The Unconscious of New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

2. Seminar, 2008-9

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

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

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

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

7. Ibid.

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

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

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


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