The sound of madness

1. There is something true in the banal observation that madness cannot name itself and, consequently, analytic discourse always requires a triadic structure (whence the problem of ethics that requires that there is no third). To put it simplistically, madness indicates a radical and often irreparable departure of the cogito from the ego. What Derrida observes of the “me” of analysis applies mutatis mutandis to madness: how is it possible to translate what is in principle unpresentable into a discourse that by its nature must make it present? How is it possible to say something outside of sense when speech itself is nothing other than the repetition of sense?* It is in the midst of this bind that Derrida explicitly invokes the notion of iterability in the now familiar deconstructive technique of showing that what resists signification is ultimately the “real” of sense such that every act of analysis becomes its own subversion (in his words, “in this sense, deconstruction is the interminable drama of analysis”).

*Contrary to popular psychology, madness is neither chaos nor “complete nonsense” but, rather, a particular relation to sense that prevents reflection.

As Foucault observed, what was at stake in their confrontation over the possibility of writing (of) madness is whether philosophical discourse can tolerate an exteriority to which it must be blind. When Derrida says that everything can be historicized except the hyperbolic project—which, in classic Derridean fashion, requires a madness more radical than that of psychological madness—Foucault sees confirmation of knowledge fortifying itself against its own unconscious (conditions). But the archaeological “we” who must analyze these conditions, Derrida says, can never be its own contemporary, i.e., can never be present to itself, which simply defines the analytic position. For both, however, because knowledge can never renounce itself, the double bind of Enlightenment (or, more specifically, Kantian) critique is that knowledge only crosses its limit precisely by seeking to know itself: thought can never intend anything outside of itself.

2. This double bind is “endured in a thousand different ways” (Derrida) in a sort of passio essendi. Madness brings us to the limit between life and death, i.e., to the point where the dissolution of the conditions for life nevertheless persists in a sort of second life. Death lingers on the far side of madness at the impossible moment when madness can name itself; madness expresses itself, however, perilously close to us ourselves in ecstasy (which includes not only the experiences of the mystics but also, as Derrida points out, the problematic of finitude in Heideggerean ek-stasis).

Such expression, however, can never be in the order of signification (thus analysis is only what Derrida calls the “reconstitution of the symbolic pact”). But what Munch did for anguish in “The Scream”, Ornstein has done for madness in the eighth of the Poems of 1917. Ornstein’s tone clusters, instead of tarrying at the limit of tonality and noise, express tonality without being tonal. Ornstein never rejects the language of tonality. All the architectural and melodic elements are there but it is the very persistence of the triplets that attempt to establish a tonal center that fails to sublate the minimal (semitonal) differences into a standard resolution. The “center” of the eighth Poem is nothing other than the minimal difference that defines unison as the interval that differs from itself only by returning to itself. But the only difference, then, between a single note (unison) and silence is its negation in melodic progression.

What Ornstein’s “melody without tonality” expresses, by the absence of a tonal center, is simply the trace of tonality by its persistence in our relation to it. Against the referentialists, Meyer has argued that “affect … is aroused when an expectation—a tendency to respond—activated by the musical stimulus situation, is temporarily inhibited or permanently blocked” (emphasis added). In a sense, this thesis is the key to all modernist music. Meyer’s contributions to music theory have been to show that musical meaning (which is preferable to “sense”) is fundamentally triadic, i.e., that it is neither in the work nor the conscious observer but between those two and the extra-musical referent of the work. In the case of the eighth Poem, the latter is simply madness itself or, to put it another way, the eighth Poem is not a mad statement like the man who declares that his head is made of earthenware but simply an** expression of madness itself as a flight from sense that can, in principle, never be “made sense of” but nevertheless remains as a resistance and temptation to the reflective consciousness.

*I mark the article to insist that, strictly speaking, there is not one but many madnesses.

Steps on the way to alterity

1. By long and common use, our sentences become unbreakable. This resilience is attested, for example, in the fact we can still misspell the most common words of our language—if, that is, it is the written word that expresses our thoughts. “But spelling is a mere convention and there is nothing essential to the spelling of a word. What matters is the thought expressed by it.” – Yet we know, of course, that language is always already inhabited by others. In a truly private language (which is not, NB, a solitary language) there is only one meaning, which is expressed in the perfect univocity of a baby’s cry.

2. Or consider the resistance of certain sentences that refuse to budge, even when we are prone to falter—e.g., the ones who hang on the wall as “affirmations”. What is this “I” indicated by these? Not the splitting of the ego or merely a projection (more or less the I/me of social interactionism) but the reflection (in language) of the ego: a glimpse of what cannot otherwise be experienced.

The law of the mother (notes on MacLeod’s The House of Yes)

How is it possible for psychoanalysis to speak of a “law of the mother”? Could Lacan have been right? Is such a law not the law of a prohibition but the “just barely” … Real? This is at least a hypothesis.

The experiment begins with graffiti on a bathroom wall: “We are living in a house of yes”. The location of this utterance effectively erases its initial meaning—not so much the fact that it is written in a bathroom (even though the bathroom is exemplary site of the legal “no”) but that it is a public utterance. The interpellated “we” cannot be those who live in a “house of yes”.

But what is the “house of yes”? Two tropes are juxtaposed here. On the one hand the house is not an economic site if for no other reason than that to speak of a house necessarily requires the entry of a third. In politics the third takes the form of law (public/private); in literature the third usually takes the form of a narrator or some other character (in MacLeod’s work, to which we shall turn shortly, it is of course Lesly). There is no house (i.e., the institution of the family) without the entry of the third party.*

*A brief synopsis of relevant features of the play: Marty arrives home on Thanksgiving, eagerly awaited by his mother (Mrs. Pascal), twin sister (Jackie), and younger brother (Anthony). To the family’s surprise, he brings his fiancee Lesly, who threatens the health of the family and, in particular, Jackie who has always wanted her brother for herself. Jackie had recently been released from a mental hospital and Anthony has dropped out of Princeton to be with the family. Mr. Pascal so no longer with the family, we are told, either because he left them on the day of the Kennedy assassination or because he was shot by Jackie (which is presumably the reason she was institutionalized). After the assassination, Jackie and Marty had made a game of re-enacting the Kennedy assassination (hence Jackie prefers to be called Jackie O) as a sort of foreplay to their relationship. To get rid of Lesly, Jackie convinces Anthony to seduce her, but the only way he is able to do so is to reveal the nature of Marty’s past relationship with Jackie (which he himself had just discovered). Lesly sees the Kennedy re-enactment (confirming Anthony’s accusations) and confronts Marty, who begs her to take him away from the family. Mrs. Pascal insists that Lesly leave, and Anthony tries to convince Lesly to take him away instead of Marty. Sending everyone out of the room, Marty confronts Jackie, but Jackie begins the re-enactment again, only with real bullets. Marty, knowing that the gun is loaded, agrees to do it “one more time”.

But it is also the third party that redoubles the “yes” and, consequently, allows the “yes” to appear (“just barely”). As Anthony reveals, Lesly is the first guest ever to enter the house (Scene 2). But in this case it is Lesly who attempts to pronounce the prohibition. But why? Mrs. Pascal tells us:

“My husband. Precisely. I didn’t know he was my one great passion until he was gone. Until he was one my one great passion was the man I met that night at a party. My one great passion was any man I met that night at a party who could use a new adjective to describe me. I have no idea who my children belong to. All I know for sure is that Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb. The doctors swore to me. It’s in some medical journal somewhere.” (Scene 1)

But what is this “yes”? Although Mrs. Pascal tells Lesly that “Jackie can have everything her way. She always has” (Scene 10), she never names the forbidden relationship between the siblings, even when Lesly attempts to do so: “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. / Lesly: I’m sure you do. / Mrs. Pascal: Sure? One can never be sure” (Scene 9).

The relationship is doubly mediated by the repetition of the particular fantasy of the Kennedy assassination (it makes no difference if Mr. Pascal left the family on the day of the assassination as we are told or if he was shot by Jackie as is suggested). But the relationship remains impossible despite the repetition: Jackie (O) loads the gun and Marty allows her to pull the trigger—and in that moment what is impossible becomes possible and the Real bursts through … but just barely, not in pleasure but in blood.

This play admits no staging where the mother is permitted to weep at the final curtain. The mother imposes no authority—she does not succeed in banishing Lesly from her house, for example—nor does she strictly speaking sanction the incestuous relationship (insofar as she never names it). The mother can only stand witness (a witness, however, without testimony). It is only through this witness that the Real exists … but just barely, for the “yes” remains impossible, unspoken, except in the explosion of a gunshot.

The reality of the real

How does psychoanalysis speak of the real? The ego is constituted as a phenomenon. Against an ontology that would consider relation a predicate that obtains between essences, one finds precisely the inverse: the real is not in the relata but in the relation. But there is never any access to the real precisely because relation is expressed in or as the ego and never “in-itself”. This is what phenomenology, for example, would call “presentation”. But there is no “in-itself” of the real if the real is nothing other than relation (an ontology of relation, in other words).This is not to say that the real is only a real “for-us”, which is simply another version of the essentiality of the ego or a hypostasis of both sub/object.. The ego, or what could otherwise be called (a) life, is nothing other than relation expressed as a phenomenon (expression here being a repetition); it would follow, then, that death is neither nothingness nor the “end” of an existence but, instead, the very reality of the real.

Coldness and cruelty, violence and politics; Or: masochism and democracy

[Note: The following post essentially consists of some notes toward an interpretation of Deleuze’s text; one that I hope to develop further and, obviously, in more detail. I don’t claim that it is an “analysis” or “summary” of that text and ask that it not be taken as such.]

The conjunction of masochism and democracy presupposes, of course, the extension of the sexual field into politics.* Deleuze’s structuralism—and Coldness and Cruelty is most certainly “structural” in several senses of the word, not only for its insistence on the formal analysis of psychic phenomena but also for its commitment to the logic of the sign—provides us with a precise point of intersection of these two fields without collapsing the field of politics into that of sexuality or vice versa; this analysis also avoids the naïveté of pop psychology that would look for our “psychological motivations” for political action. The link between masochism and democracy, therefore, is not one of the sort that would permit us to claim that “a democrat must be a masochist” or the converse, since these types of propositions reduce the two fields into the same level of discourse without preserving, as Deleuze does, the necessity of a reference to a third: what Deleuze calls “symptomatology” or what might otherwise simply be called “formal analysis”.

*One has the suspicion, however, that this speculation on Deleuze’s text is caught in the bind of being either obvious or illegitimate (at least, however, it cannot be both). Deleuze never mentions political philosophy in the text, and it would be an obvious instance of equivocation to equate his discussion of the law in psychoanalysis with the law in politics. Nor should the law in politics be taken as a special instance of the law in psychoanalysis (including the “law of the father” simply writ large).

The name of democracy is uniquely a modern phenomenon and the primary site of the theologico-political problem, which manifests in a dual aspect: 1) the originary, impossible moment of violence articulated by Hobbes in the one who must covenant to form the State. This is the radically free decision, ex nihilo, of the libertine who, “while engaged in reasoning, is caught in the hermetic circle of his own solitude and uniqueness—even if the argumentation is the same for all the libertines” (Deleuze). 2) This is the impulse (both Hobbes and Hume are in agreement here) that sets itself the task of submission to a force greater than itself. The alternatives for this task are set out several times in Deleuze’s text under the names of sadism and masochism:

“In Sade the imperative and descriptive function of language transcends itself toward a pure demonstrative, instituting function [fascism], and in Masoch toward a dialectical, mythical and persuasive function [democracy]. These two transcendent functions essentially characterize the two perversions, they are twin ways in which the monstrous exhibits itself in reflection [emphasis added].”

And again: “the specific impulse underlying the contract [masochism] is toward the creation of a law, even if in the end the law should take over and impose its authority upon the contract itself; whereas the corresponding impulse at work in the case of institution [fascism] is toward the degradation of all laws and the establishment of a superior power that sets itself above them”.*

*It is, incidentally, precisely this threat that is identified in a different way by Rancière when he claims that democracy occurs at the moment when a discontinuity between law and nature occurs and, à la Critchley, that democracy is nothing other than the maintenance of an “interstitial distance” (Critchley’s term) or “an-archic” moment (both Rancière and Critchley) of immanent critique.

But, the perversion leads us from contract to ritual: “the masochist is led back into the impersonal realm of fate, which finds expression in the myth [and ritual] … The situation that the masochist establishes by contract, at a specific moment and for a specific period, is already fully contained timelessly and ritually in the symbolic order of masochism”. But this is a transformed, monstrous, law (the “law of the mother”), a parody of law whose mode of expression is not discourse (the symbolic order of the father) but laughter (when Severin returns to Wanda to satisfy his contractual obligations, her response is simply to laugh—is this not almost precisely what Cixous means by the laugh of the medusa?).

What is remarkable is that the trajectory of masochism does not revert into fascism (myth, destiny) but rather into the Übermensch? In Deleuze’s words: “in the work of Masoch, imperatives and descriptions also achieve a transcendental function, but it is of a mythical and dialectical order. It rests on universal disavowal as a reactive process and on universal suspension as an Ideal of pure imagination … [emphasis added]”. Dialectics reverts into an aesthetics of truth—of the “supersensualist” who conceives the truth through his naked body.

This is a reactive process insofar as the masochist performs a simultaneous involution and doubling of the superego—as the one who signs the contract and as the one who submits to, in Severin’s favorite description of his mistress, a “beautiful tyrant” (recall that tyrants are appointed or elected, often reservedly so; cf. Deleuze: “Sade’s hatred of tyranny, his demonstration that the law enables the tyrant to exist, form the essence of his thinking”). This would be the ultimate catharsis if only there were anything tragic about masochism. Rather, the masochist is the one who performs the most ascetic, radical purgation as a propaedeutic to become a subject (in being subjected). One is never a masochistic subject—masochism is a continuous process of subjectification. When, then, “the rosy mist of supersensuality has lifted”, Severin claims that “no one will ever make me believe that the sacred wenches of Benares or Plato’s rooster are the images of God”.

Although Deleuze would never say this, whither the masochist except again to the theologico-political origins of democracy (and not, of course, to the corrupted democracy of procedural justice that masks itself under the slogan of the “rule of law”)? Without such a return, Nietzsche under the whip of Salomé is the only real alternative to the problem of modern democracy, which has been described with no more powerful language than in the Genealogy: the name of democracy rests on the continuous verification of an-archy; it is those sites where the real encroaches on the virtual that we witness the violence of politics.

Early thoughts (6 JUL 2007)

“Unable to precede myself, to exceed myself, or to cross the distance” Marion says, “I can neither think nor perform the formula ‘I love myself’”. The erotic reduction makes narcissism impossible. The subject is always split by the excess of its desire. Is not, then, the other from elsewhere—the flesh that is there, caressing the flesh that is here, my flesh, and that lust always wants to tear—the precise meaning of a supplement—a supplement beyond (and prior to) need, to which “there is no relation”?

Yet: not only is narcissism impossible—it must be forbidden, which is precisely why Freud (rather, the Freud-Lacan complex) places the myth of Narcissus in the absent heart of libido wherein it is precisely narcissism that reveals the non-coincidence of the ego. The price that the ego must pay for itself is nothing other than guilt. But, of course, guilt is not always pathological. Guilt is simply the “original” condition of the human being.

Mystery and Separation (18 FEB 2007)

Butler has recently made much of the opacity of the self to self. But just as importantly, there is a mystery of the other. One fundamental principle of psychoanalysis is precisely that we cannot understand the other. We may seek to understand by analogy, semiotically, etc, but we are never “in agreement” with the other. We must, so to speak, “let the other be”, even if psychoanalysis is an interaction—the analyst enters into the other and, as physicists know, any measurement results in a change in the measured object. But there is a forbidden, untouchable place. I can never coincide with the other.