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identification (with cultural ideals);23 art (defined as the sublimated substitute for vicariously satisfying forbidden drives); and religion (which orders society around a non-negotiable demand to keep the basis for its authority closed to inspection).24 Freud found all three of these “illusions” wanting; they have become increasingly ineffectual the more civilization “perfects” itself. The only hope he held out was that human curiosity, the desire to know, science (for example, psychoanalysis), would ultimately trump the all-pervasive illusions civilization has devised as palliatives for the malaise it creates in all of us.
When I was a child, Freud’s utopian dream of endless learning was mine, too: I imagined always being able to live in the land of the free(thinking). But this utopia now seems as impossible to me as continuing to believe we could live forever in the land of the free. A passion for ignorance and confinement washes over global culture as it reaches the “end of history.” But should we not rethink at least one of Freud’s premises about the illusions that falsely reconcile us to a civilization to which we can never really be reconciled? At least in the domain of art, I think we should entertain some new hypotheses. The value of art, according to Freud, lies in its sublimation, its illusion of satisfying our necessarily repressed drives.25 But what if we were to consider art differently: as a unique undertaking to confront the Real (with its unknowable, terrifying jouissance) and to transmute the experience of that confrontation into something that not only places it at a protective distance (sublimation) but also brings it unimaginably closer than we could ever dream possible? By making it into an entirely new, transmissible experience of the Thing, without deceiving ourselves as to its horror and its pleasure.
Nowhere Else At the end of his life, Lacan set off along this other pathway and wondered if we could not, indeed, get out from under the burdens civilization forcibly imposes on speaking beings while yet retaining the crucial generative value of the language that is its instrument of choice. He turned to James Joyce who, Lacan thought, had contrived a way to convey jouissance (which the signifier carves off) in language. To read Joyce, Lacan notes, is not necessarily to experience the promise of meaning inherent to the structure of language, but to feel instead the reality of the author’s jouissance. To accomplish this impossible task, Lacan says, Joyce had to destroy the English language as we know it. Joyce’s personal malaise in his own (Irish) civilization was that of a double encirclement by the hell of an English language that had been forcibly imposed on his culture and that had remained fixed at the moment of its imposition. It had no freedom to change or evolve. Like the language of conquerors forced upon their new subjects, it brooked none of the playful, metaphoric outlets for the jouissance language represses—outlets open to any “native” speaker. English stagnated in its Irish iteration. (See the passage in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where young Stephen discovers that only he knows that the English priest laughs at the old-fashioned word for candlesnuffer, tundish, one no longer current in English usage.) The upshot was that Joyce was oppressed not simply by language, but that his oppression was aggravated by the fact that this language was deeply foreign to his culture; it was the language of his imperial oppressor.
Lacan saw that Joyce’s solution to the double impasse he encountered in language was his breaking out of (while not altogether breaking with) language. For Lacan, Joyce was the sinthome, the one who forged unimaginable signifiers that bear jouissance.26 What can we draw from Lacan’s appreciation of Joyce? Perhaps this: that art can now be charged with the singular burden of absorbing the slings and arrows of our permanent cultural misfortune in order to turn them into a new experience of jouissance. Not just for the sake (as in Joyce’s case) of the artist’s treating her own impossible condition, but rather to transmit her own transmuting of that experience, a transmutation that has allowed her to bear it, and to bear witness to it, and to share it with others. This would be an art that follows an alternative path, then, from the consumer path along which art is currently racing.
1. Charles Baudelaire, “XLVIII: Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World” in
Little Poems in Prose, ed. Martin P. Starr, trans. Aleister Crowley (Chicago:
The Teitan Press, 1995), 117-119.
2. See Dean MacCanell, “New Urbanism and its Discontents” in Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity, ed. Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin 236 Penumbra (London and New York: Verso, 1999), 106-128.
3. Rousseau is, of course, charged with just that; but I have argued that he actually takes the reverse position, seeing the “state of nature” as the utopian dream of a culture formed around an ego center, which he deplores.
He intended to recast culture from egocentricity into a new form of sociality. See Juliet Flower MacCannell, “Rousseau and Law: Monstrous Logic” in Law, Justice, Power, ed. S. Cheng (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 240-258; and “The City, Year Zero: Memory and the Spatial Unconscious,” in The Journal of Romance Studies, 7:2 (2007): 1-18.
4. Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 301-303.
5. “‘One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature’, writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.” Benjamin, “Theses on the
Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York:
Schocken Books, 1969), 253-254.
6. “The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” Ibid., 254.
7. Freud believed that the only “way out” for a civilization increasingly trapped by its own conflicting desires to exploit and stifle it was the unquenchable desire to know. We can no longer be so certain of this hope as Freud was. But I suggest other possibilities at the end of this essay.
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (hereafter SE), ed. and trans.
James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974), 21: 53.
8. The excisions required to manufacture a utopia also extend to its need to cut itself off. More’s Utopia enters into relations with other non-utopian societies mainly to recruit the mercenaries they need to protect them (Utopians themselves are pacifists). As the mercenaries are naturally killed in the course of their service, the Utopians justify these deaths with Nowhere Else Panglossian logic: eliminating the violence-prone from other societies will help advance those societies along the path to perfection.
9. The caption of an advertisement for a luxury hotel (Hyatt Corporation), The New Yorker, 28 December 1998/9 January 1999 double issue, inside back cover.
10. The Google Corporation could stand as the utopian emblem of this. It not only seems to generate endless profits, its campus swathes its knowledgeworkers with every creature comfort and every amenity, including gourmet lunches and personal on-demand massages. One masseuse, brought in to service the workers, has recently retired, as a multimillionaire, on the stock options granted her when she was first hired. At the same time, the dialectical opposition to this plenitude is already emerging, as we look towards an ecotopia whose hallmark would be the cut: in energy consumption, greenhouse gases, waste. See also the various abstinence movements (in eating and in sex) now becoming common. The quest for the solution to the problem of surplus enjoyment seems increasingly desperate.
11. I am thinking of someone like Emilio Ambasz, who, in Analyzing Ambasz, describes his architecture as the “pursuit of alternative futures.” Analyzing Ambasz, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Monacelli, 2004), 108.
12. Freud, “The Unconscious,” SE 14:187.
13. This is, at least, how it is described by the neo-conservatives and “Kojevian/Beltway” Hegelians, whose theses achieved their apogee under the regime of the second Bush administration.
14. Already in 1969, Lacan speaks of an alethosphere girdling the world, filled
with intangible messages and messengers of jouissance that he calls lathouses (gadgets). See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XVII:
The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (1969-1970), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans.
Russell Grigg (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 150-163.
15. The neo-conservative argument refuses to be belied by empirical experience. Indeed, disasters are now considered opportunities: witness Condoleezza Rice’s slip of the tongue regarding the South Asian tsunami of 2006. See also Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2007) and “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” The Nation, 2 May 2005, 9-11.
16. Freud, in The Future of an Illusion, had said that individuals must band together “to control the forces of nature, and extract its wealth for the satisfaction of human needs.” Yet, he notes that men have remained unconsciously hostile to the ban on satisfying their animal body by the demand for social coexistence. On the other hand, even though communal or common wealth is its byproduct, Freud notes, the result is that its 238 Penumbra use becomes the subject of regulation, made “necessary in order to adjust the relations of men to one another… especially in the distribution of the available wealth” (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, SE 21:6).
17. Desperate Housewives is broadcast on Disney-owned ABC.
18. Lacan, “Kant with Sade” in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 645-668.
19. See Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. See also Juliet Flower MacCannell, “More Thoughts for the Times on War and Death: The Discourse of Capitalism in Seminar XVII” in Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Reflections on Seminar XVII, ed. Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 195-215.
20. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992), 15.
21. Wall graffiti, Paris, 1968.
22. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1989), xi.
23. “No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen, one has one’s share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws” (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, SE 21:13).
24. Ibid., 54-55.
25. “Art offers substitutive satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else to reconcile man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization.” Freud goes on to say it heightens our feeling of identification, and as a product of our own particular culture, it is also a “narcissistic satisfaction” (Ibid., 14).
26. Lacan, Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre XXIII, Le Sinthome, 1975-1976 (Paris: Seuil, 2005). A more contemporary example is the comic genius of Denis Leary, who laces his brilliant language with profanities that are not meant simply to be rude and transgressive; instead, they convey to his listeners an unnameable passion and intensity. Another device, dreamt up by some unknown genius, is that series of symbols inserted into cartoons to indicate the strongest emotions, expressing profanity without saying a word: !!$#@%!!
The Censorship of Interiority Joan Copjec
Iranian films are an exotic experience for audiences accustomed to Hollywood-dominated cinema. Not just for obvious reasons, but because the obvious—the foreign locations, customs, and people, everything we actually see on screen—is produced by a different distribution of the visible and the invisible and an alien logic of the look.
One of the most spectacular heralds of Iran’s 1978-1979 Islamic Revolution was the torching of spectacle. Movie theaters—in one horrific case, with the audience still in it—were set on fire and incinerated by fundamentalists.
Fittingly, in this respect, Khomeini spoke, in his first public appearance as Iran’s new leader, not only of his intent to restore the authority of the mullahs and to purge the country of all foreign influences, Eastern as well as Western;