Thursday, August 5, 2021

Slavoj ŽiŽek, "VIKINGS, SOLARIS, KATLA: THE BIG OTHER AND ITS VICISSITUDES"
Vikings: the big Other as the truth of appearance

What Lacan calls “the big Other” designates a dimension beyond (or, rather, beneath) the sphere of reality and the pleasure-principle, of hedonism, as well as of the perfidious calculations and manipulations applied to ruthlessly reach a goal. It is a dimension that is also, in some sense, beyond good and evil. But this dimension can also appear in the guise of a “superficial” link of respectful friendship, which cannot be reduced to egotist calculation.

Let’s take a perhaps unexpected but perfect example. In the TV series Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok tells the Seer, an old half-blind Viking who predicts the future: “I don’t believe in the gods’ existence. Man is the master of his own fate, not the gods. The gods are man’s creation, to give answers that men are too afraid to give themselves.” The supreme case of how Ragnar acts as a master of his own fate is his plotting of his own death, turning it into his greatest victory.

In season 4, Ragnar is tired and defeated. After losing some battles in England and France, he returns home, deprived of his aura; he is despised and ignored, and even his sons no longer believe in him. He becomes obsessed by his own death. Upon his return, he challenges his sons to stab him to death and take the crown over from him, which they refuse. Later, he tries to hang himself on a tree but fails (the rope is somewhat magically bitten through by a raven who descends on the tree). At this lowest point, he elaborates a complex plan to use his own death to set up his enemies for defeat, and his sons for victory and fame. Since no volunteers are ready to join him when he announces his plan to raid England again as a revenge for the Viking community being slaughtered there, he digs out his secret treasure and bribes a group of old warriors to join him, together with his crippled son Ivan the Boneless, the only volunteer. However, soon after landing there, Ragnar and Ivar kill all other Vikings, and Ragnar goes with Ivar to the castle (the Roma villa) of the Wessex king Ecbert, surrendering to him. Why?

In England, Ragnar has two main enemies, Ecbert and king Aella of Northumbria. He plundered both of their lands, but with Ecbert the situation is more complex. Ragnar made a pact with him, which obliged Ecbert to give some fertile land for a Viking settlement to Northmen who wanted to farm there, but soon after Ragnar left home to Norway, Ecbert organized a slaughter of all Viking settlers, making Ragnar appear to his people as an impotent ruler, so Ragnar has to take revenge. However, since he is an old and exhausted man who cannot mobilize the Vikings for another invasion of England, he makes a cold calculation: the only thing that can mobilize the Vikings to take revenge is his horrible death there. So, he surrenders to Ecbert with his son Ivor, knowing that he will be killed and that his crippled son will not be hurt, but will report home about his terrible death, which will mobilize all his sons and even all the Vikings to invade England. He tricks Ecbert into believing that his crime—slaughtering the Viking settlers—is forgiven and offers him a deal: Ecbert would hand him over to Aella for execution and let Ivar go free, so that the Viking invasion will leave Wessex in peace and focus just on destroying Aella. (Since Aella really hates Ragnar, it is also clear that he will put Ragnar to death in a horrible way that will enrage the Vikings.) When he is says goodbye to Ivar, he whispers to his son that the Vikings should take revenge not only on Aella but, even more so, on Ecbert, which is exactly what happens. (Still, there are signs that Ecbert did not really believe Ragnar’s lie: he knows Vikings will take revenge on him also, and that’s why he awaits alone in his Villa the moment when they arrive, ready to die like Ragnar.) The basic goal of Ragnar’s death, the destruction of both Ecbert and Aella as well as the establishment of a large Viking settlement in England, is thus achieved.[1]

That said, their similar personalities and their shared love for Athelstan, a monk torn between Viking paganism and Christianity, mean that Ragnar and Ecbert have a great deal of respect for each other. There is a bond of friendship and genuine intellectual exchange between the two. After Ragnar’s surrender to Ecbert, they spend long hours drinking and engaging in existential debates where, among other things, Ragnar admits that he is an atheist. The mystery is not only why Ragnar returned to Ecbert and surrendered himself to him (this can be explained by Ragnar’s plot of revenge), but why Ecbert receives him with no surprise: “Why did it take you so long to come?” Ecbert does not refer here to return as an act of revenge – he expected Ragnar to come back to him alone. So, it is too easy to say that Ragnar just faked friendship with Ecbert in order to pursue his plot: the joy of their encounter is genuine.[2]

There is another excess in Ragnar, which cannot be accounted for in the terms of a cunning plot: his wish to die (twice before, he tried to kill himself). And, again, after Ragnar’s death, Ecbert displays the same excess. He is present at Ragnar’s final moments, anonymous in a crowd of observers and deeply shaken. When, after defeating and killing Aella, the Viking forces approach the Wessex seat of power (the “Villa”), all residents are evacuated to a safe terrain outside the reach of Vikings, except Ecbert who remains in the palace alone, waiting for Ragnar’s sons to arrive and exert revenge on him. As a special favour, they don’t submit him to a blood eagle, as Ivar wants, but allow him to choose his own death – he cuts his wrists in his Roman pool –, but in exchange he has to designate a Viking as his royal successor.

Why did Ecbert surrender to Vikings alone, exactly like Ragnar surrendered alone to him, when he could have escaped with the others? While Ragnar’s plot of planning his spectacular death can be read as a pagan appropriation of the Christian sacrifice, the two excesses over the cunning manipulation of one’s opponent point to another dimension. Although they appear not related to each other (what could a wish to die have to do with genuine intellectual exchange and friendship?), there is a link between the two: they are both located beyond the pleasure principle and its supplement, reality principle, i.e., they both cannot be accounted for in the terms of a pursuit of political or social goals of power and domination. The point is not that beyond their mutual manipulation Ragnar and Ecbert really loved each other; the point is, rather, that the very form of their interaction is irreducible to its content (revenge). Although for both of them their polite interaction is just a form, a mask for the ruthless realization of their interests, which include the destruction of the partner, there is more truth in this form (mask) than in the raw egotist content beneath it.[3]

Solaris: the Id-Machine

The form that contains its own truth prior to and independent of the content transmitted by it is what Lacan called the “big Other.” Say, if I address my partner respectfully, the respectful form establishes a certain intersubjective relation, which persists even if my address serves just to deceive my partner. The big Other is as such a purely virtual identity: it isn’t any deeper truth of mine, its truth is its form itself. However, as Lacan insists, ”there is no big Other,” which means not only that the big Other is virtual, with no substantive reality of its own, but that it is in itself inconsistent/incomplete, perforated by gaps. These gaps are filled by another version of the big Other: a phantasmatic apparition of the big Other as a real Thing in the guise of the so-called Id-Machine, a mechanism that directly materializes our unacknowledged fantasies and possesses a long, if not always respectable, pedigree.

In cinema, it all began with Fred Wilcox’s The Forbidden Planet (1956), which transposed onto a distant planet the story-skeleton of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a father lives alone with his daughter (who had never met another man) on an island, and then their peace is disturbed by the intrusion of an expedition. On The Forbidden Planet, the mad-genius scientist lives alone with his daughter, when their peace is disturbed by the arrival of a group of space travellers. Strange attacks of an invisible monster soon start to occur, and, at the film’s end, it becomes clear that this monster is nothing but the materialization of the father’s destructive impulses against the intruders who disturbed his incestuous peace. The Id-Machine that, unbeknownst to the father, generates the destructive monster is a gigantic mechanism beneath the surface of this distant planet, the mysterious remnants of some past civilization that succeeded in developing such a machine for the direct materialization of one’s thoughts and thus destroyed itself… Here, the Id-Machine is firmly set in a Freudian libidinal context: the monsters it generates are the realizations of the primordial father’s incestuous destructive impulses against other men threatening his symbiosis with the daughter.[4]

The ultimate variation on the Id-Machine is arguably Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, in which this Thing is also related to the deadlocks of sexual relationship.[5] Solaris is the story of a space agency psychologist Kelvin, sent to a half-abandoned spaceship above a newly-discovered planet Solaris, where recently strange things have been taking place (scientists going mad, hallucinating and killing themselves). Solaris is a planet with an oceanic fluid surface which moves incessantly and, from time to time, imitates recognizable forms—not only elaborate geometric structures, but also gigantic child bodies or human buildings. Although all attempts to communicate with the planet fail, scientists entertain the hypothesis that Solaris is a gigantic brain which somehow reads our minds.

Soon after his arrival, Kelvin finds at his side in his bed his dead wife, Harey, who, years ago on Earth, killed herself after he had abandoned her. He is unable to shake Harey off; all attempts to get rid of her miserably fail (after he sends her into space with a rocket, she rematerializes the next day). Analysis of her tissue demonstrates that she is not composed of atoms like normal human beings. Beneath a certain micro-level, there is nothing, just void. Finally, Kelvin grasps that Harey is a materialization of his own innermost traumatic fantasies. This accounts for the enigma of strange gaps in Harey’s memory: of course she doesn’t know everything a real person is supposed to know, because she is not such a person, but a mere materialization of HIS phantasmatic image of her in all its inconsistency. The problem is that, precisely because Harey has no substantial identity of her own, she acquires the status of the Real that forever insists and returns to its place. Like fire in Lynch’s films, she forever “walks with the hero,” sticks to him, never lets him go. Harey, this fragile specter, pure semblance, cannot ever be erased; she is “undead,” eternally recurring in the space between the two deaths.

Are we thus not back at the standard Weiningerian anti-feminist notion of the woman as a symptom of man, a materialization of his guilt (his fall into sin), and one who can only deliver him (and herself) by her suicide? Solaris thus relies on science-fiction rules to enact in reality itself, to present as a material fact, the notion that woman merely materializes a male fantasy. The tragic position of Harey is that she becomes aware that she is deprived of all substantial identity, that she is Nothing in herself, since she only exists as the Other’s dream. It is this predicament that imposes suicide as her ultimate ethical act: becoming aware of how Kelvin suffers on account of her permanent presence, Harey finally destroys herself by swallowing the chemical stuff that will prevent her recomposition. (The ultimate horror scene of the movie takes place when the spectral Harey reawakens from her first failed suicide attempt on Solaris. After ingesting liquid oxygen, she lies on the floor, deeply frozen; then, all of a sudden, she starts to move, her body twitching in a mixture of erotic beauty and abject horror, sustaining unbearable pain. Is there anything more tragic than such a scene of the failed self-erasure, when we are reduced to the obscene slime which, against our will, persists in the picture?) The Weiningerian ontological denigration of woman as a mere “symptom” of man—as the embodiment of male fantasy, as the hysterical imitation of true male subjectivity—is, when openly admitted and fully assumed, far more subversive that the false direct assertion of feminine autonomy. Perhaps, the ultimate feminist statement is to proclaim openly “I do not exist in myself, I am merely the Other’s fantasy embodied”…

What we have in Solaris are thus Harey’s two suicides: the first one (in her earlier earthly “real” existence, as Kelvin’s wife), and then her second suicide, the heroic act of the self-erasure of her very spectral undead existence. While the first suicidal act was a simple escape from the burden of life, the second is a proper ethical act. In other words, if the first Harey, before her suicide on Earth, was a “normal” human being, the second one is a Subject in the most radical sense of the term, precisely insofar as she is deprived of the last vestiges of her substantial identity (as she says in the film: “No, it’s not me… It’s not me… I’m not Harey. /…/ Tell me… tell me… Do you find me disgusting because of what I am?”). The difference between Harey who appears to Kelvin and the “monstrous Aphrodite” who appears to Gibarian, one of Kelvin’s colleagues on the spaceship (in the novel, though not in the film: in the film, Tarkovsky replaced her by a small innocent blonde girl), is that Gibarian’s apparition does not come from “real life” memory, but from pure fantasy: “A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs.”[6] Unable to sustain a confrontation with his primordial phantasmatic apparition, Gibarian dies of shame.

Is the planet around which the story turns, composed of the mysterious matter which seems to think, i.e. which in a way is the direct materialization of Thought itself, not again an exemplary case of the Lacanian Thing as the “Obscene Jelly,”[7] the traumatic Real, the point at which symbolic distance collapses, the point at which there is no need for speech, for signs, since, in it, thought directly intervenes in the Real? This gigantic Brain, this Other-Thing, involves a kind of psychotic short-circuit: in short-circuiting the dialectic of question and answer, of demand and its satisfaction, it provides—or, rather, imposes on us—the answer before we even raise the question, directly materializing our innermost fantasies that support our desire. Solaris is a machine that generates/materializes in reality itself my ultimate phantasmatic objectal supplement/partner that I would never be ready to accept in reality, even though my entire psychic life turns around it.

Jacques-Alain Miller[8] draws the distinction between the woman who assumes her non-existence, her constitutive lack, i.e. the void of subjectivity in her very heart, and what he calls la femme a postiche, the fake, phony woman. This femme a postiche is not what commonsense conservative wisdom would tell us (a woman who distrusts her natural charm and abandons her vocation of rearing children, serving her husband, taking care of the household, etc., and indulges in the extravaganzas of fashionable dressing and make-up, of decadent promiscuity, of career, etc.), but almost its exact opposite: the woman who takes refuge from the void in the very heart of her subjectivity, from the “not-having-it” which marks her being, in the phony certitude of “having it,” of serving as the stable support of family life, of rearing children, her true possession, etc. This woman gives the impression (and has the false satisfaction) of a firmly anchored being, of a self-enclosed life, the satisfied circuit of everyday life: her man has to run around wildly, while she leads a calm life and serves as the safe protective rock or safe haven to which her man can always return… (The most elementary form of “having it” for a woman is, of course, having a child, which is why, for Lacan, there is an ultimate antagonism between Woman and Mother: in contrast to woman who “n’existe pas,” mother definitely does exist.)

The interesting feature to be noted here is that, contrary to the commonsensical expectation, it is the woman who “has it,” the self-satisfied femme a postiche disavowing her lack, who not only does not pose any threat to patriarchal male identity, but even serves as its protective shield and support, while, in contrast to her, it is the woman who flaunts her lack (“castration”), i.e., who functions as a hysterical composite of semblances covering a Void, that poses a serious threat to male identity. In other words, the paradox is that the more the woman is denigrated, reduced to an inconsistent and insubstantial composite of semblances around a Void, the more she threatens firm male substantial self-identity. (Otto Weininger’s entire work centers on this paradox.) And, on the other hand, the more the woman is a firm, self-enclosed Substance, the more she supports male identity.

Solaris supplements this standard, if disavowed, male scenario with a key feature: this structure of woman as a symptom of man can be operative only insofar as the man is confronted with his Other Thing, a decentered opaque machine which “reads” his deepest dreams and returns them to him as his symptom, as his own message in its true form that the subject is not ready to acknowledge. It is here that one should reject the Jungian reading of Solaris: the point of Solaris is not simply projection, or the materialization of the (male) subject’s disavowed inner impetuses. What is much more crucial is that, if this “projection” is to take place, the impenetrable Other Thing must already be here. The true enigma is the presence of this Thing.

The problem with Tarkovsky is that he himself obviously opts for the Jungian reading, according to which the external journey is merely the externalization and/or projection of the initiatic journey into the depth of one’s psyche. Apropos of Solaris, he stated in an interview:

“Maybe, effectively, the mission of Kelvin on Solaris has only one goal: to show that the love of the other is indispensable to all life. A man without love is no longer a man. The aim of the entire ‘solaristic’ is to show that humanity must be love.”[9]

In clear contrast to this, Lem’s novel focuses on the inert external presence of the planet Solaris, of this “Thing which thinks” (to use Kant’s expression, which fully fits here). The point of the novel is, precisely, that Solaris remains an impenetrable Other with no possible communication with us. True, it returns us our innermost disavowed fantasies, but the “Que vuoi?” beneath this act remains thoroughly impenetrable. Why does It do it? As a purely mechanical response? To play demonic games with us? To help us—or compel us—to confront our disavowed truth?

Nowhere is this gap between the novel and the film more perceptible than in their different endings: at the novel’s end, we see Kelvin alone on the spaceship, staring into the mysterious surface of the Solaris ocean, while the film ends with the archetypal Tarkovskian fantasy of combining within the same shot the Otherness into which the hero is thrown (the chaotic surface of Solaris) and the object of his nostalgic longing, the home dacha (Russian wooden country house) to which he longs to return, the house whose contours are encircled by the malleable slime of Solaris’ surface. Within radical Otherness, we discover the lost object of our innermost longing.

Katla: “a changeling represents the subject for another”

The latest endeavour to portray the Id-machine is Katla,[10] an Icelandic television series which complicates the logic of the Id-machine, making it morally much more ambiguous. Katla is set in Vik, a small Icelandic town located on the precipice of Katla, an active volcano, which is active for over a year, so Vik is covered by the constantly raining ash. Most of the villagers have already migrated out of place, leaving some stubborn folks behind.

The story is set in motion when people who were presumed dead start returning all of a sudden from somewhere near the volcano, covered in a mixture of ash and clay. How and why? In episode 7 Darri, a geologist from Reykyavik, heads under the glacier to investigate the meteorite in the volcano. After collecting some rock samples, he deduces that this meteorite which crashed into Earth a long time ago has a strange, alien, life-giving element within it. This element enables the meteorite to detect the most intense emotional feelings that each of the townsfolk has and use them to recreate the people that are missing. The replicas are moulded by the thoughts people have about them: they are a more exaggerated version of their real counterparts, clinging to the main trait that made them come into being, as a kind of more direct realization of the Platonic idea of a person. The reason for their return is given by local folklore, according to which a changeling appears for a purpose, and it vanishes once its purpose is served.

Here are the main cases from the first season of the series. Police Chief Gisli’s wife who lies bedridden in a hospital creates her own changeling: she makes a humanoid out of the memories of her past when she was not bedridden; this brings the estranged couple together again… To Grima, the protagonist of the series, a changeling of her deceased sister Asa appears. After Asa’s death, Grima lived in permanent depression, obsessed by the memory of Asa’s sad fate, so she created Asa’s changeling to help her cope with her disappearance (death) – this was the purpose for which Asa reappeared… But then a changeling of Grima herself appeared, created by her husband Kjartan who wanted to feel the warmth of Grima again. Out of his memories, he made Grima’s changeling the way Grima was before the disappearance of Asa. Hence, Grima’s changeling was much happier and more affectionate because the tragedy never struck her. The real Grima is conscious enough to realize this, so she confronts her changeling and challenges her to a game of Russian roulette. The real Grima doesn’t survive the game, so her changeling takes her place, with affection, warmth, and gentleness without anyone noticing the difference. Original Grima’s dead body is covered with ash and buried outside their house.

A changeling of Gunhild, younger by twenty years than the original, is created by Gunhild herself, who blamed herself for her son’s (Bjorn’s) genetic disability. She desired to move back in time (twenty years ago when she was pregnant) and to rectify the pain she caused to her child due to her carelessness and thoughts of abortion. In the end, her husband Thor tells her it wasn’t her fault: the syndrome was genetic, and, therefore, Gunhild had little to contribute to Bjorn’s defect. In her last visit to the hospital to see Bjorn, after learning about the disappearance of the changeling, Gunhild looks in a mirror and smirks; she finally comes out of remorse, as the purpose for which the changeling has been created is fulfilled.

Why does Mikael, the son of Darri and Rakel, reappear? Since the meteorite creates mutants based on the thoughts and feelings of those closest to them, Mikael can only remember things that Darri and Rakel remember about him. Darri always believed that his son Mikael was a dangerous madman, and the changeling is more in line with Darri’s interpretation than with real Mikael. Both parents agree that their real son is dead and that this spectre in front of them is just an aberration, so they lead him by the hand into the sea and drown him while he begs them not to… The action brought them together, which indirectly fulfilled Darri’s thoughts, who blamed Mikael for his divorce.

So, what returns from Katla in the guise of changelings? Recall Ragnar saying to Ecbert: “The gods are man’s creation, to give answers that men are too afraid to give themselves.” In this sense (and in this sense only) Katla is divine: it is returning to individuals who remain in Vik what they are “too afraid to give themselves.” In other words, Katla brings out the dark side of the divine: when a changeling appears to a subject, the subject doesn’t get a sublime confrontation with its inner truth; this appearance is rather grounded in a brutal egotist calculation. In the case of Darri and Rakel, the two parents kill a changeling who nonetheless exists as self-conscious living being. They conveniently ignore this fact and accomplish a cold-blooded murder just to re-establish their relationship. In the same vein, Kjartan coldly accepts the changeling as his old-new wife: she better suits his purposes since she is just his imagination materialized.

Does this mean that I have to learn to distinguish between the reality of my partner and my fantasy of him/her, so that I can deal with my partner’s reality without projecting my fantasies on him/her? What complicates things is that each of us IS also what others think/dream he/she is. In other words, it is not enough to say that the split between my partner and his/her changeling is the split between the reality of my partner and my idea/projection of him/her. This distinction is immanent to my partner him/herself.

In a key scene from Katla, Kjartan moves around his house having conversations with both versions of Grima (the real Grima who, after twenty years, returns from Sweden, and her changeling who looks like she did twenty years earlier) without realizing that there are actually two of them. Is this not what happens to us all the time? When an ordinary anti-Semite talks to a Jew, is he not doing exactly the same thing? In his perception and interaction, the reality of the Jew in front of him is inextricably mixed with his fantasies about Jews (say, if the Jew counts some money to return it to me, I will perceive this as an expression of the Jewish intense stance towards money…). However—and this is the crucial point—we cannot simply distinguish between “real” Jews and the way they are perceived by others: thousands of years of the exclusion and persecution of the Jews, and all the fantasies projected onto Jews, inevitably affected also their identity, which is formed in part in reaction to the fantasies grounding their persecution.

The general point to be made here is that the gap between me and my symbolic identity is not external to me: this is what it means to say that I am symbolically castrated. And one should be careful not to dismiss this image of what I am for the others just as a form of alienation, of something that I should abandon in order to arrive at my true self. It is easy to imagine a situation in which others trust in me and see me as a hero while I am full of doubts and weaknesses, so it takes a great effort for me to overcome my weaknesses and act at the level of what others see in and expect from me.

The moral ambiguity of changelings in Katla resides in the fact that they don’t simply serve a precise purpose or goal. The Thing-Katla is a machine which just blindly realizes our fantasy, and we, humans, opportunistically use it to suit our egotist purposes. What we ignore is the subjectivity that pertains to the changeling itself. We should read Katla through Solaris and focus on the moment of subjectivation of the changeling who has no autonomy, since its psyche contains only what others thought about it. In the Millerian distinction between femme a postiche (the fake) and the woman who assumes the void of her inexistence, it is only the changeling who, at the point of assuming its non-existence, emerges as a pure subject deprived of its substance, while the “real” woman remains a fake. In other words, the authentic position is that of a changeling who becomes aware that it only materializes the other’s fantasy, that it only exists insofar as the other fantasizes about it. Can one imagine a more anxiety-provoking existential situation than that of being aware that my being has no substantial support, that I exist only insofar as I am part of another’s dream? As Deleuze wrote decades ago, if you are caught in another’s dream, you are fucked.

Are changelings, then, beings who fit the criteria of Berkeley’s subjective idealism, in that they exist only insofar as they are in the thoughts of another mind? We have to introduce a further complication here: what if existence as such implies certain non-knowledge? This paradoxical relation between being and knowing introduces a third term into the standard opposition between ordinary materialism, for which things exist independently of our knowledge of them, and subjectivist idealism with its esse = percipi (things exist only insofar as they are known or perceived by a mind). We must conclude that things there are that only exist insofar as they are NOT known.

The uncanniest case of the link between being and not-knowing is provided by one of the best-known Freudian dreams, the one about the apparition of a “father who didn’t know he was dead.” For Freud, the full formula of the dream is thus: “Father doesn’t know (that I wish) that he were dead.” The elision of the signifier (that I wish) registers the subject’s (the dreamer’s) desire. However, what gets lost in such standard reading is the uncanny effect of the scene of a father who doesn’t know he is dead, of an entity which is alive only because it is not aware of being dead. So, what if we read this dream following Lacan’s re-reading of the Freudian dream about the dead son who appears to his father, uttering a terrifying reproach: “Father, can’t you see that I am burning?” What if we interpret the wish for the father to be dead not as the repressed unconscious wish, but as the pre-conscious problem that bothered the dreamer? The dynamic of the dream is thus the following: the dreamer invents the dream to quell his (preconscious) guilt-feeling for wishing his father dead while he was nursing him; but what he encounters in the dream is something much more traumatic than his preconscious death-wish, namely the figure of a father who is still alive because he doesn’t know that he is dead, the obscene spectre of the undead father. Lacan shifts the focus from the fascinating figure of the father who “doesn’t know he is dead” to the question that lurks in the background: to the other subject (the dreamer, to whom the father appears in this case) who does know that the father is dead, and, paradoxically, in this way keeps him alive by not telling him that he is dead.

Recall the archetypal scene from cartoons: a cat walks floating in the air above the precipice, and it falls only after it looks down and becomes aware of how it has no support beneath its feet. The dreamer is like a person who draws the cat’s attention to the abyss beneath its feet, so that when the father learns he is dead, he actually drops dead. This outcome is, of course, experienced by the dreamer as the ultimate catastrophe, so his entire strategy is directed at protecting the other/father from knowledge, such that the protection escalates to self-sacrifice: “Oh! may that never happen! May I die rather than have him know.” This brings us to one of the fundamental functions of sacrifice: one sacrifices oneself to prevent the Other from knowing. Is this not Roberto Benigni’s La vita e bella is about? The father sacrifices himself so that his son would not know (that they are in a death camp), i.e., the father’s reasoning can be rendered again by Lacan’s words: “May I die rather than have him know / that we are in a death camp/!”

The psychoanalytic notion of symptom designates a reality that subsists only insofar as something remains unsaid, insofar as its truth is not articulated in the symbolic order, which is why the proper psychoanalytic interpretation has effects in the real, i.e., it can dissolve the symptom… While such a notion of reality may appear to be an exemplary case of idealist madness, one should not miss its materialist core: reality is not simply external to thought/speech, or, more broadly, to the symbolic space; reality thwarts this space from within, making it incomplete and inconsistent. The limit that separates the real from the symbolic is simultaneously external and internal to the symbolic.

The question is: how are we to think the structure (the Other) so that a subject emerges from it? Lacan’s answer is: as an inconsistent, non-All, symbolic structure articulated around a constitutive void/impossibility. More precisely, the subject emerges through the structure’s reflective self-relating, which inscribes into the structure itself its constitutive lack. This inscription within the structure of what is constitutively excluded from it is “the signifier which represents the subject for other signifiers.”

And aren’t we thus caught in a contradiction? I exist only insofar as I am another’s fantasy, AND I exist only insofar as I elude the others’ grasp? The solution: a stone exists when nobody thinks about it, but a stone is just indifferent towards being-thought-about or not. In the case of a subject, its existence is correlated to being-thought, but being-thought incompletely. I am a lack in the Other’s thought, a lack which is immanent to the thought. One has to take this claim literally: I am not a substantial entity that the big Other (the symbolic order) cannot fully integrate/symbolize; this impossibility of the big Other to integrate me IS myself (that’s why Lacan talks about the barred subject, $). There is a subject insofar as the Other doesn’t know it, and the subject is inscribed into the Other through S1, the master-signifier, which reflexively marks in it the lack of a signifier. What this means is that the subject is not the real person behind the symbolic mask, but the self-awareness of the mask itself in its distance from the real person.

This also accounts for why the minimal number in an intersubjective communication is not two but three. When two meet, they are BOTH divided into their self-experience and their symbolic identity, and this redoubling can only function if a third moment is operative, the big Other which is not reducible to the two. Recall the old Alphonse Allais’s story of Raoul and Marguerite who arrange to meet at a masked ball: when they recognize each other’s mask they withdraw to a hidden corner, pull off their masks, and—surprise, surprise—he discovers she is not Marguerite and she find out that he is not Raoul… Such a double missed encounter is, of course, logical nonsense: if he is not Raoul, how could he have expected to see Marguerite and then be surprised by not seeing her real face, and vice versa? The surprise works when only one of the partners is deceived in this way. Does, however, something like a double deception not happen in real life? I arrange to meet a person whom I know and who knows me, and, in an intense exchange, I discover that he is not the one I thought him to be and he discovers that I am not the one he thought me to be… The real surprise here is my own: the fact that the other doesn’t recognize me means that I am not myself.

Nonetheless, we still recognize each other because the mask I am wearing for others (the mask embodying what others think of me) and the mask the other is wearing for me (embodying what I think of him) are in some sense more truthful than what is behind the mask. How can this be? Here the dimension of the big Other enters: the mutual “what others think of me” (what I think of him, what he thinks of me…) is replaced by (or sublated in) “what the big Other (a virtual entity presupposed by both of us) think of me and him.”

Returning to Katla, we can thus say that, in the case of an Id-machine, a changeling represents (not an other but) me (its creator) for the others. Although it is the image on an other, it stands for me, for my fantasy universe. As such, a changeling signals the malfunctioning of the symbolic big Other: the big Other is no longer a virtual symbolic space, it is a real Thing, a mega-object which no longer possesses its own truth as form, it just materializes our repressed content. This is why the Id-machine is more real that the big Other (it is part of reality) and simultaneously more subjective than the intersubjective space proper of the big Other (the Thing mirrors/realizes our subjective fantasies). The Id-machine is a first step towards the prospect of a wired brain, an Other which fully exists and desubjectivizes me since, in it, the very limit of external reality falls.

The best-known project moving in this direction is Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and eight others, and dedicated to developing implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), also called a neural-control interface (NCIs), mind-machine interface (MMIs), or direct neural interface (DNIs). All these terms indicate the same idea of a direct communication pathway, first, between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device, and, second, between brains themselves. What kind of an apocalypse announces itself in the prospect of the so-called “post-humanity” opened up by a direct link between our brain and a digital machine, what the New Age obscurantists call Singularity, the divine-like global space of shared awareness? One should resist the temptation to proclaim the prospect of a wired brain an illusion, something that we are still far from and that cannot really be actualized. Such a view is itself an escape from the threat, from the fact that something New and unheard-of is effectively emerging. One thing is sure: we should not underestimate the shattering impact of collectively shared experience. Even if it will be realized in a much more modest way than today’s grandiose visions of Singularity, everything will change with it.[11] Why? Because with Neuralink, the big Other is no longer an enigmatic Thing outside us (like Solaris or Katla); rather, we are directly IN the Thing, we float in it, we lose the distance that separates us from external reality.

This, then, is what Katla is about: a community of a small town is in crisis due to a natural disaster and only a few residents remain there whose symbolic links are deeply perturbed. They can no longer rely on the big Other as the neutral space of symbolic exchanges, and, to supplement this failure, they get more and more caught in the cobweb of mutual fantasies that intrude into their reality, so that this reality is losing its consistency. Id-machine is a fiction, of course, but it is a fiction with real effects, and we can observe and measure these effects in how many people react to the pandemic or to heat domes and floods. In conspiracy theories and other paranoiac constructs, changeling-like entities are treated like parts of reality. The potentially liberating aspect of the appearance of changelings is that what is conflated in our usual experience (a person in front of us and our fantasy projections onto her/him) gets clearly separated, making the job of critique somewhat easier.

Notes:
[1] Resumed from https://screenrant.com/vikings-season-4-ragnar-death-revenge-explained/.

[2] Did something similar not happen in Poland in 1989 when the military government negotiated with Solidarnosc? Unexpectedly, General Jaruzelski, the head of the government, and Adam Michnik, one of the main dissident figures, became personal friends, their families were regularly meeting till the death of Jaruzelski (on his deathbed, none other than Lech Walesa visited him). Today, with Jaroslaw Kaczynski in power, such a friendship is not imaginable… In short, we can also have polite revolutionaries – a welcome contrast to the obscene brutality of those in power.

[3] I have to ignore here the perverse repetition of the intense relationship between Ragnar and Athelstan in season 5, in the relationship of mutual fascination between Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar’s brutal psychotic son, and bishop Huahmund, a fanatic proto-Jesuit figure of a warrior-monk. He is, like Athelstan, not killed but kidnapped by Ivar who brings him home to Norway.

[4] Another version of the Id-machine is found in Barry Levinson’s Sphere (1998).

[5] I resume here my reading of Solaris from https://www.lacan.com/zizekthing.htm.

[6] Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company 1978, p. 30.

[7] The formula of Tonya Howe (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) on whose excellent seminar paper “Solaris and the Obscenity of Presence” I rely here.

[8] See Jacques-Alain Miller, “Des semblants dans la relation entre les sexes,” in La Cause freudienne 36, Paris 1997, p. 7-15.

[9] Quoted from Antoine de Vaecque, Andrei Tarkovski, Cahiers du Cinema 1989, p. 108.

[10] Created and directed by Baltasar Kormákur and Sigurjón Kjartansson, Netflix 2021. The story is summed up from ‘Katla’ Netflix Review: Stream It Or Skip It? (decider.com) and ‘KATLA’ Ending, & Folklore Origins Explained | DMT (dmtalkies.com).

[11] I’ve dealt more in detail with this prospect in Slavoj Žižek, Hegel in a Wired Brain, London: Bloomsbury 2020.

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