship this “condemned man” brings upon his family, because he holds whatever it is that sets her desire in motion. In both cases it’s a question of that same obscure object. In the text from which I took the epigraph for this essay, Derrida notes that whenever a writer is asked why he writes, he ends up giving something akin to a confession or a defence, as if his work was some sort of a crime. If I haven’t managed to avoid this, it’s because the ghostly things fuelling our projects, our personal object-causes, are so indeterminate, so structurally out of reach, that to talk about them is to struggle with an impossible question, to place oneself in a Kafkaesque interrogation, in which we are finally left with no answers, only our anxieties and our uncertainties. And if this is the case, why continue? I’ll defer to the last lines of Stalker:

And if there was no grief in our life, it would not be better, it would be worse. Because then there would be … neither happiness, nor hope. That’s it.