27 July 2006

Lethal Liberty and the Subject of Enlightenment

Deleuze and Guattari, following Reich, pose the question perfectly when they ask "why do we will our own oppression?" Here power is not simply an external impediment, unjustly imposed upon us, but it is an internal limit produced by the subject itself. As Zizek puts it,
Every parent knows that a child's provocations, wild and 'transgressive' as they may appear, ultimately conceal and express a demand, addressed to the figure of authority, to set a firm limit, to draw a line which means 'This far and no further!', thus enabling the child to achieve a clear mapping of what is possible and what is not possible. (And does the same not go also for the hysteric's provocations?) This, precisely, is what the analyst refuses to do, and that is what makes him so traumatic-- paradoxically, it is the setting of a firm limit which is liberating, and it is the very absence of a firm limit which is experienced as suffocating. This is why the Kantian autonomy of the subject is so difficult-- its implication is precisely that there is nobody out there, no external agent of 'natural authority,' who can do the job for me and set me my limit, that I myself have to pose a limit to my natural 'unruliness.' (90)

There is a vulgar notion of power that sees it strictly in opposition to the autonomous subject as something that is imposed on the subject from the outside. The aim is thus to undermine this power so that we might finally exercise our free autonomy and creative potential. What is here missed is the manner in which prohibition functions to solve a certain deadlock for the subject:
That is the crucial insight of Freudian metapsychology emphasized by Lacan: the function of Prohibition is not to introduce disturbance into the previous repose of paradisacal innocence, but, on the contrary, to resolve some terrifying deadlock.

It is only now that we can reconstruct the full sequences: primordial repose is first disturbed by the violent act of contraction, or self-withdrawal, which provides the proper density of the subject's being; the result of this contraction is a deadlock that tears the subject apart, throwing him into the vicious cycle of sabotaging its own impetus-- the experience of this deadlock is dread at its most terrifying. In Lacanese, this contraction creates a sinthome, the minimal formula of the subject's consistency --through it, the subject becomes a creature proper, and anxiety is precisely the reaction to this overproximity of one's sinthome. This deadlock is then resolved through Prohibition, which brings relief by externalizing the obstacle, by transposing the inherent obstacle, that bone in the subject's throat, into an external impediment. As such, Prohibition gives rise to desire proper, the desire to overcome the external impediment, which then gives rise to the anxiety of being confronted with the abyss of our freedom. (89)

It seems to me that this moment of creating an external impediment-- prohibition seen as something coming from the outside, through some sort of agency such as society, government, teacher, police, parents, etc. --so as to maintain desire is precisely what is missed in theories of subjectivization such as those proposed by figures like Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Butler, etc. These theories make it difficult to give an account as to why the subject would tolerate any inhibition of desire (in Deleuze and Guattari's sense of "desiring-production") in the process of subject formation.

While it is certainly true that there are formidable forces of power characterizing the outside, there is also the manner in which prohibition solves a certain deadlock for the subject and allows the subject to escape the overwhelming anxiety that occurs in the absence of desire. Paradoxically, the whole point of the law is to invite its own transgression and give us clear coordinates for our desire. Transgression, far from overturning the law, is a way of obeying the law. For instance, Sade's transgressions would lose their enjoyment, their surplus-jouissance, if they were not transgressions of prohibitions. It is precisely in this transgression qua transgression of the system of prohibitions, that these transgressions are able to produce surplus-jouissance.

While Zizek's account of how prohibition solves a particular deadlock of subjectivity strikes me as undertermined (one would do better to refer to Van Haute's account of desire as a solution to the terrifying and threatening jouissance of the Other in Against Adaptation), the anxiety that accompanies the absence of prohibition is readily identifiable in a number of contexts. This anxiety can, above all, be discerned in the analytic setting in relation to the analyst. An analyst is a largely silent figure, who gives neither praise nor blame, and who certainly gives no indication of how he judges the analysand if he judges him at all. From the standpoint of the analysand, this lack of constraints, this lack of any indication as to what ought to be talked about, is often accompanied with extreme anxiety. In the absence of a series of prohibitions and judgments from the analyst, the analysand is confronted with the manner in which her desire is her own production and not a longing to overcoming an external impediment. Those of us who teach are, no doubt, familiar with this phenomenon with regard to "free assignments" and experiments with not grading. Paradoxically, giving students absolute autonomy with their writing and getting rid of grades altogether turns out to be more oppressive rather than less oppressive, more superegoic rather than less superegoic. In response to such assignments and classroom assignments where the students as asked to "be herself", one receives a litany of questions of the form "what do you want?" (Che vuoi?) and actually end up working harder on their assignments and in a more self-punishing way.

The difficulty is that in the absence of some system of prohibitions, the subjective-consistency of the subject falls apart. As Zizek puts it,
The role of fantasy is thus, in a way, analogous to that of the ill-fated pineal gland in Descartes' philosophy, this mediator between res cogitans and res extensia: fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality: it provides a 'scheme' according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is, rather, how do I know I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. (40)

Here it's worthwhile to recall that fantasy, in Lacan's graph of desire, is a response to the enigmatic desire of the Other. Zizek's reference to "strawberry cake" here comes from Freud's discussion of his young daughter Anna in The Interpretation of Dreams, who had never before had strawberry cake. What might have prompted her to dream of strawberry cake when she had never before had it? The implication is that what's important here isn't the cake itself, but being seen enjoying the cake by her parents. In other words, we can say that the question of fantasy is always the question of which desires are the right desires? That is, it's a question of which identifications are the right identifications in the eyes of the Other? What films and theory, for instance, should I like in order to be in the in?

Increasingly I'm coming to feel that the central question, pace Kant and rationalism, is that of how an autonomous subject is possible? What are the conditions under which an autonomous subject is possible. The lesson to be drawn from the Lacanian account of desire and fantasy is that leftist politics is at a disadvantage and is actually anxiety provoking, precisely by virtue of its calls for liberation, freedom, and creativity. Just as the analytic setting is experienced as a space of anxiety for many analysands precisely because it is a space of freedom, so too are free societies (if ever any have existed) anxiety producing precisely due to their lack of constraint and prohibition. I am not suggesting that prohibition ought to be embraced. Rather, the issue I'm trying to raise is that of how leftist political agendas can avoid producing reactionary flights into reassuring systems of prohibition. How might we produce a collective capable of tolerating freedom and creativity? Is it utopian to imagine a collective that no longer desires masters?


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