Public Face: The false agency of the diagetic self

Credit: Het Zwarte Get/The Black Hole, Artist Unknown

“I am concerned with facts that may belong to the order of pure observation, but which on each occasion present all the appearances of a signal, without our being able to say precisely which signal, and of what; facts which when I am alone permit me to enjoy unlikely complicities, which convince of my error in occasionally assuming I stand at the helm alone” — André Breton

On his death bed, Foucault spoke Heidegger’s name and revealed his importance in the development of his ideas. Though Foucault had purported to build his world on the conveniently opaque Hegel, at the last moments of his life he spoke confessedly of the copious notes he had taken on Heidegger, casting doubts on the framework of his dialectic. Despite these clues, to date this relationship has not been closely examined, leaving a compelling omission that bespeaks other omissions. These omissions or holes are portals to that which is unspoken and unseen — but not unspeakable or unseeable. They hint that the structures which awe and bewilder the imagination when first regarding them might not be as solidly constructed as they seem.

This death bed indiscretion of Foucault’s was precisely the kind of incident that André Breton had in mind when he said, in what was certainly no overstatement, that “criticism should confine itself to scholarly incursion upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimized by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner.” Breton wanted to advance an exegesis that would examine the everyday, from the “least consequential to the most disturbing,” in order to shine a light into the dark places of the psyche and illuminate the whole self. This task was decidedly at odds with the headwaters of early-twentieth century intellectual currents, and still is.

The surrealists were an important if ineffective counter to the hard materialism of a ruthless political expediency and its philosophy of the mind. Determined to create an order dear to its own ends, and willing to fill up and caulk any holes left by inconvenient facts and phenomenon, the great deep of the mind was left unplumbed and uncharted, with structures of power built heedlessly over it. Surrealism may have been the last attempt of a willful self to express and manifest in the world formally, art has since come under the complete control and direction of the political order. Can it still speak to us, then, or must we search outside the formal to catch a glimpse of the real?

Image: Screen Capture, Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí.

Significantly, Jacque Lacan considered the surrealists his only real rivals in his quest to consume and subsume Freud into the mantle of power. Lacan was truly Freud’s double or Simulacrum. What psychoanalysis via Freud offered with one hand, however inadvertently, it took away with the other: Lacan.

Theories of the mind have ever made this nebulous place more and more inhospitable to a unique self. Originally, Freud conflated the ego with the self, he later withdrew from this position, pointedly leaving the self outside his mind model; the self was left to constitute itself — if it could or would — from the primal materials of the unconscious, but Lacan declared the unconscious to be as structured as the conscious, a language-based interface that left little place for a self to hide but created a solid platform for structuralists, post-structuralists and deconstructionists to build their wordy worlds. If Freud “discovered” the unconscious, Lacan colonized it. Or so the story goes.

And yet, they’ve been unable to do away with the self in an altogether tidy way, as an anonymous some-body is still required to stand in — at a moment’s notice — to serve either as scapegoat or hero to validate systems of economic and civil power. It is from this perspective that we are able to examine one of the great contradictions of modernism — the way that the self is presented and held accountable for its actions in the public sphere. For if we were honest and rigorous, we wouldn’t allow the vanquished self to serve in this role, either as hero or villain, but instead we would resist it, and refuse to submit to the fiction, however much it entices and beguiles.

It requires either a touching naiveté or tactic complicity to ask, with a straight face, “Why is this [character, public figure, celebrity] behaving this way, stating these things, etc,” rather than, “What impression is this story meant to give? What emotion is it playing on? What prejudice is it courting? Why did this story (and not another) become visible? Why precisely this [form, image, trope] and not another?”

Nor is it enough to ask, “Why did the [writer, author, artist, performer] choose this action, statement or pose?” We must go further and probe into what economic, social and structural conditions made these choices so inevitable.

Nothing would have horrified the founders of surrealism more than the complete disappearance of the self behind its work, but today we confront this situation fully. The self is there, but entirely dislocated, and the entire operation is the work of the ego, a specific social-historical construction beholden to its founders in every point. Our analysis should shift to reflect this.

Nowhere is this absurdity of this fallacy of self-agency more apparent than in the play of modern politics, where every action is analyzed in the media as though each candidate is a willful, autonomous, self-directing agent rather than a tool of a constellation of interests and policies, which, far from divided, are marshaled together towards a central goal. It is true that in the footnotes and margins we may discover, every so often, an action that hints an actor is chaffing at his role, but it is not these brief gestures, these occasional tics, that should interest us the most, as they can only tell us what we should already know and no more. For it is apparent that no single person can create a public image by themselves, selfhood has become a commodity that is conceived, produced and proliferated on an industrial scale.

The kind of examination Breton wanted to perform, an examination still inordinately useful in the spirit of its inexhaustible curiosity and daring, is useless when we try to constitute some self-intentionality from an image that is wholly the product of commercial interests and/or political systems. Yet this is practically the only time we follow his advise in ferreting out all the private details, from least consequential to most disturbing, details which might illuminate in their proper context, but mislead and obscure when presented as tokens of individual agency and will.

The individual’s public image — in which their ego may of course be profoundly invested — is not their own. It is the product of a vast conglomerate of interests; they own themselves only tangentially. This is why it is meaningless to treat these figures as willful agents, it is more productive to analyze the agendas, processes, and infrastructure that bring them into being, and to evaluate the social conditions that open up a space for such a construction to exist and flourish. This by no means is to negate the self, but to free it from an over-onerous responsibility

The ‘self’ we can then hope to discover when the mask slips is the political one, the machinations and mechanisms of power; its intentions, wishes, and fears. For it is impossible to say anything without saying more than you wish, and power is often compromised by the show it must give, if we could only become careful enough to note it.

The diegetic self is the produced self, the formal image presented for our consumption, which may or may not be a pure fiction to begin with, but becomes one in the process of production, redaction and distribution. We can still find the cracks and crevices which lead deeper by locating this diegetic self not in a false agency, but in the matrix of economic and political causes that give it rise, and by critiquing it specifically as a product of those interests.

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