Tagged: Albania

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/



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!

The Albanian Object

Isolation is a relative phenomenon. Elsewhere does not exist: it is a product of language. How easy or difficult somewhere is to reach is immaterial: once we are there, we are there and, seeing as we are there, there is nowhere easier or more natural to be.

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen distinguishes the horrible (“terminal cases, blind people, cripples”) and the miserable (“everyone else”). There are plenty of countries more horrible than Albania, but I doubt there are many places more miserable.

Albania is a short boat ride from Italy and shares borders with Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. It is a short plane ride from any of the major Western capitals. Direct flights link Tirana with London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Istanbul. Getting to Albania, like getting anywhere these days, is a simple matter of buying a ticket, stepping into an airplane, and then stepping back out a few hours later.

Isolation is not a question of absence but of presence: not an absence of connections but an immanent mode of connection, one that has nothing to do with geographical proximity.

Albania is the most isolated country in Europe, not because of its geographical situation, but because isolation is the dominant mode of social organization there. The Albanian language, derived from Thracian, is unique. The history of Albania is a history of occupation: Greeks, Romans, Illyrians, Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians. Albania did not become a sovereign state until 1912. In 1944, after brief occupations by Italy and Germany, the communist dictator Enver Hoxha came to power. Over the forty-plus years that he ruled, Hoxha outlawed beards, outlawed religion, outlawed comic books, broke ties with the West, broke ties with Yugoslavia, and broke ties with the USSR (for renouncing Stalinism). Albania’s last ally was China, and Hoxha broke ties with them too, in 1978. Albania’s political exclusion from the rest of the world was thus double: a communist dictatorship as cut off from the Soviet sphere as from the free West. Certain that one of his enemies – which is to say, the rest of the world – was going to invade Albania, Hoxha also spent all the country’s money constructing over 700,000 concrete pillbox bunkers, one for every four Albanians. These bunkers are everywhere: outside of front doors, under walls, next to train tracks, in the middle of carrot fields: everywhere. The Albanian countryside is like a body covered in some form of herpetic infection: small, round, half-buried lesions have irrupted across the country following a logic that is viral and not symbolic and has no regard for the nature of the infected tissue, be it rural or urban.

These bunkers, which retroactively sweep the land clean, imply, by the illogic of their location, a virgin territory, a primordial Albania, one that had yearned to emerge for thousands of years. Rather than simply propagandizing the past, Hoxha attempted to grant his country nothing short of an ersatz fossil record, one that would conjure into existence a sublime, eternal Albania that had never really existed.

Hoxha, the obscene father of Albania, wrote, directed, and produced a ready-made fundamental fantasy for a country that until then had not existed as a sovereign subject but as an administered territory. Once this paranoid and masochistic fantasy of absolute isolation was installed, it began generating hysterical symptoms in the form of a concrete eczema that, like all hysterical symptoms, betrayed the facticity of its filiation story.

As Freud noted in Totem and Taboo, the primal father only becomes more powerful after his death. Today the bunkers serve two functions: as toilets and as fuck spots. Albanians refer to them as “cherry poppers”. Although no one explicitly believes in Hoxha’s invasion fantasy anymore, it is still fully functional, only in a disavowed form. Here the bunkers illustrate the mechanism by which the living primal father becomes the dead big Other, whose lack of consistency must be filled in with our jouissance for this Other to function as such. It is precisely by getting off from inside the Other’s empty gaze that this gaze is maintained.

What does it mean to be Albanian? In powerful lands, there is a ready-made tension between the unary trait (“American”) and the many predicates that fill it out. The S1-S2 machine turns like a gyroscope. In a small, poor, isolated country like Albania, where everything is Albanian, where alterity is minimal, the syllogism stands like a monolith: to be Albanian is to be Albanian, with no S2’s to insert between the two identical terms. In the words of poet Pashko Vasa, “Feja e shqiptarit është shqiptaria!” “The faith of the Albanian is Albanianness!” (Thanks to Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei for this translation.)

One of the small pleasures of travel is going to the grocery store and inspecting the local industrial products, which, through the idiosyncrasy of their sense of design, reveal something intimate about the local embedded epistemology. In Albania, the only local product I could find was coffee – Lori Caffe. There is a paradox here. On the one hand, the outside world does not exist for Albania. Everything in Albania is Albanian. On the other hand, none of the things that we generally think of as materially identifying a place can be found. There is nothing properly Albanian in Albania: no Albanian clothes, no Albanian typographical fonts, no Albanian candy bars, no Albanian architecture, no Albanian lamps.

I asked a cab driver about Lori Caffe.

“Yes, Lori Caffe, Albanian coffee…in Blloku zona, Italian coffee, Illy, Lavazza, very good. Blloku, very good zona.”

Blloku is the name of the chic area in Tirana where Hoxha himself used to live. His modernist house is still there, and looks abandoned. Every Albanian I spoke to directed me to Blloku. Unlike the rest of Tirana, this small neighborhood was not full of men fishing through dumpsters, child beggars smoking cigarettes, stray dogs, itinerant turkey salesmen, children pulling carts, old women squatting in muddy lots, etc. Here was “luxury” store after “luxury” store selling cheap Chinese merchandise that was little better than what could be purchased at any dollar store in the United States. Some enterprising Albanian businessmen had erected fake McDonald’s and KFC restaurants along Blloku’s main artery (there being no American chains of any sort in Tirana). Other than the fact that the “K” in KFC had been replaced by an “A” (for “Albania Fried Chicken”), every visible detail had been ingeniously copied, from the fonts to the color scheme of the tables to the graphic layout of the menu which, on closer inspection, did not actually sell fried chicken but the same four miserable sandwiches sold at every other Albanian fast-food shop, alterity being such a rare resource in Albania that there is only enough of it for a limited number of sandwich iterations. (A fifth sandwich would require more negativity than can be generated by the meager symbolic machine that operates there.)

In Lacanian terms, there are no properly Albanian S2’s, just the S1 “Albania” and a handful of abstract S2’s imported from other places. The S2’s on display in Blloku are materially present but are not integrated into the Albanian S1-S2 machine. These imported S2’s might be referred to as “non-S2’s” because, although they circulate like “real” S2’s, they are cut off from the S1 that might allow them organically to be articulated with each other. The result is that S1 and the chain of S2’s, rather than transforming smoothly back and forth into each other, haunt each other without ever meeting halfway.

Taken individually, a handful of the shops or cafes in Blloku might have passed Western standards. What was all wrong was the space between these islands of modernization: the broken sidewalks, the empty lots, the stray dogs, the snarls of power lines. It takes an act of will to see Blloku as the Albanians wish to see it. The technology of the gaze has changed with the passage from Hoxha and communism to modernity and consumerism. A reversal has taken place: whereas Hoxha attempted to constitute the country as a totality under one transcendent gaze emanating from 700,000 eyes planted from one end of Albania to another, today Albania is organized around a gaze that does not bring into being any sort of totality as such but rather fragments the country into micro-spaces that cannot be articulated with each other. If Hoxha was obliged to continue studding the country with analog avatars of CCTV cameras, it was because he remained stuck in the old “modern” paradigm of visible vs. invisible, seen vs. unseen, light vs. shadow. Hoxha wanted to constitute Albania as a totalized somewhere, and he went about it the way modernists must: by attempting to shunt nowhere into some constitutive elsewhere on the other side of the border.

As Gérard Wajcman has illustrated in L’Oeil Absolu, times have changed. Unlike the totalizing modernist gaze, the hypermodern gaze that has begun to operate in Albania no longer attempts to constitute somewhere as such by voiding it of the nowhere which haunts it. The dialectical tension between somewhere and nowhere, which must be made material for us to experience a place as somewhere, is no longer recognized. The result is that for each micro-somewhere that is created (AFC), a complementary micro-nowhere is also created. This micro-nowhere is not “next to” the micro-somewhere, as it might seem, but “floats” on the surface of the micro-somewhere itself, in the same way that the fewer “Albanian” predicates there are, the more transcendentally and mysteriously “Albanian” everything seems in Albania.

This is the logic on display in ordinary psychosis: rather than existing as a discrete and consistent Other Scene, the unconscious in these cases hovers over the subject in an undifferentiated state. Without some recognized paternal agency to constitute an elsewhere as such, a place of exception, nowhere and somewhere begin to haunt each other.

This new gaze is the true fetish object on display in Blloku, not the fake gold watches and cell phones. In Blloku the Albanians can participate in this hypermodern gaze, one that, by framing some piece of the city, operates a cut between foreground and background, between the “officially” visible thing and the traces of interstitial abjection surrounding it. Blloku is not simply a neighborhood but rather a UFO, an epistemological space of rudimentary hypermodernity that has landed in the middle of Tirana.

In Lacan’s seminar on anxiety, he identifies the anal object and the object-gaze: the gaze effectively overwrites the anal object and “isolates” it, scotomizing it from its context and putting it at the greatest possible distance from the subject. Of all the libidinal objects, the gaze allows the subject the greatest freedom in abstracting himself from the extimate object that is the support of his being. The gaze is thus the capitalistic object par excellence: in one stroke it allows us to cut pieces of the world out of their embedded contexts in order to exchange them and conjures the existence of one transcendental object-gaze “behind” all of its stand-ins, in exactly the same way that capital begins eventually to appear as the last truth of the objects it is supposed to designate. “Capital” designates a certain tension inherent to the ontological status of the object itself; “gaze” is another name designating the permanent tension between somewhere and nowhere inherent to somewhere itself.

The train station in Tirana is an utterly deconsecrated space. Hoxha was a great believer in railroad travel. Every Albanian I met told me to avoid the train and instead to take a “furgon”: a minivan full of smoking Albanians. The streets of Tirana are full of hard-faced men standing next to minivans, barking the names of various Albanian cities. I took the train. It was in a sorry state: every single window in every single 40-year-old car was shattered and the interior was wrecked. There were no assigned seats, no toilets, no electricity, and no passengers. The ticket window in the train station was very long and no more than eighteen inches from top to bottom: exactly like the slit in a bunker through which machine gunners might peer.


What I saw from the window of the train was shocking and disgusting for someone used to first-world efficiency in waste disposal: the countryside from Tirana to Durres (35 km) was more or less covered in trash of all sorts but especially in plastic bags. The bags were everywhere…choking every stream…strewn across every field…everywhere. This too must have come since the end of communism, only twenty years ago. What do Albanians see when they look at these fields? Do they perform an act of visual repression similar to that required to “see” Blloku, and see a clean field? Or do they see an undifferentiated space in which trash and nature blend together? This question followed me everywhere in Albania: how could these people tolerate such unremitting ugliness? Did they even see it? The pollution visible everywhere in Albania seems to be a case of the material dialectic outstripping the libidinal dialectic. It took a society saturated by the hypermodern gaze, fully accustomed to its power of separating objects from their immediate context, to invent plastic, the unnatural “separating” substance par excellence, the non-substance that does not simply correspond to the gaze but materially brings it into existence as such. It would be impossible for a society not organized around such a gaze even to imagine plastic in the first place. What has happened in Albania in the last twenty years is what happens when a new technology arrives like a meteor before the libidinal ground has been prepared for it. Without the libidinal investments that would allow Albanians to understand plastic, to “become plastic” (to paraphrase Deleuze) and thus deal with plastic trash as we in the first world do, they are powerless to prevent plastic trash, the flipside of the “good” gaze-objects on display in Blloku, from multiplying everywhere, just as they are powerless to resist the cheap Chinese goods that choke every market.

The plastic non-substance magically multiplies everywhere in exactly the same way that non-space has begun magically coming into existence everywhere. Aristotle believed that rotting meat spontaneously generated maggots and flies; modern science negated Aristotle by demonstrating how flies “really” reproduced. The third step that needs to be taken here is that of Hegelian infinite judgment: Aristotle was not “wrong”; the scientific explanation of maggot reproduction is nothing but the mode of appearance of Aristotle’s spontaneous generation. In the same way, any material/economic explanation of why there is so much plastic trash in Albania misses the real insight, i.e. that these economic processes are nothing but the mode of appearance of a process that is essentially opaque and magical in nature: drive, and more specifically the scopic drive, about which all we can say is that it exists and that it is gaining ground everywhere.

In his paper on architectural parallax, Slavoj Zizek notes that the opposition between inside and outside is always based on a third, foreclosed fantasy space that makes this opposition possible. This fantasy space is the space “between the walls”, the space that, in psychoanalytic terms, is occupied by the objet petit a. By repressing the objet petit a we are able to dirempt it into two opposed avatars: shit and agalma, trash and treasure, that can only remain opposed as long as the objet petit a itself remains foreclosed. (This is what happens in psychosis: the objet petit a “comes back” and destroys any possibility for opposition and, with it, circulation.)

Why not call this foreclosed space by its proper name: nowhere? Nowhere is a place we are all familiar with: it is and always has been the truth of somewhere. Nowhere is the pre-Symbolic space that must symbolically be transformed into “elsewhere” for “somewhere” to exist. Nowhere is not a place but an epistemological sphere, one that we have all passed through as children, and continue occasionally to return to.

Why did I go to Albania? I wanted to see what we all try to see by traveling: the inside of a black hole; the primal scene; nowhere, the site of jouissance.

On Christmas Eve I found what I had been looking for. Leaving my hotel I went towards the train station and then past it. Next to the train station was a road that sloped downwards. This narrow pedestrian alley was unpaved and weaved between shoddy, ad hoc concrete housing. It was a Saturday and the alley had been turned into a flea market. The houses, shops, and roads seemed to merge together into a sort of hybrid urban tissue. The S1-S2 machine that constitutes society as such was exceedingly modest here: money for plastic, plastic for money. Qofte and Byrek goes in, shit comes out. No grand circuits in sight: nothing but identity, A=A, or perhaps, at best, A=B=A. I looked in vain through the piles of used clothes, shoes and junk for something that might have been used before 1992 but could find nothing. There was no use looking through any of the other stalls: one glance revealed that it was nothing more than an avalanche of the same Dollar Store stuff. After walking for about five minutes the alleyway leveled off and opened onto a marketplace that had been set up in a wide-open semi-paved space. In addition to vegetables and fresh cheese in plastic buckets there were people selling live chickens and turkeys as well as an isolated sheep tethered to a trash can next to some trucks. Past this marketplace was a parking area where a lot of old buses were stationed. Finally, at the back end of this small parking area, a hole in the cinder-block wall gave onto a field.

It was as if I had climbed into a toilet and followed the plumbing all the way to the mythical foreclosed ontological space that gives our world its particular curvature. I had effectively entered the “space in between the walls” of the city of Tirana. What I am calling a “field” was many things. Foremost, It was a garbage dump. It was also a place of passage: normal Albanians dressed in the same cheap, ugly tracksuits and acid-washed jeans that they wore in Blloku were crossing this dump as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Alongside the muddy path that wound between the larger piles of trash a few peddlers had set up their wares: vegetables and still more plastic products from China. Some of the very objects being sold could probably have been found trampled into the mud a few feet away. In the distance a man was grazing his sheep. On the far side of the field was an abandoned bunker. A man was walking a white horse. Another man rode a bicycle. Stray dogs nosed through the trash. On the far side of the field could be seen concrete slum housing with no glass in the windows.

The transition from Tirana proper to this non-space had been seamless. Extimacy, the structural principle of psychic and thus social reality, was here visible thanks to the barely functional S1-S2 machine, whose job is to function like plumbing: quietly and invisibly spiriting shit elsewhere. Unlike our prosperous cities, Tirana did not have the structure of a Klein bottle in which a certain textured path must be followed for treasure to turn into shit and then back again, but rather the structure of the hologram of a Klein bottle, in which the circuit is present in every cell of the city.

We have several ways of articulating nowhere and somewhere. The primordial nowhere is the nowhere of nature. It is the mythical nowhere that precedes the installation of the S1-S2 machine. Second, we have somewhere, which is a product of this machine. Finally, “nulle part retrouvé”: the new nowhere of disembodied S2’s and non-spaces that emerges on the other side of the Symbolic. Albania is not somewhere but a country caught between two post-Symbolic nowheres – the “good” nowhere of Blloku and the “bad” nowhere of fields of trash – with a very small wedge of somewhere in between to keep them apart.

As I squatted on a trash promontory to take pictures, I realized that not only had I found the true center of Tirana, I had found the center of the new world. The synchronicity of shit and agalma that characterizes hypermodern slums must always seem revelatory to a Westerner accustomed to their meandering diachronic movement. This was it: the degree zero of humanity. I felt strangely happy. All of the Albanian “products” that I had not been able to find in any stores were here, in the mud, in this garbage dump. This is what Albania produced: trash, the eternal product of humanity. Reaching down I fished out a broken teacup, a spoon, a domino, a playing card…although all of these objects had probably been made in China, they were Albanian now.

It might here be recalled that the object that Lacan chose to illustrate the functioning of the gaze, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, was nothing other than a piece of trash floating against an undifferentiated background.

Hoxha’s bunkers testified to the totalitarian gaze’s failure finally to bring a sublime Albania into existence. Today, plastic garbage has literally and figuratively taken the place they have left empty.

What happens if we articulate the triad somewhere/elsewhere/nowhere with the triad universal/particular/singular? Nowhere is singular in that it is the irreducible existential space of solipsism, the epistemological space from whose center we never budge; Somewhere is universal in that it is fundamentally cultural, and can only come to be as such through a negation of the primordial nowhere of brute existence; Elsewhere is the vanishing negative moment that allows nowhere (temporarily) to become somewhere.

We might also articulate the triad somewhere/elsewhere/nowhere with the triad Imaginary/Symbolic/Real. Elsewhere corresponds to the Symbolic because the functioning of the Symbolic sphere depends on the existence of a (paternal) place of exception, an empty frame that grants consistency to everything else. Without the Symbolic “elsewhere” to frame somewhere, the concepts themselves blur together and become indistinct. Rather than a constant dialectical process through which nowhere universalizes itself by passing through the moment of negativity embodied by elsewhere, the process is now viral, “spuriously infinite”, a simple merging of the Real and the Imaginary without any sort of coherent Symbolic to orient the process.

The concept of somewhere depends for its consistency on the belief in an elsewhere. Today we are in the curious situation of living in a world where elsewhere proper is disappearing as quickly as the Amazonian rainforest. Scientists have no idea what the eventual ecological consequences of the liquidation of the last traces of nature proper will be, and philosophers find themselves in the same position with regards to our epistemological ecosystem: no one knows what the eventual consequences of the final liquidation of elsewhere as such and its transformation into an infinite series of putative somewheres will have on the collective unconscious.

“Elsewhere” allowed us to envision the prospect of abstract negativity, negativity that had no concrete content. With the objective death of elsewhere, abstract negativity begins to become impossible: the negation of one particular place can only take the form of some other particular place to which it would be opposed. This is the great crisis of hypermodernity, the source of hypermodern despair proper: the death of abstract negativity in every domain of our everyday life.

By giving us “elsewhere”, the Symbolic allowed us to put nowhere (the death drive) to work. The Symbolic sets a dialectical process in motion – by putting nowhere into circulation, it becomes elsewhere – in other words, through the intervention of the Symbolic, jouissance becomes the objet petit a.

By vouchsafing the place of exception, the paternal Symbolic becomes the medium of abstract negativity. Once we evacuate the place of exception from the Symbolic, however, we lose abstract negativity and are left with nothing but concrete negativity. What we call subjectivity (and it must be recalled that subjectivity is not the natural state of psychic life but a specific historical form) is nothing but a phenomenon of abstract negativity, and the loss of an epistemological space in which abstract negativity is privileged can only contribute to the waning of subjectivity proper in favor of some new avatar of collective unconscious life.

This passage from a world in which elsewhere still existed to a world composed of increasingly identical somewheres is the world of nowhere as opposed to everywhere. Everywhere is a totality, whereas nowhere is a non-all. The failure of “everywhere” in Albania, as represented by Hoxha’s failed totalizing project, eventually turned Albania into nowhere. It might be argued that Hoxha’s project failed precisely because it succeeded. The very continued existence of the world after its “totalization” must logically take the form of an immediate plunge from everywhere to nowhere: by realizing the all it can only become a non-all by virtue of the fact that it is still there, that it has not disappeared into the ether with its successful symbolization. The tension between the quiddity of existence and the vacuum of the signifier can never be exorcised and as such renders the totalizing process inherently totalitarian and suicidal. Once the totalizing project crosses a certain threshold, incompleteness, which until then had appeared over the horizon, jumps out of the tableau and infects completeness itself, transforming all into non-all. This generalized regression of somewhere to nowhere is symptomatic of our new world.

The process is not unique to Albania. In the United States, so-called “exurbs”, suburban tissue that is no longer organized around a central place of exception, are nothing but the prosperous version of this phenomenon: with the devaluation of the Symbolic, and with it the devaluation of desire and the possibility for abstract negation, everywhere can only become nowhere.

This nowhere has always been the fundamental American passion. The liberation of the consumer object was never the goal of the American system. As Kierkegaard scholar Louis Mackey has theorized, the true American passion has always been nowhere. Building on Gérard Wajcman’s analysis, the scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in which Cary Grant is attacked by a crop duster is a staging of the American Dream. The Cartesian plane in which Cary Grant finds himself after stepping out of the bus is, for all intents and purposes, nowhere incarnate: the place of abstract negativity, of naked subjectivity, of jouissance. Europe, after Hegel, is stuck in History, stuck in the concrete universal, which is its motor. Here is the difference between European History and American history: Europe continues to believe in the concrete universal, whereas America has always wanted to bypass the detour of the concrete universal in order to access the naked universal itself. By refusing to believe in the (necessary passage through the) concrete universal, America has condemned the concrete universal to the status of a ghost haunting the American Dream. This was already the case 160 years ago when Melville wrote Moby Dick, an early thesis on this phenomenon: Ahab’s (Enlightenment) abstract universalism produces a new species of whale, one which is both cause and object of his monomania. The white whale is the American objet petit a which over time has become today’s consumer object. The scene from North by Northwest is an illustration of the final result of the gap separating the abstract American everywhere (the long, straight road, the empty fields) and the objet petit a (the airplane) which is condemned to circulate in the void. The subject caught in the middle necessarily finds that he is the target of the de-concretized, de-symbolized objet petit a, which suddenly becomes much more dangerous than it had been when it remained trapped in a (European) cultural prison. Without a symbolic Elsewhere to hold Somewhere and Nowhere together as Somewhere proper, the world is split into two asymmetrical halves: on the one hand, pure Nowhere; on the other hand, the pure objet petit a with nowhere to land. Cary Grant is a stand-in for the hypermodern subject caught between an increasingly flat non-world from which nothing can be hoped and the pure objet petit a, naked and terrifying.

Lacan’s floating can, Melville’s white whale, Hitchcock’s crop duster: in all three cases we have an isolated object against a blank background from which a malefic gaze emanates. The subject has never been anything but the index of the incompatibility of the Symbolic and the objet petit a, and today’s wandering “neo-subjects” are the illegitimate children of these two parents, who not only have divorced but have retroactively annulled their marriage. Today’s subjects are sinthomatic and not symptomatic: there is less and less ready-to-wear paternal/cultural unconscious on display with which to dress their sinthomes as symptoms, nothing but roads, fields, and wandering phantom objects. In this sense, the USA has invented the modern objet petit a, which is to say the materially isolated object that causes so many ravages around the world. The invention of this hypermodern object was never the American goal. It was by believing in El Dorado, the universal itself, Baudrillard’s “paradise achieved”, that the USA accidentally liberated the material objet petit a as we know it today. The coca leaf gives strength and functions as the keystone of a stable paternal culture; its isolate, cocaine, strands the subject and destroys tradition. Hegel may have been right that the universal is nothing but its seizing over time through the detour of the concrete universal, but America has never believed this. Indeed, it is precisely because the United States continues to ignore the Geist that America remains one of its privileged sites of expression (cunning of reason oblige). In addition, Americans are above all the first victims of this process rather than its agents. Capitalism has never been anything but an excrescence, and this is why “soft”, socialized European capitalism always appears a little naive to an American consumer. If European consumer objects cannot keep pace with their American counterparts, if Europeans cannot manage to invest themselves body and soul in capitalism as Americans have, it is simply because Europe does not shared the American passion for the abstract universal. The essence of European incomprehension of the American genius is this misrecognition of the status of the object in American life, which, contrary to appearances, is not the thing itself but the by-product of the native American belief in abstract universalism. This misrecognition is particularly evident in Albania. The mechanism does not function in Europe because, despite the best efforts of the European population, the European objet petit a remains trapped in a cultural system. It cannot wander freely in the desert as it would like to. A great labor of repression would have to be undertaken for Europe really to devote itself to consumerism, a labor of repression that is not necessary in the United States, where the objects are already naked in themselves. In Europe the objects only appear naked if one represses their cultural dressing, their intractable embeddedness in culture and tradition.

There are very few all-you-can-eat buffets in Europe, and none of them are very good.

Perhaps we have here an explanation for why Europeans are so ashamed of their capitalistic, consumeristic desires: they are founded on an act of repression, which always generates shame – an act of repression that is not necessary to be a capitalist in the United States.

After existing as an administered nowhere for thousands of years, Albania only attained the status of somewhere for 80 years (1912-1992). With almost no reserves of somewhere to serve as bulwarks against the encroachments of the hypermodern gaze (nothing but 700,000 concrete bunkers), Albania has gone back to being nowhere (albeit a different nowhere) without much fanfare.

Somewhere is not yet completely dead, of course. Entire countries remain stuck there. This is even the crux of the (western) European malaise. The essence of the old French grandeur was that it was the greatest somewhere ever created, the summum of all somewheres. Now that the One of nowhere, of everywhere, has entered its ascendancy, somewhere no longer convinces. Yet the French do not have the heart to throw away the glorious remnants of somewhere. It will happen sooner or later. Today’s object may be Albanian or it may be American, but it is certainly no longer French.

With time, the line between nowhere and everywhere will become more blurred. The first world and the third world are converging: everywhere and nowhere are structurally identical. The only difference is that the clothes are a little nicer…the sidewalks a little cleaner…but the day will come, probably sooner than we realize, when we will have to admit that everywhere and nowhere can no longer be distinguished by appealing to such details. The only difference between the interstitial abjection on display in the US (parking lots, trash space, exurbs, etc.) and the interstitial abjection on display in Albania is that the US version has been erected on a “good”, functioning version of modernity. From an ontological standpoint, however, this interstitial space has the same status as the more abject Albanian version.

A final thesis: in the United States, everywhere is quickly becoming nowhere. In Albania, nowhere is quickly becoming everywhere. Soon all that will remain is the old syllogism, A=A. The truth is that elsewhere has never “really” existed. The new model in which nowhere is immanent to somewhere, in which the object to be repressed is present in the tableau and not outside of it, is closer to the entropic structural truth of the world. Gigantism has been on the wane since the dinosaurs went extinct. When polytheism and monotheism come into contact with each other, monotheism always wins. Why? Because once you see the One, it can no longer be unseen. This is even the curse of humanity, its manifest destiny: the inability to unsee the One. Once we enter into this new, synchronic, purified Symbolic, we cannot leave it. The old world was never anything but a fiction, and it is quickly becoming a fiction that no one believes in anymore.