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.”

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.

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.

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.