The solitude of the inner citadel: the epoché of suffering

0. One cannot call oneself a philosopher today without blushing, not from indignation at Thracian laughter, but from shame. Philosophical logoi seek only the truth, Socrates said, but within institutions and practices that reproduce the contradictions between truth and reality. These contradictions simmer both within philosophy and at its discursive and disciplinary boundaries, whether in the willing masochism of its subservience to the mastery of the sciences – or, on the other hand, its resentful ordination of its own wisdom as superior – its timidity in the face of liberal and neoliberal ideologies of domination masquerading as “opportunity”, or in the simple falsity of an ideal of rationality whose Balkanization of the discipline seems to be irresistible.

Like all power, the work of philosophy in this regard is both conscious and unconscious. On the one hand, the institutions of philosophy speak with what Yancy (following Fred Evans) has called the “oracular voice” that not only itself maintains the boundaries of philosophy but is the voice from which all philosophy pretends to speak (at the lectern instead of the pulpit). “Philosophy, on this score, becomes a universal substantive, unaffected by context, history, language, custom, sentiment, prejudice, geography, and so on.” Even the tokenizing attempts at “inclusivity” become ways in which “the oracle voice can engage in discourses that celebrate forms of pluralism and diversity that further obfuscate its maintenance of power”.

Even when we recognize this shame, however, the difficulty of proper reflection is that the operation of power is to be both that to which we are subjected and that from which we are enabled as subjects, i.e., we are always subjects in both the passive and active senses simultaneously. Thus, often, our attempts at addressing the sources of our guilt remain blind to the way in which those attempts reproduce our errors.

In a recent series of essays on the problem of implicit bias, analytic philosophy has attempted to acknowledge the ontological, epistemological, and metaphilosophical problems of (cognitive) implicit bias and stereotype threat. The concluding chapter of the first volume of this series attempts to intervene in the present configuration of the philosophical institution by observing it. Participants in a series of studies were asked about their associations between maleness and philosophy. Yet the approach, borrowed from the social sciences, itself fails to interrogate beyond the fact that such an association may or may not exist. This failure is, ironically, reproduced implicitly by the authors’ explicit and repeated bewilderment over the fact that the longer women remain within philosophy (which often tends not to happen beyond an undergraduate major), the less they associate philosophy with maleness (which is the opposite tendency for men in the discipline).

By contrast, Marguerite La Caze has developed Le Doeuff’s method of excavating the philosophical imaginary that is both excluded from the work of philosophy and yet constitutive of its possibilities to define an “analytic imaginary”, i.e., both the images, analogies, and metaphors of philosophy themselves and the philosophical imagination at work in their construction in the service of the conceptual analysis that arguably remains the core of analytic philosophy. This imaginary is one that “instead of fostering an atmosphere of interdisciplinary excitement (the “open-ended” philosophy envisaged by Le Doeuff), the analytic imaginary reflects “closed-off” philosophy, a narrowing within the discipline of philosophy itself”, ultimately, one might add, to the point of cannibalism; or, as in the above example, the substitution of philosophical analysis with experiment. In general, however, the subordination of images to concepts is merely a symptom of the fundamental structure of a form of thinking that undercuts its own possibilities while, eo ipso, producing itself by means of this exclusion. If Hegel has taught us anything, surely it must be that a non-dialectical resolution of this contradiction can end only in self-destruction and terror.

Roughly contemporaneously with the more famous description of the philosophical image of thought – and whose relative unrecognizability confirms her argument – Le Doeuff’s method is not merely one that champions the necessity of images for philosophical thinking but also one that refuses the anonymity of the kind of thinking blind to its false universality. Just as Laclau and Mouffe (long before another, more recently famous account) proposed that the construction of any polity or discursive formation capable of articulating the demands of power by virtue of its construction will always generate the possibility of its de-construction by what it has excluded in its demands, the situation of philosophy today is one in which we can no longer pretend that we are innocent of reproducing the same violence that the philosopher has suffered at the hands of the sophist and the misologist. Since Kant, philosophy’s suspicion of the supersensible has nevertheless not stifled the desire to make that other world its home (to see the world with “the view from nowhere”). The present emergency of thought – not only for the sake of the philosophical institution’s continuation but the unavoidable guilt of its primitive accumulation (i.e., its archive) – demands the collapse of metaphilosophical questions into nothing other than the practice of philosophy itself. Here Deleuze follows Nietzsche in his insistence on the becoming-active of thought against the tendency of reactive thinking beholden to what is always considered to be exterior to it (a “pure” thinking in imitation of the unmoved mover). The forces that make thought active do violence to it (in what Nietzsche called cultural education) by breaking the identity of the true and the good (i.e., against the “natural” impulse to truth). Yet the loss of this identity is not mere relativism since the violence done to thought is directed at its purity: we are forced, perhaps against our will, to confront our guilt in the manner in which we exist in the world; as Yancy says, a critical pedagogy that teaches us how to think is one that shows us that “philosophizing is inextricably linked to those problems and conundrums that have been historically inherited and that the determination of the nature of a philosophical problem is not given a priori; rather, it is tied to and evolves out of a lived historical tradition”. In short, before we can arrive at the truth, we must pass through justice. Philosophical reflection, therefore, can only be directed inward by first being directed outward. Just as Sartre’s investigation into intentionality showed that every movement inward throws us back, inexorably, out toward the world, turning the philosophical gaze outward allows us to see our faces, which are unobservable from the inside.

1a. In his explanation of transcendental apperception in the B deduction of the first Critique, Kant dissolves the problem of solipsism: the awareness that I have of myself is only possible because I exist in a world of perceptions that cannot be subtracted from me, even by an act of thinking. Existential anguish, that simultaneously personalizes and anonymizes, is only possible because of a self-delusion and a forgetting of this insight, i.e., the illusion that solipsism is the truth of reflection or that it is possible for an act of thought to strip the universe bare of reality. The true subtraction is the one that was unthinkable for Descartes. If, ex hypothesi, contradictions are unthinkable, the I am was a tautology for Descartes: I could not conceive of myself without existence and it is impossible to think “I do not exist”. On the one hand, the ego rebels against the absurdity of this proposition; on the other, the ego always has one eye turned toward this absurdity in its secret desire to languish in the tumultuous ocean of existence and perhaps even to drown in it.

But as Hume observed, “I” do not exist. We cannot subtract existence from the world, nor can we remove ourselves from the world (even by an act of thought), but we can ask what it means to be a world. But here the language and grammar of modern subjectivity are beholden to an inappropriate image. To say that we are “situated” or “in” a world, retains the structure of the “inner” and the “outer”, such that reflection becomes an “inward turn” or “introspection” or even “bracketing”. If, instead, the topological structure of the subject and its world is conceived as a Klein bottle, then transcendental reflection is that which grasps the traversals of affects, forces, and perceptions of the knot of subjectivity, similarly to the way in which Maturana has described perception not as sensible contact with an “external reality” but the “specification” of reality according to the particular mode of interaction between the living system and its medium (where “boundaries” lose rigorous meaning in favor of structural relations). Maturana embraces the immediate consequence of this account: all living systems are cognitive systems, such that those living systems that contain nervous systems are capable of internal modification as well as the physical modification of its unity with respect to its equilibrium. (Admittedly, what remains underdeveloped in Maturana’s and Varela’s account of the biological basis of cognition, which is currently being explored by Thompson, is the distinction between cognition and what we might call “mind”.)

We can go further: the fundamental drive of thinking, as an expression of life, is not merely stasis but the refusal of limits (what Nietzsche called “will to power”). We may call this drive ambition, the desire for immortality (or simply to be God, in Sartre’s language), or the intuition of the totality. The paradox of philosophical reflection, however, is that this desire for the infinite has not yet liberated itself from the images of subjective finitude that seeks to go beyond the horizons of understanding that it discovers.

Kant repeats the illusion that produces this paradox when he finds the infinite in the power of reason itself, whose infinity is greater than the objective infinity of the sublime. It was Hegel who dispels the illusion in the dialectical imbrication of the infinite within the finite, not only as a spatial but a temporal moment of totality. The same onto/logical gesture is repeated in what Butler describes as Hegel’s “temporalization” of the universal. Against propositional conceptions of abstract universality – such that the universal would be reducible to what is “common” or capable of universal predication – the concrete universal only exists speculatively, i.e., in the dialectical unity of thought and being, which is incapable of strict isomorphism because the identity of thought to its object is nothing other than their mutual transformation. Thought attains the universal only in its activity or its becoming-active.

1b. The temptation of finitude is the ultimate expression of the philosopher’s desire for solitude, which no one has ever found. Descartes is always haunted by the existence of an other – the skeptical reduction of existence to the primary sense of the I am presupposes the possibility that I am not the reason why existence is doubtful – and Stein has shown that empathy is sui generis. The other always resides in the silent heart of the epoché. In his metacritique of pure reason, Hamann locates the original capacity for thought not merely in the receptivity of sense-impressions but a sensibility of the passions (in what we might call a passio essendi) expressed in the angelic language of joy and praise, as opposed to the discursive language of human understanding.

So too the inner division of the subject, which is always discovered by what Sartre called impure reflection or any objectification of the subject, forecloses the possibility of solitude. Turning the gaze inward reproduces the psychological antagonisms within us, both empirical and transcendental, even in our quest for silence (or Buddhist emptiness). Where there is silence, as Cage discovered, we are always confronted by the persistence of our own heartbeat and the limit of its regularity such that we are always alone with ourselves.

2a. Like Kant, Freud insisted that reason is only possible as an embodied capacity, describing the ego as the “projection of a [perceptual] surface”. The duality of the activity of the ego, at the boundary of the conscious and unconscious, “falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’”. We inhabit not only a perceptual world, however, but a world in which we are confronted by the living bodies of others. In his analysis of the psychic pain at the loss of a loved one, Nasio notes that the disruption of the ego occurs not only intrasubjectively but also intersubjectively: the attachment is not only in the unconscious fantasy of the other: “this part is not confined to the interior of our individuality, it extends into the space of the in-between (entre-deux) and attaches us intimately to his or her person”.

Nasio’s insight into the pain of mourning and melancholia is that the loss of the physical presence of the other brings us too close to the chaos of the drives, which is ordered by the fantasy of the loved one. Pain is the final resort of the ego to prevent its collapse into the id. The symbolic representations of the loved one function as the unconscious joining of the subject with the real desire provoked by the loved one. But, importantly, the other also has an imaginary presence in us. Nasio provides a striking image of this presence: “the body of the other is duplicated by an internalized image. … The imaginary other is thus simply an image, but an image that has the particularity of being itself a polished surface on which my own images are permanently reflected. I capture my own images reflected in the mirror of the internalized image of the loved one. This image has the ability to be simultaneously the image of the other and the mirror of my own image”. Like a Leibnizian monad that has been everted, the internalized image of the other reflects not the multiplicity of the world but the multiple perspectives of myself (Nasio notes that “the psychical mirror of the image of the loved one in my unconscious must not be conceived of as the smooth surface of a lens, but as a mirror broken up into small, mobile fragments of glass on which confused images of the other and of myself are reflected”).

In the loss of the real presence of the other, “we also lose the rhythm according to which the real force of desire vibrates. To lose the rhythm is to lose the symbolic other, the limit that gives the unconscious its consistency. … [W]e lose the cohesion and texture of a fantasy indispensable to our structure”. To compensate, the ego can overinvest into retaining the image of the other, almost to the point of identification with it. But what this pain reveals is that what appears in solitude at the loss of a loved one is not the absence of the other but the continued presence of the other in its violence. The other remains within us; but when we cannot see or feel the other as ourselves – i.e., in the protective fantasy of the loved one that structures my desire – we see not ourselves reflected in the image of the loved one (on “introspection”). What appears in this solitude is the withdrawal or abandonment of the other and the nothingness that I am without the other. As Rimbaud says in his famous letter, the poet suffers the torture of “all forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself” and ultimately finds that “Je est un autre”.

3a. Yet the suffering of solitude is, as Nasio reminds us, also protective. There is both the involuntary loss of a loved one but also the possibility of self-withdrawal. The temptations of solitude are especially alluring not when others are lost but when their presence is overpowering or oppressive. “Freedom is the possibility of isolation”, Pessoa says,

You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory, or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendors of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant, but you’re not free. … To be born free is the greatest splendor of man, making the humble hermit superior to kings and even to the gods, who are self-sufficient by their power but not by their contempt of it. … Tired, I close the shutters of my windows, I exclude the world, and I have a few moments of freedom. Tomorrow I’ll go back to being a slave, but right now – alone, needing no one, and worried only that some voice or presence might disturb me – I have my little freedom, my moment of excelsis. Leaning back in my chair, I forget that life oppresses me. Nothing pains me besides having felt pain.

Pessoa’s pessimism, like those other more famous pessimisms, consists in surrendering to the photo negative of Sartre’s famous formula: we are condemned to unfreedom. Under particular social, economic, ideological, and affective configurations, however, such unfreedom is either slavery or simply the restlessness (l’inquiétude or desassossego) of thought, i.e., either political or ontological (even as late capitalism attempts at every turn to collapse the distinction). On the one hand, our tranquility is always traversed by the forces of the earth:

After the last rains left the sky for earth, making the sky clear and the earth a damp mirror, the brilliant clarity of life that returned with the blue on high and that rejoined in the freshness of the water here below left its own sky in our souls, a freshness in our hears. Whether we like it or not we’re servants of the hour and its colors and shapes, we’re subjects of the sky and the earth. Even those who delve only in themselves, disdaining what surrounds them, delve by different paths when it rains and when it’s clear.

Those paths are simultaneously external and internal. Pessoa continues: “each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways”. The multiplicity of being extends all the way down into the depths of thinking wherever it goes. Thinking is always a disturbance because the multitudes in me cannot be contained; each one resonates to a different fundamental frequency, only sometimes in consonance.

3b. The conditions for restlessness, however, are both subjective as well as objective. If I cannot escape the burden of (my own) existence, the allure of solitude is not merely a flight from others – which too is impossible since I am nothing but the other’s presence in me – but the desire to make what is unconscious conscious, i.e., to construct a fantasy of the other independently of their real existence (as in the usual sense of the term “fantasy”) and, thus, to “find myself” without the response and responsibility (the “validation”) of the other. The retreat to the “inner citadel” (Berlin’s term) is the final attempt to evade the only choice we have: refuse or acquiesce to the terms and conditions of the world into which we have been born.

Yet madness awaits in every direction; the payment can be delayed but the bill will always become due. However, we can neither refuse to exist in our world nor welcome what is intolerable, particularly when the reality of injustice permeates and infiltrates us. We are de-sensitized by the banality of oppression. In a recent interview, Arundhati Roy asks:

what do you do when a people have lived under … the densest military occupation in the world for 25 years [referring to the Kashmiri]? What does it do to the air? … What does it do to people who don’t know when their children will come home? Now you see schoolgirls throwing stones at the army. … And, crucially, what does it do to the Indians, who are not protected from this war? They are fed these atrocities … with a soundtrack of applause, and we are supposed to swallow this absolute cruelty and keep it in our stomachs, much as you are expected to celebrate every time the U.S. government goes and destroys a country, you know, and you’re all supposed to stand up and applaud. But what does it do to us to hold that in our stomachs?

We today have already mourned the death of God but have not yet atoned for the fact that it is we who have, in our righteous fury, killed him. The repression of that guilt compels us to see the face of God in the other, with the consequence that we can only love our neighbor by restaging the Oedipal scene in every glance, judgment, and deed. Yet even as our capacity for cruelty is ubiquitous, our restlessness is the conscience and consciousness of oppression. Thought that insists on its purity, rising above the pettiness and triviality of the mundane, is not only to be mistrusted but guarded against as the instrument of banality.

4. We cannot demand honesty from others, however if we cannot first be honest with ourselves. While we cannot avoid illusions, the illusory quality of our representations need not be falsifications but, rather, fragmentations of reality. What must be resisted is the tendency to reconstruct the totality glimpsed only in its facets.

The moonlight seen through the tall branches
Is more, say all the poets,
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches.
But for me, oblivious to what I think,
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Besides its being
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches. (Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Sheep XXXV)

The world demands no justification. Only we, the thinkers, stand in need of it ourselves.

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.