Category: Uncategorized

I am an Exotic Woman

I’m an exotic woman: half black and half Vietnamese. You’ve seen women like me in Jay-Z videos. There’s always one. In fact, you’ve seen me in a Jay-Z video. I was paid two thousand dollars to dance and drink Cristal for a few hours. I have the high-perched ass and big Bantu titties of my father’s people and the shy rice paddy slant eyes of my mother’s people. Men tell me all the time how “exotic” I am.

I’m a hysteric. A lot of women don’t like this term. Most women are brainless cunts who don’t even want to be women. They whine for their castrated men to give them an identity, the more banal the better, and if the loser accidentally gives them anything good, they pout and sulk. That’s your average cunt. I’m a cunt too, but there’s nothing average about me. I deploy my demure smile and demand the best, and when I get it, I open like a sunflower.

It was a Friday morning. I had woken up in the arms of a very lovely boy, a poet, broke of course, but ready to sacrifice everything for me. He begged me to drive to Mexico with him so we could get lost looking for the chupacabra together in the mescal groves. I told him he was sweet and spread my legs. When I give a man my body, I give it to him completely, and Dmitri was poet enough to see the beauty of my soul in the symmetry of my perfect ass. After forty minutes of inspired lovemaking he grunted something about Hegel’s concrete universal and then came on my double D’s. I could see the sincerity in his blue eyes: a voluptuous pleasure your average brainless cunt will never know.

A few hours later I could still feel Dmitri inside me. I had decided to go shopping on Fifth Avenue. I love beautiful things, and I have the money to afford them. I wanted to buy a new bottle of perfume to wear that night for my date with Robert, a brain surgeon with a cleft chin with whom I had been having an affair for a few months. The last time we had seen each other he took me out to dinner at Cobalt. Our bottle of champagne cost a thousand dollars, and Christian Bale was sitting two tables down from us.

I was about to walk into the Lanvin store on 55th street when I noticed him. He stopped dead in his tracks to watch me jiggle by. As soon as I turned towards him, he looked at the ground and blushed. This happens to me about twenty times a day. This peeper was a skinny, middle-aged Caucasian of average height. He was wearing a light blue button-up shirt, khaki pants, ugly nondescript shoes with clunky soles, and a parka. I had a vision of him in Dillard’s carefully deciding which pair of characterless brown shoes to buy. He had the kind of face no one remembers.

I live a life of pleasure. Anyone who claims that hedonism is empty and shallow is too much of a coward to try to live such a life himself. I eat fine food, I share my bed with extraordinary men, and I spend my free time cultivating my tastes in music, literature, philosophy and art. I saved the money I made working as a model and escort and used it to buy an apartment building in Newark. I flipped it a year later, bought two more, flipped them too, and now I don’t have to worry about money anymore. I am thirty-two years old. My parents were poor and stupid when they were alive and now that they are dead I rarely think about them.

This man was the opposite of everything I am. He was a coward: a man who had never taken a risk in his life, a man who took no joy from his presence on earth, a man who watched beautiful women walk by and no longer even hated himself for not having the courage to approach them.

I am a hard woman. I have no pity for the weak. Life is hard, and no one can live it for you. Either you want to live or you don’t.

Perhaps it was because I had just seen Dmitri, but I found myself elaborating a fantasy about this omega male. It was a crucial moment in the smurf’s life: the flush I had caused in his cheeks would only diminish in intensity as the years piled up. He would never be more alive than he was right now. Not to say that he was alive now. Just more alive than he would be in a week, a month, a year, or a decade.

Then and there I decided to give this man the kind of explicit opportunity that he had never had the balls or the brains to create for himself. Not out of pity, not out of kindness, but out of simple scientific curiosity. After so many years living in fear, how would an encounter with the woman of his dreams affect him?

As soon as I made the decision to seduce him I began to get the butterfly feeling in my pussy that always precedes a seduction. Robert disappeared from my mind completely. The truth was that Robert had begun to bore me, as all men eventually do.

The man had now turned his back to me. Taking out a cigarette, I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

He flinched and turned around when I touched him. His intelligent eyes protruded a little from his sockets when he saw who it was.

“Excuse me, do you have a light?”

Here was his first opportunity. I wasn’t going to make it too easy on him too fast. After all, a real man would have already approached me. I wanted to see how much iron was left in him.

“Uh…I don’t smoke.” His eyes pleaded with me not to disappear, but he was incapable even of doing honor to this blatant invitation by responding in a minimally flirtatious way.

He couldn’t handle the fastball. I pitched him a floater.

“Didn’t your father teach you always to carry matches with you in case a lady needs a light?”

Notice that I do not split my infinitives.

“No.”

I waited for the gloss but none came. Is this what the average woman puts up with every day?

The fear in his eyes told me that laying it on any thicker would cause an alarm to go off. I was beginning to get a sense for what kind of man he was: a boring moralizer too hung up on “honesty” and the “truth” to tolerate even three seconds of seductive epistemological uncertainty.

I would have to drop the sexy act and engage with him on the level of signification. How boring. This man had gone forty years without realizing that he had been destroying sexuality within the first five seconds of every encounter with a woman.

I have many expressions in my repertoire. Put a porch monkey bitch in front of me and I will go ghetto. I will slash a bitch with the box cutter I keep in my purse. I will set a bitch’s weave on fire.

I dialed up the shy smile I stole from my flat-assed Viet cousin Xuan. The man dropped his gaze, stealing a peep at my double D’s before focusing somewhere on the sidewalk.

“Look…I’ll be honest with you. I saw you looking at me. I know the effect I have on men. The fact is that I’m in a very peculiar mood today. So why don’t you come have a drink with me and catch the next bus?” I had already begun threading my arm through his and leading him towards the St. Regis King Cole hotel bar down the street.

The bartender smiled when he saw me. Hinkel is a dear man who makes the best Gin Fizzes in Manhattan. I wasn’t in the mood for a Gin Fizz.

“Two double Scotches on the rocks, please…your best single malt.” Hinkel’s fat bishop’s face broke into a ruddy smile.

“Of course, Miss Williams.”

My prey stared at the mahogany paneling with a sick expression on his face. I turned to him.

“What’s your name?”

“Stan.”

“Like Stanley? Or is it Stanislas? Maybe Stanford?”

“It’s Tristan.” The little accompanying snort indicated that the irony of this impossible name did not escape him. One of my interests is Jungian psychoanalysis. This man had shriveled in response to the romantic name he was unable to live up to. My own name is Tran. I saw no need to share this with him.

“Is this some kind of a joke?” The last word was pronounced with a certain bitterness.

“What?”

“This…you. I’m not dumb enough to think you might actually be interested in me. So why are we here? Are a couple of guys about to hustle me into the bathroom and rob me?” He attempted to sneer.

Finally a sign of life. I rewarded it with a little smile.

“Tristan, let me explain a few things to you. You seem like the kind of man who needs explanations. It’s unfortunate. As I told you, I am in a peculiar mood today. You’re right, of course, that women like me are not interested in men like you: men with ugly clothes and no confidence. But women like me are capricious, and today I have decided to pick a man like you and allow him to realize his dreams with me. Call it perversity, call it curiosity, call it what you like, but I can assure you that you are never going to have an opportunity like this again.”

Tristan flinched and took a big gulp of his Scotch.

“But why? Why me?”

“That is precisely the kind of response I would have expected from you.”

“What?”

Enough of this.

“Tristan, I am not a patient person. Even now you refuse to allow yourself to admit what is happening to you. Let me be even more clear: I am offering you full access to my body as well as my mind, for no reason. I find your stupid hesitation boring, and will not put up with it much longer.”

Tristan finally tore his eyes away from the bar and looked at me. His eyes were beginning to water. He closed them then spoke slowly and with great bitterness.

“I’ve been married for twelve years. My wife is boring and unattractive. We have a mentally retarded son. I claim to love him but that’s a lie. You’re the only person I’ve ever admitted that to. My wife loves our retarded son more than she would have loved a normal child. It’s disgusting. Every day I think about throwing myself under the wheels of the bus that I take to and from work, but I am a coward. I masturbate to images of women like you…exotic women…at night before I go to bed.”

Amazing!

The detail about the retarded son alone was worth the boring lay I was going to have to endure in a few minutes.

His mouth twitched as if struggling with something. His eyes remained closed. If I had been a more generous person I would have chosen that moment to take his hand and lead him up to a hotel room, but I had made it too easy for Tristan already. Without opening his eyes, he spoke.

“I…want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything before.”

Maudlin, embarrassing, and probably not even true. I’m sure he wanted Suzy Applebottom in the 9th grade more than he wanted me. I had a sudden vision of a middle-aged convict struggling to read Harry Potter.

“Then take me, Tristan.”

He looked at the bar and nodded vigorously as if assenting to some inner voice. He leaped out of his stool, grabbed me by the hand and led me to the registration desk. We were practically running.

“Give us your best room,” he told the clerk. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

There it was: probably the most dignified act of his life.

On our way up to the room I could feel my pussy getting slippery. This is an entirely mechanical process, and happens whenever I know I am about to have sex, whether I am excited or not.

Tristan was trembling.

We walked into the hotel room. Tristan tried to kiss me. I pushed him back.

“No kissing,” I said, as I slipped out of the Chanel dress I had been wearing. In ten seconds I was completely naked. I arched my back and looked down. The sight of my black nipples pointing straight out from my perfect, firm breasts excited me.

“Do you like my breasts?”

“They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

God, give me a break.

“Take off your clothes,” I said

Like a good boy he did what he was told.

Although Tristan was not a sexy man, he regained a certain animal virility once his ugly clothes had come off. His penis was large and curved to the right. I wondered how many times he must have wrung his dead sperm out of the thing to give it such a twist.

I kneeled down and started sucking.

I had expected Tristan to be a timid and rapid lay, but once things got going, I realized to my astonishment that I was in the hands of an expert lover. He stared into my eyes as we fucked, boring into me with what I presume was a lifetime’s worth of frustration.

At one point his right hand went to my throat and began tightening. I fantasized that he was strangling his retarded son. It turned me on. I came quickly after that, for the third or fourth time.

After at least an hour and a half it was finally over. We both lay on the king-sized bed, spent.

I could feel Tristan shrinking back inside by the second. He had laid his forearm across his forehead and was staring at the ceiling with a stricken look in his eyes.

I began to dress. Tristan continued to stare at the ceiling. His body looked small and weak again. I wanted to leave.

As I was pulling my dress down over my ass, he turned to me.

“Stay…I’ll do anything if you stay…anything you ask.”

“It’s too late,” I told him. “Destiny can only be cheated for so long.”

He nodded and looked back up at the ceiling. I saw now that he was crying. It was time for me to leave. I could see that Tristan wanted to talk, and I had to get out of there before the clouds burst. I supposed he was capable of talking for twenty hours nonstop. That was his problem, not mine. If there is one thing I cannot tolerate it is too many words.

“Wait,” he said as I began walking towards the door.

“Goodbye, Tristan.” He had turned into a baby wailing for his mother, and that is a game I refuse to play.

“Please,” I heard him croak as I closed the door.

Part of me wanted to listen outside the door for the sobs that I knew would come, but I kept moving towards the elevator.

Suddenly I realized that I wanted to see Robert after all. It still wasn’t too late to stop in Lanvin either.

Life can be good if you let it be.

Thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

ON #JESUISCHARLIE

#JeSuisCharlie on the front page of every newspaper: a meaningless gesture of fake solidarity. If they wanted to show real solidarity, they would print the cartoons. You can’t claim to be Charlie without actually being Charlie and publishing the cartoons. Can we not all imagine a MasterCard or Prius commercial using an image of a little girl lighting a candle at a Charlie Hebdo vigil? Holding a #JeSuisCharlie sign? With feel-good global iMac folk music behind it? Does not posting #JeSuisCharlie on Twitter allow us to transform it into a fashion phenomenon in order that we might immediately get sick of it and move on to something else in true capitalist fashion? Conclusion: #JeSuisCharlie destroys thought, and therefore must be considered an insult to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

What, then, are we supposed to say? After such an event, our duty is simply to speak freely, to follow the psychoanalytic maxim of free association (the only truly free form of speech), the goal of which is to lead us away from ideology and towards the truth and its corollary, desire.

ON RELIGION

I know, work alongside and appreciate many French Algerians and Moroccans. I don’t know how religious any of them are; we all politely avoid this subject. I’ve refused to criticize Islam out of respect for them as individuals. But how can a thinking person who has read the Koran not come to the conclusion that Islam is a dangerous ideology? How can those of us who are troubled by the many disturbing passages in the Koran, to say nothing of the overall psychotic flavor of this document, not express this explicitly today?

Let me approach it from another angle. As Freud recognized, religion must be considered a symptom. A symptom serves a precise psychic function: it both protects us from anxiety and grants us access to a truncated form of sexuality and desire. It is simultaneously a problem and a solution.

A symptom is a monument to a past victory of desire over the forces of destruction and entropy that inhabit us all. For this reason we must always respect the symptoms of others. As an intern I encountered a psychotic patient whose symptom consisted in obsessively disassembling and reassembling his computer. This was his whole life: taking his computer apart and then putting it back together, over and over, again and again, alone in his room. He was a very disturbed young man who was incapable of making anything like a human connection with anyone.

Contrary to what many people might believe, when faced with such a patient, the analyst’s goal should not be to devalue this symptom despite its patent sterility and inanity. Why not? First of all, because he knows that it protects the patient from total psychic collapse. The analyst can only provide a setting in which the patient, if he so chooses, can explore his symptom, and in so doing build a stepladder to a more sublime symptom, one more capable of offering him access to truth and desire.

That does not mean, however, that the analyst should, outside of the analytic setting, refuse to recognize that from an ethical and epistemological point of view, not all symptoms are equal. The inanity of this particular patient’s symptom illustrates above all how deeply his capacity to desire has been damaged. Somewhere in there is a spark of desire that wants to grow into a flame. The psychoanalyst must simultaneously respect the authenticity of the patient’s suffering and refuse to validate, epistemologically, the symptom in which this spark is frozen.

Where do we get our symptoms? The world we live in furnishes us with a number of circulating discursive orders whose utility lies in their ability to offer us a stable symbolic place in the world. Muslim, capitalist, bohemian, professor, radical, homosexual, heterosexual, soccer mom: the varieties of ready-made symptomatic identities on offer are large. We are hermit crabs and symptoms are our shells. Thought systems, religions, and ideologies therefore have a double status. On the collective level, such discourses must be held to a rigorous epistemological standard. On the individual level, they must be respected inasmuch as they protect the holy wounds of those who wear them as armor. For Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons criticizing Islam is an ethical necessity; for any of the individual Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to insult Islam in the context of a face-to-face subjective encounter with a Muslim of good faith is unethical.

From a theological point of view, Islam is the least sophisticated and most regressive of the three great monotheisms, as Claude Levi-Strauss recognized. The God of the Jews is absent. His will can only be divined through a constant work of interpretation of the incomplete Law He left behind. The Christian God is a paradox: both human and divine, one and three, merciful and violent. In both cases, believers are confronted with a salutary difficulty: their religion offers them no easy answer, no conflictless identification with a perfect narcissistic ideal. In the best of cases, such inner contradictions protect Judaism and Christianity from becoming simple life coaching. These inner aporias allow these two religions to function, in the best of circumstances, as machines capable of producing speech, desire and truth. Every religion, understood as a symptom that has been elaborated and refined over time, possesses its own specific genius. Could a non-Jew have invented psychoanalysis? Could a non-Christian have written the Phenomenology of Spirit?

Let me be clear: my claim is not that Judaism and Christianity are ideal religions in some positive sense. On the contrary, their greatness lies precisely in the fact that they are programmed to self-destruct. Inscribed in their DNA is the very code that allows those born into them to exit them, to go beyond them. Is not the true genius of Judaism, for example, its capacity to produce excellent atheists?

Of course, history both recent and ancient offers us numerous examples of how these two religions have been instrumentalized in the service of fascism, the last essence of which is always the fantasy of unity and completeness, as the etymology of the word “fascism” makes clear. Still, following Gödel’s law, a Christian fascism, for example, is impossible without sacrificing completeness to the fantasy of consistency. The very founding texts of Christianity protect it from such a reduction.

Islam, on the other hand, seems to provide an easy template for avoiding the torment of subjective division. There is a perfect man, Mohammed, and our duty is to emulate him in every way. Such an identification amounts to a total abdication of desire, which is always singular. The very structure of narcissistic identification inhibits desire, inasmuch as it always involves subordination to some other, even – especially – if this other is nothing but an idealized image of ourselves.

The depressing destiny reserved for women in Islam is nothing but the necessary consequence of the larger refusal of incompleteness, uncertainty, absence, and desire that this identification entails: in other words, the good Muslim finds himself obligated to refuse everything that constitutes the genius of the feminine. The oppression of women is not a contingent historical detail of Muslim society; it is the libidinal cornerstone on which Islam rests. The indestructibility of Woman constitutes a permanent open wound on the flank of the Muslim world, a wound which is displaced onto a series of stand-ins in the political sphere: Israel, Jews, America, infidels…

Judaism and Christianity possess an explicit kernel of internal contradiction that prevents them from falling once and for all into fascism. Islam too necessarily possesses such a kernel, but it is buried. Were not the Sufi mystics once able to transform Islam into a conduit to the authentically divine? Was not Islam once the religion of science and philosophy? Was this despite Islam, or because of it?

The point has been made many times that the Koran is full of incitements to hatred. However, the same is true of the Bible. Both holy books are also full of incitements to peace. That said, there is a crucial difference on another level, one that I have never seen examined closely. I am speaking about the style in which the Koran is written. Jacques Lacan prefaced his Ecrits with the Buffon quote, “Le style, c’est l’homme même”, which can be paraphrased as “style makes the man”. For Lacan, style is content. The transmission of psychoanalysis is less a question of didactics than it is a question of style. For Lacan, it is the analyst’s singular way of living and above all speaking that breathes life into psychoanalytic theory. This singularity does not come to us naturally; we must fight for it, fight to cultivate it, fight to preserve it, and the terrain upon which this fight takes place is that of speech, of language. On the level of explicit content, the Koran is certainly more troubling than the Bible, but this alone is not sufficient to explain the catastrophic social consequences of Islam in lands where it forms the matrix of social life. I think that the argument can be made that it is above all the style of Islamic discourse that is responsible for its failure to function as a machine capable of cultivating desire and subjectivity for many of those who are caught in it. What is this style? To put it bluntly, the Koran could have been written by several of the various paranoiac patients I have encountered in and out of mental hospitals over the course of my psychoanalytic career. Writer Sebastian Faulks describes it thus:

It’s a depressing book. It really is. It’s just the rantings of a schizophrenic. It’s very one-dimensional, and people talk about the beauty of the Arabic and so on, but the English translation I read was, from a literary point of view, very disappointing. There is also the barrenness of the message. […] With the Koran there are no stories. And it has no ethical dimension like the New Testament, no new plan for life. It says ‘the Jews and the Christians were along the right tracks, but actually, they were wrong and I’m right, and if you don’t believe me, tough — you’ll burn for ever’. That’s basically the message of the book.

Schopenhauer was even more critical: 

Consider the Koran, for example; this wretched book was sufficient to start a world-religion, to satisfy the metaphysical needs of countless millions for twelve hundred years, to become the basis of their morality and of a remarkable contempt for death, and also to inspire them to bloody wars and the most extensive conquests. Much may be lost in translation, but I have not been able to discover in it one single idea of value.

My question to the theologians: do the holy texts of Islam possess the necessary DNA for the religion to sublate itself the way Christianity and Judaism (among others) have? Or is this kernel of contradiction too inconsequential next to the reams of theology that have left a trail of blood across the Middle East? It is worth noting that one of the murdered Charlie Hebdo employees was an Algerian Kabyle named Mustapha Ourrad who described himself as a “Sufi atheist” (echoing Lacan’s maxim that the only true atheists are theologians). These are the people whose voices I am most curious to hear: those who have used Islam to escape Islam. This, for me, is the crucial question. We know that it is possible to be a Christian atheist (Hegel), a Jewish atheist (Freud), a pagan atheist (Nietzsche), but is it possible to be a Muslim atheist? Where is the Muslim Kierkegaard?

I find myself in a delicate situation today. I feel morally obligated to recognize the poverty of Islam as a ready-made symptom. But how am I supposed to recognize this poverty while simultaneously following my moral duty of respecting those for whom it is a solution to deeper psychic conflicts? Those for whom it forms the matrix of a family life and connection with the past?

When I walk from La Chapelle to Barbès in Paris, I am troubled. These two neighborhoods are separated by nothing but the railroad tracks that snake out the back of the Gare du Nord in northern Paris. La Chapelle has, over the last few decades, been populated by Tamils fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. Barbès, on the other hand, has been home to the Arab North Africans of Paris for generations. Although poor, La Chapelle is, for the passerby at least, a safe and joyous place. This joyful atmosphere can only be understood as a collective expression of some ancestral Tamil/Hindu genius that manifests itself in the habitus of the people who make up this community. I do not wish to be too romantic here. There are troubling signs in La Chapelle as well, such as the occasionally glimpsed tiger flag (the symbol of the Tamil Tigers, the terrorist group responsible for the invention of the suicide belt). Still, on a human level, La Chapelle feels alive. Barbès, on the other hand, is sinister, drab, and unsafe. The only women that can be seen anywhere are veiled and carry caddies full of groceries. The streets are full of loitering, hard-faced men in tracksuits drinking mint tea or beer, depending on their degree of piety. Among them can be spotted the occasional “barbu” in full Islamic garb. It is an intimidating place for a non-Muslim man and a repulsive place for a free woman.

What the Charlie Hebdo shooting tells me is that it is time that we non-Muslims, and especially we atheists, become less intellectually complacent with this particular discourse. The psychoanalyst must engage in an intricate dance with the symptoms of his patients, now shoring them up, now tearing them down. He has the moral authority to do so because he has traversed the desert of subjective destitution himself. He has beheaded his own idols, liquidated his own narcissistic ideals, and abandoned all hope of attaining Paradise. He has the great fortune and responsibility of safeguarding and transmitting a body of knowledge that has been passed down to him by others. He has learned to prefer desire and incompleteness to the sham completeness of ideology. This inner fight must be renewed every day, with no hope for final victory.

Westerners are not morally superior to Muslims because the cultural formations that have been refined over thousands of years and which form the core of the Western identity are more sophisticated than those of the Middle Eastern world. We must simultaneously affirm that yes, the Western tradition, that of Beethoven, Hegel, Einstein, and Freud is superior to Islamic tradition while refusing to grant ourselves any individual moral superiority over anyone else simply for having been born into it. This is an uncomfortable truth that we must not shy away from acknowledging today.

ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH

The empty form of “freedom of speech” only has meaning when it is filled in with some sort of concrete content. It is only by childishly saying exactly what the Law, explicit or implicit, prohibits us from saying that we are able to liberate ourselves from the many repressive discourses that seek to enslave us (from Islam to consumerism to political correctness).

One of the things that the analysand learns over the course of a psychoanalysis is that he is not as wicked as he thinks he is (or, rather, as he wants to be). How does this happen? First, the psychoanalyst authorizes the patient to say all of the evil, selfish, cruel, violent, racist, etc. things that have ever passed through his head. Second, he refuses to pass judgment on this explicit “hateful” discourse. Third, he draws the patient’s attention to the gaps, coincidences, and discordances in his litany of hate. In this way, he allows the patient to recognize that such thoughts function above all as a screen concealing another, more authentic discourse: he begins to realize that his wicked thoughts have the same status as gargoyles placed outside a church. As the blasphemies pile up, the analysand comes to understand that they are nothing but snippets of language that pass through his consciousness precisely because of their blasphemous nature. Through his interventions, the psychoanalyst reframes, repunctuates, and reorders the patient’s speech in such a way that the true, hidden message behind it becomes visible. This message is always a disguised expression of desire.

It is only by respecting such an ethics of free speech, or better, by traversing the painful ordeal of free speech, that we can learn that what we originally took for our particular wickedness is nothing more than a universal mechanism of the human unconscious, which eternally gravitates towards the unknown and the prohibited in search of the elusive X that will finally make us whole. This realization, namely that we are not bad, is profoundly liberating.

Why is free speech important? It is important precisely because it is only by traversing our apparent wickedness that we can learn how illusory it is. Truly free speech liberates us by weakening the various discourses of power and servitude that haunt us from the inside and mobilize our shame and guilt to shackle our desire. We might even formulate it more strongly: only the phenomenological emergence of such a liberation-effect allows us to qualify speech as free.

What strikes me about a number of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (Charb, Cabu, Wolinski) is their fundamentally juvenile character and appearance. Were not many of them essentially adult children? Are not cartoons the childish form of expression par excellence? For whatever reason, the men of Charlie Hebdo appeared to remain in a fundamentally adolescent developmental period. The very juvenile quality of their cartoons even served a precise function: pre-empting our stupidity. By being more scatological, more childish, and more obscene, they allowed us to move past the desire to provoke for the sake of provocation. Crucially, we cannot skip this step in our movement towards true freedom of thought and expression. We cannot go straight from the Master’s Discourse to freedom and desire without passing through the bottleneck of blasphemy for its own sake. What emerges on the other side of blasphemy is not hatred, as the enemies of satire claim, but rather a joyful resignation to the botched, incomplete nature of humanity. Remove the bridge provided by publications like Charlie Hebdo, and there is no way to get from here to there.

Consciously or unconsciously, every single person who encounters the Islamic prohibition on representing Mohammed has the same response: the desire to draw him exactly the way Charlie Hebdo drew him, which is to say blasphemously. This is no less true of the Charlie Hebdo killers than it is of you and I. Here is why those craven appeals for “common sense” in the exercise of free speech are so dangerous: if we filter our speech through common sense – which is to say, ideology – it stops being free. In a certain sense, “free speech”, like free association, is not “free” at all: it follows strict laws, those that govern the unconscious. The Charlie Hebdo artists were not gratuitously insulting Muslims; they were drawing cartoons that every single Muslim has drawn in his dreams. They had no choice but to draw the exact cartoons they drew because only these concrete cartoons were dictated by the totalitarian discourse of today’s radical Islam! By drawing in reality the cartoons we have all drawn in fantasy, they weaken the superego voice in our head that is always ready to remind us how bad we are. By being worse than us, more juvenile than us, they liberated us all. They had to go all the way. Blasphemy is the concrete form of free speech.

What is the difference between the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Third Reich and the blasphemous cartoons of Charlie Hebdo? Should we not defend both? No. The difference between them is subtle but crucial. Charlie Hebdo operates from the position of the hysteric, which is to say that its cartoons are responses to the various ideologies that attempt to limit our freedom. On the contrary, the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Third Reich are ideology. The position from which the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are drawn is a position of authenticity, whereas the position from the anti-Semitic propaganda of Goebbels was written was one of domination. The crucial insight here is that freedom is never abstract freedom. For freedom to be freedom, it must be concrete. At any given time, in any given place, the path of free speech lies in one specific direction. Under any totalitarian system, anyone who is not speaking out clearly against his masters is not speaking freely, no matter what he is talking about, whether he believes his speech to be free or not.

This massacre also illustrates the obtuseness of the French criminalization of speech deemed racist or anti-Semitic. These laws were understandably conceived after World War Two (the Pleven law dates from 1972) to prevent the racist indoctrination that made the Holocaust possible from taking hold in the populace again. However, they have largely had the opposite effect. The specific prohibition on anything resembling anti-Semitism has nourished, in the minds of many Muslims, the belief that there is a double standard at play. In this sense, such laws actually facilitate events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Was not the columnist Siné fired from Charlie Hebdo just a few years ago for a supposedly anti-Semitic remark concerning Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, a remark which could more accurately be described as simply tasteless and blasphemous? How to explain this inconsistency? Why Jews and not Muslims? Here we see how the prohibition of speech deemed offensive concerning one specific ethnic/religious group can only generate the need to extend this exception to everybody until there is no freedom to offend left at all. Speech must remain unequivocally free. Our laws cannot be ethical in our place. It is up to us to infuse our dead laws with living ethics. We cannot shirk the responsibility of speaking freely, which is to say ethically, by deferring this responsibility onto the law. Such laws can only have the opposite effect: they deny our ability to distinguish true and false, ethical and unethical. They say: when it comes to Jews, you cannot be trusted. And the leap from there to it is the Jews themselves who cannot be trusted is all too easy to make.

A mind that is free moves spontaneously towards the truth, and the law’s refusal to recognize this capacity for ethical sovereignty can only function as an invitation to shirk our duty to speak freely, which is to say, in a way that is constrained by the truth, by our ethical obligation to fill the abstract form of “truth” in with some necessarily insufficient concrete content.

I am troubled by the fact that no major newspapers have chosen to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The only morally appropriate response for a newspaper like the New York Times is to publish the most offensive of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on its front page. But they are cowards. We little people cannot do everything ourselves; we need our institutions to stand up for us. Today, they have refused. With the death of Charlie Hebdo, there is literally no one left in the news industry with the courage to defy the fatwa on blasphemy, and there probably will not be anytime soon. Amazing! The bloated, pompous, self-important discourse of radical Islam demands multiple responses: nuanced criticism and circumspection but also mockery and outright refusal. We need all of these voices. Reflection unsupplemented by mockery and refusal is sterile. The contrary is also true. There is plenty of reflection out there – some of it is even good – but there is very little enlightened mockery, which is just as necessary. With the death of Charlie Hebdo, we can expect the sterile analyses to multiply and our spines to soften just that much more.            

Elliot Rodger: Amoeba, Misogynist, or Wizard?

As a citizen of the 21st century, which is to say a slave to the Internet, I have now read enough articles about Elliot Rodger to come to the conclusion that no one in the United States understands anything about anything. Every article I have read gets everything wrong.

The facts: on May 23rd, 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, stabbing and shooting six people to death before committing suicide. In the weeks leading up to his rampage, he posted a number of videos on YouTube in which he expresses his rage towards popular kids in general, and popular girls in particular, for rejecting him. He returns again and again to the fact that he is still a virgin, a fact which he blames on the cruelty of the women who have rejected him all his life.

Where to start? The first thing we need to do is dismiss any attempt to understand Rodger’s actions by referring to ideological non-concepts such as virulent misogyny or entitlement or antisocial personality disorder. If we want to have any hope of understanding why Elliot Rodger killed all those people, we need to start by establishing a distinction between structure and discourseThe attempts to understand the Rodger shooting generally fall into one of two categories. Either “mental illness” (structure) or “virulent misogyny” (discourse) is invoked as an “explanation” for his actions. In both cases, “analysis” consists in sticking a label on Rodger and passing this tautology off as an explanation. This is as far as public thought goes in the United States these days. If we want to understand Elliot Rodger, however, we need to analyze the place where structure and discourse (do not) meet.

Anyone who watches the Elliot Rodger videos and believes that he did it for the reasons he states is a dupe. Anyone with an ear for the truth ought to be able to hear that when Elliot Rodger uses words like blondbeautifulalpha malehappinesswomen, etc. he is using them as a series of neologisms. In other words, for Rodger, these words mean something radically different than they do for everyone else.

Rodger is, clearly, obviously, visibly, psychotic. I work in a psychiatric hospital. One of my most important responsibilities as a clinician is recognizing psychosis in its larval form. Of course, Rodger’s psychosis is far from larval in the videos he uploaded to the internet. American psychiatry has become so etiolated thanks to cognitive-behavioral pseudoscience and the enormous piece of propaganda that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the would-be Bible of mental health disorders assembled and published by the American Psychiatric Association) that no one knows any longer what psychosis even is. By multiplying ad infinitum the various spurious “disorders” of the brain, the DSM destroys any possibility of establishing diagnostic criteria that both cut reality at the joints and respect the singularity of each patient. In the best cases, these false “disorders” are the simple result of bad science, bad ethics, and the ambient bad epistemology that characterize hypermodern America. In the worst cases, they are invented by drug companies and pushed by APA shills to make that money.

What is psychosis? Speaking broadly, it is a disturbance on the level of the symbolic register. The psychotic is cut off from his body and cut off from the rest of humanity because language does not function “properly” for him. Language is not a tool for communication and never has been. When is the last time anyone communicated with anyone else? Language for humans is more like sunlight for plants. Without language, our bodies and minds do not know how to regulate themselves. The parade of variously crippled and ill psychotics I see every day at the clinic testifies to the debilitating consequences of being incompletely inserted into what Lacan calls a discourse, which might be described as the story we tell ourselves about what is real and what is not, what constitutes truth and what does not.

One of the clearest symptoms of psychosis is the use of neologisms – words that mean something mysterious and incommunicable to the psychotic subject. Usually these neologisms look like everyday words, which is why we are lost without some reference to structure. One only needs to hear Elliot Rodger repeat the word blond a few times to realize that this signifier means a lot more to him than it does to your average frustrated virgin. American psychiatry does not have the balls even to try to understand the obvious connection between language troubles and psychosis. As usual, cause and consequence are inverted, and language troubles are dismissed as meaningless “word salad” rather than recognized as the very cause of psychosis.

A number of the various commentators and armchair psychologists who have analyzed the Rodger case have drawn attention to his narcissism. This is as close as anyone has come to recognizing the true nature of Rodger’s psychosis. Psychotic narcissism is of an entirely different nature than non-psychotic narcissism. Elliot Rodger is not a young man with an outsized ego. Elliot Rodger is a formless, shapeless amoeba riven by aggressive and sexual drives who is desperately holding onto a partial mirror image in order to avoid total psychic collapse. What we ordinarily refer to as “narcissism” involves a detour through the gaze of the Other. When Brad Pitt admires himself in the mirror, he is seeing himself through the eyes of the readers of People Magazine. In other words, he has internalized this gaze and identifies himself by it. He is integrated into a collective discourse.

When Elliot Rodger tilts his head at the same weird stereotyped angle again and again to show off what he believes to be his best profile, he is not seeing himself through the lens of the Other’s beauty ideals as a non-psychotic would. He is trying, desperately, to make this Other exist, to insert himself into society as such by disappearing into this one fixed “photograph” of himself. He has confused two registers, the register of symbolic belonging and the register of imaginary belonging. Symbolically, linguistically, he cannot make a “detour through the Other”, one that would format his mind and body and allow him to join the community of alpha males and blonde babes he vituperates against. In the absence of such a symbolic identification, he can only attempt to repair this hole in his psyche by “covering” it with an identification on the level of the imaginary, which is to say the level of the image. The stereotyped, stilted way he speaks, poses, shifts his head, puts on and takes off his sunglasses, etc. shows that Rodger is attempting to imitate an “alpha male” from the outside in rather than from the inside out. The very domain of interiority is unavailable to him. This is the reason why he killed those people, not because he was a virgin. Rodger’s psychosis was in place long before he ever dreamed of holding hands with a beautiful blonde sorority girl.

So, on the level of structure, Rodger is psychotic. This means that the detour through the Other, through the discourse, the ethics, and the epistemology promulgated by official society is foreclosed to him. The ability to make this detour and see oneself from the outside is the line separating neurosis from psychosis. This essentially uncomplicated notion of structure, which is so crucial to the understanding of psychic suffering of both the neurotic and psychotic variety, is nowhere to be found in the thousand-plus pages of the DSM-V, which substitutes an infinite multiplication of spurious disorders for a properly dialectical understanding of subjectivity.

Rodger is a psychotic who latched onto one of the many circulating discourses available on the Internet in an attempt to metabolize the (literally) unspeakable suffering that wracked him on the level of mind and body. This suffering was unspeakable for the simple reason that only the Other is capable of giving us those words with which we can effectuate a synthesis of mind, body and discourse. Here is the true origin of Rodger’s murderous hatred for the alpha males and females he ended up killing. They are the winners who stand in for the official Other as such, that Other to which Rodger has no access. It is worth repeating here: in its last essence, this Other is nothing but language as such, speech as such, intersubjectivity as such (which always passes through language of some sort). Unable to recognize the true, ethereal, symbolic nature of this Other, Rodger could only approach it via the imaginary register, which is to say the register of appearances. Hence the blond hair. This particular trait is shorthand, in the circulating American imaginary of mastery – which is of course a screen for the discourse of capitalism – for winning, for making it, for being an insider. When Rodger first learns, at the age of nine, that he is not cool, he responds by dying his hair blond. Restated in more analytic terms, when faced with the enigma of the Other, with his own inability to assume a place in the Other, Rodger responds by mobilizing the signifier blond, which represents, in the imaginary, the Other’s desire. The rigid, mechanical character of this response to the enigma of the Other’s desire is already a clinical indication that Rodger is operating within a psychotic structure.

What, then, are the origins of Rodger’s psychosis? They are to be found where one might expect them to be found – in his early childhood, in his relationship with his parents, in his earliest dealings with the Other he came to reject and refuse, perhaps for a good reason. It is precisely Rodger’s own refusal and rejection of this Other that he misrecognizes as the blond Other’s refusal and sexual rejection of him. Why sexual? Because it is on the level of sexuality that we experience our deepest sense of identity, of being, of humanity.

I have no idea why Rodger became psychotic, but I do know that it had nothing to do with any of the reasons he cited in his videos, and which he gleaned, like a crow making a nest of clothes hangers, from the despairing, masochistic discourse he found on websites such as PUAHate.com and Wizardchan.org.

This brings me to the second point I would like to discuss, namely the discourse itself. Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree not because of the discourse of “normalfag” or “Chad” hatred he found on the internet; he went on a killing spree precisely because he could not fully enter this discourse. It is the failure of PUAHate and Wizardchan (as well as every other discourse) to furnish Rodger with an identity, with a body, that led him to pass to the act. If Rodger frequented such websites and attempted to ape their discourses, it is because only such melancholy discourses – on the border of neurosis and psychosis – were capable of reflecting back to him some shred of his own inner experience.

When an anonymous user on Wizardchan claims that he hates Chads and normalfags (wizardchan slang for sexually active, socially integrated men) and blames them for his troubles, we should not automatically see a future Elliot Rodger. On the contrary, we should see a troubled person who is using the shared discourse of melancholy as a step on the ladder away from melancholy itself, which is a refusal of discourse in the face of loss. Such discourses play a valuable therapeutic role for the very troubled people that post there. There is no way for such people to approach intersubjectivity without starting from the bottom, which is where these wizards find themselves. Most of them will pull themselves out of the swamp of melancholy suffering/enjoyment sooner or later. It is no one’s business but their own. Some of them will stay there. Some of them will kill themselves, but none will do so because of anything they read there.

Or will they? My recent encounter with Wizardchan was an uncanny experience for me, in the Freudian sense of the term, which is to say simultaneously familiar and alien. It was uncanny for me because I was a wizard before there was a word for it. What does it mean to be a wizard? A wizard is a male virgin who has passed the age at which a normalfag or Chad would have already become sexually active. The term “wizard” comes from a Japanese internet meme stating that a man who remains a virgin until the age of thirty develops magical powers. Most of the “wizards” who post on Wizardchan would therefore describe themselves as apprentice wizards.

As I scrolled through page after page of what we might call the Wizard’s Code, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Had I written all of this down when I was a twenty-year old “kissless virgin” and “incel” (involuntary celibate)? Had these people eavesdropped on my conversations with my wizard best friend and then transcribed them? For better or for worse, my wizarding days took place in the prehistoric era before the modern internet existed. For all I knew, my best friend and I were the only two wizards on the face of the Earth.

I recognized it all: the hatred of hedonism and hedonists, the nostalgia for childhood, the hard melancholy, the conviction that a “normal person” had experienced more life before the age of twenty than I ever would in a lifetime, the attempts to justify my hatred and feelings of worthlessness by appealing to evolutionary science and eugenics, the belief in my own hidden, unrecognized inner beauty (masked under a gleeful, smirking “objective” appraisal of myself as ugly, pathetic, and deserving only of death), the desire to receive welfare and live in a state of total passivity.

In one thread, an anonymous poster announces to the other wizards that he is going to kill himself using the helium roasting bag technique, but wants advice on how to have a great last day on Earth. He adds that what makes him happiest in life are small things like adding spices to frozen pizza. The responses vary between tepid attempts to talk the original poster out of it and approbation of his choice, which after all is fully rational given the agreed-upon premises, nothing but the QED verifying the watertight inevitability of the Wizard’s Discourse. Chad has everything; I have nothing; I am nothing; life is suffering; death is the only escape. A few days after the original post, another poster confirms that the original poster really did go through with it – they were friends on Facebook. Immediately following this post, another apprentice wizard mocks the original poster (who has just killed himself) for being on Facebook in the first place – a concession to normie ethics deserving only of mockery. Make no mistake: the original poster probably would have posted a similar comment about himself had he not been dead. This is the face of solidarity among wizards. I know, because I could have written any one of the comments during my own hard wizarding days.

My best friend with whom I shared a rudimentary Wizard’s Code was an even harder wizard than I was. In fact, he was as hard of a wizard as it is possible to be. How hard was he? He killed himself at the age of twenty-four by attaching a tube from a tank of helium to a roasting bag that he tied over his head. He was, of course, a virgin. He subscribed, down the line, to every single one of the beliefs constitutive of the Wizard’s Discourse.

My own intimate familiarity with the fruits of this discourse gives me, I believe, a certain authority here. Now, let it be stated that I am no longer an apprentice wizard, and for that reason I expect nothing but contempt from any wizards who might happen upon this text. I do not care here to elaborate on the conditions under which I forcefully, and painfully, extracted myself from the Wizard’s Discourse that I sensed, with more and more urgency as I got older, was suffocating me; suffice it to say that I extracted myself from it, and it was not easy, even if the suicide of my best friend made it easier.

The Wizard’s Code is, like all positive discourses, a form of ideology, which is to say a secular theodicy. It is a discourse of last resort, one that abuts death. It can either be used as a ladder leading up, away from melancholy, or down, to suicide. Like so many fundamentally adolescent discourses, it is a place of passage. My best friend and I met at the crossroads of our own Wizard’s Discourse. I exited through the top, towards life, towards desire; he exited through the bottom.

I discovered, after he died, that he had actively participated in a suicide message board that closely resembled a rudimentary Wizardchan in the last months of his life. Did his encounter with an institutionalized form of the discourse that he and I had played with together push him to kill himself in a paradoxical attempt to rejoin this discourse by fulfilling its symbolic demands? After years of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that if it hadn’t been the Wizard’s Discourse, it would have been some other suicidal or murderous discourse.

The function creates the organ, as the saying goes. The Wizard’s Discourse exists because it has to exist. It has to exist because there is not enough room in Chad’s Discourse for everyone. This is a direct result of consumer capitalism, which hides its ruthlessness and brutality under the pseudo-evolutionary ideology of the free market. Chad’s Discourse is the discourse of capitalistic exploitation and for this reason the wizards are right to refuse it, right to hate it. It is the discourse of domination and slavery. The wizards are also right to refuse the interpretations blasted at them from sites like Jezebel.com, which ran a story mentioning Wizardchan. The hysterical cunts at Jezebel essentially accuse the wizards of being misogynistic and racist; the true message behind these attacks, of course, is you are a bunch of castrated pussies and for this reason we find you despicable. In any case, anyone who takes the Wizard’s Discourse at face value is a fool. Unfortunately, we are a country of fools, one growing increasingly susceptible to ideology in its most positivistic and idiotic form, and the various peddlers of the two most prominent forms of discursive idiocy going (hysteria and capitalistic ideology, which are complicit with each other) can spread their lies virtually unchallenged. In any case their public is not much better than they are.

The wizards are right to repudiate Chad and Chad’s secret ally Jezebel. Yet it is precisely here that we must be most careful. On the level of discourse, everything the wizards claim is true. However, as I have tried to illustrate, there is a fundamental discontinuity between discourse and structure. This is most visible in psychosis, in which an external discourse is desperately invoked in an attempt to suture deep psychic wounds. There were a number of such discourses available to Elliot Rodger. He could have just as easily turned to the Terrorist’s Discourse, the Neo-Nazi’s Discourse, the Hard Yoga Discourse, or any other of the discourses of last resort for those who cannot or will not enter Chad’s Discourse.

The discontinuity of discourse and structure is most visible in psychosis, but is equally present in every structure. In other words,there are no Wizards and there are no Chads. There are only subjects who attempt, in vain, to enter these discourses. But there is no way fully to leave one’s being behind in a discourse. There is always a leftover, always a stain of subjectivity, of existential homelessness, always a remainder of abjection. Elliot Rodger did not want to kill Chads as such. His true goal was the liquidation of discourse as such, the liquidation of the place of the Other.

Where the wizards get everything wrong is in their belief that they have no subjective consistency outside of Chad’s Discourse. In this sense, the Wizard’s Discourse is nothing but the flipside of Chad’s Discourse. It is a confirmation of Chad’s Discourse. The unbearable truth that both Wizards and Chads are fleeing is that discourse as such can never fully name me, can never fully evacuate the suffering inherent to Being. It is precisely this containing function of discourse that was unavailable to Elliot Rodger as a result of his psychotic structure.

What is the solution? The solution lies in the realization that no discourse is absolute. We must learn to love our homelessness, our abjection. Reading Samuel Beckett did more than anything else to pull me out of the sickly embrace of the Wizard’s Discourse. This path is what Lacan refers to as the Analyst’s Discourse. It is the path of knowledge, which is also the path of desire. It is not an easy road and there are no guarantees, but it is better than either the Chad’s or the Wizard’s discourse.

Before finishing this article, let me state it clearly here: between Chad and the Wizard, I choose the Wizard. Chad can produce nothing but domination and exploitation, whereas the Wizard’s Discourse, although morbid and destructive, at least functions as a stepping stone leading away from the enjoyment of suffering and towards something resembling freedom.

Keeping it Real. Soulja Slim’s smile and the Discourse of the Master.

Like many whites who grew up in the suburbs, I am fascinated with black culture in general and rap culture in particular. As I sit on my bed and spoon organic gazpacho into my mouth, I watch YouTube videos and try to imagine what kind of developmental traumas need to occur to create men like C-Murder and Soulja Slim.

I winced a little when I read the following YouTube comment on a Soulja Slim video left by a user named “savagecutthroat74”:

RIP MAGNOLIA SLIM AKA GUN SMOKE AKA SOULJASLIM fucc all u green bitches on dis jank talkn down on my big dawg if u dont fucc wit slim u aint real 100 an if u juz a regular azz ma fucca u shouldnt be listenin 2 my dawg anyway fucc boi an if i ketch any lame azz fucc nicca banging slim shit ima take yo cd an give ya azz tha bacc hand stay away from shit u know nuthn bout fucc boi 100

Savagecutthroat74 is talking about people like me. But I don’t want to be lame. I want to be real. I want to keep it real. What better ethos to follow than one dedicated to the Real? This ethical injunction of course begs the question: what is the Real? What does it mean to remain faithful to it? This question will orient us throughout this paper.

I recently discovered a rapper named VL Mike. He comes from the Uptown section of New Orleans, Valence (=VL) and Magnolia. VL Mike refers to himself as “The Truth”. He looks skinny and small and has the face of a little boy even though he is over thirty in most the videos in which he appears and has killed lots of people.

As I dug deeper into Mike’s backstory, I learned that he had grown up on the same block as BG, who refers to himself as “The Heart of the Streets”. BG, also known as Lil’ Doogie, is a legendary figure in New Orleans gangster rap. In addition to being close with Soulja Slim (more about Slim later), he was a member of the Hot Boys and introduced the expression “Bling Bling” to the world with his 1998 single of that name.

 

After BG left Cash Money, he founded Chopper City Records. VL Mike was one of the rappers that BG signed to Chopper City. After a few years together, VL Mike and BG had a falling out over “some hating-ass shit”: money. VL Mike released a harsh diss track about BG in which he accused him, in as many different ways as possible, of being fake. Of course, when the highest ethical injunction is keeping it real, there is nothing worse than being fake.

A few months after the release of this aggressive diss track, VL Mike was murdered in Gentilly. No one on the internet knows for sure what happened. [1] The consensus here appears to be that BG had VL Mike killed for dissing him on wax, although there is another story circulating that Mike was simply shot by a mugger for his diamond-encrusted VL necklace.

 

While looking for information about Mike’s murder, I came across the following comment, which will serve as the starting point for the present reflections. In the words of user joejones (commenting on the VL Mike song “New Niggas”): “VL WAS A REAL NIGGA BUT HE DISRESPECTEDTHE G-CODE WHEN HE WAS TALKING BOUT MERKING B.G.“.

If keeping it real is the ultimate abstract ethical injunction, the G-Code is its concrete elaboration, its translation into the real world of time and space. Hegel said of the Law that it simply exists and that we have no choice but to attempt to make it concrete by creating a code for it, one that must always fall short of perfect justice. This tension between the abstract formlessness of the injunction and the concrete imperfection of the forms we give it is constitutive of ethics as such.

A long debate followed the provocative claim that Mike had broken the G-Code. The consensus appeared to be that VL Mike was undoubtedly a real nigga but that he had nonetheless made not only a tactical error but an ethical one in dissing BG.

How, then, had the G-Code been broken? The question is not easy for me to answer. As a white man, I am not a subject of the G-Code. For better or for worse, my world is the world of written codes and explicit laws. There is no white G-Code.

The G-Code has no stable, reified content. It is not written down anywhere. Why not? The easy answer would be to suggest that New Orleans rap culture is essentially an oral culture and not a written culture. Although this is certainly a true statement, we should not be satisfied with it. The G-Code is not written down because it cannot be written down. It is above all a praxis, one that only makes sense in a given concrete context. To attempt to make the G-Code abstract would be to attempt to transform an art (an embedded practice) into a science (an abstract body of knowledge).

There is another reason why the G-Code cannot be written down. It cannot be written down because it contradicts itself, and as such cannot be formulated consistently. As Kurt Godel proved in 1931 with his incompleteness theorem, any given system (legal, mathematical, logical, philosophical, etc.) can be either consistent or complete but never both. Either the system is consistent and leaves something out, or the system is complete and contradicts itself.

The wager of modernity has been to privilege consistency over completeness. The progress we have made in medicine, physics, engineering, etc. is largely a result of the generalization of this ideology. By sacrificing completeness, or more accurately, by repressing completeness, any given system can be formalized and manipulated in such a way that it produces results. What is the scientific method if not an algorithm for repressing completeness?

It is more accurate to suggest that completeness is repressed and not sacrificed because repression names the process by which something that cannot be destroyed is expelled only to return in an encrypted form.

The price of any given consistent system is some form of leftover somewhere. We might say that the necessary consequence of the repression of completeness in favor of consistency is the splitting of the world into two halves, an overworld organized around the immaterial master-signifier and an underworld organized around the objet petit a, that abject remainder of our corporeality that can never be fully absorbed into signifying circulation.

To return to the question at hand: what is black culture if not the repressed reservoir of completeness that haunts the consistency of white culture? What is black culture if not the underworld that white overworld culture obliquely requires to continue functioning?

Black bodies themselves bear witness to this repression. Although there are a number of more or less plausible explanations for the health gap between black Americans and white Americans on the macro level, on the micro level, the phenomenon remains a medical mystery.

Psychoanalysis is not afraid to say what (consistent) “traditional” medicine cannot say: that our very cells, our very health is formatted by the symbolic place we occupy in that truncated translation of the Real that we call “reality”. Through the vagaries of history, American blacks have come to occupy the place of the remainder that absorbs and expresses everything that must be repressed for the consistent “official” system to function smoothly.

It should not surprise us that black culture is where we might find an ethics of completeness as opposed to the various different ethics of consistency that characterize white ethics. My goal in this paper is to see what the result might be if we attempt to translate this living ethics of completeness into a frozen ethics of consistency. Let us start with as simple a formulation as possible.

Rule number one: Keep it real.

Keeping it real means, at the most basic level, speaking the truth. It means acting and speaking in a congruent way. It means refusing to let the Truth suffocate under the many concrete forms that stand in for it but must always fall short of it in one way or another.

“I, the truth, speak,” says Lacan in La Chose Freudienne (1955). The truth is not something that can be captured or named; the truth is something that exists in real time and has a body. The truth exists in time and space and can be dissociated neither from the piece of the Real that props it up nor the time and place at which it speaks.

VL Mike’s nickname for himself implicitly acknowledges this dialectical insight that the truth is not a passive quantity but something located in time and space that acts and speaks: VL Mike refers to himself as nothing less than The Truth.

I once had a friend who purported always to be forthright and honest with everybody, even when the truth she allowed to speak through her was ugly. I quickly realized that in my friend’s mind, the only way to ensure that she was keeping it real was by saying cruel things. Now, what happened here is not a simple example of my friend’s idiosyncratic form of bad faith. As soon as we attempt to speak about the Real, it secretes its own shadow-signifier, fake, to which it is implicitly opposed. We see here that the simple act of speech immediately pushes us towards consistency at the expense of completeness inasmuch as the underworld of unspoken signifiers emerges fully-formed as soon as we open our mouths. To posit anything is to posit its shadow with it, which then must be integrated, at which point a new shadow is logically produced (cf. Mike Kozok’s brilliant rendering in symbolic logic of the Hegelian dialectic). The truth may occasionally speak through us, but we are structurally incapable of saying the truth.

The opposition in question here, real vs. fake, highlights another feature of the dialectical process, namely the inevitability of reversal that is a direct consequence of speech as such. Once we begin to talk about the real as a positive, discrete entity, the shadow of the fake grows with it until it jumps the bar and begins to haunt real speech.

From a clinical/phenomenological point of view, when our only goal in speech is to keep it real, we cannot prevent ourselves from slipping into a logic of perversion. The only phenomenological guarantee of the realness of our speech becomes the effect of division it produces in another subject. The shifting sands of the structure subvert our intentions and transform our ethical desire to keep it real into a form of perverse jouissance whose aim (producing the objet petit a) is incompatible with an ethics of desire, an ethics grounded in the signifier, one whose starting point must be the difficult acceptance of the radical invisibility of the objet petit a.

Here we see how the election of a signifier to the role of S1 (“Real”) can only take place against the simultaneous banishment of another signifier (“Fake”) to the role of S2, where it is “infected” by the objet petit a, the object of primordial repression which, as Freud theorized, exerts a downward gravitational pull on consciousness. [2]

The essence of the Real is that it is both consistent and complete, and this means that it cannot be stated directly, period. We cannot speak about the Real without turning it into a master-signifier, at which point, of course, it is no longer the Real.

Our ethics of the Real is already in serious trouble. We have no choice but to invent a second injunction if we want to save the first. If “Keep It Real” inevitably slides into perversion, we need to find a way to wall off that escape route.

Rule Number Two: Don’t hate.

Don’t be a Hater. Don’t drink the Haterade. What is hating (as opposed to hatred)? We might suggest that to hate means to suppose that the other possesses the objet petit a and that, consequently, I can extract it from him. Don’t Hate means don’t be a pervert. Hating is the hip-hop name for the dialectic of jealousy that Lacan explores in Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis.

We are still in the forest. “Don’t be a hater” can fall into the same trap as “Keep it real”. How? Just as keeping it real at all costs leads to perversion, not hating at all costs leads to sterility and inauthenticity. When we stop attempting to pursue the objet petit a that the Other bears, what do we become if not flatterers, sycophants, yes men, passive nobodies? Pushing things even farther, do we not find ourselves in a logic of psychosis, one in which the objet petit a, instead of circulating in the Other,remains “in our pocket”, to use Lacan’s phrase?

Here the Moebius strip is complete. We begin with an injunction: Keep It Real. We then supplement that injunction with a second injunction, Don’t Hate, which we inscribe on the flipside of our first injunction. Finally, we twist the strip and attach the two ends, dynamizing our two-rule system. In other words, we can now keep it real until we encounter a logic of perversion, at which point the strip twists and we find ourselves enjoined to stop hatingwhich goes on until we find ourselves plunged into an autistic passivity, at which point the strip twists again and we find ourselves back at our starting point, that of keeping it real again…ad infinitum.

With two simple rules, we thus have a praxis of inconsistent completeness. Is it a praxis of the Real? No. The Real cannot be symbolized. An ethics of the Real would be an impossible ethics of consistent completeness. The G-Code is an ethics of inconsistent completeness. To return to the Master’s discourse, we might suggest that a “white” ethics of incomplete consistency is an ethics organized around the master-signifier (located in the top-left “agent’s” position) whereas a “black” ethics of inconsistent completeness is an ethics organized around the objet petit a (located in the bottom-right “product’s” position).

The G-Code thus consists of riding the Moebian dialectical flow and knowing when the structure flips and flows into its opposite. This foreclosure of consistency allows us to understand why VL Mike can simultaneously be a real nigga and someone who contravenes the G-Code: his crime was not one of hypocrisy but rather the (inevitable) crime of incompleteness, just as, sooner or later, one always falls into inconsistency in overworld ethics. VL Mike, after a long run of remaining balanced on the razor’s edge, of following the flow of the dialectic, was sentenced to death by the implacable logic of the G-Code for privileging one side of the dialectic (hating) over the other.

To give another example: in a video interview with Thisis50.com, OG Ice-T claims at one point that he is “a pussy”. Shocking words from the mouth of an old-school original gangster, former jewelry store robber and pimp! One would imagine such a claim to be immediately branded as not keeping it real. But in the YouTube comments attached to the video, praise for Ice-T’s realness is unanimous. In the words of user gametight79: “Ice-T spitting that real grown man game. I respect that.” What Ice-T meant was simply that his life was good these days and that he no longer needed the violence, aggression, and resentment that had energized him as a young, hungry man with nothing. By admitting that he had mellowed out, he was paying respect to all the G’s who were still in the game, still young, still hungry, still on the outside. It would have been consummately fake of Ice-T to continue to pretend to be a gangster.

 

One of the more common type of comments to be found on the YouTube videos of various Louisiana gangster rappers is a hierarchy of realness. Number one is unanimous: it is Soulja Slim. Slim was a rapper from the Magnolia Projects who was shot in front of his mother’s house in November, 2003, just as he was beginning to blow up nationally (Juvenile’s “Slow Motion”, featuring Slim, became a huge hit just a few months later). Slim wore a tattoo of a green cross between his eyes. In New Orleans hustler culture, this tattoo signifies that the man who wears it has the honorable distinction of having killed five enemies. This distinction – having killed – is an important one. VL Mike too was a “certified killer”. In the words of YouTube user lil teek:

“Nussie & VL Mike = super steet niggas, one man armies, stackin but not crazy rich, had tons of bodies underthere belts, ended up dead; Lil Boosie & BG = certified hustlers but not killers, surrounded by goons & known killers, got stupid money, ended up in jail.” [3]

Unfortunately, there is no way of ascertaining Mike’s body count. What is a matter of public record is that he did jail time for killing a man with a gun. In his interview with raptalk.net, Mike claimed that although BG was certainly a “certified hustler”, he was not a certified killer like Mike. For this reason, Mike claims that New Orleans “tells me that BG is not on my level”.

Note here as well that authenticity is always situated in the Other, in the system as such, in the rules of the Game, here incarnated by the City of New Orleans. We must be careful here: New Orleans is not just shorthand for “the rules of the Game”; its body, its very quiddity is the Game (cf. my paper entitled The Unconscious of New Orleans).

We find in Mike’s comments another implicit G-Code injunction: pursue the death drive as far as it can go. This too goes under “keeping it real”. To be a hustler is to possess a savoir-faire in the underworld, but to be a killer is to contravene the overworld’s greatest taboo and banish oneself body and soul to the underworld forever. To kill is to cross a line that cannot be uncrossed, which is not a sacrifice required to be a certified hustler. When we kill, we also cannot escape the powerful identification with the victim, the objet petit a that literally falls out of the discourse of the master and becomes an abject thing when his life is taken [4].

Let us take another approach to the Real. As we learn from Lacan, the Real is synonymous with jouissance. To keep it real must thus mean to pursue jouissance. This drive to jouissance has a name: the death drive, a concept which was met with immediate refusal upon its theorization. After the first World War, Freud posited its existence to explain the otherwise inexplicable compulsion to repeat trauma that he found in his patients who had been through the horrors of the war. (It must also be said that at this time Freud suffered a number of personal traumas: the death of his daughter and also the death of a beloved grandson, Heinnerl, at the age of five. He also contracted a painful cancer of the mouth that would handicap him for the rest of his life.) The death drive has divided psychoanalysts ever since, and has been theorized and re-theorized in a number of ways.

For Freud, there existed two opposing drives: Eros, which tended towards unity, and Thanatos, which tended towards entropy. Yet there is something unsatisfying about this brute duality. Wilhelm Reich was an early and vocal critic of the death drive. For Reich, there is no such thing as Thanatos, and all expressions of morbidity, sadism, perversion, etc. must be explained as simple distortions and detours imposed on the life drives by reality. For his part, Lacan flips Reich on his head and claims that there is only one drive, but it is Thanatos and not Eros. Francoise Dolto nuances these conceptions by suggesting that any drive attached to a fantasy/psychic representation (no matter how sadistic or destructive) must be considered a life drive, while the true death drives are those drives which operate in absolute silence, those impossible-to-sublimate cellular forces in our body that cause us to age and die. Dolto’s views lead the way to the third metapsychological topic proposed by Christophe Dejours in Le Corps d’Abord (following Freud’s second topic illustrating the relationship between Id, Ego and Superego) in which Dejours claims that men would be gods if they were able to channel all of their drives away from the silent self-destruction of the inner organs and towards sublimation through fantasy.

In a certain sense, all of these definitions of the death drive are valid, and simply highlight different moments in the dialectic of drive. It is the dialectical moment isolated by Reich that interests us here. We might claim that the perverse valorization of crime, violence, rapacity, destruction, misogyny, money, drug addiction, etc. that can be found in gangster rap is the only possible destiny of a life drive that has been thwarted and rerouted through a history of slavery, segregation, oppression, etc. In other words, when one grows up in an environment that for reasons both endogenous and exogenous offers no encouragement or opportunity for the life drives to express themselves in a sublimated form (a form made sublime by access to the Master-Signifier), the force of one’s death drive becomes the sole measure of a person’s desire to survive. Once again we encounter the health gap between black and white Americans, one that might be explained by an appeal to Dejours’ third topic, in which those drives that have never been harnessed to fantasies, even destructive ones, can only be absorbed by the internal organs of the body, leading to earlier systemic failure (something that is also common in schizophrenics, for example, whose short life expectancy cannot be explained otherwise).

Drive can only become desire through the action of the signifier. For desire to circulate, discourse must be allowed to breathe, to move back and forth between its two constitutive poles, S1 and S2. If one of these positions is blocked off – in this case, the position of S1, the Master-Signifier – the dialectic stagnates, falling into sterile repetition of the same instead of a constant engagement with negativity (Hegel’s “bad infinite”).

We might here also refer to the work of Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, who insist on the trivalent (and also dialectical) nature of the symbol/symptom in psychoanalysis. For Torok and Abraham, a symptom/symbol always has three functions. First, it emerges as a solution to a lower-level conflict. Second, it serves as the formulation in germ of a higher-level conflict. Third, it gives body to the eternal presence of conflict as such, which can never be exorcised completely.

Synthesizing these approaches, we ought to celebrate fantasies whenever they emerge, even destructive ones, because what they symbolize and replace is always something even worse: the silence of the death drive in its pure state. We might here address one of the more troubling paradoxes of gangster rap, namely the fact that it simultaneously serves as an incitement to destruction and a means of transcending that destruction.

As destructive and morbid as some of the forms it celebrates are, by offering a template for the death drive, it forces it up one notch on the ladder of sublimation, even for those who “take it seriously” enough to act out the fantasies it depicts.

In the hard world of the black ghetto, the formulation and articulation of a fantasy of destruction is thus celebrated, rightfully, as a triumph of humanity over the silence of the death drives. To produce a fantasy when you have nothing is the basic alchemical act of the human spirit. This is also why it is so difficult to give up one’s symptoms in psychoanalysis: before our symptoms were problems they were ingenious solutions to even more pressing problems, and to abandon one’s symptom is to abandon that complex, that entity which once saved our lives.

Here we come back to the fascinating figure of Soulja Slim. Soulja Slim always kept it real. From a personal point of view, what strikes me most about Slim is his expressive face. Given his history and persona, the power and authenticity of his smile (seen, for example, in his last videotaped interview) is amazing. On the other hand, when Slim puts on his killer face, as he does most of the time (cf. “Either You Love Me Or You Love Me Not”), he looks like something from a nightmare, nothing less than an actual demon from Hell. When he makes this face it is not difficult to imagine the man who has killed at least five enemies in battle.

Soulja Slim’s face is thus the window through which we can see the dialectical progression of the pure living substance from formless death drive to concrete fantasy to newly formless joy “on the other side” of the fantasy. Is this not what Lacan refers to as “the traversal of the fantasy”? Perhaps Slim’s appeal lies not in his biography or his lyrics but in the expressivity of his face, one in which we are allowed, through Slim’s generosity, to witness uncensored the entire cycle of drive, one that, when caught in some version of the analytic process – and I think we must consider Slim’s rapping to be an analytic process – progresses in a sort of upward spiral, one that, with each loop around the fantasy, each successive traversal of the fantasy, leads the subject further and further towards subjectivity proper and with it an ever-increasing distance in relation to unleavened death drive.

Lacan isolated two possible modes of traversing the window of the fundamental fantasy that forms the kernel of the death drive (written $ <> a). One could jump through the lozenge to attain the objet petit a directly; this is the formula for the suicidal passage to the act in which one attempts to rejoin the illusory “other side” of the primordial repressed. Alternatively, one could take the long analytical journey along the paradoxical surface of the cross-cap only to find oneself back in front of the same window, through which one sees the exact same illusory object, even though topologically, one is now on the other side. At this point, the other side is finally recognized as a mirage that we can never detach ourselves from completely.

This duality of the means of engaging with completeness — for what is the traversal of the fantasy if not a passage from consistency to completeness? — haunts rap culture. Jung said, a propos of James Joyce and his psychotic daughter Lucia, that where James dove, Lucia drowned. The injunction to pursue completeness (union with the objet petit a) can lead to two destinies: either the difficult traversal of the cross-cap leading to subjective destitution, or the short jump through the window. The astronomical crime rate in New Orleans (and what is “crime” if not an attempt to seize the object directly, refusing the mediation of the signifier?), often the highest in the US, suggests that the latter “solution” remains endemic. (In 1994, when Soulja Slim was seventeen and wilding out in the streets, New Orleans tallied 435 murders for 430,000 citizens, or one murder per thousand people.) Here we see exactly why crime does not pay. No matter how unjust the master’s discourse may be, the imaginary object to which it mediates the access for those on the inside has no consistency outside of this discourse. The last essence of the objet petit a is that it is an imaginary crystallization of the dialectical process as such, and has no value outside of the dialectic. Any attempt to rejoin the object directly must be considered a passage to the act, i.e. a greater or lesser form of suicide. Any refusal of the signifier (to be understood in both the ablative and genitive senses, i.e. as a refusal of the subject by the master’s discourse and vice-versa) can only lead to the illusion that if one could somehow procure the object “directly”, one’s subjective division would finally be overcome. Here lies the ongoing damage left by the legacy of slavery: the original disqualification of any given subject from the master’s discourse — a form of symbolic murder — necessarily generates a belief in the providential properties of the object. This logic lies at the heart of the massive belief in the object (both the sublime object of consumption and the abject object of criminal violence) that has come to form the core of rap music. The endless stream of objects in rap videos (Cristal champagne, Lamborghinis, gold watches) must be understood as a variation on a cargo cult ceremony in which the object is gloriously deployed in an unconscious attempt to regenerate the discourse of the master that originally produced it and with it some matrix in which subjectivity can emerge. We will come back to this.

Let us now turn our attention to another prominent New Orleans rapper, Lil’ Wayne. For several years now as of this writing (March, 2013), Lil’ Wayne has been the undisputed top rapper in hip-hop. Wayne, from the 17th ward in New Orleans, started rapping at age eleven, when Baby and Slim Williams (the co-founders of Cash Money) discovered him. Along with BG (Baby Gangsta), Young Turk, and Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne was a member of the Hot Boys. It must be stated in passing that there is something strange going on here: a street hustler nicknamed “Baby” creates a group called the “Hot Boys” with four rappers, all of whose monikers identify them as small or young. To this can be added the scandal of Baby and Lil’ Wayne’s open-mouth kiss at a promotional event in 2006. VL Mike, in his diss of BG, suggests that Birdman (Baby) used to “show BG the same love” he showed Lil’ Wayne behind closed doors. Baby and Wayne refer to themselves as father and son. In addition, there is something strange about the relationship between Baby and his brother/partner Slim. Baby loves the spotlight as much as Slim appears to hate it. There is also the question of their bodies. Although coming from the same parents, Slim is gigantic at 6’9″ tall whereas Baby appears no more than three or four inches taller than the 5’5″ Lil’ Wayne. It is tempting to suggest that Slim and Baby function as a sort of S1-S2 binary, but there is clearly not enough information here to attempt a clinical picture of what must be a fascinating fantasy of paternity linking all of these players. Is Baby the fifth hot boy in Slim’s eyes? Is the entire spectacle of Baby’s life a show put on for Slim’s gaze? This hypothesis illustrates the difference between S1, which stands alone as a first inscription, and S2, which is always an element in a metonymic series (Baby -> Baby Gangsta -> Lil’ Wayne -> etc.).

Does Lil’ Wayne keep it real? The question remains open. Appealing to YouTube comments is not as effective a methodology here inasmuch as Lil’ Wayne’s global popularity has led the comment boards to be saturated with comments from twelve-year-olds from places like the Philippines or Serbia. Wayne is occasionally discussed on other boards frequented only by aficionados of New Orleans gangster rap. There appear to be two rival positions. On the one hand, some claim that Wayne has simply gone too far and become too fake. After the Hot Boys disbanded, Wayne ditched the oversized gangster uniform and embraced a more metrosexual style: skinny pants, skateboards, dreadlocks, rocker sunglasses, bright colors. He goes as far as to wear pink skinny jeans in his new video with Mystikal.

 

It might be suggested in passing that this surprising evolution of black urban aesthetics represents a true sea change. Rather than whites cannibalizing black culture, with Lil’ Wayne we see blacks appropriating an aesthetic that until then had been exclusively white. I believe the argument can be made that this is a direct result of the election of a black president. Perhaps the symbolic presence of a black man in the White House has liberated certain blacks to move, for the first time, from the position of S2 to the position of S1. In Hegel’s dialectic of the Master and the Slave, the master is the person who produces nothing and simply enjoys the fruits of his slave’s labor. Lacan exported this dialectic from interpersonal relations to the structure of language as such, suggesting that all meaning production followed the same pattern. Ice-T echos this when he claims, in the interview cited above, that his experience as a pimp taught him that one is always either a pimp or a ho, and keeping it real consists in knowing exactly where one stands in relation to the master (signifier).

The ascension of a black man to the ultimate position of Mastery liberated certain fearless black men like Lil’ Wayne to realize that a new symbolic frontier had just been opened for them to explore. After hundreds of years of remaining, in one way or another, in the position of S2 — the position of the slave who works for the master, the slave whose identity is guaranteed and made consistent by the existence of an external master – the position of S1 had finally been vacated. This is not to claim that racism is no longer operative, only that the example of Barack Obama makes explicitly visible the crucial psychoanalytic insight that the Master does not exist and never has, that only the place of the Master exists, an empty throne that can be seized by anyone who is courageous enough to put himself there.

I believe that the aesthetic transformations spearheaded by Lil’ Wayne and the death of gangster rap that he implicitly incarnates are a direct consequence of the tearing away of a curtain that for so long had concealed the emptiness of the S1 position.

It is not surprising, then, that Wayne divides the hip-hop community so sharply. A lot of rap fans find his kiss with Baby inexcusable. A lot of rap fans protest against the new look of rap that he has shaped as well as his attempts to merge rap culture with white youth culture (releasing a rock and roll album, for example). From a musical point of view, the “new” Wayne has abandoned the rhythmic, pulsating Mannie Fresh beats and stereotyped gangster braggadocio that once defined Dirty South rap in favor of something else. His new style shows a fascination with wordplay and repetitive, even unmusical productions that have nothing in common with the dance music he used to make. Wayne’s defenders seem to appreciate, implicitly or explicitly, that this loss represents a necessary sacrifice if one is to abandon the limited but reassuring and consistent position of S2 and move to the freer but more uncertain position of S1. What has been lost is an image of self-coincidence. If whites like me are so fascinated with gangster rap, perhaps it is because gangster rappers present a compelling image of themselves as undivided, identical with themselves, in perfect symbiosis with the social field — a mode of existence that has long been lost for many whites.

This point raises a troubling question: is the famous and celebrated solidarity of black culture in the United States a symbol and symptom of black oppression, one that must be abandoned in order to close the many “gaps” that separate black Americans from white Americans? Is the “completeness” that they embody a form of enforced collective psychosis? Take the example of black criminality. Another rule of the G-Code is don’t snitch. Of course, the first victims of this rule are other G’s. Every time one gangster keeps it real, another dies. Such a system can only self-destruct. Rather than simply using psychosis as a metaphor, perhaps this observation can, in proper dialectical fashion, shed new light on the mechanism of psychosis itself: a process by which one “piece” of the whole attacks another in an attempt finally to achieve completeness, one which only hastens the destruction of the whole itself. To return to Godel, psychosis is a privileging of completeness over consistency, and in this sense, an ethics of completeness must be considered a psychotic ethics.

 

The message that Wayne is announcing is nothing less than the truth of the signifier as such. By focusing on meaningless wordplay instead of attempting to paint a consistent picture of undivided phallic narcissism, Wayne is shouting that the emperor has no clothes, that the price of freedom is the acceptance of subjective division at the hands of the signifier and the loss of the illusion of perfect fusion with oneself and one’s community. By making his music aggressively undanceable (viz., his breakthrough hit “A Milli”, released in 2008, six months before Obama’s election – perhaps an astute political observer could even have predicted Obama’s victory based on this song), Wayne seems to be suggesting that any form of jouissance that involves a return to the imaginary unity of body and signifier (represented by dance), individual and society, is inherently a spectacle put on for the gaze of the (white) Master whose own consistency is procured by cannibalizing this image of self-unity projected by his slaves.

Many fans of hardcore gangster rap seem on some level to realize this, and this is why Wayne inspires a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, he must be repudiated: his very existence divides them from their image of themselves and their communities, and reveals them as lacking — lack being the price of subjectivity. On the other hand, Wayne is fearlessly allowing himself to enjoy “like a white man” and this inspires respect. In this sense, Lil’ Wayne resembles another icon, Michael Jackson, whose exploration of whiteness earned him a lot of criticism from the black community while he was alive, only to be completely exonerated and recognized as an agent of liberation for the black community after his death.

Tarantino’s Django Unchained thus emerged when it did for a reason, as a response to the zeitgeist. What we see in this movie is something new in cinema: a true representation of a black man’s accession to the place of S1.

The future leads through Lil’ Wayne and not Soulja Slim. This does not prevent us from celebrating what Slim accomplished. In his own way, he was a forerunner of the new program of liberation championed by Lil’ Wayne. Slim was a folk hero in that he was able, for a certain time at least, to choose the traversal of the cross-cap over the jump through the window. Returning to Torok and Abraham, a symptom/symbol always emerges at a precise moment in the dialectical/analytic process and incarnates both a synthesis of what came before and the announcement of a new antithesis. Slim thus retroactively appears as the apotheosis of everything that had existed in rap culture until then. As such he incarnated the ever-expanding dialectic itself, and in a certain sense cleared the field for the emergence of what would come next.

As they were crossing the Atlantic to introduce psychoanalysis to the New World, Freud remarked famously to Jung that the Americans didn’t realize that they were bringing them the plague. I want to close this essay with this quotation in order that we might not fall into the trap Hegel fell into, that of imagining an “end of History” where humanity would finally coincide with itself perfectly. Yes, Lil’ Wayne incarnates the passage from one mode of social organization to another, but can we really say that this represents progress? Does the greater amplitude of subjectivity announced by Lil’ Wayne (and here we must remember that to be a subject is to be subjected to the signifier) constitute a step in the direction of greater freedom or a step in the direction of a loss of freedom? To return to an earlier problematic, is Lil’ Wayne simply an agent of the increasing universalization of an epistemology of consistency at the expense of an epistemology of completeness? Is the progress from an epistemology/ethics of inconsistent completeness to an epistemology/ethics of incomplete consistency determined by the dialectical form itself — in other words, is it something that “must” happen — or does it represent just one possible destiny among others, one whose consequences may or may not be “good” for us?

We have no choice but to wait and see. I believe that all we can do is observe this inexorable process, one that appears, on every level, to be headed in the same direction without appeal: the direction of universalization, of the liquidation of the inconsistent multiple and the march towards the consistent One. But there is no way for us to know whether or not what is waiting for us at the end of this dialectical process is Freedom or rather the guillotine that we will voluntarily behead ourselves with.

 

[1] The YouTube comments attached to gangster rap videos are a rich source of information. Here is the virtual forum where the living, breathing folk epistemology of gangster rap is discussed, refined, and analyzed.

[2] In the Master’s discourse, which is also the discourse of the unconscious, the objet petit a is located underneath S2, in the lower right-hand position:

[3] Lil’ Boosie is a Baton Rouge rapper currently awaiting trial on multiple murder charges. Nussie is a less well-known Baton Rouge rapper who was murdered, perhaps by Boosie.

[4] Illustrated by Gerard Wajcman’s Conversations sur tout ce qui tombe at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, 2012-2013.

 

A response to Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

A few weeks ago I Googled my name for the first time in years.

The very first link that appears when you Google my name is a blog post by someone named Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei [sic] in response to a paper I wrote entitled “The Albanian Object”. Curious to read what Mr. Oei might have written about me, I clicked the link.

I learned that Mr. Oei is a Dutch philosopher and conceptual artist living in Tirana. He is roughly my age and appears to be interested in the same things that I am interested in. He may be the single best-qualified person in the world to criticize my paper on Albania, originally posted here and re-posted here.

To Google your own name is to regress temporarily to the mirror stage, i.e. the developmental moment we cede some essential piece of ourselves to an idealized mirror image with which we will never coincide. From this moment on, every other person we ever encounter will find himself, to some extent, haunted by the ghost of the original rival who paradoxically made me whole by stealing a piece of my being. The mirror stage also sets up the structural confusion between the small other (the rival) and the big Other (language as such, the true site of our alienation from ourselves). Once our pact with the mirror has been concluded, our center is no longer located inside us but must be sought out somewhere in the field of the big Other, with a necessary detour through some small other. 

Mr. Oei thus immediately appeared in the mirror of the internet as an alter ego, a double whose existence implicitly threatened my own. In many ways Mr. Oei is like me, only better. He speaks more languages than I do (including Albanian). He has written more than I have. His philosophical references are more diverse, sophisticated, and up-to-date than mine are. His papers are formatted better than mine are. He has a more impressive CV than I do. He has a career. He has participated in artistic interventions in places like Japan. He has an established name, whereas my larval name is only beginning to wriggle around the net. He seems like…a cool guy.

So, what did Mr. Oei have to say about my paper?

He hated it. He didn’t just hate it, he hated me. The tone of his critique is highly personal and full of vitriol. He calls me “boy”, accuses me of racism, insults my father, and makes fun of my name.

I was dumbfounded. After thirty-four years of fleeing the mirror stage, of denying my own alienation in the Other, I had finally found the courage to cede part of myself to this Other, and this was the Other’s first response: hatred and rejection.

I lay down on my bed to think about what Mr. Oei had written. But…but…I’m a nice guy! Maybe he was right. Maybe I was a fraud with a derivative style and nothing to say. No, he was right. What was I thinking, trying to publish my writing?

Philosophically, I am a one-trick pony. I am not as widely read as I “should” be. My principal references are extremely limited: Kierkegaard, Hegel, Beckett, Freud, Lacan, a few others. I have read none of these thinkers exhaustively but they have all changed the way I live my life. When I read a philosopher whose voice does not interest me, I stop reading. Whether or not I should be familiar with his work is immaterial. However, my limitations are also my strengths. I am more interested in the singular truth incarnated by voice than the generic truth expressed by the words themselves. If I have authorized myself to use thinkers whose oeuvre I have not fully digested (as I do in “The Albanian Object”) it is not from the point of view of an academic but from the point of view of a man who has been transformed by his encounters with truth. Here is the only source of my authority. By any other standard, I am not qualified to enter the arena with specialists like Mr. Oei whose voices have been ratified by the Other of the philosophy grad-school circuit.

I thought back to Lacan’s schema L. In this diagram, he contrasts the two axes constitutive of our relationship with the world. The first axis is the imaginary axis, the relationship of the (Freudian) ego to the alter ego, who is by definition a rival. The second axis is the Symbolic axis, the relationship of the (barred) subject to the (barred) big Other.

 

 

My initial reading of the text had been along the Symbolic axis: I had bared my subjectivity and the big Other (the internet, the philosophy establishment as incarnated by Mr. Oei) had not criticized it so much as sodomized it.

But if we look at the schema L, we see that the subject-Other axis is impossible to realize in a direct way. It is blocked by the second axis, that linking the ego and the alter ego. With this in mind, I read Mr. Oei’s text a second time, focusing not on the symbolic Subject-Other axis but rather on the imaginary ego-alter ego axis. Suddenly Mr. Oei’s words were no longer the words of the big Other but rather the voice of a simple alter ego, a small other, a rival, another barred subject with no privileged access to the center of my being (or his own), no privileged access to the real meaning of my words, no privileged access to the truth.

I began to cheer up, and I began to get angry too. Had Mr. Oei simply allowed himself politely to rebut my thesis, I would have taken my ass-whipping like a man and gotten back to work. However, the tone of his criticism is so personal that I cannot ignore it. Worse, his slanderous expropriation of my name is not buried in some dark corner of the internet. It is the first thing that appears when my name is Googled, above even my own website!

One of the necessary consequences of inhabiting a name, of speaking from a fixed place, is that you will polarize. To have a voice means to open yourself up to the possibility (even the necessity) of rejection. No sooner had I entered the arena than I had made my first enemy. I have never had an enemy of any sort before, probably because I have never dared attempt to address the Other directly before. (“Many enemies, much honor” was a favorite saying of Freud’s.) I looked at some of Mr. Oei’s other writings. No, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei was not the Big Other. He’s written a lot of bullshit, in fact. Some of it is bullshit because he’s wrong, some of it is bullshit because it’s boring, some of it is bullshit because it’s choked with opaque fashionable jargon. (Some of what he has written is also very interesting.) I began to enjoy myself as I wrote my response, allowing myself to make my criticisms personal, even scatological. Fuck this joker…after all, if the truth can only be approached through the singularity of our voice, wouldn’t the only truly philosophical rebuttal be one that aims at the voice of the writer, the writer’s voice as object, and not the external content of the words it speaks?

There is a scene in Karate Kid III where Ralph Macchio, under the influence of an evil sensei, begins using karate for evil instead of for good. I wish to channel that evil sensei and use psychoanalysis for evil by attempting to laser down to the unconscious fantasies that emerge here and there in Mr. Oei’s writing in order to mock them. Afterwards, like Macchio, I will repent and return to Mr. Miyagi.

Critic Paul Fussel considered responding to criticism to be the Author’s Big Mistake. That may be true in the case of established fiction authors. However, unlike my enemy, I am an author without readers, and if even one of Mr. Oei’s fans ends up on my website after Googling his name, than I have just increased my readership by a considerable percentage. And what is philosophy if not a dialogue? In any case, the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity trumps Fusselian circumspection in my case. 50 Cent did not hesitate to start beef with more established rappers to gain publicity, baiting them into responding and thus transferring some of their public to him. Let’s see if Mr. Oei will fall into the same trap if I mock him enough…

So, without further ado, here is a link to Mr. Oei’s destruction of “The Albanian Object”, followed by my rebuttal.

My original article: http://timothylachin.com/?p=35

Mr. Oei’s response: http://continentcontinent.cc/blog/2012/11/the-unofficial-view-of-tirana-52/

 

MY REBUTTAL PROPER

I am the author of “The Albanian Object”. Mr. Oei absolutely destroys my paper here, doesn’t he?

Rebutting individual arguments is boring for anyone but the two philosophers waving their dialectics at each other, so I’ll make my niggling brief.

Mr. Oei’s first concrete counter-argument is weak. He contrasts the blitheness of my armchair theorizing about isolation with the horror of the real Albanians for whom “isolation” means being burned, torpedoed, and drowned.

This is an sub-variation of an argumentum ad martyrdom worthy of the hypocritical Mother Teresa, an Albanian so fascinated by suffering that she dedicated her life to propagating it. How dare I speculate about isolation from my comfortable desk when real people are suffering? Taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument invalidates any attempt to theorize anything, inasmuch as thought can never fully explain or evacuate suffering. Why should Mr. Oei’s hysterical identification with the Albanian bodies whose fate he only shares in his imagination (and the enjoyment such an identification procures him) lend his own reflections on isolation any more gravitas?

Mr. Oei’s next argument is stronger: he exposes incidental factual inaccuracies in my cursory exposition of Albanian history. Language groups…whatever. In my defense I will say only that these inaccuracies in no way invalidate the larger thesis of my paper; they simply detract from its authority. Yes, I found “cherry poppers” on the internet. So what? Even if it isn’t true, se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Mr. Oei then dismisses my reflections on Albania’s bunkers by saying that no one cares about them anymore, not even artists. I would respond that the seven hundred thousand concrete bunkers, which remain the most bizarre and recognizable feature of Albania’s built environment, are only played out to people who live in Albania. To anyone who has never been there or knows nothing about this insane country, which is to say almost everyone, the bunkers are worth mentioning. His argumentum ad martyrdom has here become an argumentum ad snobbery.

Mr. Oei next invalidates my metaphorical description of the bunkers as random, viral concrete eczema with an appeal to hard military logic: “Nor was their logic ‘viral,’ they are placed according to a well-structured (yet obsolete) strategic defense plan.”

To suggest that the bunkers were placed strategically is implicitly to accept Hoxha’s delusional invasion fantasy as a realistic premise. Of course, once you enter into the psychotic delusion, everything begins to make sense. The delusion, by its very nature, will spread (“virally”) until it has transformed everything into itself. Mr. Oei even gives us an excellent characterization of paranoia without intending to: “a well-structured (yet obsolete) defense plan.”

Mr. Oei next accuses me of…racism. After sanctimony and snobbery thus comes ideology. Within the ideology to which Mr. Oei belongs (leftist intellectual hysterics of the abolish-the-Other variety), there is no more serious charge than that of racism. I have learned to recognize that accusations of racism are never directed towards actual racists but only towards anyone who dares, directly or indirectly, to defend the idea that difference in its most troubling state is a non-negotiable, non-abolishable structural feature of subjectivity. 

The libidinal underpinning of this refusal of difference is a regressive desire never to have to confront loss, or in other words, the unconscious fantasy of a joyful reunion with the Other, finally drained of all troubling Otherness.

I constantly feel the drive of someone who appeals to a Žižek-like sexiness that however is hampered by a writing style and lack of original ideas that only makes one painfully aware of a career that will never really take off.

Mr. Oei is nothing if not slick. His website design, his writing style, even his personal appearance (I watched one of his videos) are smooth, sleek, and fashionable. He is an attractively-packaged consumer product. The tagline of the online journal that Mr. Oei co-edits (www.continentcontinent.com) gives us a foretaste of Mr. Oei’s discursive style:

continent. [sic] maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.

This is the philosophical equivalent of an iPhone: sleek, seductive, full of cool apps, a hot Christmas seller, but ultimately just a cosmetic update on an old technology, one whose only value lies in its ability to mediate our access to some living libidinal object. Compared to Mr. Oei’s iPhilosophizing, my own expressly messy texts can appear only as a sort of organic refuse. I do not consider myself a forger of new ideas. I do not even consider myself a philosopher. My ambition is to share the one central idea whose liberating power I have had the fortune to encounter in my life: the existence of the unconscious. For a dynamic forward thinker like Mr. Oei, however, repetition and restatement have no value inasmuch as they imply the existence of a recalcitrant truth that refuses to get up in those sweet interstices. Mr. Oei’s prizing of glib, hollow “new ideas” must be considered a symptom of his philosophical impotence, his desire to close his eyes and philosophize without objects, without a world, without shit. Fuck new ideas. I like the old ones.

From this point on, Mr. Oei’s attacks begin to get personal. When I mention Enver Hoxha’s house, I receive the following bizarre outburst:

Looking for your daddy, boy?

He makes another reference to my father a little further down.

Where did this man grow up? An all-white upper middle class house with mowed lawn and impotent father?

Not too far from the truth, although I can’t answer for my father’s potency. (He does like to mow the lawn.) Mr. Oei, what sort of super-authentic place did you grow up that conferred on you your right to speak? What are your own origin fantasies? You actually use the same metaphor I (and others) use for Albania: the black hole of Europe. I wrote about why I went there. So I will pose the same question to you: why did you go there? In what way is your fascination with Albania, a place where you do not belong, different than mine? Who do you want to be? You use Edward Said elsewhere to accuse a Dutch journalist of “orientalizing” Albania. No wonder this journalist upset you: he was encroaching on your own private orientalizing ground. After all, enjoying one’s exquisite hysterical identification with the victims of orientalization is just as effective a way of maintaining this orientalization in place.

In another post you praise the Albanian conception of honor, one with which you identify. Do you think the average Albanian recognizes his sense of blood honor in your hysterical posturing? Do you not see that it is impossible to marry this kind of honor with your idea of a free society (one that, for example, includes abolishing marriage)? Or are you just there for the beautiful, round, uncorrupted, orientalized asses that you slaver over in another post?

In fact, the specter of ass is all over Mr. Oei’s response to my text. First of all, the destructiveness he displays has a decidedly anal-sadistic character. Second of all, the tone of visceral disgust he employs is generally reserved for the encounter with the anal object. Third, his entire text can be considered a sublimated attempt to establish dominance by bending me over and fucking me in the ass (you wish, buddy!). Let it be noted that psychoanalysis has long recognized that such unconscious fantasies emerge as a defense against the more primordial fantasy of passively submitting to penetration, a fantasy that actually appears elsewhere in an encrypted form on Mr. Oei’s Albania blog.

Mr. Oei is not incorrect to claim that the portrait of Albania that I draw is a mix between reality and my own fantasy. The difference between us is that I make this distinction visible. The gaps in my familiarity with Albania are front and center. Mr. Oei, on the other hand, attempts to hide his fantasy of Albania under the alibi of his real knowledge of life there. “Hey pal…I’m not just some joker who spent a week there on a whim…I LIVE there…I speak the language…I chill with Albanians…I get freaky with Albanians…I have enlightened opinions about Albanians…” The fact is that Mr. Oei still sees Tirana as a black hole and gets off on living there for that reason.

An ugly consequence of the irreducibility of ontological difference is the necessary encounter with the abject it entails. Any honest attempt to understand our experience of the world has to confront our fundamental abjection and impotence, which must be recognized as such. This abjection is the philosophical object that appears nowhere in Mr. Oei’s writing, dedicated as it is to an infantile, polymorophously perverse fantasy of political liberation and an eternal avoidance of the confrontation with difference. Hence his implicit judgment of my supposed misery as an ethical failure. I would on the contrary suggest that Mr. Oei’s endless privileging of flux is the true ethical failure, inasmuch as our first ethical injunction as writers is to attempt to capture and symbolize it, the horrible Freudian das Ding that eternally weighs us down in our attempts to realize immanence, desire and circulation. Where I focus on the abjection and misery that I suggest are visible in the hard faces of Albanian men, Mr. Oei focuses on their beautiful asses. Here I will simply rejoin that, as both Rilke and Lacan observed, beauty is the last veil before horror.

Actually, the horrible, disgusting object at the heart of being does make an appearance in Mr. Oei’s writing. It is my text, my Albanian Object that appears to Mr. Oei as a stain on the internet, one that “makes him want to puke”. Mr. Oei is here projecting repressed content onto an external element that can be symbolically destroyed. For someone who refuses to engage with anything but surfaces, any reference to an object proper can only appear as indecent, old-fashioned, racist, disgusting…

When I suggest that in Albania “S1 and the chain of S2’s, rather than transforming smoothly back and forth into each other, haunt each other without ever meeting halfway”, Mr. Oei responds with…a sex fantasy! “I know of no place on earth where this happens except for my bedroom.” We have here a succinct illustration of how the unconscious, when confronted with the existence of irreconcilable difference (here, between S1 and S2) can only respond with an imaginary fantasy of a beatific sexualized union in which this difference is negated — an operation that forms the core of Mr. Oei’s philosophizing. This is even a possible definition of ideology: a philosophy which ignores Lacan’s dictum that “there is no sexual rapport”.

As for my own misery and isolation…once again, that is the not-so-hidden point of the essay. I went to Albania in a moment of deep despair. I wanted to go somewhere miserable, somewhere that would reflect this despair back to me. This is one of the paradoxes of the death drive: it is its own therapy. Was I selfishly using (my fantasy of) Albania to cure myself of my despair? Yes. “Albania” is shorthand across the world for isolation and misery, and that is why I went there. Yes, Albania is full of unique people living lives of dignity. That does not change the uncomfortable fact that Albania sucks. The larger question I attempt to raise without answering in my text is the question of the gratuitous nature of these tumor-like formations of abjection and misery that continue to irrupt no matter how hard we try to reabsorb them into circulation (via the kind of sterile political, intellectual and artistic interventions championed by Mr. Oei and his fellow mappers of unstable confluences).

Since Mr. Oei allowed himself to speculate on my own unconscious identifications (“aspires to a Zizek-like sexiness”) and narcissistic fantasies, I will permit myself the same liberty. Mr. Oei is a hysteric, an erudite and intelligent one who uses his learning and the authority of the philosophical establishment that legitimizes his symptom to conceal the true nature of his jouissance. Behind his sleekly packaged bullshit, he is getting off on rubbing his enlightened progressivism, his hatred and refusal of difference, in the faces of people whose entire identity, one he claims to appreciate, one based on difference, paternity, and honor of the most politically incorrect variety, could never survive the confrontation with his own fantasies.

I allowed myself to go to Albania, take a look, and go home. Where I am a tourist, Mr. Oei is a missionary, one whose disrespect for the local population is so deep that he feels it is his duty to enlighten them.

I’m almost done. This role-playing — the missionary, the victim, the martyr, the engaged philosopher, the liberator — marks the spot where Mr. Oei’s imaginary and symbolic identifications lead down to something deeper. Over the course of a psychoanalysis, the unconscious is explored layer by layer. On top is the ego, composed of imaginary identifications with various ideal egos and symbolic identifications with abstract ego ideals. Below these identifications we begin to approach the fundamental fantasy, the humiliating scene in which the subject is articulated with the horrible (Real) object that forms the support of his being. It is only when we finally arrive at this fantasy that we realize that all of our beautiful symbolic and imaginary identifications are nothing but secondary constructions which derive their consistency from the ugly and meaningless sexualized fantasy that forms the core of our being (cf. Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten”).

Mr. Oei’s mocking of my filiation (although I suspect that it is not my filiation in particular but the concept of filiation as such that bothers him, inasmuch as it involves a necessary encounter with sexual difference) culminates with an attempt to find a hidden signification in the very letters of my name. Mr. Oei could have at least made the association with “Lacking” — as in, lacking rigor, lacking references, lacking style, lacking novelty, lacking insight, lacking interstices, lacking unstable confluences, lacking tact. Mr. Oei likes poetry and defends the poetic process of generating meaning by allowing the signifier and signified to copulate freely. Turning the tables, can we not detect an unconscious compulsion of the name at work for Mr. Oei as well? What is striking about the name “Oei” is that there are no consonants, nothing stable to give it any shape, just as there are no stable objects in his philosophy. Both are just gaping holes waiting to be filled up. And is not “Oei” similar in sound to the moans of pleasure emitted by someone submitting to penetration? In another post, Mr. Oei mentions going to the post office and buying “stamps showing the European Union flag with its rectum of yellow stars penetrated by the double-headed Albanian eagle.” A curious fantasy image to project onto a postage stamp! Fool, the circle is not a symbol of the rectum but of femininity. The circle is a symbol of a sacred, fertile interior, not a sterile, foul anus. This unconscious confusion between the asshole and the vagina offers us the key to understanding Mr. Oei’s texts. Here is the disavowed unconscious filiation fantasy that has brought the civilized European Mr. Oei to the black hole of Albania: to bend over and have his empty name, his sterile philosophizing, his stinking asshole, fucked and inseminated with hard, brutal, essentialized Albanian cock.

I am happy to have a man like this as an enemy!

In Praise of Bad Food

I have lived in Paris for nine years. In that time, I have witnessed the arrival of organic Sunday brunch, juice bars, gourmet hot dog shops, American-style food trucks, and, most recently, a gourmet cupcake shop on the rue Rambuteau. These businesses are without exception inspired by urban trends in the United States. They are hugely successful here in Paris.

The food served at these places is delicious. It is prepared and served by attractive, enthusiastic young people. It is organic. It is healthy. It is fair-trade. It is local. I refuse to eat it.

Why are these businesses so popular? After all, France is full of delicious food already. Why would a French person trade in a croissant for a cupcake? Why have cupcakes, of all objects, emerged as a hipster shibboleth?

What these restaurants sell is not food as such, but rather the promise of a new type of relationship with the object. “Object” is here intended in the psychoanalytic sense, as that missing piece of our bodies that must be captured for us to attain identity with ourselves. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this object constitutes the deepest kernel of our being. Although this object can take any shape, it inevitably appears in the guise of one of a limited number of socialized forms: cleavage, a diamond, a cupcake…

When Jacques Lacan proclaims that there is no sexual rapport, what he means is that the object, be it oral, anal, phallic, scopic, etc., can never be attained as such. The unconscious is organized around the repressed fantasy of fusion with this object, and the essence of neurosis is the belief that this internal, fantasized missing piece really exists in some positive external form and can be captured.

Psychoanalytic theory teaches us that the most primitive fantasy of merging with the object is the oral fantasy, derived from the baby’s relationship with the maternal breast. On an unconscious level, whenever we swallow food, we engage in the fantasy that we are incorporating the transcendental Object.

What is troubling about these faddish new restaurants is the regressive nature of the object they propose. Here is the difference between an organic, locally-produced hot dog and a good old-fashioned industrially produced hot dog made of animal ass. A normal hot dog is full of disgusting things we know we ought not to eat. It is bad for the environment. It is produced in factories by underpaid migrant workers. It is injected full of hormones. It doesn’t even taste good. When eating such a hot dog, we understand, on some level, that this object is not it, not the loving maternal breast, not the transcendental oral object that will finally make us whole. It is a damn snack. A neo-hot dog, on the other hand, by ridding itself of all of the “bad” elements, mobilizes the deep, archaic unconscious fantasy of the perfectly comestible oral object.

The series of new bad ingredients has even been given a shorthand name: gluten. Suddenly humanity can no longer eat bread. We need to stop and consider this for a moment. Bread. Although gluten is certainly a real substance, what is being rejected here is not an enzyme but the very concept of tradition, of a symbolic debt to the past, of a connection with our ancestors. The sudden inability of leftist digestive systems in major Anglophone world capitals to process bread must rather be understood as a form of mass hysteria. In other words, what is being rejected is not the substance gluten but the signifier “gluten”, which functions here as a neologism whose unconscious signified is the entire structure of traditional human society. (Novak Djokovic credits a gluten-free diet for allowing him to take his game to the next level. It would be interesting to submit him to psychoanalysis in order to find out what unconscious objects have found themselves subsumed under the signifier “gluten”.)

Here is the fantasy underlying so much of the current thrust of American consumerism: that of a perfectly good object (what could be more innocent and reassuring than a cupcake?) and, by extension, a perfectly good world, a perfectly good system, one from which conflict, evil, and loss (=gluten) have finally been banished. Of course, the history of humanity is littered with totalitarianisms whose starting point has always been a belief in the ability finally to banish Evil and realize the Good.

And do not all of these neo-restaurants have in common an implicit moral stance? Unlike Freeport McMoran or Halliburton, whose goal is to pursue evil under the guise of capitalism, the organic cupcake shop’s goal is to make the world a better, tastier place one cupcake at a time while still turning an honest profit. We are allowed to enjoy fancy gluten-free cupcakes with whimsical flavors because they are the rations of the Army of the Good, the righteous, the beautiful souls.

It is not by turning away from the necessity of conflict and taking refuge in a regressive fantasy of the Realm of the Good that we will attain social harmony. Rather, we must understand that social harmony is an illusion, and that it is only through Agon, through generative conflict, that we can exist both for ourselves and for each other.

Freud has been much maligned for his theory of the libidinal stages (oral, anal, phallic, and genital). Without entering into too much detail, the child’s libidinal development passes through several bottlenecks during which the object that had previously organized his erotic life is revealed to be inadequate. At some point, the child must stop sucking at the teat. This “must” is not a simple cultural prohibition but a biological, even a spiritual imperative, one that must be reflected back to the child by his educators for it to become operative. At this stage in the process, the original object falls away, only to be replaced by another object existing in another register.

In the series of the four Freudian stages, the decisive cut occurs between the phallic and the genital stages. Whereas the oral, anal, and phallic stages all revolve around the fantasy of a positively existing object that can be seized and incorporated, the genital stage is marked by the realization that the object has a paradoxical status. It is both real and mirage, good and evil, me and not-me, structurally necessary and impossible to attain. It is a surface-effect, one that hints at depths that can never be sounded. What Freud refers to as the genital phase might be reformulated in the language of epistemology is the acceptance of difference as the ground of knowledge and with it, human existence.

A “genital” form of social organization is one in which the oral fantasy of the perfectly just society has been abandoned in favor of an acceptance of the inevitability of lack, suffering, conflict, inequality, and death. The alchemy of subjectivity lies here, in the fact that it is only by acknowledging our constitutive incompleteness that we have any hope of overcoming it. Until this happens, any attempt to avoid this necessary passage through difference can only fall into some form of regressive inauthenticity.

As subjects, we are condemned never fully to coincide with ourselves, never fully to encounter the object, never completely to merge with the Other. This scandalous truth is embedded in the cultural institution of sexual difference, whose task it is to safeguard the traumatic truth of subjective division. Here is the link between genitality, understood literally, and epistemological difference. Sexual difference, the supreme metaphor for the epistemological difference that grounds language and human existence as such, is thus diametrically opposed to the archaic fantasy of orality, which promises to liberate us from the difficult obligation of accepting our incompleteness and coming to be as desiring subjects.

These new restaurants are just one new variation in the all-out war led by consumerism against the hard-won gains of millennia of civilization. They are animated by the fantasy that if we try hard enough, we can finally abolish difference, and with it subjectivity, once and for all.

To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, I like delicious hot dogs, and I’d rather eat muscle than ass cartilage, but I like being a subject a lot more, and to “swallow” the new orality is implicitly to weaken genitality and with it Eros and subjectivity.

I find it particularly sad that France, a country whose greatest cultural legacy is its rich institution of Eros that has no equivalent in the United States, is allowing American Puritanism in through the back door in the form of this new orthorexia nervosa. The day will come when we no longer know what a man or a woman is.

Until then, you can find me eating unhealthy frozen dinners reheated by visibly unhappy illegal immigrants in Flunch.

POSTSCRIPT

Not long after writing this, I sold a copy of my novel to a lovely couple outside the Pompidou Center. It turns out that the girl works at the cupcake shop I mentioned at the beginning of this post. She came back a few minutes later with a gift box of cupcakes for me. Ever since I have started selling books on the street, the Other has been sending me my own message in an inverted form with a vengeance. Obviously I felt like a heel. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t say anything. Yet I continue to stand by what I wrote here. Perhaps the lesson of this encounter is that it is always an act of aggression to insult someone’s libidinal economy. We must distinguish between the structure of the Other as such (the new orality) and the subjects whose engagement with this Other is always complex, singular and deserving of respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Self Portrait with Four Cheese Pizza

Last night, walking home,

I sat on a pylon, one of those short ones that keep cars from running over pedestrians,

I had just drunk a beer and I was killing time. They say

a beer a day

extends your life by thirty minutes

I read that on the internet.

I’m abstemious by disposition and this piece of Yahoo News pleased me.

There was a pretty girl, all dressed up,

she had on an extravagant hat and two different high heeled shoes,

one was plaid and the other was red. She had packaged herself

like something from Laduree and

I thought that maybe she was my soul lover,

not really but I sat there watching her from my pylon anyway.

She got in line for a movie at the MK2,

an art cinema that screens movies for pussies

People often tell me that it’s an advantage of living

in my particular district,

but I never go there, I hate the movies they show. When I go to the movies I want to see

Evil or one of its avatars, something, in any case the sensitive character studies and

melancholic interior scenes of

difficult loves or the small dramas of everyday life

fill me with hatred, like the movie about the woman whose two legs were amputated

after a freak killer whale accident at Sea World

(I’m not making this up)

who gets her groove back when she meets a street fighter named Ali who has a little blond son

I wanted to burn something after seeing this movie even though the actress had large breasts

and showed them too

when she got her fuck on

After hesitating for a few minutes I followed the girl with the hat into the movies

Why not? I had a free pass and did I have anywhere better to be than right here? Right now? That is usually cited as an affirmation,

but note that it also functions as a negation of the vital principles of desire and circulation

As soon as I saw her sitting in the theater I lost a little enthusiasm

I don’t know why – that’s Life I guess

I sat far away, and the movie was not very good

It was called “Nous, Princesses de Cleves”

It was a movie for leftists. There was a lot of solidarity, the sentiments were all correct,

the poor blacks and Arabs in the movie all had souls. I left

the theater when it was over. The girl went to the bathroom and

I went back to my pylon, determined to stare at her as she left.

She probably knew that I had followed her into the movies,

girls can sense this kind of thing.

As I was sitting on my pylon, waiting for her to come out,

a bum approached me and asked me for money

I said NO

He wheedled…please, just one cent, mister…

I said NO again. He responded with manufactured incredulity

So you don’t even have one cent?

I manned up

looked him in the eyes and told him

that I certainly did have a cent, but it wasn’t for him!

Fuck his sanctimonious attitude –

fucking drug addicted piece of shit –

He gave me a whimpering look that was supposed to make me feel bad about myself and said:

Have a nice evening, then.”

He walked a few meters away to hustle another pylon sitter

He wasn’t even a real bum,

some young gay with clean clothes,

not even a black or an Arab,

who knows what the guy’s story was?

Meanwhile the girl was nowhere to be seen. She

was gone

I didn’t really care,

my mind was on another soul lover anyway,

that one was gone too.

Looking back at the bum, I decided to give him some money

He was pathetic but my God,

begging for change outside of a movie theater…

I took a euro fifty out of my right pocket –  

the left pocket is for the highlighter I use to underline salient passages in world literature and

for my cellphone as well, a Sony Ericsson – 

I was about to give the fruit his money

when I caught another glimpse of his face

He was importuning someone else and he looked like a coward, a failure, and a cheater

I changed my mind again

I decided to keep my money after all

I walked to the pizza-by-the-slice shop down the street from my house

where they just put entire slices of Leader Price ham –

that’s the cheap stuff –

directly on the pie, one per slice.

Why? Why not cut the pieces of ham up? Who are these people? Who had this bad idea?

I got two Slices and a canned Iced Tea. I could see

myself in the reflection of the plate glass window next to the trash can as I ate my Slices

I looked

ghastly and malevolent

 

April 6, 2011

Thanks to poet David Rowe for editorial suggestions. You can find him here: https://myspace.com/davidiotraw

Gentrification and Orality in New Orleans, Paris, and Elsewhere

One of the curious features of the so-called “urban renewal” taking place in the United States is the insistence of two new master-signifiers: gentrification and sustainability.

In Paris, where I have lived for the last nine years, neither of these terms have imposed itself on general discourse as they have in the United States. Although the process of gentrification exists, it does not capture the imagination of those who witness, participate in, or are displaced because of it. It would appear that in France, “gentrification” is considered an inevitable feature of the ebb and flow of city life. Likewise with “sustainability”, which is not seen as a magical master-signifier leading the way forward towards the perfect form of social organization, but rather as something that is simply preferable to its alternatives. In other words, these two concepts, although they exist in France and in French, have not inspired the same fetishization that they have in the United States.

Let us first address the question of gentrification. Gentrification, as explored, for example, in Richard Campanella’s article on the post-Katrina metamorphosis of New Orleans, refers to the irruption of a new form of social organization. We must not, however, content ourselves with a simple description of the process by which succeeding demographic waves transform a city from, essentially, poor and black to rich and white. We must rather focus our attention on the new meta-phenomenon of the fascination with this process on the part of those who are its agents.

Cities change. Rich areas go to seed. Poor areas get rich again. Such is the cycle of city life. What is happening now is different. If so many people are interested in gentrification as such, if this process suddenly needs a word, it is because this word refers to what might be referred to as a symptom in all of its dignity and not simply a background peristaltic process. Speaking broadly, what distinguishes a symptom from a simple conflict is that the symptom incarnates the dialectical process as such. Like the eye of the storm on Jupiter that roams across the surface of the planet without ever resolving itself, the symptom is that nodal point in the dialectical process where the irreducible ontological kernel of conflict manifests itself.

Of what, then, is gentrification a symptom? Gentrification is a symptom of the passage from the social form of a World proper to the form of a non-world. A world is a consistent society ruled by a differential symbolic logic in which every member of the society occupies a fixed place in relation to the father at the center, who embodies and quarantines Difference as such. A world is a legible whole with a specific shape. A non-world has no shape, is a refusal of shape as such.

Gentrification has thus gone from a banal process to an object of fascination because we sense that there is something irreversible and properly Historical about what is happening to cities today. It is not just that poor areas are become rich; it is nothing less than a particular relationship with the Real that is being lost.

Let us allow Campanella to describe the process:

The frontiers of gentrification are “pioneered” by certain social cohorts who settle sequentially, usually over a period of five to twenty years. The four-phase cycle often begins with—forgive my tongue-in-cheek use of vernacular stereotypes: (1) “gutter punks” (their term), young transients with troubled backgrounds who bitterly reject societal norms and settle, squatter-like, in the roughest neighborhoods bordering bohemian or tourist districts, where they busk or beg in tattered attire.

On their unshod heels come (2) hipsters, who, also fixated upon dissing the mainstream but better educated and obsessively self-aware, see these punk-infused neighborhoods as bastions of coolness.

Their presence generates a certain funky vibe that appeals to the third phase of the gentrification sequence: (3) “bourgeois bohemians,” to use David Brooks’ term. Free-spirited but well-educated and willing to strike a bargain with middle-class normalcy, this group is skillfully employed, buys old houses and lovingly restores them, engages tirelessly in civic affairs, and can reliably be found at the Saturday morning farmers’ market. Usually childless, they often convert doubles to singles, which removes rentable housing stock from the neighborhood even as property values rise and lower-class renters find themselves priced out their own neighborhoods. (…)

After the area attains full-blown “revived” status, the final cohort arrives: (4) bona fide gentry, including lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees, and alpha-professionals from places like Manhattan or San Francisco. Real estate agents and developers are involved at every phase transition, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always profiting.

The Freudian technique consists in focusing on that which has been left out of the “official” story and recognizing it as the thread that, once pulled, unravels the official story as such and reveals something unexpected about the dialectical/analytical process.

Following this Freudian spirit, I would here like to turn away from a frontal analysis of gentrification and focus rather on what, at first glance, appears to be a contingent and secondary phenomenological detail of the gentrification process. Let us once again allow Campanella to speak:

LOCAVORES IN A KIDDIE WILDERNESS

Gentrifiers seem to stew in irreconcilable philosophical disequilibrium. Fortunately, they’ve created plenty of nice spaces to stew in. Bywater [a gentrifying neighborhood in New Orleans] in the past few years has seen the opening of nearly ten retro-chic foodie/locavore-type restaurants, two new art-loft colonies, guerrilla galleries and performance spaces on grungy St. Claude Avenue, a “healing center” (…) yoga studios, a vinyl records store, and a smattering of coffee shops where one can overhear conversations about bioswales, tactical urbanism, the klezmer music scene, and every conceivable permutation of “sustainability” and “resilience.”

They celebrate the city’s culinary legacy, though their tastes generally run away from fried okra and toward “house-made beet ravioli w/ goat cheese ricotta mint stuffing” (I’m citing a chalkboard menu at a new Bywater restaurant, revealingly named Suis Generis, “Fine Dining for the People”.

Indeed, the entire scene in the new Bywater eateries—from the artisanal food on the menus to the statement art on the walls to the progressive worldview of the patrons—can be picked up and dropped seamlessly into Austin, Burlington, Portland, or Brooklyn.

What I wish to highlight here is the strange way that food insists as a privileged symbol of the gentrifying process as such.

My thesis is that this is not a coincidence. It is a psychoanalytic commonplace to oppose orality to genitality. The former describes a regressive relationship to the object, one based on the infant’s relationship with the maternal breast, in which the fact that the object is attached to a subject is repressed. The oral mode of interacting with the object, like the anal mode, is a mode in which the object is dirempted from the subject bearing it.

One of the lessons of Lacan’s insight that the object is “extimate” is that subjectivity exists both inside and outside of us. Orality is a mode of relationship with the Other in which the denial of the Other’s subjectivity goes hand in hand with a denial of one’s own subjectivity. Genitality, the chimera of so many utopian post-Freudian schools, must nonetheless not be completely dismissed as a pure illusion. We must simply see it as another word for Becoming and not a fixed form of Being. Genitality might be considered a mode of relationship with the object in which its impossible resorption into the field of the Other is recognized. Is this not another way of distinguishing the jouissance of the symptom (organized around a fantasy of appropriating the object) from surplus-jouissance, which is generated by the circular motion around the object, one which thus presupposes its impossibility?

The “new” orality on display in the gentrified neighborhoods must be considered a manifestation of a radically different relationship with the object and with jouissance, one that illustrates the ideological constellation behind gentrification.

To return to one of the theses stated in our introduction, the non-world is a place in which difference is no longer coagulated into a Father but rather circulates and reproduces itself at the cellular level. Is this not another way of describing consumerism as opposed to previous forms of capitalism which might be described as “producerism”? A gentrified neighborhood is one that is organized around the consumption of jouissance, not the production of jouissance for the master. The nodal points of a world are those points at which jouissance is produced and laid at the feet of the master.

It is no coincidence either that the choicest sites for gentification are precisely those sites, like abandoned factories, which once served a production role and can now be turned into sites of consumption. The gentrification process is thus a process of cannibalization in which the remnants of the object, the leftover bones of the master, are consumed. In Totem and Taboo, Freud discusses the magical signification of consumption: by consuming the Father we acquire his strength; we literally put him inside of us. The gentrification process is thus something akin to the grinding up and eating of fossilized dinosaur bones in China: the remnants of a Real World in which there existed a Real Master are eaten because we have no other way of existing for the dead Master.

Once the confrontation with Difference has been endlessly deferred – in other words, once genitality, with its inevitable confrontation with the terrifying castration of the Other, has been refused — jouissance can only be procured in a regressive, symptomatic mode that maintains the twin illusions that the uncastrated Other exists and that we can approach this Other without having to suffer castration ourselves.

Campanella highlights two other features of the gentrified non-world: first, that there are no children there, and second, that those who live there are fascinated with all forms of sustainability. These two clinical observations as well are connected.

First of all, the putative explanations for the obsession with sustainability (ecology, social justice), although perfectly plausible, must be dismissed as post hoc alibis that ignore the libidinal investment in this master-signifier. What is sustainability if not the dream of a post-sexual world? A “sustainable” ecosystem is one that reproduces itself perfectly and eternally without ever encountering an Other. A sustainable world is one in which reproduction takes place through parthenogenesis and not through sex, through a sexual confrontation with an Other who is, by definition, radically Different. No surprise, then, that a gentrified city is one in which there are no children!

The dream of sustainability is the dream of a life in which difference, by being ground up into tiny pieces, can be invisibly admixed to one’s food and consumed like vitamins, in order that one may never have to realize that one is eating them. And what type of food do the gentrifiers eat? Campanella’s subtitle, Locavores in a Kiddie Wilderness, says it all. They eat local food, preferably organic food, and here the gentrifiers show a certain degree of obsessionality in their global perversion: the ultimate fantasy behind eating local, organic food is the fantasy of reducing the cycle of eating and eliminating waste to its smallest possible circuit – in other words, the fantasy of eating one’s own waste. As Levi-Strauss illustrates so beautifully in Tristes Tropiques, the fantasy here is fundamentally morbid and consists essentially in a refusal of existence on the concrete level, a refusal of the concrete as such. We might call this refusal to engage with the concreteness of existence by its more familiar name: puritanism, with its hidden coprophagic fantasies.

A scene that has begun recurring with more and more frequency recently, to the point where it has become a phenomenon worthy of being documented in the New York Times (“Restaurants Turn Camera-Shy”, Helene Stapinksi, New York Times, January 22, 2013), might serve as an image of the particularly sterile form of sexual rapport typical of the non-world: a group of diners taking out their smartphones and photographing their meal before eating it. We see here the transformation of an already-pasteurized object of jouissance into an even less immediate object: a photograph. We have here an attempt to fuse with the object that is simultaneously an attempt to keep it at the greatest possible distance (which is a good way to render Lacan’s paradoxical “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel”). When we see someone photographing their food, we can imagine someone who first dissociates the breast from the (m)Other in order to pre-transform it into the fecal object that it will become in a few days (does not a plate of glistening curry photographed directly from above immediately evoke the perspective from which we contemplate the contents of the toilet bowl)? In this way the floating moment of subjectivization between ingestion and expulsion is negated before it can even occur. Finally, the isolated, fecalized breast is divorced from its very corporeality by reducing it to an abstract image that is then lodged in the Other of the blogosphere, where it can communicate with other blogs (“the signifier represents the subject for another signifier”). This is the way the residents of the non-world fuck.

Do we have a choice here? Is it possible for cities to evolve differently? No. Those who attempt to reinject some avatar of difference/authenticity into the process are what Lacan called non-dupes. This is the new world. The old signifiers of difference and authenticity no longer function as such once they are exposed to the logic of the non-world. The cunning of reason is implacable. They cannot be rehabilitated, and any attempt to do so only falls into its dialectical truth, that of simulacrum.

Let us rather try to enjoy our sexless organic brunch as much as we can and keep Heidegger’s words in mind:

Philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation of the present condition of the world. This is not only true of philosophy, but of all merely human thought and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The sole possibility that is left for us is to prepare a sort of readiness, through thinking and poetizing, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god in the time of foundering; for in the face of the god who is absent, we founder.

 

 

 

 

The Unconscious of New Orleans

This article is an attempt to understand the essence of a place, New Orleans, by appealing to a discipline, psychoanalysis. At first glance, psychoanalysis might seem inapplicable to the study of a city. It is in fact uniquely suited to enlighten us concerning the last essence of place.

We might start by attempting to define place dialectically, i.e. in such a way that it is not reduced to simple geography. Place is first of all a differential phenomenon: places are places because they are different from each other. Less obvious is the fact that they are different from themselves. Take the example of New York City: not only is New York different from Los Angeles or New Jersey, New York is different from New York in the sense that Manhattan is different from Brooklyn, Uptown Manhattan is different from Downtown, the East Village is different from SoHo, Avenue A is different from Avenue B, etc. A place is thus a paradoxical entity: it is only by being different from itself that it manages to exist at all as such.

The thesis that I wish to develop is the following: a city is above all a signifier. A signifier only has value inasmuch as it is embedded in some signifying chain; a place only exists inasmuch as it is articulated with other places. It is only by giving a name to something that it becomes real, or rather, that it becomes what we call reality, which is by definition shared. [1]

Here we touch on the central mechanism of psychoanalysis: the dimension of the symbol, of the signifier, of language, is not simply a label stuck on the world, but constitutes an essential part of the world itself. In the psychoanalytic cure, a certain number of signifiers are exchanged, nothing more. The simple fact of speaking produces effects in the Real, in the form of the dissolution of corporal symptoms. Formulated most explicitly: through speech, the chemical reality of the body is transformed.

The conclusion to be drawn here is that human reality has a double structure: simultaneously Real and symbolic. A romantic liaison only becomes real, for example, once the lovers begin to speak of their relationship as a separate entity, one that not only has an independent reality but also a will of its own above and beyond the will of the two people who make it up. In a perverse twist, once the couple is recognized as autonomous, it tyrannically begins acting on its own, often against the wishes of the two participants. Put otherwise, the couple begins to behave as a subject, which occasions certain complications for the two lovers, who sometimes find themselves in the strange position of both being slaves to the acephalic desire of the couple itself.

Things are no different in the case of the city. A name is given to a set – of people, of traditions, of buildings, of codified interactions – and this name then begins organizing reality around itself cybernetically. This is why a city is first of all a signifier. This idea might be taken further by suggesting that a city is not only a signifier, it is a living organism. This problematic later will be addressed further on.

What is a signifier? A signifier is first of all an inscription. An inscription is something that is cut, something that is carved into the flesh, something that makes a mark in the real. An inscription is a scar that binds the world of abstract symbols to the real world that forms their ground. To use a term introduced by Jacques-Alain Miller, an inscription is an “amboceptor” [2]: an operator capable of fusing together two separate registers. The problematic of the amboceptor is of central importance for Lacan, and it re-emerges under numerous guises throughout his teaching. In the final chapters of “On a discourse that would not be semblance”, Lacan condenses his reflections into the following succinct formula: “between jouissance and knowledge, the letter serves as littoral”. [3]

This act, that of imposing a letter, that of naming, is above all an act of violence, a transformation on the level of being. This is what separates us from animals: not only do we have names, we are names: we carry symbols within us like a “cancer”, as Lacan says. Language is part of the world.

For Freud, subjectivity is born with an act of expulsion. Something is cut out of the field of consciousness – he calls this process primordial repression – but, crucially, what is removed does not disappear. It continues to exist, but its status is paradoxical: simultaneously interior and exterior. Our unconscious is simultaneously us and other, outside and inside. Lacan invented a neologism to describe this paradoxical status: extimate.

Inscription and expulsion are not simply linked: inscription is expulsion. An inscription is an act that inflects human reality, turns it into something that exists on two levels and not just one, as is the case in the animal world, for example. Take human consciousness: on one hand, the body; on the other hand, the mind. Let us take a closer look at this phenomenon, which is no less strange for being so familiar. Our bodies are made of cells, which are made of atoms, which are made of even smaller particles which follow, after all, the well-known laws of physics. However, there must be a gap somewhere, for otherwise our bodies would be as decipherable as automobiles. (The psychoanalytic name for the structural indechiperability of the human body is hysteria.) From our bodies emerges something else, something that breaks radically with physical determinism: what is alternately referred to as consciousness, mind, or free will.

To begin to attack this question – that of the relationship between mind and body – we might first articulate it with another scientific question, one equally thorny but somewhat less familiar, namely the question of life. The concept of life, of being alive, has strictly no scientific consistency. This sounds completely unlikely, unbelievable even, but it is true. Scientists have never been able to construct a robust heuristic that would draw an airtight line between living and non-living in nature. If we reject the hypothesis that an airtight line exists but that we simply have not found it yet [4], then logically, we are forced to choose between two externally opposed conclusions: either everything is alive or nothing is alive. Either everything is determinism or everything is subjectivity.

We must be subtle here. This opposition – between life and non-life – must be considered inherent to the notion of life itself. What is false about such an opposition is simply the externality with which the two terms are articulated. In other words, the inability of science to come up with a satisfactory answer to a superficially simple question shows us above all that we have reached the limit of the concept of life itself. “Living” and “non-living”, conscious and not-conscious, are the two faces of a phenomenon that is simultaneously one and two, single and multiple, just as the Moebius strip is simultaneously one surface and two surfaces. Such a topology demonstrates the limitations inherent to the very concept of an externally opposed inside and outside. Everything that is living has a non-living dimension (because it is made of simple atoms, which are not alive), just as everything that is non-living has a living dimension (because involved, in some way, in the so-called cycle of life). [5]

So far two separate problematics have been addressed in this article: first of all, the phenomenon of inscription/expulsion, and second of all, the Moebian phenomenon of extimacy. We might now attempt to bring them together. The phenomenon of inscription is nothing other than the most visible external sign of the phenomenon of a world that exists on two registers and not one. The principal property of the act of inscription is that it operates a separation, establishes a difference between essence and appearance, text and background: in the most basic terms possible, it establishes an inner distance between reality and itself. The world is not externally separated into two halves, but simply twisted, inflected. Fire and smoke, chicken and egg: the two faces of a single phenomenon divided against itself.

For Freud, we become subjects the moment we accept subjective division, the moment we accept primordial repression. Consciousness is a phenomenon of division. It is possible to refuse this division: this is the psychoanalytic definition of psychosis. Division exists, but it is refused – foreclosed – and the subject cannot come to be as such. For Lacan, subjective division is a result of the incidence of language on the body, a consequence of our status as speaking beings. In the 13th century, the emperor Friedrich II isolated 40 children and decreed that not one word was ever to be uttered in their presence in order to settle the theological question of what man’s natural language was. The result was that the last of the 40 children died at the age of 8. We are woven of language, made to receive language, and without a symbolic system to attach ourselves to, we die.

We are born as subjects with an act of inscription. We assume a name which then begins to organize our reality. By saying “I am A”, we implicitly say that we are not B, C or D; the effect is that of a circle drawn on a blank sheet of paper separating some undifferentiated plane into unequal sections. Nature does not know Aristotle’s logic. This is primordial repression: by assuming a name, by assuming a place in human society, we create a new category, that-which-we-are-not. Repression is not an act of subtraction, but rather an act of addition, of creation.

We may now return to the question of the city. Like a human being, a city is born once it is given a signifier. Take the example of New Orleans. Before becoming “New Orleans”, the site of the present city was nothing but a vast expanse of swampland. The name New Orleans was conceived and planned in Paris by the Duke of Orleans and the Scottish rake and hustler John Law – two greedy men united by their shared passion for money. Their idea was the following: they would launch a vast deceptive publicity campaign for their new city, and once the public took the bait, they would begin selling shares in their company.

One illustration purported to show how it looked there. Behind a deep harbor a castle arises from a mountain, and in front of it, Indians pay homage to the white invaders and offer them presents of gold, silver, and pearls. [6]

The plan worked: investors rushed to buy their stocks, convinced by Law’s publicity campaign that they were going to get rich once the gold and crops started flowing in. All of this happened before the city proper was founded. Law’s goal was not to found a great eternal city but simply to create a bubble of speculation that would allow him to make a quick profit. He had no use at all for the city itself. For his plan to work, however, he needed a minimal real support, i.e. some sort of material settlement somewhere out there. The Duke of Orleans sent out his men armed with a signifier – the name “New Orleans” – and their order was to create a city from nothing somewhere near the mouth of the Mississippi. An apparently suitable site was found, and they plunged their royal signifier into the mud.

Here, then, is the story of the birth of New Orleans: the city itself began its existence as an idea, not a very noble one, and the “real” city emerged as nothing but a cast-off by-product of this idea. Here is the image of New Orleans that emerged after Law and the Duke of Orleans’ publicity campaign was finally recognized as fraudulent:

[The expedition] met Indians who rubbed a stinking mixture of soot and bear fat into their own tattooed bodies as protection against the mosquitoes. They saw swamps, alligators, and snakes. […] Now Louisiana was no longer the promised land but a fever-contaminated hell in which one could find nothing but death. [7]

An inscription functions like a machine. Once it was planted into the Mississippi mud, the signifier “New Orleans” began to organize activity around itself. Despite everything, the city grew: such is the power of the word. Without a signifier, there never would have been any city, never would have been anything. We see here that the signifier has a truly magical property, even the one and only true magical property, that of being able to create something from nothing, that of fecundation. [8]

Incidentally, this is what happens in a successful psychoanalysis: the subject is liberated to forge new signifiers that in turn begin to modify his own experience of the world.

New Orleans illustrates perfectly the link between inscription and repression. To establish a city, something had first to be expelled, namely the water. The first maps of New Orleans show a city surrounded by levees: on one side, water; on the other side, a city. For New Orleans to come to be as a subject, some division had to take place; the water had to be banished.

We suggested earlier that cities are alive. Not only are cities alive, cities are subjects. Following Douglas Hofstadter, self-consciousness might be imagined as a feedback loop. A signifier is grafted to a piece of the real – say the brain for simplicity’s sake – and the infinitely spiraling interaction of these two registers that are simultaneously compatible and incompatible gives rise to what we call consciousness. Imagine the case of an atom in your brain. It moves strictly following the laws of physics: at no moment does it act on its own. The atoms that compose a brain are identical to the atoms that compose a styrofoam cup from McDonald’s. The simple fact of arranging them differently – in the structure of a brain, for example – gives rise to a doubling phenomenon. The positional structure begins exerting a causality that trumps physical causality. It is impossible to understand the human body without referring to the dimension of symbols, the register of language. It is a top-down causality, one that goes from the idea to the atom and not vice-versa. Or, better: it is a causality that constantly phase-shifts back and forth from the idea to the atom.

What is strange is that these two levels of causality can coexist. One cannot be deduced from the other and vice versa. They are quite incompatible. It is the same with quantum mechanics and classical Newtonian physics: despite explicitly contradicting each other, they both ex-sist and thus ought logically to “meet up” somewhere. Of course, this foreclosed “somewhere” is not a really-existing place but rather the signifier of its own impossibility, and as such it is one of the Names of the Father.

Man is located at the intersection of the symbolic and the real and must himself be considered a sort of amboceptor. [9]

We may now finally return to the subject of the city. A city functions exactly like a brain. The residents of a city can be considered the atoms or the neurons that make it up. They obey a “quantum” causality – the logic of their individual lives – at the same time as they obey a greater “Newtonian” logic, one that emanates from the city itself. Without knowing it, without wanting it, we all work for another discourse, an Other discourse, because we are all integrated into some system that overdetermines us. We are all simultaneously individuals, family members, residents of a city, citizens of a country, and, last of all, subjects before God. These categories are not hermetically separated inside of us but overlap and determine each other. The condition of subjectivity is alienation in some Other. We might here ontologize this psychoanalytic maxim by suggesting that the condition of life itself is alienation in the Other of non-life, of substance.

Cities are subjects. Turning this formula around, we might also suggest that subjectivity itself has the structure of a city: rather than being located in a single point – the body – subjectivity is dispersed across what might be called the field of the Other, inflecting it with its name. Life itself must be considered a field phenomenon, with knots of for-itself activity punctuating the vast expanse of in-itself thereness. The field of the Other and the field of the subject are not externally opposed but mutually constitutive of each other and, as in a hologram, each is present at every level of organization.

It is easy to fall into the lazy habit of conceiving the unconscious in pre-Lacanian terms, as something that is located “inside” us that could thus eventually be “liberated”. We might here measure the falsity of the unconscious thus imagined. “Unconscious” is rather the name given by psychoanalysis to the phenomenon of division that we have just evoked: the unconscious is the index of our structural non-coincidence with ourselves; it is the word that simultaneously represents the multiplicity of discourses that overdetermine us and our singularity. It is the word that stands in for this apparent paradox, elevating it to the status of synthesis.

By accepting the preceding proposition, we are finally in a position to claim that a city fills all the criteria of a living organism. It constitutes a level of organization of reality, one circumscribed by a signifier, that exercises a “for-itself” top-down causality. This is a possible definition of subjectivity.

What we habitually refer to as a signifier is, again, nothing but our name for the sui generis dialectical phenomenon of for-itself.

If cities must be considered subjects, then a fortiori they must possess an unconscious. To exist as a signifier, to occupy a place in the symbolic, one must not be something. The law of the symbolic register is that one must be A or B but not both at the same time; the principle of non-contradiction is introduced along with the symbol. The Real, on the other hand, decrees that those signifiers that have been banished do not disappear but continue to haunt the dimension of symbolic positivity. [10]

To engage in a simple thought-experiment: what would a subjectivity entirely identical with itself look like? What would a consciousness that knew itself perfectly actually resemble? The question is unanswerable, a contradiction in terms, and to pose it is already to presuppose its unanswerability.

In other words, the existence of an unconscious is nothing less than the very ontological condition of what we call subjectivity.

We might go as far as to say that New Orleans possesses an unconscious objectively, physically. The water that had to be repressed is not a metaphor for the unconscious; it is the unconscious, exactly as the hand moving beads on the abacus is not a reflection of thought but is thought itself.

The law of the unconscious is the law of hauntedness. Every subject is haunted by some phenomenon of unconsciousness. Just as we cannot draw a line between the living and the non-living, we are obligated to say that the world itself is haunted by a phenomenon of unconsciousness. We might even reverse the terms and suggest that whatever is haunted by an unconscious must therefore be a subject. Let us here return to the liquid unconscious of New Orleans. To become a city, a first expulsion had to take place, that of the water. Just as a man spends his entire life trying and failing to find a way to deal with this expelled substance that cannot be mastered, New Orleans has always fought and will always have to fight against this expelled substance. It is here that we must situate Hurricane Katrina. This expelled substance “wanted” to come back, just as our unconscious always attempts to force its way back, manifesting itself through dreams, slips of the tongues, and other formations of the unconscious. Freud called this endless striving of the unconscious to manifest itself the death drive. New Orleans only exists as such inasmuch as it is always on the verge of drowning in its own unconscious, just as we only exist inasmuch as we have quarantined something that is always knocking at the door. Those that have refused this expulsion, namely psychotics, furnish an example a contrario: the line, the signifier, separating “them” from “not-them” – or, better, the “them” part of them from the “not-them” part of them – is unstable and sometimes nonexistent.

The history of New Orleans is the history of the struggle against water. The levees grew with the city, and the presence of water has always left its imprints on the contours of the city, which the French originally called “l’Ile de la Nouvelle-Orleans”. The recent history of the city has seen the total banishment of water from the city. Around 1900, the geographic (but not the social) center of the city, which is the deepest part of the city, was drained. The canal that linked downtown New Orleans with Lake Pontchartrain was filled in in the 1920’s. By 1950, the swamps that were located between the city and the lake had been entirely replaced by houses. Today, the levees are over twenty feet high. The Mississippi River is totally invisible, foreclosed from the city. Amazingly, every single raindrop that falls from the sky in New Orleans must sooner or later be mechanically pumped over the levee tops and into Lake Pontchartrain.

New Orleans has thus passed from a “normal” mode of organization – a mode in which the unconscious is repressed but is allowed to return in small, essentially controlled doses – to a “psychotic” mode of organization, one in which the unconscious must be refused, banished, foreclosed absolutely. Of course, the foreclosed unconscious does not disappear; it is still there, but it is scotomized, no longer recognized as such. What is foreclosed is not the unconscious itself but rather that amboceptor that would allow it to be metabolized into symbols and thus exist for the world. Without access to this amboceptor, the unconscious is present, but as a sort of psychic dark matter which exerts gravitation but cannot be located. In the human sphere, this mode of organization constitutes a survival technique: when the content of the unconscious is absolutely unbearable, when jouissance infects everything, its signifier must be absolutely banished. The problem with the psychotic solution, however, is that the unconscious does not disappear along with its signifier, and the force with which it comes back is directly proportional to the force with which it has been banished. This is where breakdown must be located, the total collapse that permanently threatens psychotic subjects. Hurricane Katrina must also be located here.

Hurricane Katrina might be considered the fundamental fantasy of New Orleans: the imaginary scenario in which the subject is reunited with jouissance. These retrouvailles do not take the form of a happy reconciliation in a meadow full of flowers. The fundamental fantasy is rather a scene of horror in which the subject is overwhelmed, annihilated by some imaginarized stand-in for jouissance. This fantasy is a logical consequence of the splitting of the world into subject and substance, conscious and unconscious: it is the remainder of this operation, the foreclosed space in which the indivisibility of the world into itself is quarantined.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was nothing less than a psychotic city. The more reality became intolerable, the more it had to be refused, until the day it violently forced its way back into existence. New Orleans before Katrina could only be described as a failed state, or, in other words, a failed Other: in addition to having the highest murder rate in the United States, and one of the highest murder rates in the world, one out of every four houses in New Orleans was abandoned, and the real unemployment rate was estimated at fifty percent. New Orleans had become the dead husk of a living city. In other words, reality had become intolerable, and the fundamental fantasy swelled in direct proportion to the social catastrophe – a catastrophe that could be described in Lacanian terms as the failure of semblance to mask the impossibility of the sexual rapport. And when the water began pouring in through the levee breaches, it was not just water but jouissance itself, and with it the long hoped-for promise of deliverance from reality – deliverance from semblance – in the form of the passage to the act.

Five years later, New Orleans still has the highest murder rate in the country. All of the problems that were present before Katrina are still present today. Rather than being traversed, the fundamental fantasy was simply acted out, and nothing was accomplished.

***

New Orleans has an unconscious; New Orleans is a subject. The same thing cannot be said of all cities. Everyone knows a “non-place”, to use the ethnologist Marc Auge’s term – a city without flavor, without character, without an identity. They are non-places because they do not manage to set in motion a feedback loop, do not manage to exercise a top-down causality on their residents. Instead of coming to be as subjects, places proper, these cities are simple locations. Instead of determining themselves, they exist as background, and little more. Instead of being signifiers, machines that generate something from nothing, that generate order, they are simple collection of roads and houses and office buildings. In the United States, a great transformation is silently taking place: almost the entirety of demographic growth is taking place in non-places, “exurbs” as they are called. They are essentially suburbs without cities, or, otherwise put, “cities” in which the dimension of the signifier is entirely ignored, not to say refused.

I must end these reflections here. My current research is dedicated to the articulation of this urban phenomenon, that of the non-place, with another phenomenon identified by psychoanalysis, that of the new forms of the unconscious that might be called “non-unconscious” in that they are no longer organized around stable paternal inscriptions. Faced with the rise of such non-places, with the great de-walling of the world, cities like New Orleans appear increasingly as anachronisms, and their future is uncertain.

1. We must remember that the Lacanian Real – as opposed to reality – is not some pre-Symbolic substrate but rather a by-product of the incidence of language on the body.

2. Seminar, 2008-9

3. Seminar, “D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant”, 12 May 1971

4. The belief that such a line “really exists” is as delusional as the belief that consciousness can be deciphered by scanning the brain.

5. This is why Lacan allowed himself, to the consternation of his audience, to suggest that he thought with his feet and not with his brain.

6. “The Ohio River”, John Ed Pearce and Richard Nugent, University Press of Kentucky, p. 92.

7. Ibid.

8. Even in its fairy-tale version, the link between magic and the Word is retained in the form of spells: there is no magic without language.

9. Incidentally, physicists such as Roger Penrose suggest that the human brain would also be located at the intersection of quantum mechanics and classical physics, thanks to what he calls “microtubules”, tiny brain structures that link the quantum scale with the classical scale.

10. This is why the Hegelian logic of infinite judgment is a logic of the Real, whereas the Aristotelian logic of the excluded middle and the principle of non-contradiction is a logic of the Symbolic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Malcolm Gladwell a philosopher?

After his Tipping Point reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005, Malcolm Gladwell was named one of Time Magazine’s One Hundred Most Influential People for the year. His domain is essentially the exploration of statistical anomalies, although such an anemic description does not do justice to his highly engaging, conversational style of writing. They are the kinds of books that you read from cover to cover in one or two sittings. He has a wonderful knack for zeroing in on the salient details of a complex process and making it comprehensible in a clear and elegant language. He generally proceeds by introducing a number of superficially unrelated data sets, such as the crime rate in New York City and the sales data for Hush Puppies, and then bringing them together in some novel way. Although there is a great thematic unity between his books, what Malcolm Gladwell himself thinks about the information he presents is, however, not quite clear. His books are hard to classify: is he an essayist? A journalist? An economist? A philosopher?

In spite the wealth of fascinating information and skillful analysis in Gladwell’s books, I have never felt completely satisfied after reading one of them. Something is missing, and I suggest that it is precisely this missing element that would make Gladwell a bona fide philosopher and not just a gifted expositor of intriguing ideas. What is missing in Gladwell’s work could perhaps be described as the big picture, a certain level of abstraction, some sort of an attempt formally to unify his observations into a worldview. Ironically, the “missing big picture” is in fact a great theme of Gladwell’s: in his essays entitled Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information and The Picture Problem: Mammography, Air Power, and the Limits of Looking, he addresses directly the paradoxical phenomenon of situations that become more opaque the more precise and extensive our information about them becomes. What is missing from such situations is the privileged point of view that would allow us to see through the information. We might in fact consider this problematic to be present in Gladwell’s work itself: after carefully accumulating and presenting his information, he does not take the final and properly philosophical step of cutting through his work and extracting some central insight. I will use the two articles mentioned above to illustrate the missing level of abstraction implicit in Gladwell’s philosophy.

In Open Secrets, Gladwell introduces a distinction between what he calls puzzles and what he calls mysteries. Puzzles are incomplete, whereas mysteries are too complete. A puzzle is a situation in which certain pieces of information are simply missing; theoretically, once the missing information is discovered, the previously complex or contradictory state of affairs becomes smooth, transparent, and above all legible. Sherlock Holmes solves puzzles. A mystery, on the other hand, is a state of affairs in which the proliferation of information makes things paradoxically less clear: what is lacking is not “the right piece” of information but some element that would trim the information in such a way that it would become coherent. In other words, what is missing is the diagonal slash that would get rid of the “bad” inconsistent information and leave us only with the “good” consistent information. Enron is such an example: the data that were used to convict Jeffrey Skilling were not hidden documents, missing puzzle pieces uncovered by some enterprising sleuth, but documents that had been made public by Enron itself.

After introducing us to this intriguing distinction, however, Gladwell’s analysis abruptly stops. Instead of digging into the appetizing plate of food he has set out for us, he walks away from the table. His conclusion is simply that there are puzzles, and there are mysteries, that it is crucial not to confuse them, and that’s it. There is no moral to the story. Yet it is only here that things truly begin to get interesting from a philosophical point of view. It is as if Charles Darwin had come back from the Galapagos Islands with a careful list of all the indigenous species found there but no theory of evolution. The first path that Gladwell fails to explore is that of the dialectical relationship between puzzles and mysteries: in what way are they connected? How can they be articulated with each other? The second path that Gladwell fails to explore is that of the historicity of puzzles and mysteries: after suggesting that we are undergoing a paradigm shift from a puzzling world to a mysterious world, he elects not to analyze the deeper reasons for such a shift. The third path that Gladwell fails to explore is that of stating the phenomenon he is describing in more abstract terms, which would allow him to establish connections with other disciplines.

In the case of the distinction between puzzles and mysteries, it so happens that Gladwell failed to recognize a model that was discovered by the early 20th century logician Kurt Gödel, that of the relationship between completeness and consistency in any given system. In 1931, Kurt Gödel proved, with the utmost mathematical brilliance, that any logical system can be either complete or consistent but never both simultaneously. In other words, incompleteness is the price of consistency: for a given set of information to make sense, to be legible to us, there must be something missing. On the contrary, if we possess all the information about a given system – completeness – it will by definition contain contradictions. Here we have a much richer picture of the relationship between puzzles and mysteries: instead of simply existing as two of any possible number of paradigms of ignorance, we see that they are rather the eternal Scylla and Charybdis of truth, the two irreducible poles around which knowledge is condemned to organize itself without ever meeting itself halfway.

The next step that must be taken is to analyze why we have passed from a puzzle regime to a mystery regime. What has changed in the nature of the human world that our greatest problem is no longer solving puzzles but solving mysteries? Can this phenomenon be articulated with any other phenomena of modernity? Here the answer is very much yes. Borrowing from Gödel, psychoanalysis long ago made the connection between a so-called “paternal” universe and a consistent but incomplete system.1 The traditional paternal social model is one that is organized around a point of exception (father, king, God) who, by virtue of his paradoxical status – simultaneously above/outside the law and the ultimate source of the law – ensures that the system remains complete. A paternal universe is one in which the rules are consistent but not necessarily fair, for “fairness” presupposes a transcendental access to the hypothetically complete “whole story”. But what is the whole story if not an inexhaustible series of facts that never reach a point at which they “judge themselves”? Imagine a criminal sentencing in which the judge refuses to hand down a punishment until he has an absolutely complete account of the factors leading up to the crime: it is clear that such a trial would never end. On the other hand, a criminal trial in which consistency is the organizing principle will always risk falling into the opposite trap, that of the lynch mob, for if you are willing to discard certain pieces of information, there is nothing easier than to come to a consistent conclusion. He did it! A paternal universe is thus a closed but structurally unfair system: why do I have to go to bed at eight o’clock? Because I told you so! Why is the penalty for stealing two years in prison and not three? Because the law says so! Western (post-, hyper-) modernity has, for fifty years now, been typified by the generalized decline of the paternal model. Why? Why now? Why, after thousands of years of choosing consistency over completeness have we finally begun to change our minds? Here is the truly intriguing unaddressed question at the heart of Gladwell’s analysis, which I will attempt to explore further here.

One possible answer lies in technology. Gladwell hints at a development of this idea when he comes to the conclusion that although high-definition mammograms allow us to see more, they also, in the same movement, make it harder for us to know what we are seeing. It could be argued that the incredible advances in science and technology that have taken place over the last century have reawakened in mankind the childish belief that we can know everything, see everything, and have everything. In other words, technology seems to offer us the possibility of total knowledge, of a complete body of knowledge that would not depend on some sort of external authority (such as God) for its consistency but which would guarantee itself. Such a knowledge would be self-sufficient: no knower, no interpreter, would be necessary, because the need for a knower already implies a first gap in the system.2 In other words, we have begun to think that we have finally conquered the basic fact of the human condition, that of being condemned to see things from a permanently biased point of view, that of seeing the world from a singular position. We might here use the Hubble Space Telescope as a metaphor: no matter how far it sees, no matter how much information it collects, it will nonetheless never see God. If it is possible to know everything, it logically follows that we must suspend judgment until we know everything; having abandoned the idea that it is legitimate to pass judgment on a situation without knowing everything, we find ourselves confronted with fewer and fewer puzzles (which are implicitly “paternal” in nature) and more and more mysteries. A puzzle is paternal in nature because a puzzle is by definition a closed system from which a piece of information happens to be missing. As with a jigsaw puzzle, the elements in the picture are already organized around an implicit rectangular frame, only there is a hole somewhere. A paternal universe is a world that comes with a frame, one that separates a consistent inside from an inconsistent outside.

This is also why we continue to see mysteries as puzzles: the fantasy of being able to know everything is profoundly seductive. The more science and technology reveal to us, the more useless the father appears, the more he appears as simply a barrier to increased scientific knowledge. To take another of Gladwell’s examples, that of the release of the PIll in 1960: what good is a strict father who prohibits his children from having premarital sex in the face of a little pill that is so much more effective and involves no sacrifice? Here the father appears as simply an obsolete technology for maintaining a harmonious society. By jettisoning the paternal system we have of course lost a great degree of unfairness. What is far less obvious is that we have also lost the hidden piece of wisdom that the traditional father transmitted (often despite himself), namely that completeness and consistency are mutually exclusive. By incarnating (consciously or unconsciously) the barrier to completeness (”you cannot have everything/know everything/see everything…because I prohibit it!”), he forced his subjects to accept incompleteness (or, in psychoanalytic terms, castration) as the necessary condition of inhabiting a world that would be consistent and legible. The trap that so many people have fallen into (and continue to fall into) is to confuse the excesses and shortcomings of the necessarily hypocritical and fraudulent paternal stand-ins with the transcendental place of exception itself. One of the conclusions that must be drawn from Gödel’s theorem, in fact, is that any “paternal” act, which is to say any act that closes a given system by saying no to the infinite stream of additional information, is by definition an act of fraud, because such an act can never be based on a complete knowledge of the system itself. In other words, fraudulence is not a simple deviation from the paternal ideal but is rather the very condition of paternity itself.

In a neat (non-)coincidence, the two examples Gladwell chooses to contrast puzzles and mysteries are both stories of paternal deception: the Watergate investigation and the Enron meltdown. In both cases we have a father who is a fraud: Richard Nixon and Jeffrey Skilling. The nature of their deception is entirely different, however. Nixon explicitly broke the law and knew it, whereas in Skilling’s case, it is far less clear that he behaved any less ethically than the average greedy CEO. Skilling’s crime, rather, was that he was not deceptive enough. His crime was that he was unable to keep the lie from sticking. Perhaps, if Skilling had been able to maintain the fraud a little longer, Enron would have had the time actually to begin making money. The story of the Enron collapse could be described as an object lesson on the dangers inherent to the belief that we can possess both completeness and consistency. The “smartest guys in the room”, the math geniuses who concocted Enron’s business plan, ceded to the temptation to believe that they finally knew enough to come up with the financial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, a system in which speculative circulation could finally reach escape velocity and slough off any reference to the “real” economy. This phenomenon is eminently modern because it is a direct reflection of today’s dominant ideology, which could be described as an ideology of completeness grounded in technology.

Following Rene Girard’s mimetic theory, Skilling was only able to make the Enron story legible and consistent by being sacrificed for it. Mesmerized by the spectacle of completeness that modern technology reflects back to us, we no longer have any appetite for the old-fashioned living fathers who continue to dodder that such a spectacle is in fact a mirage, and it is only when the completeness of a given situation reaches a breaking point of illegibility that the father, the stand-in for the place of exception, must be mobilized in his most extreme avatar, that of the human sacrifice, long the “privilege” of kings in the ancient world. We might describe ritual sacrifice as mankind’s crudest and most viscerally convincing technique for closing a system, for creating consistency. Skilling’s sacrifice bears witness to the bad faith that haunts the new “mystery” paradigm: by sending him to jail for twenty-four years, we implicitly admit that we realize on some level that consistent completeness is an absolute fantasy. We live in a world in which the father increasingly appears as a relic, a figure we call upon when we need a scapegoat. Here is the missing answer to the two-part question that is implied in Gladwell’s analysis, namely: how did we go from puzzles to mysteries? Why did we insist on misreading the Enron mystery as a puzzle?

What’s more, by refusing to come to a conclusion about the dialectical relationship of puzzles and mysteries – their mutual exclusivity – Gladwell himself implicitly endorses the modern ideology of completeness. There are puzzles and there are mysteries, he seems to say, and maybe there are also conundrums and riddles and enigmas too. Gladwell’s ontology is one in which negativity has no place: it is essentially a list of the positive features of reality in which the idea of the part maudite, the structurally unknowable, never appears. His refusal to leave a place open for negativity is what makes him blind to the dialectical relationship between puzzles and mysteries.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Malcolm Gladwell touches something real in his writing. For psychoanalysis, the real is defined as that which permanently escapes being symbolized; it is the structural incompatibility of completeness and consistency; it is that barrier to complete knowledge that infuriatingly remains even after we have liquidated the father, who until then had appeared to us as the contingent external barrier blocking our access to the truth. The real that interests Gladwell could be described as the statistical real, the point at which a statistical system breaks down and contradicts itself. Most of his explorations begin with a statistical anomaly, with a datum that “shouldn’t” exist, doesn’t make sense, renders a system inconsistent. In the face of the ideology of the Bell curve, Malcolm Gladwell is a defender of what he calls the power law distribution, in which certain phenomena refuse to get with the program and respect the model that has been painstakingly prepared to predict them. His books are full of stories in which the real irrupts in the most unexpected places. In Outliers, for example, he illustrates the stupid, purely contingent formal details that allowed Bill Gates to become Bill Gates. The profoundly inhuman factors that were a necessary part of the Gates recipe (his luck in being born in 1955, his luck in being one of the few adolescents in the world with unlimited access to a computer in a brief and precise historical period, the late sixties) are a perfect illustration of the real: try as we might to reduce reality to a consistent system in which success is predicated on human values like hard work and talent, the real of luck, of coincidence, continues to break in from the outside. The inverse approach is equally problematic: any attempt to reduce reality to pure randomness is just as much a travesty of reality as the attempt to banish it. Gladwell’s intellectual universe is one in which the real irrupts all over the place, sometimes on the micro level of the individual anomaly and sometimes on the macro level of the mysterious power of statistical systems (itself a manifestation of the real), and the fact that he refuses to liquidate the dialectical tension between these two paradigms that do not overlap perfectly is a great argument in his favor. Although Malcolm Gladwell cannot exactly be described as a philosopher of the real, lacking as he does an ontology in which negativity would have a permanent place, he is nonetheless a friend of the real, an admirer of the real, and this is the most important thing, the necessary starting point for a philosophical understanding of the world.

Exposed with particular clarity in Jean-Pierre Lebrun’s excellent “La Perversion Ordinaire”.

2 Hegel illustrates this phenomenon in the preface to his “Phenomenology” when he states that we need to add the “empty” syllable God to the list of positive properties of the world, for otherwise we pass over the dimension of subjectivity inherent in substance itself.