Tagged: Freud

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.

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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.

 

 

Me and Max Cady: Tattoos and Cape Fear

I pity old bikers with armloads of tattoos. They acquired their ink at a time when having a tattoo still identified you as an honest-to-God outlaw. Today, everyone has tattoos. I have tattoos. I am not an outlaw, just one more guy who wants to look cool while still being able to work in a professional environment.

The question I wish to address in this essay is the following: are tattoos a passing fashion trend like any other? Or is there some qualitative difference between tattoos and other ephemeral fashion phenomena? Can the sudden explosion in popularity of tattooing in the early 1990’s, an explosion that, twenty years later, shows no signs of abating, be articulated with some deeper mutation in the nature of the social bond?

The most obvious difference between tattoos and more traditional fashion phenomena is the fact that tattoos are permanent. When I was getting my first tattoo, I had a vision of my dead, wrinkled, body lying in a coffin sometime in the late 21st century with the same idiotic drawing of a pair of dice still there on my ankle. Unlike Crocs, old tattoos cannot simply be donated to Goodwill when they stop being cool. It could be argued that the very permanence of tattoos actually amounts to a sort of guarantee that they will never go completely out of style: too many people with tattoos are too invested in remaining fashionable to allow them to become uncool. It is of course possible that younger generations will react against the elders whose status they wish to usurp by leaving their skin unblemished: after all, this is the basic mechanism of the fashion cycle.

Nonetheless, it is precisely here that tattoos must be distinguished from more traditional fashion phenomena. The essence of the attraction that tattoos exert is of a qualitatively different nature than that of typical fashion objects, and as such cannot be abstracted from its form. A tattoo is above all an inscription, which is to say it participates in the logic of the Symbolic register in a way that clothes do not. The fascination exerted by the Symbolic register in general and by the act of inscription in particular is permanent and eternal. We are only subjects inasmuch as we have submitted to a primordial inscription, one that ties us to a name and thus to a place in the symbolic edifice of society. It is only by draining the center of one’s being from the body to the name that one comes to be as a subject proper. The appeal of tattoos is universal and eternal for the simple reason that they constitute above all a visible performance of the invisible mechanism by which we are born as subjects.

The question remains, however: how can we explain the sudden increase in the popularity of tattoos? If our fascination with tattooing is permanent and universal, why should we all suddenly be more fascinated with tattoos than we were thirty years ago? Before answering this question, we must take a brief reckoning of the psychoanalytic concept of the phobic object. Freud illustrated the basic functioning of the mechanism of phobia in his 1905 case study of a four-year-old boy named “Little Hans” who was afraid of horses. Over the course of Hans’ analysis by his father, a student of Freud’s, his phobia evolved metonymically: from horses in general, to being bitten by horses, to horses falling over, to the muzzle of the horse, and so on before finally dissolving when he successfully overcame his castration anxiety. The phobic object condensed and concentrated this castration anxiety, localizing it and preventing it from saturating his psyche completely. In his 1956 seminar on The Object of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan offered a new reading of the Little Hans case, one which highlighted the signifying dimension of the phobic object. Lacan would go on to formulate the following definition of the phobic object: the substitution of a signifier that frightens for the anxiety-object. In other words, the phobic object is a symbol elected by the subject that allows him physically to modulate his distance from the jouissance that might otherwise engulf him. The alchemy of the Symbolic register is here explicit: the signifier is that agency that expels something from the register of inside – anxiety – to the register of outside – phobic objects that may be physically avoided or confronted. More precisely, the dimension of what we call outside is nothing but the mode of appearance of the Symbolic register itself. Lacan described phobia as the “revolving door” of neurosis because the phobic mechanism amounts to nothing less than the process by which we enter the Symbolic register and, by extension, subjectivity proper.

The specificity of tattooing is that it modifies the body itself, and in this respect it is uniquely suited to metaphorize and (re)perform the subject’s (always incomplete) passage into the Symbolic register. There is no human society, other than our own perhaps, in which the dimension of the sacred is not acknowledged. The sacred – etymologically the word means simultaneously holy and cursed – is the name for the leftover psychic space into which jouissance is crammed and quarantined at the moment the subject passes into the “outside” of the Symbolic. All stable primitive societies are held together by the rituals whose fundamental purpose is to acknowledge and perform the incidence of the symbol on the Real constitutive of humanity. A series of symbolic elements are mobilized and metaphorically projected into the substance of the world itself, either the body (rites of passage into adulthood) or nature (rain dances, etc.). The ritual is performed at a moment of crisis, which is to say a moment at which the Symbolic risks losing its hold on the Real: the advent of the Real of puberty that so often triggers the slippage of the Name-of-the-Father, unexpected irruptions of the “natural” Real such as droughts, famines, eclipses, etc. The dimension of the sacred that is present in the rituals that have always served to shore up symbolic efficiency seems to be unnecessary today: if people no longer go to church in Western Europe (only five percent of the French population goes to mass regularly today, whereas only sixty years ago, Catholicism formed the matrix of French social life) it is simply because the Real no longer appears to us as a threat that must be dealt with by appealing to anything resembling the magical power of the signifier.

The rise of tattooing might be considered a response to the rapid liquidation of the dimension of the sacred in modern society. The counterpoint of this liquidation of the sacred is the increasing vagueness and fluidity of the Symbolic sphere itself, which depends on the existence of a prohibited sacred dimension for its very consistence. More and more people today find themselves outside of any stable symbolic role. The permanent revolution of global capitalism is rapidly transforming our societies into non-societies, the main characteristic of which is the brutal, wholesale erosion of the dimension of permanence, from the permanence of structures (no longer considered desirable by many architects) to the permanence of careers to the permanence of identities. (Paradoxically, the fluidity of our social identities is counterbalanced by the absolute, Real permanence of our digital identities.) In such a universe, tattoos thus furnish a stable inscription in the Real allowing the subject to name himself in the absence of a permanent inscription in the Symbolic. In Idiocracy (2005), Mike Judge’s brilliant satire on modern life, tattoos have come to replace names entirely as the basic mechanism by which people are inserted into the social bond. Indeed, the entire film can be considered a meditation on the passage from a social bond anchored in the Symbolic to one anchored in the Real.

Tattoos also might be considered a form of nostalgia for the Real. We live in a world in which the Real irrupts with less and less frequency and intensity than it did in the past (and with which it continues to irrupt in the developing world – a hundred and thirty thousand deaths in Haiti from an earthquake that might have killed a thousand people in California). We must be careful not to make the mistake of assuming that the Real itself is in danger: rather than disappearing, it has simply passed into the dimension of the Symbolic itself, the dimension that once served as a very barrier against the Real, just as the force that vanquishes Evil becomes evil itself once the external Evil has been vanquished. The Real is the part maudite that will always haunt existence and as such must be considered evil, the original avatar of Evil. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, it is the very dimension of symbolic exchange, and more specifically the dimension of capitalistic exchange, that today occupies the role of the Real that irrupts unpredictably and destabilizes the human world (such as the recent economic crisis, which emerged not in the Real but from within the Symbolic itself, i.e. from within the supposedly transparent symbolic system by which we represent wealth to ourselves). In other words, a point of dialectical reversal has been crossed beyond which the very forces that for so long served to banish and control the real – symbolic exchange – have now become vectors for the very Real that they had so effectively combated. The symbolic essence of tattoos might thus also be considered a manifestation of the Real, an attempt to summon a piece of the vanishing Real and attach it to the body.

Tattoos thus serve two superficially contradictory purposes. On the one hand, they conjure the Symbolic against the Real (by giving the subject a name). On the other hand, they conjure the Real through the Symbolic. Such a double structure is the hallmark of the symptom, which is always a compromise between two conflicting psychic needs. Tattoos simultaneously protect us from the Real and offer us access to it.

We might here make reference to the theory of so-called perversion ordinaire elaborated by Jean-Pierre Lebrun. For Lebrun, we are entering a world in which a neo-perverse psychic economy is replacing neurosis as the standard form of the social bond. How might we distinguish perversion proper and ordinary perversion? The essence of “classic” perversion is the fetishization of the Law: in other words, the Symbolic is not recognized as opposed to jouissance but is rather treated as an instrument of jouissance, a medium for manipulating jouissance.* What differentiates “ordinary perversion” (perhaps a better translation would be “everyday perversion”) from classic perversion is that this transformation of the Symbolic from a reservoir of restrictions to a reservoir of jouissance is no longer a distortion willfully imposed by the subject against the paternal order but a positive feature of the “neo-Symbolic” itself or, rather, a consequence of the disappearance of the external Real. The return of tattooing as a popular cultural practice would thus correspond to the newfound proximity of the Symbolic to the Real. The nature of this new proximity must not be confused with the old proximity, which was essentially a result of a lack of symbolic efficiency: at any moment the fragile Symbolic risked being exploded by the overpowering Real (witness the bloody, sacrificial chaos that accompanied the devaluation of the symbolic rituals that held Aztec society together in the face of a natural Real that steadfastly refused to acknowledge them). On the contrary, the new proximity of the Symbolic and the Real is a result of too much symbolic efficiency. This is Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”: a Real that manifests itself between the lines of the Symbolic, in the very typographic curves of the Symbolic, a Real that slips in through the window after being kicked out of the front door.

Freud described perversion as the “negative” (in the sense of a photographic negative) of neurosis: instead of repressing sexuality, the perverse subject cultivates it. This metaphor must not be passed over too hastily. The two structures are not opposed to each other but, rather, they are essentially identical, the only difference being that between foreground and background. The image is negated in the sense of a Hegelian negation, a process by which reality is left untouched but dialectically transformed. The Law is equally present for both the perverse subject and the neurotic subject, it determines both of their actions, but its content is flipped. For the perverse subject, jouissance is located “inside” the space demarcated by the Law – perceived as an instrument of jouissance – whereas for the neurotic subject, jouissance is located outside of the Law. Martin Scorsese provides us with a wonderful illustration of this phenomenon in his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear. Max Cady, played by Robert de Niro, is sent to prison for fourteen years for brutally raping a woman. While in prison, he spends his time studying the Law, ostensibly to defend and exonerate himself. Once out of prison, however, Cady immediately begins using his knowledge of the Law for his own jouissance, finding ways to manipulate legal statutes to cause subjective division in Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who sent him to jail. Although he claims to desire only justice, Cady’s true desire is to seduce and rape Bowden’s teenage daughter. Scorsese, in an inspired gesture, decided to cover Cady’s body with prison tattoos, most of which refer to law and justice in one way or another. More generally, the differences between the 1962 film, in which Sam Bowden (played this time by Gregory Peck) is an entirely just and upright citizen, and the 1991 film, in which Bowden is a more ethically ambiguous character who (sort of) cheats on his wife and withholds evidence, mirror the transformations that have taken place in the symbolic register itself. The boundary between Law and jouissance has effectively become blurry: whereas in the first version everyone knows that Cady is bad, in the second version, de Niro is more successful in convincing others (as well as the audience) that his “cause” is just. Although both the 1962 Cady (played by Robert Mitchum) and the 1991 Cady give a number of similar speeches in which they attempt to justify themselves, the reactions that they provoke in Bowden are quite different. In the 1962 film, Bowden does not dignify Cady’s diatribes with responses, electing rather to respond with the noble silence of the man who knows he is right. In the 1991 film, however, Bowden is constantly forced to defend himself to his family as well as to Cady, not because he is guilty himself (he repressed evidence that would have freed Cady on a technicality) as it would superficially appear, but because the big Other of the Law that responded through Gregory Peck’s silence in 1962 has been eroded to the point where it no longer forms the implicit background of Bowden’s speech. Instead of dutifully ceding to his paternal authority, his wife and daughter immediately take Cady’s side out of pure hysterical perversity. Unlike the 1962 Bowden, the 1991 Bowden is a castrated master, and as such he can inspire nothing but scorn and derision in his subjects. We are also reminded of Lacan’s dictum that what a hysteric wants is above all a master that she can reign over. Conversely, Jessica Lange’s 1991 Leigh Bowden is a desiring subject where Polly Bergen’s 1962 Peggy Bowden is little more than a shadow of her husband.

Nolte’s Bowden is a perfect neurotic in that his attempts to procure enjoyment by transgressing the Law fail: he does not manage to actually go through with cheating on his wife, for example. Likewise, the crime of which he is accused by Cady – withholding evidence in his favor – is ultimately carried out in the service of justice, not in the service of jouissance. Bowden is a man for whom the Law is supported by the perverse fantasy of transgressing it – a fantasy with which he flirts but to which he ultimately does not cede. In a sense, Nolte’s Bowden behaves in an exceptionally moral way: his actions are, ultimately, carried out in the service of (paternal) justice, which is to say that nothing he does at any point in the film procures him any enjoyment. Cady, on the other hand, with his giant cigars, his convertible, his smirk, is a figure of pure enjoyment, from his first appearance to his bizarre death, speaking in tongues in a frenzy of jouissance as he drowns. Whereas Nolte’s Bowden follows the Law by pretending to transgress it, Max Cady transgresses the Law by pretending to follow it, and it is only by appealing to a metric of jouissance that the true ethical value of their actions can be measured.

What the Scorsese version of Cape Fear illustrates so well is the transformation that has taken place in the Symbolic itself. Bowden and Cady’s convergence towards a single point at which Good and Bad are nearly indistinguishable is not simply a gratuitous variation on the original story but a necessary updating of the story to conform to the new world in which we live. (We might even imagine what the 2020 remake will look like: perhaps Bowden and Cady will be portrayed as ethically indistinct from each other.) What was lost sometime between 1962 and 1991 is above all the myth that the Symbolic is empty of jouissance. As Lacan reminded us, however, les nondupes errent: those who were not duped by the purity of the paternal myth in 1962 (as represented by the faultless but also sexless and desireless Gregory Peck, who we can presume must also have buried evidence and fantasized about cheating on his wife off-screen) miss the point completely, namely that hiding the hypocrisy of the Law (its dependence on a perverse fantasy of transgression) is precisely what allows the Law to operate at all. By concealing the hypocrisy of the Law, by concentrating the hypocrisy in his own hands, the traditional father nonetheless dialectically opens up a space free of jouissance. Here is where everyday perversion appears: by abolishing the hypocritical Law we lose the Law itself; by insisting that the Law has never been anything but jouissance, we ensure that it never will be. The Law’s hypocrisy was once tolerated because, grosso modo, we needed the Law to protect us from the Real, but with the transformation of the external Real, increasingly mastered by technology, we (think we) no longer need the Law. This is the decadence of the hypermodern world. Whereas the classic perverse subject was someone who willfully inverted good and bad, Law and jouissance – categories which determined the contours of the external world into which he was born – the everyday pervert is someone who is born into a world in which any externally given distinction between the Law and jouissance is blurry if not entirely absent. He is a pervert by default instead of a pervert by choice.

Max Cady’s tattoos render directly this mutation. They unveil the Real core of the Symbolic in exactly the same way that the perverse core of the Law has been unveiled by liberation ideologists.

The tattooed hordes of young people that can be found in New York, London, and Berlin suffer above all from the confusion of foreground and background that typifies the future of the social bond. The background of bourgeois norms against which their tattoos would have once had some meaning has been liquidated, replaced with the imperative to transgress. Zones of polymorphous perversity in which the final signification of any identificatory gesture are permanently undecidable – places like Berlin which are at the vanguard of urban transformation – represent the future of the city. These are places in which the Symbolic no longer exists as a stable edifice, a background, but simply as a reservoir of Real and Imaginary elements that can be mixed and matched at will with aesthetics as the only guiding principle. The essence of our new world is not that the Symbolic is refused, it is that it is eternally deferred. Although it is customary to denigrate the residents of places like Brooklyn, Berlin, etc. as pretentious, ironic agents of the destruction of Law and meaning (“who do they think they’re rebelling against?”), they are in fact those who are closest to the truth of what is happening to the social bond. Their feeble attempts to introduce some sort of line into the increasingly diffuse substance of modern reality – a line between Law and jouissance, inside and outside, with tattoos for example – are perhaps nothing but consequences of a certain clarity concerning the new order of things. The new tattooed class is composed of people who have caught a glimpse of the fragility of the Symbolic order and have no choice but to piece together some sort of response. It is rather those who cling to the illusion that some stable social order still exists – those who still believe that we live in a world and not a floating non-world – that are in denial regarding the true nature of the social bond to come.

* Incidentally, from a clinical and anecdotal point of view, I cannot help but mention that the profession of tattoo artist must be considered a perverse career par excellence: the tattoo artist is above all someone who makes himself the instrument that causes subjective division in the other. I have been tattooed by a number of different artists, and rarely have I failed to detect the perverse jouissance that animates them as they pull my skin painfully tight with one hand and cut a permanent mark into my body with the other.

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.

1 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.

 

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.

 

Ayn Rand, Fight Club and the Oedipus Complex

The following essay was originally written as an introduction to psychoanalysis for my mother’s high school English class.

Where is Oedipus?

From a psychoanalytic point of view, there is only one story: Oedipus and its variations.

We might start where Freud started: with dreams. As he discovered, a dream is a message from the unconscious, and not just any message: it is an expression of a desire so scandalous that it must be censored. Freud hypothesizes the existence of an internal voice – the superego – whose job is to censor these messages. To reconstruct the mutilated message, we must undo the work of censorship carried out by the superego. This is the work of psychoanalysis. And once we restore the secret message of the dream, we always recognize some variation on the same story.

Psychoanalysis begins with the premise that reality has the structure of a dream. What we call objective reality is always a compromise between our fantasies and the indifference of existence. It is the double-sided screen rippling at the frontier of two infinities, neither of which can be perceived directly. Reality can only disclose itself to us through our fantasies, just as our fantasies can only disclose themselves to us through reality.

What a patient undergoing psychoanalysis refers to as “reality” is nothing but the compromise between fantasy and the Real that he has elaborated in his unconscious. In other words, reality it is a product of repression. Every appeal to “reality” is always an invitation to impose my repression on you – which is why we should never trust anyone who grounds his arguments in an appeal to objective reality. Reality is therefore a defense mechanism against the Real, which must always be understood as concerning the subject alone.

When we watch a nature special on television, for example, we see everything but nature itself. We see above all a projection of our own fantasies: mating, the hunt, the tribe. Our fantasies allow us to see something of the Real, but never all of it. Nature specials tell us more about ourselves than they do about nature. For were we to come face to face with the true, radical Otherness of nature, we would simply see – nothing, just as we cannot see the millions of neutrinos that shoot straight through the gaps between the electrons in our bodies on their silent passage through the void.

Freud discovered that our fantasies, although always unique and personal, nonetheless share a basic structure. He called this structure the Oedipus complex. Flies eat by vomiting digestive fluid on their food then sucking it up. The Oedipus complex is the symbolic digestive fluid we vomit on the world to digest it with our minds. We cannot understand anything – ourselves, other people, nature – without imposing an Oedipal story on it. Like a sheet draped over a ghost, it simultaneously disfigures and discloses what lies behind it. As we move towards enlightenment, we realize the extent to which we confuse perception with construction.

“Oedipus” refers to the incest prohibition, which is the fundamental law of human society – the only law universal to all cultures. In a certain sense, then, “incest prohibition” is an exact synonym for society as such. Why? Because society emerges – can only emerge – as a substitution-formation for the prohibited sexual relationship between the child and his parents. The secret of Oedipus, and the secret of society, is that the incest prohibition constitutes society by prohibiting something that is impossible anyway.

One might respond that incest is, on the contrary, quite possible and alarmingly common. Obviously this is true; but what might be referred to as Incest with a capital I is not simple sexual contact with a family member but rather the overcoming of subjectivity in a return to some primordial union with existence.

The scandal of incest has nothing to do with incest being “against nature”. The scandal of incest is that an object that must remain locked away at a distance in order for a world to exist as such is revealed as non-existent, an event whose consequence is a devaluation of reality.

What does it mean to say “an object”? For psychoanalysis, sexual desire has an inherently fetishistic structure. What I desire in another is always some partial object, some “piece” of that person – be it a body part, a symbolic attribute, or something that cannot even be put into words.

This “living” object hidden somewhere in the body of the other is nothing but the support of reality itself. What we call society only remains coherent, pressurized, and vectorized because it is filled out with a hidden libidinal object.

To use an analogy: when we walk into a library, it is only the supposed existence of a book that touches the Real in some way – be it through science or narrative – that gives shape to our experience of the library and sends us from one book to another.

The success of the Internet lies here: if we all spend so much time surfing the Web, it is because we suppose that somewhere out there a webpage exists that touches the Real (which is always my Real). Otherwise, why bother? Of course, there is no final webpage that would put an end once and for all to the need for symbolic circulation…but we are not capable of doing without some equivalent of this fantasy of a final access to the Real.

There is no way of unveiling, once and for all, the Real Thing that we suppose to be hidden somewhere, be it inside a book, coded in a URL, inside a woman or attached to a man. The reason is because it only exists through our fantasies. Like Freddy Kreuger, The Real needs our fantasies to exist.

The Object that structures reality thus has a paradoxical essence: on the one hand, it does not exist in that it can never be seized. On the other hand, it casts a shadow in the form of the symbolic structure of society, which only exists as a by-product of the removal from reality of this object.

Here we must make a brief detour through the dialectical philosophy of Hegel to find our way forward. Hegel’s fundamental insight was that the world does not coincide with itself. What does this mean? In every case, the binary pairs that structure our world – good/evil, fake/real, clean/dirty, man/woman, etc. – are not “externally opposed” but rather constitute each other as such. In every case, one term must be understood as a subset of the other. When we pursue one term in the binary pair far enough, it spontaneously flips over into its opposite. For Aristotle, there was A, there was not-A, and there was nothing in between. For Hegel, A and not-A are simultaneously one and two, without one and two collapsing into each other. Identity IS difference and difference IS identity. The fundamental logical algorithm of Hegel’s ontology lies here: A and not-A are both the same and different, yet this difference and this both-ness neither coincide nor invalidate each other.

Crucially, for Hegel time is therefore a structural feature of logic. In other words, there is no timeless, transcendental plane where A does not equal not-A. On the contrary, for Hegel, like Heraclitus, all that is real is change. This is the dialectical process: concepts secrete their opposites, break away from each other, come together, miss each other again, generate future conflicts and future resolutions that will again, in their turn, become new conflicts. In this dialectical soup, truth is never fixed and stationary. Truth evolves.

This basic rule of dialectics – the mutual determination of opposites, which is expressed over time – is another way of designating the non-existent sexual rapport. Reality does not exist in any sort of “static” sense: it can never be seized once and for all (“…and they lived happily ever after”). We are all tempted to think in timeless, absolute terms – a thing either is or is not, and the fact that it will one day pass away seems like evidence to us that it is not real.

Reality is transformation. It exists – in time, concretely, imperfectly – precisely because it does not exist in some immutable, transcendental sphere. In other words, reality can exist concretely precisely because it cannot exist abstractly. This is what Hegel refers to as “concrete universality”.

Psychoanalysis is the science of this self-contradictory relationship that finds itself precisely where it misses itself, loses itself. Here we return to the Object, which appears as the point of inconsistency of the Real itself. This mysterious Object that can only be seized by not being seized is nothing less than the fulcrum of that fantasy that we call reality. The Object emerges a a response to the repression of the Real’s inconsistency and from then on it functions as both index and mask of this inconsistency.

In 1931, the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel proved that any given system – what we refer to as reality as such a system – can either be complete or consistent but not both. Mathematics is such a system; physics is another; natural language is another. In other words, for a system to be perceived as consistent, we must sacrifice some element that must be “repressed”.

This is how subjectivity emerges: as a response to this necessary subtraction of some piece of the Real in order that reality might be constituted as a consistent sphere and not a chaotic, paradoxical soup. Advanced physics and mathematics, with their paradoxical wave-particles, multiple dimensions, impossible “imaginary” numbers, etc. furnish us with such an inconsistent and radically impossible-to-imaginarize model of the universe.

The necessary subtraction of this piece of the Real thus leaves a gaping hole, one that must be plugged up. Such a hole can only be plugged up by a paradoxical object, one that is simultaneously itself and not-itself, one that is simultaneously more than itself and less than itself.

In this sense, what we refer to as the Symbol is another avatar of the Object. What distinguishes a symbol from a sign is that a symbol simultaneously represents a thing and something “more”, some mysterious X factor that cannot be expressed directly because language presupposes consistency at the expense of completeness. Symbols and metaphors are thus the many-faced logical operators that simultaneously suture our world and offer us a glimpse of the true, paradoxical nature of the Real.

Lady MacBeth’s bloodstain does not simply represent her guilt; it both represents her guilt and incarnates, in its irreducible thereness, something that goes beyond anything that we can name as such. It simultaneously plays an Oedipal role (by attaching her to her symbolic obligations) and an ontological role (it saturates reality). This is the secret to understanding symbols, from Luke Skywalker’s light saber to Hitler’s mustache to the plague that ravages Thebes.

Here we return to our starting point, the Oedipus complex. What psychoanalysis calls the Oedipus complex is the story we construct to keep the paradoxical Object at a certain distance – because were we to approach it too closely, we would see that it does not exist in any solid sense. What we call “incest prohibition” is nothing but the removal from circulation of something – some variable X – that must remain off-limits in order that we might have a world. This X is again the paradoxical object that plugs up the hole in the Real. And every human society has come up with essentially the same stand-in for X: the mother.

The “natural” grounding of the incest prohibition – “incest causes inbreeding and disease” – is nothing but a pseudo-biological ex post facto justification that covers up the true nature of the incest prohibition. We ought rather to see our own fantasy here: that incest causes illness and degeneracy – a fantasy that is already present in Sophocles’ play.

“Oedipus” is thus shorthand for any social or symbolic system that puts the impossible Object in circulation by prohibiting it. As we have seen, reality cannot exist without some such Oedipal structure to hold it together and grant it consistency.

To return to Hegel, the dialectic, which never rests, is animated by Spirit. What Hegel refers to as Spirit, Freud refers to as libido – the eternal pushing-forward of existence. The mode of appearance of Spirit, of libido, is, again, the Object. It is precisely by following this object, chasing this object, desiring this object, missing this object, chasing after this object again, that the object itself can grow, can change, can metamorphose – and us with it.

Lacan came up with a wonderful neologism to describe our relationship with this object outside of us that structures our reality. He called it extimate – simultaneously external and intimate – the paradox of an external body that is more us than ourselves – the external kernel of our being.

“Oedipus” is the study of the singular path that the Object carves for each and every one of us. It always concerns us and us alone. Whereas the Real is the same for everybody, reality is always singular: my reality, your reality, her reality. The object can get stuck here…refused there…misrecognized somewhere else. All of the famous psychoanalytic concepts – regression, introjection, the superego, repression, defense mechanisms, denial, orality, anality, hysteria, and on an on – are so many technical words used to describe the metamorphoses of the Object that creates us as subjects.

The point of departure of this essay was the universality of Oedipus. Every story ever told is a variation on the dialectical process described above – the destiny of the object, whose last essence is always sexual. Here we must be precise: sexuality is the mode of appearance of ontology as such; it is the signal that we are approaching the Object. Rather than seeing sexuality as “sexual” we must see it as fulfilling an essentially philosophical purpose: sex is the means by which human beings approach the impossible truth which is “hidden behind” the Object. This truth can be referred to but never seen, never seized as such. The Truth is not simply that the Real is permanently beyond our grasp, permanently behind the Object. The Truth, the Real, is permanently beyond its own grasp. Behind every object, behind every Phallus, behind every symbol, behind every desire, lies always – another object, another symbol, another desire – and it never ends.

The psychoanalytic process, like the philosophical process, is a process of circulating around this object in such a way that it can be animated with Spirit, with the Libido that it needs to continue evolving – we can ask for nothing more than this constant transformation with no end.

Let us here turn to a few concrete examples to illustrate this conceptual edifice.

Fight Club, which came out in 1999, is a film that whose message has become iconic. Superficially, Fight Club is about the existential ennui of late-capitalist man. The main character, a slave to his possessions, is saved from his plight by the encounter with Tyler Durden, a man who attempts, again and again, to teach the Edward Norton character to seize life directly. Tyler Durden is handsome, virile, fearless, and full of witty monologues excoriating the sterility of consumer culture. The fight clubs that he starts are nodes of resistance against this sterility.

The most superficial reading of Fight Club is to see in it a brainless film about violence and psychosis. Better but still insufficient is the pseudo-analytical reading that sees Fight Club as a critique of consumer capitalism. In such a reading, Tyler Durden’s revolutionary discourse is taken at face value as representing the “message” of the film. The real story of Fight Club is something else altogether – it is a love story.

Fight Club begins with an encounter – between a man and a woman. Remember that the Truth can only be approached this way – through an encounter with the Object, one that takes place under the sign of sexuality. Fight Club begins when Edward Norton’s character encounters that intolerable Object that reflects back to him his own extimacy – in other words, that Object that signifies to him that what he considers hard reality is in fact shot through with fantasy. This object tells him that he is not in control; that he is not separate from the universe but part of it. The encounter with the Object is an invitation to change – it is an order from the universe that the Object and the Subject must enact a new synthesis, must consummate their encounter by producing something new.

The entire “story” of Fight Club is thus nothing but a necessary parenthesis between the moment the Edward Norton character sees the Helena Bonham Carter character and the moment he shoots himself in the mouth – finally allowing himself to encounter his truth. Everything Tyler Durden says and does is double-coded, and has no meaning outside of its Oedipal meaning: as a series of necessary dead-ends that must fail in order that Edward Norton might finally find has painful way to the Object. Tyler Durden’s monologues about capitalism, consumerism, masculinity, etc. may be superficially interesting, but they are true only inasmuch as they are vanishing words mediating Norton’s approach to the Object.

The entire point of Fight Club is that the concept of a fight club is a symptom whose extremity, whose patent unhealthiness, whose impossibility as a viable solution, is matched only by the depth and breadth of Edward Norton’s refusal to recognize the Object that forms the external kernel of his being.

Let us now consider the case of Ayn Rand. Her entire output must be understood the same way: as a vanishing philosophy designed simultaneously to attain the Object and continue pushing it away – a formula that could be regarded as the basic structure of hysteria.

The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are not works of philosophy; they are love stories – the double-coded statements of Ayn Rand’s own Oedipal fantasies. To approach these works on the superficial level is like interpreting a dream without translating it back into the language of the unconscious.

If Ayn Rand’s works are so popular among a certain demographic – precocious, somewhat alienated teenage boys – it is because that which is repressed in Ayn Rand’s universe resonates with a complementary repressed content on the part of the readers.

What is repressed in Ayn Rand’s world? Freud recommended that a psychoanalyst pay particular attention to that anything that is said twice and anything that is never said. What is most notably absent in Ayn Rand’s fantasy universe? Humor, for one; compassion, for another. The total absence of these patent psychological realities must not be considered simple lacunae but repressions that, like all repressions, must be enacted and re-enacted because they never disappear once and for all. We see here a first clue as to why her books are so long – there is so much that must be repressed that the battle must be fought again and again and again, page after page.

Of course, on a more general level, every discourse – every story – operates a repression inasmuch as every story sacrifices completeness at the expense of consistency.

The psychoanalytic process is the process of lifting repression, of draining the unconscious of secondary repressions until all that is left is that no-longer reducible kernel of repression that can never be lifted inasmuch as it is constitutive of reality.

Most Ayn Rand believers are over-intelligent, sexually unhappy young men. I was one of them. It is with astonishment and embarrassment that I now consider some of the beliefs that I held at that period of my life: that pleasure was undignified; that seriousness was a cardinal virtue; that intelligence, construed narrowly as something like IQ, constituted the fundamental measure of a human being’s worth.

Fifteen years later, I can see a little more clearly what was really going on. These symptoms were the first manifestations of a transformation that would eventually lead me to repudiate everything I initially believed. In other words, Ayn Rand allowed me to begin obliquely preparing an approach to the long-denied Object in my own life. I had to allow my repressions to merge with the repressions operated in these novels, precisely in order that they might be given a first shape, one that, crucially, then had to be refused. It would have been impossible for me to refuse these repressions without first encountering them in a systematic form – for only such an encounter with what had until then existed inside me namelessly could begin to put words were previously there existed only confusion and anxiety.

Wo es war, soll Ich werden. Where It was, there I shall come to be – Freud’s words of order.

Although I have long outgrown Ayn Rand, I am grateful to her for allowing me to begin to symbolize something that before her remained completely inchoate. When I literally threw Atlas Shrugged in disgust at the wall of my dorm room during John Galt’s final monologue a full year after picking up The Fountainhead for the first time, it was a sign that the Object had finally, tardily, begun to evolve. I sensed too – on some dim level – that my fascination with Ayn Rand, had something to do with my own developing (and completely unformed) adult sexuality. I did not know why this should be the case but in retrospect this is clear to me – somehow, the works of Ayn Rand brought me one step closer to becoming a man.

Perhaps one explanation for why Ayn Rand is so popular among such a precise demographic is because her own sexuality was arrested at a precise stage in her libidinal development. Here we encounter a second possible explanation for the length of her books: it is because Ayn Rand remained all her life fixated on an Object that was never allowed to evolve that she had to write the same story over and over again without ever encountering that synthesis that would allow her to write The End and begin something new.

If so many young, half-developed men fall into Objectivism, it is because they are responding to the desire of a woman whose similar half-development renders her visible to them in the same way that methadone is visible to a heroin addict.

It is no coincidence that Rand used her personal philosophy/cult to seduce a man twenty-five years her junior. Objectivism was never anything but a screen for Ayn Rand, which explains its impotence. If so many more young men than young women are seduced by Rand’s philosophy, it is because this was always its real goal: not simply to attract but to conjure into existence the man who had until then only existed in Rand’s fantasy. Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s young paramour, is here an illustration of the paradox of extimacy: his truth, his essence, was located outside of him in Ayn Rand’s discourse, and it is precisely because he refused to recognize this extimacy that he allowed himself to be transformed from a living, singular man into a character that did not and could not exist in reality because it was never anything but Ayn Rand’s impossible, incestuous fantasy of reunion with the lost Object.

Let it be noted that Branden is an anagram for “Ben Rand”, which means “son of Rand” in Hebrew, a language both Rand and Branden, whose real name was Blumenthal, were familiar with as they were both Jewish. (This observation was made by Murray Rothbard, a former member of Rand’s Objectivist inner circle in New York.) Branden’s adoption of this mysterious new name upon encountering Ayn Rand here illustrates several crucial properties of the unconscious, namely the breathtaking intelligence, precocity, and economy with which it constructs symbols whose purpose is simultaneously to mask and reveal the truth. Using only seven letters, Branden’s unconscious unveiled the central secret and last truth of Ayn Rand’s writing, namely her own unconscious Oedipal fantasy of having a son in order that she might reunite with him sexually – only no one was willing to decipher this message that had been written in plain sight for all to see.

Today, Nathaniel Branden, the man whom Ayn Rand considered a living personification of John Galt, works as a personal coach and motivational speaker. We might here measure the gulf that separates psychoanalysis – whose point of departure is the existence and absolute otherness of the unconscious – with the ego-psychology now championed by Branden, whose point of departure is the mortifying belief that coincidence with oneself is possible with enough self-discipline. With age, the mummified Branden’s fake tan, cleft chin and capped teeth reveal more and more clearly the refusal of the Object of which he has turned himself into a representative.

Ayn Rand’s personal life thus furnishes us the key for understanding her system: as a screen for the “real” story of her life – the strictly Oedipal story that is the truth of Objectivism.

Ayn Rand turned into a bitter and unpleasant woman with age because she remained transfixed by a static image of the Object, an image of perfection, an image of completeness – one that never budged beyond a certain immature stage of psychosexual development.

In a curious twist, it is thus precisely because Ayn Rand remained blocked at this level that she has been able to help so many young men (like the young man I used to be) to see exactly how they need to grow. The element of time is crucial here. We see here a third possible justification for the extreme length of Ayn Rand’s books: this length is essential to the maieutic process. In other words, they have to be long because we need to be able to sense, bodily, through repetition, that something is wrong. When we read Ayn Rand we gradually begin to sense that something that should be changing, moving, evolving, growing, is remaining static, stuck, inert, sterile.

It took me all of The Fountainhead plus nine hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged to realize this – a fact that should indicate the tenacity with which I wanted to hang on to the illusion that I was not a divided subject, that I was in control of myself, that I needed no object.

And now, finally, those of you who are reading this essay have come to the point at which the abstract philosophy presented in the first section fuses together with the Oedipal story of my own life. You are reading a paper that I have written not only for my own mother but for the young man I used to be – for you who are reading these words are in the position that I was in almost twenty years ago as a student of gifted English at Mandeville High, a student who sensed that the world was much bigger than Mandeville, Louisiana with its dullness, its hypocrisy, its comfort, its provinciality.

In a certain sense, you are the author of this essay inasmuch as I was once sitting in the very same desk you are sitting now, wondering if anything outside of Mandeville really existed or if it was all a charade.

Today I write these words from Paris, France, where I have lived for the last eight years. If I managed to get from Mandeville to Paris it is because I never allowed myself to believe in reality as such – and it was only once I got the fuck out that this intuition was fully confirmed in the pages of the thinkers I have cited here. Reality can only derive its consistency from fantasy. Sometimes people ask me how I ended up here – in a certain sense it is thus not false of me to say that it all started with The Fountainhead. The Object that began to take shape when I first encountered Ayn Rand – or rather, continued to take shape, for the Object’s birth is simultaneous with our own birth – has never stopped mutating and never will. If I possess any strength – and sometimes it is difficult to believe that I have any strength at all – it has been the strength demonstrated by Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who simply allowed herself to follow the Object down the rabbit-hole, where it could continue to evolve.

Be good to my mother – you’re lucky to have the opportunity to learn from someone like her.

November, 2012.

 

Gentrification and Orality

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.

 

 

 

 

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!

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.

 

Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Speech

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.            

The Psychosis of David Foster Wallace

1999 was the last and worst year of my adolescent deep freeze. I was twenty years old, a man, but with no masculine substance to speak of. I was an SAT score, a certitude that real life was elsewhere, a precocious cynicism, a tendency to passivity, a certain facility with language, a terror of sex, a dorm room with plastic bags ironically pinned to the wall, a prematurely stooped back, a mocking pair of gray velcro sneakers from K-Mart, another Friday night spent alone, but there was no center to hold these scraps together. What looked to others from the outside like a college student was nothing but an abstract mentating membrane of sorrow.

In other words, I was the ideal David Foster Wallace reader. Infinite Jest fell into my hands that year and I devoured it. I read all the endnotes, including the math ones. It was long, it was dense, it was recursive, it was hermetic: I loved it. The cynical explanation for my enthusiasm is that the size and impenetrability of the book confirmed to me that I possessed a superior but misunderstood intelligence. The generous explanation is that I needed a book that reflected back to me my own unfulfilled potential in order that I might begin to fulfill it. Novels like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (which I had read the year before) and Infinite Jest reflected back to me something of this experience of myself. At the time I read them, I needed these books. They allowed me to believe in myself when nothing else could work that alchemy. They were potential novels in the way that I was a potential person. Both books are long, deferred promises of…something. Everything takes place in a state of suspension, of potential energy just waiting to crystallize into some finished form. But it never actually happens. We know intuitively from the first few pages that such a crystallization cannot take place, because frustration and unrealized potential are present in the very syntax and vocabulary that typify the Pynchon/Wallace style. Naturally, only a potential person could stick with such a book, and this is why both authors are above all beloved of young men.

When I learned that D.T. Max had written a biography of David Foster Wallace (Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Viking, 2012), I ran out and read it that day, even though I am no longer interested in Wallace as a writer. My own eagerness surprised me. Perhaps I suspected that it might shed light on the person I had been. What is certain is that Wallace is one of those rare writers who has come to stand in for something larger than himself. He continues to fascinate today because he incarnates better than anyone else a previously nameless wrinkle in the American zeitgeist for which his own name now serves as shorthand.

I recognize much of myself in the portrait Max paints of the teenage Wallace. He was the apotheosis of the type of young man I wanted to be: a precocious smart-aleck with a fondness for intelligence for intelligence’s sake. He corrected strangers when they said “nauseous” but meant “nauseated”. He bragged to girls that he got a perfect SAT score (not true). He was a logic whiz at Amherst, earning a degree in philosophy along with a degree in English literature for an early draft of his first novel. He graduated with a double summa cum laude, and Max suggests that Wallace remains, to this day, perhaps the most decorated undergraduate ever to graduate from Amherst. (Here the resemblance between us ends: I was an inhibited and mediocre undergraduate.)

Following college, Wallace earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona and published his Pynchonesque first novel, The Broom of the System. In 1989, two years after his MFA, Wallace went back to school for a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard. He moved to Boston with an old college friend and promptly threw his life in the toilet. His latent drug and alcohol problems exploded into bona fide addictions. A few months after enrolling, he was in a halfway house for drug addicts, where doctors told him that he would be dead by thirty if he kept it up (he was twenty-seven at the time). He spent the next humbling year working as a warehouse security guard and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

His year in Granada House profoundly altered him. During this time, Dostoyevsky came to replace Pynchon as his literary god. Where previously he incarnated postmodernism at its most recursive and ironic, he now began to preach an ethics and an aesthetics of sincerity and humility. He fell in love with a married writer named Mary Karr. Details on this period of his life are sketchy. Max paints a picture of a man whose intense and unrequited love had a definite psychotic flavor. At one point Wallace tried to buy a gun to kill Karr’s husband.

In his early thirties, Wallace left the East Coast to return to Illinois, where he taught creative writing. In 1996, Infinite Jest, a sprawling, baroque, thousand-page novel about entertainment, addiction, tennis, and consumerism with a hundred pages of endnotes was published and Wallace entered the canon.

There is a clear sense in Max’s biography that Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest life was a frustrating twelve-year epilogue marked by an inability to write any substantial fiction. It ended on September 12, 2008, when Wallace, then forty-six, neatly stacked the unfinished manuscript for The Pale King on his desk, walked from the garage to the patio, and hanged himself.

Wallace’s psychological troubles began in earnest in 1982, at the age of twenty, when he suffered his first nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. More followed. In the late 1980’s, after a second suicide attempt, he began taking the antidepressant Nardil, which he would take for the rest of his life. He spent years in psychotherapy, including stints in locked wards and rehab. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings sedulously. He underwent electroshock therapy. His life is, among other things, an indictment of the failure of American psychiatry to understand him, a failure that is emblematic of the larger epistemological failure of cognitive-behaviorist psychology.

Scholar Maria Bustillos writes of her astonishment in finding numerous CBT-inspired self-help books among the Wallace archives at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin.

One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully. [1]

It is both touching and pathetic to imagine Wallace reading such literature. One of the great intellectual tragedies of the last forty years is the gradual banishment of Freud from the landscape of American psychotherapy. Why isn’t The Interpretation of Dreams in his library? As I intend to illustrate, Freudian psychoanalysis, and more specifically its Lacanian variant, alone allows us to apprehend the nature of the deep wound from which Wallace’s suffering flowed.

The specific thesis I wish to advance is that Wallace’s psychological problems were not depression or addiction as such but rather compensated psychosis as it is theorized by psychoanalysis. Wallace’s numerous nervous breakdowns indicate that something more serious than depression was going on. For psychoanalysis, psychosis is not a disease but an existential orientation. It is a special kind of relationship with language and the body, one that cannot be “cured”. History is filled with gifted psychotics, from Isaac Newton to Ludwig Wittgenstein to Glenn Gould, whose specific genius is indissociable from their psychosis. Where the neurotic suffers from the limitations imposed by repression, the psychotic suffers from an absence of limits. Psychotic genius is sprawling – as is psychotic suffering.

My goal in this essay is not to engage in the sterile exercise of reducing Wallace to a clinical category. What passes for psychological thought today too often consists of substituting an empty syllogism for an analysis: “X did Y because he is depressed/bipolar/a sociopath.” Rather than advancing understanding, such an operation shuts it down. Difference can only emerge against a background of identity, and an authentic analysis must demonstrate how kernel and shell, architecture and ornament generate each other. My goal in this essay is therefore a properly dialectical one: to make explicit the structure implicit in Max’s biography and illustrate how, like a figured bass, Wallace’s psychosis bent the melody of his life and writing to its exigences.

PSYCHOSIS IN WALLACE’S WRITING

Freud qualified psychosis as a narcissistic disorder because the psychotic’s libido, instead of being directed outwards, is directed inwards. Narcissism and solipsism are themes that run through Wallace’s life and oeuvre. He constantly veers between megalomania and melancholy. In their psychotic variant, what these two positions have in common is a sentiment of radical exclusion from the community of others. Wallace’s narcissism was not the banal narcissism of the conformist, but rather the desperate performative narcissism of the nameless pariah. Psychotic narcissism functions above all as a manic defense against its dark twin, melancholy, the conviction that one is a stain on humanity – a conviction that no amount of cognitive-behavioral re-education can touch. Although psychotic melancholy superficially resembles depression, the underlying logic is different. Depression, the affect of our times, is an inhibition of libido and as such it is a moral issue, not a psychiatric one. In melancholia, however, libido cannot be mobilized and cathected.

The following passage from The Pale King, typical of a certain strain of Wallace’s writing, illustrates this turning-in of libido:

Obetrolling didn’t make me self-conscious. But it did make me much more self-aware. If I was in a room, and had taken an Obetrol or two with a glass of water and they’d taken effect, I was now not only in the room, but I was aware that I was in the room. In fact, I remember I would often think, or say to myself, quietly but very clearly, ‘I am in this room.’ It’s difficult to explain this. At the time, I called it ‘doubling,’ but I’m still not entirely sure what I meant by this, nor why it seemed so profound and cool to not only be in a room but be totally aware that I was in the room, seated in a certain easy chair in a certain position listening to a certain specific track of an album whose cover was a certain specific combination of colors and designs – being in a state of heightened enough awareness to be able to consciously say to myself, ‘I am in this room right now. The shadow of the foot is rotating on the east wall. The shadow is not recognizable as a foot because of the deformation of the angle of the light of the sun’s position behind the sign. I am seated upright in a dark-green easy chair with a cigarette burn on the right armrest. The cigarette burn is black and imperfectly round. The track I am listening to is “The Big Ship” off of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, whose cover has colorful cutout figures inside a white frame.’ Stated so openly, this amount of detail might seem tedious, but it wasn’t. What it felt like was a sort of emergence, however briefly, from the fuzziness and drift of my life in that period. As though I was a machine that suddenly realized it was a human being and didn’t have to just go through the motions it was programmed to perform over and over. [2]

Wallace’s prose style is immediately recognizable. Here is the restless, digressive, self-deconstructing voice in our heads. In Wallace’s writing, this voice is never far away. Note that what Wallace describes in this passage is not “self-awareness” at all. What I see in this passage is a hemorrhaging subject using phenomenology to stanch the bleeding. By doubling every impression that enters his field of perception and naming it, he temporarily extracts himself from some pre-symbolic nameless miasma. The word kills the thing, and by naming things, he names himself. This radical uncanniness of the world, such as Sartre describes in Nausea, is the paradigmatic experience of psychosis. The psychotic subject is someone for whom Being has been incompletely domesticated and who always risks being sucked back into its maw. The boundaries that shared language imposes on the world rupture and it becomes the site of a swarming, undifferentiated presence that must constantly be re-deadened. Wallace described The Pale King as a book about boredom. I believe that his goal here was to use language against itself, in other words, to make his writing so boring that it would bore language itself and starve the undead lamella that persecuted him from between the words.

Note as well that from doubling to paranoia there is only a short leap. The paranoiac’s delusional system – which can be very subtle – is an attempt to exorcise this terrifying uncanniness by containing it in some more or less extravagant totalizing explanation. Like his early hero Pynchon, Foster’s writing is full of paranoid conspiracies (he even finds a way to work one into his famous essay on cruise ships). For example, The Pale King includes a character who suffers from “RFI”, Random Fact Intuition:

Tastes a Hostess cupcake. Knows where it was made; knows who ran the machine that sprayed a light coating of chocolate frosting on top; knows that person’s weight, shoe size, bowling average, American Legion career batting average; he knows the dimensions of the room that person is in right now. Overwhelming. [3]

Every discrete piece of reality risks infecting and overwhelming the paranoid subject, who is forced, robotically, to catalog every single impression that hits him (in order to neutralize it), rendering him a slave to his delusional cognition. Anyone who has seen a schizophrenic speaking frenzied gibberish to himself can recognize the infinite, inhuman quality of language that has been unmoored from intersubjectivity. The schizophrenic does not speak; he is spoken like a puppet. Wallace, of course, was supremely gifted when it came to rendering this voice that could not be stopped or slowed down (see “The Depressed Person”), for the simple reason that he was tormented by it his entire life. Wallace at his most obsessive is a man holding on by his fingernails, caught between the Scylla of the disintegrating body and the Charybdis of imposed language.

The inimitable Wallace voice is composed of three component parts. If the first of these is the pure schizophrenic syllabic flow, the implacable language machine in his head, then the second might best be described as the specific chattering of the American consumerist superego. Max depicts Wallace as a writer who was obsessed with theorizing and understanding American life. I suspect that his fascination with American particularism derived from the knowledge that the voice in his head was not his but rather the voice of America, one against which he was incapable of defending himself (just as he was incapable of refusing the charms of television).

The superego is above all a literal voice, one that does not belong to us. To belong to a society is to internalize its injunctions and prohibitions. In a certain sense, the schizophrenic has a more authentic relationship with this voice than the non-schizophrenic: he alone is capable of recognizing its fundamentally alien, imposed essence. Where the hypermodern American superego differs from the traditional paternal superego is that, instead of telling us no, it cheerfully enjoins us above all to produce and consume.

In 2014, Stanford researcher Tanya Lurhmann compared the hallucinations of schizophrenics from India, Ghana, and the United States. She was surprised to discover that the nature of the relationship between psychotic subjects and their voices differed greatly from culture to culture. Whereas many of the Indian and Ghanaian subjects reported having friendly relationships with their voices, all of the American subjects studied were persecuted by them. [4]

I believe that the explanation for this phenomenon lies in the inhuman voracity of consumerism. It is not just an economic system; it is a terrible God, and it speaks in our unconscious. The inane, restless voice that Wallace so brilliantly captures is neither “his” voice nor some hypothetical eternal superego voice. It is a direct transcription of the frivolous, harrying voices of capital and publicity themselves. The clarity with which Wallace renders this voice is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a writer. Wallace writes like Americans talk today: with plenty of likes, kind of’s, and pretty much’s. One of his favorite tricks is to curate these down-home sentences with selections from his enormous private lexicon (“as big a vocabulary as anyone in the Western hemisphere”, according to Jonathan Franzen). On the one hand, this colloquialism gives his writing a tremendous immediacy and accessibility. On the other hand, it leaches poetry from his message. As Hegel recognized, form cannot be abstracted from content. The very form of certain dialects prevents them for serving as a vehicle for authentic thought or poetry. Heidegger famously claimed that true philosophy could only be done in Greek or in German. The world that generated Ancient Greek epic poetry was a world of myths and heroes. The world that generated Wallace’s American English (and mine) is a world of Big Macs and marketing cant. Living in France for ten years has opened my ears to how ugly most American voices are. American capitalism excels at creating a scintillating, infinite variety of glittering new forms, but they come at a heavy price. The world consumerism creates is one in which nothing is sacred, a world in which everything is equivalent. Life in late-capitalist America is inherently banal and meaningless, and the very rhythms and syntax it generates are ideal vehicles for this corruption. The only way to introduce meaning and poetry into such a universe is by repudiating the very substance of such a dialect.

For a psychotic subject, such a repudiation is difficult, not to say impossible. The psychotic subject is porous in a way that the non-psychotic subject is not. He lacks adequate defenses against the various drives that hector him, from the inane voice of the superego to the mute cravings of the body. The principal defensive weapon that the non-psychotic possesses and the psychotic does not is the symptom. Non-psychotic subjectivity is always structured around some symptomatic bellybutton which simultaneously quarantines and gives body to the irreducible presence of intrapsychic conflict. Whereas the conflict hidden by the neurotic symptom can be accessed and metabolized, the conflict hidden by the psychotic pseudo-symptom is lost, banished, destroyed – in Lacan’s language, foreclosed. In its place there is nothing but a hole in the psyche, one which risks swallowing up the subject. Hence the “pseudo” character of the psychotic symptom: unlike a neurotic symptom, it cannot be healed hermeneutically. As the great British psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott observed, there is no way to know what kind of deep conflict even the most benign symptom conceals, and one must proceed with caution when analyzing it: a simple pain in the wrist might function as the thread that, once pulled, risks unraveling the patient’s psyche completely. A competent psychotherapist knows when to attack a symptom, when to ignore it, and when to shore it up.

The symptom is above all signifying in nature. Jacques Lacan famously states that “the unconscious is structured like a language”. Our bodies are not only made of flesh, they are made of language as well. What the psychotic lacks is the keystone that would hold the unconscious and the body together and guarantee him a minimal subjective consistency. Where the neurotic unconscious runs in sterile circles around the surface of this sealed sphere, the psychotic unconscious spreads out in every direction in search of a limit – Wallace’s doubling, Newton’s calculus, Yayoi Kusama’s infinite dots, Henry Darger’s 15,000-page novel. This hole in the chain of unconscious representations might be compared to an invisible aneurysm that risks rupturing under certain circumstances, namely a traumatic symbolic encounter.

Lacan calls the plug that is missing in the psychotic unconscious the Name of the Father, which must be understood as the proper name that guarantees its bearer an unshakable place in the symbolic structure of reality as well as the signifier that puts an end to the ravages of language unbound. It is the Plymouth Rock, the ehyeh asher ehyeh of the unconscious. The schizophrenic lacks the operator that would fuse this infinite, acephalic stream of language to the body by submitting it to a common law. Language did not evolve to transmit information; that was a later exaptation. Language evolved to express emotion. Only the Name of the Father is capable of transforming language from a form of masturbatory, autistic enjoyment into a means for encountering another subject on the level of signification.

Psychosis is thus a paternal deficiency in both the abstract and concrete senses. A father is someone who intercedes between the child and his mother, preventing incestuous fusion. In the classic Freudian reading of the Oedipus complex, the father signifies to the (male) child: “You cannot have her, but if you emulate me, one day you will have one like her.” The forced sacrifice of the singular object of sexual desire offers access to the fungible object and with it the possibility of symbolic exchange. The psychotic refuses this offer: for him, only the real thing will do. Whereas Freud saw the father as a strictly biological instance, Lacan saw him as a symbolic function, hence the name of the father. Anything that draws the mother’s desire away from the child can thus be considered “paternal” in a symbolic sense inasmuch as it introduces a third dimension to the original incestuous mother-child dyad. This signifier of the mother’s desire can then begin to function as a vector for the child’s own desire, which can only flourish against a background of prohibition. Here is the structuralist Lacanian reading of the Oedipus complex: by offering the child a metaphor for the mother’s desire, the father offers the child the means of safely committing incest, which is to say symbolically and not in reality.

Inasmuch as the paternal signifier opens up the dimension of desire and sexuality, it can also be referred to as the phallic signifier, phallic in that it stands at the crossroads of language and the (sexual) drives and allows them to meet. Here is the missing link between the language troubles of schizophrenics and their body troubles, a link that American psychiatry refuses to theorize.

The absence of the phallic signifier can manifest itself in a number of ways: from flamboyant hallucinations to malfunctioning organs to compulsive rhyming. A psychoanalyst’s first diagnostic task when consulting a new patient is to determine whether or not the phallic signifier is in place. Wallace illustrates one of the clinical tells of psychosis in his first published story, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing”, written after his second nervous breakdown in 1983:

I began to suffer from what I guess now was a hallucination. I thought that a huge wound, a really huge and deep wound, had opened on my face, on my cheek near my nose….Right before graduation – or maybe a month before, maybe – it got really bad, such that when I’d pull my hand away from my face I’d see blood on my fingers, and bits of tissue and stuff, and I’d be able to smell the blood, too….So one night when my parents were out somewhere I took a needle and some thread and tried to sew up the wound myself. [5]

Psychoanalysis recognizes in the psychotic fantasy of a hallucinated bottomless wound (Freud’s patient the Wolf Man was also certain that there was a hole in his face) an imaginary figuration of symbolic castration. What is missing is not the penis as such but rather the phallic signifier that would hold together body and language. Since it cannot be perceived directly, the only way we can represent this hole in the unconscious to ourselves is via a hallucinated hole in the body. It is impossible to know how autobiographical the story is, but what Wallace describes here is not a nervous breakdown, it is a psychotic break.

The case of Wallace’s relationship with his friend and rival Jonathan Franzen is also illustrative here. Both men published first novels in the American Paranoid style in the late 1980’s: Broom of the System in 1987 for Wallace, The Twenty-Seventh City in 1988 for Franzen. Franzen had this to say about his first novel in an interview with the Paris Review in 2010:

The Twenty-Seventh City is one big mask. I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface. […] I see a 25-year-old with a very compromised sense of masculinity. There was a direct transfer of libido to the brain—this was my way of leaving the penis out of the equation and going with what I knew I had, which was that I was smarter than most people. [6]

Franzen, of course, was later able to pull off what Wallace tried to accomplish but never could: the move from Pynchon to Dostoyevksy (if not on the level of content, then at least on the level of style). Crucially, the operator that allowed Franzen to make this transition was his phallus. When the time came to leave behind the pseudo-paranoiac style of his juvenile first novel, there was only one way forward: by calling upon the words that could reconcile body and signifier, “penis and brain” in Franzen’s language.

But Wallace could never get there:

In July, 2005, he wrote an e-mail to Franzen: “I am tired of myself, it seems: tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic.” [7]

His wife echos this concern:

I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him. But he had no idea what the new tricks would be. [8]

A writer who spends ten years writing dozens of pages a day and destroying them the next, a writer who commits suicide because of his inability to translate the center of his suffering into words, is not a writer who suffers from ordinary writer’s block. Where the crucial signifier linking body and language should be, for Wallace there was nothing but a hole. [9]

Wallace himself illustrates this inability to integrate the symbolic dimension of the paternal phallus in a wonderful short story in which the narrator, a teenager, suddenly recovers a bizarre repressed memory: when he was nine years old, his father stood over him, pulled out his penis, and aggressively waggled it in his face. Wallace describes the narrator’s father’s reaction in a way that suggests that the event never actually occurred. One could hardly imagine a clearer illustration of the Lacanian formula of psychosis: that which is foreclosed returns in the Real in the form of a hallucination. The title of the short story, Signifying Nothing, is even more eloquent: the refused paternal/phallic signifier returns in the Real, where, shorn of its symbolic dimension, it is reduced to a meaningless, waggling, hallucinated penis.

This refusal to accept the mystery of the phallus – the hieratic dimension of the Word – would have to be considered an ethical failure on Wallace’s part if he were not psychotic. His postmodern tricks are so many dodges, so many evasions of the Kantian imperative inherent to language itself: you must speak (the truth). Wallace’s occasional long, sterile, unconvincing demonstrations of the impossibility of empathy and communication illustrate above all a refusal of the truth, namely that the Word does in fact offer access to intersubjectivity, and that a writer’s first task is humbly to accept the ordeal of speech. The truth exists through language. It is not a tool that we use for our amusement; it is a sacrament before which we must genuflect.

What is tragic here is that Wallace knows this better than anyone. He just can’t do anything about it. Three quotations from 1992-3 illustrate how acutely he understood the problem:

[To Franzen]: If words are all we have as world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship. [10]

[To his editor Michael Pietsch]: Brains and wit and technical tightrope-calisthenics are powerful tools in fiction, but I believe that when they’re used primarily to keep the reader at arm’s length they’re being abused – they are functioning as defense mechanisms. [11]

[To Larry McCaffery]: Really good work probably comes from a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. And the effort to actually do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage that I don’t seem to have yet. [12]

He knows – but intellectual knowledge alone is impotent when it comes to effecting deep psychic change. In a certain sense, this impotence gives Wallace’s writing a paradoxical kind of power. He shows us, again and again, that he cannot get there. Where an author like Balzac disappears entirely into his characters, Wallace never vanishes. Every tentative step into the ocean is followed by a return to dry land. Our heart breaks for him as we watch him try, over the course of Infinite Jest’s thousand pages, to disappear into his characters without ever quite making it. For an intelligent young person skeptical of the world’s hypocrisies and terrified by the sacrifices that will soon be demanded of him by an indifferent and cruel society, Wallace’s Hamlet-like indecision resonates deeply (the title of the book is a reference to Hamlet). Infinite Jest is not about Gately or Incandenza so much as it is a performance of Wallace’s inability to commit himself fully to metaphor. Unreadable passages such as the following therefore serve a precise function in his writing: they are necessary if we are to feel the pain of psychosis.

And as InterLace’s eventual outright purchase of the Networks’ production talent and facilities, of two major home-computer conglomerates, of the cutting-edge Foxx 2100 CD-ROM licenses of Aapps Inc., of RCA’s D.S.S. orbiters and hardware-patents, and of the digital-compatible patents to the still-needing-to-come-down-in-price-a-little technology of HDTV’s visually enhanced color monitor with microprocessed circuitry and 2(√area)! more lines of optical resolution – as these acquisitions allowed Noreen Lace-Forché’s cartridge-dissemination network to achieve vertical integration and economies of scale, viewers’ pulse-reception- and cartridge-fees went down markedly; and then the further increased revenues from consequent increases in order- and rental-volume were plowed presciently back into more fiber-optic-InterGrid-cable-laying, into outright purchase of three of the five Baby Bells InterNet’d started with, into extremely attractive rebate-offers on special new InterLace-designed R.I.S.C.-grade High-Def-screen PCs with mimetic-resolution cartridge-view motherboards (recognizably renamed by Veals’s boys in Recognition ‘Teleputers’ or ‘TPs’), into fiber-only modems, and, of course, into extremely high-quality entertainments that viewers would freely desire to choose even more. [13]

Wallace cannot write a straight novel. If we were to take out passages such as these, nothing would remain of Infinite Jest but a clunky, forgettable realist novel about an addict and a tennis player. It is only by including this kind of paranoid rambling that he can compensate for his shortcomings as a writer and elevate the whole into meta-commentary greater than the sum of its parts.

PSYCHOSIS IN WALLACE’S BIOGRAPHY

Max also produces a number of biographical clues that support a diagnosis of psychosis. The first is Wallace’s relationship with his mother. Max draws attention more than once to the connection between Sally Foster Wallace’s mania for correct grammar and syntax and the complex syntactical structures Wallace employs in his own writing. According to Wallace, whenever he or his sister Amy made a grammatical mistake at the dinner table as children, his mother would pretend to suffocate until they corrected themselves. As Bustillos reveals, Wallace’s own margin notes in Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child show the extent to which he held his mother responsible for his psychic suffering. Max: “Thinking back on all his failed relationships, in the margin of Bradshaw he blamed them on his ‘fantasy bond’ with his mother.” [14] Infinite Jest is, among other things, an attempt to metabolize Sally Foster Wallace. Avril Incandenza, the “seductive puppetmaster” [Max] of Enfield Academy, is a thinly disguised portrait of her. The mysterious titular video so entertaining that it transforms anyone who watches it into a catatonic vegetable – an excellent figuration of the Lacanian concept of deadly, incestuous jouissance – features a maternal imago (in the book, the actress is named Madame Psychosis; the character was based on Mary Karr, the older woman with whom Wallace had a violent, fusional relationship after his breakdown in Boston). After leaving Karr and moving back to Illinois, Wallace stopped talking to his mother for years on the advice of his therapist. These were the years during which he was writing Infinite Jest. The only exception to this silence was when one of Wallace’s writing students posed him a particularly difficult grammar question, at which point Wallace would call his mother to ask for her help (!).

This unusual detail sheds considerable light on the specific coordinates of Wallace’s Oedipus complex. Syntax was, literally and figuratively, the interface that simultaneously offered Wallace access to his mother and protected him against her, and in this it functioned as an artificial Name of the Father for him. The third key component of Wallace’s writing style can be derived from this detail. His long, convoluted sentences are like cords pulled to the breaking point across a maternal chasm. The promise of infinite sexual enjoyment incarnated by the prohibited maternal body is ultimately a metaphor for an even more primordial form of incest: fusion with the infinite dimension of language as such. Wallace’s syntactic tight-rope act allows him simultaneously to move towards incestuous merging with pure language and yet remain within signification. Here is the crucial, tenuous element that prevents Wallace from losing himself in pure schizophrenic word salad. For the reader, there is something simultaneously troubling and exhilarating about the way Wallace perverts syntax to keep his sentences going infinitely. By eternally deferring the end of the sentence, Wallace postpones the moment when the paternal period severs one sentence from the next. Every time he commits a short sentence to the page, he turns around and annuls it by adding a footnote, an interpretation, a clause, a gloss, and so on. On a libidinal level, Wallace’s Formula One, surge-stop-surge writing style allows him to play a high-stakes game of chicken with jouissance. I believe we can see in this privileging of the Deleuzian comma, this refusal to accept the authority of the paternal period, an avatar of Wallace’s insatiable thirst for the chemical incest of drugs and alcohol. Like all of us, Wallace was caught between two mutually exclusive psychic needs: make the sentence infinite in order to prolong the prohibited caresses, and end the sentence with an axe-stroke to prevent them.

When we add this component to the other two, we have the Wallace style. First, the infinite imposed running commentary of the schizophrenic. Second, the specific rhythms and tics of a language generated by consumerism. Third, the complex, nested syntax generated by his relationship with his mother. To this list we might add a fourth component: the fragile voice of straight realism which is so often pulverized by the first three.

I imagine Wallace floating on a little raft in the ocean. The water in which he risks drowning is language, and the raft is syntax. It is the artificial symptom – the sinthom [15] that alone stands between Wallace and the hole where the paternal signifier should have been, and for this reason he could never abandon his raft, even though he knew it was ruining his writing. There was simply no alternative.

Wallace’s father James even feels absent in Max’s biography. We never get a real sense of their relationship, and indeed we learn little about him other than his profession, philosopher. Even for a Freudian this is almost too perfect. On the one hand, Wallace’s mother was a grammarian for whom syntax guaranteed meaning. On the other hand, James Wallace was a philosopher whose goal, as D.T. Max suggests, was to go beyond language and touch the Real at its heart:

Wallace’s father thought little of the discipline [symbolic logic], objecting that logicians tended to replace important questions – free will, beauty – with technical discussions about the language behind those questions, but this was work of the sort that made Wallace’s mind hum. It replaced the ambiguity of actual life with clarity. And as he would later tell an interviewer, highly abstract philosophy gave Wallace both the pleasure of being in his father’s field with the “required thumbing-the-nose-at-the-father thing.” [16]

Wallace’s early attempt to use the paternal signifier – philosophy – has a formal, rote character. He is capable of manipulating the symbols, but incapable of using them to enact the synthesis his father alludes to.

There is an important dialectical insight here. Not only does Wallace’s attraction to analytic philosophy unveil something important about him, it unveils something important about the enterprise of analytic philosophy itself.

Like Wallace, I studied philosophy as an undergraduate. At the University of Texas at that time, there were two warring camps in the philosophy department: the old tenured guard of so-called continental philosophers, whose focus was on the larger metaphysical questions, and the younger, more recently hired analytic philosophers, whose focus was on language and symbolic logic. Hegel and Nietzsche on one side; Carnap and Quine on the other. The latter was the kind of philosophy that Wallace specialized in. I specialized in avoiding it. I took nothing but continental philosophy classes, with one accidental exception. My senior year, I made the mistake of signing up for a seminar called “Truth”, not realizing that its metaphysical-sounding title was in fact an Analytic Trojan horse. The first few weeks of class were spent discussing whether or not “the grass is green” was a true proposition; we never came to a solid conclusion. I learned quickly that the formal or potential intelligence of a philosopher was valued more highly than any concrete philosophical content. My favorite continental philosophy professors (T.K. Seung, Robert Solomon, Louis Mackey) all gave the impression of having performed the difficult alchemy of decanting something of life into language. In other words, they were poets. Their very bodies and voices seemed to bear the scars of their encounters with the truth. My “Truth” professor, on the other hand, seemed like a frightened, quasi-autistic obsessional neurotic, a classic math nerd who kept anything resembling life at a safe distance. His pedagogical goal appeared to be emptying out the concept of truth until it no longer meant anything – and therefore no longer functioned as an ethical call to arms. His eyes twinkled in admiration when he evoked an English philosopher who had written an 800-page tome demonstrating once and for all that tables had five legs. In his esteem, the ability to prove, with the utmost logical rigor, that something nonsensical was true was the gold standard of philosophical intelligence. The kind of philosophy he practiced seemed more like a cross between masturbation and castration to me.

One day, this professor mentioned that he considered Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 to be one of the great novels of the English language. Something about this avowal bothered me. As I looked at his ugly clothes, his weak, submissive smile, his bad posture, his little paunch, his baby turtle face, I realized whom he reminded me of: a middle-aged version of the teenage me. And I had nothing to learn from myself. I knew enough about castration and masturbation already. I needed to learn how to fuck. I had already begun to suspect that Pynchon was fundamentally a young man’s writer, and my professor’s admiration for him proved it.

Pynchon is the empty form of literature in the same way that analytic philosophy is the empty form of philosophy. In Hegelian terms – and there is no thinker more reviled by analytic philosophers than Hegel, nor any thinker more authentically liberating – Pynchon is a vanishing mediator, an incomplete moment in the dialectic of literature. More specifically, Pynchon – who is only read seriously in the United States – is a product of a specifically American refusal of the dialectical identity of form and content. His paranoia – remember that Freud qualified paranoia as a parody of a philosophical system – represents a sterile dead end for thought, a narcissistic developmental moment that demands to be surpassed. In this particular he is comparable to Ayn Rand, another gateway author for precocious young men.

The philosopher that most occupied Wallace was Ludwig Wittgenstein. I suspect that Wallace recognized a psychosis similar to his own in the Austrian philosopher. Max states perspicaciously that “late Wittgenstein was Wallace well; early Wittgenstein, the author depressed.” [17] His philosophy may be summarized as follows: the early Wittgenstein of the Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus concludes that there is no world beyond language; the late Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations concludes that there is, in fact, a world beyond language. The terminus of his philosophy is the silent finger pointing to that which lies beyond language: in other words, metaphor. Wittgenstein has never appealed to me. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I always found the conclusion of the Tractacus to be idiotic and castrating (“about what one cannot speak, one must remain silent”), the conclusion of Philosophical Investigations to be obvious, and both books to be superfluous to anyone who can read a poem. His refusal to use language to engage with ethics  in other words, to conjoin language and life – is symptomatic of the sterility of his reflections. True thought starts where Wittgenstein ends, and time spent lingering inside the locked box of his skull is time lost to doing the real work of poesis. 

Analytic philosophy is a ready-made system for refusing metaphor and with it, life. Both Heidegger and Lacan recognized that all authentic thought is in the last analysis poetry. Just as my Truth professor used analytic philosophy to defer eternally the moment when he would have to apply his logical perpetual motion machines to the concrete ethical business of living life, the young Wallace used it to postpone the moment when he would have to go out on a limb and say something instead of just nesting dependent clauses in brilliant fractal designs. That moment came towards the end of his undergraduate studies, as it did for me.

The discipline [logic] suddenly seemed lifeless and pedantic to him; and his amazing grade point average was just an evasion, a reflection of his fear of dealing with living people as opposed to dry equations. “The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive,” he would later explain to an interviewer, “also kept me dead.” [18]

Indeed, Wallace himself later ascribed his first nervous breakdown to an inability to continue doing academic philosophy. Wallace’s disarray was, I advance, qualitatively different from a “normal” young man’s typical disillusionment: like Wittgenstein he was capable of going all the way to the pointing finger (his undergraduate philosophy thesis ends on a similar note) but incapable of going beyond it, which is to say to metaphysics, which is to say to poetry. Or rather: he was occasionally capable of going beyond the pointing finger, but not without looking back over his shoulder and making sure the finger was still there. This gives us possible insight into the nature of Wallace’s collapse when he attempted to go to Harvard to study philosophy a few years later. One of the consequences of the foreclosure of the phallic signifier is that any attempt on the psychotic subject’s part to assume a paternal identification must necessarily fail, inasmuch as the unconscious representation that would allow such an identification to succeed cannot be called up and used. Lacan suggests that it is precisely when the latent psychotic encounters the enigma of paternity that the hole where the phallic signifier should be is most likely to emerge and cause a psychotic break.

Here we see clearly the gulf that separates the psychotic from the non-psychotic. Where the neurotic Franzen was able, after much difficulty, finally to pick up the Excalibur of the phallic metaphor and use it to accede to a new relationship with language and the body, the psychotic Wallace could not, despite his ardent desire to do so. His attempts to follow in his father’s footsteps by practicing philosophy thus made brutally visible, on at least two occasions, the psychic aneurysm that might otherwise have remained hidden. Faced with the impossibility of this identification and its horrifying existential consequences, Wallace collapsed. When the psychotic break occurs, a short circuit takes place in which the essentially incestuous object of desire that could not be attained through the mediate Symbolic register (through paternal identification) can only be attained in the Real, which is to say in a hallucinated form. In Max’s biography, this is the moment in Wallace’s life when his drug and alcohol abuse exploded. When the unconscious begins to unravel and disintegrate, the psychotic subject has no choice but to “plug in” to the Real in a completely non-dialectical, non-symbolic way (by smoking it, fucking it, or shooting it).

THE KENYON SPEECH

In 2005, three years before he died, Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon University in which he lays out his ethical system. It has become one of his most well-known texts. It too offers us a clear view of his psychosis, if we know how to read it. Wallace’s message can be reduced to the two following ideas.

First:

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. [19]

In other words, we are free to choose our cognition.

Second:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. [20]

In other words, we must try to feel compassion for others.

As attractive as the sentiments expressed in this commencement speech are, I believe we must not only repudiate them but recognize that they helped Wallace hang himself a few years later.

The first belief, namely that we can choose our cognition, constitutes the brittle cornerstone upon which the entire edifice of cognitive psychology rests. How simple life would be if this were true. But it is not. As Freud discovered, we have an unconscious, and what cognitive-behaviorist psychologists refer to as “cognition” might better be described as ex post facto rationalizations and justifications of unconscious impulses. We do not choose what we think about, as Wallace’s writing makes clear (!). Our thoughts are a diffracted image of our drives, an attempt to satisfy them through translation. They are secondary and not primary phenomena (which is why, when questioned about neurochemistry, Lacan responded that he thought with his feet and not his brain).

What Wallace defends here is the cognitive-behaviorist technique of self-conditioning, which amounts to willing yourself to get better through thinking different thoughts. Such techniques are dangerous not because they don’t work, but because they do work…sort of. They can succeed in making the presenting symptom disappear. However, they leave the underlying conflict intact. Once the symptom, which is always a manifestation of a deeper, unrecognized subjective truth, a call to translation, has been double-repressed by cognitive conditioning, it simply migrates somewhere else or sinks back into unconsciousness where it can continue to wreak silent havoc.

We might here address Wallace’s long dependence on the antidepressant Nardil. After taking it for twenty years, he decided to change drugs because of Nardil’s many unpleasant side effects. According to Max, this was the moment things began decisively to unravel. After a series of new antidepressants did not work, Wallace tried to go back to Nardil, but found that it no longer worked. Weeks later he killed himself.

As we have seen, what the psychotic lacks is a symptom. Perhaps what Nardil provided Wallace was not symptomatic relief but, on the contrary, symptomatic consistency, in the form of the many side effects and lifestyle modifications that Nardil created, notably those concerning drugs and alcohol.

Here is D.T. Max on Nardil:

Nardil…was an older antidepressant, a 1960’s and 70’s staple that came with many dietary prohibitions. He would no longer be able to eat chocolate or drink coffee, nor should he drink alcohol or take drugs. Smoky cheeses and hot dogs were also out, and he was supposed to avoid aged or fermented food in general, as well as liver. If he slipped up, the result would be fierce headaches and potentially dangerous spikes in blood pressure. [21]

These restrictions have the structure of a set of artificial phobias. Lacan called phobia the “revolving door” of neurosis and suggested that children necessarily pass through a phobic stage on their way to maturity. The phobic object allows the subject to quarantine, in an external object or practice, the anxiety that would otherwise remain without representation. By externalizing this anxiety, the phobic subject can modulate his distance from it, slowly metabolizing it into the field of reality.

Many psychotics rely on such phobic/obsessional symptoms to hold themselves together. As an intern, I once observed a schizophrenic patient who had a curious hobby: disassembling and reassembling his PC every day. This inane activity prevented him from total psychotic collapse and the psychiatric team, quite rightly, encouraged it. Perhaps the reason Wallace collapsed when he stopped taking Nardil was not because his symptoms came back, but rather because they disappeared.

If these claims sound like the typical objections of an unscientific discipline which has lost its privileged place at the table, here is Harvard professor Irving Kirsch expressing astonishment at the chemical ineffectiveness of antidepressants in his groundbreaking meta-analysis, Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect:

It simply does not matter what is in the [antidepressant] medication – it might increase serotonin, decrease it, or have no effect on serotonin at all. The effect on depression is the same. What do you call pills, the effects of which are independent of their chemical composition? I call them “placebos.” […] All antidepressants seem to be equally effective, and although the difference between drug and placebo is not clinically significant, it is significant statistically. This leads to the obvious question: What do all of these active drugs have in common that make their effect on depression slightly, but statistically significantly, better than placebo? One thing that antidepressants have in common is that they all produce side effects. [22]

In other words, it is not the drug itself that treats depression, it is the existence of noticeable side effects “proving” that the drugs are working which leads patients to believe in their curative properties.

As an example of another such phobic/obsessive symptom, Max mentions several times, without going into much detail, Wallace’s bizarre rituals around sweating, showering, and toweling off. Wallace’s houses were always full of drying towels spread over every surface. Wallace himself mentions his own sweating at the beginning of his Kenyon commencement speech. His trademark article of clothing was the bandanna that he wore around his head, tied almost down to his eyebrows. After reading Max’s biography, what originally appeared to me (and probably many) as a hip affectation begins to look more like imposed behavior. If this is true,Wallace’s sweating/showering/toweling routine was not just a personal idiosyncrasy but an important symptomatic practice that partially compensated for the absence of the stabilizing paternal signifier.

In his senior year of high school, he began carrying a towel around with him to wipe away the perspiration from anxiety attacks, and a tennis racquet [sic], so that no one commented on the towel. [23]

The delusional flavor of this practice is striking: Wallace carried around a tennis racket to “trick” the gaze of the mysterious others he imagined were looking at him and who risked seeing…what, exactly? Seeing some truth about him that he wished to conceal. Wallace constantly alludes to his fear that others might figuratively “see through” him. I believe we must take this fear more literally than he takes it himself. Not only is the psychotic incapable of defending himself against the voice of the Other, he is incapable of defending himself against its penetrating gaze, one which emanates from Being itself. What Wallace fears more than anything else is the terrifying hole inside him. Here he is only a small step away from a full-blown paranoid delusion. Seen in this light, his constant internal battle with his desire to be gazed at, admired, and recognized takes on a different valence. He is not a garden-variety narcissist; he is a paranoiac. The (hilarious) chapter in The Pale King narrated by a teenager whose uncontrollable sweating makes his life unbearable amply supports this thesis. I suspect that Wallace’s sweat glands effectively functioned autonomously of him. His compulsive showering and toweling may have constituted an attempt to deaden an organ that, unbound by the phallic signifier, had split off from his body and functioned as a terrifying parasite, a hole in his endocrine system comparable to the hole in his early character’s face. Here is the difference between a banal hysterical symptom and a properly psychotic symptom. Whereas the hysterical symptom constitutes a message to be deciphered, a psychotic pseudo-symptom can only be understood as a hole in signification. This hole can take many forms. I remember a consultation with a severely schizophrenic woman during which she began urinating uncontrollably. When my colleague brought it up, she replied that she always urinated on herself when she felt nervous around somebody. Her bladder had never been integrated into the signifying system of her unconscious, and her enuresis is structurally comparable to Wallace’s hypersudation.

Lipsky reports the following anecdote:

After Amherst, Wallace went to the University of Arizona for an MFA. It was where he picked up the bandanna: “I started wearing them in Tucson because it was a hundred degrees all the time, and I would perspire so much I would drip on the page.” The woman he was dating thought the bandanna was a wise move. “She was like a Sixties lady, a Sufi Muslim. She said there were various chakras, and one of the big ones she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. Then I began thinking about the phrase ‘Keeping your head together.’ It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something — it’s more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried that my head’s gonna explode.” [24]

We must take his words at face value. In a certain sense, there really was a hole in his head. Here we see him employing one of his favorite tricks, one that he uses to devastating comic effect in his hilarious essays: transforming his delusions and anxieties into jokes to hide how cruelly true they were.

A delusion does not need to be flamboyant to be a delusion. Wallace’s belief in the power of cognition was, I believe, rooted in another delusional belief.

In 2005, Wallace wrote in his notebook, “They’re rare, but they’re among us. People able to achieve and sustain a certain steady state of concentration, attention, despite what they’re doing.” [25]

Chapter 46 of The Pale King introduces a character named Shane Drinion, a nerdy IRS bureaucrat whom Wallace portrays as having attained something resembling enlightenment. He is capable of losing himself so completely in his audits that he levitates from his seat without realizing it. Drinion is one of Wallace’s least convincing, most abstract characters. He is a self-help/Business Buddhist/CBT unicorn, a pure product of a fraudulent ideology, and the inherent falsity of the belief system that led Wallace to conceive of such a character translates to tedium on the page. Not only is Drinion less believable than the hideous men of Wallace’s short story collection by that name – these characters all ring suspiciously true, as Franzen observed – he is even less likable.

Drinion and his tribe have the same status for Wallace as the New Man for Stalin or the comet-riding aliens for the Heaven’s Gate cult members. Behind Wallace’s belief in the powers of focus and “awareness” lay a delusional belief that he, Wallace, could achieve transfiguration – levitate – escape psychosis – if only he tried hard enough. As every millenarian cult illustrates, behind the desire for transfiguration always lies the desire for death. Seen in this light, the Kenyon speech is a crypto-suicide note.

This belief in the secret existence of a small number of elusive elect leads us to the second main argument in Wallace’s Kenyon speech, namely that we need to show compassion to “real” people. Like his first argument, it is delusional and symptomatic of his psychosis. Regardless of the validity of the ethical injunction of compassion in itself, for Wallace this belief had a pathological status. As Max illustrates, “real” people – which is to say, non-intellectuals – played an important role in Wallace’s life. He treasured his friendships with the ordinary people he met in AA and repeatedly vocalized his belief in an ethics of ordinariness.

I believe that Wallace’s need to believe in the existence of “real” people living lives unpolluted with obsessive cognition was a direct result of his own psychotic inability to escape this kind of cognition himself. Wallace’s humble AA friends might be seen as the imaginary talismans of humanity and authenticity that he had to surround himself with physically precisely because he could not introject what they stood for: resigned submission to some paternal ideology, the eternal hallmark of “ordinary” people. Upon close examination, it is another disguised form of Wallace’s psychotic narcissism. In an attempt to rid himself of his terrifying, uncanny exceptional status, he tried to pass himself off as one of the guys, something like Superman pretending to be Clark Kent. [26] He even sacrifices grammar to this end: note that in the second sentence from the Kenyon speech excerpted above, Wallace splits an infinitive in an attempt to sound more common. It feels forced and inauthentic in his mouth.

Although Wallace was obviously not wrong to presume the existence of a fundamentally different relationship with cognition than his own in others, his logic was nonetheless delusional. His authentic people were not real at all but imaginary products of his need to believe in the existence of a humanity whose realness was in inverse proportion to his own fakeness. Wallace’s inability to become “real” himself, despite his continued engagement with “real” people, “real” suffering (which is to say, external and not internal suffering [27]), and “real” literature, is an index of the quixotic falsity of the belief in a chimerical, incestuous Real Thing existing somewhere out there. Hegel refers to this kind of opposition as external, which is to say an opposition in which the two terms (self and other, fake and real) are posited as existing in a sterile formal opposition in which no synthesis is possible. This inability/refusal to see the properly dialectical relationship between himself and the world structured the tragedy of Wallace’s life, one that is observable at every level: his inability to marry the word and the world, philosophy and literature, syntax and signification, Pynchon and Dostoyevsky, Incandenza and Gately, Harvard and the halfway house. Psychosis is a broken dialectic.

So, attractive as the sentiments in Wallace’s Kenyon speech may be, we must see it as a pathological text, one that illustrates two of the corners that Wallace had painted himself into over the years. The compassion that Wallace enjoins us to practice is particularly problematic. [28] Why? Because behind his compassion is a fundamentally mortifying reduction of the other to the status of “real” person, which is to say, a person who is condemned to living as a puppet of his external circumstances and not as a freely desiring subject. Here we see why the discourse of self-help, with which the speech is saturated, is not only fraudulent and idiotic, it is dangerous.

After reading Wallace’s biography, I found myself wondering if Wallace would have survived had he not been so impregnated with an ambient materialist epistemology of late capitalism that gets everything wrong. Of course, had he not been so impregnated, he would not have been David Foster Wallace. The discursive world in which he lived was the world of American ideology: a world in which the unconscious does not exist, in which cognition is all-powerful, in which mental illness is chemical in origin, in which external suffering is seen as authentic and internal suffering as counterfeit, in which people are only real if they are riveted to the material conditions of their lives, in which language has lost its sovereignty. I believe that this is one explanation for the specific weakness of Wallace’s attempts to theorize and criticize culture. His phenomenology is peerless, but his attempts at broad synthesis are often unconvincing. His psychotic inability to escape the prison of his own skull makes it impossible for him to understand the fundamental dialectical unity that exists between all phenomena, including, crucially, the phenomenon of his own subjectivity. Ultimately, what the psychotic cannot accept are above all his own drives. And the line of thinking that runs through his writing, from Infinite Jest to the non-fiction essays to The Pale King to the Kenyon speech – that the United States is a nation of people in thrall to their appetites, and that freedom lies in refusing these appetites – is less the statement of an objective truth than the projective alibi of a man incapable of metabolizing his own appetites.

In other words, Wallace comes to the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. Our civilization does push us into a pathological relationship with our appetites. Although the insatiability of Wallace’s particular appetites was, as I hope to have demonstrated here, more a result of structure and biography than television and consumerism, the question his case raises is an important one: where do structure and discourse meet? How far can we as a civilization deteriorate before everyone becomes psychotic? Where is that fatidic tipping point beyond which environment overwhelms structure? Might Wallace have found a way to overcome his demons if the society he lived in had been just a little less fragmented?

David Foster Wallace is a symptomatic figure of our times, a man whose fate is indissociable from that of the late-consumerist society he criticized. Wallace knew that there was something wrong, but he didn’t know what it was. Perhaps if he was so eager to theorize hypermodernity, it is because he knew that the secret to his own impossible psychic integration lay somewhere in the disintegration of the external world as well as language. His misdiagnosis reveals that we live in a world whose inner logic is increasingly delusional, paranoiac, even schizophrenic: a world in which things are no longer called by their proper names. Could Wallace have matured into the American Samuel Beckett if the world in which he lived had been able to offer him the center that he and his writing lacked?

We will never know.

[1] http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/inside-david-foster-wallaces-private-self-help-library

[2] The Pale King 182

[3] The Pale King 121

[4] http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/july/voices-culture-luhrmann-071614.html

[5] Max p. 36

[6] http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6054/the-art-of-fiction-no-207-jonathan-franzen

[7] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/09/the-unfinished

[8] Ibidem

[9] The case of Samuel Beckett provides certain interesting parallels here. Like Wallace, Beckett was a precocious youth more interested in athletics than literature. His early writing was dominated by the influence of a psychotic maximalist (Joyce to Wallace’s Pynchon). He had great difficulty transcending the brilliant but precious and affected style of his first novels. He suffered from crippling mental illness and underwent hospitalization. His mother figured ominously in his unconscious. He was an alcoholic. He mistrusted his narcissism and cultivated relationships with “ordinary” people. However, unlike Wallace, Beckett was able to break out of the prison of his own mind and begin writing truly universal fiction thanks to what he himself qualifies as an “epiphany” at the age of thirty-nine and which resembles, in psychoanalytic terms, a late assumption of the phallic signifier. Why was Beckett able to integrate where Wallace was not? Following this thread would lead us too far afield, but several hypothetical explanations are worth advancing here: Beckett’s two-year psychoanalysis with Bion, an analyst of genius; his access to a foreign language and a foreign land; the experience of war, which forced him to risk his life for an ethical ideal (he joined the French Resistance and was nearly captured); the fact that he lived in a world in which the austerity of language and life had not yet been rendered entirely frivolous by capitalism.

[10] Max, p. 166

[11] Max, p. 172

[12] https://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-david-foster-wallace-by-larry-mccaffery/

[13] Infinite Jest, pp. 527-8

[14] Max, p. 170

[15] At the end of his life, Lacan confronted the question of psychosis and literary production by examining the case of James Joyce. He uses Joyce to illustrate what he calls the “sinthom”: the artificial, external symptom that functions as a prosthetic name, a prosthetic symbolic place in reality for someone who is lacking the ready-made symptom that is the Name of the Father.

[16] Max, p. 25

[17] Max, p. 45

[18] Max, p. 32

[19] http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf

[20] Ibidem

[21] Max, p. 52

[22] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4172306/

[23] The Unfinished

[24] Conversations with David Foster Wallace, Edited by Stephen Burns, 2012, University Press of Mississippi, p. 167

[25] The Unfinished

[26] Incidentally, the whole Superman story is an allegory for schizophrenia.

[27] Our materialist epistemology refuses to recognize that internal suffering is not only just as real as external suffering, it is even more real, inasmuch as external suffering is often “just” an unconscious compulsion to externalize and, in so doing, treat an internal suffering.

[28] Rather than attempt to model his behavior on a compassionate morality that could only alienate him (and, secondarily, those around him) from the truth, Wallace could have affirmed the “monstrous” truth of his own experience of life, namely that other people were not real for him, that he was not even real for himself. Here is where Joyce succeeded in a way that Wallace did not. Joyce allowed himself to pursue his psychotic inhumanity, translating it into an endless, meaningless sentence that didn’t need to finish.