Here’s some of the lyrics:

I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold, hey
I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good

Tell me what you know about dreamin’, dreamin’
You don’t really know about nothin’, nothin’
Tell me what you know about them night terrors every night
5 am cold sweats wakin’ up to the skies
Tell me what you know about dreams, dreams
Tell me what you know about night terrors, nothin’
You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow
Rather lay awake in a path full of sorrow

Night terrors?… What a strange thing to include in this otherwise rather predictable set of lyrics!

Now, we could read in this the standard, repugnant, narcissist script: ‘woe is me, there is no happiness after all in this life of wealth and fame…’ Or we could think of it in another basic way: ‘you don’t really know about the trials of tomorrow…’ — most people don’t actually concern themselves with serious problems, with real stressors; rather than assume a more mature, responsible, etc., stance towards their activities, combining enthusiasm with sobriety, desire with commitment, most people are more interested in simply taking no stance at all, and partying instead. These are essentially two kinds of narcissism.

But isn’t there something more here? If we look deeper into the lyrics, maybe we can uncover something more interesting. Why the emphasis on dreams? Surely it’s unnecessary to talk about ‘night terrors,’ waking in a cold sweat, etc., if the message is so straightforward. Or is it?

I think the interesting thing about Kid Cudi’s decision to include these specifics – regardless of the other merits of the song, or of his actual intentions – is that it gets inside the experience of the person who wants to make this critique against society but is not able to, whose desire to say something against the normal run of things is so brutally suppressed – by the superego (societal) injunction to enjoy – that it can only show up in dreams, in night terrors, outside the party. That is to say, in the music video we see Kid Cudi in a kind of withdrawn malaise, unable to ‘fit right in’ in the current circumstance, unable to enjoy. And while that would be clearly discernible without the extra part about night terrors, this is precisely the way it illustrates the violence done by the superego. It is not enough simply to look at Kid Cudi’s face in this video, at his withdrawn state. Rather, we should look ‘behind the scenes,’ to the situation of the subject outside the party, the experience which must be renounced upon entering the party scene as an unwritten rule. This is where we get at what is ‘disavowed’ by the normal run of things, by the party scene, the bit of experience immediately excluded from discussion.

Indeed, if he had excluded the talk about dreams, about his personal experience away from the party, then it might simply have been about what we see in the video, namely his own ambiguity set against the social scene; it would be reduced to a unique psychological problem, a matter of fitting in, perhaps of immaturity, rather than a problem constitutive of society.

Thus the night terrors provide the crucial explanatory supplement we need. With these notes in hand, we see the ‘remains’ of the symbolic order. What remains after the assimilation of psyche into society, the distillation of the full potential of social relations into a relatively scripted, standard set of norms, is the reminder of the excess experience which the superego’s injunction to enjoy has automatically foreclosed. In short, we see manifest as night terrors that which is always already excluded from the normal run of things, that which suffers as the ‘part of no part,’ which never actually reaches visibility. Thus we now know the coordinates of the visible display (the party) as they show up against the backdrop of the invisible Real, of which we catch a vanishing glimpse through the lens of the anti-party, no-fun, inexplicable/non-symbolizable/indescribable night terrors.

The night terrors, then, get at the unconscious, at the trauma which is always constitutive of the socio-symbolic order, but which never sees its expression ‘in broad daylight,’ so to speak. They get at the workings of the symbolic which are inscribed in the subject without its even knowing it.

But, these terrifying experiences also simultaneously represent the fault of the symbolic to maintain itself in perfection. They demonstrate, precisely, the power of the subject in the symbolic space: because the symbolic only functions at the level of the particular, at the level of articulation — because the ‘ideal’ or ‘sublime’ object of a particular socio-ideological constellation depends upon its concrete instances, on the ‘messy’ reality of subjects who couldn’t ever fit this ideal prescription exactly, the symbolic itself is vulnerable to its subjects; the norm fails at precisely that moment of actual experience, when something terrible erupts inexplicably.

To go back to the party: Kid Cudi’s strange, melancholic fascination/preoccupation with something in the distance, his sense that something is ‘out of reach’ — this is the haunting presence of the excess desire that the party can’t quell, and which we see dramatically revealed in the night terrors. Indeed, this fascination with something potentially more satisfying than the party… this is a sign that desire is functioning as it should: the ideal of enjoyment, of the party which purportedly should be the ‘real deal,’ should be it, the consummate experience of happiness… this ideological injunction to enjoy always fails at the point of articulation of some subject whose experience it presumes to describe a priori.

And this is freedom today. We have the freedom, as Zizek says, not to enjoy. We are free to want more, to continue indefinitely this “pursuit of happiness,” but not to finish it. The point of psychoanalysis is to deconstruct the way the subject relates to its desire, the way it relates to this pursuit. Kid Cudi frames his pursuit of happiness as something ultimately for nought, but his mistake is to think that nevertheless he might really get it someday. He continues to wonder if he’ll ever actually reach it, if it’s really out there, that ultimate experience. By contrast, the psychoanalytic point is that desire as such has no actual object; it cannot be consummated.

Thus psychoanalysis tells a story about how to live ironically. Its goal is to get the subject to see that, whatever the “ultimate” experience is, it is a figment of the subject’s imagination, a fantasy. Kid Cudi’s mistake, then, is to worry that something strange is holding back his enjoyment. He thinks that the night terrors are spoiling his fun, that anxiety has prevented him from reaching the object of his desire… What he doesn’t realize is that there never was an actual object, that desire has no destination. The solution is to keep on desiring, keep on fantasizing, but to come to grips with the fact that there is no one but yourself who can determine the limits of your fantasy. No one but you can set out that phantasmic object as an inspiration for your desire; there is no end, only a new beginning.

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