Archives for posts with tag: The Symbolic

“It is sad to be ready and not be called. But it is tragic to be called and not be ready.” — Livingston Taylor

This is Taylor’s aphorism for aspiring musicians. His message is actually very simple: always have a one-minute piece prepared so you can be ready to play anytime you’re asked.

Yet what a clear illustration of the subject’s commitment to the Symbolic! Psychoanalysis, forward ho!

One wants recognition from the Master-Signifier. It is sad to work for this in vain, to be ready and yet ignored. But it is tragic, in the original sense of the word — exemplified in the character of Antigone — to be called, recognized by the Master-Signifier as part and parcel of the Symbolic, and yet to be unable to heed that call, unable to participate. Antigone’s role was one that everybody in the community could relate to; her tragedy was archetypal.

Comedy is something different. It is the opposite of archetype; it is incongruity. This is because the comic character is anomalous; he knows no role, follows no cultural script. Comedy results when the subject is in neither a sad nor a tragic position. He is oblivious to any sort of “call” and thus also to the work to be done to prepare to heed said call. The comic subject doesn’t recognize the Symbolic, doesn’t identify with his relation to the Master-Signifier. The comic character is ignorant. He is without guilt, without attachment — without commitment.

I was inspired to write this after reading one of Zizek’s articles on, titled “Deleuze and the Lacanian Real.” I think it’s the clearest thing Zizek has ever said about the Real, mostly because he’s focusing on it and illuminating it by reading Deleuze and Hegel side by side.

The Real is the minimal gap between the appearance of one and the same thing at time N compared to some later time. We patch over the gap so that, ontologically, the house we see today appears to be the same house tomorrow, even though, since we see them at different times, they are not strictly identical.

It gets more interesting when we consider that the minimal gap gets filled in by the subject, who renders it as object a; repetition is the process by which the stubborn Real gets patched over by an X, just as mathematics puts an ‘i’ to stand in for an imaginary number (since such a number doesn’t actually make any sense).

So, with regard to trauma/repression, it is not the case that, as Freud proposed, ‘that which we cannot remember, we are doomed to repeat;’ rather, it is only after we repeat something that we can forget it, because only then does the thing acquire an ‘existence of its own’ outside any particular instance of it; only after repeating the thing can the two instances, side by side, support a third, middle term that mediates between the two instances of the act or object, relieving the subject of the burden of creating a virtual screen/supplement for the thing in its bare, meaningless actuality.

In other words, the middle term swallows up the minimal difference between the two instances such that, regardless of what those instances actually were or will be, the middle term becomes and remains an elusive ‘je no se qua,’ or, in Lacanian terms, the object petite a.

Thus only if a thing is repeatedly encountered can the subject forget about it, in the sense of enjoying it via the virtual screen/supplement of object a; otherwise, the thing is laid bare, absent any significance. Conversely, forgetting is impossible when the thing is utterly unique: it is this uniqueness which is traumatic, haunting the subject as if the encounter with the thing must be repeated so that the subject can turn it into an object of knowledge, a thing with sense, versus the non-sense of bare, inhuman(e) reality (to be clear, this is a reality in which any one instance appears to be the result of a purely mechanical, unnecessary succession of events with no actor, lacking the support of the (virtual) depth of meaning, the supplementary object a, provided by a human being, the only being capable of ‘virtualizing’ reality, adding meaning where there is none).

When we cannot repeat our gesture, that is the truly traumatic thing: without repetition, the thing can’t be processed by the subject, since, without the gap in time, there is no second version of the object that could be compared with the first, the both being absolutely crucial for the time ‘in between,’ the third term, to become the minimal distance between the two versions of the identical object. This ‘distance’ can then be translated into object a and therefore rendered enjoyable.

But in order to avoid a direct encounter with the traumatic kernel of the Real in everything (the object a or das Ding that we posit), which, up close, turns into excessive enjoyment (jouissance) and threatens our ability to comprehend/enjoy, the subject repeats the same appearance/gesture over and over in order to, as it were, see the self-posited object a from all possible angles, swirling around it by repeating the confrontation with the Thing in as many new contexts as possible, in order to avoid directly encountering it (it seems a bit like centripetal force). I think David Cronenberg’s Crash would be a good source to look to for a representation of this return/repetition.

Also, Zizek makes it very clear in the same article that the Lacanian Real is not the same as the notion of a great Reality beyond any of our modes of grasping it, an infinite depth. In fact, it is nearly the opposite: the Real is, again, a minimal content, a minimal difference; and it is just this gap itself, not something beyond the gap of which the gap shows us merely a glimpse; essence is appearance.

Interestingly, Zizek uses Badiou’s terms to help illustrate this minimal difference. Badiou explains that Hegelian negation involves two parts, first destruction, then subtraction. Negating a positive social order does not mean the rejection of the entirety of that order. It is the move away from the standard form in which the social order is maintained (Badiou’s example is the invention of atonal music, which, while still working with music per se, worked with it in a different form than the previous standard, tonal music). Subtraction is negation’s mature self-becoming, the move from in-itself to for-itself. Badiou calls this subtraction because the negative force (e.g., atonal music) becomes a movement of its own, which, as a definitive movement, can be isolated as the equation of the normal symbolic order minus all that was before in the standard form. In other words, after subtraction, we’re left at the fringes of the symbolic order, the eye-sore that the symbolic fails to acknowledge.

This failure of knowledge is the same as in the above case in which the Real is patched over with signifiers and perceptual-representational anomalies, like object a. Zizek says that this exposed fringe of the symbolic threatens to directly represent the minimal difference that keeps the symbolic working. The Real is less than its representation; it is the ‘kernel’ that, as we’ve agreed, is never shown directly. But because negation approaches the level of the absolute minimal difference (since its actor is merely the sum left after the subtraction from the symbolic of the standard form of that which the symbolic struggles to represent) the position of the actor in negation is a good way to think of the Real.

The important thing to see is that, even in subtraction, negation is still part of the symbolic (it never actually is the Real). Zizek makes this clear when he uses another quasi-analogy, the difference between sacrilege and profanation. Sacrilege is the breaking of religious rules, the failure to follow customs. Although this example isn’t quite apt, I’m thinking particularly of the inept mishandling of a sacred object or ritual by, say, a young, inexperienced member of the clergy. The point is that this is simply a failure to live up to ideals that aren’t themselves challenged — in fact, they’re reinforced. In music, it would be the equivalent of writing tonal music, but writing it poorly or incorrectly.

Atonal music, on the other hand, is more similar to profanation; profanation involves the perfect execution of the law, except it takes place in an unexpected, even unwanted, context (just think of taking high culture to the streets, ‘vulgarizing’ it not by poorly representing it, but by representing it in the wrong kind of place, to the wrong kinds of people).

So whereas sacrilege still stays within the framework of positing reflection (that which comes before negation), profanation is reflexive in the way that only negation can be; it is something absolutely true of the symbolic, but which is formally disavowed. As such, it is the act that threatens to reduce the symbolic to the Real, the minimal difference, which can only occur after an act’s repetition in multiple contexts.

From Žižek’s Metastases of Enjoyment:

The ultimate paradox of the strict psychoanalytic notion of symbolic identification is that it is by definition a misidentification, the identification with the way the Others(s) misperceive(s) me. Let us take the most elementary example: as a father, I know I am an unprincipled weakling; but, at the same time, I do not want to disappoint my son, who sees in me what I am not: a person of dignity and strong principles, ready to take risks for a just cause – so I identify with this misperception of me, and truly ‘become myself’ when I, in effect, start to act according to this misperception (ashamed to appear to my son as I really am, I actually accomplish heroic acts). In other words, if we are to account for symbolic identification, it is not enough to refer to the opposition between the way I  appear to others and the way I really am: symbolic identification occurs when the way I appear to others becomes more important to me than the psychological reality ‘beneath my social mask’, forcing me to do things I would never be able to accomplish ‘from within myself’ (45).

Thus by identifying myself as that which I already am for others, I begin to see my capacity for negating any particular identity (i.e., my capacity to deny association with any one group and to know myself as pure “potential”) as a problem or liability to be overcome in pursuit of some greater social purpose/Cause. Here we see the paradoxical temporal loop in which I see myself as pure potential but only in relation to what I might be, not in terms of what I cannot ever be: I am always “not yet” wholly that which I already am, not yet equal to my sociosymbolic identity/status… I remain unsatisfied with any current state-of-self, since this can only go so far toward matching satisfactorily my already-expected/known sociosymbolic identity.

But this state of non-satisfaction is simply the universal condition of human existence; it is the state of desire, and as such not inherently “evil” or “coercive.” Without desire, who would we be? Here is the psychoanalytic/Hegelian answer: a non-desiring being is no being at all; it is inert matter, with no particular emotional attunement toward anything in the world, no directional motion, and thus no reactionary capability (one of the several necessary qualities of “life” as defined by biologists). Without imagination, without creative thought about what might be, what might have been, etc., we could not exist – imagination is what makes human beings distinct as a species.

The irony is that in the same formal gesture one can begin to be motivated to accomplish both heroic acts (as in Žižek’s above example), as well as atrocious acts of violence; it all depends on what symbolic space has been established in one’s own community – it depends, in other words, on what sort of superego demands are at work, whether that superego takes the form of a social pressure to end economic disparity, or a social pressure to carry out acts of violence against Muslims…

Hence why democracy is the riskiest form of government: there is no guarantee that any one course of action will take place, that any one kind of society will take shape; all that we have is the capacity to influence those societal/symbolic features collectively, through communication with one another about the ideas we want to pay attention to – ideas shared online, in books, through art and music, etc.; all of these provoke a re-imagining of the world.

Lacan defines the psychoanalytic concept of the Real as the impossible limit/end of the functioning of a symbolic system. This symbolic system – an imaginary invention of the subject – is the fictional narration of the world that functions precisely in order to prevent the encounter with the Real, the Void of pure senselessness in which (the sense of) individual and collective agency dissipates into absolute nothingness, spiraling in a vortex toward its own impossibility.

From out of this vortex of the Real, the Symbolic arises – for no other reason than that the subject couldn’t otherwise maintain a coherent sense of self – and retroactively posits/imagines the story of its founding. This story might begin with the imaginary act of an individual, or an imaginary cosmological occurence.

To extrapolate outside of the clinical situation, an example of the former might be that the Symbolic order of capitalism relies on the fictional original act of the entrepreneur’s self-determination of his destiny, ‘lifting himself up by his own bootstraps’ (which happens to rely as well on the imaginary notion of the ‘innate’ acquisitiveness of human beings in the ‘state of nature,’ their ‘innate’ desire to compete and to own property, etc.).

An example of the latter might be that the Symbolic orders of Taoism and Buddhism rely on the fictional cosmological occurance of the great rupturing of the original Perfection of the Universe by the human-introduced disturbance of ‘striving’ or ‘desire.’

Of course, the Symbolic as such would disintegrate if its imaginary (i.e., ‘fantasmatic’) support were revealed as nothing more than the subject’s own mental effort to constitute something sensible in the face of brute, material reality.

The Real is thus

the spectral fantasmatic history [that] tells the story of a traumatic event that ‘continues not to take place’ (Lacan, Seminar XX: Encore, New York: Norton, 1998, p. 59), that cannot be inscribed into the very symbolic space it brought about by its intervention….[and], precisely as such, as nonexistent, it continues to persist, that is, its spectral presence continues to haunt the living (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso, 2000, p. 58).

Thus the Real negates not simply some positive feature(s) of the Symbolic, but rather negates the positivity of the Symbolic itself and thus of the subject’s most basic sense of self (consciousness). We can compare the would-be direct confrontation with the Real to the experience – rare indeed – of an individual confronting herself, in an extreme panic attack, for example, as nothing but a mound of flesh (although this is something technically impossible, since logically nothing that is possible could ever see itself as impossible; nothing that is pure flesh could ever “see itself” as pure flesh…).

This experience is also the same as Hegel’s nightmarish ‘night of the world,’ when Spirit confronts itself as nothing more than a bone – when Spirit (human consciousness/thought/belief) recognizes that it really is (not just that it arises from) the simple inert matter of the brain.

The crucial point about this is not simply that the Spirit is nothing but dead matter, but, further, that nevertheless, it is still Spirit: Spirit is “strong enough to assert its identity with the inertia of dead matter and to ‘sublate’ it […] i.e., dead matter, even at its most extreme, cannot escape the Spirit’s power of mediation” (Ibid., from the Preface: xvi). In other words, no part of material reality is left untouched by the additional, imaginary fantasy supplement that we add to it.

So the Symbolic relies on a narrative to describe and understand its present outline, the totality of its positive aspects and its limits. And what this narrativization does is to shield the subject from the Real.

It is crucial to note that this “retroactive fictionalization engages the subject who generated this fiction much more” than the subject’s experience of an actual, traumatic event (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, 62). Although this trauma would bring the subject to the limits of her understanding – to the limits of the Symbolic – and would haunt her the rest of her life, the traumatic event as such must always be repressed (buried in the unconscious) and filtered through a renewed fundamental fantasy that operates based upon the exclusion of that trauma.

The return of repressed trauma occurs not only for the obvious reason that the trauma has always already determined the limits of the Symbolic; it also appears via repeated disturbances of the smooth functioning of the conscious ego, as the spectre that continues to haunt the subject in its unconscious as a remainder/reminder of this unacknowledged (and unacknowledgeable) ‘violence’ that was the (subject’s) founding gesture of the Symbolic out of the senselessness of the Real – that is, the gesture of creating/imagining meaning and imposing that meaning on inherently meaningless material reality.

This exclusion of the Real occurs in the founding of every Symbolic understanding, whether benevolent or evil: the ghost that haunts the unconscious, the ghost of the traumatic break from the senseless Real into the sense of the Symbolic is thus what has been called a ‘passionate attachment,’ an attachment the subject can never escape and precisely as such must repeatedly – and passionately and violently – disavow in order to continue to function within the horizon of its understanding, an understanding which, again, originates with the subject’s violent exclusion of alternative modes of understanding.

For instance, think of the bizarre phenomenon of the U.S. military’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which disclosure of one’s sexual orientation is prohibited in order to prevent others’ uncomfortable exposure to the possibility that, yes, as a matter of fact, homosexuality does exist in the military (see Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

To be clear, the subject never directly encounters the Real (this would be death, or, perhaps, Ego death). Rather, one gets a ‘little piece’ of it, an event or an object which impinges on the Symbolic. Thus, instead of entering the Real, one continuously circles around it, always narrativizing any traumatic excess (e.g., by instituting a law, such as “don’t ask don’t tell”).

The manner in which one circles around the Real is one’s particular symptom (e.g., the symptoms of the neurotic subject, for whom everything must be kept in perfect order and the “impossible” – e.g., homosexuality – must always remain impossible; or the symptoms of the hysteric, who desperately desires to be given any stable position of belonging within a community).

The narrative functions, however, not simply as a shield, but also as a demand: Enjoy! That is, the narrative, by providing an aesthetically appealing/convincing blockade against direct access to the Real, keeps the subject at peace with itself (or rather, with its symbolic identity).