14 January 2007

Symbolic Castration

There are periods where I find that everything I'm doing suddenly collapses. Or rather, it's not that anything collapses, but rather it's as if all my drive suddenly disappears and the things that hitherto held my fascination become dark and grey, pallid, as if they no longer hold the allure of promise they once had. That's the way it is with desire, I think... Desire renders a portion of the world luminous to the exclusion of everything else, elevating some single element or series of elements to a stand-in for everything else, and when desire loses its force it's as if the entire world collapses and I'm like one of those zombies from a b-film just shuffling along without any particular interesting in anything. Indeed, this might be a particularly apt metaphor, as these zombie always seem to desire the brains and flesh of the living, of those still animated with desire, as if, like cannibals, they might consume the desires animating others to kickstart their own desire. Is the evaporation of my desire the result of being on vacation for too long and thereby not having the requisite antagonism and sense that my enjoyment has been stolen to animate me? Is it that I've had too many successes lately and therefore experience myself in the midsts of a malaise?

What is particularly frustrating about the evaporation of desire is that the desire to write insists. For the blessed Lars of Spurious, the question is always one of how to continue to write, and he has gone so far as to conceive a writing that is not driven by content but a content driven by writing. Yet what of this desire to write in the first place, this oppressive sense that I am somehow violating some duty if I don't write? Is this not the phenomenon of phallus or symbolic castration? As Zizek puts it,
The status of possibility, while different from that actuality, is thus not simply deficient with regard to it. Possibility as such exerts actual effects which disappear as soon as it 'actualizes' itself. Such a 'short-circuit' between possibility and actuality is at work in the Lacanian notion of 'symbolic castration': the so-called 'castration-anxiety' cannot be reduced to the psychological fact that, upon perceiving the absence of the penis in woman, man becomes afraid that 'he also might lose it.' 'Castration anxiety' rather designates the precise moment at which the possibility of castration takes precidence over its actuality, i.e., the moment at which the very possibility of castration, its mere threat, produces actual effects in our psychic economy. This threat as it were 'castrates' us, branding us with an irreducible loss. (Tarrying With the Negative, 159)
In this context Zizek is speaking specifically of the manner in which power functions. What is important where power is concerned is the threat of force and not the exercise itself. That is, a certain potentiality is seen as pervading intersubjective relations-- the potentiality of violence --and this potentiality leads to transformations at the level of actuality or how we act. However, generalizing the notion of symbolic castration or the phallic function, then, it can be said that symbolic castration is that moment where possibility enters the world, where the world becomes haunted by incompleteness, and this incompleteness compels us to produce regardless of whether there is any need to produce. Over and above the need to communicate something, over and above the aim of "padding my CV", or intervening in some situation, there is the insistent call to write even where there is nothing and no reason to write. And even though there is no concrete call to write anything, even though there is nothing to be accomplished in writing, even though there is nothing to be said, I nonetheless feel as if I am failing in some crucial way when I'm not writing, that something in the world is fundamentally incomplete. Why should writing function as such an aim in itself? And why must I feel so wretched when I have nothing to write?

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December 30, 2008 12:26 AM  

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