Circuitus
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Circuitus

Prufrock, Bloom, Odysseus

Bloom is Joyce’s bourgeois modern Odysseus: he is an outsider, but holds an ability to envision the ‘inclusive state’, which thus makes him uniquely alienated in the modern scene. Whereas Stephen is concerned with his own perception, Bloom is concerned with those of the cat: whilst Stephen is celibate and uncomfortable with the physical, Bloom is openly erotic and comfortable with the physical, much like Prufrock’s voyeurism. Whilst Stephen is depressive and dramatic, Bloom is mature and level-headed, yet they are drawn together by art and culture (e.g. Shakespeare), just as Prufrock is drawn to the women by art and culture (e.g. Michelangelo). Nonetheless, there is something tragic about Odysseus, Bloom, and Prufrock, in their insularity, and so on. And thus, the psychoanalytic project is to develop this tragique mode of existence into the moque-comique mode. Although Joyce deems the liberal Bloom to be his protagonist, perhaps the revolutionary Dedalus ought to be the proper protagonist, for Bloom, like Prufrock, fails this transition.

James Joyce

Prufrock demonstrates the intersectionality of Lacan’s registers of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real, trudging through them in his modernist alienation, which is perhaps elevated to a new level in Eliot’s later epic poem, The Waste Land, in which the second section is itself made up of ‘A Game of Chess’, representative of such registers. Prufrock is the inevitable subject of the happenings of The Waste Land.

‘Žižek uses the game of chess as an illustration of these dimensions. The symbolic dimension is composed of the rules followed in order to play successfully, as pieces become defined by the moves they are capable of making. For example, the castle is defined by his ability to move in straight lines, horizontally and vertically, able to move from one side of the board to the other. The imaginary dimension is composed of how these different pieces are shaped and characterised by their names. For example, one is able to imagine the same game of the same rules, but with a different imaginary dimension, in which pieces refer to, say, ‘messengers’ rather than ‘knights. The real dimension is the ‘entire complex set of contingent circumstances which affect the course of the game’. For example, ‘the intelligence of the players, the unpredictable intrusions that may disconcert one of the players or directly cut the game short’. The big Other operates at the symbolic level, in which one never merely interacts with others, but speech-acts are grounded in accepted and relied-upon networks of rules and presuppositions. This symbolic space acts like a standard against which one measures themselves, as may be personified as a single ruling agent, like God, or the State, and thus exists insofar as subjects act as if it exists. The big Other constitutes ‘the substance of the individuals who recognise themselves in it, the ground of their entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives’, and this substance is actual insofar as people believe in it and thus act accordingly.’

Prufrock demonstrates the intersectionality of Lacan’s registers of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real, trudging through them in his modernist alienation, which is perhaps elevated to a new level in Eliot’s later epic poem, The Waste Land, in which the second section is itself made up of ‘A Game of Chess’, representative of such registers. Prufrock is the inevitable subject of the happenings of The Waste Land.

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

‘If I but thought that my response were made

to one perhaps returning to the world,

this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.

But since, up from these depths, no one has yet

returned alive, if what I hear is true,

I answer without fear of being shamed.’

Eliot begins with this allusion to Dante: Prufrock is Guido; confined to Hell. However, Hell is no longer fire, and brimstone, but factory, and iron. Prufrock is entangled in contradictions: he dreams of love, but would never do anything to obtain it for he is terrified, and is thus rendered emotionally paralysed. This is the modern everyman: occupied by (self-)appearances, concerned with productivity yet of no utility himself, marked by an ‘overwhelming question’ to be filled in, yet postponing its filling in, just as he postpones love. The question must be filled in before any plausible answer can be offered, yet it remains unfilled: ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit’. Prufrock is caught in a Buddhist nightmare: he longs for the past, anxious of the future, bound to the present. Prufrock longs for the pretentious talk of Michelangelo (like Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris), or of the escape to the life of the crab (a self-induced pre-Symbolic metamorphosis). Even in his fantasies, however, he carries over his crippled self-image: in imaginings of his death, he descends to Hell; when thinking of Hamlet, he must declare, ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet!’; when he hears the sirens singing, they do not sing to him; and when overwhelmed in the return to reality, in its Symbolic paralysis, he imagines himself drowning in the sea.

In the Imaginary, reality and ideality/fantasy blur. Prufrock, in his self-conversation, and postponement of the erotic, wants to keep his ego at a safe distance from the id. Thus, Partovian suggests, the poem may be read as a discussion between ‘reality and the desired, the id and the ego, which are parts of a whole and dividing them does not seem possible’. Prufrock is here going through the Mirror stage of infancy- the identification with his own image, his ideal-I/ch, in which perhaps the thing to be filled in is this ideal-I/ch, yet it can only be filled in through the Imaginary, through which Prufrock trudges. Here there is a recognition of finitude, and with this comes the fracturing of reality between self and Other.

Thereafter, Prufrock hopes that ‘there will be time’ to regain the lost unified object/subject. Here, in the Mirror stage, as the Other emerges, Prufrock begins to constitute an idea his self through the gaze of the Other, despite Prufrock’s wanting to postpone the onset of the Other’s gaze. Prufrock anxiously sees himself as the ultimate object of attention for those around him, such is the perceived radical inspection of him. However, Prufrock then begins to adopt the role of the Other himself, whereby Prufrock compares himself with the arisen Lazarus, and: ‘For I have known them all already, known them all: / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; / I know the voices dying with a dying fall / Beneath the music from a farther room. / So how should I presume? / And I have known the eyes already, known them all- / The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.’ Despite this, he remains alienated, not properly integrated into the Symbolic order, nor able to come to terms with his desire: ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’. He is met with the object of desire, or its substitute, yet he is afraid to properly look at it. However, perhaps through this sublime identification with the Other, he is free to desire his objet petit a, yet he remains bound to the Master-Signifier which halts further identification, and fails to make that transition from tragique to moque-comique.

Rules, structures, differences, define the Symbolic, yet these elements only inhibit Prufrock in his speech, and he thus often retreats to imagination and symbolism, postponing the proper conversation: ‘He is looking for the lost object, objet petit a, which is an ineffective search’. The transition from Imaginary to Symbolic is marked by a linguistic transition into speech, yet Prufrock is incapable of committing to this transition; he fails in language: ‘Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’’ Here, Prufrock, longing for the past of culture, and Michelangelo, likewise longs for the union of the Imaginary: ‘Let us go then, you and I’. Prufrock’s paralysis mirrors that of the cat which cannot enter the room, like Justine in von Trier’s Melancholia, who cannot cross the bridge. Prufrock repeats, ‘there will be time’, the postponement of confrontation with the Real, for he does not want to accept that he feels as if he has lost his objet petit a, and cannot allow the id to dominate the ego.

There is something absent, taken, from Prufrock, for which he is nostalgic, yet he remains bound by his failure into language, anxious of his speech disrupting the order itself: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ Prufrock finds himself in a double-bind- to enter into the Symbolic order is to surrender to its rules and structures, yet to abandon it is traumatically alienating. He does not know the uncomfortable truth of the object, that the objet petit a is ultimately unattainable. So traumatic is this that Prufrock longs to return not just to the Imaginary, but that which came even prior to the Imaginary, the bottom of the sea, the mother’s womb. For he has not only failed in the transition from Imaginary to Symbolic, but also from mother to father, by which he compares himself, and feels incomplete, bereft of proper, earned authority. Such is his radical postponement of finding the lost object, as product of his alienation, that not even the sirens address him: ‘I do not think they will sing to me’. And so too does Bloom find himself in this deadlock in ‘Nausicaa’, when he happens upon Gerty MacDowell, a young girl lame in one foot. Bloom masturbates to her whilst she lies on the beach, daydreaming about men. Gerty is very much in the Symbolic- actively conscious of her ideal-Ich, and she allows her biological drives to persist outside of language yet within the symbolic rules of seduction (such as when she lets her hair down and raises her skirt so as to arouse Bloom); whilst Bloom remains in his failure to properly integrate- he remains hidden behind the rock when he masturbates.

For Lacan, one cannot escape the ‘masculine universal’, and thus biological demands, the demands of the id, must be transposed through linguistic structures: ‘That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all’; ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!’ Lacanian desire is thus unsatisfiable, just as Prufrock’s remains strangled in the room of women: desire is ‘what is left of absolute demand when all possible satisfaction of needs has been subtracted from it’. For Green and LeBihan:

‘What is instituted at the moment of disruption of the Imaginary by the nom du père is Desire, a drive or urge to return to the utopian state of the Imaginary, of coherence, of oneness -from which the subject has been banned. Unfortunately, one can never fulfil one’s Desire. The loss of the Imaginary is a permanent one. Once the division is made, there is no concealing the cracks. But this Desire is repressed, and this act of repression brings the unconscious into being.’

Prufrock still aims to mend this permanent fracture through the return to the mother, or pre-mother, yet when confronted with a suitable substitute for his lost object, he postpones engagement furthermore, unable to cross the bridge: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ In the desire of the mother being replaced by the name of the father, means this umbilical cord of desire is cut, replaced by the father who ‘filters your reaching out to your desires’: ‘To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question.’

The Lacanian Real ‘is all that a person is not, the unattainable dimension of life, a place with no absence with countless objet petit a’, and as such, the Real does not exist. The Real is effectively the state of nature of pure need from which Prufrock has been severed by his entrance into language, yet he desires to return, although the journey is impossible. For the Real is physical, and material, yet for Lacan, existence only marks that which arises from the mind. Despite this, Prufrock continues to seek out this world of unity and absence of loss. Partovian refers to Selden, for whom the Real is where ‘the subject meets with inexpressible enjoyment and death’, as does Prufrock when he chooses death over life. The traumatic encounter with the Real is the transposing of suffering, pain, into language, and thus Prufrock postpones the traumatic encounter- he does not want the pain to become real. And the object which is the source of desire remains unidentifiable. The Thing, Das Ding, is lost. Prufrock is dominated by the fantasy of the woman, the companion, his unity, his funeral, yet his desire remains strangled.

Moving then from the materialism of Marx (surplus value) to the psychoanalysis of Lacan (surplus objet petit a), the range of analysis extends from material objects to the symbolic order, which ‘provides a definitive identification for subjects’, which Prufrock and Bloom (and Odysseus) have found themselves lacking.

Capitalism’s obsolescence means the constant innovation of products, ‘the permanent production of piles of discarded waste, which we can see in Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which we have Žižek’s capitalist ecology: ‘The main production of the modern and postmodern capitalist industry is precisely waste. We are postmodern beings because we realise that all our aesthetically appealing consumption artefacts will eventually end as leftover, to the point that it will transform the earth into a vast waste land. You lose the sense of tragedy, you perceive progress as derisive.’ This logic of consumption operates according to the infamous sublime-excremental dialectic: there is not only the feeling of dissatisfaction of consumerism, as if the objet petit a has not been filled in, but the new, beautiful, sublime product so rapidly transformed into the excremental waste, landfill, to be hoarded, and so on. And in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, pre-modernity (nature), and modernity (industrial civilisation) coincide in common decay, which is the pessimism of Eliot: the bourgeois woman, surrounded by her ‘synthetic perfumes’ (modernity), like the proletarian women in the bar which follows (pre-modernity), are neither suitable subjects for his regeneration of the barren land.

Žižek compares Tarkovsky’s recognition of this convergent decay in the face of the looming threat of Capital from the West with the Messianic anticipation of the Jews and Christians; however, one knows that the Messiah is not coming, and yet it is pleasing to hear the anticipatory announcement made. The point of this anticipation is not the maintenance of hope, but the turn to take note of materiality upon the postponed arrival, which becomes the attitude in the East, whereas the West becomes docile to its surroundings, left to the ideality of the consumption logic.

Miller also recognises this parallax shift in interpersonal relations (not just the social/civilisational), in the shift from Master-Signifier to objet petit a: ‘in the discourse of the Master, the subject’s identity is guaranteed by S1, by the Master-Signifier …, fidelity to which defines the subject’s ethical dignity’. To identify with the Master-Signifier is to bring about a ‘tragic mode of existence’, in which one aims to sustain this fidelity to that thing which provides meaning and consistency, yet ultimately fails ‘because of the remainder that resists the Master-Signifier’. However, there is also the subversive subject who lacks any support in the Master-Signifier, but ‘whose [meaning and] consistency is sustained by relationship to the pure remainder/trash/excess’, to some ‘undignified’ … bit of the Real’, which brings about the moque-comique mode of existence, in which one subverts symbolic identification.

This is the passage from tragique to mosque-comique, which Žižek traces in Lacan’s reference to the Oedipal parricide in which the son aims to kill the father, yet he misses, and the father dies instead of a heart attack; seen in the accounts of Prufrock, Bloom, and Odysseus; and Lacan’s making comedic of psychoanalysis:

‘The closer we get to psychoanalysis being funny, the more it is real psychoanalysis.’ (Lacan (Seminar I)

In modernity, there is no more proper tragedy, for those subjected to modern ‘tragedies’ are not without comic aspects in their situations, which makes modern ‘tragedy’ ‘all the more horrifying’. This horror cannot be sublimated into tragic dignity, and is thus only accessible through an imitation of the parody itself. Hegel’s ‘world of self-alienated Spirit’ describes this transition: in dialectical mediation, each dignified/noble position turns into its opposite, the corresponding undignified position- ‘the truth of the ‘noble consciousness’ dedicated to its sublime ethical task of serving the Good is the manipulative, servile, exploitative ‘base (knavish) consciousness’’. For Hegel:

‘The content of what Spirit says about itself is thus the perversion of every Notion and reality, the universal deception of itself and others; and the shamelessness which gives utterance to this deception is just for that reason the greatest truth. This kind of talk is the madness of the musician ‘who heaped up and mixed together thirty arias, Italian, French, tragic, comic, of every sort; now with a deep bass he descended into hell, then, contracting his throat, he rent the vaults of heaven with a falsetto tone, frantic and soothed, imperious and mocking, by turns.’ (Diderot, Nephew of Rameau) To the tranquil consciousness which, in its honest way, takes the melody of the Good and the True to consist in the evenness of the notes, i.e. in unison, this talk appears as a ‘rigmarole of wisdom and folly, as a medley of as much skill as baseness, of as many correct as false ideas, a mixture compounded of a complete perversion of sentiment, of absolute shamefulness, and of perfect frankness and truth.’ … This latter mind perverts in its speech all that is unequivocal, because what is self-identical is only an abstraction, but in its actual existence is in its own self a perversion.’

This attitude is perhaps paralleled in Eliot, where we have the simultaneous contraction and expansion: contraction of Western canon; expansion of Western canon (e.g. into Sanskrit); an irresolvable tension:

‘Tradition […] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.’

Both of which reflect Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. … Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.’

In traditional psychology, we have the common view of the subconscious à la the iceberg schema, in which there is something below, unaccounted for, which is not fully your responsibility. This is contrasted to the psychoanalytic unconscious, by which Freud (somewhat jokingly) argues that psychoanalysis is more radical than religion, as in religion there are many things that you are not responsible for if you did not do them, but in psychoanalysis you’re responsible for things you did not even do. The unconscious is not below, it cannot be blamed.

Lacan’s symbolic order is the way by which one participates in society by following the rules of what it means to be a person, but withholding the fundamental dimension of your own being. That which one thinks they are withholding does not exist, like the Freudian slip, which ‘desires’ to conceal that which is not there. The true intimate self only exists in the Imaginary: it is an illusionary, Imaginary idea to say that I am sharing my true self, predicated on the pact by which you constitute your own being in society.

For Lacan, it is always about difference concerning subjectivity: between the subject of enunciation, and subject of statement (enunciated). As soon as one speaks, they are acting on the level of enunciation, creating themselves in the world. The subject of statement is thus the subject created by means of enunciation- as soon as one speaks, they are to be misinterpreted not only by others, but by oneself, which one then tries to correct through more speech.

For Freud, this is the subject of the unconscious. The idea that one has an original though they want to express which is not in any way pre-mediated by the failure to express that which never existed in advance. As one believes that there’s the Imaginary true self under the Symbolic self, the subject of enunciation believes that there is an Imaginary true thought that wanted to be expressed before expression itself. The idea that there was an a prior universal thought to be expressed is the ultimate illusion, which is retroactively generated.So, it is not that we have the case of the subconscious iceberg with the speech/symbolic self above the water, and the true self below, but all the self is above the water, with the illusion of the true self lying underneath retroactively constructed. The Hegelian truth of the psychoanalytic subject is thus that there is no a priori starting point upon which speech/thought develops, for they’ve already always happened. This is demonstrated by Lacan’s construction of the chiasmic as constitutive of subjectivity: by saying, ‘I am lying’, I have created a short-circuit. Does this mean, ‘I speak the truth, therefore, I am not lying’? Or ‘I am lying, therefore, I am speaking the truth’? This paradox is constitutive of subjectivity itself, based in the chiasmic structure of A, B, B, A. This is how enunciation-enunciated works: switching the direction of speaking subject-object, and the constitutive moment exists in between.

This is the split subject, the Spaltung. Our ultimate responsibility is creating what it means to be a subject. But Being is difficult, as relayed through Marx’s analogy between Prometheus bound to the Caucasian rock and humanity’s enchainment in modernity to Capital:

‘… the law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital.’

We create ourselves by means of speech- not only in participation in the social/symbolic order, but also create an ideal of ourselves through speech (the linguistic order). We all feel as if we are frauds/imposters, and cannot fully inhabit our body. This is seen in Joyce, particularly in ​​his obscene, erotic letters express that obscene (sexual) joy which cannot be properly expressed, and has hitherto not properly been incorporated into literature, buried by the traditions of literature. It is ultimately a spiritual experience of the physical, of the body. Joyce was the ideal modern Rabelais who Pound imagined in his limerick:

Sweet Christ from hell spew up some

Rabelais,

To belch and … to define today

In fitting fashion, and her monument

Heap up to her in fadeless excrement.

For Litz, Joyce’s Ulysses ‘lanced the boil of a sick culture, using gross realism as his scalpel’. This new realism reflected that dialectical movement in art of the sublimation of the excremental, with the reveal of its liberated subject: the body. The English novel had, for a century and a half, ‘coasted’ on the prim, bourgeois image of the body: none of the basic functions could be described. The ‘material lower bodily stratum’ was written out of Realism: the insides, genitals, anus, rectum are almost entirely absent if not for their rare abstracted metaphorical presence. Whilst Bloom shits, pisses, farts, bathes, masturbates, fondles; Molly menstruates, farts, fucks, semen is spilt on her; Stephen urinates, picks his nose, attends a brothel, bleeds from the nose. Thus, the Joycean liberation of the body is that of Rabelais, and that of Freud. This is shown in art most explicitly in Courbet and Malevich, as explained here: (https://medium.com/circuitus/vertov-and-the-noumena-6cf4632b6d72). But ultimately, despite this liberation, one still fails to properly inhabit the body, as shown in Joyce’s Dubliners: ‘He lived at a little distance from his body’. So did the literary corpus; an alienation from Gattungswesen.

This often leads one to feel as if they are a fake, a person who lacks something inhibited by everybody else; everybody else is ‘real’, authentic, complete. However, lack is the process by which one thinks that others aren’t lacking. Lack is thus not insecurity concerning myself, but the false assumption that other people don’t have this lack. In conspicuous consumption (the succumbing to the naked logic of the commodity fetish), one creates a hole in somebody else by trying to fill in a hole in yourself. For Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler, ‘A friend is a gift you give yourself’. One tries to account for their lack through the creation of lack in the Other: I do not want to fill in this lack with some object, but I want the lack of lack in the Other. They want the one thing that they can’t have.

But one cannot function in society without lying. One is left without nothing when abandoning faith in the beautiful lie of civilisation/society. The Dark Knight thus upholds the Platonic lie, as explained here: <…>. This is how all ideology functions- one believes in it because it is not true (Batman knows of the extent of the corruption in Gotham, yet he acts as if he does not know this in order to uphold the ideal Gotham). Thus, ideology is not intrinsically bad- it is merely the framing of reality; how meaning is ascribed; how consciousness operates (thus, being in ideology does not inherently lead us to false consciousness). False consciousness is just believing that you are outside of, above, beyond, ideology. Within the beautiful lie, it is not enough to know that it’s a lie; one has to be the agent of the lie refracted upon itself. One has to become the Marxist agent of class consciousness. It is not enough to see that the (commodity) fetish is a fetish. Rather, Žižek’s account of ideology, and of the sinthome, captures the fact that everybody sees through it, yet continues to act as if they do not see through it- just as we believe that other people are real, complete, we believe that other people cannot see through the fetish.

As in financial speculation: it is not about choosing the best thing to invest in, it is about choosing what others believe to be the best thing to invest in. And through this illusion, value emerges: the value is a posteriori; the illusion is that the value is a priori. Marx does not believe that there is originary value (value an Sich) below production and marketisation, just as Freud does not believe that there is some unconscious below psychoanalysis and socialisation.

Nietzsche thus gives us ‘the equation of that which is not equitable’. For Marx, this is the false universal: every universal is false in that it relies upon the ideological abstraction by which we suggest that there is a world in which a priori true values can be cast against each other, such as in the barter economy.

For Žižek, Marx invented the symptom. In his Sublime Object of Ideology, just as Marx analyses the commodity fetish, Freud analyses the dream. Marx’s analysis does not concern the mystical/sublime down to the ordinary/excremental, but the ordinary/excremental up to the mystical/sublime: the particular up to the universal. Žižek’s critique of ideology is thus the extrapolation of Marx’s critique wherein underneath the false universal, there is nothing that is ‘true’. The only ‘truth’ comes ‘above’ this false universal, which is the Hegelian path from abstract to concrete reality: we live as if these things are true, and our reality is thus informed by our belief in the truth of these things, such as the financial system. There is thus only (post-)ideological truth. So we cannot step out of the frame, but we can change how we fill in the frame.

Returning to Hegel, the abstract is not that which is lacking substance in the world, but the opposite: it is that which is concrete. The object only exists in relation to its symbolic function- such as the table through dining, sitting, meetings, socialisation, and so on. In the chiasmic dialectic, the abstract materialises itself through its perceived fall into the concrete, and the perceived concrete materialises itself through its fall into the abstract. This structuralist argument is expressed in Magritte’s ‘this is not a pipe’, à la ‘I am not lying’, or Aristotle’s ‘my friend, there is no friend;. This is the transition from the subject of enunciation to the subject of the enunciated, and the construction of the retroactive illusion of subjectivity.

Žižek’s split subject is split by the difference between enunciation and enunciated/statement. ‘I am lying’; I am lying by participating in the symbolic order, and by means of lying/participation, I construct the idea of myself. Thus, the idea of one’s personhood becomes a retroactive illusion precipitated, and necessitated, by participation. Not only must the big, beautiful lie be sustained, but there must be smaller lies to sustain this in daily social life (e.g. civilities in conversation): one must create this false of familiarity, to allow ourselves the distance to be a person. For Wilde, the friend is somebody who you can make fun of, be vulgar to, and suspend some of these social civilities. There is here this seemingly contradictory kernel of truth which emerges out of the falsehood, out of a suspension of symbolic order, which thus retroactively posits the falsehood of the false universal itself. So too does Marxist class consciousness operate as the universal particular- the particular that undermines the particular from within.

Thus, Žižek’s ‘true self’ is the self that feels untrue. The incapacity to authentically inhabit personhood is the precondition for personhood. Thus, the mask is the real self. This is thus the return to the Cogito ergo sum. The thought does not come prior to its expression, but the expression retroactively creates the thought. This thought, for Lacanian subjectivity, is ‘I am the original, expressing self’, but this self, or the illusion of this self is only retroactively imposed. ‘Where I am not, there I think’: the place that is lacking within yourself; the constitutive negativity of personhood is both the precondition and consequence. This is the sublime, empty space, which anticipates subjectivity, and is retroactively filled in. This is the space which is the marker of one’s failure to be the completed subject.

Marx is thus adding a corrective to Hegel: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, rather than the mere historical repetition and sublation of Hegel’s dialectical tension: ‘in his mad dance, Rameau’s nephew repeats in a parodic way the grandeur of his uncle, the renowned composer, just as Napoleon III, the nephew, repeats in the mode of a farce the deeds of his uncle, the Napoleon’. There is both the ‘serious’ repetition, in which historical contingency is ‘sublated’ as an expression of historical necessity, and the ‘comic’ repetition, which subverts tragic identification. The dialectic is the passage from the In-itself to the For-itself: in this noble consciousness, one aims to exempt themselves from the implications of their condition by publicly acknowledging his condition- just as the nephew admits his crookedness, the Western liberal academic admits his Eurocentrism, and so on. This guilt is the tension between the subject of the statement and that of the enunciation (the position from which one speaks), and the admission is the means by which this position can be sustained, avoiding guilt altogether. The problem is not that Rameau’s nephew’s perverse negation of the ‘noble consciousness’ of the uncle is too radical, but that it is not radical enough- his perversion only conceals the subjective position of the uncle. For Hegel, this subversion is ultimately expressed in money- this infinitesimal object of reality is able to invert any determination, no matter how noble, into a ‘mad dance’.

From this, Žižek sets up two parallel dialectics, of wealth, and of phrenology: in wealth, we have the liquefaction of determinations and disintegration of determinate symbolic features, producing the opposites; and in phrenology, we have the mediation of the noble consciousness, the infinite judgement, into ‘The Spirit is a bone’, both leaving some inert excremental leftover- the bone, money.

However, for Derrida, the category of the subject ‘is endowed with consciousness or unconsciousness, it will refer, by the entire thread of its history, to the substantiality of a presence unperturbed by accidents, or to the identity of the proper/selfsame in the presence of self-relationship’. Thus, for Žižek and Lacan, as traced out in his The Fragile Absolute, ‘this ‘substantiality’ is not that of the subject itself, but that of its objectal counterpoint, of an excremental remainder/trash which precisely sustains the Subject qua empty/void/non-substantial’. This non-substantial subject is sustained by a minimum substantial objet petit a, which is the stand-in of the Void, the remainder of the Real, the subject itself in its Otherness. In art then, we ought to reject the postmodern persistence upon delineating the void of the frame/subject, as explained with Courbet and Malevich.

This is where Hegel has to be supplemented by Lacan: ‘in order for the subjects to have a transferential relationship towards their hero, in order to venerate a person as a hero, the awareness of the world-historical dimension of his deeds it not enough; in order for this awareness to become a true veneration, it has to be supplemented by some detail from the ‘pathological’ domain of the hero’s idiosyncratic fancies — it is only this ‘little piece of reality’, this touch of the ‘real person’ behind the public mask (some personal weakness or similar ‘endearing foible’), that changes a noncommittal appreciation into true veneration’. For the hero to function as hero, the pathology of the objet petit a has to support the Master-Signifier, ‘the symbolic mandate of the hero’, and this too is laid out in the analysis of the Batman.

Yet ‘this logic … [has been] brought to its self-destructive conclusion’: the public figure need not any more demonstrate their common humanity, but the normal person may become a public figure through the public confession of their idiosyncrasies. And this has become particularly prevalent in the rise of ‘trash media’.

In the pursuit of the ‘true self’, Lacan suggests that the subject is divided between two ‘true Selves’: the Master-Signifier delineates the Ich-Ideal (ego-ideal), and there is the excremental leftover of the Symbolic process which sustains surplus-enjoyment (objet petit a). The aim of psychoanalysis is then to enable the analysand to transition from the Master-Signifier to objet petit a, from tragique to moque-comique. This then is the tension in Prufrock, Bloom, and Odysseus.

The objet petit a is where in which the highest (sublime) and the lowest (excremental) coincide, such that it becomes the ‘zero-level of symbolic in-difference’, in which the most sublime is revealed to only be excremental waste. And the turn from symbolic identification to excremental identification does the opposite: symbolic identification is a misidentification within the excremental- ‘the identification with the way the Other(s) misperceive(s) me’. Symbolic identification is not the construction of the opposition between the way one appears to others, and the way they are really are, but when the way one appears to others become more important than ‘psychological reality’, from which one acts in a way that they would otherwise not. Thus, there is a gap between the Master-Signifier, and other signifiers, and a more radical gap between the domain of the signifier and its remainder, objet petit a.

And here we may demonstrate the short-circuit: Žižek uses the example of the patient who is tasked with a word/thought association game to the psychiatrist’s prompts to which the patient only responds with the same answer every time, and the science student who is asked to define a number of animals, but every time he answers only with reference to the presence/absence of the features of a horse in that animal. However, when the student is asked to define the horse, he is unable, just like if the psychiatrist were to respond to the patient with the same thought, or if one were to respond in the same manner to the drug-fuelled neurotic, who says ‘What are you looking at?’ This is the opposite of Bentham’s self-iconicity, Žižek explains, in which ‘an object is the best icon itself … it resembles itself’. This is also the observe of Leibniz’ ‘principle according to which, if two things perfectly resemble each other, if all their properties are indistinguishable, they are also numerically identical- … one and the same thing’. The anti-Leibnizian lesson of Lacanian logic is that resemblance is rather the guarantor of non-identity: ‘the more he looks like me, the more the abyss of his otherness is apparent … ‘the ‘oneness’ of a thing is grounded not in its properties, but in the negative synthesis of a pure ‘One’ which excludes … all positive properties … which guarantees the identity of a thing does not reside in its properties, since it is ultimately its signifier’. There is some difference between the ordinary signifier and the central element, the Master-Signifier, e.g. the horse, which remains empty ‘in order to serve as the underlying organising principle of the series’.

And there is also the gap between the endless process of symbolic differentiation and the leftover which ‘falls out’ of it- ‘the structure here is that of subdivision ad infinitum … cut short by a sudden reversal’, such that ‘a progressive diacritical division of signifiers reaches its end when we reach a division which is longer the one between two signifiers of a signifying dyad, but a ‘reflexive’ division between the signifier as such with its absence- no longer between … [signifiers], but between S(ignifier) as such and … [the barred subject], the void, the lack of the signifier’. The barred nature of the subject implies that there is no adequate signifier for its representation, but the object is able to ‘cover up this void of subjectivity’. We have this constant subvision of signifiers in an infinite regress, like Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise- this is then ‘caught in the logic of ‘spurious infinity’ [which] is totalised, closed, completed, by the fall of the body whose Real stands for the subject himself’, only leaving the indivisible remainder that fills in the gap of division.

References

  • Eliot, T.S., 1963, Collected Poems 1909–1962, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
  • Eliot, T.S., 1972, The Waste Land and other poems, Faber and Faber, London.
  • Joyce, J, 1914, Dubliners, Grant Richards, London.
  • Joyce, J, 2010, Ulysses, Wordsworth Classics, Hertfordshire.
  • Green, K, LeBihan, J, 1996, Critical theory and Practice: A Coursebook, Routledge, London.
  • Partovian, S, 2019, ‘’The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: A Lacanian Reading’, International Journal of Language, Literature, Culture and History Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 227–33.
  • Selden, R, 2005, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, Pearson, Edinburgh.
  • Žižek, S, 2006, How to Read Lacan, Granta Paperbacks, London.
  • Žižek, S, 2009, The Fragile Absolute, Verso, London.

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