28 July 2006

Identification and Social Psychosis

In my post "Hegel and the Logic of the Imaginary", I try to articulate the deadlocks that emerge around social and psychic organizations strongly organized around the One inevitably lead to conflict insofar as they must define a boundary between themselves and the other so as to maintain their identity. The problem is that this boundary or distinction is inherently precarious, as the outside, the enemy, the other, is not extrinsic to the identity of the inside, but is internal to the inside in such a way that the inside is the outside and is thereby dependent on its outside. Whether the One be a family name, the name of a nation, the name of a team, the name of a movement or organization ("Lacanian", "Deleuzian", "Badiouian", "Democrat", "Conservative", "Christian", etc), every organization around a One leads to this sort of unstable logic and conflict.

What we have here is the logic of the sovereign, exemplified by Lacan's graph of masculine sexuation, which attempts to totalize the social, political, or ontological sphere (think of the function of the Good in Plato, the unmoved mover in Aristotle, or God in Descartes, all of which exemplify this structure in their own way), through positing an exception-- the One --to the field of law. It is this which Schmitt refers to as "political theology", where a certain form of politics is premised on a secularization of theological concepts.

The natural question that emerges is whether it is possible to conceive a political space or form of community that is no longer premised on identification in this way. I have no answer to this question, though I do find the feminine side of Lacan's graph of sexuation promising in this regard. What the logic of feminine sexuation seems to promise is a form of community that is beyond the theological and which is capable of relating to the alterity that inhabits any community as such.

Although identification and the logic of the One seem to be the source of a great deal of social conflict, the question of a form of community beyond identification or that identifies with the "not-all" as such, poses the equally vexing issue of social psychosis. This issue can clearly be seen with regard to Lacan's final teaching of the borromean knot, depicted at the beginning of this post. In Seminar 22, R.S.I, Lacan emphasizes that the three orders of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary are to be conceived as equivalent, in that they all inter-relate with one another and depend upon one another in order for the subject to maintain itself. This marks a substantial departure from Lacan's earlier teaching of the 50's, prior to Seminar 11, where it was hoped that the effects of the imaginary could be largely bypassed and eradicated through the symbolic. Ignoring the fourth, orange string, depicting the sinthome, the difficulty lies in the fact that if I cut any of the other three strings, the other two fall away generating a collapse of the organization. Consequently, while it might sound appealing to imagine a politics or form of community beyond the obfuscations of the imaginary, the difficulty with this proposal is that it inevitably leads to the production of psychosis by undermining the fragile organization of the orders of the symbolic and the real.

In his essay "Towards a Political Theology of the Neighbor", Kenneth Reinhard puts his finger on precisely this problem, although he doesn't articulate it in terms of the borromean knot:
One problem with [Schmitt's] account of the political, where we divide the world into friends we identify with and enemies we define ourselves against, is that it is fragile, liable to break down or even to invert and oscillate in the face of complex situations. But it is precisely in this inadequacy to the world we live in that Schmitt's account of the friend-enemy distinction is most useful: today, we find ourselves in a world from which the political may have already disappeared, or at least has mutated into some strange new shape. A world not anchored by the 'us' and 'them' oppositions that flourished as recently as the Cold War is one subject to radical instability both subjectively and politically. The disappearance of the enemy results in something like global psychosis: since the mirroring relationship between Friend and Enemy provides a form of stability, albeit one based on projective identifications and repudiations, the loss of the enemy threatens to destroy what Lacan calls the 'imaginary tripod' that props up the psychotic with a sort of pseudo-subjectivity, until something causes it to collapse, resulting in full-blown delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Hence, for Schmitt, a world without enemies is much more dangerous than one where one is surrounded by enemies. (The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, 16-17)

Reinhard's point here is that the enemy, the other opposed to the One, functions as a necessary moment in establishing and maintaining identity. While I don't agree with Reinhard's conception of the political (he seems to associate it with social relations organized around the friend/enemy distinction, whereas I follow Rancierre, Badiou, and Zizek in seeing the political as occuring precisely with regard to the exception), his observations nonetheless seem to hit the mark here. With the end of the Cold War, the imaginary of the United States collapsed as well. This collapse was, I think, exacerbated by increasing globalization and internet technologies, which had the effect of further blurring national boundaries and the identities dependent upon these boundaries. It is thus not surprising that a growing sense of paranoid persecution emerged among American fundamentalist groups and conservative movements, as certain groups desperately searched for some sort of stability upon which to build their identity. Anyone who has spent significant amounts of time on conservative blogs and discussion groups will be familiar with running narratives about Christian persecution and paranoid fears about being infiltrated by "liberal double agents". Reinhard's observations here are interesting as he doesn't simply suggest that terrorism allowed America to re-assert its imaginary in the face of a new enemy-- the speed with which flags were pinned to people's clothing, put on cars, and hung before houses after 9-11 is unforgettable --but his suggestion that this enemy, as non-localizable, has been unable to fill the hole in the imaginary.

I am still trying to figure out how to properly pose my questions, but it seems to me that one of the central questions is how to think a form of community that isn't based on the friend/enemy distinction, the logic of the sovereign, and which doesn't fall into the sort of paranoid psychosis that Jodi Dean seems to be thinking about in her Aliens in America. Not only is the idea of eradicating the imaginary unrealistically utopian, but, if Lacan's later borromean formulation is correct, it is downright dangerous. From here I'm not at all sure where to go. Perhaps what is needed as a fourth knot, the sinthome, that would allow the other three orders to function even when unbound from one another. As Lacan suggests in Seminar 23, The Sinthome, one can get by without the name-of-the-father so long as one knows how to make use of it. But what would such a social sinthome be?

My apologies for the flailing nature of my posts the last few days. It seems that I have more questions these days than solutions.


Anonymous Yusef said...

The "flailing nature" is no problem.

The volume is the problem... but only because I can't keep up.

But you keep it up.

July 29, 2006 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

Thanks again for your eloquent and sharp observations. They are also so numerous that you answer your own questions.

In your latest post Identification and Social Psychosis you write:

With the end of the Cold War, the imaginary of the United States collapsed as well. This collapse was, I think, exacerbated by increasing globalization and internet technologies, which had the effect of further blurring national boundaries and the identities dependent upon these boundaries.

This is a reasonable answer to the question you put in your post Red, White, and Blue

The question that I've been revolving about ever since is what is it that leads people to so heavily identify with something as abstract as a piece of land in this way?.


We draw boundaries to make others different. – And consequently ourselves the same.

Are you, by any chance, familiar with the thinking of Homi Bhabha. I know too little about him, but have found his theories of the “in-between” intriguing.

I quote from his introduction to The Location of Culture

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing. (Martin Heidegger, 'Building, dwelling, thinking')


It is in the emergence of the interstices - the overlap and displacement of domains of difference - that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed 'in-between', or in excess of, the sum of the I parts' of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender, etc.)?

How do strategies of representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable?

PS: I agree with Yusef – keep it up. We are here - trying to do the same.

Orla Schantz

July 29, 2006 3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thing, Levi.

You write:

My apologies for the flailing nature of my posts the last few days. It seems that I have more questions these days than solutions.

German has an absolutely beautiful adjective, called FRAGENWÜRDIG.

It means that a theory, a thought, an observation, a philosophy has so much weight that it is WORTHY OF A QUESTION.

Your posts are fragenwürdig.

Orla Schantz

July 29, 2006 4:19 PM  
Blogger Jodi said...

Levi--would you say that another way of posing the question of political arrangement is whether the feminine formulae supply an alternative? Reinhard, if I recall properly, only introduces the feminine as a supplement rather than as a full alternative. And Laclau, I think, suggests that any community form that escapes the friend/enemy logic presupposes the end of politics (the absence of antagonism). I've been wondering about these questions, too, and wonder if part of a solution is separating the notion of sovereignty from the friend/enemy distinction. That is, I think that Schmitt's reading of sovereignty is way too narrow and inadequate to complex societies. And, I think it may be possible to think about the friend/enemy distinction in ways that don't reduce to identity categories. But these are just my assorted meandering bits of babble, a way of saying that I find your questions engaging.

August 01, 2006 9:16 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Jodi, this is the direction I'm pushing in re: feminine sexuation, but I'm still trying to get my mind around feminine sexuation or just how it's to be understood. I agree about the narrowness of the friend/enemy distinction, yet it sure does seem that people are making desparate, madcap attempts to preserve this distinction in some way. I'm not sure whether to take this as a positive sign or symptom of a collapsing order of theo-politics, or a vengeful return of the repressed to the nth degree.

Right now I'm just trying to figure out these logics of exception, etc., so as to be able to say anything at all.

August 01, 2006 5:45 PM  
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October 15, 2006 4:20 PM  
Blogger Keith Russell said...

The Fourth would be a Blakean Fifth = the Active Imagination (the identity glue and missing Blake Zoa, for each of the Lacanian Three, is Emotion - Real = Body; Imaginary = Passive Imagination; Symbolic = Reason).

September 12, 2008 4:29 AM  

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