From Kant to Hegel, Again
The properly philosophical outcome of our first chapter is that everything turns around the passage from Kant to Hegel. In the predominant perception, Kant is supposed to openly admit the failure of general ontology which aims at grasping the Whole of reality: when our mind tries to do this, it inevitably gets caught into antinomies; Hegel then closes up this gap, reinterpreting antinomies as contradictions whose dialectical movement enables us to grasp the Whole of reality, i.e., the return to pre-critical general ontology… But what if the actual situation is quite different? True, Kant admits antinomies, but only at the epistemological level, no as immanent features of the unreachable Thing-in-itself, while Hegel transposes epistemological antinomies into ontological sphere and thereby undermines every ontology: “reality itself” is non-all, antinomic.
One has thus to be very precise here. When Kant deplores that the Thing-in-itself remains out of our reach, it is easy to detect the falsity of this deploring, clear signs of relief – thanks god we escaped the danger of coming too close to It! That’s why it is crucial to note that Kant does not only try to demonstrate the gap between appearances and the In-itself: Kant advocates something much stronger, his antinomies of pure reason claim to demonstrates that appearances CANNOT be the same as the In-itself, that they are necessarily mere appearances. (In exact homology to it, Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, falsely deplores the fact that we cannot ever be certain if our act was a truly free ethical act and not an act contaminated by pathological motivations: again, beneath this deploring, there is a relief that we can forever avoid the Real of freedom.) A Hegelian critique of Kant does not simply advocate that our appearances fit the In-itself – on the contrary, it fully asserts the gap between appearances and the In-itself, locating the Real INTO THIS GAP ITSELF. In short, the very gap that seems to separate us forever from the In-itself is a feature of In-itself, it cannot be reduced to something immanent to the sphere of phenomena.
So how are we to overcome the transcendental approach first elaborated by Kant, i.e., how to enact the passage from Kant to Hegel, without regressing into a pre-critical realist ontology? The ultimate consequence of Kant’s transcendentalism is the deadlock of Reason: when it tries to overstep the boundaries of our finite experience, reason (logos, symbolic order) gets necessarily entangled in antinomies, a proof that our reason cannot reach reality as it is in itself. Next step: in her epoch-making »Euthanasia of Reason,« Joan Copjec linked Kant’s duality of mathematical and dynamic antinomies of pure reason to Lacan’s formulas of sexuation: mathematical antinomy is »feminine,« while dynamic antinomy is »masculine«, thereby asserting the ontological relevance of sexuality (in a way that is radically different from premodern cosmologies with their struggle of opposite principles, Yin and Yang, etc.). What, however, is the exact consequence of this insight? It seems that it again asserts the transcendental agnostic hypothesis, just providing it with a »Freudian« root – something like: our reason get entangled in antinomies, it cannot gain access to reality-in-itself, because it is always (constitutively) »twisted« by sexuality (sexual difference).
The question that arises here is: how can we think this »euthanasia of reason« (the reason’s inevitable entanglement in radical antinomies, its inability to grasp reality in its totality, as a Whole) without positing (or presupposing, in short – in Hegelese -: positing as presupposed) an In-itself demonstrated as out of reach of our reason? There is, of course, only one (Hegelian) way: to enact the move from epistemological deadlock to ontology, to conceive a radical antagonism (a parallax split) as immanent to reality itself. As Hegel put it, Kant displayed too much »tenderness for the things« when he refused to accept that antinomy is a feature of reality itself; against Kant, we should thus grasp what he perceives as an obstacle to our cognition of the thing-in-itself the very feature that throws us into the abyssal heart of the thing-in-itself. The fact that we cannot grasp reality as a Whole doesn’t mean that reality as a Whole is beyond our reach, it means that reality is in itself non-all, antagonistic, marked by a constitutive impossibility – to put it pointedly, there are things because they cannot fully exist.
Imagine a gradual process of getting to know a thing, a process of approximation in which the thing ultimately always eludes us, and then imagine that this process of approaching a thing is immanent to this thing itself, so that this thing circulates around a void, an impossibility, in its very core. And it is here that what Lacan calls objet petit a, the object-cause of desire, enters: objet a gives body to this void. Kant’s name for this object is “transcendental object” which is to be strictly opposed to the transcendent object (the noumenal “thing in itself”). “Transcendental object” is not the appearance or the remainder/trace of the noumenal real within phenomenal reality, it is the very operator of the passage from the noumenal to the phenomenal, the operator of the emergence of phenomenal reality – something like the Kantian “Higgs particle” which renders possible the passage from pre-ontological real of non-substantial quantum oscillations to our reality of substantial particles with mass.
Some basic philosophical terms are often used in a confusing way, and one of them is definitely the term “transcendental” whose Kantian meaning tends to be overshadowed by all the talk about “transcendental meditation” where the term jut designate a higher spiritual awareness no longer constrained by empirical reality. But there are more interesting cases of ambiguity – recall the double sense of “speculation”: financial speculation on the market and philosophical speculation (pure thinking unbound from empirical reality), a nice case of what Hegel called “infinite judgment,” the coincidence of the opposites, of the highest and the lowest. In the same way as financial speculation deals with M-M’, money which seems to engenders more money without recourse to production, philosophical speculation deals with thoughts engendering more thoughts without recourse to empirical reality. Maybe, one can take a risk in making another such parallel and link Kant’s notion of transcendental object with what is called in mathematics transcendental number:
“All transcendental numbers are irrational, but not all irrational numbers are transcendental. Not only can transcendental numbers (insofar as they are irrational) not be written as a ratio of integers; not only do their decimal forms go on forever without repeating; what further characterizes transcendental numbers is that they are numbers that can’t be described by algebraic operations: there’s no finite sequence of multiplications, divisions, additions, subtractions, exponents, and roots that will give you the value of a transcendental number. For example, while √2 is not transcendental, pi and e are.”
The feature we should bear in mind is that a transcendental number cannot be constructed by means of algebraic operations, in exactly the same way that Kant’s transcendental object cannot be accounted for in the terms of transcendental categories that determine phenomenal reality – and, we may add, in the same way that Lacan’s objet a cannot be constructed as part of the symbolic texture. However, this externality of the transcendental number to the space of algebraic operations is an immanent externality: transcendental number is an immanent limit of the field of algebraic operations, it is its ex-timate to it, to use Lacans’ old pun. And the same goes for the transcendental object which is transcendental, not transcendent, not the Thing-in-itself: contrary to some confused and misleading formulations found in Kant himself, transcendental object is not noumenal but the “nothingness,” the void of horizon of ob-jectivity, of that which stands against the (finite) subject, the minimal form of resistance that is not yet any positive determinate object that the subject encounters in the world – Kant uses the German expression Dawider, what is “out there opposing itself to us, standing against us.”
We find the same structure in the case of Lacan’s objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. The same object can all of a sudden be “transubstantiated” into the object of my desire: what is to you just an ordinary object, is for me the focus of my libidinal investment, and this shift is caused by some unfathomable x, a je ne sais quoi in the object which cannot ever be pinned down to any of its particular properties. Objet a is therefore close to the Kantian transcendental object, since it stands for the unknown x, for what is “in you more than yourself.” L’objet petit a can thus be defined as a pure parallax object: it is not only that its contours change with the shift of the subject; it only exists – its presence can only be discerned – when the landscape is viewed from a certain perspective. Not again the coincidence of the opposites at work here: objet a designates what is in an object more than this object itself, its unreachable core – but precisely as such, it is the very point of the inscription of subjectivity into the object. Let’s take the obvious example of love: what causes love is some elusive je ne sais quoi in the beloved, some x that cannot be pinned down to any perceptible particular feature of the beloved; but this x does not exist in itself, it is the inscription of my desire into the object (which is why, as they say, a human being appears sublime ony to the gaze of the subject in love with him/her.
There is a further paradox at work here: it is at the very point at which a pure difference emerges – a difference which is no longer a difference between two positively existing objects, but a minimal difference which divides one and the same object from itself – that this difference “as such” immediately coincides with an unfathomable object: in contrast to a mere difference between objects, the pure difference is itself an object. Another name for the parallax gap is therefore minimal difference, a “pure” difference which cannot be grounded in positive substantial properties.
We may even risk a further parallel with the “transfinite” object in Cantor’s sense. Why Lacan’s unexpected reference to Cantor? The distinction between “transfinite” and “infinite” elaborated by Cantor roughly fits the Hegelian distinction between “true” and “bad” (or “spurious”) infinity: within the “bad infinity”, we never effectively reach the infinite, to every number we can add another unit, and “infinity” here refers to this very constant possibility of adding, i.e. to the impossibility of ever reaching the ultimate element in the series; what if, however, we treat this set of elements, which is forever “open” to addition, as a closed totality and posit the infinite as an element of its own, as the external frame of the endless set of elements it contains? The transfinite is thus a number or an element with the paradoxical property of being insensitive to addition or subtraction: it we add to it or subtract from it an unit, it remains the same. And was it not in a similar way that Kant constructed the concept of “transcendental object”? One is tempted to risk a pun here: Cantor – Kant. The transcendental object is an object that is external to the endless series of empirical objects: we arrive at it by way of treating this endless series as closed, and positing outside of it an empty object, the very form of object, that frames the series. It is also easy to discern the further homology with objet petit a, the object-cause of desire, which is also “transfinite”, i.e. an empty object that frames the endless set of empirical objects. In this precise sense, Lacan’s two exemplary cases of objets a, voice and gaze, are “transfinite”: in both cases, we are dealing with an empty object that frames the “bad infinity” of the field of the visible and/or audible by way of giving body to what constitutively eludes this field (on that account, the object-gaze is a blind spot within the field of the visible, whereas the object-voice par excellence, of course, is silence.
Lacan determined objet a as a-sexual, which doesn’t simply mean that it is non-sexual, external to the space of sexuality: insofar as it is the object-cause of desire; insofar as, for Freud and Lacan, desire is by definition sexual (in contrast to Jung who asserts a non-sexual general libido, there is no general libido for Freud and Lacan); and insofar as Lacan’s formula of the impossibility/void/antagonism that undermines every ontological vision of All is “there is no sexual relationship,” objet a gives body to the impossibility of sexual relationship. It is “a-sexual” only in this sense of giving body to the absence of sexual relationship: if there were to be sexual relationship, no objet a would have been needed.
Objet a is what is to be subtracted from the real, not added to it, in order to arrive at reality. If it falls into reality, reality breaks down (say, when gaze falls into reality, we get the paranoiac stance of “someone is watching me out there, in reality”). Objet a is not a something that fills in the void, it is the materialization of this void as such, its place-holder; it is not something but less than nothing, a “negative object”: if we erase it, we do not get less but more than we had.
No a Without Phallus
Does this reference to Kant’s transcendentalism mean that Lacan elevates sexual difference into a kind of tarns-historical a priori, a fixed frame filled in with variable content? The reply to this critical point is a double no. First, Kant’s antinomies combined with Lacan’s formulas of sexuation do provide the basic formal structure of sexuation, but what they provide is not simply an a priori symbolic form but a formal deadlock, a Real which undermines every permanent form of gender identity; second, we can well imagine a human universe that leaves behind sexuation, a literally trans-sexual (not just trans-gender) universe – sets in motion different historical forms of sexuality. When gender theorists render problematic the “gender binary” and emphasize the fluidity and multiplicity of sexual identities, they themselves proceed in a non-historical way, forgetting to historicize their own form of radical historicism: radical fluidification of the forms of sexual identity is not a trans-historic fact but a form that characterizes sexuality in late capitalist post-patriarchal universe. We have to accomplish here a kind of negation of negation: yes, fluidification negates all fixed forms, but we have to make a step further and “negate” (historicize) this very form of radicalized historicism, discerning in it a specific historical formation.
Furthermore, gender theory slides into ideology when it conceives the fact that gender role is not biologically predetermined but socially constructed as a proof that sexual orientation is a matter of free choice, so that, ideally, subjects can play with different identities, experimenting with them… What we get here is simply a denial of the Freudian Unconscious, a covert return to ego-psychology. Yes, sexual identity is a free choice, but a choice at the level of what Schelling called the primordial decision-differentiation (Ent-Scheidung), the unconscious atemporal deed by means of which the subject chooses his eternal character which, afterwards, within his conscious-temporal life, he experiences as the inexorable necessity, as “the way he always was”:
“The deed, once accomplished, sinks immediately into the unfathomable depth, thereby acquiring its lasting character. It is the same with the will which, once posited at the beginning and led into the outside, immediately has to sink into the unconscious. This is the only way the beginning, the beginning that does not cease to be one, the truly eternal beginning, is possible. For here also it holds that the beginning should not know itself. Once done, the deed is eternally done. The decision that is in any way the true beginning should not appear before consciousness, it should not be recalled to mind, since this, precisely, would amount to its recall. He who, apropos of a decision, reserves for himself the right to drag it again to light, will never accomplish the beginning.”
A further reference to Kant imposes itself here: his notion of a primordial, atemporal, transcendental act by means of which we choose our “eternal character,” the elementary contours of our ethical identity. And the link with Freud’s notion of an unconscious decision is clear here: this absolute beginning is never made in the present, i.e., its status is that of a pure presupposition, of something which always-already took place. In other words, it is the paradox of a passive decision, of passively assuming the Decision that grounds our being as the supreme act of freedom – the paradox of the highest free choice which consists in assuming that one is chosen. In his Adieu a Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida tries to dissociate the decision from its usual metaphysical predicates (autonomy, consciousness, activity, sovereignty…) and think it as the “other’s decision in me”:
“The passive decision, condition of the event, is always, structurally, another’s decision in me, a rending decision as the decision of the other. Of the absolutely other in me, of the other as the absolute who decides of me in me.”
In psychoanalytic terms, this choice is that of the “fundamental fantasy,” of the basic frame/matrix which provides the coordinates of the subject’s entire universe of meaning: although I am never outside it, although this fantasy is always-already here, and I am always-already thrown into it, I have to presuppose myself as the one who posited it. Because of this radical (and radically unconscious) character of the sexual choice it is much easier to transform our body (by means of a gender-changing surgical intervention) than to undo the unconscious choice.
The approach to Lacan popular among some gay theorists is based on – let’s call it, to simplify things to the utmost – the »from phallus to objet a« thesis. The idea is that the late Lacan, with his shift of accent from the Symbolic to the Real, also left behind the central role of the phallic signifier and of sexual difference, instead of which he asserted the role of objet petit a (or surplus-enjoyment) as more primordial, as grounding subject’s relation to enjoyment, and this object is, as Lacan wrote, “a-sexual.” From this premise, Tim Dean deploys his impersonalist theory of desire according to which we have sex not with others but with the Other. From this standpoint, of course, phallus (the phallic signifier) has to appear as a kind of retrograde legacy: “Lacan’s most profound ideological and affective convictions sometimes run counter to his most brilliant critical and analytical insights.” Phallic signifier is part of these »convictions« and should be reduced to a “provisional concept because so many of its functions are taken over by other concepts, in particular that of object a, which has no a priori relation to gender and, indeed, may be represented by objects gendered masculine, feminine, or neuter.” (Incidentally, this is always a comfortable position: when you propose a reading that obviously has to ignore some if the interpreted author’s key theses, the easiest way to deal with it is to impute the inconsistency to the interpreted author him/herself.)
With regard to sexual difference itself, Dean evokes Freud’s »astonishing claim« that “the unconscious has no knowledge of sexual difference /…/ Lacan maintains that there is no signifier for sexual difference in the unconscious. Hence the phallus cannot be a signifier of sexual difference /…/If there is no signifier for sexual difference in the unconscious, then as far as the unconscious is concerned heterosexuality does not exist…. Sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire.” Here is how Sam Warren Miell, in an attack on me, resumes Dean’s position:
»Our tendency to read sexual difference and sexuality in terms of each other, and to read sexual difference in terms of men and women, corresponds to a pre-Freudian, psychologistic understanding of sexuality. Worse, it endorses an identification of sexuality with the ego, with normative, idealizing results. /…/ The fact that the unconscious contains no signifier of sexual difference means that it is essentially bigendered/bisexual (as Freud himself already suggested), which is why Shanna T. Carlson has concluded that one way a transgendered person might be viewed in terms of psychoanalysis is as personifying ‘the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.’”
This entire line of thought should be rejected as a pretty obvious misreading of Lacan. If we designate as “sexual difference” what Lacan renders with his formulas of sexuation, then sexual difference is sustained precisely by the lack of the “binary” signifier in the unconscious, by the lack of a clear symbolic opposition or couple which would determine the two sexes. Not only sexuality but human subjectivity as such is thoroughly “sexed” precisely in the sense of the trauma of sexual difference: the parallax gap between masculine and feminine positions, the two inconsistent ways to cope with – or, rather, to assume – the trauma of the impossibility of sexual relationship, is unconditional, there is no third way. Of course our position is not determined by biology, a biological man can assume a feminine position, but the choice is unconditional, there is no “bisexuality” here, the gap is parallactic, one position excludes the other, which is why one precisely should not say that “the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation”: yes, every solution to the failure of sexual relationship is unsatisfactory and in this sense incomplete, but this does not mean that sexual difference is a secondary imposed frame which cannot eve completely capture the wealth of the unconsciously bisexual subject. There is nothing outside this failure, subject and language are themselves the outcome of this primordial failure. As Lacan put it, the real is an impasse of formalization, and this is to be taken literally: not that the real is an external substantial domain that resists formalization (or symbolization, although they are not the same, of course), but that the real is totally immanent to the symbolic – it is nothing but its immanent failure.
One should note that the only “function” which operates in these formulas of sexuation is the phallic function – as Lacan emphasizes, what is “primordially repressed,” what is constitutively absent even from the unconscious, is (not the signifier of sexual difference but) the “binary signifier,” the signifier that would serve as the feminine counterpart to the phallic function (in the way premodern sexualized cosmology talks about masculine and feminine “principles,” Ying and Yang, etc.). (To avoid any misunderstanding, this primordial repression of the binary signifier not only does not put women in a subordinate position; if anything, it elevates then into exemplary cases of subjectivity, since subjectivity is for Lacan defined by the missing signifier – this is how one should read Lacan’s mark for the subject, $, barred S, signifier.) Because the binary signifier is primordially repressed, there is no sexual relationship, sexual antagonism cannot be symbolized in a pair of opposed symbolic/differential features. However, the fact that there is no sexual relationship in no way implies that »there is no sexual difference in the unconscious,« that the unconscious is beyond or beneath sexual difference, a fluid domain of partial drives which defy sexuation. One can even say that the unconscious is thoroughly and only about sexual difference in the sense of an antagonism impossible to symbolize that haunts the symbolic order. The impossibility of sexual relationship does not mean that sexual relationship is simply absent from the unconscious, it means that the very impossibility of sexual relationship is the traumatic point of failure which structures the entire symbolic space, or, as Lacan put it in his Seminar XX, “we take language as that what functions to supply for the absence of the only part of the real that cannot manage to be formed in being, namely, the sexual relationship.” That’s why objet a as a-sexual is not prior to the deadlock of sexual relationship but is already mediated by it, an object which fills in the lack/void sustained by this deadlock/impossibility: there is objet a because there is no sexual relationship. To put it in yet another way, sexual difference is the point of failure of logos, of the symbolic, but this failure absolutely does not mean that there is a domain of sexuality prior to (or outside of) sexual difference and its deadlock. Sexual difference/antagonism is not just the point at which logos/reason fails, it IS nothing but the effect of this failure. Lacan’s name for this negativity is the impossibility of sexual relationship, the impossibility formalized in his formulas of sexuation.
Following in the steps of Dean, Chris Coffman argues that “sexual difference is not inalterable. Rather, sexual difference is the fundamental fantasy that Lacanian psychoanalytic theory needs to traverse in order to fully register the many possible configurations of desiring subjectivities.” Here we have the misunderstanding at its purest: sexual difference is not the “fundamental fantasy” that obfuscates the multiplicity of desiring subjectivities, it is this proliferating multiplicity untouched by castration which is one of the fantasies that obfuscates the trauma of the non-existence of sexual relationship (the other fantasy being the fantasy of sexual relationship itself).
Furthermore, far from following heterosexual normativity with his focus on sexual difference, Lacan’s view on heterosexuality and homosexuality is quite unexpected – in a gay couple, the symbolic Third is the Name-of-the-Mother; plus Lacan’s position is that only lesbians are true heterosexuals while gays and straight heterosexuals are homosexual. To explain this last point, let us make a detour through two movies, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and David Cronenberg’s M Butterfly: in spite of their fundamentally different character, they both tell the story of a man passionately in love with a beautiful woman who turns out to be a man dressed up as a woman (the transvestite in The Crying Game, the opera singer in M Butterfly), and the central scene of both films is the traumatic confrontation of the man with the fact that the object of his love is also a man. Here, of course, the obvious objection awaits us: does M Butterfly not offer a tragicomic confused bundle of male fantasies about women, not a true relationship with a woman? The entire action of the film takes place among men. Does not the grotesque incredibility of the plot simultaneously mask and point towards the fact that what we are dealing with is a case of homosexual love for the transvestite? The film is simply dishonest, and refuses to acknowledge this obvious fact… This elucidation, however, fails to address the true enigma of M. Butterfly (and of The Crying Game): how can a hopeless love between the hero and his partner, a man dressed up as a woman, realize the notion of heterosexual love far more authentically than a “normal” relationship with a woman? Or, with regard to The Crying Game: why is the confrontation with the lover’s body such a trauma? Not because the subject encounters something alien, but because he confronts there the core fantasy that sustains his desire. Heterosexual love of man is homosexual, sustained by the fantasy that the woman is a man dressed up as a woman. Here we can see what is traversing the fantasy: not to see through it and perceive the reality obfuscated by it, but to confront the fantasy as such – once we do it, its hold over us (the subject) is suspended. Once the hero of The Crying Game or M Butterfly confronts the fact, the game is over (with different results, of course: a happy end in one case, a suicide in the other).
This brings us back to Lacan’s characterization of objet a as “a-sexual”: it is a-sexual, not simply asexual (non-sexual), where a obviously refers to objet a, so it is “sexual in the mode of a”. In other words, the point of Lacan’s pun is that there is a negative dimension in objet a; however, this negation is strictly immanent to sexuality, it refers to a negation constitutive of sexuality (roughly: to the non-existence of sexual relationship), not to a step out of its domain – how, exactly? Sexuality is in itself, hindered and perverted, being simultaneously insufficient and excessive (with excess as the form of appearance of lack). On the one hand, it is characterized by the universal capacity to provide the metaphorical meaning or innuendo of any activity or object – any element, including the most abstract reflection, can be experienced as “alluding to that” (suffice it to recall the proverbial example of the adolescent who, in order to forget his sexual obsessions, takes refuge in pure mathematics and physics – whatever he does here again reminds him of “that”: how much volume is needed to fill out an empty cylinder? how much energy is discharged when two bodies collide?). This universal surplus – this capacity of sexuality to overflow the entire field of human experience so that everything, from eating to excretion, from beating up our fellow man (or getting beaten up by him) to the exercise of power, can acquire a sexual connotation – is not the sign of its preponderance. It is, rather, the sign of a certain structural faultiness: sexuality strives outwards and overflows the adjoining domains precisely because it cannot find satisfaction in itself, because it never attains its goal. How, precisely, does an activity that is, in itself, definitely asexual acquire sexual connotations? It is “sexualized” when it fails to achieve its asexual goal and gets caught in the vicious circle of futile repetition. We enter sexuality when a gesture that “officially” serves some instrumental goal becomes an end-in-itself, when we start to enjoy the very “dysfunctional” repetition of this gesture and thereby suspend its purposefulness.
Sexuality can function as a co-sense that supplements the “desexualized” neutral-literal meaning precisely insofar as this neutral meaning is already here. As was demonstrated by Deleuze, perversion enters the stage as an inherent reversal of this “normal” relationship between the asexual, literal sense and the sexual co-sense. In perversion, sexuality is made into a direct object of our speech, but the price we pay for it is the desexualization of our attitude towards sexuality – sexuality becomes one desexualized object among others. The exemplary case of such an attitude is the “scientific” disinterested approach to sexuality or the Sadeian approach that treats sexuality as the object of an instrumental activity. Suffice it to recall the role of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Altman’s Short Cuts: a housewife who earns supplementary money by paid phone-sex, entertaining customers with pep talk. She is so well accustomed to her job that she can improvise into the receiver, describing, for instance, how she is all wet between her thighs, while changing her baby or preparing lunch – she maintains a wholly external, instrumental attitude towards sexual fantasies. They simply do not concern her. What Lacan aims at with the notion of “symbolic castration” is precisely this vel, this choice: either we accept the desexualization of the literal sense, entailing the displacement of sexuality to a “co-sense,” to the supplementary dimension of sexual connotation-innuendo; or, we approach sexuality “directly,” we make sexuality the subject of literal speech, which we pay for with the “desexualization” of our subjective attitude to it. What we lose in every case is a direct approach, a literal talk about sexuality that would remain “sexualised.”
A Detour Through Quantum Physics
Here enters the reference to quantum physics which seems to provide a kind of scientific blueprint for a reality structured in this way: the quantum version of the passage from Kant to Hegel is the passage from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (where the impossibility to measure simultaneously the position and velocity of a particle is a feature of our knowledge) to Bohr’s complementarity (where the parallax split between position and velocity characterizes reality itself). If we take the risk to propose a formal homology between partial drives and quantum oscillations, is the relationship between quantum proto-reality and single “full” reality not homologous to that between the polymorophously-perverse field of partial drives and sexual difference? The passage from quantum superpositions to single reality occurs in the form of the wave function collapse: the multiplicity of the superposed states is reduced to a single state by observation, as it is made clear in the famous two-slit experiment:
“It has been known for centuries that water waves passing through a small opening creates circular waves radiating outward from that opening. If there are two openings, the waves from each opening interfere with those from the other, producing waves twice as tall at the crests (or deep in the troughs) and cancelling perfectly where a crest from one meets a trough from the other. When we send light waves through tiny slits, we see the same phenomenon: most of the light that reaches light detectors at the back lands right behind the barrier between the slits. At some places, no light appears in the interference pattern.
But light actually consists of large numbers of individual photons, quanta of light. Our experiment can turn down the amount of light so low that we know there is only a single photon, a single particle of light in the experiment at any time. What we see is the very slow accumulation of photons at the detectors, but with exactly the same interference pattern. And this leads to what Feynman called not just ‘a mystery,’ but actually ‘the only mystery’ in quantum mechanics: how can a single particle of light interfere with itself, without going through both slits? We can see what would happen if it went through only one slit by closing one or the other slit. We get a completely different interference pattern.”
The paradox is best rendered by the Hegelian-sounding formulation of a single particle “interfering with itself,” i.e., self-relating: even if we let through the slits one single particle at a time, the pattern that will form on the other side will be the interference pattern which emerges when particles interact; consequently, since at every specific moment there is only one particle (which can go only through one slit), this particle must in some way “interfere with itself, without going through both slits.” The paradox is that a single particle (behaves as a wave, i.e., as if it) interferes with itself only if it is not observed. We should not be afraid to universalize this formula: observation of something “objectivizes” it into a positive thing and thereby obfuscates its self-relating. And insofar as observation is usually linked to consciousness, we should further conclude that, at its most radical, self-reflexivity and consciousness exclude each other: self-reflexivity is basically unconscious. A somewhat simplified example: the basic axiom of historical dialectics is that, in order to properly grasp an event that “really happened,” one has to locate it into its series of superpositions (what might have happened instead of this event but didn’t happen), i.e., we have to include into the event the way it “related to itself” (to other possible versions of itself).
It is therefore crucial that, in interpreting quantum physics, we do not “deleuzianize” its implicit ontology: it’s not that we first have the field of quantum oscillations and superpositions as the primordial site of production which then, through local collapses of the wave function, changes into single reality as the scene of representation. Superpositions are not the ultimate ontological fact (if they were, we would stumble upon the unresolvable problem of how/why do they collapse into single reality), they are reactions to the impossibility of the One to actualize itself as One, so the collapse into One is presupposed by superpositions. The key problem is to understand how the collapse of quantum superpositions is not a secondary event but casts a shadow already on the field of quantum oscillations. Quantum waves are not functioning “in themselves,” they already presuppose the “barred One,” the impossibility of single reality – they appear against the background of this impossibility, in the same way that partial drives appear against the background of the impossibility of sexual relationship.
Our single reality emerges out of its own impossibility: single reality is impossible, it explodes into multiple superpositions, and these superpositions locally collapse into one reality. And the same goes for heterosexuality: it is also the result of its own impossibility: if heterosexuality would have been directly “possible,” we would not have Two Sexes but the One. In other words, it is not that the two sexes are just impossible, they emerge out of the impossibility (of the One).
From Epistemology to Ontology… and Back
In what, then, does the link between sexuality and knowledge consist? In Longus’ classic novel Daphnis and Chloe (from 2nd century AD), a young couple is passionately in love, yet they do not know how to consummate their desire – they painfully discover that lying down naked together is just not enough. Observing the mating animals, the two try to imitate them, but this does not work, and they quit in frustration. Their attempts are observed however, by the mature and sophisticated Lycaenion, who had been trying for a while to seduce Daphnis. Once she has Daphnis alone, Lycaenion offers to give him lessons; Daphnis eagerly agrees and, after the preliminaries, they have sex. After a long series of further adventures, the couple of Daphnis and Chloe is married and their love fully consummated during a sleepless night… The lesson of Daphnis and Chloe is a correct one: human sexuality doesn’t come by nature, it has to be learned. The naïve question to be asked here is: what, exactly, is it that we have to learn in sexual education? Is it only the bodily technique of performing the act or something more?
It is not simply that, while animals find the coordinates of their mating activity embedded in their natural instincts, humans lack them and therefore need their “second nature,” the symbolic institution, to provide them with these coordinates. The coordinates of the symbolic order are here to enable us to cope with the impasse of the Other’s desire, and the problem is that the symbolic order ultimately always fails – as Jean Laplanche points out, the traumatic impact of the “primordial scene,” the enigma of the signifiers of the Other’s desire, generates an excess which cannot ever be fully “sublated” in symbolic ordering. The notorious “lack” co-substantial with the human animal is not simply negative, an absence of instinctual coordinates; it is a lack with regard to an excess, to the excessive presence of traumatic enjoyment. The paradox is that there is signification precisely because there is an excessive, non-signifiable, erotic fascination and attachment: the condition of possibility of signification is its condition of impossibility. What if, then, the ultimate resort of the excessive development of human intelligence is the effort to decipher the abyss of “Che vuoi?,” the enigma of Other’s desire? What if therein resides the reason why humans are fixated on solving tasks that cannot be solved, on trying to answer unanswerable questions? What if the link between metaphysics and sexuality (or, more precisely, human eroticism) is to be taken quite literally? Ultimately, this traumatic, indigestible kernel, as the nonsensical support of sense, is the fundamental fantasy itself. So, when Freud writes, »If what /subjects/ long for most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee from it,« his point is not merely that this occurs because of censorship, but, rather, because the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us.
The original site of fantasy is that of a small child overhearing or witnessing parental coitus and unable to make sense of it: what does all of this MEANS, the intense whispers, the strange sounds in the bedroom, etc.? So, the child fantasizes a scene that would account for these strangely intense fragments – recall the best-known scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which Kyle MacLachlan, hidden in the closet, witnesses the weird sexual interplay between Isabella Rosselini and Dennis Hopper. What he sees is a clear fantasmatic supplement destined to account for what he hears: when Hopper puts on a mask through which he breathes, is this not an imagined scene which is to account for the intense breathing that accompanies sexual activity? And, the fundamental paradox of the fantasy is that the subject never arrives at the moment when he can say “OK, now I fully understand it, my parent were having sex, I no longer need a fantasy!” – THIS is, among other things, what Lacan meant with his “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel.” Every sense has to rely on some nonsensical fantasmatic frame – when we say “OK, now I understand it!” what this ultimately means is “Now I can locate it within my fantasmatic framework.”
So, when, in Seminar XX (Encore), Lacan repeatedly asserts that »y’a de l’un /there is something of the one/,« this One is not the totalizing One of the Master-Signifier, but the »supplementary« partial object (organ without a body) which functions as the enabling obstacle of the sexual relationship, as its condition of (im)possibility. Y’a de l’un is thus strictly correlative to il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: the two sexual partners are never alone, since their activity has to involve a fantasmatic supplement which sustains their desire (and which can ultimately be just an imagined gaze observing them while they are engaged in sexual intercourse). Y’a de l’un means that every erotic couple is a couple of three: 1 + 1 + a, the »pathological« stain which disturbs the pure immersion of the couple. In short, this »one« is precisely that which PREVENTS the fusion of the amorous couple into One. (And, one can well argue that, in the case of a lesbian couple, this »one« is none other than phallus itself (occasionally materialized in dildo) – so that, when Judith Butler ironically proposes the term »lesbian phallus,« one should fully agree with her, just adding that this »lesbian phallus« is phallus tout court.)
This is why adults need sexual education. The common wisdom tells us that, according to psychoanalysis, whatever we are doing, we are secretly “thinking about THAT” – sexuality is the universal hidden reference of every activity. However, the true Freudian question is: what are we thinking when we ARE “doing that”? It is the real sex itself which, in order to be palatable, has to be sustained by some fantasy. The logic is here the same as that of a native American tribe whose members have discovered that all dreams have some hidden sexual meaning – all, except the overtly sexual ones: here, precisely, one has to look for another meaning. Any contact with a “real,” flesh-and-blood other, any sexual pleasure that we find in touching another human being, is not something evident, but something inherently traumatic, and can be sustained only insofar as this other enters the subject’s fantasy frame.
Fantasy does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way; it rather constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates – it literally “teaches us how to desire.” To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. This role of fantasy hinges on the fact that, as Jacques Lacan put it, “there is no sexual relationship,” no universal formula or matrix guaranteeing a harmonious sexual relationship with one’s partner: every subject has to invent a fantasy of his own, a “private” formula for the sexual relationship – for a man, the relationship with a woman is possible only inasmuch as she fits his formula.
The ultimate properly Freudian lesson is thus that the explosion of human symbolic capacities does not merely expand the metaphoric scope of sexuality: activities that are in themselves thoroughly asexual can get “sexualized,” everything can be “eroticized” and start to “mean that”… Much more importantly, this explosion sexualizes sexuality itself: the specific quality of human sexuality has nothing to do with the immediate, rather stupid, reality of copulation, inclusive the preparatory mating rituals; it is only when animal coupling gets caught in a fantasmatic frame that we get what we call sexuality, i.e., that sexual activity itself gets sexualized. This, then, is why adults also need sexual education – perhaps even more than children. What they have to learn is not the technique of the act, but what to fantasize while they are doing it. Each couple has to invent their specific formula. Effectively, to paraphrase Dogberry’s advice to Seacoal from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to which Marx refers in Capital: “To be able to enjoy sex is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by nature.”
And this brings us back to the Hegelian reversal of epistemological obstacle into ontological impossibility: insofar as sexuality can function as actual sexual practice performed within the order of being (what we do to and with our bodies) only when its immanent impossibiliy (the navel of sexuality, one might say) is supplemented by fantasy, by fantasmatic coordinates, the »epistemological« void is constitutive of sexualiyt itself. Zupančič proposes to read Freud’s famous notion of the “dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown”, along the lines of this shift from epistemology to ontology: it is not just that the hidden core of the dream remains forever unknowable for us, the interpreters – this “primordially repressed” core is constitutive of the dream itself, more generally: of the unconscious sexuality.
Formulas of Sexuation
So, again, if the One is impossible, why does this antagonism actualize itself in the guise of two sexuations (“masculine” and “feminine”), why not a plurality of sexuations as the embodiment of impossibility? How does the Two emerge? The Two emerges as the positive existence of the immanent antagonism. Two is not really two, it is the One and its impossibility posited as separated. So the non-relationship between M and F is asymmetrical: it is not that each sex prevents the other to actualize itself. Man exists insofar as he externalizes its impossibility to exist into Woman. It is not just that woman doesn’t exist, woman is the non-existence of man: while woman is the void ($) beneath the mask man believes there is a positive identity of a Self beneath mask; this is why men believe to be men, while women pretend to be women.
Can we link this to Pascal’s formula “act as if you believe, pretend to believe, wear a mask of belief, and you will believe, belief will gradually come to you”? Are women humans who remain stuck to the first phase? And what about the idea that pretending, acting as if, is a way to get rid of the intensity of belief? (Say, if my love is too intense, I externalize it in rituals, I act as if I am in love, get married, etc., and in this way I acquire a distance towards it, a distance which gives me some breathing space.) Can we pretend to be men in order to transfer onto another the belief that we are men? This brings us to the situation rendered in Rossellini’s General della Rovere: the petty thief pretends to be the General, but does he follow the Pascalean logic and, at the end, believe he is? Obviously not – this would have been simply a case of madness. The ethical beauty of the film is that, although the petty thief knows very well till his bitter end who he is, he is ready to risk his life as General dell Rovere.
Is then the gap between the petty thief and the General the gap between reality and a Platonic Idea? To clarify this point, let us turn to Hitchcock’s Vertigo which is, in a sense, the ultimate anti-Platonic film, a systematic materialist undermining of the Platonic project, akin to what Deleuze does in the Appendix to The Logic of Sense. The murderous fury that seizes Scottie when he finally discovers that Judy, whom he tried to make into Madeleine, IS (the woman he knew as) Madeleine is the fury of the deceived Platonist when he perceives that the original he wants to remake in a perfect copy is already, in itself, a copy. The shock here is not that the original turns out to be merely a copy – a standard deception against which Platonism warns us all the time – but that (what we took to be) the copy turns out to be the original. Perhaps one should read Vertigo together with General della Rovere, Rossellini’s late masterpiece, the story of a small thief and swindler (superbly played by Vittorio de Sica) who is arrested by the Germans in the Winter of 1944/45 in Genoa. The Germans propose a deal: in the prison, he will pass for the legendary General della Rovere, a Resistance hero, so that other political prisoners will tell him their secrets, especially the true identity of “Fabrizio,” a key Resistance leader. However, the small thief gets so intensely caught up in the role that, at the end, he fully assumes it and prefers to be shot as General della Rovere. The anti-Platonic reversal to be accomplished apropos General della Rovere is the same as that of Vertigo: what if the “true” della Rovere was already a fake, in exactly the same way that the “true” Madeleine was already Judy faking to be Madeleine? That is to say, what if he was also, as a private person, a petty swindler acting as “General della Rovere,” wearing this role as a mask?
The further, even more unsettling, question here is: is such a pathetic identification with the fake-role the ultimate horizon of ethical experience? Can we imagine the inverse situation: the “real” della Rovere is arrested, and the Resistance lets him know that he has to dirty his image, to die as a miserable traitor, in order to do one last great service to the Resistance? It is clear that sexual difference enters here: while the petty thief acting as if he is General della Rovere had to be a man, in this second version, it would have to be a woman.
The shock of Scottie at the moment of recognition is also a Kafkaesque one. In the same way that, at the end of the parable on the Door of the Law in The Trial, the man from the country learns that the door was there only for him (that the spectacle of the magnificent Door was staged for his gaze, that the scene with regard to which he perceived himself as an accidental witness allowed to take a half-prohibited glimpse at it was entirely set up to fascinate him), in Vertigo also, Scottie has to accept that the fascinating spectacle of Madeleine, which he was secretly following, was staged for his gaze only, that his gaze was included in it from the very beginning. Sometimes, there is even less than a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous. Vertigo is definitely a sublime story, not meant to be laughed at. Yet, is its twist not best encapsulated as a variation of the old Marx brothers’ joke: »this woman (Judy) looks like Madeleine and acts like Madeleine, but this should not deceive you – she IS Madeleine!«? – And, maybe, this reversal which makes us see that the mysterious scene we are secretly witnessing is stages only for our eyes, that our gaze was from the very beginning included into it, is another way to approach the subjective reversal that characterizes the final moment of a psychoanalytic process.
In the standard patriarchal version of sexual difference, man is universal (pure universal subject, cogito), which is why we use the word “man” both for masculine human being and for human being as such, while woman stands for difference, for sex as such, for a universality polluted by particularity. Lacan’s rejoinder to this topos is that yes, woman stands for difference, but as such she is the pure subject split from object, a cut in the universality of substance. Male subject is the Fichtean subject: subject as (directly) the ultimate substance, the ground-origin of all, the self-positing absolute which posits its opposite (non-I). For Hegel, on the contrary, the two aspects of “subjectivity” (the active agent AND the agent which introduces split, partiality, appearance, illusion, as in “it’s merely subjective”) are inextricably linked: “to grasp substance also as subject” means that appearance, illusion, partiality, are immanent moments of substance.
If one takes a fast look at Lacan’s four formulas of sexuation, the first thing that strikes the eye is that, if we read them horizontally, we get two non-contradictory pairs of formulas: (1) all X are subjected to the phallic function; there is no X which is exempted from the phallic function; (2) there is one X which is exempted from the phallic function; non-all X are subjected to phallic function. The ingeniously-simple gesture of Lacan is to posit the line of sexual difference vertically, thereby obtaining two paradoxes (universality grounded in exception: a non-all with no exception). The lesson here is that sexual difference qua the real of an antagonism is not the difference between the two sexes (masculine and feminine), but a difference/antagonism which runs across (traverses) each of the sexes, introducing a gap of inconsistency into its very heart. The difference of the two sexes is thus not sexual difference/antagonism but the difference of two ways to deal with the antagonistic real of the Difference.
Man can appear as fully human, fully within the Symbolic, in contrast to woman who is not fully integrated into the symbolic order. Woman can appear as the full (non-castrated) substantial Real which resists being fully caught into the network of signifiers – why? Because full integration needs an exception, an externality from which it delimitates itself. Both these figures are fantasmatic mirages. However, if we read these two couples diagonally, we get Lacan’s formulas of sexuation: man is fully integrated into the Symbolic and, as such, it needs the exception of a substantial Woman, a mythic She of full enjoyment; there is nothing in woman that is not integrated into the Symbolic and, as such, woman resists full integration into the Symbolic. We can see now where the predominant reading of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation is misleading: it is not that a man is wholly caught into the phallic function while part of a woman resists this inclusion but quite the opposite – a woman is fully caught in the phallic function (nothing of her is outside) while a man only is partially caught in it (the exception to phallic function ground male position).
From a to the Production of a New Signifier
Surplus-enjoyment is not just an abstract tendency of a process that cannot be contained by objects, a surplus over all objects, but is itself a pseudo-object, objet petit a. It is a non-relationship which exists as an object. One should recall here Lacan’s formula: small a over capital Phi, i.e., surplus–enjoyment over Phallus as the signifier of (symbolic) castration. One has to be very precise here: objet a does not simply fill in (and, in this sense, cover up) the lack opened up by castration, it rather gives body to this lack. As such, it is not something that covers up the gap of nothing but something which is less than nothing. Or, to put it in more speculative-Hegelian terms, objet a opens up the lack it fills in: if we erase from the picture objet a, we don’t get a pure experience of lack or void before it gets obfuscated (such authentic existential encounters are a stuff of existentialist metaphysics that Lacan avoids like hell); if we erase from the picture objet a, we lose the lack itself. So when one deals with objet a, one should never forget that objet a is not some kind of primordial excess/surplus of creativity but an excess which emerges at the place of the primordial lack (fundamental negativity-impossibility) constitutive of the symbolic order – in short, although objet a is a-sexual, it already presupposes the impossibility of sexual relationship (Lacan’s name for this negativity-impossibility):
“For psychoanalysis there is thus a difference between the fundamental negativity (a ‘minus’) and the excessive surplus (enjoyment) that emerges at its place, and which repeats the original negativity by way of linking, ‘gluing’ the signifiers with which this negativity appears in a certain order.”
“Gluing in a certain order” and in this way providing a minimal articulation of the excessive enjoyment is, of course, precisely what the late Lacan designates as sinthome (in contrast to symptom whose cyphered meaning has to be unraveled through interpretation). What this means is, again, that there is no (surplus-)enjoyment prior to or outside of the symbolic order: the symbolic order is constitutively twisted, structured around some “primordially repressed” signifier, and enjoyment emerges when a group of remaining signifiers is “glued” together in such a way that it evokes the abyss of the missing signifier. As Zupančič pointed out, therein resides the key difference between Lacan and Deleuze for whom “the excess/surplus is directly the pure productive excess of negativity (crack, Difference) repeating itself in different disguises and different signifiers or symbols.” This is also why the act of emancipation (or liberation) radically differs in the two cases: for Deleuze, the joyful assertion of the excess of productive Difference is in itself the act of liberation, while for Lacan, “the eventual tectonic shift does not take place at the level of this surplus, but thanks to the newly produced signifier”: “It is the signifier of the ‘hole’ at the place of which appears enjoyment that repeats this ‘hole’ in different disguises or signifying formations.” In short, since enjoyment arises at the point where the big Other is “barred,” the new signifier is S(barredA), and as such, it stops the compulsive repetition of the established form of enjoyment:
“This new signifier is the event proper, and it triggers a new subjectivation. The new signifier ‘kills’ the (compulsive) repetition because it successfully repeats its enjoyment. It is the algorithm that disorientates the drive by cutting off the well-established routes of its satisfaction.”
In order to illustrate the emergence of this new signifier, Zupančič quotes the joke about a man who comes home from an exhausting day at work, plops down on the couch in front of the television, and tells his wife, “Get me a beer before it starts.” The wife sighs and gets him a beer. Fifteen minutes later, he says, “Get me another beer before it starts.” She looks cross, but fetches another beer and slams it down next to him. He finishes that beer and a few minutes later says, “Quick, get me another beer, it’s going to start any minute.” The wife is furious. She yells at him, “Is that all you’re going to do tonight? Drink beer and sit in front of that TV? You’re nothing but a lazy, drunken, fat slob, and furthermore . . .” The man sighs and says, “It’s started…“ – Here is her reading of the joke:
”We could actually reconfigure the ‘It’s started…’ joke as something that renders a possible psychoanalytic intervention. A patient is repeatedly complaining to his analyst how, when he comes home from work, all he wants is to lie down on the couch, drink beer and watch his favorite TV show. He insists, repeatedly, on how much he likes to have a few beers before the show starts, which is why he has the habit of asking his wife just this: to bring him a beer or two before it starts. Yet inevitably, he complains, his wife explodes and starts shouting insult at him… ‘And so it starts’, intervenes the analyst. The point of this intervention is not simply that the true hidden meaning behind the husband’s repeating of the words ‘before it starts’ is a reference to the frequent domestic quarrels, but also to shift the focus to the form itself: this whole staging (the whole scene as acted out with his wife) IS his favorite show. And this point is made not simply so as for the husband to understand what he is really saying, but to spoil for him the symptomatic enjoyment invested in this scene of the domestic quarrel and of its anticipation. In this precise sense we could say that the form of the symptom (the specific work of the unconscious) is ‘unlocked’ by this intervention.”
The same ambiguity is clearly discernible in Wagner’s Parsifal whose central problem is that of a ceremony (ritual): how is it possible to perform a ritual in the conditions where there is no transcendence to guarantee it? As an aesthetic spectacle? The enigma of Parsifal is: what are the limits and contours of a ceremony? Is the ceremony only that which Amfortas is unable to perform, or is part of the ceremony also the spectacle of his complaint and resistance and final acceptance to perform the ceremony? In other words, are Amfortas’ two great complaints not highly ceremonial, ritualized? Is not even the “unexpected” arrival of Parsifal to replace him (who, nonetheless, arrives just in time, i.e., in the just moment, when the tension is at its highest) part of a ritual? This is the shift to be performed by an analytic act: the awareness that what we (mis)perceived as failed attempts to perform the ritual are in themselves already a part of the ritual. Once we become aware of it, once we perform the ritual in this extended way, its power is broken – and that’s what Parsifal does: with his ascension to power the Grail remains disclosed, there is no need for the ritual. In other words, it is easy to imagine Gurnemanz (the chorus figure in Parsifal) observing the lament of Amfortas about his inability to perform the ritual and adding coldly: “OK, the ritual has started…” The point being, of course, that once this shift is really assumed by the participants, the ritual can no longer go on since “the form of the symptom (the specific work of the unconscious) is ‘unlocked’ by this intervention,” making it clear that the whole staging of the complaint and failure of the ritual IS the heart of the ritual. It is also clear how this shift changes the subjective position of the participants: their irrelevant preparatory game changes into a full symbolic commitment, and thereby cancels it. Similarly, in Irving Winkler’s Night and he City (1992, a remake of Jules Dassin’s noir classic), there is a small scene in which Fabian (the main character played by Robert de Niro) mockingly attacks one of his detractors, threatening to beat him up. When he is approaching his opponent, he grabs the hand of one of his friends who stand at his side and puts it in front of his neck and shoulder, as if the friend is trying to refrain him from the attack – this, of course, ironically mocks a classic detail of fight scenes when a friend tries to control the furious hero to beat up the enemy; by staging the whole procedure, Fabian signals its ritualized character.
The spurious infinity of being caught in a repetitive pleasure is thus cut short by way of producing its formula. This new Master-Signifier produced in the discourse of the analyst is not something already there in the Unconscious waiting to be brought out but something radically new, a new name for the antagonism, for the inconsistency of the Other; it is the outcome of a subjective intervention, a creative act, like the punchline of a joke. Freud mentions the wonderful Jewish joke about a marriage broker who is defending the girl he has proposed against the attacks of her prospective fiancé. “The mother-in-law does not suit me. She is a crabbed, foolish person.” “That’s true,” replies the broker, “but you are not going to marry the mother-in-law, but the daughter.” “Yes, but she is no longer young, and she is not pretty, either.” “That’s nothing: if she is not young or pretty you can trust her all the more that she will not deceive you.” »She stutters, she cannot even talk properly…« »So you can be sure she will not bore you with incessant blabla!« »She can barely read…« »… so she will work in the house instead of losing time with romantic novels!« “But she hasn’t much money.” “Why talk of money? Are you going to marry money? You want a wife, don’t you?” “But she is a hunchback.” “Well, do you expect her to have no blemishes at all?” The girl is ugly, no longer young, she comes with a small dowry and a repulsive mother, she can barely talk and read, and is equipped with a pretty bad deformity, but the broker knows how to present each individual fault in a manner to cause one to become reconciled to it, and then concedes the hunchback as the one fault which cannot be excused in any way. The trick is, of course, that he acts as if he removed each individual fault by his evasion, forgetting that each leaves behind some depreciation which is added to the next one; he deals with each factor individually, and refuses to combine them into a sum-total, so that the hunchback appears as the »endearing foible« of a perfect beauty, the exception which only confirms her general attractiveness. What the broker obfusacates with his reasoning is that there is no exception, that the poor girl has just bad qualities – which is why we can also imagine the broker redeeming the hunchback as a good property (»So it will be easier for her to carry provisions from the market on her back!«) and elevate another feature into the exception. Or we can even imagine elevating into the exception a single good quality: »She is really beautiful…« »I admit it, this is a problem, you will have to worry a lot about her deceiving you with other men, but do you expect her to have no blemishes at all?«
Which enjoyment is lost here? The enjoyment of reinterpretation, the stupid satisfaction we get from cunningly presenting each bad feature as a good one. The concluding punchline brings out the “algorithm” of this repetitive enjoyment and thereby prevents its further repetition. To clarify this crucial point, let us mention another example. In the 1990s, the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was a butt of many jokes; in one of the better ones, he and his large family are in a plane cruising above Croatia. Aware of the rumors that a lot of Croats live miserable unhappy lives, while he and his cronies amass wealth, Tudjman says: “What if I were to throw out through the window a check for one million dollars, to make at least one Croat who will catch it happy?” His flattering wife tells him: “But Franjo my dear, why shouldn’t you throw out two checks for half a million each and thus make two Croats happy?” His daughter adds: “Why not four checks for a quarter million each and make happy four Croats?”, etc.etc., until, finally, his grandson – the proverbial innocent child who unknowingly blurts out the truth – says: “But, grandpa, why do you simply not throw yourself out through the window and thus make ALL Croats happy?” We have it here all: the indefinite signifiers process to approach the impossible limit by subdividing, like Achilles trying to reach the tortoise, and then this endless series caught in the logic of “spurious infinity” is totalized, closed, rendered all, by the fall of the body whose Real stands for the subject itself – through the suicidal fall of the body, the subject – not “includes itself out,” but, on the contrary, – totalizes the series by way of, as it were, excluding itself in. The body is here literally the “indivisible remainder” that fills in the gap of the endless division. Again, we can easily imagine a clinical version of this joke: a compulsive-neurotic patient complains to the analyst that he continuously feels the need to sacrifice something for the others so that they will love him, and the analyst tells him: “But why don’t you sacrifice yourself and make everybody happy?” Although this may sound as a call to suicide, “yourself” has to be read here as “your Self”: why don’t you abandon the structure of your Self which pushes you to act like this? True, you will lose the specific enjoyment provided by your sacrificing for others, but this loss will open up the space for new forms of enjoyment. (Incidentally, what we get here is a nice case of what Lacan called “subjective destitution.”)
Of all the people I know the greatest hero of such self-sacrificing was my mother who literally got depressed if she wasn’t able to help others by some sacrificing… the greatest hero apart from myself, and from my own experience, I can vouch for all the dirty pleasures such a stance generates. When I was doing something that I perceived as sacrificing myself for others, this act was always accompanied by fantasies of how the others for whom I sacrificed myself would first ignore my act but then, when they will become aware of it, they will feel terribly guilty and will desperately apologize to me… Recall Lacan’s famous motto from his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: “I give myself to you, but this gift of my person – as they say – Oh, mystery! is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit.“ This is what the analysand has to assume: the truth of his sacrificial giving to others is that his gifts are constantly and inexplicably transformed into gifts of shit, into an imposition of unwarranted and unwanted excrements.
From the Barred One to the Barred Other
The Freudian Traumdeutung is not a hermeneutics of dreams, a de-cyphering of their hidden meanings, but the undoing of meaning, a work of “deconstructing” meaning as a mask of negativity. Sexuality is not the ultimate meaning but the gap covered up by every meaning:
“it is as if the sexual meaning, so generously produced by the unconscious, were here to mask the reality of a more fundamental negativity at work in sexuality, to cut us from it by a screen that draws its efficiency from the fact that it is itself a means of satisfaction – satisfaction through meaning, satisfaction in the production of sexual meaning, and (as the other side of this) in the production of meaning of the sexual. As paradoxically as this might sound, one of the primary tasks of psychoanalysis is to slowly but thoroughly deactivate the path of this satisfaction, to make it useless. To produce sex as absolutely and intrinsically meaningless, and not as the ultimate horizon of all humanly produced meaning. This is to say to restore sex it in its dimension of the real.”
So why is this negativity/gap the non-relation (“there is no sexual relationship”)? Let us proceed step by step and begin with how negativity relates to partial drives:
“What psychoanalysis teaches us is not that, because of the non-relation, we only have access to partial and fleeting pleasures (‘squeezing’ here and there) and satisfactions. The claim is stronger: these partial pleasures and satisfactions are already (in-)formed by the negativity implied by the non-relation.”
We should thus reject the standard story of the polymorphously-perverse multiplicity of partial drives which are then violently totalized/normalized in the guise of the subordination to the binary form of heterosexuality: a negativity is at work already in partial drives whose multiplicity proliferates against the background of the abyss/impossibility of the barred One:
“death-drive is not one among the (partial) drives, but refers to an active split within every drive. Death-drive points to the negativity around which different partial drives circulate, and which they – in this sense – have in common.”
How is every drive split? Imagine a partial oral drive caught in the endless repetitive movement of sucking: it is clear that such a circular movement presupposes an abyss around which it circulates, the abyss which makes it repeat the same repetitive gesture which never reaches its goal but funds satisfaction in the very repetitive failure to reach its goal, and this abyss that lurks in the background of the repetitive movement of a partial drive is death drive. Is this death drive, the abyss of negativity that sustains partial drives, sexually neutral or is it sexed? Lacan’s thesis is that it is radically sexed – why? To cut a long story short: Lacan’s name for the radical antagonism (impossibility) that cuts across the symbolic order is “there is no sexual relationship,” and the emergence of the Symbolic is strictly linked to this impossibility: “we take language as that what functions to supply for the absence of the only part of the real that cannot manage to be formed in being, namely, the sexual relationship.”(XX, ch. IV) One should read this claim in the strongest possible sense: language can only function against the background of the fact that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel. The fact that there is no sexual relationship does not mean that there is simply no trace of sexuation in language but quite the opposite: the impossibility of sexual relationship, the enigma/deadlock of sexual difference that resist symbolization, haunts the symbolic order; it simultaneously sustains the effort of symbolization and prevents its conclusion. There is no neutral speaking subject indifferent towards sexual difference: the speaking subject is constitutively “sexed”:
“What splits in two is the very nonexistence of the one (that is of the one which, if it existed, would be the Other, the radically Other). What splits in two is the very “one that lacks”, the minus, the with-without. This is how we could read Lacan’s ‘formulas of sexuation’: as two ways in which the constitutive minus of the signifying order is inscribed in this order itself, and dealt with.”
What does it mean, precisely, this complex relationship between the One and the Other? There is no Other (binary signifier, the feminine counterpart of the phallic signifier, the signifier whose presence would ground sexual relationship), and because of this missing Other, the One is not the One but a mark of its own (the One’s) lack. A Master-Signifier is a One which fills in the lack of the One. In other words, if there were to be the two sexes (each of the two clearly delimitated as a positive ontic entity) they would have been the same, i.e., there would have been only one, so there are two because there is no One sex. Lacan links this primordially-repressed binary signifier to Freud’s concept of Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz. Let’s explain this concept apropos of how a name functions.
In contrast to the particular features of a thing, a name is a symptom of the thing it names: it stands for objet a, the X, the je ne sais quoi, which makes the designated thing a thing. This brings us to Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz: not simply (as Freud probably intended it) a mental representation or idea which is the psychic representative of the biological instinct, but (much more ingeniously) the representative (stand-in, place-holder) of a missing representation. Every name is in this sense a Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz: the signifying representative of that dimension in the designated object which eludes representation, that which cannot be covered by our ideas-representations of the positive properties of this object. There is “something in you more than yourself,” the elusive je ne sais quoi which makes you what you are, which accounts for your “specific flavor” — and the name, far from referring to the collection of your properties, ultimately refers to that elusive X.
Does not the formula of love — “You are … you!” — rely on the split which is at the core of every tautology? You — this empirical person, full of defects — are you, the sublime object of love, for the tautology itself renders visible the radical split or gap. This tautology surprises the lover again and again: how can you be you? But we should take a step further here and recall that Lacan defines Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz as the representative of the missing binary signifier, the feminine Master-Signifier which would be the counterpart of the phallic Master-Signifier, guaranteeing the complementarity of the two sexes, each at its own place—yin and yang, etc. Lacan’s thesis is that the starting point is the self-deferral of the One, its non-coincidence with itself, and that the two sexes are two ways of dealing with this deadlock.
It is in this precise sense that one can agree with Brecht when he wrote that there is no dialectics without humor: dialectical reversals are deeply connected to comical twists and unexpected shifts of perspective. In his book on jokes, Freud refers to the well-known story of a go-between who tries to convince a young man to marry a woman he represents; his strategy is to turn every objection into a positive feature: When the man says “But the woman is ugly!,” he answers: “So you will not have to worry about her deceiving you with others!” “She is poor!” “So she will be used to not spending lots of your money!,” and so on until, finally, when the young man formulates a reproach impossible to reinterpret in this way, the middleman explodes: “What do you want? Perfection? Nobody is totally without faults!” Is it not also possible to discern in this joke the underlying structure of the legitimization of a “really existing” socialist regime? “There is too little meat and rich food in the stores!” “So you don’t have to worry about getting fat and suffering a heart attack!” “There are not enough interesting films or good books available!” “So you are all the more able to cultivate a rich social life, visiting friends and neighbors!” “The secret police exerts total control over my life!” “So you can just relax and lead a life safe from worries!,” and so on, until… “But the air is so polluted from the nearby factory that all my children have life-threatening lung diseases!” “What do you want? No system is without its faults!” For Lacan, the phallic signifier is such a suturing element.
One can see, now, in what precise sense one is to conceive of Lacan’s thesis according to which, what is “primordially repressed” is the binary signifier (that of Vorstellungs-Repraesentanz): what the symbolic order precludes is the full harmonious presence of the couple of Master-signifiers, S1-S2 as yin-yang or any other two symmetrical “fundamental principles.” The fact that “there is no sexual relationship” means precisely that the secondary signifier (that of the Woman) is “primordially repressed,” and what we get in the place of this repression, what fills in its gap, is the multitude of the “returns of the repressed,” the series of the “ordinary” signifiers. In Woody Allen’s Tolstoy-parody War and Love, the first association that automatically pops up, of course, is: “If Tolstoy, where is then Dostoyevski?” In the film, Dostoyevski (the “binary signifier” to Tolstoy) remains “repressed” – however, the price paid for it is that a conversation in the middle of the film as it were accidentally includes the titles of all main Dostoyevski’s novels: “Is that man still in the underground?” “You mean one of the Karamazov brothers?” “Yes, that idiot!” “Well, he did commit his crime and was punished for it!” “I know, he was a gambler who always risked too much!” etc.etc. Here we encounter the “return of the repressed,” i.e. the series of signifiers which fills in the gap of the repressed binary signifier “Dostoyevski.” The fact of sexual difference signals precisely the failure of “binary logic,” the failure of the signifying couple that would “cover” sexual difference – there is sexual difference because the binary signifier is primordially repressed, as Lacan put it. In other words, the antagonism of/in the One does not mean the harmonious tension between the two (opposing principles, etc.), but the inner tension, the impossibility of self-coincidence, of the One itself – or, as Alain Badiou articulates it in a concise way, “atheism is, in the end, nothing other than the immanence of the Two.” This is why the standard deconstructionist criticism according to which Lacan’s theory of sexual difference falls into the trap of “binary logic” totally misses the point: Lacan’s la femme n’existe pas aims precisely at undermining the “binary” polar couple of Masculine and Feminine – the original split is not between the One and the Other, but is strictly inherent to the One, it is the split between the One and its empty place of inscription (this is how one should read Kafka’s famous statement that the Messiah will come one day after his arrival). This is also how one should conceive the link between the split inherent to the One and the explosion of the multiple: the multiple is not the primordial ontological fact; the “transcendental” genesis of the multiple resides in the lack of the binary signifier, i.e., the multiple emerges as the series of attempts to fill in the gap of the missing binary signifier. The difference between S1 and S2 is thus not the difference of two opposed poles within the same field, but, rather, the cut within this field – the cut of the level at which the process occurs – inherent to the one term: the original couple is not that of two signifiers, but that of the signifier and its reduplicatio, i.e., the minimal difference between a signifier and the place of its inscription, between one and zero.
Zupančič proposes here a double thesis. First, sexuality is not the topic (repressed content) of the unconscious but is at work in the very formal structure of the unconscious (of the “primordial repression”): sexuality (sexual antagonism) is grounded in the fact that the binary signifier is missing (“primordially repressed”):
“the relation between the unconscious and sexuality is not that between some content and its container; sexuality pertains to the very being-there of the unconscious, in its very ontological uncertainty.”
It is this structure of “primordial repression” which sexualizes organic/biological sexuality itself. The second thesis: subject is not only secondarily sexualized, it is sexualized in its very formal structure. Subject is represented by a signifier for other signifiers, and this signifier is the signifier of the lack of signifier – this missing signifier (a signifier whose lack is constitutive of the very order of signifiers) is the cause of the sexual “non-relationship.” This brings us to the last trap to be avoided: the fact that “there is no sexual relationship” for the speaking (human) being does not mean that for animals there is sexual relationship – so what changes with the emergence of humanity?
“Whereas animal sexuality is simply inconsistent (and this is what it shares with human sexuality), jouissance is something like a set containing this inconsistency as its only element. /…/ this internal split of life obtains a material, objective existence of its own, in the form of what Lacan calls jouissance. /…/ The crucial shift thus occurs when the immanent negativity (death as intrinsic to life) gets a material existence in the surplus enjoyment (which becomes its figure or representative) related to different partial drives and their satisfaction. It is only with this that we move from sexuation to sexuality proper (sexuality of speaking beings).”
The passage is thus the passage from the inconsistency of a process or object to an object that IS – gives body to – this inconsistency, from non-existence of sexual relationship to the existence of a non-relationship, from an excess over objectivity to an object is gives body to this excess. Jouissance is never a pure excess of productivity over every object, jouissance is always an object; inconsistency is never only inconsistency among elements, it is always an object – therein, in this ultimate “infinite judgment,” resides the Hegelian coincidence of the opposites that defines surplus-enjoyment.
Repetition is not only repetition of something that cannot be repeated and, in this sense, repetition of the impossibility to repeat, but repetition of something that does not exist in itself, that emerges only retroactively through its repetition. This emergence can be discerned apropos the two versions of Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, the original book and the ciunema version. The movie is basically a failure, but an interesting one: a failure which nonetheless evokes in the viewer the specter of a much better novel. However, when one then goes on to read the novel on which the film is based, one is disappointed—this is not the novel the film evoked as the standard with regard to which it failed. The repetition (of a failed novel in the failed film) thus gives rise to a third, purely virtual, element: the better novel. This is an exemplary case of what Deleuze describes in a crucial passage from Difference and Repetition:
“while it may seem that the two presents are successive, at a variable distance apart in the series of reals, in fact they form, rather, two real series which coexist in relation to a virtual object of another kind, one which constantly circulates and is displaced in them … Repetition is constituted not from one present to another, but between the two coexistent series that these presents form in function of the virtual object (object = x).”
With regard to Billy Bathgate, the film does not “repeat” the novel on which it is based; rather, they both “repeat” the unrepeatable virtual X, the “true” novel whose specter is engendered in the passage from the actual novel to the film. This virtual point of reference, although “unreal,” is in a way more real than reality: it is the absolute point of reference of the failed real attempts. This is how, from the perspective of materialist theology, the divine emerges from the repetition of terrestrial material elements, as their “cause” retroactively posited by them. Deleuze is right to refer to Lacan here: this “better book” is what Lacan calls the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire that “one cannot recapture in the present, except by capturing it in its consequences,” in the two really existing works, the book and the film. The inexisting “better book” is what both existing works repeat (and fail in their endeavor to repeat), it is what maintains a distance between the two, the interruption between the two. Consequently, the impossibility to repeat
“does not imply that something is ‘impossible to be repeated’ in its unique singularity; rather, it implies the non-being of what is to be repeated. It is impossible to repeat it because it is not there in the usual sense of the term. This is the Lacanian version of the thesis that what is repeated is not an original traumatic experience, interrupting whatever has been in place before, but the interruption itself (which he relates to the Real). And this brings us back to /…/ the properly psychoanalytic (Lacanian) concept of the ‘unbound surplus’: namely enjoyment. Enjoyment appears at the place of the non-existing (‘originally missing’) signifier, which – with its very non-existence – dictates the logics of the signifying chain, ‘curves’ it in a certain way. And it curves it with the help of the enjoyment sticking on to (other) signifiers. Enjoyment is the (only) ‘being’, ‘substance’ of that which is ontologically not, of the missing (‘originally repressed’) signifier.”
So when late Lacan defines jouissance as the only substance recognized by psychoanalysis, he in no way advocates some kind of obscurantist pan-sexualism, a sexualized version of Schopenhauer where not the Will but sexual energy is the ultimate ground of all being. Jouissance is rather the only positive form that which is by definition impossible (“primordially repressed”) acquires, it is a “stuff of nothing,” a spectral excess that positivizes the Void. Again, we are dealing here with a precise Hegelian reversal: enjoyment is not just that which interrupts the texture of signifiers (as an external substance that traumatically intervenes into it), enjoyment is engendered by this interruption itself. It is not a substance which resists symbolization and, as such, “curves” the symbolic texture; enjoyment is the product of this curvature itself.
Appendix: History and the Sexual Non-Relationship
The ultimate obstacle to sexual relationship is, of course, history itself, history at its most radical, not just a combination of narratives (stories) but the dense inertia and opacity of the Real. This is how history is present in Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy: as the traumatic Third, the Real which lurks in the background, going its way, indifferent to the plight of individuals. The ideological traps that lurk here are best represented by the gap that separates the two versions of Solaris, Stanislaw Lem’s classic science-fiction novel and Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema version. Solaris is the story of a space agency psychologist, Kelvin, sent to a half-abandoned spaceship above a newly-discovered planet, Solaris, where, recently, strange things have been taking place (scientists going mad, hallucinating and killing themselves). Solaris is a planet with an oceanic fluid surface which moves incessantly and, from time to time, imitates recognizable forms, not only elaborate geometric structures, but also gigantic child bodies or human buildings; although all attempts to communicate with the planet fail, scientists entertain the hypothesis that Solaris is a gigantic brain which somehow reads our minds. Soon after his arrival, Kelvin finds at his side in his bed his dead wife, Harey, who, years ago on Earth, killed herself after he had abandoned her. He is unable to shake Harey off, all attempts to get rid of her miserably fail (after he sends her into space with a rocket, she rematerializes the next day); analysis of her tissue demonstrates that she is not composed of atoms like normal human beings – beneath a certain micro-level, there is nothing, just void. Finally, Kelvin grasps that Harey is a materialization of his own innermost traumatic fantasies. Solaris, this gigantic Brain, directly materializes our innermost fantasies which support our desire; it is a machine that generates/materializes in reality itself my ultimate fantasmatic objectal supplement/partner that I would never be ready to accept in reality, although my entire psychic life turns around it. Read in this way, the story is really about the hero’s inner journey, about his attempt to come to terms with his repressed truth, or, as Tarkovsky himself put it in an interview apropos Solaris: “Maybe, effectively, the mission of Kelvin on Solaris has only one goal: to show that love of the other is indispensable to all life. A man without love is no longer a man. The aim of the entire ‘solaristic’ is to show humanity must be love.” In clear contrast to this, Lem’s novel focuses on the inert external presence of the planet Solaris, of this “Thing which thinks” (to use Kant’s expression, which fully fits here): the point of the novel is precisely that Solaris remains an impenetrable Other with no possible communication with us – true, it returns us our innermost disavowed fantasies, but the “Que vuoi?” beneath this act remains thoroughly impenetrable (Why does It do it? As a purely mechanical response? To play demonic games with us? To help us – or compel us – to confront our disavowed truth?). It would thus be interesting to put Tarkovsky in the series of Hollywood commercial rewritings of novels which have served as the base for a movie: Tarkovsky does exactly the same as the lowest Hollywood producer, reinscribing the enigmatic encounter with Otherness into the framework of the production of the couple.
A different, less ideological, way to relate the vicissitudes of sexual lives to History is rendered in one of the masterpieces of contemporary Chinese cinema, Jia Zhang-Ke’s Still Life, which can be said to reinvent Rossellini and Antonioni in a Chinese mode, providing a Chinese non-Hollywood twist to the “production of the couple.” The irony is that the building of the Three Gorges dam, this brutal and gigantic human intervention into natural environment, the embodiment of collective human activity, is rendered as the inert Real which provides the background to the couples’ vicissitudes, like the ancient ruins in Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. The film can effectively be designated as an exercise in “socialist formalism”: the beauty of the film resides in its “time-image”, not “time-movement”: the protracted moments when, narratively, “nothing happens,” the camera just wanders around the background of decay, flood, and building falling apart – the looming presence of the dam is the film’s “situation”… Although the historic Real in the background is THE social and ecological nightmare of the biggest ever dam blocking natural flow, the film wisely abstains from direct socio-critical commentary, constraining itself to render its “apolitical” effects.
Still Life takes place in what is left of Fengjie, a ghost town in the process of being drowned because of the Three Gorges dam – when one of the heroes asks where a certain street is, and someone points to the middle of the river; higher on the banks, deserted buildings rot in the summer heat; except for the elderly, who are too tired to move, and the groups of workmen slowly demolishing the remaining buildings with hand tools, just about everyone has vanished. The film’s (and town’s) time is the empty time between the socialist past and the capitalist future: as far as we can see, there’s no social structure or authority, and the commercial life of capitalism hasn’t taken hold. Inanition and mere things have overwhelmed the human presence, as in Antonioni’s empty urban landscapes of the Po valley.
Two individual stories are set against this background. Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi, arrives to Fengjie in search of the wife and daughter he lost 16 years ago; the address given to him is now a strip of grass in the vast body of water created by the dam. To earn money, he participates in the same destruction that consumed his old home, helping to tear down buildings earmarked for demolition; however, despite being a willing agent in the destruction of his country’s memory, his endeavor to connect his past and his future places him in sharp contrast to this rush to destroy centuries of culture in order to pursue an insanely rapid pace of prosperity. The death of one of the men he befriends leads directly to his own symbolic rebirth, when at the conclusion of his story he returns to Shanxi with a renewed life purpose. – In the second story, Shen Hong, a nurse, searches for her husband who abandoned her two years before. The husband also works on demolishing buildings; however, in contrast to Sanming, he is in a much higher social class, overseeing a large staff; he also hires local thugs to persuade those reluctant to leave their homes to make way for the demolition. Shen Hong’s story also ends with a subjective decision: when reunited with her husband, she asks him for divorce. In both stories, the inert background of the “situation” (the flooded city, i.e., culture being overtaken by nature) is contrasted with subjective acts at the individual level.
Although Sanming and Shen Hong never meet, their stories are connected by visual tropes which counteract the downbeat realism of the story. More generally, the whole of Still Life is characterized by the properly dialectical tension between form and content, a tension which brings to mind not so much Rossellini and Antonioni as, rather, Robert Altman. Altman’s universe, best exemplified by his masterpiece Short Cuts, is that of contingent encounters between a multitude of series, a universe in which different series communicate and resonate at the level of what Altman himself refers to as »subliminal reality« (meaningless mechanic shocks, encounters, and impersonal intensities which precede the level of social meaning). So, when, in Nashville, violence explodes at the end (the murder of Barbara Jean at the concert), this explosion, although unprepared and unaccounted for at the level of the explicit narrative line, is nonetheless experienced as fully justified, since the ground for it was laid at the level of signs circulating in the film’s »subliminal reality.« What this means is also that one should avoid the temptation of reducing Altman to a poet of American alienation, rendering the silent despair of everyday lives: there is another Altman, that of opening oneself to joyful contigent encounters. Along the same lines as Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Kafka’s universe of the Absence of the inaccessible and elusive transcendent Center (Castle, Court, God) as the Presence of multiple passages and transformations, one is tempted to read the Altmanian »despair and anxiety« as the deceiving obverse of the more affirmative immersion into the multitude of subliminal intensities.
Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Still Life. Despite the obvious desolation and depression engendered by the film’s content, the underlying mood of the film, rendered by its formal texture, is the one of melancholic beauty and affirmation of life: the river and the green mountains on both sides of it extend into the distance in majestic panoply; gray clouds hang over the scene like painted backdrops; the air is moist and palpable; even the thick rusted pipes of abandoned factories seem to breathe. This aesthetics evokes another name: Tarkovsky, in whose films, exemplary of his masterpiece Stalker, post-industrial wasteland abounds, with wild vegetation growing over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water and wild overgrowth in which stray cats and dogs wander. Nature and industrial civilization are here again overlapping, but through a common decay – civilization in decay is in the process of again being reclaimed (not by idealized harmonious Nature, but) by nature in decomposition. The ultimate Tarkovskian landscape is that of a humid nature, river or pool close to some forest, full of the debris of human artifices (old concrete blocks or pieces of rotten metal).
We should thus distinguish three levels in Still Life: the individual one (the stories of the two heroes), the particular one (the social content, the process of human industrial activity), and the universal one (the image of the universe rendered by the cinematic form itself). The dialectics of the film resides in the complex interactions of these three levels, with all possible “strategic alliances” of the two terms against the third one: individuals as agents of the Social opposed to Nature; individuals solidary with decaying Nature against the devastating social process; Nature and the Social blended together into an objectivized Substance opposing individuals.
It is in this respect that Still Life is superior to Kim Ki-duk’s much more popular Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring. Feminists were, for once, right to protest against this film – the »natural cycle« it presents is worth a closer look: we are deep into Wagnerian-Weiningerian waters. First, we have a wise Buddhist monk and a small innocent boy who is playing around, his only sin being thatr he likes to tie small stones to animals. Then, a couple of years later, a young woman arrives to be healed, and chaos is unleashed: the boy – now an adolescent – and the woman copulate, and the boy follows her to the city, abandoning the lone dwelling on a raft that floats on a mountain lake. A couple years later, the boy, now a man in his early 30s, returns, pursued by two detectives: out of jealousy, he killed the woman, thus realizing the prophecy of the old monk who had warned him that love for a woman leads to attachment which ends in killing the object of attachment. A decade or more later, after the monk’s ritual suicide, the man returnes (he served his prison term for murder) and takes over the lake dwelling, becoming a monk. Later, in Winter, a young woman, her face fully covered with transparent cloth, brings to his dwelling a small boy and leaves him there, herself drowning in the cracking ice when she is leaving. So we are again in Spring where we started: a monk with a young boy-pupil… The role of woman fits the coordinates of Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal: either an object of lust, causing man’s fall and her own death, or a faceless/nameless mother whose fate is to deliver the child and then erase herself out of the picture – the good old duality of whore and mother was rarely presented in such a pure form.
The first thing to do here is to take the film’s cycle more literally than it takes itself: why does the young man kill his love when she abandons him for another man? Why is his love so possessive? An average man in secular life would have accepted it, however painful it would have been for him. What if it is his very Budhist-monk upbringing which made him do it? That is to say, what if woman only appears as object of lust and possession which ultimately provokes man to kill her from the Buddhist position of detachment? So that the whole »natural cycle« that the film deploys, murder included, is internal to the Buddhist universe… Although it may appear that Still Life also flirts with this »oriental« notion of the life-cycle that transcends human concerns, the three-levels dialectic undermines the stability of each level, so that natural cycle itself loses its »eternal« character of the »big Other« and gets caught in historical dynamics: it is implicitly denounced as what individuals melancholically imagine in order to be able to endure the traumatic impact of History.
 See Joan Copjec, Read My Desire, Cambridge: MIT Press 1994.
 Quoted from http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/08/04/irrational-and-transcendental/.
 In a first approach, it may appear that we are here as far as possible from Hegel: does Cantor’s concept of the transfinite as that which persists outside the finite, which stands side by side to it, which is exempted from it as its external frame, not provide an exemplary case of what Hegel calls the “abstract infinite” which, insofar as it is externally opposed to the finite and excludes it, is in itself again finite? And is not, in contrast to this transfinite, the Hegelian “true infinite” immanent to the finite, is it not the very organic totality of the finite in its movement of self-sublation? It is, however, precisely such an “organic” notion of the infinite as the living totality of the finite that remains at the level of Substance since, in it, the infinite is not yet for itself: it is crucial for Hegel that the infinite must appear, that it be “posited as such”, in its difference to the finite – only thus do we pass from Substance to Subject. For Hegel, “subject” qua the power of absolute negativity designates the point at which the infinite is posited as such, in its negative relationship to everything finite.
 Strictly speaking, the same goes also for the transcendental dimension as such. The field of our experience is in principle “open”, infinite, there is always something to be added to it; we arrive at the transcendental dimension when we decide to treat this “open” field of experience as a closed, framed totality, and to render thematic the frame which, although not part of our experience, a priori delineates its contours.
 F.W.J. von Schelling, Ages of the World, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press 1997, p. 181-182. For a more detailed reading of this notion, see Chapter 1 of Slavoj Zizek, The Indivisible Remainder, London: Verso Books 1997.
 Jacques Derrida, Adieu a Emmanuel Levinas, Paris: Galilee 1997, p. 87.
 Incidentally, is it not weird to hear gay theorists rejecting the »gender binary« when gay sexuality is totally inscribed into this »gender binary«: the choice of male sexual partner (and not a female one) presupposes the established difference and in no way undermines it?
 Tim Dean, Beyond Sexuality, Chicago: Chicago University Press 2000, p. 23.
 Dean, op.cit., p. 26.
 Op.cit., p. 19.
 Quoted from https://differentcolouredhats.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/slavoj-zizek-is-wrong-about-stuff/.
 Quoted from http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/THE-SEMINAR-OF-JACQUES-LACAN-XX.pdf.
 Quoted from http://www.pomoculture.org/2015/07/07/queering-zizek/
 Quoted from http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/experiments/wave-function_collapse/.
 Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, New York: Macmillan 1963, p. 101.
 See Alenka Zupančič, Sex and Ontology (manuscript).
 Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1988, p. 671.
 See Zupančič, op.cit.
 Zupančič, op.cit.
 The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977, p. 268.
 See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, New York: Norton 1978, p. 218-219.
 Alain Badiou, “The Scene of Two,“ Lacanian Ink 21 (Spring 2003), p. 55.
 For a closer elaboration of this reflexive structure, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2003.
 Zupančič, op.cit.
 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York: Columbia University Press 1994, pp. 104–5.
 Zupančič, op.cit.