Archives for posts with tag: The Unconscious

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).


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.