Friday, June 12, 2009

Repressive Desublimation

From The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994), p. 16:

The logic of this 'failed encounter' bears witness to the Frankfurt School's conception of psychoanalysis as a 'negative' theory: a theory of self-alientated, divided individuals, which implies as its inherent practical goal the achievement of a 'disalientated' condition in which individuals are undivided, no longer dominated by the alientated psychic substance (the 'unconscious')--a condition thereby rendering psychoanalysis itself superfluous. However, Freud continued to conceive of his own theory as 'positive', describing the unalterable condition of civilization. Because of this limitation--that is to say, because he comprehended 'repressive sublimation' (traumatic repression qua the underside of sublimation) as an anthropological constant--Freud could not foresee the unexpected, paradoxical condition actualized in our centiry: that of 'repressive desublimation', characteristic of 'post-liberal' societies in which 'the triumphant archaic urges, the victory of the Id over the Ego, live in harmony with the triumph of the society over the individual'.

The Ego's relative autonomy was based on its role as the mediator between the Id (the non-sublimated life-substance of the drives) and the Superego (the agency of social 'repression', the representative of the demands of society). 'Repressive desublimation' succeeds in getting rid of this autonomous, mediating agency of 'synthesis' which is the Ego: through such 'desublimation' the Ego loses its relative autonomy and regresses towards the unconscious. However, this 'regressive', compulsive, blind, 'automatic' behaviour, which bears all the signs of the Id, far from liberating us from the pressures of the existing social order, adheres perfectly to the demands of the Superego, and is therefore already enlisted in the service of the social order. As a consequence, the forces of social 'repression' exert a direct control over drives.

The bourgeois liberal subject represses his unconscious urges by means of internalized prohibitions and, as a result, his self-control enables him to get hold of his libidinal 'spontaneity'. In post-liberal societies, however, the agency of social repression no longer acts in the guise of an internalized Law or Prohibition that requires renunciation and self-control; instead, it assumes the form of a hypnotic agency that imposes the attitude of 'yielding to temptation'--that is to say, its injunction amounts to a command: 'Enjoy yourself!'. Such an idiotic enjoyment is dictated by the social environment which includes the Anglo-Saxon psychoanalyst whose main goal is to render the patient capable of 'normal', 'healthy' pleasures. Society requires us to fall asleep, into a hypnotic trance, usually under the guise of just the opposite command: 'The Nazi battle cry of "Germany awake" hides its very opposite.'

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Masculine Universality versus Feminine Universality

From Sarah Kay's Žižek: A Critical Introduction (London: Polity Press, 2003), pp. 38-41:

Žižek first treats the topic of universality at length in For They Know Not, and continues unabated in recent writings, with particularly extended discussions in The Ticklish Subject (chapter 3) and Contingency, Hegemony, Universality ('Da Capo Senza Fine'). Universality is central to Žižek's thinking about sexual difference, history and politics, and I shall be returning to it in chapters 4 and 6.

On the psychoanalytic side, Žižek's first account of universality runs like this (based on For They Know Not, especially 21-7). The universal order is the symbolic order, or big Other, which provides the conceptual grid with which we construe the world. However, our conceptual mapping is impaired by the fact that the planes of signifier and signified are out of kilter with one another. The reason why this comes about is that one of the signifiers has no corresponding signified; it does not introduce a content into the linguistic system, but merely insinuates difference. The perpetually moving place to which it points is that of the 'lack' in the symbolic order, the primordial lack of 'castration'. This signifier is represented as S1 because, having no signified, it is singular, whereas all the other signifiers are double, hence S2. S1 is also singular in the sense that it is unique among the signifiers; hence it can also be referred to as the 'unary feature' (Lacan's trait unaire; see Glossary, SIGNIFYING CHAIN).

The unary feature acts as the prop of individual identification at the symbolic level. How I position myself as an individual depends on how I attach myself to this signifier of pure difference. However, as the empty space in the set, S1 also both determines and effectively takes on the value of all the other signifiers (S2). The result is that, as well as being a pure (qualitative) singular, it assumes the role of the (quantitative) particular. That is, instead of being utterly unique, it appears as just one of a set, and hence as correlated with the universal. Thus inflated with the meaning of the other signifiers, it gives the impression of totalizing the whole field of signification. This is why it is also called the master signifier, or 'quilting point' (Lacan's point de capiton), the signifier that 'quilts' the field of meaning. For example, the claim that we are a 'free society' acts as a political quilting point that is, in itself, meaningless--a flag to wave at cultures we wish to disparage, and that has nothing to do with the extent to which we actually are or are not free (for instance, one way we regulalry show we are a 'free society' is by locking up people who threaten our 'freedom'). But in everyday thinking, the empty term 'free society' becomes 'filled out' with all the aspects of our society which we treasure (family life, nice cars, TV, etc.).

Via a process of double reflection, then, S1 appears first as negating the rest of the set, S2--that is, as unique relative to its fullness--and next, via a negation of this negation, when the rest of the set is reflected into it, as typifying the universal in the form of the particular. For instance, when I identify myself relative to the unary feature, I don't normally think of myself as absolutely unique, as a point of difference. Instead, I embrace some ideologically totalizing view of myself: say, as a successful academic and mother of three. In this way, I make the transition from the singular to the particular which in turn evokes the universals 'academic success' and 'motherhood'.

A Hegelian terminology has already crept into this exposition, and clearly Žižek's development of Lacan owes much to Hegel. Hegel too is interested in this triadic construction of the concept as comprising three 'moments', singular, particular and universal, which are dialectically related to one another. Thus, for instance, the particular can pass into the universal and back, says Žižek, like the passage round a Moebius band, where what we thought were two distinct sides are in fact one continuous one (For They Know Not, 46). The capacity for each 'moment' to pass into another also means, paradoxically, that the universal can be located in the particular. In this way, the universal is 'always-already part of itself, comprised within its own elements' (ibid.); this capacity to appear among its own particulars is illustrated by Lacan's often repeated quip, 'I have three brothers, Paul, Ernest and myself'.

Another way in which the universal is located in one of the particulars is via the exception. Žižek endorses as authentically Hegelian the claim that 'the exception proves the rule', since it is precisely from our awareness of an exception to it that the existence of a rule can be inferred. A more concrete instance of the correlation between the exception and the universal is furnished by Marx's account of the commodity (For They Know Not, 124). All commodities are defined as being goods which can be exchanged for money, except for money itself. What universalizes the notion 'commodity' is the fact that there exists one commodity, money, which is the exception to the set.

Returning now to Lacan, this account of the universal as correlative with its exception corresponds exactly with how he defines masculinity in the 'formulae of sexuation' in Seminar XX. The 'exception which proves the rule' of masculinity is the mythical father in Freud's Totem and Taboo, the father who enjoyed uncontested sexual possession of all the women in the tribe before being murdered by his sons. Through guilt for their act, the sons became subject to the law of inhibition and repression ('castration') that characterizes all men as a result of the very fact that there was one--their father--who claimed exemption from it. As Žižek puts it,

"Lacan's basic premiss is that the leap from the general set of 'all men' into the universal 'man' is possible only through an exception: the universal (in its difference to the empirical generality) is constituted through the exception; we do not pass from the general set to the universality of One-Notion by way of adding something to the set but, on the contrary, by way of subtracting something from it, namely the 'unary feature' [trait unaire] which totalizes the general set, which makes out of it a universality." (For They Know Not, 123)

The correspondence between Hegel and Lacan looks complete. However, a new twist (or dialectical reversal) is about to be effected.

It comes in the form of the feminine formula of sexuation, which proposes a different relationship to the universal from the masculine one: one in which the signifying order plays a greatly diminished role. Women, like men, are subject to inhibition and repression, says Lacan--indeed, they are so without exception--but they are so incompletely and inconsistently. The result of this, according to Lacan, is that 'woman' is not fully actualized as a universal. I shall be returning to this problematic claim in chapter 4; what is relevant to the present discussion is the way Žižek presents this 'not-quite-universal' of the feminine. This is the 'non all' which we encountered when reviewing the so-called immanentism of the Hegelian dialectic. It means that the symbolic fiction of the universal, instead of being tugged into shape by S1, is, on the contrary, exposed as deficient and leaky. The agent of this exposure is an absolutely contingent object, here identified as the objet a. This is what blocks or holds open the place of lack in the symbolic order that is commandeered, on the side of the symbolic, by S1. The complex arguments concerning S1 were not a red herring--the master signifier is indeed a clue to the way the universals of ideology and identity, not to mention masculinity, are constructed--but they need to be subordinated to this new view of universality.

So now the objet a and not S1 is proposed as what impedes (and provokes) the universal. Objet a is the fantasy object that plugs the gap of the primary repression and provides the subject's original defence against 'castration'. It is, as it were, the traumatic underside of S1. The 'lack' which it gives the illusion of filling out is, Žižek is arguing, the emptiness on which the universal founders: the conceptual world cannot 'say it all'; there is always something which escapes. Also, because of its connection with trauma, the space of objet a discloses the dimension of violence in the universal. In effect, the universal is not so much a concept as a struggle for conceptualization:

"Lacan's 'primordial repression' precisely what creates universality as an empty place; and the 'trace of the disavowed in the formal structure that emerges' [Žižek is here referring to Butler's criticisms] is what Lacan calls objet petit a, the remainder of the jouissance within the symbolic order. This very necessity of the primordial repression shows clearly why one should distinguish between the exclusion of the Real that opens up the empty place of the universal and the subsequent hegemonic struggles of different particular contents to occupy this place. (Contingency, 257)

Žižek's Critique of Weininger

From Tony Myers' Slavoj Žižek (London: Routledge), pp. 83-84:

Weininger, for Žižek, fails to go far enough. He fails to recognize in the 'nothingness' he discerns in woman, the very basis of subjectivity itself.

As we saw in Chapter 1, the subject is precisely this void or nothingness that precedes its inscription within the Symbolic Order. What Weininger fears, according to Žižek, is not woman, but the void of subjectivity itself, the absolute negativity of the 'night of the world' which forms the subject. Woman, in other words, is the subject par excellence. The fact that behind the enigma, the feminine mask, Weininger does not find something--some opaque mystery--but, rather, nothing, means that, for Žižek, Weininger stumbled accidentally upon the universal truth of subjectivity. Another way of looking at this is to conceive of it in terms of the distinction borrowed from linguistics by Lacan between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciated. The abyss or void of the subject is the subject of enunciation, whereas the subject of the enunciated is the Symbolic subject, the subject of the social network. Weininger's contention that 'woman does not exist' therefore amounts to saying that woman does not exist at the level of the subject of the enunciated--she is excluded from Weininger's patriarchal Symbolic--she only exists at the level of the enunciation, as the void of the subject.

The Feminine Logic of Non-All

From Sarah Kay's Žižek: A Critical Introduction (London: Polity Press, 2003), pp. 27-28:

Žižek does not deny that Hegel's thought relies on this immanence, but he insists that this immanence results from the dialectical reversal into it of transcendence in the form of negativity. The passage from Kant's transcendental philosophy (which holds that the true nature of a thing forever eludes us) to Hegel's immanentism is effected not by 'filling out the empty place of the Thing ... but by affirming this void as such, in its priority to any positive entity that strives to fill it out' (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 39). That is, absence or negativity are integrated into the fabric of Hegel's thinking in such a way as to leave it flimsy, not wholly consistent, unable to wrap things up. Such thought is what Žižek, following Lacan, calls 'non all'.

The effect of this 'non all' is pervasive. For example, the first section of Hegel's Encyclopedia Logic explores the emergence of being as a correlate of nothing. Being cannot be conceived, says Hegel, except in relation to nothing, and thus nothing is the truth of being. But what does this mean? The very argument which Hegel advances about being attests to the way it is hobbled by the difficulty of accounting for this nothing
(Tarrying with the Negative, p. 119). Hegelian reasoning is not a systematic advance towards the capturing of some truth; rather, it is the recording of a series of failures: 'Let us take a moment X: all attempts to grasp its concealed essence, to determine it more concretely, end in failure, and the subsequent moment only positivizes this failure; in it, failure as such assumes positive existence. In short, one fails to determine the truth of X and this failure is the truth of X' (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 119-120). Thus Hegel does not aspire to totality except 'in the negative experience of falsity and breakdown' (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 228). What is complete is so by virtue of being, at the same time, never more than partial.

By describing Hegelian logic as 'non all', Žižek is reading it through a psychoanalytic lens. In particular, he aligns Hegel's thought with Lacan's account of sexual difference, in which 'woman' is 'non all' [...]

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Subjective Destitution and the Master

From The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994), pp. 169-170:  

In one of the recent 'corporate nightmare' thrillers, The Virtual Boss, a company is actually (and unbeknownst to the employees) run by a computer that suddenly 'runs amok', grows beyond control and starts to implement measures against the top managers (it instigates conflicts among them, gives orders for them to be fired, etc.); finally, it sets in motion a deadly plot against its own programmer.... The 'truth' of this plot is that a Master is, in a sense, always virtual--a contingent person who fills out a preordained place in the structure, while the game is actually run by the 'big Other' qua impersonal symbolic machine.  This is what a Master is forced to take note of via the experience of 'subjective destitution':  that he is by definition an imposter, an imbecile who misperceives as the outcome of his decisions what actually ensues from the automatic run of the symbolic machine.

And ultimately, the same holds for every subject:  in his autobiography, Althusser writes that he has been persecuted all his adult life by the notion that he does not exist, by the fear that others will become aware of his non-existence--that is, of the fact that he is an imposter who is only pretending to exist.  His great fear after the publication of Reading Capital, for example, was that some perspicacious critic would reveal the scandalous fact that the main author of this book does not exist....

In a sense, this is what psychoanalysis is about:  the psychoanalytic cure is effectively over when the subject loses this fear and freely assumes his own non-existence.  Thus psychoanalysis is the exact opposite of subjectivist solipsism:  in contrast to the notion that I can be absolutely certain only of the ideas in my own mind, whereas the existence of reality outside myself is already an inconclusive inference, psychoanalysis claims that reality outside myself definitely exists; the problem, rather, is that I myself do not exist....

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Paradox of the Phallic Signifier

From The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso), pp. 130-131:

Therein resides the materialist 'wager' of Deleuze and Lacan: the 'desexualization', the miracle of the advent of the neutral-desexualized surface of Sense-Event, does not rely on the intervention of some transcendent, extra-bodily force; it can be derived from the inherent impasse of the sexualized body itself. In this precise sense--shocking as it may sound to vulgar materialists and obscurantists in their unacknowledged solidarity--the phallus, the phallic element as the signifier of 'castration', is the fundamental category of dialectical materialism. The phallus qua signifier of 'castration' mediates the emrgence of the pure surface of Sense-Event; as such, it is the 'transcendental signifier'--non-sense within the field of Sense, which distributes and regulates the series of Sense. Its 'transcendental' status means that there is nothing 'substantial' about it: the phallus is the semblance par excellence. What the phallus 'causes' is the gap that separates the surface event from bodily density: it is the 'pseudo-cause' that sustains the autonomy of the field of Sense with regard to its true, effective, bodily cause. Here on should recall Adorno's observation on how the notion of transcendental constitution results from a kind of perspective inversion: what the subject (mis)perceives as his constitutive power is actually his impotence, his incapacity to reach beyond the imposed limitations of his horizon--the transcendental constitutive power is a pseudo-power that is the obverse of the subject's blindness as to true bodily causes. Phallus qua cause is the pure semblance of a cause.