Notes Concerning the Black Clothing Worn by Some Anarchist Men and Muslim Women

A performative/spontaneous talk I gave two or three years ago at the Modernist Studies Association. Recorded and transcribed, and uploaded here.

[special thanks to allan antliff and roger rothman]

St. John of the Cross wrote in his Ascent of Mount Carmel that “understanding can understand naught save that which is contained within.” This lesson was repeated three hundred years later when Jacques-Alain Miller claimed that “[o]ne only understands what one thinks one already knows.” I can not pretend to introduce anything new here except to claim that the function of understanding is also to make an advance on anxiety. There where anxiety seemed to be, within the work of listening, are formed certain casual “habits.” A habit is a bit like a schema or a heuristic in that it provides the subject with an interpretative framework for the utterances of others.

My claim is that the work of listening is directly implicated in the concerns of the aesthete. In other words, the work of listening is bound up with what Immanuel Kant referred to as the judgment of taste. Those who listen are not only passive receivers of an auditory exchange – the active construction of meaning by those who listen is of such significance that psychoanalysts have developed an ethics of listening with which to conduct their daily work. We might even claim that listening is precisely the mode of meaning production for the other who speaks; the speaker being reduced, in some sense, to the role of consumer.

The work of listening therefore rubs up against all sorts of aesthetic judgements, including those judgments made in the world of fashion. The word “habit” is closely linked to the Latin habitus and is not far removed from habilis. The former has to do with “clothing for the body,” clothing which, etymology reveals, introduces a logic of being “possessed,” “managed,” or “held.” “Having,” substitutes, as Lacan once put it, “one object for another;” “clothes” act as a substitute for the “body.”

On the other hand, the word habilis, which, like habitus, is rooted in habere, adds the association of “habilitation.” The habilitation is concerned with a type of recognition for those who demonstrate the appropriate understanding. What is most curious about the word habilis is that it carries a strong sense of being about “fit.” Habilitation ensures that we are recognized by the fit of our clothes as being or having some body rather than no body. This aspect of the function of understanding is so confirmed in our cultural vernacular that we have developed a special idiom which expresses that “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

Recall Marshall McLuhan’s claim that clothing is a direct extension of the outer surface of the body. In other words, it extends the skin’s tactility and insulation. His point was that clothing keeps us from seeing the “whole picture” of the nude body. This type of body is what clinicians refer to as “imaginary,” that is, the body envisioned as if it were reducible to that which is discernible, and not, as it were, as a limitation or excess. It also can not be divorced from the hidden body, which is no less imaginary, as I have found within my clinic, and which reveals itself often as a request for telephone analysis.

Colette Soler has claimed the Freudian concept of libido was invented to describe that movement “which pushes the human being towards […] the object […] [by] looking for a part of itself outside itself in some fashion, which assures you of an extension of yourself outside yourself.” Perhaps McLuhan’s thesis was perfectly aligned with today’s post-continental world of “category theory” and “extensionality;” a world where an object exists only because of its relationship to some other object. But Soler cautioned that this extension is always ‘only possible on the basis of a prior subtraction […] castration.’ Lacan’s early critique of “object relations” demonstrated that this understanding simply doesn’t ‘fit’ the Freudian doctrine of the unconscious. Freud’s discovery avoids the ossification of the object, it avoids, for example, the ‘identity morphism’ of category theory.

It was written in a holy book that “Adam and Eve were both naked and were not ashamed.” My first mistake was to presume that the Hebrew word “ashamed” necessarily carries the sense of being embarrassed over the exposition of the body or its genitals. I learned that the Hebrew word “ashamed” is actually closer to “not being covered,” which implies that the two were not being not covered.[2] To my pleasant surprise, my discovery was confirmed already by Pope John Paul II, who said that “‘they were not ashamed’ [does] not express a lack, but, on the contrary, [it] serves to indicate a particular fullness of consciousness and experience.”[3]

It was after the digestion of a crucial signifier that they made clothing for themselves and they became “ashamed” only in the sense of being “not covered.” It is because of the relative ease of imagining not being covered (as opposed to not being not covered) that Lacan introduced anxiety as a moment of not being without an object. Not being not covered, or, put another way, not being ashamed, indicates not a return to a positive proposition but rather that the object relation was much more obscure. I invite you all to read the Catechism on the meaning of original human experiences by Pope John Paul II as a confirmation of this view.[4]

This may all seem as if it were debauchery, and Lacan claimed as much when he stated that “clothes promise debauchery when one takes them off.”[5] After all, before the loincloths, Adam and Eve had a perfect sexual relationship. Debauchery, by the way, is a type of excessive enjoyment; excessive in the sense of destruction. Bakunin, in one of his political letters, claimed that destruction is a creative passion, and, I find this confirmed by the clinical evidence which suggests that the suffering body creates. Adam and Eve fashioned for themselves clothes out of fig leaves – a truly creative act! The imaginary body is not the only body, there is also the real body of the objet petit a, the body which one is not without: the real body is what remains. Lacan once said that “what lies under the habit, what we call the body, is perhaps but the remainder.”[6] This shines some light on the insistence by some theologians that the Hebrew word for “ashamed” must be translated as “remainder.”

Lacan, in his fourth seminar, said: “[c]lothing is not only made to hide what one has […] but also precisely what one does not have. […] It is not a matter, essentially and always, of hiding the object, but also of hiding the lack of the object.” Note, then, that the holy text has highlighted very nicely that clothing was to hide “nakedness” and not, as it were, to hide the substantial genital organs. The Hebrew word used in the book עֲרוּמִּים (`arummim) expresses a lack of something, as in, for example, the book of Job when the word was used to express that “destruction hath no covering.” We could claim that clothing, as a type of “Urverdrangung” or “primal repression”)[7] hides the fact of lack, but we could also claim, since destruction hath no covering, that clothing is the result of a self-fashioned body from the excessive ‘real.’[8]

Why shouldn’t we use this as an opportunity to think about the function of the veil for some Muslims?

Muslim women patients frequently explain to me that the burqa or niqab is a way for them to “be” recognized as a proper woman under Islam. I have found in my practice that there is a sort of masquerade here, demonstrated to me often by the reoccurring claim that when they were young their fathers might have wanted them to be a boy. These women discover what many little girls come to discover which is that one possible solution to trauma of the real body is to “dress up like a boy and do boy things.” In other words, clinical evidence suggests that sometimes a woman dresses herself up in the fabric of a proper body, so as to conceal, finally, the dark secret of her real body. However, they do not introduce an imaginary body – the figure is obscured in the clothing – but rather a symbolic body. They build one for themselves out of the raw materials of their clothing.

Many Muslim patients express to me that they find themselves at odds with local men after moving to the American continent. There is even a case of a woman suddenly discovering, after 35 years of wearing her hijab, that she was wearing it improperly. This was a consequence of her new found interest in the subtleties of her religion. I am sharing this only to demonstrate that the way men looked at her was absolutely bound up with her new habits. To some extent, they were the reason for her body. So, her hijab was tightened, and the symbolic body was perfected. The symbolic body of the woman is self-fashioned through an active interrogation of the desire of the Other. Thus, for the woman, the self-fashioning involves, on the one hand, an invention of the desire of the Other so as to secure for herself a consistent habit of the self.

In any case, the skin beneath the hijab is only further clothing, and the muscle beneath the skin is further clothing, and the bone, etc. Until we finally reach the limits of clothing, the inaccessible real body – which is also the limit to understanding. This is why the real body is neither the discernible nude body nor the body in extension; the real body is irreducible, inconsistent, and, for that reason, it has a strange relation to our clothing and to our habits of listening. We therefore come to recognize why, in Ecclesiastes, it was written that scholastic habits are “a weariness of the flesh.” McLuhen’s thesis is here supplemented: clothes are extensions of the skin, but, only insofar as skin is not reducible to the real body.

In any case, there comes a moment in analysis when the analysand discovers that her clothes do not fit as originally thought.

The analyst has been put in the position of making them fit better, in other words, of offering an acceptable interpretation to the analysand.

The psychoanalyst is made an expert in matters of fashion.

I want to turn now to the anarchist black bloc. Those who participate in the black bloc tactic dress in black clothing from head to toe. This offers certain tactic advantages for an individual to rush outside of the group, toss a brick, and return back into the group without being recognized. If a bit of colour is worn then the individual can no longer remain submerged within and thereby protected by the others. What becomes recognized, effectively, during these moments, is the lack within the consistency of the black clothing. The consequent anxiety generates a situation in which members of the bloc rush in to act as a shield for deviating members of the bloc, or so as to administer medical attention to the injured, etc.

The body must remain consistent – this is the rule for the black bloc!

The signifier of “black” masters the debauched real body. If one can be-lack, that is, wear the signifier of lack, then one can have lack. This explains why one anarchist author wrote that the black clothing of anarchists “is simply black fabric with nothing on it […] [it is an] anti-colour swallowing all the others.” This anarchist did not write that black clothing is the absence of clothing but rather that it is the presence of clothes with nothing...

This difference is absolutely crucial.

It is not well known that Lacan added to the list of partial objects, “the nothing.” This changed the clinical understanding of anorexia, the trademark of which was no longer the rejection of food but rather the eating of “the nothing.” To eat the nothing is to digest the desire of the maternal Other. Lacan said that “the gift of love […] is a gift of nothing.” The mother issues the demand to eat, and the anorexic swallows only the remainder, only the love.

“Love,” claimed Lacan, “is what appears in the form of bizarre signs on the body.”

When the bloc speaks, what we end up hearing is that they “demand nothing.” The demand for nothing reveals a desire to be loved for the body which it has, the body which, in a most clever way, it has fashioned for itself as an attempt to master the problem of lack. In one anarchist periodical it was written that “[i]n demanding nothing, [we] can stay continuous throughout the many shifts and transformations within the movement.” In another, Fire to the Prisons, somebody wrote that “[t]he demand is a tool for self-organization. It unifies separated individuals against a common enemy […].”

The body of the bloc marches under a black flag, which is to march with a non-sensical anchoring point – best expressed by the signifier, “nothing.” I see no reason why we can not refer to this as a master signifier: anarchy, after all, is, as Proudhon boldly claimed, order.

This is how a body is formed when there is no authority. When there is no prohibitive symbolic function then this symbolic function must be fashioned on one’s own as a defence against the traumatic encounter with the real body, the real nothingness – a nothingness which is never reducible to the partial object. This consistent and self-fashioned partial object is what Lacanians refer to as a semblant.

The master signifier is the semblant par excellence! The signifier of “black” or “nothing” introduces a much needed body, as well as a boundary between bodies. This explains why Jacques-Alain Miller once claimed that the semblant is a way to “convert nothing into something,” that is, by “phallicizing the body,” or, put another way, of making a traumatic nothingness perfectly consistent.

We know that the black bloc do not present themselves as following the law – often it is quite the opposite. We also know women who wear the black burqa or niqab often believe themselves to be strictly obedient to Islamic law. This difference is extremely important because it demonstrates that the masculine logic of black clothing is to present oneself as having mastery of lack, while the feminine logic of black clothing is to present oneself as being no-body, symbolically.

I want to conclude with these threads – I did not offer you much clothing! – simply to highlight, there within the respective masculine and feminine registers, the logic of having and being with respect to the real body with nothing on it.




[5]Seminar XX. p. 6.

[6]Seminar XX

[7]Freud, 1915 – Repression: “We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression [Urverdrängung], a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the instinct remains attached to it.”

[8]The first position begins with the symbolic and finds there a primary repression of the encounter with the name/no of the father. The second position begins with a first real which, precisely through the introduction of a body, produces a second order real of lack. For example, Paul Verhaeghe wrote that “the idea of primal repression is the most interesting one because we can situate there the drive root of the symptom, the Real. It is only with the after-repression that the Symbolic component comes into being. For Freud, this is always a “faulty connection” (falsche Verknüpfung) between a drive component and a representation.


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