14 January 2007

Recoding the Social

In an important passage from The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan asks,
What is a praxis? I doubt whether this term may be regarded as inappropriate to psycho-analysis. It is the broadest term to designate a concerted human action, whatever it may be, which places man in a position to treat the real by the symbolic. The fact that in doing so he encounters the imaginary to a greater or lesser degree is only of secondary importance here. (6)
Perhaps we do not pause to consider this very often, but the remarkable thing about psychoanalytic practice is that speech alone somehow has an effect on the real of the symptom. Over the course of analysis symptoms change, jouissance is transformed, and somehow all through speech alone. Lacan's psychoanalytic theory can thus be thought as a transcendental theory of the conditions under which this is possible. Just as Kant, confronted with the realization that mathematics is not analytic but synthetic, found himself faced with the question of how this is possible, of what mind must be like in order for this to be the case, Lacan finds himself confronted with the question of what must be the case in order for speech to have an impact on the real of jouissance. Why is it, for instance, that a well articulated and enigmatic intervention on the part of the analyst can suddenly cause a paralyzing jouissance, filled with envy, all sorts of dark thoughts and fantasies, and painful affects of anger and obsession, with respect to some other acquaintance like a boss or friend to suddenly dissipate like so much mist in the sun? It is not a question here of the analysand's self-conscious knowledge or some sort of insight given by the analyst, as often the analysand doesn't notice anything at all. Rather, the issue simply disappears from the analysand's discourse without her noticing.

The case is similar with regard to the analysand's field of possibilities at the beginning of analysis. Often the neurotic world is populated by a curious sort of closure, characterized by fixations on certain privileged objects of enjoyment, repetitive deadlocks such as undermining oneself at that precise point where things are going well, and an inability to imagine or conceptualize other possibilities. As Lacan will say in Encore, "Reality is approached with apparatuses of jouissance" (55). The analysand enters analysis with her "devices of jouissance" which Lacan claims are caused by the signifier: "The universe is the flower of rhetoric" (56), "The signifier is the cause of jouissance" (24). How is it that suddenly there's a shift in the field of possibilities for the analysand? Why is it that an analysand suddenly begins to write where before writing was seen as a fundamental impossibility? How does it come about that suddenly new passions and desires emerge in the analysand's discourse where before there was only a monotonous repetition of the same deadlock? Something has shifted in the real of the analysand's jouissance, but what was it that precipitated this shift? How is it that the analysand has become open to discerning new possibilities, where before he saw none?

The analyst gives no medication. He does not employ any clever behavioral techniques such as special mental or physical exercises. She doesn't give any helpful tips on how to be successful or how to change one's behaviors. No, all she says is "talk a little, say whatever comes to mind no matter how embarrassing, apparently boring and unrelated, morally depraved, or untoward". And yet through this, through this work of the symbolic, something is changed in the field of both the real and the possible. Psychoanalytic theory attempts to think the conditions under which these shifts in the real are possible through the symbolic. After all, I cannot treat a broken leg by talking about it, yet somehow analysis is able to have an impact on a major anxiety disorder or phobia. What must the subject be like for this to be possible? And moreover, why are the subject's self-analyses and rational dismissals of their symptom impotent with regard to the symptom? Why is it necessary that this speech be addressed to another for some transformation in the real of the symptom to take place?

I think that it is in relation to this concept of practice, to this work of treating the real by the symbolic, that we should think the relation between Badiou and Zizek. The question that begs to be asked with respect to Badiou is what renders an individual susceptible to an event in the first place? That is, under what conditions is it possible for an individual to both recognize an event and nominate an event. Here it is necessary to use the term "individual", for according to Badiou one does not become a subject until they claim fidelity to an event. As Badiou puts it in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil,
If there is no ethics 'in general', that is because there is no abstract Subject, who would adopt it as his shield. There is only a particular kind of animal, convoked by certain circumstances to become a subject-- or rather, to enter into the composing of a subject. This is to say that at a given moment, everything he is-- his body, his abilities --is called upon to enable the passing of a truth aolong its path. This is when the human animal is convoked to be the immortal that he was not yet.

What are these 'circumstances'? They are the circumstances of a truth. But what are we to understand by that? It is clear that what there is (multiples, infinite differences, 'objective' situations-- for example, the ordinary state of relation to the other, before a loving encounter) cannot define such a circumstance. In this kind of objectivity, every animal gets by as best it can. We must suppose, then, that whatever convokes someone to the composition of a subject is something extra, something that happens in situations as something that they and the usual way of behaving in them cannot account for. Let us say that a subject, which goes beyond the animal (although the animal remains its sole foundation needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in 'what there is'. Let us call this supplement an event, and let us distinguish multiple-being, where it is not a matter of truth (but only of opinions), from the event, which compels us to decide a new way of being...

From which 'decision', then, stems the process of a truth? From the decision to relate henceforth to the situation from the perspective of its evental supplement. Let us call this a fidelity. To be faithful to an event is to move within the situation that this even has supplemented, by thinking (although all thought is a practice, a putting to the test) the situation 'according to' the event. (40-1)
In Being and Event, Badiou refers to the event as what is "indiscernible" according to the encyclopaedia governing the situation. Thus, for Badiou, there is a sharp contrast between knowledge and truth. Knowledge refers to the encyclopaedia and the regime of knowledge governing a situation (most recently Badiou has referred to the encyclopaedia as the "transcendental regime" of a situation). As Badiou remarks:
I also posit that every situation is accompanied by a language, a capacity to name that situation's elements, their relations, their qualities, their properties. And in every situation there is also what I call "the state of the situation"--the order of its subsets. The situation's language aims at showing how an element belongs to such and such a subset. The situation is what presents the elements that constitute it; the state of the situation is what presents, not the situation's elements, but its subsets. From this point of view the situation is a form of presentation, the state of the situation a form of representation. And knowledge, being the way we organize the situation's elements linguistically, is always a certain relation between presentation and representation. Knowledge is most simply defined as the linguistic determination of the general system of connections between presentation and representation. The set of a situation's various bodies of knowledge I call "the encyclopedia" of the situation. Insofar as it refers only to itself, however, the situation is organically without truth.
We can thus think of the encyclopedia of a situation as a regime of predication that defines all those elements that legitimately belong to the situation and their relations to one another. For instance, "democrat" and "republican" are predicates belonging to the field of knowledge, defining a particular place within the United States. An event, by contrast, is a taking place that evades all the predicates belonging to the encyclopaedia of a situation. There is no predicate for a true event and therefore it is "indiscernible" to the situation... We do not know how to count or include an event in a situation. Insofar as an event is effectively invisible to a situation, it only sustains itself by its nomination. It can never be proven to have taken place-- as the situation contains no resources for recognizing the existence of the event --and thus can only sustain itself through the fidelity to subjects of the event.

One of Badiou's favorite examples of an event is love. I will not get into all the details pertaining to Badiou's conception of love and how it relates to an encounter with sexual difference or the Two as such. What is important here is that love cannot be demonstrated to another. The outsider viewing the couple is forever unable to determine whether the two are genuinely in love or whether they are witnessing a simple erotic infatuation. Indeed, it is often disturbing to witness two who have declared their love as their decision-making process seems curiously mutilated and irrational. Not only is this true of the outsider witnessing the two who have declared their love, but this is true for those who have declared their love as well. It is entirely possible to doubt whether or not one is truly in love, to cast about for some sort of proof or demonstration, to wonder whether or not one is simply confused or infatuated. When we cast about for predicates that would allow us to know whether or not we're in love we can find none, and therefore love only sustains itself in and through its declaration, its nomination. If lovers appear mad to each other and to the outside, then it is because they have begun to evaluate their situation in terms of this event, no longer evaluating the situation on the basis of their egoistic aims, ambitions, and needs, but in terms of this event that has taken place that calls for a fundamental transformation of the situation come hell or highwater... At least, if they are ethical subjects and bear fidelity to this event. This is how a truth contrasts with knowledge: A truth evades all predicates of knowledge and only sustains itself in its praxis and declaration.

For Badiou the indiscernibility of an event with respect to knowledge is precisely what guarantees its universality. For what the event reveals is the essential contigency of the social order, of the pure multiplicity underlying the imaginary configuration of reality as an ontologically closed and complete system. Ranciere expresses a very similar conception of the political:
I... propose to reserve the term politics for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing [Ranciere's name for the "encyclopaedia", more here on "police"]: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration-- that of the part of those who have no part. his break is manifest in a series of actions that reconfigure the space where parties, parts, or lack of parts have been defined. Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place's destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise. (Disagreement, 29-30)
The order of knowledge or the police presents itself as a natural order, as a world in which everything has its proper place, function, and identity. However, as Ranciere puts it, "The foundation of politics is not in fact more a matter of convention than of nature: it is the lack of foundation, the sheer contingency of any social order. Politics exists simply because no social order is based on nature, no divine law regulates human society" (16). It is for this reason that the event opens onto the domain of the universal. So long as we remain in the domain of the encyclopaedia or the police it's clear that we never hit upon the universal, as the predicates composing the encyclopedia situate a field of differences that are incommensurate. What the event reveals is the contingency of these counting and ordering mechanisms. It reveals the excess beneath them. As an "animal" or an "individual", I always count myself in a particular way according to the regime of the encyclopaedia governing the situation. But as a subject these differences and distinctions are exceeded by that which can't be identified according to any of the predicates governing the situation.

The question, however, is how it is possible for an "animal" or "individual" to be receptive to an event in the first place. I'm more than happy to grant that all of these consequences follow from an event, but if the regime of the encyclopaedia is as total as Badiou and Ranciere suggest, if the encyclopaedia is organized precisely around disavowing the possibility of anything that isn't counted, then what are the conditions for the possibility under which a subject might be produced at all? For Badiou (and perhaps Ranciere), politics is something that can only follow from the event and one's fidelity to the implications of the event, yet it is difficult to see how the individuals populating a situation are capable of discerning events at all... Unless our situatedness in situations is never complete and always precarious. But if this is the case, it becomes possible to conceive another kind of political work that follows not from an event, but that instead seeks to locate those weak and symptomatic points within the symbolic edifice wherein it might be possible to force an event and precipitate subjects in Badiou's sense of the word.

Zizek raises the possibility of something along these lines in the closing section of Tarrying With the Negative. Quoting a long passage from Ryszard Kapuscinski on the Iranian Revolution, Zizek asks what marks that sudden moment where we shift from believing in the big Other and ceasing to believe in the big Other? Why is it that at one moment I encounter the police officer as a figure of authority capable of compelling me to obey his orders, yet a moment later the officer becomes an ordinary man who is no longer capable of making me budge when ordered to leave the protest?
There is, however, one point at which this formidable description has to be set right or, rather, supplemented: Kapuscinksi's all too naive, immediate use of the notion of fear. The 'third figure' which intervenes between us ordinary citizens and the policeman is not directly fear but the big Other: we fear the policeman insofar as he is not just himself, a person like us, since his acts are the acts of power, that is to say, insofar as he is experienced as the stand-in for the big Other, for the social order. (234)
The social order only supports itself on the basis of belief in the big Other. Consequently, if an event is to be recognized as an event, then there must be a weakening of the big Other. If this weakening is a rare and exceptional thing, then this is because, according to Zizek, we forestall any encounter with the impotence of the Other. "What I am running away from when I voluntarily take refuge in servitude is thus the traumatic confrontation with the big Other's ultimate impotence and imposture" (235). That is, in a paradoxical fashion we already are aware that the big Other is lacking, incomplete, castrated, yet we also try to prop up the Other as complete and uncastrated. This might appear strange as the Other is often a despotic and persecuting; however, Verhaeghe makes the point beautifully in terms of development in his brilliant On Being Normal and Other Disorders:
...[T]he process of separation brings about a major shift that can scarcely be overrated: an internal unpleasurable rise in tension is associated with the external other. The infant quite probably experiences the original internal drive as something peripheral; in any case, it can only disappear through the presence of the Other. The Other's absence will be regarded as the cause of the continuation of the inner tension. But even when this Other is present and responds with words and actions, this response will never be enough either. For the Other must continually interpret the child's crying, and there is never a perfect fit between the interpretation and the tension. At this point, we come up against a central element of identity formation: lack, the impossibility of ever answering the tension of the drive in full. Freud observes what every parent knows: our children seem permanently unsatisfied. 'It is as though our children had remained for ever unsated." The damand through which the dhild expresses its needs leave a remainder in the sense that the Other's interpretation of the demand will never coincide with the original need. It seems that the Other's inadequacy will always be the first thing to be blamed for what goes wrong internally. (158)
The Other is primordially experienced simultaneously as the one who is both responsible for our lack and suffering (the drive pressures that we cannot escape) and as the source of satisfaction of these drives. If an encounter with the impotence of the Other is terrifying, if it is forestalled at nearly any price, then this is because the Other is encountered or experienced as the one that has the solution, that has the response to drive. The collapse of that Other is thus the collapse of the solution. Verhaeghe goes on to show how contemporary affects such as the pervasive sense of guilt and anxiety relate to the growing sense of the Other's impotence, the Other's non-existence. On the one hand, then, there is the issue of how to produce symbolic strategies that weaken the binding force of the Other, creating the possibility of an event and a genuine politics. Zizek, for instance, speaks highly of Freud's discussion of Moses and treatment of Moses as an Egyptian, not because of its truth or veracity, but as a discursive strategy that sacrifices the agalma the Jews and the fantasy support of the anti-semite:
What Freud did was therefore the exact opposite of Arnold Shoenberg, for example, who scornfully dismissed Nazi racism as a pale imitation of the self-comprehension of the Jews as the elected people: by way of an almost masochistic inversion, Freud targeted Jews themselves and endeavored to prove that their founding father, Moses, was Egyptian. Notwithstanding the historic (in)accuracy of this thesis, what really matters is its discursive strategy: to demonstrate that Jews are already in themselves 'decentered,' that their 'originality' is a bricolage. The difficulty does not reside in Jews but in the transference of the anti-Semite who thinks that Jews 'really possess it,' agalma, the secret of their power: the anti-Semite is the one who 'believes in the Jew,' so the only way effectively to undermine anti-Semitism is to contend that Jews do not possess "it." (220-1)
The process here is similar to that which takes place in analysis, where the analysand progressively discovers that the analyst, as stand in for the analysand's fiction of the Other and objet a, doesn't "have it", objet a, such that the analysand separates from the Other, discovering it doesn't exist, reconfiguring the co-ordinates of his or her jouissance. Zizek's various interpretations, from his interpretations of "taboo" philosophers (for the postmoderns) such as Kant, Hegel, Descartes, etc., to his various analyses of contemporary events, can be understood as similar interventions that target the deadlock in the real, resituating the very terms of the debate and the sterile oppositions designed to ensure that the mechanism of counting or the structuration of the situation stay in place. This is an activity of recoding the symbolic so that new possibilities might emerge. However, the flip side of all of this is Freud's bit of wisdom from Totem and Taboo-- When the primal father is murdered, he returns even stronger in the form of guilt and submission to his law. How can a similar fate be avoided with regard to the death of God and the death of the Other?

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December 29, 2008 11:54 PM  

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