Thursday, June 25, 2015

Towards a New Subjectivity?

Nietzsche’s opposition between "wanting nothing", in the sense of "I do not want anything", and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting the Nothingness itself. Following Nietzsche, Lacan emphasized how, in anorexia, the subject doesn’t simply not eat anything, he rather actively wants to eat the Nothingness itself. The same goes for the famous patient who felt guilty of stealing, although he didn’t effectively steal anything — what he did steal was, again, Nothingness itself. Along the same lines, in the case of caffeine–free diet Coke, we drink Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property. This example makes palpable the link between three notions: that of Marxist surplus-value, that of Lacan’s objet petit a as surplus enjoyment, a concept which Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxist surplus value, and the paradox of the superego, long ago perceived by Freud. The more profit you have, the more you want, the more you drink Coke, the more you are thirsty, the more you obey the superego command, the more you are guilty.
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This superego–paradox also allows us to throw new light onto the functioning of today’s art scene. Its basic feature is not only the much deplored commodification of the culture, but also the less noted, perhaps even more crucial opposite movement: the growing culturalization of the market economy itself. Culture is less and less a specific sphere exempt from the market and more and more its central component. What this short’circuit between market and culture entails is the disappearance of the old modernist avant-garde logic of provocation, of shocking the establishment. Today, more and more, the cultural economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself, has not only to tolerate but to directly incite stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Let us recall recent trends in visual arts: gone are the days when we had simple statues or unframed paintings — what we get now are expositions of frames themselves without paintings, expositions of dead cows and their excrement, videos of the inside of the human body, inclusion of smell in the exhibition, and so on. Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses of part of the system itself.
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So what is superego? The external opposition between pleasure and duty is precisely overcome in the superego. It can be overcome in two opposite ways. On one hand, we have the paradox of the extremely oppressive, so–called totalitarian post–traditional power which goes further than the traditional authoritarian power. It does not only tell you "Do your duty, I don’t care if you like it or not." It tells you not only "You must obey my orders and do your duty" but "You must do it with pleasure. You must enjoy it." It is not enough for the subjects to obey their leader, they must actively love him.
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It’s my old thesis that Freud was right, he just got it in the wrong temporal succession. I claim that in this obsession with false memory syndrome, imagining some brutal raping father, it is not that, as Freud thought, the we have first in some mystical past the rapist father who possessed all the women of the tribe and then through the murder of the father, the father returns as symbolic authority. It’s rather the opposite. The symbolic authority disintegrates and what fills in its void is this brutal Ur–Father. It’s the modern totalitarian masters who are much closer to this Ur–Father figure.
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So what happens with the functioning of subjects when symbolic authority loses its efficiency? I claim we get subjects who are strangely de–realized, deprived of their psychology as if we are dealing with robotic puppets that are obeying some strange blind mechanism.
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Let’s say that you have a wife who sleeps with other men and you are pathologically jealous. Even if your jealousy is grounded in fact it’s still a pathology. Why? Because, even if what the Nazis claimed about Jews was up to a point true, anti–Semitism was formally wrong, in the same sense that in psychoanalysis a symptomatic action is wrong. It is wrong because it served to replace or repress another true trauma, as something that inherently functioning as a displacement, an act of displacement, as something to be interpreted. It’s not enough to say anti–Semitism factually wrong, it’s morally wrong, the true enigma is ,why did the Nazis need the figure of the Jew for their ideology to function? Why is it that if you take away their figure of the Jew their whole edifice disintegrates. For example, let’s say I have a paranoiac idea that you are trying to kill me. You miss the point if you try to explain to me that it’s morally wrong for me to kill you in pre–emptive self–defense. The point is, why in order to retain my balance do I need the fantasy of you trying to kill me? As Freud points out paranoia is not simply the illness, it’s a false attempt of recovery. The true zero point is where your whole universe disintegrates. Paranoia is the misdirected attempt to reconstitute your universe so that you can function again. If you take from the paranoiac his paranoiac symptom, it’s the end of the world for him. Along the same lines, we have false acts. What an authentic act is precisely what allows you to break out of this deadlock of the symptom, superego and so on. In an authentic act I do not simply express, or actualize my inner nature. I rather redefine myself, the very core of my identity. In this since I claim that an act is very close to what Kierkegaard was trying to conceptualize as the Christian rebirth. Kierkegaard was very precise in opposing the Christian rebirth to the pagan pre–modern Socratic logic of remembrance. This is the crucial choice that psychoanalysis is confronted with. Is psychoanalysis the ultimate in the logic of Socratic remembrance, where I say "I must return to my roots, it’s already deep in me the truth of my unconscious desire, I just must realize my inner self", or is psychoanalysis dependent on an act in the way that Christianity is an act, where you are born again, not in a religious sense, but redefine what you truly are. You go through a symbolic suicide and become another person.
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Something like this is always at work in an authentic act. You always have this dimension of sacrificing the most precious part of yourself. This is the generative moment of subjectivity.
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Lacan proposed as one of the definitions of what he calls a "true woman" a certain act of taking from her partner, obliterating or destroying, that which means everything to him. The precious treasure around which their life turns. The exemplary figure of such an act in literature, of course, is Medea. Upon learning that Jason plans to abandon her, she kills her two young children, her husband’s most precious possession. Perhaps it is time against the overblown celebration of Antigone to reassert Medea, her uncanny counterpart. To make this point clear, let me quote you perhaps the most tragic example of such a Medea–like act which constitutes modern subjectivity. Do you know Toni Morrison, her novel "Beloved"? We have exactly such an act there. This is the novel about the painful birth of African–American subjectivity. "Beloved" focuses on the traumatic desperate act of the heroine "Sita". After escaping slavery in the middle of the last century with her four children, and then enjoying a month of the colored life in the North with her mother–in–law in Cincinnati, the cruel overseer of the plantation from which she escaped attempts to capture her by right of the fugitive slave law. Finding herself in a hopeless situation, she resorts to a radical measure in order to spare her children the return to bondage. She slices the throat of her eldest daughter, tries to kill two boys and bash out the brains of her infant daughter. Crucial to understand this desperate measure, let’s examine Sita’s apparently paradoxical ruminations. "If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died and that would have been something I could not have beared." Killing her daughter was the only was to preserve the minimum dignity of her life. In an interview Morrison says "By what may seem the ultimate cruelty of killing her offspring, she is claiming her role as a parent, claiming the autonomy, the freedom she needs to protect her children and give them some dignity". In a radical situation of a forced choice, in which because of slavery relations Sita’s children weren’t hers at all, the only way to protect them, to save their dignity, was to kill them. The character of Sita’s act becomes clear if we compare it with what is perhaps one of its literary models, William Styron’s "Sophie’s Choice", in which the heroine, confronted with the choice of saving one of her two children from the gas chamber, concedes to this blackmail by the Nazi officer and sacrifices her older daughter in order to save her young son, with the predictable result that this choice will haunt her for the rest of her life, driving her to suicide years later. Although Sita’s act haunts her as well, we’re dealing with the exact opposite action. While Sophie’s guilt results from her compromising attitude of accepting the terms of the choice, with Sita what she was not able to come to terms with was the properly ethical monstrosity of her act. At the end of the novel, the ghost of her daughter disappears and she can finally subjectize and assume her act. What makes her act so monstrous is, to use the Kierkegaardian term, the "suspension of the ethical" involved in it. In reading of Antigone, Lacan emphasizes that after her excommunication from the community, she enters the domain of what in Greek is called ate, the domain unspeakable horror of being between two deaths, still alive but excluded from the community. The same goes for Sita. Morrison has said that "She has stepped across the line. It’s understandable but it’s excessive. This is what the townspeople in Cincinnati respond to by excommunicating her. Not her grief, but her arrogance. They abandon her because of what they felt was her pride. Her statement about what is valuable to her damns what they think is valuable to them. They have had losses too. In her unwillingness to apologize or to bend, they know she would kill her child again. That is what separates her from them." What makes her monstrous not her act as such, but the way she refuses to relativize her act, accept responsibility and concede that she acted in an unforgivable way out of despair or madness. She doesn’t compromise, she says "No, it was a free act, not a desperate psychopathological confusion".
-Slavoj Zizek, "The Superego and the Act"

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