How to read Lacan: Zizek on Lacan – Part 2. Lacan turns a prayer wheel.
This is a follow on post from a previous one that you can read here.
It is important to note, that this is not my own work. This is merely a condensing and simplifying of How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek (Author), Simon Critchley (Series Editor) that can be purchased here.
2. Lacan turns a prayer wheel.
And what is a chorus? You will be told that it’s you yourselves. Or perhaps that it isn’t you. But that’s not the point. means are involved here, emotional means. In my view, the chorus is people who are moved.
Therefore, look closely before telling yourself that emotions are engaged in this purification. they are engaged, along with others, when at the end they have to be pacified by some artifice or other. But that doesn’t mean to say that they are directly engaged. On the one hand, they no doubt are, and you are there in the form of a material to be made use of; on the other hand, that material is also completely indifferent. When you go to the theatre in the evening, you are preoccupied by the affairs of the day, by the pen that you lost, by the cheque that you will have to sign the next day. You shouldn’t give yourselves too much credit. Your emotions are taken charge of by the healthy order displayed on the stage. The Chorus takes care of them. The emotional commentary is done for you.
Lacan describes something very familiar here – the audience watching theatre. In this case, a Greek tragedy. And yet, there is something odd going on here. Lacan implies that something – in this case the chorus – can take over the role of ‘feeling’ for us. It can experience our innermost spontaneous feelings. A similar phenomena occurs in some societies where a role is played by so-called ‘weepers’. These are women who will do the weeping over a departed loved one for the surviving family. Something similar happens with the prayer wheels of Tibet and the lit Candles in a catholic church. The prayer written on the paper and attached to the prayer wheel ‘prays’ for us as it spins, just as the lit candle does for us. ‘Objectively’ I am actually praying, even if my thoughts are occupied with the most obscene sexual fantasies.
To be sure you don’t think this is just attached to a ‘primitive’ sort of faith or thinking, the same thing occurs on sit coms with ‘canned laughter’. Even if I am tired after a hard days work, and am slumped in front of the television,there is relief and comfort in the canned laughter performing the function for me.
In order to fully understand this odd process, we need to supplement the fashionable notion of interactivity with its uncanny double, interpassivity.
For example. We may argue that the day of passive reception is over. that with the internet, social media and various other forms of communication, when i see a work of art, book or song that I like, I interact. I share, I ‘talk’ about it with others. I determine the plot of my own drama with interactive narratives. This is usually the ‘defence’ (if a defence is required) of the new media – that it opens us up to more and better opportunities to interact than we have ever had before. The argument is that we are no longer passive observers, but interacting in some sort of global dialogue.
The other side of this interactivity is interpassivity. The obverse of interacting with the object (instead of just passively following the show) is the situation where the object itself takes from me, deprives me of my own passivity, so it is the object itself that enjoys the show instead of me. I can give you a good example of this in my own life. If I were to have access to unlimited funds, I would own every DVD in the Criterion Collection, every one in the Second Run DVD collection, and in fact i would have a proper system set up so that i could collect every film that I might ever want to watch. Now my Quickflix que (the Australian version of Netflix) has over 500 films in it waiting for me to watch. If I were to buy every DVD that I would like to, I would end up with more than I could ever watch. However, although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness of the films I love are stored in my personal library give me a profound satisfaction and occasionally allows me to indulge in an evening of low brow television. It’s almost as if the Machine that recorded these DVD’s watched them for me, in my place. That machine here stands for the big other (see the previous post) the medium of symbolic registration.
We can even apply this to pornography, as more and more it is an interpassive way: X-rated films are no longer primarily the means to excite the user for masturbation. just staring at the screen where ‘the action takes place’ is sufficient, it is enough to observe how others enjoy in the place of me.
Another good example of this is when a person tells a bad joke, no one laughs and then they will supply the missing laughter themselves, making sure the joke gets some sort of a laugh and acting out the expected role of the audience. This is similar to the canned laughter, although in this case it is not the anonymous bit Otehr that laughs but the joke teller themselves. his laughter is similar to the ‘oops’ expressed when we do something stupid. (the mystery of this last one is that it is also possible for anotehr person to say ‘oops’ for us when we stumble and that is as good as us saying it ourselves.) The function of the ‘oops’ is to enact the symbolic registration of the stupid stumbling: the virtual big Other has to be informed about it.
Think of a bunch of people in a room who all know some nasty detail and no one says anything about it. When someone does mention the unmentionable, the collective group will get embarrassed – even though they already knew the nasty detail. Why do they feel embarrassed? Because they can no longer pretend (act as if) they do not know it – in other words, because now the big Other knows it.
This interpassivity is the opposite of Hegel’s notion of cunning of Reason, where I am active through the Other: I can remain passive, sitting in the background while the Other does it for me. Instead of directly attacking my enemy, I instigate a fight between him and another person so that I can comfortably observe the two of them tear each other apart.
This brings us to the notion of false activity: People do not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change. Therein resides the typical strategy of the obsesional neurotic: he is frantically active in order to prevent the real ting from happening. Imagine, for example a small group where something is bursting to be said, but will cause some sort of damage. The obsessional neurotic is te person that will not shut up in order to prevent the silence that might cause the unsayable to be said.
This happens a great deal in politics. The danger is not passivity, but pseudo-passivity, the urge to be active and to participate. People intervene all the time, attempting to ‘do something’. The truly difficult thing is to step back and withdraw from it. Those in power often prefer even a critical participation to silence – just to engage us in dialogue, to make sure that our ominous passivity is broken. Against a situation where we are active all the time to ensure nothing will change, the first step to real change is to withdraw into passivity and refuse to participate. This first step clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of the scene. I used to do this with social media. I was so busy ‘talking art’ on facebook, that my writing didn’t actually happen – at least not the writing i wanted. In retrospect, I can see I was very busy preventing the changes that needed to happen in order for me to move into a genuine artistic space.
This displacement of our innermost intimate feelings and attitudes onto some figure of the Other is at the core of Lacan’s notion of the big Other. It can affect not only feelings, but knowledge and beliefs. Through this Lacan coined the notion of the subject supposed to know. In the television show Columbo, the crime, the act of murder is shown in advance so that the riddle to solve is not a whodunnit but how the detective will establish the link between the deceitful surface and the truth about its crime. The success of Columbo attests to the fact that the true source of interest in the detectives work is the process of deciphering itself, not its result. Even more crucial is that not only do we the audience see it, but the detective sees it as soon as he arrives on the crime scene. His subsequent efforts are engaged in proof, not in finding out who did it.
This strange reversal of the normal order has its origins in theological belief. I first belive in God and then become susceptible to proofs of the truth of my faith.
In a slightly different way, this is how the psychoanalyst as the subject supposed to know functions in the treatment. Once the patient is engaged in the treatment, they have the idea that the analyst absolutely knows his secret. The analyst is not an empiricist, probing the patient with different hypothesis till one fits. e embodies the absolute certainty of the patients unconscious desire. I can only arrive at the unconscious meaning of my symptoms if I presuppose that the analyst already knows their meaning.
The general rule of transference is that new information can only be absorbed if it is seen to be revealing a previously hidden truth. Think of evolution. We had to know that this is really what generated all species from the start, in order to be able to belive it as a new piece of information. it had to be seen as revealing a previously hidden core truth. This happens with ethnic pride also. When establishing themselves as viable members of the community, they will often do this by ‘returning’ to and ‘legitimizing’ traditional cultural practises, and forgotten ethnic roots. What they are not aware of is how their ‘return to’ constitutes he very object to which it returns: in the very act of returning to tradition, they are inventing it.
What many readers of Lacan fail to notice is how the figure of the subject supposed to know is a secondary phenomenon, an exception, something that emerges against the more fundamental background of the subject supposed to belive, which is the constitutive feature of the symbolic order. If you say to people ‘do you think your ancestors descended from a fish or a bird?’ a person might answer, ‘of course not, I’m not stupid, But I do think my ancestors believed that.’ In short, they transfer their belief on to another. A good example of how we do this in our current day is with Santa Claus. Since our children are supposed to belive and we don’t want to disappoint them; they pretend to belive so as not to disappoint us and our belief in their naivety (and to get presents of course). In an uncanny way, some beliefs have to function at a distance. the true believer is never actually there in person. We do this with ‘fundamental terrorists.’ We may never meet one, but we believe very strongly they exist. In other words it is not the belief itself that it is important, it is the belief that the belief exists that makes the difference. Hence the sayings “they say that …” or “It is said that..”
I do this with astrology. I like to ‘play around with it’ (I’d never say practise) and when people ask me if I belive in it, I always answer ‘no, but I have heard that it works whether you belive in it or not.’
Perhaps this is why ‘culture’ has replaced belief in our explanation for certain rituals. We may not ‘really belive’ but we go along with the Christmas tree with a manger under it for ‘cultural reasons’ and to preserve respect for ‘those who really belive.’ Culture is the name for those things we practise without really believing in them. Without taking them very seriously. This is also why we dismiss fundamentalists as barbarian. They dare to take their beliefs seriously.
There used to be an idea that if your faith was lacking, just kneel and pray and belief will come. A kind of fake it till you make it mentality. The reverse of this seems true today. If you act out culturally, acting out your beliefs will weaken them, keep you safe from their potency. You no longer have to belive yourself, since your belief will be objectified in the act of praying. To believe – to believe directly, without mediation – is an oppressive burden which happily can be offloaded onto another by the practise of a ritual.
This brings us to the next feature of the symbolic order: its non-psychological character.When I belive through another,. or have my beliefs externalized through ritual, I mechanistically follow. When I hear the canned laughter I accomplish something that involves my inner feelings without actually having to mobilize these inner states. Therein reside the enigmatic status of what we call politeness; when upon meeting an acquaintance I stick out my hand and say ‘good to meet you! how are you today?’ it is clear to us both that I am not completely serious (in fact if my acquaintance thought I was actually interested they may be slightly offended as if i were being too intimate).
Yet it would be wrong to designate my act as hypocritical since in another way I do mean it: the polite exchange renews a kind of pact between the two of us; likewise I do ‘sincerely’ laugh through canned laughter. (the proof of this is that I really do feel relieved). That imagined persona on Facebook, is a false persona that is still a part of me.
What this means is that the emotions I perform through the mask that I adopt can actually be more authentic and truthful than what I assume that I feel in myself. Wen I construct a persona for facebook (and that is all that is available on facebook) the emotions I feel and fain as part of my screen persona are not simply false: although what I count as my true self does not feel them, they are in a sense true. In fact, the adopted screen persona, because certain barriers are removed, will be closer to a true person than your day-to-day life persona. Paradoxically, it is the very fact that I am aware that, in cyberspace, I move within a fiction (facebook is a giant soap opera in which you are the star – the ultimate Mills and Boon novel) that allows me to express my true self there – this is what, among other things, Lacan means when he claims that ‘truth has the structure of a fiction.’ This is what we see in reality T.V. and long running soap operas. The characters are simply playing a versin of themselves. The soap opera mentality is why social media sites are so popular. It is the same function that used to be only used by ‘housewives’ watching the daily soap opera. The characters were like her ‘real friends’, the handsome men her ‘real lovers,’ and she one of the characters. Today, we have a much larger demographic engaging with the soap opera.
The social mask matters therefore, more than the direct reality of the person who wears the mask. Think of a person you know to be weak and corrupt, yet if they appear before you in a judges outfit, you show them the respect the costume and role affords. When the judge speaks there is more truth in the words than in the personality of the person doing the speaking. If one limits oneself to only what one sees, one misses the point.
This paradox is what Lacan aims at with his ‘those who know are in error.’ Those who only belive their own eyes, who do not notice the symbolic order, are the ones who miss the most. A corrupt priest may be a hypocrite but if people obey his words, they may be driven to perform good deeds.
this gap between my direct psychological identity and my symbolic identity (the symbolic mask I wear defining what I am for and in the big Other) is what Lacan calls (for complex reasons that we can here ignore) calls ‘symbolic castration’ with the phallus as the signifier. The phallus here is a signifier because its like a ceptre that the king has in his hands. it tends to symbolise power – and can be ‘taken up’ by men or women it must be added so as not to make a fine point contentious. Such insignia is something i wear, it is not part of my nature. I don them; I wear them to excercise power. As such, the ‘castrate’ me by introducing a gap between what I immediately am and the function that I exercise (I am never complete at the level of my function). This is what ‘symbolic castration’ means. There is a gap between myself and the mask I am wearing – therefore the mask castrates me, even as it has tricked me into thinking I have power.
This then leads to the hysterics central question; ‘Why am I what you are saying that I am?’ the problem for the hysteric is how to distinguish between what he or she is (the true desire) and from what others see and desire in him or her. This brings us to another of Lacan’s formulas, that’s ‘man’s desire is the others’ desire.’ Desire for the other, desire to be desired by the other, and especially desire for what the other desires. Lacan is like Freud and Nietzsche when he claims that the idea of justice as equality is founded on envy – env of the other who has what we want. The demand for justice is usually a demand that the excessive enjoyment of the other should be curtailed. Since it is not possible to impose equal enjoyment, then one can impose equal prohibition. These days these laws are applying more than ever. today we find a whole series of products stripped of the necessary ‘evils’ that make them enjoyable: fat-free milk, decaffeinated coffee, sugar-free sweets, beer without alcohol, virtual sex – sex without sex, and social media – lives without life. Warfare without warfare, no casualties (on our side of course) multiculturalism as other stripped of their otherness. Virtual reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product divested of its substance: it provides reality itself divested of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real – in the same way that decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like decaffeinated coffee without being the real thing, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being so. Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything – on condition that it is stripped of the substance that makes it dangerous.
To accept fully this inconsistency of our desire (protect us from what we want) to accept fully that it is desire itself that sabotages its own liberation, is Lacans bitter lesson.