Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Speaking Body


A body presents itself and then speaks. How do we understood what is being said? Is it enough to repeat it time and again? Does the repetition of what is being said encircle upon itself and thereafter lead to a definite void in speech, a void in which the content of speech is contained? And even then: once the locus of speech has been found, how does it achieve the power to bring about a total change in the speaking subject?

On this point, Lacan writes: “For it to induce its effect in the subject, it is enough that it makes itself heard, since these effects operate without his being aware of it” (Lacan, Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, 61). This effect is predicated on a distinction between the biological basis of need and the strictly linguistic realm of demand. Demand aims at transformation, a point lost for Lacan in information theory. Human language, irreducible to the transmission of data, demands a reply.
What I seek in speech is the response of the other. What constitutes me as subject is my question. In order to be recognised by the other, I utter what was only in view of what will be. In order to find him, I call him by a name that he must assume or refuse in order to reply to me (64).
Here, human speech departs from that of an animal in its dual emphasis on time and intersubjectivity. A human speaks from the perspective of time. Speech orients itself in the fossilized duration of the past, but at the same time attests to the transformative future to come. Doing so, the speaking subject demands a reply of the other, even if that reply is silent. The speaking subject does not speak into a void, but comes with an already established intersubjective structure in place.

We come to the heart of the matter: Who is speaking? There is a body, but how can language effect a transformation in the flesh world? Lacan writes:
Language is not immaterial. It is a subtle body, but body it is. Words are trapped in all corporeal images that captivate the subject; they make the hysteric ‘pregnant,’ be identified with the object of penis-neid, represent the flood of urine of urethral ambition, or the retained faces of avaricious jouissance.

What is more, words themselves can undergo symbolic lesions and accomplish imaginary acts of which the patient is the subject. (My italics).
A subtle body. It is hard to identify what body is at stake in this description. What is subtle? There is perhaps a resistance here to identify with the objectification of the body. The hysterical subject cites himself as being “neurotic.” This “confession,” however, is a ruse. The confession becomes an over identification with a fixed category – phobic, obsessional, anxious and so forth: “The hysterical subject captures this object in an elaborate intrigue…one identifies himself with the spectacle, and the other puts one on” (67). The hysterical subject serves to delimit his anxiety precisely through objecting hysterical as the thing he is. To name oneself as hysterical? Even here there is a distancing of the subject from the ego.

As to the role of analysis in all this. For Lacan, the task would be to ensure the analyst isn’t mishearing the ego as the subject. The very materiality of the speaking subject—his body—is not enough. To speak is not enough. One must speak, time and again. To speak through—even against—the body so that was is “un-said” becomes said. Here Lacan again: “words themselves can undergo symbolic lesions and accomplish imaginary acts of which the patient is the subject.” One thinks very clearly of the role of psychoplasmics in Cronenberg’s The Brood.

In the language of body horror and psychopathology, the body speaks on behalf of the subject: its materiality becomes the vessel of an alien agency, a foreign subject. The body dissents from the self, becomes other - becomes real. Lacan presents us with the inverse formula: it is not the body that is the source of alienation, but the speech that ascends from that body. Speech ruptures the body, undermining the illusion of the ego and replacing it with a radical antierioty in which identification with the speaking body is no longer possible without some element of duplicity.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Phenomenon of Life

Mars Rover, NASA, 2012
A vast, sepulchral universe of unbroken midnight gloom and perpetual arctic frigidity, through which will roll dark, cold suns with their hordes of dead, frozen planets, on which will lie the dust of those unhappy mortals who will have perished as their dominant stars faded from their skies. Such is the depressing picture of a future too remote for calculation.
H.P. Lovecraft, Clusters and Nebulae.
Le réel n'est pas un cosmos, pas un monde, ni un ordre c'est un bout, un fragment asystématique, séparé du savoir de la fiction, qui naît de cette rencontre avec lalangue et le corps. La rencontre ne répond à aucune loi préalable, elle est contingente et perverse car elle se traduit par un détournement de la jouissance, telle qu'elle devrait être.
Jacques-Alain Miller, Le Réel Au XXIème Siécle

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

“Language Is a Virus From Outer Space”


How does thinking articulate itself through speech? There is thinking and there is speech. This much is clear. But does anything “take place” when thought expresses itself as speech? Perhaps not. Even the idea of thought “taking place” can refer to two things. One, that thought is independent of speech. Two, that speech transforms thought. Does speech exist in a causal relation to thought?

To speak, yes. But also to blabber and mumble. What comes out? Everything. Something alien, a virus from outer space, as William Burroughs has it. Yet outer space is also inner space, a continuum in which the speaking subject rediscovers himself in the outset reaches of the cosmos. No escape even in the cosmos. As Lacan reminds us, the grunts that come from a pigsty are transformed to speech “in as much as someone believes in it” (Seminar I, 240). There is sound, the pigs are grunting. The pigs are at a work in their attempt gain recognition, to be received by the Other. for Lacan: “Animals have a language to the degree that there is someone there to understand it.”

And can we say the same of voices from outer space? What are researchers in xenolinguistics listening for? (Here, urgent research would be needed on the epistemic foundations and methodological framework of the so-called “Voyager Golden Records.”) This is a very delicate question; it need not apply to alien speech but to the banality of the psychoanalytical clinic, too. The question is: how do we identify the content of speech? To hear what is being said through speech. What is being said is often said in spite of what is being said. Speech speaks against itself. How does it do this? Does speech have an agency of its own that works against—in spite of—the subject?

Something comes out, speech. In the context of psychoanalysis, it is transformed. Lacan again: “Why does a complete transformation of the analytic situation ensue as soon as the relation between the situations has been revealed to the subject?” It’s a fine question. For Lacan, “speech possess a beyond, sustains various functions, encompasses several meanings.” It is a “mirage,” something fundamentally ambiguous. The subject hears something—even the same words—only now, in a different light. The question remains: how was the meaning not already known the subject if he was already in possession of it?

The answer might be considered from the distinction of representational and non-representational. In any discourse, speech may never be heard. Something is lost in speaking. Language is summoned as equipment to be employed, to put in Heideggerian terms. Empty talk comes out, be it in the form of academic jargon or the reliance on clichés and sound-bites. In each case, the subject retains a distance from what is being said. He relies at all times on an already assembled series of props to orient himself in the world. He doesn’t speak freely; less even possesses the language being articulated. For him, speech refers to the representation of a world already established. Speech has been inherited from a native homeworld without any critical or creative intervention.

Against this: both Lacan and Merleau-Ponty will speak of a the possibility of a fuller speech, a speech that does not know what will be thought until it is said. Here is Merleau-Ponty:
[I]f talking were primarily a matter of meeting the object through a ... representation, we could not understand why thought tends towards expression as towards its completion, why the most familiar things appear indeterminate as long as we have not recalled its name, why the thinking subject himself is in a kind of ignorance of his thoughts so long as he has not ... spoken or written them, as is shown by the example of so many writers who begin a book without knowing exactly what they are going to say. (PP 177)
Merleau-Ponty’s account of the speaking subject lacks the ontological layering of Lacan. For the former, there is the sense of speech as presenting a transparency which is enriched by the creative role of language. If Lacan suggests that language constitutes thought, then Merleau-Ponty remains committed to a view of language as already being constituted by the “primordial silence beneath the noise of words” (190). Silence becomes here the grounds of a pre-reflective consciousness, forever slipping into discourse, in spite of - this refrain peculiar to speech - the subject. Speech becomes expressive through an accident in this silence, as Merleau-Ponty has it after Cezanne: “If I paint ‘crowned’ I’m done for.” As with Lacan, Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Cezanne captures the accidental quality of speech, the discourse that irrupts through speech. Only in Merleau-Ponty the accident is the basis of expression, whereas for Lacan it marks the irruption of the subject itself.