Tagged: maria torok

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.

 

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.

 

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.