Thursday, 28 June 2012

Psychoanalysis of Ruins


Freudianism is an explicit and thematized archeology
(Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy)

I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory traces being subject from time to time to a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances - to a re-transcription. Thus what is essentially new about my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is laid down in various species of indications... I should like to emphasize the fact that the successive registrations represent the psychical achievement of successive epochs of life.
Freud, Letter to Wilhelm Fliess, December 6 1896
Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half effaced and unreadable inscriptions. He may content himself with inspecting what lies exposed to view, with questioning the inhabitants - perhaps semi-barbaric people - who live in the vicinity, about what tradition tells them of the history and meaning of these archaeological remains, and with noting down what they tell him - and he may then proceed on his journey. But he may act differently. He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried. If his work is crowned with success, the discoveries are self-explanatory; the ruined walls are part of the ramparts of a palace or a treasure house; the fragments of columns can be filled out into a temple; the numerous inscriptions, which, by good luck, may be bilingual, reveal an alphabet and a language, and, when they have been deciphered and translated, yield undreamed-of information about the events of the remote past, to commemorate which the monuments were built. Saxa loquuntur!
Freud, The Aetiology of Hysteria, 1896
Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient area he will find nothing, or only scanty remains, for they exist no longer. The best information about Rome in the republican era would only enable him at the most to point out the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. Their place is now taken by ruins, but not by ruins of themselves but of later restorations made after fires or destruction. It is hardly necessary to remark that all these remains of ancient Rome are found dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis which has grown up in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is certainly not a little that is ancient still buried in the soil of the city or beneath its modern buildings. This is the manner in which the past is preserved in historical sites like Rome.
Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930
For Freud's discovery was that of the field of the effects in the nature of man of his relations to the symbolic order and the tracing of their meaning right back to the most radical agencies of symbolization in being. To ignore this symbolic order is to condemn the discovery to oblivion, and the experience to ruin.
Lacan, The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, 1953

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Lacan on Anxiety (1)

Bibliothèque Forney, Paris.

What follows is a tentative foray into Lacanian territory—a shift that coincides with a move from the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée to the Husserl Archives, at the ENS where I’m working again with Dorothée Legrand on the intersection of phenomenology and psychoanalysis. To get orientated, I have a question in mind: How does psychoanalysis enter the phenomenological scene of anxiety? This question can be reformulated from the perspective of another question: what does anxiety communicate?

As indicated in my last post, in phenomenological terms, anxiety has assumed the place of philosophical mood par excellence so far as it designates both the supreme ethical and metaphysical value. Anxiety comes into the world of phenomenology by way of a crisis: the crisis of the subject. As is well known, in Heideggerian terms, anxiety disrupts the subject’s entanglement in particular modes of inauthentic being. Doing so, anxiety restores the subject to a state of ownership over the finitude, and thus establishes the basis of both a moral and epistemic relationship to the truth. What is the object of anxiety for Heidegger? The answer is nothingness – the Nothing (das Nichts). The affective correlate of the Nothing is located in the subject’s sense of their contingency, a contingency that carries with it a pervading sense of uncanniness.

The landscape is not so different in Freudian terms. Here, too, anxiety is married with uncanniness, which in turn is synthesised under the rubric of either the libido (early theory) or the ego (late theory). As with Heidegger, anxiety occupies a relationship to repression. Only instead of Heidegger’s metaphysical framework, where the return of the repressed marks an ontological revelation, Freud’s disclosure is contained with the intra-psychic mind. Later on, Freud will make a move from an account of anxiety as being the product of a repressed libido to an account that accents early trauma, principally birth. This move from a physio-chemical analysis of anxiety to a psychoanalytical model marks a move from a broadly phenomenological analysis of anxiety as it can be described to an account rooted in the structure of the subject.

Despite this move, Heidegger and Freud share a series of features in common. First, they regard anxiety has something that can be represented, even if that representation is in the form of an absent object. After all, both Freud and Heidegger retain the distinction between fear and anxiety, which is both a thematic and structural distinction, allowing Heidegger in particular to prise anxiety apart from a solely ontic realm; namely, as the fear of…. Freud, too, in his early theory at least would contend that anxiety is characterised by a libidinous energy lacking an object, a free floating generalised anxiety.

For both figures, anxiety has a definable structure to it. For Heidegger, anxiety assumes the form of an ethical and metaphysical substance. In Freud’s case, the persistence of the ego as the basis of anxiety means that anxiety retains an invariant relationship to the conscious subject. In each case, anxiety marks the shadowy underworld of the subject, a parallel world to conscious life in which truth beckons. For both of them, anxiety is wisdom, a decipherable riddle to be solved. Critically, this parallel structure between the overworld of the symptom and the underworld of anxiety belies an attempt to assimilate anxiety within the realm of conscious subjectivity. At all times, anxiety is able to be assimilated by dint of its relationship to the subject.

It is precisely at this intersection of anxiety as being represented by a subject paralleling the underworld of the unconscious that Lacan enters the scene. There are a number of points of divergence for Lacan (and here my use of Lacan leans on Roberto Harari’s book on Seminar X). First, foremost: If anxiety, as Lacan has it with Freud and Heidegger, is affective, then it nevertheless does not represent itself. Here, Lacan is with Freud: anxiety is a signal of a different order. It does not belong to the realm of ontic things, but is necessarily a cipher to be interpreted within the realm of those things. Anxiety is a fundamental mystery: it points to a reality that is communicated via a kind of time-lag, a delayed signal, which, by the time it reaches the subject is indecipherable and which must then be re-transmitted or re-appropriated by the subject.

This leads to Lacan’s second point: Anxiety is not without an object. The formulation captures the obscurity of anxiety. Anxiety can be seen as being both absent and present simultaneously: absent in so far as it affects the subject through the articulation of particular things: bridges to cross, families to meet, relationships to endure and so forth. At the same time, anxiety does not reveal itself in these things; it cannot be identified with these things. Anxiety is not reducible to particular things, nor even our relation to these things. Here, a direct challenge is posed to phenomenology: what role does the evidence afforded by phenomenological description play in the understanding of particular things? I will refrain from responding to this question now; suffice to say the question queries whether or not phenomenology’s fidelity to the appearance of things presupposes those things are open to clear and distinct reasoning. Lacan’s formulation is a rejoinder to this presupposition so far as it accents the obscurity of anxiety. Anxiety is not without an object: to be sure, anxiety has a relation to things. But at the same time, anxiety is not with an object: that is, anxiety cannot be reduced to the naming of things that “provoke” anxiety.

That anxiety is irreducible to particular things means that it has an existence prior to the emergence of things. Things of the world do not exhaust the primordiality of anxiety. A third point, then, which concerns the origins of anxiety. If Freud regards anxiety as a conflict in the structures of the self, then anxiety can be seen as having a contingent relation to the subject. For Lacan, anxiety occupies a structurally necessary relationship to the subject, insofar as anxiety not only precedes the genesis of the subject but is constitutive of the subject in the first place. This is a radical claim. It means first that anxiety is there along, murmuring beneath the appearance of things as an immanent presence. In addition, it means (against Freud), for Lacan there is only mode of anxiety: a formless void, lacking all teleological wisdom, and wholly independent from the ego. If anxiety is primordial, then it enters the world of the subject with nothing to say other than to speak of chaos and indifference. Against Heidegger, anxiety does not appear to redeem the subject from his or her inauthentic nadir. Anxiety is not a revelation but a dissolution of appearances. From this pervasive threat of dissolution, the subject is created. That there is a subject is only because there is anxiety that led to the subject forming itself in the first instance.

Even on these three points alone, Lacan’s portrayal of anxiety is a radical departure from Freud and Heidegger. Here, anxiety lacks both an intra-psychic contingency (Freud) and an ethical redemption (Heidegger), and instead points to the constant threat of self disintegration, and thus to the exposure of the emptiness of self and world. Seen in this way, phenomena such as panic and phobia would need to be re-evaluated at a more primordial level. With Lacan, the concern would be less the question of finding a home in the world and more the traumatic task of confronting a world that is in some fundamental sense, not quite real. More next time.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Thing

"The existence of the void at the centre of that reality called the Thing"
(Lacan)

Of the archaeology of the subject, I propose a hypothetical formula: that which pre-exists the subject is both beyond the subject whilst simultaneously being immanently constitutive of the subject. This formula accents the spatiality of the deep past. A subject comes into the world, and in doing so, is marked by a field of impersonal forces that are both alien and intimate to that appearance. Such an alien thing would not only be unnameable, but also unknowable. Unknowable except, that is, through the retention of the past in and through the living host it manifests itself in; the living body.

The formula can be seen in both Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. For Merleau-Ponty, the unnameable thing is absorbed into the prereflective realm of the prepersonal body. This is the body out of time, predating the birth of subjectivity and yet implicated in the materiality of the subject. It is a body that represents a fusion of the Freudian unconscious with the phenomenological orientation toward le corps propre. In turn, this body allows us to catch sight of a non-phenomenal realm that is indirectly incarnated in the flesh of the bodily subject.

In Levinas, the anonymity of the prepersonal body is transplanted to the pre-hypostasized world, a shadow realm of the apeiron, in which all beings have yet to exist. This is the there is – the il y a that haunts Levinas, he writes: “The anonymous current of being invades, submerges every subject, person or thing” (EE, 52). The anonymous nothing outlasts the interiority and exteriority of the body, such that “it does not even make it possible to distinguish these.”

The importance of this concept is that it gives us an inroad to the paradoxical structure of subjectivity as being both of time and beyond time concurrently. Levinas is able to show us this given that the il y a retains a phenomenal status in and through its negativity. As with Merleau-Ponty’s account of the personal body, Levinas is involved in an “indirect ontology.” This is evident in his reliance on night as an ontologically privileged site of disclosure. A long quote:
When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not "something." But this universal absence is in its turn presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. It is not the dialectical counterpart of absence, and we do not grasp it through thought. It is immediately there. There is no discourse. Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of ... What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it. The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot disappear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously.
What is notable about this characterization of the night as anonymous is that the “I” is carried into the cloud of nothingness. Unable to retain its personal attributes, it becomes depersonalized, thus forming a union with the anonymity of night. Things and the I vanish here, leaving in the space where the I once stood, a darkness of vision and being. Because it “invades” the I, thus depriving it of protection and becoming a “menace of space,” the Levinasian il y a is horror (dis)incarnate.
In horror a subject is stripped of his subjectivity, of his power to have private existence. The subject is depersonalized…. Horror is the event of being which returns in the heart of this negation, as though nothing had happened …. A corpse is horrible; it already bears in itself its own phantom, it presages its return. The haunting spectre, the phantom, constitutes the very element of horror.
As thought nothing had happened. With this notion of horror as a form of nachträglichkeit, one is reminded here Freud’s writings on traumatic memory, where the victim is able to walk away from the scene of trauma “as though noting had happened.” Of course, the trauma is only activated much later, often by some apparently indirect source. A similar structure is at work in Levinas’s night of horror, whereupon the night and its insomniac duration marks a threshold for the subject, a boundary line that gives form to the transcendental darkness only to implant that darkness into the subject.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Reviews of "The Memory of Place."

Back from the Nordic Society for Phenomenology's conference, in Oslo, which was a very pleasing experience. During the conference, a delegate drew my attention to a review of "The Memory of Place" that's just been published. It's an interesting read, and I think the reviewer's quite right to focus on whether "we have control over our own memories" as a central theme. I also strongly appreciate his connection with the Aeneid. My favourite part, however, is as follows:

Trigg’s first book, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason was an investigation into modern ruins and urban decay—factories, city streets, staircases. Certainly, melancholia is a defining mood of Trigg’s works thus far. Were one to nitpick, one could say the work is limited by its persistent humorlessness.
Melancholic and humorlessness? So many alibis come to mind. I think I'll just blame it all on an early infatuation with Schopenhauer....

N.B. An additional very short review can be found here, where the reviewer thinks I may have benefited from focusing on the sublime rather than the uncanny. Could do, but then I tend to regard the uncanny as a species of the sublime and vice-versa.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Unnameable


If, as Lacan would have it, we human subjects are marked as speaking beings, whose biological bodies have a determinate existence only through the mediation of language, then are we ever able to bypass the a priori structure of language, thus allowing us, if not to say the unsayable, then to think the unthinkable?

At stake in this question is the pre-linguistic realm belonging to the body. It is a question that haunts Lacan: what is the status of the subject before language? The question is problematic given the place of the body in Lacan, which, as Collette Soler notes, “is something which is constructed, which is secondary.” If the materiality of the body is mediated via language, then this renders language the primary body, Lacan writes: “The first body makes the second by embodying itself.” 

And yet: the body is there all along, there in the mirror stage as the image of a unitary being that can never be captured in reality, there in the identification of the ego with the surface of the flesh. In direct contrast to phenomenology, the body in Lacan is a composite of the organism and the image.  It is a genetic emergence that unfolds temporally. To this end, the body is also absent. It is already phenomenally present as a linguistic entity, a speaking body, or as Lacan has it: “a subtle body.” The body eludes Lacan. If it comes to us, then it does so as not being given in its primacy, but as something “beyond reality.”

In a key passage, Soler writes:
And he is still there, even when he no longer has a body, that is to say, after he is dead. So the duration of the subject, in so far as it is carried by the signifier, outlasts the duration of the body. It is because language assures us of this margin that Lacan calls this the margin beyond life, to be taken here as meaning the life of the living body.
Beyond reality, beyond the body – the thing Lacan terms “subject” persists. It persists so long as there is language that enables it to survive the mutilation of the material body. Language is the beyond; it is the realm in which the conditions of life are, for Lacan, possible. To return to the question, then: what is the status of the subject before language? He is still there. Only now, there in the midst of a twilight zone, occupying an unmarked body that if unthinkable is also unnameable. For here, the living death of the unborn body (so many conflicting temporalities at once) surpasses life. Beyond reality, beyond life—this unnameable body that somehow comes into the being of language, first as formless mute thing and then as a formed thing able to speak of its muteness.