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When we characterize objet a as Lacan’s principal contribution to the study of fetishism, we see that the psychoanalytic account of objects forms part of what I have designated as the differentiating imagination. Perhaps originally psychoanalysis participated in the insidious project of differentiation that I termed taxonomic, namely, the attempt to classify sexual perversions with the aim of curing or at least regulating them. But, as I have suggested, Lacan’s account of the object differentiates and proliferates causes of desire to a point that confounds heteronormativity. As with the psychoanalytic account of the unconscious, the theory of objet a counters sexual identitarianism and therefore provides queer critique with potent conceptual ammunition. However, as with Butler’s appropriation of drag for counteridentitarian purposes, difficulties arise as soon as one endeavors to harness these psychically implicated concepts to political agendas. Too often the capacity for differentiation that 130 Penumbra undermines identity is understood in voluntarist terms, as if it were a matter simply of choosing one’s identities, fetishes, or objects of desire.
Besides the issue of voluntarism, which has sparked such critical animus, there is a further problem here. This problem stems from the assumption that the only viable response to identitarianism or essentialism originates in the differentiating imagination—that, for example, the ostensibly homogenizing figure of the gay clone must be demystified to reveal an agent of diversification. To phrase this problem at its most basic, I would suggest that criticism has been misled in its conviction that difference, rather than sameness, represents the best weapon against identitarian regimes. Instead of deconstructing sameness to reveal the differentiations that constitute and thereby internally fracture it, we might distinguish between registers of sameness in the manner that (following Lacan) I previously argued for distinguishing between registers of otherness. Doubtless there is something paradoxical in attempting to distinguish likenesses, just as there is in Bersani’s call for “an emphasis on the specifics of sameness,” which also conjures the perverse prospect of differentiating sameness.19 Yet the example of the gay clone remains useful in helping us to distinguish imaginary sameness from the ontological de-differentiation that Bersani has been investigating under the rubrics of “homoness” and “inaccurate self-replication.” Ultimately the clone represents an image of sameness, as well as of desirability, and thus a figure for imaginary identity. He makes the image of what one might have and the image of what one might be the same image. The clone is a figure for imaginary identity because, in narrowing the distance between self and other, his appeal is fundamentally narcissistic. Whereas Lacan’s account of narcissism emphasizes the subject’s alienation in a specular image, the clone seems to promise that one may embrace rather than remain alienated from oneself. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this sounds like claiming that somehow imaginary alienation—and the aggressivity that accompanies it—could be overcome. What a transparent fantasy, that one would surmount one’s psychic difficulties through the body of the sexual partner!
Yet what does Lacan’s notion of imaginary alienation mean, other than that the subject misrecognizes him- or herself through the intermediary of the image of another? The point is that imaginary individuation is a giant mistake, and that we are not separately bounded monads struggling to find our way in the world, but rather profoundly connected beings whose interdependence we repeatedly fail to grasp. Lacan’s account of the symbolic order indicates this interdependence, though in a differentiating register. The symbolic cuts through imaginary illusions, dividing us against ourselves and undermining our identities. But the real cuts through the differentiating illusions of the symbolic, reminding us that language cannot totalize the effects it aspires to master. Beyond the symbolic lies a realm about which we can say very little without denaturing it. Thus our accounts of what Lacan calls the Sameness without Identity real are always necessarily fictions of one sort or another. It is a new set of fictions about the real that Bersani has been generating in his recent work, suggesting ways of thinking about relational being beyond our comparatively familiar imaginary and symbolic coordinates.
In books such as The Freudian Body, Bersani offered a powerful account of how imaginary identities are disrupted and yet survive—even take a kind of pleasure in—that disruption. Developing Laplanche’s notion of ébranlement, he described the erotic in terms of “self-shattering” and anatomized the paradoxes of trying to erect a politics on that which defeats the coherent self.20 Albeit from a non-Lacanian vantage point, Bersani was charting the illusoriness of the human ego, and he therefore could be regarded as a fellow traveler with respect to a certain Lacanian project. More recently, however, the focus of his work has shifted from self-shattering to self-extension, or what we might call subjective mobility beyond the confines of the ego. I see a parallel here with Lacan’s shift from investigating symbolic disruptions of the imaginary to his later emphasis on real disruptions of the symbolic. Once the illusory carapace of the individuated self is broken, it is only a particular brand of face-to-face intersubjectivity that falters. Without the myth of imaginary differentiation, relationality might not be quite so terrifyingly difficult as intersubjective problems suggest. Bersani’s contention is that a happier, less antagonistic relationality is perpetually in process at an ontological level that mostly eludes us. Far from representing a merely occasional occurrence, however, this communication of being—where the term communication is understood more in Bataille’s sense than in Lacan’s—happens all the time, and it is only our jealously guarded imaginary selves that prevent us from registering it more clearly.
Bersani argues that ontological relationality becomes visible in certain artworks and certain manifestations of homosexuality; the question of Caravaggio’s sexuality brings these two dimensions together.21 When considering Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s analyses of painting and film, we should bear in mind that—unlike most art critics—they are discussing images in a non-imaginary way and focusing on how images corrode rather than secure identity. In this respect, their art criticism shares something fundamental with the work of more explicitly Lacanian critics such as Parveen Adams, Joan Copjec, and Graham Hammill, all of whom in varying ways analyze images not for their thematization of the real (as Slavoj Žižek does) but for their formal dislocations of imaginary recognition.22 The issue of recognition—how we recognize ourselves as dispersed in the world, and thereby recognize the communication of being as always already having begun—poses a central problem here. What does “recognition” without imaginary identification mean? Is there a non-imaginary form of recognition that would not be susceptible to the vicissitudes of misrecognition?
132 Penumbra Certainly the term misrecognition implies the possibility that, perhaps in a register beyond the ego, a less delusional kind of subjective contact might occur, one in which preoccupations with mastery and possession—of oneself and others—would seem less urgent. If this kind of contact occurs without the rivalry that structures imaginary relations, it must be because boundaries demarcating self from other have dissolved. In this zone of ontological de-differentiation or sameness, it no longer makes any sense to speak of the self. After a certain point, a de-individuated self is no self at all, and I think it promotes misprisions of Bersani’s project to retain vocabularies of selfhood when describing the communication of being. Thus it is less a question of ascertaining how inexact are the “inaccurate self-replications” that Bersani and Dutoit identify, than it is of grasping how selfhood figures only a corner of being—how being comprehends while vastly exceeding the ego, and how therefore our selves are but aberrations within the world’s impersonal ontology.23 In his effort to account for what draws us to this ontological register, Bersani has developed an oxymoronic model of non-imaginary narcissism, locating in the lures of sameness a rationale for our participation in the communication of being. Reading the psychoanalytic critique of homosexuality against itself, he has argued that gay narcissism—or homoness—represents not a troubling disavowal of difference but an enlightening demonstration of how the distinction between difference and identity dissolves in another ontological register. Thus he hypothesizes how imaginary sameness, as exemplified by the figure of the gay clone, might give way to a non-imaginary world of contact that is so drained of antagonism as to qualify as a space of true solidarity. Given that the communication of being involves contact without barriers, it is perhaps inevitable that we think about it through metaphors of bodily intimacy. The ontological relatedness of which Bersani speaks offers an unlimited intimacy that most people seek (if they do seek it) through sex.
But the problem with sex is that it tends to limit intimacy to other persons, when what is at stake in the communication of being is impersonal relationality—or what Bersani elsewhere calls “our already established at-homeness in the world.”24 The metaphor of worldly at-homeness differs from the more overtly erotic figures through which we might explain the attractions of ontological dedifferentiation. Despite its interest in narcissism, psychoanalysis has not been especially helpful in rationalizing this attraction, primarily because it pictures de-differentiation as almost exclusively terrifying or traumatic. Yet there is something tautological in the insistence that what threatens the ego is felt to be threatening; what about those aspects of subjectivity that exceed the ego?
Why not view the cultural phenomenon of creating a shared “look” and the related phenomenon of a sexuality based on sameness of gender as but superficial instances of a more profound sameness that de-individuates subjectivity less threateningly than the loss of boundaries usually is understood to imply?
Sameness without Identity Without such an over-developed psychology of selfhood, we might be slower to cast de-differentiation in negative terms. In this respect, both Foucault’s and Lacan’s antipsychologism remains to be exploited.
Doubtless the prospect of treating Foucault and Lacan as companion ethicists of the impersonal raises potential methodological problems concerning the loss of distinctions between significantly different thinkers. Bersani recently has suggested, however, that “distinctions between ideas are perhaps grounded in assumptions of a difference of being between the self and the world.”25 There is always a danger that our carefully elaborated distinctions among thinkers and ideas might be based on—or at least fueled by—imaginary identifications that misrecognize deeper interdependencies. Our commitments to individuation make the identifiability and ownership of ideas a high priority, as if thought respected the imaginary boundaries that we place around persons. Yet if, as I hypothesized earlier, thinking ruptures identity, perhaps thinking ultimately corrodes distinctions in favor of analogies that correspond to analogies among worldly forms. From this perspective, “thinking differently” would conduce to sameness (though not to identity), and thus to an ontological realm at least partly independent of epistemological anxieties—a realm, that is to say, in which thinking would be coterminous with being. Faced with such a prospect we might well ask: What have we got to lose but our selves?
1. Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley (New York:
Random House, 1985), 8-9.
2. Foucault, “Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume Two,” trans. William Smock, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 1: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1997), 205.
3. Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, 6.
4. Ibid., 9.
5. Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason
since Freud,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
Norton, 1977), 166. A couple of sentences later, Lacan immediately rewrites this formulation: “I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think.” On Lacan’s rewriting of Cartesianism, see Mladen Dolar, “Cogito as the Subject of
the Unconscious,” in Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. Slavoj Žižek (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1998), 11-40.
6. Strictly speaking identity is not a psychoanalytic concept, although identification is, of course, central to psychoanalytic theory. Devoting his seminar of 1961-62 explicitly to the topic of identification, Lacan is particuPenumbra larly keen to discriminate registers of identification—imaginary, symbolic, and real—and the relations among them. A decade later, in seminars XIX and XX, he approaches this issue through the idea of “the One,” meditating on the gnomic formula “Y a d’ l’Un”—“There’s something of the One”—to advance his ongoing critique of identitarianism, in this case with respect to sexual identification, narcissism, and love. See Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore (1972-1973), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998).
7. See Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 129-160.
8. Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference, trans.
Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 226. See also Derrida, “Différance,” 149-150.