Monday, February 16, 2015

The 'Problem" of Jouissance

The external symbolic and Superego injunction to 'enjoy'!
Ideological jouissance

With the designation of an inconsistency of the socio-symbolic Other, the positive side of which is obscene enjoyment, have we not consented also to the 'post-modernist' anti-Enlightenment ressentiment? The text on the cover of the French edition of Lacan's Ecrits already belies such an understanding: Lacan conceives there his theoretical effort explicitly as a prolongation of the old struggle of the Enlightenment. The Lacanian criticism of the autonomous subject and his power of reflection, of reflexive appropriation of his objective condition, is therefor far from any affirmation of some irrational ground escaping the reach of reason. Paraphrasing the well-known Marxian formula of capital itself as the limit of capitalism, we should say that according to Lacan the limit of Enlightenment is Enlightenment itself, its usually forgotten obverse already articulated in Descartes and Kant.

The leading motif of the Enlightenment is, of course, some variation of the injunction "Reason autonomously': Use your own head, free yourself of all prejudices, do not accept anything without questioning its rational foundations, always preserve a critical distance...'But Kant had already, in his famous article "What is Enlightenment?", added to this an unpleasant, disquieting supplement, introducing a certain fissure into the very heart of the Enlightenment project: 'Reason about whatever you want and as much as you want - but obey!' That is to say: as the autonomous subject of theoretical reflection, addressing the enlightened public, you can think freely, you can question all authority: but as part of the social 'machine', as a subject in the other meaning of the word, you must obey unconditionally the orders of your superiors. This fissure is proper to the project of Enlightenment as such: we find it already with Descartes, in his Discourse on Method. The obverse of the cogito doubting everything, questioning the very existence of the world, is the Cartesian 'provisional morality', a set of rules established by Descartes to enable him to survive in the everyday existence of his philosophical journey: the very first rule emphasizes the need to accept and obey the customs and laws of the country into which we were born without questioning their authority.

The main point is to perceive how this acceptance of given empirical, 'pathological' (Kant) customs and rules is not some kind of pre-Enlightenment remnant - a remnant of the traditional authoritarian attitude - but, on the contrary, the necessary obverse of the Enlightenment itself: through this acceptance of the customs and rules of social life in their nonsensical, given character, through the acceptance of the fact that 'Law is law', we are internally freed from its constraints - the way is open for free theoretical reflection. In other words, we render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, so that we can calmly reflect on everything. This experience of the given, non-founded character of customs and social rules entails in itself a kind of distance from them. In the traditional, pre-enlightened universe, the authority of the Law is never experienced as nonsensical and unfounded: on the contrary, the Law is always illuminated by the charismatic power of fascination. Only to the already enlightened view does the universe of social customs and rule appear as a nonsensical 'machine' that must be accepted as such.

Of course, we could say that the principal illusion of the Enlightenment consists in the idea that we can preserve a simple distance from the external 'machine' of social customs and thus keep the space of our inner reflection spotless, unblemished by the externality of customs. But this criticism does not affect Kant in so far as his affirmation of the categorical imperative he has taken into account the traumatic, truth-less, non-sensical character of the internal, moral Law itself. The Kantian categorical imperative is precisely a Law which has a necessary, unconditional authority, without being true: it is - in Kant's own word - a kind of 'transcendental fact', a given fact the truth of which cannot be theoretically demonstrated; but its unconditional validity should nonetheless be presupposed for our moral activity to have any sense.

We can contrast this moral Law with the 'pathological', empirically given social laws through a whole set of distinctive features: social laws structure a field of social reality, moral Law is the Real of an unconditional imperative which takes no consideration of the limitations imposed upon us by reality - it is an impossible injunction. 'You can, because you must! {Du kanst, denn du sollst!]; social laws pacify our egotism and regulate social homeostasis; moral Law creates imbalance in this homeostasis by introducing an element of unconditional compulsion. The ultimate paradox of Kant is this priority of practical over theoretical reason: we can free ourselves of external social constraints and achieve the maturity proper to the autonomous enlightened subject precisely by submitting to the 'irrational' compulsion of the categorical imperative.

It is commonplace of Lacanian theory to emphasize how this Kantian moral imperative conceals an obscene superego injunction: 'Enjoy!" - the voice of the Other impelling us to follow our duty for the sake of duty is a traumatic irruption of an appeal to impossible jouissance, disrupting the homeostasis of the pleasure principle and its prolongation, the reality principle. This is why Lacan conceives Sade as the truth of Kant: 'Kant avec Sade'. But in what precisely does this obscenity of the moral Law consist? Not in some remnants, leftovers of the empirical 'pathological' contents sticking to the pure form of the Law and smudging it, but in this form itself. The moral Law id obscene in so far as it is its form itself which functions as a motivating force driving us to obey its command - that is, in so far as we obey moral Law because it is law and not because of a set of positive reasons: the obscenity of moral Law is the obverse of its formal character.

Of course, the elementary feature of Kant's ethics is to exclude all empirical, 'pathological' contents - in other words, all objects producing pleasure (or displeasure) - as the locus of our moral activity, but what remains hidden in Kant is the way this renunciation itself produces a certain surplus-enjoyment [the Lacanian plus-de-jouir]. Let us take the case of Fascism - the Fascist ideology is based upon a purely formal imperative: Obey, because you must! In other words, renounce enjoyment, sacrifice yourself and do not ask about the meaning of it - the value of the sacrifice lies in its very meaninglessness; true sacrifice is for its own end; you must find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in its instrumental value: it is this renunciation, this giving up of enjoyment itself, which produces a certain surplus-enjoyment.

This surplus produced through renunciation is the Lacanian objet petit a, the embodiment of surplus-enjoyment; here we can also grasp why Lacan coined the notion of surplus-enjoyment on the model of the Marxian notion of surplus-value - with Marx, surplus value also implies a certain renunciation of 'pathological', empirical use-value. And Fascism is obscene in so far as it perceives directly the ideological form of its own end, as an end in itself - remember Mussolini's famous answer to the question, 'How do the Fascists justify their claim to rule Italy? What is their programme?' 'Our programme is very simple: we want to rule Italy!" The ideological power of Fascism lies precisely in the feature which was previously perceived by liberal or leftist critics as its greatest weakness: in the utterly void, formal character of its appeal, in the fact that it demands obedience and sacrifice for their own sake. For Fascist ideology, the point is not the instrumental value of the sacrifice, it is in the very form of sacrifice itself, 'the spirit of sacrifice', which is the cure against the liberal-decadent disease, It is also clear why Fascism was so terrified by psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis enables us to locate an obscene enjoyment at work in this act of formal sacrifice.
-Slavoj Zizek, "The Sublime Object of Ideology"

21 comments:

FreeThinke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FreeThinke said...

My GOD, what a dense, thorny thicket of tortured prose that is! Reminds me of the music of such intellectual composers as Max Reger, Feruccio Busoni, Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith, Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, et al.

All highly creative and incredibly brilliant work no doubt -- it ANALYZES very well -- in other words it LOOKS GOOD on paper -- but NO ONE CAN STAND LISTENING TO IT.

I once wrote a limerick to our chronic antagonist Ducky, whom I generally regard as a soulless, pretentious pseudo-intellectual:

I once knew a high-toned non-starter,


A mental and spiritual farter,


He'd walk down the street


In dirty bare feet

Whistling tunes by Elliot Carter!



[HINT: Elliot Carter deliberately avoided using any grouping of notes that could be said to resemble a "tune" -- even remotely -- in his self-absorbed Gargantuan, Rube Goldbergonian "Tone Piles." ;-]

FreeThinke said...

If, as i suspect, by "jouissance" you might be referring to the advocacy of unlimited self-indulgence in a mindless pursuit of Selfish Pleasure as the Highest Good -- something we used to call "Hedonism," if memory serves me -- I would refer us back to the famous French aphorist La Rochefoucauld who said "Toujours plaisir n'est pas plaisir."

If one cannot see that "Modern Life" has not proved him correct, there is little hope that common wisdom may yet prevail.

-FJ said...

"Toujours plaisir n'est pas plaisir." is indeed, the problem. It (pleasure) has become a "command", an "imperative" of which the "video" represents the cultural result.

-FJ said...

Plato wrote a dialogue (Philebus) directed against the premise of pleasure as the highest good.

And the "Enlightenment" itself appeared a project bent on overcoming this premise.

Yet within the Enlightenment project itself Zizek exposes the roots of its' own contradiction and eventual destruction.

-FJ said...

Have you ever read Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series? It turns out in the end that the "Empire" is being ruled by a robot.

Have you noticed the latest "trend" in movies like "Chappie" and "Ex Machina", putting a more "positive spin" on the concept of AI, and of AI taking over and ruling the world?

Is this an attempt to "remove" the source of "jouissance" (pleasure) as a motivator of "Law" givers? And is this really the direction of "social advance" mankind wants to explore? And if it did, would we still be "human"?

-FJ said...

For even "Plato" would argue that wine isn't necessarily "all bad". The question of a "good life", lies in how much we mix/dilute our wine with "water".

-FJ said...

...and ps - ducky IS an intellectual of the modern, cosmopolitan "red-diaper" variety. I, for one, have found his insights and perspectives exceedingly valuable.

-FJ said...

...although I disagree with 99% of them.

FreeThinke said...

If Ducky is an intellectual, I guess that automatically makes me an ANTI-Intelletual -- a status I've never sought, but won't necessarily deny..

FreeThinke said...

What could be "valuable" about Ducky's observations other than their obvious status as a Horrible Example of what one ought NOT to be?

FreeThinke said...

I've not read anywhere near as much as you, but I have THOUGHT a great deal ever since the Dawn of Consciousness.

Needless to say I have found many "truths" to be self-evicent. I've felt little need for tuition.

Whether that be good, bad or indifferent is not for me to say.

-FJ said...

What could be valuable? Sun Tzu, "The Art of War" “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

-FJ said...

Do you know your enemy, FT?

FreeThinke said...

I'll allow another -- far more eloquent and succinct than I -- to answer that for me, FJ.

Mine Enemy is growing old —
I have at last Revenge —
The Palate of the Hate departs —
If any would avenge

Let him be quick—the Viand flits —
It is a faded Meat —
Anger as soon as fed is dead —
’Tis starving makes it fat —


~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

FreeThinke said...

As for the wisdom of knowing our enemies, I agree, but believe it is entirely possible we might get to know them too intimately. Alexander Pope on the subject of vice covers it nicely:

Vice is a creature of such fearful mien
As to be hated needs to be seen.
Yet seen too oft –– familiar with her face –-
First we endure, –– then pity, –– then embrace.

-FJ said...

Or Nietzsche - Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

FreeThinke said...

Yes, and assuming Einstein to be correct, if your vision were sufficiently powerful, you could gaze out into Space and see your own rear end, is that not so?

There are no straight lines only parts of a circle. Everything is essentially globular. "Straightness," apparently is an illusion.

Thersites said...

;) ...or a series of illusions.

FreeThinke said...

Ergo, the Universe must be essentially "GAY," right?

;-)

-FJ said...

Anything but Fatherless. ;)