Lacan, Marriage, Proudhon, and the Quilting Points

Lacan admired Proudhon on three points, one of which was Proudhon’s theory of marriage. Proudhon was an anarchist and remains one of the undoubted canonical figures of classical anarchist theory. However, he passionately argued against his socialist brethren on the value of free-love for the communist vision.

I understand that Proudhon had some remarkably horrible views (however, when put in context they were rather conventional for the time). But his belief that the institution of marriage holds everything together, that it is, more or less, communism for two, is the correct one. Lacan admired this vision in his second seminar.

Marriage is therefore something like, to borrow a Lacanian phrase, a “quilting point.” Daniel Colson – a French post-anarchist – was correct to bring the Lacanian concept of the quilting point in close proximity to Proudhon’s anarchist theories. For Lacan, a quilting point is what, among other quilting points, holds together a signifying chain to produce the semblance of meaning. Without some quilting points we’d have no sense, no understanding. Marriage is the same. Marriage holds together the signifying system of communism, according to Proudhon (in so many words). Or, to put it another way, it holds together the lack of the symbolic relation – whether as a necessary condition or as a failure to accept primordial lack.

The late Lacan would most likely tackle this from a different angle. We would begin with the question of Fidelity and the Real within Badiou’s development of theory. Marriage (in the broadest sense) as a ‘communism for two’ or, put another way, as a response to a touch of the real in the truth procedure of love.

The attack upon the attack upon Ashley Madison

What can we learn about the Ashley Madison attack? I’ll put all of my cards on the table: I believe that the attack on the Ashley Madison attackers and on those who applaud the attack demonstrates not that we no longer have faith in the institution of marriage (despite all that radical posturing that I am seeing on my facebook wall from colleagues and friends). Rather, it demonstrates a release of the ability to commit to any principle whatsoever. Thus, we refuse to commit to revolutionary politics. We refuse to commit to revolutionary ideals. We refuse to commit to integrity in social conduct. We refuse to commit to events that compel us to make one choice and to stick to it. All around us today neoliberal ideology screams: “I want my cake and to eat it too!”

Not only are leftists today expressing their contempt for marriage (privately and publicly): everybody is doing it. Hookup apps bring the supermarket of the flesh right to your cell phone. The great irony is that the attack upon commitment brings with it another form of pretense: that one is secular, that is, that one is atheist, neutral, free, or, to put it even more paradoxically, that one is not already committed. The fact is that one believes oneself anti-fundamentalist, anti-fanatical, and anti-dogmatic, only on the condition that one never plumb the depths of one’s own fundamental fantasy, dogmatic ideals, and so on. In the West, of course, the backdrop is precisely this: pragmatism, protestantism, anti-intellectualism, and so on. The great irony is that one wants the appearance of multiple choices in life often because one wants to avoid the real choice which provoke the most intense feelings of anxiety. Or one wants to avoid the fact that one has already made a choice and that it is a choice that one can not ever bring peace.

Recall G.K. Chesteron’s brilliant passage: “[M]arriage itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. When the couple of lovers proclaim their marriage vows, alone and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the multiple temptations to promiscuous pleasures, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is marriage which is the original and poetic figure, while cheaters and participants in orgies are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of promiscuous apes and wolves. The marriage vow is based on the fact that marriage is the most dark and daring of sexual excesses.”

So, in the end, I maintain that the attack upon marriage is the latest of the great neoliberal ideological mechanisms to quell revolutionary change. If one is not committed, if one is not holding onto the event which brought two lovers together, if one is not made responsible for the choices already dogmatically made but disavowed or repressed, then one is not capable of radically changing the coordinates of one’s world. Psychoanalysis teaches nothing other than this most valuable lesson. I thereby maintain that marriage today is not the marriage of which Emma Goldman and others once spoke: marriage is under attack today because commitment is under attack. Marriage – not State or Church marriage, marriage as a principle of fidelity – is today more than ever, truly, revolutionary.

Yes, these are real sunglasses

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Yes, these are real sunglasses.

A girl on the street was wearing them a moment ago. Our real world is becoming pixelated.

What does this mean?

Naturally, everything is always already pixelated. In other words, the pixels are already here. It is not that somehow the pixels arrive on the scene and that they introduce a whole new world for us. Not at all, instead, the pixels are the basic substratum of the symbolic world. To get to this substratum on a computer you only have to zoom into the image until you reach its brutal and violent symbolic reality: despite initial appearances the image is reduced to a chain of isolated and distinct colors, always lacking true gradation. If you zoom back out to the image proper there again appears to be consistency, demonstrated by the ostensible gradation from color to color.

Today the pixels do not give rise to consistency at the level of the image. In other words, the pixels do not rise triumphantly to form an image. The image itself becomes a pixelated image of pixels – a multiplicity of atoms or of ones. This is precisely what we see in the rise of the blockbuster hit “Pixels” or in the immensely popular video game “Minecraft”: the pixel triumphs over the image in the battle of the century! The true temptation is not to fall into some nostalgia, then, but to make a choice, in the end, between the symbolic reality of the pixel or the smooth consistency of the pixel – or, it would be claimed, to make a pact between the two of them so that they may co-exist.

When we talk to people on the street we discover very quickly that nobody believes in the power of images anymore. They see right through the image to its authoritative symbolic apparatus. Beneath the consistency of the image’s propaganda there is a chain of symbolic authority. We are all in on it. Lacan’s warning “Be Wary of the Image” is today raised to the level of popular ideology: we are all wary of the image and we are today all aware of the brutal symbolic reality hiding beneath it. All the more to elevate the imaginary function to its properly narcissistic register: pixel art remains nonetheless a multiplicity *of ones,* that is, of that which appears to fill in the lack in the heart of the one.

I shall provide two examples to demonstrate my thesis. First, when the blockbuster hit “Gravity” came out audiences everywhere were in an uproar, they shouted: “Do you expect me to believe this horse-shit?” They were, of course, responding to a particular scene where a single screw floated ever so slightly in the wrong direction, thus revealing the rupture between the image and the symbolic rules governing the spectacle (i.e., the laws of gravity). When the screw floated in the wrong direction the whole ruse was caught! Now, it was no longer the narcissism of the scream which triumphed but the narcissism of the audience: we all knew better, we know the true way to suture the gap between the imaginary spectacle and the symbolic rules: make the screw go in a precise direction according to the laws of gravity! The problem with “Gravity” was that it carried a pretense of “realism,” that is, it began by offering itself as a believable narrative. It naturally followed that the only way to secure belief was to critique the narrative.

We need to ask ourselves a crucial question: why do audience members not scream “do you expect me to believe this horse-shit?!” when watching cinematic fantasies like the “X-Men”? It is because the film begins precisely by subverting the audiences’ relation to the spectacle. The director’s proclaim, in their own way: “In the beginning, understand that this is not reality – we are detaching the image from its symbolic form.” And so the superheros can fly, travel through time, and so on. Reality is itself destroyed at the very beginning, thus ensuring that there can be no relation between belief and seduction, between audience attention and the film’s sense of reality.

Isn’t it the case, then, that it is precisely by destroying the consistency of the image, that is, by exposing the disjunction between imaginary and symbolic forms, that the image all the more triumphs and that our belief in the narrative is all the more secured? In other words, we look cool in pixel sunglasses because they reveal the image in its most seductive lure, as that which is lacking in consistency – but forever, precisely, to accelerate the consistency of the pixel itself.

Flat White Ideology

Starbucks recently introduced a new variation on the classic Latte to American and Canadian Audiences. The “flat white” was advertised in an article for the New York times the week before it was released. It was advertised as “new,” “without description,” and “simple.” In truth, the flat white was invented no later than the 1980s in Australia. Like many cultural products, it condenses all of the cultural and political contradictions of the time.

The “flat white” is the ideology of our time.

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The flat white offers the emerging intelligentsia (largely hipsters) a sense of humility: the ‘flat white’ is a “latte for everybody.” It has the sense of being depthless, flat, and lacking in complexity. The new American Joe is not “black,” it is “flat” and it is “white.” Those who really know such things are quick to point out that the “flat white” is difficult to make: it requires differing temperatures for milk steaming, different stretching techniques, and a consequent smooth, velvety micro-foam.

The “flat white” is for everybody and yet those who claim that it is for everybody are the first to demonstrate that they are the only ones who truly know how difficult it is to produce. One rarely visits a cafe these days without hearing one coffee snob inform another about the significance of the flat white. Those who truly know are capable of explaining to the lay person the full complexity of the new drink.

This is the profound irony of the drink. The flat white, like belief today, feigns simplicity all the more to renew a sense of urgent entitlement, complexity, and knowledge. In reality, there is nothing simple or depthless about the “flat white.” It is false surface. Today’s “post-modern” ideology is also false surface.

Preliminary Schematics for an Exhibit on the Corporeal Voice

(1) What is the relationship amongst the voice and the body or the image? On the one hand, there seems to be a disjuncture between voice and body, or voice and image. The anxiety that pious people often feel by this voice without image can be found in Exodus 19:16-19:

16. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.

17. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.

18. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

19. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.

We know this in our personal experience as well. When we speak on the phone, we can not help but wonder what the person at the other end of the line looks like – and, truth be told, we may very well be surprised to find out that he or she is not how we expected. This is a lesson learned by those who have obtain sexual pleasure through telephone sex – is the person at the other end of the line really a “Sexy Woman”? No doubt, some people can only “get off” when the voice is isolated from the image of the body by means of a telephone or by simply closing the lids of the eyes.

The first exhibit shall present images of people speaking. And their voice will be recorded and played back, looped. It will be separated from the image to accelerate the disjunction.

(2) Anxiety can also be provoked simply by demonstrating that the voice is an organ of the body – the voice is an image. Those who “get off” on this are no doubt sound engineers who, to manipulate the voice, must visualize it as a wave-form. What if the voice is retained by the body? What if it has a function just like the balloon-like organs (e.g., the lungs or the bladder)? The second exhibit shall fix a balloon (filled with air) to the mouth of a speaking being.

On Prophets and Messengers

One of the defining characteristics of traditional Lacanian psychoanalysis has been its emphasis on speech and language. In other words, within an analysis – and this is also an ontological position – nothing is of interest outside of the speech. The best we can do is claim that there is something deep within speech that concerns analysis. This is why Lacanian psychoanalysis has kicked off in cultural studies and literature departments across the world. If anything binds the three fields of thought together it is an emphasis on the centrality of semiotics – the scientific study of the particles of language and speech and of their mutual relationship.

Everybody knows that the referent was bracketed.

However, recent concerns in philosophy – concerns which have most likely sprung about through the influence of psychoanalysis on philosophy – have placed primacy once again on factors and agencies existing outside of speech and language. Freud and Lacan were very suspicious of philosophy, even though they did not reject its insights. It was the enterprise or motive of philosophy that concerned them. For both thinkers, philosophy is always metaphysics and metaphysics is always an imaginative attempt to patch up holes in the universe of meaning.

Dialectics wasn’t taken serious enough.

We have returned to metaphysics but this time with the intention of demonstrating that metaphysics is itself an investigation into that which produces holes and gaps in speech and language. The crucial feature of the investigation is therefore to point out that this is an active intervention on the part of the real. We can derive logics, topographical figures, and formulae to assist us in our exploration of the real. And that is precisely what the new philosophy gives to psychoanalysts. And how does psychoanalysis respond except to indicate that these are great ideas – but they ought to be limited to basic principles. These speculations ought not be taken too far.

Philosophy ceases to offer insights to psychoanalysis when it gives up its supplemental or Borromean approach. That is, philosophy begins to patch up holes in meaning again when it refuses to accept that speech and language are still important avenues of research and intervention.

This leaves me with a question. Can human beings have a “real” power too, or, if you like, a “thing power” ? If they do then it ought to be conceived of outside of the coordinates of the master’s discourse. Thing power, emanating as it does from the human, implies that the human be situated outside of speech. Yet we know for certain that no neurotic human beings are situated outside of speech.

Do we now admit the existence prophets? The Greeks taught us that prophets (etymologically) are situated “before speech.” Yet, today’s prophets (I count Alain Badiou as one of them: he describes himself as “the prophet for the possibility of a new philosophical tradition”) are not without speech. This raises a problem. If, before, I reinterpreted the formulae of feminine sexuation to account for things – now I must reinterpret the formulae of mastery in favor of prophets.

There are prophets, except that they are also messengers.

Muhammed had to open his mouth to speak before 48 scribes passed his doctrine into the world. It is no different for today’s prophets.

There exists a prophet who is not submitted to speech, and all messengers, all human animals, are submitted to speech.

This opens up many avenues for future thought.

On the Question of Mastery: Is a Lacanian / Anarchist Intervention Possible?

I would like to offer two stories from my personal life.

First, while attending the European Graduate School in Switzerland I was honored to have met some of the other students of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou. I quickly came to realize that these individuals took Lacan seriously. They established reading cartels that operated according to very precise principles and met regularly to engage thoroughly with the written word. I met two of these students for coffee. They asked me to articulate the relationship, as I saw it, between anarchist political philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is a fair question. However, it occurs to me that this question was derived from an insistence that Lacan was – if anything at all – at heart a bit of a communist. Well, that’s how students of Zizek and Badiou would put it. It is simply a matter for them of demonstrating that this is the case. (To be fair, one doesn’t get the sense that Lacan is a communist in clinical circles.) The obscure relation between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxian theory has already been settled by students of Zizek and Badiou. It is the answer. The problem is simply to discover the proper question.

I struggled to find the connection between anarchism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. I always have struggled to find the connection. Anarchism in some way led me to Lacan’s work. However, this precisely is the value of Lacanian psychoanalysis for anarchist political philosophy: the question is not yet settled, there are no answers – there are only possibilities and impossibilities. In other words, there are still plenty of points of intervention and points of discovery. The field has not yet been overcoded. In any case, all of the valuable insights that Badiou has provided for political analyses seemed to me to be already present in a less articulated form within anarchist political philosophy – if only anarchists would see these seeds beneath their snow instead of harping on about their own moral autonomy.

Second: while attending Trent University, I was briefly under the supervision of an anarchist. In one way or another, I was also surrounded by anarchists. What passed for conversation in the class-room (some days) was: “Why is ‘X’ not included within ‘X’ theory? (where ‘X’ was a placeholder for any number of social, cultural, and political identifications). The supervisor, in front of this crowd, asked me: “How is Lacan an anarchist?” As is often the case, the question had its own answer: he wasn’t … but surely he needed to be! There is an imperative not only that Lacan be easily understandable but that his moral considerations should be worn on his sleeve.

I learned very quick that it was better to leave the question unsettled. There is no need to respond to the demand to be understood and to be a moral agent. For his part, Saul Newman (in From Bakunin to Lacan) attempted to provide an answer: he insisted that Lacan, unlike Bakunin and other anarchists, provided a privileged point of departure for political intervention through his notion of subjectivity. Without an ‘uncontaminated’ point of departure outside of power (or, if you like, outside of the symbolic chain of signifiers) politics is pointless. Of course, Newman’s reading of Lacan was not deep and faithful to Lacan. For example, the subject is not an uncontaminated point of departure – quite the reverse! The subject is absolutely contaminated; so much so that it is split between one signifier and another… the signifier is what represents a subject for another signifier. It seemed to me that Newman wanted so much a place of subjective mastery over the political field that he discovered it in the most master-less place: a place where the subject is nothing but an empty place within the system of signifiers. Newman discovered an ‘outside’ to political power that was paradoxically inherent to political power itself.

The matter was not settled. Zizek noted the problem of the desire for an uncontaminated point of departure for politics: it is as if before the political subject is capable of acting he needs some security that he is acting from the right agency, from the correct place and at the correct time. Who could secure this agency for him but the big Other, that is, a master? This is why it is important to demonstrate, as I have in my recent book, that there are all kinds of places from which one is capable of acting – and the real is not privileged here.

So, I held onto Lacan. There was more to be said. It became increasingly clear that Lacan’s value was precisely to create this disjuncture between politics and theory. Lacan never fails to interrupt interpretive or diagnostical political interventions. Lacan will not respond to the demand to be understood and to be put to political purposes. To paraphrase the punchline to a joke told to me recently from a psychoanalyst: Lacan fell asleep during our political theorization of the place of pure political agency and then woke up and said “Please . . . continue . . . ”

We must continue. With or without Lacan. For many anarchists, this will always mean without Lacan. In fact, most anarchists will fail to read an article on Lacan and anarchism except to confirm or develop an already established critical response. The anarchist needs this opposition to what they detect as a master – all the more to establish their own passive mastery. Lacan teaches us that passive mastery is an all the more cruel form of mastery. Recall the analogy of the ‘postmodern father’ developed by Zizek: the traditional father will tell you ‘go to see your grandmother!’ and if you don’t like it, you can transfer all your anger onto your father: ‘He is MAKING me go!’ The postmodern father says: ‘do you want to see your grandmother?’ Here, the ruthless authoritarian father is forcing you to be responsible for your failure to want to see your grandmother. You have failed in your moral obligation to be a good grandson.

Anarchists are the postmodern fathers of theory and practice.

There is one avenue through which we can approach the question of anarchism and Lacanian psychoanalysis — through the question of ‘mastery.’ Not so long ago the anarchist journal I manage (ADCS) started receiving articles that dealt with the question of ‘voluntary in-servitude.’ The idea put forward was that the political task was to voluntarily withdraw from oppressive and exploitative relations. Recall Gustav Landaeur’s famous suggestion that the state is a relationship and that the best way to destroy the state is therefore to change our close social relationships, to reroute them, etc. Many anarchists in Canada took this to mean that they had to disengage from the militant confrontational political work of revolution and partake in autonomous community-based organizing. The key principles were ‘groundless solidarity’ and ‘mutual aid.’ I call this the ‘long revolution’ to invoke the spirit of Raymond Williams.

By the time we’ve constructed our revolutionary communities, the master won’t even know that we cut his balls off! Ironically, this principle was first put forward by the Lacanian anarchist Richard J.F. Day in his book Gramsci is Dead. The idea was that it broke the loop-back circuit of demand. (But did it replace the loop-back circuit of the drive?)

What we soon discover is that we can only run away from the problem of mastery precisely by returning to it as a question. What anarchist studies rightfully convinces Lacanians about is that the desire to live without a master is itself an important desire. It is important because it highlights the essential question through which some knowledge might be had. Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches us that the effort to run away from the master is itself a form of passive mastery. Recall, for example, Freud’s discussion of “Little Hans” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Was it not the case that this little boy mastered his mother’s absence precisely by making his own little toy disappear from view? The problem of mastery is here much more pronounced because it has entered into the symbolic apparatus – one controls through the symbolic what one couldn’t control in the real.

We must become aware of the fact that mastery is not always exercised actively. More often, and this is especially the case for anarchists, mastery is exercised passively. Who reading this who calls himself an anarchist has not witnessed the attempt by other anarchists to control a situation by acting passively? We see it in consensus decision making, through calm and quiet speech, and so on. For example, I once co-owned an anarchist cafe. There was a proposal to add non-vegan muffins to the stock. It was blocked by a person during consensus decision making. At the next meeting, the proposition was raised as a negative proposal: “can we NOT include non-vegan muffins?” The proposer’s friend blocked the motion and the non-vegan muffins were added to the stock.

This attitude toward passive mastery is particularly prominent among inexperienced therapists who, like many Yoga instructors in this country, believe to be rid of the problem of mastery simply by lowering the tone and cadence of the voice. This is nothing but a pretense at liberation. During my own personal analysis I blurted out, unexpectedly: “I could be the master by pretending not to be!” Is this not my life story as an anarchist? It was a condition made particularly noticeable by an American Lacanian named Bruce Fink, who wrote: “[O]ne might have to watch out for a tendency to present oneself as a master at non-mastery like that found in certain spiritual practices, and akin to the tendency to promote oneself as the most humble of the humble in certain religious groups.” Anarchists are among the best in the political world of presenting themselves in this way.

How to avoid the problem of mastery? Confront it! Anarchists have at least this correct: they must raise the question of mastery overtly. For those who suffer from involuntary servitude it is not even a question: the difficulty is always to make these slaves aware that they are voluntarily serving a master. What, then, about the possibility of voluntary servitude? This is certainly what many Lacanians present themselves as, voluntary slaves: they choose to be ‘unfree’ and to follow the master, Lacan.

We are not yet rid of the question of mastery. In some sense, we have only avoided it by retreating into passive mastery. We must think through the end of the question of mastery, and of our implication in the situation of slavery. In addition to active and passive slavery, we must also be attentive to: (1) the mastery of death as a real intervention which can not be imagined but from which we derive some excitement, (2) the mastery of ‘figures’ and ‘bodies’ which are often incarnated in the figure of the state, in political masters, in corporations — these are the fake masters which are given more power than they in fact have, and; (3) the mastery which must be present in order for thinking and political action to occur at all (without which there is no possibility for the question of mastery to occur).

Newman was wrong, then. It is not that we need an uncontaminated point of departure for politics – the subject – for there to be any political intervention worthwhile. Rather, it is precisely the opposite: without a master, that is, without the third type of master, there is no possibility for subjectivity.