19 November 2006

The Enigmatic Desire of the Other

Tell me what I am, damn it! At this moment I find myself piping mad, snorting fire with anger, and more than a little depressed. Earlier this week I found out that a paper I had submitted to a journal on Deleuze was rejected for publication. Now in and of itself, this is not such an unusual thing. You submit papers to conferences and journals, some of them are accepted, some aren't. That's the way the academic machine works. I believe that it is a good paper and that it should be published, that it makes a contribution to the secondary literature, and is unlike much of what's out there, but this is the way things go. However, the fact that it was rejected is not primarily what irritates with me. Rather, it was how the paper was rejected that makes me so angry.

I sent the article to the journal two weeks ago on November 14th. Now in my experience, it is unusual to hear anything from a journal about a prospective publication for months, so this suggests to me that the article wasn't given due consideration. In fact, a lack of "due consideration" seems par for the course with the head editor of this particular journal. Insofar as I submitted the article through email as the journal specified, I was concerned when I didn't receive confirmation that the article was received, so I wrote the editor a brief email the following week just to get confirmation, never to hear back from him. Now I wonder, why would it have been so much trouble just to send a short response thanking me for the submission and informing me that it had been received? Given that electronic communications sometimes go astray, this strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing to expect, as I would send any article I submitted by regular mail through certified mail for peace of mind. As it stands, I went about the last couple of weeks wondering if the article had been received and feeling as if I were being held hostage. Do I write again, perhaps earning the anger of the editor, while freeing myself to send the article elsewhere, or do I maintain my patience, when the letter has perhaps not reached its destination, losing valuable time that would be spent better elsewhere?

However, while all of this was minorly irritating, the real irritation came with the rejection letter. Here's what the editor wrote:
Dear Professor Bryant

Thank you very much for submitting X. Unfortunately Y is not able to use this piece at this time. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you for your interest in Y and wish you luck in placing your essay elsewhere.
I delete the name of the article and the title of the journal for obvious reasons. Now perhaps I've dealt with extremely unusual journals in the past, but in my experience, article rejections are usually accompanied by reader reviews as to why the article was found wanting, so that the author might improve their work and understand why the article was rejected. All I'm told is that the journal cannot use the article at this time. Is this because the journal currently has enough articles for the next few issues? Is this because there's something internally wrong with the article itself? Moreover, given the quick turn around time and the time of the semester, I strongly suspect that the article didn't even make it to outside reviewers, which makes me doubly angry. In response to this, I sent out a short query as to why the article was rejected. Anything here would do-- "the article was too vague", "the article tried to cover too much", "the article doesn't fit any of the current themes we're trying to organize the journal around", "your arguments are logically invalid", and so on. Yet, just as in the case where I tried to confirm that the article had been received, I have received no response from the editor.

All of this brings me to the difference between demand and desire. Why is it that I find this situation so intolerable? Lacan often argues that the neurotic is the one who confuses demand with desire. He even goes so far as to claim that neurosis is a defense against the desire of the Other. Initially this sounds deeply mysterious, as many of us would like to be desired and thus cannot fathom why we would seek to defend against desire. However, for Lacan this is not, properly speaking, the desire of the Other. Rather, we encounter the desire of the Other not in experiencing ourselves as wanted, but precisely when we are unsure of what we are for the Other. Fink makes this point nicely in A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis,
...according to Lacan the neurotic is to a great extent stuck at a level shy of desire: at the level of demand.

Lacan formulates this by saying that, at the commencement of an analysis, the neurotic's fundamental fantasy involves the subject's stance with respect to the Other's demand, rather than with respect to the Other's desire. The subject much prefers to deal with the Other's demand that he or she do things, become this or that, than to deal with the Other's desirousness, pure and simple... The neurotic even prefers to believe that the Other wants something truly horrible-- that the Other is demanding something of him or her that is very onerous and unpleasant --to remaining uncertain as to what the Other wants.

The encounter with the Other's desire is anxiety producing. To illustrate this point, Lacan borrows an example from animal behavior-- that of the femaile preying mantis, which bites off the head of her male partner during copulation --and asks us to imagine the following hypothetical situation (admittedly not easy to put to the text experimentally). You are wearing a mask that makes you look like either a female or a male praying mantis, but you do not know which; a female praying mantis approaches, making you extremely anxious. The anxiety you feel may well be worse in the case in which you do not know whether you are disguised as a male or a female, than in the case in which you do know you are disguised as a male. (Indeed, in the latter case what you experience is simply fear of a specific fate that is soon to befall you.) Hence, you may prefer to assume or conclude that your death is nigh because you are dressed as a male, even if you are not sure this is true. If we take the female praying mantis here as the Other (the real, not the symbolic Other), you may prefer to assume the Other is out to get you-- to assume that you know what it is you are for the Other, what object you are in the Other's desire --than to remain anxiously uncertain. (60-1)
Even if the demand we experience as issuing from the Other is truly horrible, it is preferable to this anxiety. The neurotic is the one who tries to convert desire into demand as a way to ward off this anxiety provoking encounter with desire that leaves us without knowing what we truly are. It is for this reason that not everyone is capable of enduring analysis, because analysis consists in precisely such an encounter with the enigma of the Other's desire, that can be extremely unsettling. I, for instance, have had affirmative anarcho-Deleuzian vampire-desiring machines in analysis, convinced that they were schizo-machines joyously creating themselves without limit or lack, who began every session asking me what I wanted them to talk about, and who did everything they could to provoke a specific demand. This suggests to me that the subject position occupied by these analysands was that of neurosis, not psychosis, as their action was organized in relation to the Other. The analyst must take great care during the early consultations of analysis not to present this analytic desire too massively, lest the analysand quickly flee from analysis.

One might wonder why, if fantasy is a defense against the anxiety producing desire of the Other, traversing the fantasy is the aim of analysis. Unlike other clinical orientations where the therapist might be warm or supportive, analysis is not a pleasant place. It's not unusual for an analysand to have a very difficult time recalling what went on during any particular session afterwards, and I suspect that this is due both to the anxiety that analysis provokes and because acts take place in the course of analysis that reconfigure the very being of the subject... Acts that for that reason cannot be remembered. If traversing the fantasy is the aim of analysis, then this is because the demands we come to evoke from the Other are often the very source of our own suffering. This, for instance, can be readily seen in the fantasy that one is a piece of shit for the Other, a bit of waste to be quickly gotten rid of. Yes, this fantasy helps to manage anxiety, but at the level of the analysand's action is produces all sorts of other forms of suffering as he manuevers to get himself turned into a piece of shit so he might be flushed. An encounter with the enigma of the Other's desire allows for the reconfiguration of this space of fantasy, for a bit more openness as to what the Other might truly be demanding (something that can never be known anyway).

So long as I don't know what the Other demands, I am unable to effectively respond to the Other or interact with the Other. It is for this reason that fantasy intervenes with respect to the desire of the Other. Fantasy gives me an answer to the question of what the Other desires, and therefore allows me to act with regard to the Other. Even if the fantasy is truly awful, involving the worse sorts of abuses, insults, degradations, and horrors, these abuses are nonetheless preferable as they are specific demands that I can respond to either by seeking to destroy the Other who I believe to want these things, by fleeing, by attacking, or by submitting myself to these demands after the fashion of Justine in Sade. What I am unable to tolerate is not knowing. Likewise, we can see how fantasy might function in a similar way in larger social interactions between different groups, such as U.S. attitudes towards the Middle East or Europeans, or fundamentalist Christian attitudes towards homosexuals (I'm still perplexed as to how sex became a central focus of morality in the U.S.).

This morning I awoke to find myself in such an unpleasant space of fantasy with regard to the editor of this journal. In his silence, his non-response, I find myself forcibly confronted with the enigma of the Other's desire and the question of what I am for the Other. Am I a piece of shit? Is my work worthless? Was he being genuine when he said the journal couldn't use my article at this time, and when he wished me good luck? Did I perhaps anger this person in the past somehow without knowing it? Perhaps he's read my review of Hallward's book here and has decided to write me off as an enemy. Or perhaps I said something unflattering in the past about something he'd written. Perhaps, because a good deal of my other work revolves around Lacan, Badiou, Zizek, and even Hegel in addition to Deleuze, I'm coded as an enemy, as one not to be trusted, as these figures are generally seen as enemies of Deleuze. My mind casts about for all sorts of answers to the enigma of this desire, to the mystery of this rejection and fantasizes certain ways in which I might respond to it. Perhaps I could write him an angry letter, decrying the lack of professionalism and how unethical this sort of behavior is. Or perhaps I entertain the fantasy that this post will be read by him and provoke a certain response. Maybe it would even provoke a bit of guilt in him. Ideally I should just shake my head in wonder, walk away, take another look at the paper, and send it elsewhere. Better yet, I shouldn't rely on the Other at all to take pride in my work... After all, I can't do the work of any Other. I can only do the work that I can do.

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Blogger Matt said...

I think you describe the best approach to this situation in your closing paragraph. We all seek affirmation of our worth but sometimes, from some sources, it is not forthcoming in the way we would wish.
This does not mean that we, or our work, are worthless.
It seems to me that the editor and/or other staff of this journal are acting unprofessionally. Have faith in your work and try another journal.
Best wishes.

November 19, 2006 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, these are the very reasons why I find webcommunication so anxiety-provoking. When you physically talk to people you at least see their faces - they are shaking their heads so you know you did say something very stupid - but on the web, you never know how many lurkers out there read your ramblings or not. And it doesn't matter whether the lurkers out there have names, fairly reliable profiles or whether they are anons like me, they are still strangers whose potential hostile reaction is a danger to my narcissism.

November 23, 2006 3:53 AM  

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