Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Freud never ceases to repeat– and Lacan after him –is that transportation fails

The Scheme of Translation from Larval Subjects Now, those who have kindly been following my recent posts and who know a bit of my background no doubt recognize that I’ve been particularly unkind to Lacan and Žižek. Not only have I been unkind, I’ve been resolutely unfair, misrepresenting their positions in a number of ways.

I have, for example, continuously used Lacan and Žižek as examples of the sort of thought I’m trying to overcome and have accused them of reducing the world to the signifier. As Lacan remarks in Encore, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. Clearly such a statement is thesis from the standpoint of any object-oriented philosophy insofar as object-oriented philosophy seeks to defend the reality of objects of all sorts, rejecting any metaphysics– and they are metaphysics –that would treat objects as product of the culture, the human, language, texts, power, mind, etc. There is, of course, an important and subtle qualification of this defense of the reality of objects; for, since texts, humans, minds, languages, texts, forms of power and all the rest are objects too, these things too are real. A discourse is real and therefore both is difference and produces difference. But a tree is real as well and exists regardless of whether discourses exist. At any rate, my charges again Lacan and Žižek might be disconcerting given that I have both practiced as a psychoanalyst and have written so much on Lacan and Žižek.

As anyone familiar with Lacan or Žižek knows, while Lacan often makes remarks to the effect that the universe is the flower of rhetoric, while Žižek often portrays reality as an effect of the symbolic or the signifier, both later Lacan and Žižek nonetheless give pride of place to the category of the real. This marks one major difference between the Lacanian position and the position of linguistic idealists.

  • On the one hand, for Lacan, there is the real as a sort of twist in the symbolic, as a distortion of the symbolic where the symbolic simply doesn’t work in the smooth and law-like fashion analyzed so ingeniously by Lévi-Strauss. This is a conception of the real that, while I find it fascinating, is of less interest for the object-oriented ontology I’m trying to develop.
  • On the other hand, there is the Lacanian real as the pre-symbolic or that which is outside the symbolic. In this connection, Lacan’s thought– and psychoanalytic thought more generally –is highly resonant with both Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction.

For what Lacan and Freud both explore so brilliantly throughout their work is the assembly of culture and biology. Freud’s great life’s work– the collected works of which sit handsomely behind me on my bookcase (please be envious!) –unfolds between the dual poles of the Three Essays on Sexuality (biology, though of a highly unusual sense) and The Interpretation of Dreams (the semiotic or the cultural). What Freud never ceases to repeat– and Lacan after him –is that transportation fails. The biological body in the real is never simply transported into the cultural, is never a mere iteration or perfect copy of the cultural that descends upon the biological body, and the individual never ceases to peturb or disrupt the smooth functioning of the social order.

In this regard, Freud and Lacan can both be taken as profound thinkers of both translation and irreduction. On the one hand, we get an account of how the subject perpetually fails to be a perfect copy, a repetition, of the cultural codes; while on the other hand we get a highly nuanced account of how translation between these spheres take place. We get an account of how biological instincts (instinkt) are transformed into drives (trieb). We get an account of how, in striving to integrate this foreign invader– the cultural or the symbolic –the drives perpetually displace various cultural representations giving rise to the formations of the unconscious. As Lacan so beautifully puts it,

“…what the unconscious does is show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real” (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 22). [...]

Given that Freud and Lacan are both thinkers of translation and irreduction, it would thus come as no surprise to discover that they have a great deal to teach us about Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction at a more general ontological level of objects in general without any reference to the human at all. In particular, I think Lacan’s theory of discourse has a great deal to teach us about objects and relations between objects when this theory of discourse is translated in the appropriate way. For what is Lacan’s theory of discourse if not a theory of transportation and the failure of transportation, such that we get an account of both translation and irreduction writ large? In discussing the greatness of mathematics, Whitehead remarks that,

“[t]he originality of mathematics consists in the fact that in mathematical science connections between things are exhibited which, apart from the agency of human reason, are extremely unobvious” (Science and the Modern World, 19).

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