Saturday, August 17, 2013

Neigh-Bore Love

The magic power of the voice as object is perhaps best rendered towards the end of Chapter 1 of Marcel Proust’s “The Guermantes Way,” part of his In Search of Lost Time. In a memorable scene, the narrator Marcel, using the phone for the first time, talks to his grandmother:
after a few seconds of silence, suddenly I heard that voice which I supposed myself, mistakenly, to know so well; for always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she was saying on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing this afternoon for the first time. And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me in this way alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was … It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost―more than any but a few human voices can ever have been―of every element of resistance to others, of all selfishness; fragile by reason of its delicacy it seemed at every moment ready to break, to expire in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen, without the mask of her face, I noticed for the first time the sorrows that had scarred it in the course of a lifetime.
Proust’s very precise description here uncannily points forward to Lacanian theory: the voice is subtracted from its “natural” totality of the body to which it belongs, out of which it emerges as an autonomous partial object, an organ magically capable of surviving without the body whose organ it is―it is as if it stands “alone beside me, seen, without the mask of her face.” This subtraction withdraws it from (our ordinary) reality into the virtual domain of the Real, where it persists as an undead specter haunting the subject:
“‘Granny!’ I cried to her, ‘Granny!’ and would have kissed her, but I had beside me only that voice, a phantom, as impalpable as that which would come perhaps to revisit me when my grandmother was dead.”
As such, this voice signals simultaneously a distance (Granny is not here) and an obscene over-proximity, a presence more intimate, more penetrating, than that of a body in front of us:
A real presence indeed that voice so near―in actual separation. But a premonition also of an eternal separation! Over and again, as I listened in this way, without seeing her who spoke to me from so far away, it has seemed to me that the voice was crying to me from depths out of which one does not rise again, and I have known the anxiety that was one day to wring my heart when a voice should thus return (alone, and attached no longer to a body which I was never more to see).
The term “anxiety” is to be read in the precise Lacanian sense: for Lacan, anxiety does not signal the loss of the object, but, on the contrary, its over-proximity. Anxiety arises when the objet a falls directly into reality, appears in it―which is precisely what happens when Marcel hears the grandmother’s voice separated from her body and discovers “for the first time how sweet that voice was”:
this sweetness is, of course, the extracted quintessence which led to Marcel’s intense libidinal investment in the grandmother.
This, incidentally, is how psychoanalysis approaches the libidinal-subjective impact of new technological inventions:
“technology is a catalizer, it enlarges and enhances something which is already here”
―in this case, a fantasmatic virtual fact, like that of a partial object. And, of course, this realization changes the entire constellation: once a fantasy is realized, once a fantasmatic object directly appears in reality, reality is no longer the same.

Here we might mention the sex-gadget industry: one can find today on the market a so-called “Stamina Training Unit,” a masturbatory device which resembles a battery light (so that one will not be embarrassed carrying it around). It works by putting the erect penis into the opening at the top and moving the device up and down until satisfaction is achieved. The product is available in different colors, widths, and forms that imitate all three main orifices (mouth, vagina, anus). What one is offered here is simply the partial object (erogenous zone) alone, minus the embarrassing additional burden of a whole person. The fantasy (of reducing the sexual partner to a partial object) is thus directly realized, which changes the entire libidinal economy of sexual relations.

This brings us to the key question: what happens to the body when it is separated from its voice, when the voice is subtracted from the wholeness of the person? For a brief moment, we see “a world robbed of fantasy, of the affective frame and sense, a world out of joint.” Grandmother appears to Marcel outside the fantasmatic horizon of meaning, the rich texture of his previous long experience of her as a warm, charming person. All of a sudden, he sees her “red-faced, heavy and common, sick, lost in thought, following the lines of a book with eyes that seemed hardly sane, a dejected old woman whom I did not know.” Seen after the fateful phone conversation, deprived of the fantasy frame, the grandmother is like a beached squid―a creature which moves elegantly in the water but turns into a disgusting piece of slimy flesh once out of it.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Less than Nothing"

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