Saussure, Psychoanalysis, and Event

How does an event intervene into the signifying system? I’ve found that it pushes throughout all the unsaids of the system (e.g., all of the zeros within the numerical system which makes possible each succession and each coup de force of the name of number; whereby 1 = 0, 2 = 1,0; 3 = 2,1,0). What Jacques Alain Miller referred to as suture was also explained by Saussure through his notion of “the collective inertia toward innovation:”

The over-complexity of the system. A language constitutes a system. In this one respect (as we shall see later) language is not completely arbitrary but is ruled to some extent by logic; it is here also, however, that the inability of the masses to transform it becomes apparent. The system is a complex mechanism that can be grasped only through reflection; the very ones who use it daily are ignorant of it. We can conceive of a change only through the intervention of specialists, grammarians, logicians, etc. ; but experience shows us that all such meddlings have failed.

Collective inertia toward innovation. Language-and this consideration surpasses all the others-is at every moment everybody’s concern; spread throughout society and manipulated by it, language is something used daily by all. Here we are unable to set up any comparison between it and other institutions. The prescriptions of codes, religious rites, nautical signals, etc., involve only a certain number of individuals simultaneously and then only during a limited period of time; in language, on the contrary, everyone participates at all times, and that is why it is constantly being influenced by all. This capital fact suffices to show the impossibility of revolution. Of all social institutions, language is least amenable to initiative. It blends with the life of society, and the latter, inert by nature, is a prime conservative force.

But to say that language is a product of social forces does not suffice to show clearly that it is unfree; remembering that it is always the heritage of the preceding period, we must add that these social forces are linked with time. Language is checked not only by the weight of the collectivity but also by time. These two are inseparable. At every moment solidarity with the past checks freedom of choice. We say man and dog. This does not prevent the existence in the total phenomenon of a bond between the two antithetical forces-arbitrary convention by virtue of which choice is free and time which causes choice to be fixed. Because the sign is arbitrary, it follows no law other than that of tradition, and because it is based on tradition, it is arbitrary.

Saussure went on to claim that within linguistics, change takes time. Intuitively, this makes sense. We can not just invent a word and expect people to understand what we mean by the word. A new word must be accepted by a community and there is tremendous pressure from any given community against such a change. Let us claim that language is obsessional, conservative, and, therefore, fundamentally neurotic.

What then for the psychotic? My claim is that the psychotic is the one for whom change does not take time. In other words, the psychotic is the one who is constantly messed up in the introduction of new words. We see this clearly in James Joyce’s writings. However, the psychotic is the one also who insists on saying words which are not necessary to say (recall, Lacan claimed in Seminar III that the psychotic’s signature is the development of neologisms) – the psychotic is within the real.

An event, then, is initially quite psychotic. It introduces something which is not yet necessary to say and this change does not take time. An event hits the signifying system all at once, immediately every signifier, every sign, is effected. This is what Badiou meant, I think, when he claimed at one time that we are all subjects of an event – we just all respond to it in a different way. Some of us respond in fidelity to the event. Others attempt to suture the event.

By “value,” Saussure meant that each sign or signifier has a value only by virtue of its relationship to the network of everything else within the signifying system:

Take a knight, for instance. By itself is it an element in the game? Certainly not, for by its material make-up-outside its square and the other conditions of the game-it means nothing to the player; it becomes a real, concrete element only when endowed with value and wedded to it. Suppose that the piece happens to be destroyed or lost during a game. Can it be replaced by an equivalent piece? Certainly. Not only another knight but even a figure shorn of any resemblance to a knight can be declared identical provided the same value is attributed to it. We see then that in semiological systems like language, where elements hold each other in equilibrium in accordance with fixed rules, the notion of identity blends with that of value and vice versa.

Psychosis occurs when the suture does not exist, or when it temporarily opens up to let in a bit too much of the real. At this point we could claim that the entire system of zeros or unsaids within the signifying system become activated and the signifiers or numbers stand naked. Psychosis is the moment when all values are equal instead of being based on the Saussurean differentiation between the value of one sign or signifier and the multiplicity of everything else. An event is when a point is made possible, that is, a new value introduces itself and causes a shock to the multiplicity of the signifying system. The consequence is anxiety, … or worse. Panic.

Einstein’s Relativity and Lacanian Psychoanalysis

Roughly speaking, the way time dilation works under the theory of relativity is as follows: the closer an object is to another object of relatively larger mass, the slower time moves for that object. But this is true for the smaller object only when measured from the place of yet another relatively independent object. For example: the earth may be the large object and a human being walking on the earth may be the second object. The third object might be an astronaut in space.

It occurred to me to ask a question which I later found to be rather unoriginal: is it possible to achieve immortality for a given object if that object is in close proximity to another object of considerable mass? Let us presume that immortality is perfectly possible or that, at the very least, it can be approached within certain limits.

The problem is that the entire perceptual system (e.g., the breathing and thinking human being) is also thereby placed within the container of the object that is his body. The human mind is never without his body, and, moreover, never without his organs. This is a point made rather forcefully by Lacan throughout his teaching. A subject is never without its body. Thus, the human being continues to experience time as he would if he were the other independent object experiencing its own time.

Does this not explain why the perceptual system is closer to the ego, for Freud? Lacan said, with respect to Freud’s pcpt-Mnem schema:

[w]hat is at issue here is precisely the field of psychical reality, that is to say of everything which takes place between perception and the motor consciousness of the ego.

We can see clearly in Lacan’s work that the perceptual system and the ego are very close to one another, precisely for the reason that the question of the perceptual system is raised while Lacan was explicating his notion of the imaginary [order]. The ego is an imaginary formation produced through the see-saw of desire – the whole early part of Lacan’s teaching on mirror schemas sought to demonstrate precisely this point. So we can say that the perceptual system is geometrical – it consists of surfaces made up of lines, points, and so on.

The ego is what organizes theses lines and points into a surface.

This is also the whole premise of relativity. For Einstein, time/geometry change, but only from the yardstick of a relative observer. This is one of many reasons why Einstein’s physics is suited to Lacanian psychoanalysis (and vice versa): immortality is achieved for the human being, but only when perceived by an outside object or agent. The name Lacan gave to this outside agent was the big Other. The big Other is the witness of our immortality.

Clinically, we might say that obsessional neurotics are those who play out their own immortality for the witness of the big Other. Or, the obsessional neurotic plays out his own mortality for the immortal big Other. In either case, lack is sutured. The fundamental question of the obsessional neurotic concerns finitude or infinity, that is, it is a question ‘to be or not to be’ or ‘am I alive or am I dead?’

The big Other is situated within the symbolic order, and this is the order which precedes the subject. To put it rather crudely: the symbolic order is made of up signifiers (including the master signifier) and these eventually take account of the subject, displacing it – splitting it throughout a network of signifiers. The subject is split between the network of signifiers which gave birth to him.

Nobody seems to bother to mention that Einstein discovered relativity forty years before Lacan began plotting his mirror schemas. The geometry of the relatively mobile object is distorted, not unlike the geometry of the relatively positioned gestalt of the imaginary body in the mirror. The body in the mirror is displaced from its perceptual location (i.e., placed at some distance from its originating mass) and comes out smaller and less complicated than the body of the real.

We can claim that there is a notion of infinity or immortality which is put to the service of the obsessional symptom. Infinity is secured by the guarantee of the big Other. We might claim that Einstein was playing out his theory of relativity for a relatively positioned outside observer (one who is further from the mass of Einstein’s insight and therefore less prone to his own immortality). Einstein’s god was mortal so that Einstein and his discoveries might appear all the more immortal.

Perhaps we could claim that there is an altogether different form of immortality. This would have to be a form of immortality which ruptures the fabric of the obsessional symptom.

This is what one might call an event.

Bernie Sanders is Still a Grain of Seed

Bernie Sanders nicely pointed out that republicans seem to win when fewer people (for whatever reason) vote. However, what he failed to note was that when republicans win there tend to be more people out in the streets, more ad hoc pressure groups form, a heightened sense of political community becomes noticeable, and, quickly enough, there exists a mobilization against a shared enemy.

For example, under Bush there were over 36 million people out in the world marching to end the war – in many cases, these movements cross-cut the traditional american political spectrum. On the other hand, under Obama there were 100,000 people (at best) camping in parks for Occupy Wall Street.

Try also to compare the anti-war movement under Nixon, etc.

Recall that when Obama was elected, or when Ron Paul first started espousing quasi-anarchist principles, tactical solidarities were forged between ultra-left anarchists and communists and, on one occasion, anarchists and communists marched together within a “Hope Block” in Washington D.C. to support the “people power” demonstrated by the election of Obama.

The logic is a bit strange here, no?

Shouldn’t revolutionary and radical political leaders be precisely the ones who teach us the pitfalls of the electoral system?

I am even tempted to suggest that government has a finite amount of repressive power at its disposal during a given period of office. Republicans make use of this power quickly and all at once. The quick and immediate violence that republicans elicit today provokes an immediate response from the people. Democrats distribute or displace the same finite quantity of power over a longer period of time and thereby elicit immediate sympathy followed by a delayed reaction from the people (e.g., it took several years for militants to turn away from Obama, and, many militant activists eventually comforted themselves by stating: “I always suspected that Obama…”).

Class tensions are prone to develop through slower or quicker means under the representative system of democracy. The biggest threat to capitalism today therefore is not the republicans but the democrats who, due to heightening class tensions, are like the Atheist during his moment of pain: they force a return to belief (in God, in representative democracy, in capitalism, etc).

Thus, I am committed to the argument that Bernie Sanders is in fact precisely what the republican mindset requires to maintain or conserve belief in the system as it is. At a moment of systemic crisis, when breaks are possible, when people are secularizing their political ideals, the only possible way to rescue government is to empty out the content of the platform (e.g., Sanders stands for socialism, more or less – which is the negation of the system as it is) while retaining the form (e.g., Sanders demonstrates that the only way to obtain socialism is precisely through the vote).

Perhaps what we require today is a candidate who does not respond to the demand for social change (thus reflecting back onto ourselves the impossibility of government intervention), and who does not tell us the truth: namely, that grassroots struggles are the key to his success. We require a candidate to refuses to tell us the truth so that we might realize the truth ourselves.

This is why some people suspect that Trump is actually a friend of the people!

Bernie Sanders demonstrates effectively the joke about the man who believes himself to be a grain of seed under attack by a hungry chicken. His psychoanalyst cured him. A few months later, the man returned to his analyst: “Doctor! Help me!” The analyst responded, “But you are cured, you no longer believe yourself to be a grain of seed!” The man replied: “I know that! But the chicken doesn’t!”

Bernie Sanders and his followers know completely that capitalism and representative democracy is corrupt. They are cured from Bourgeois ideology! But the chicken of democratic capitalism doesn’t know it. And it is precisely for this reason that Sanders and his followers are forced to keep acting as if they are grains of seed (e.g., running for president, voting, buying products, and so on).

Panic Attacks

While my major panic attacks have mostly subsided in the last few years, I recall that some of the minor fits of anxiety more than a year ago occurred during the sudden onset of sickness (e.g., influenza, etc).

Freud, in his “On Narcissism” (c. 1914) proposed that during moments of sickness libidinal investments turn in toward the ego and away from objects. Thus, the ideal ego is diminished, in a sense, and the libido accumulates within the home of the ego.

The ideal ego offers a home when the ego has none. Panic flares up for lack of those imaginary points which constitute the four walls.

Fuzzy Thoughts on Outside Logics

During the feudal period all work was confined within the home (farm) and entertainment, if it occurred at all, was strictly within certain buildings outside of the home. And then there was a transition during and after industrialization which led to the separation of work from home. Work occurred outside of the home and entertainment gradually became confined to the living room. We can see here an inverse operation: if, at one time, entertainment was extrinsic to the outside area of the home (e.g., it was outside the home but still exclusive to a particular building and largely hidden away), then, at another time, entertainment was intrinsic to the home and was placed at the center (e.g., typically around the television set). We have today an entirely new situation: everything today, work and entertainment, is brought together in the potency of the pure outside. Thus, we have moved from a world where set theory made sense (e.g., the focus on intrinsic functions and objects: the home had within it an excessive part which we named the living room, and so on) to a world where category theory makes sense (e.g., the focus on extrinsic relationships where objects are nothing more than identity relations: the home is a machine-assemblage which is connected absolutely to everything else, including, for example, the cafe.) To visualize this latest development you can simply point to social media: I can check the cafe hours and who has ‘checked in’ from any location.

What the feudal and industrial capitalist logic required was a theory of the empty set (“there exists a set such that no set is a member of it”). Thus, Zermelo set theory was decades ahead of its time and posed a serious challenge to capitalist society, the consequences of which are still to be understood. What contemporary society requires however is not category theory which simply provides us with the syntax of neoliberalism but rather a syntax of our fidelity to the Zermelo axiom of the empty set. I’m not sure what this means precisely but I know that it means that we can not return simply to set theory to solve all of the problems of category theory, or the recent push toward the outside. We need something different if we are going to understand why cloud computing, airbnb, uber, social media, and so on, are today a part of the basic paradigm of communicative capitalism.

To Build At the Limit of Theory

Some philosophers who have opened up the path toward the discovery of a new modality of the real (speculative realism, new materialisms, and so on) have recently claimed that thinking ought to be a doing, that is, a praxis. Thus, there are privileged zones of thinking such as architecture, and so on. Philosophy must therefore today be about building and not only about critical thinking. My response to this is to claim that this is only a repositioning of the great debate concerning the relationship between action of structure, between theory and activism, and so on.

To begin with, I would claim that an action must always be derived from within the confines of structure and not the other way around. This was the great lesson of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, against the phenomenological tradition and the metaphysics of presence. Thus, we must ask ourselves: given the discourse of the master, what permutations of the real, of objet petit a, and of das Ding, might be possible? Lacan’s answer was that there are several possible revolutions of discourses from the master; minimally, these includes the university discourse, the hysterical discourse, the analyst discourse and, of course, the capitalist discourse.

What is thinking, then, but the necessary mediation of theory, of being the recipient of an analysis, so that one might discover the action inherent to the structure? This is what we call an act. An act is that moment when an individual rediscovers a possibility from within the real of his clinical structure.

Psychoanalysis teaches us that everything we’ve been doing has been based on certain ingrained and determinative narratives concerning our gender, our birth, and so on. In other words, our actions, our doing, or our building, has always been inauthentic and subject to the laws of repetition. Very rarely in our lives have we acted.

It is through this realization that the possibility of a new rupture occurs. We act precisely when theory reaches its limit, when it reaches the utopic point concealing the primordial and fundamental lack, namely, our fundamental fantasy.

Thus, building occurs only when theory reaches its utopic point.

I have long been familiar with a certain type of individual. We might call him the local builder. He exists in every small community. My grandfather was a local builder. The local builder is the individual who gives everything to the community: he creates new possibilities within the community by managing local businesses. He constructs new monuments. And the community establishes a sense of pride through the local builder. The local builder is always on the move and forever establishing business relationships.

What might we say about the local builder who has given up on the expectation that a good life involves establishing himself as the beacon of his moral community precisely by increasing his own riches. The local might reply that he has increased his riches only by increasing ours, and he would be correct. However, the local builder inadequately makes up for his lack of self-reflection and lack of lack through his good works. Kierkegaard says of this type: “the petty bourgeois is spiritless […] devoid of imagination, as the petty bourgeois always is, he lives within a certain orbit of trivial experiences as to how things come about, what is possible, what usually happens, no matter whether he is a tapster or a prime minister.” As Lacanians, we might say that Kierkegaard was correct but only because he has too much imagination and not enough act.

The local builder acts without passing through the necessary mediation of theory and thus acts only in the interests of structure and not by affirming the lack beneath the structure itself.

There are many ways to build authentically. I envision three. First, one might build by traversing the fantasy of the symbolic structure. For example, the local builder might give up on the expectation that the good life necessarily implies succumbing to the petty-bourgeois strategy of striving toward the future and hoping that the good works will satisfy the protestant big Other. Second, one might build by adopting a certain style, that is, by passing as an analyst. This is the style of interaction which serves the desires of the community, reflecting them back and demonstrating, through various interventions, that what they desire is not what they think they desire. Third, one might build by responding to an event from the real. For example, the local builder might have been shaken by a calling, of sorts. The calling may have been to solve the problem of homelessness and to do so by unorthodox means. In this case the local builder constructs a new possibility that attacks directly the coordinations of the old world.

The Distributed Panic of Lack

I just read a fantastic piece by Patrice Maniglier titled “Acting Out the Structure” in the second volume of Concept & Form. There are many wonderful theses in this short essay but one really sticks out for me. Within the obsessional structure of the signifying system he finds that trauma is an event which ripples and perhaps never ends. I am putting the matter in a fairly simple way here because I want to develop it to my own end.

Consider this: when a trauma event occurs, according to Maniglier, it distributes throughout the whole signifying system. For example, we see all those spaces where the zero gets passed along throughout Frege’s numeric system (in Miller’s article on “Suture,” this was very important). So, my own version is to claim something like this: when my panic attack sets in it attempts to distribute the jouissance across the whole network of zeros within the signifying system of the symbolic order. In my experience, this makes a lot of sense. I’ve often described my panic attacks as operating across various intensities, thresholds, and increasing in intensity precisely in every attempt to move outside of it.

I am tempted to claim, with Maniglier in some respects, that the jouissance aims to take all of language, to move through the entire, vast, network of signifiers. But, with hope, it does, at least in my case, inevitably – up until this point anyhow – reach a barrier. What is this barrier?

My initial thesis is that the barrier is some uninhabited level of abstraction. I can not yet figure out how to describe this but I think I am moving toward something. I think perhaps there might be a “upward” level of lack which is different in scope from the middle and lower levels of lack within the symbolic order. And I do not think that these lacks are the same. We know at least from Maniglier that the lack is distributed across the whole symbolic system – but what I am tempted to add, thanks to my own experience with the trauma of panic disorder, is that there are various registers of lack that are not distributed according to the same symbolic grammar. Of course, this higher level of lack exists only for the neurotic.

Except, if this is true then what about borderline, or untriggered psychosis, the new psychosis, autism, etc? Perhaps we can make a case that these fuzzier versions of psychosis are in fact lacks which are only lacking in one of the two or three (lower, middle, or higher) lacks of the symbolic order. Thus, perhaps I am afforded a certain level of protection from a pure psychotic break due to my panic disorder because I retain a higher level lack while another may not have any of the lower, middle, or higher levels of lack.

It is a very risky thesis – and I am moved to reject it. However, I must say, it makes a great deal of sense and explains in a way I hitherto could not explain my own panic disorder.

I would very much appreciate your comments.