From 'Passionate Attachments' to Dis-Identification
I want to address the problem of identification by confronting the predominant deconstructionist doxa according to which the main problem with Lacanian theory - which allegedly also limits its political use - is that Lacan elevates the symbolic into a kind of transcendental position of a fixed normative order exempted from the transformative process of historical practice. According to this critique, the symbolic fixes in advance the constraints of compulsory heterosexuality and reduces all resistance to it to imaginary misrecognition. And if one does effectively break up the chains of the symbolic order, one is expelled into the void of psychosis. Since the main proponent of this criticism is Judith Butler, let me focus on her latest book, The Psychic Life of Power.
Butler's, as well as Lacan's, starting point is the old Leftist one -- how is it possible not only to resist effectively, but also to undermine and/or displace the existing socio-symbolic network - the Lacanian "big Other" - which predetermines the only space within which the subject can exist. Significantly, Butler identifies "subject" with the symbolic position occupied within this space, while she reserves the term "psyche" for the larger unity encompassing that in the individual which resists being included in the symbolic space. Butler, of course, is well aware that the site of this resistance cannot be simply and directly identified as the unconscious; the existing order of Power is also supported by unconscious "passionate attachments," attachments publicly non-acknowledged by the subject:
If the unconscious escapes from a given normative injunction, to what other injunction does it form an attachment? What makes us think that the unconscious is any less structured by the power relations that pervade cultural signifiers than is the language of the subject? If we find an attachment to subjection at the level of the unconscious, what kind of resistance is to be wrought from that?
The exemplary case of the unconscious "passionate attachments" which sustain Power is precisely the inherent reflective eroticization of the regulatory power-mechanisms and procedures themselves. In the performance of an obsessional ritual, one designated to keep at bay the illicit temptation, the ritual itself becomes the source of libidinal satisfaction. It is thus the "reflexivity" involved in the relationship between regulatory power and sexuality, the way the repressive regulatory procedures themselves get libidinally invested, that functions as a source of libidinal satisfaction. And it is this radical masochistic reflective turn which remains unaccounted for in the standard notion of the "internalization" of social norms into psychic prohibitions. The second problem with the quick identification of the unconscious as the site of resistance is that, even if we concede that the unconscious is the site of resistance which forever prevents the smooth functioning of power mechanisms, that interpellation - the subject's recognition in his or her allotted symbolic place - is always ultimately incomplete, failed. "Does such resistance do anything," asks Butler, "to alter or expand the dominant injunctions or interpellations of subject formation?" In short, she concludes that "this resistance establishes the incomplete character of any effort to produce a subject by disciplinary means, but it remains unable to rearticulate the dominant terms of productive power."
Therein resides the kernel of Butler's criticism of Lacan. According to her, Lacan reduces resistance to the imaginary misrecognition of the symbolic structure. Such a resistance, although it thwarts the full symbolic realization, nonetheless depends on the symbolic order and asserts it in its very opposition, unable to rearticulate its terms - "For the Lacanian, then, the imaginary signifies the impossibility of the discursive - that is, symbolic - constitution of identity" (96-97). Along these lines, she even identifies the Lacanian unconscious itself as imaginary, as "that which thwarts any effort of the symbolic to constitute sexed identity coherently and fully, an unconscious indicated by the slips and gaps that characterize the workings of the imaginary in language." Against this background, it is then possible to claim that, in Lacan, "psychic resistance presumes the continuation of the law in its anterior, symbolic form and, in that sense, contributes to its status quo. In such a view, resistance appears doomed to perpetual defeat."
The first thing to take note of here is that Butler seems to conflate two radically opposed uses of the term "resistance." One is the socio-critical use - resistance to power, for instance - and the other the clinical use operative in psychoanalysis - the patient's resistance to acknowledge the unconscious truth of his symptoms, the meaning of his dreams, and so on. When Lacan determines resistance as "imaginary," he has thereby in mind the misrecognition of the symbolic network which determines us. On the other hand, for Lacan, radical rearticulation of the predominant symbolic order is altogether possible. This is what his notion of point de capiton - the "quilting point" or the master-signifier - is about. When a new point de capiton emerges, the socio-symbolic field is not only displaced, its very structuring principle changes. Here, one is thus tempted to turn around the opposition between Lacan and Foucault as elaborated by Butler. It is Foucault who insists on the immanence of the entire symbolic field by means of an act proper, a passage through "symbolic death." In short, it is Lacan who allows us to conceptualize the distinction between imaginary resistance -- false transgression which reasserts the symbolic status quo and even serves as a positive condition of its functioning - and the effective symbolic rearticulation via the intervention of the real of an act.
Only at this level, assuming that we take into account the Lacanian notions of point de capiton and the act as real, does a meaningful dialogue with Butler become possible. Butler's matrix of social existence as well as Lacan's is that of a forced choice. In order to exist at all within the socio-symbolic space, one has to accept the fundamental alienation, the definition of one's existence in the terms of the "big Other." As she is quick to add, however, this should not constrain us to - what she perceives as - the Lacanian view according to which the symbolic order is a given which can only be effectively transgressed if the subject pays the price of psychic exclusion. So on the one hand we have the false imaginary resistance to the symbolic norm, and on the other, the psychotic breakdown, with the only "realistic option" being full acceptance of alienation in the symbolic order - the goal of the psychoanalytic treatment. Butler opposes to this Lacanian fixity of the symbolic the Hegelian dialectic of presupposing and positing. Not only is the symbolic order always-already presupposed as the sole milieu of the subject's social existence, but this order itself exists and is reproduced, only insofar as subjects recognize themselves in it and, via repeated performative gestures, again and again assume their places in it. This, of course, opens up the possibility of changing the symbolic contours of our socio-symbolic existence by way of its parodically displaced performative enactings. Therein resides the thrust of Butler's anti-Kantianism. She rejects the Lacanian symbolic a priori as a new version of the transcendental framework which fixes the coordinates of our existence in advance, leaving no space for the retroactive displacement of these presupposed conditions. So when in a key passage Butler asks the question:
What would it mean for the subject to desire something other than its continued 'social existence'? If such an existence cannot be undone without falling into some kind of death, can existence nevertheless be risked, death courted or pursued, in order to expose and open to transformation the hold of social power on the conditions of life's persistence? The subject is compelled to repeat the norms by which it is produced, but the repetition establishes a domain of risk, for if one fails to reinstate the norm "in the right way," one becomes subject to further sanction, one feels the prevailing conditions of existence threatened. And yet, without a repetition that risks life - in its current organization - how might we begin to imagine the contingency of that organization, and performatively reconfigure the contours of the conditions of life?
The Lacanian answer to this is clear - "to desire something other than its continued 'social existence'" and thus to fall "into some kind of death," that is, to risk a gesture by means of which death is "courted or pursued," points precisely towards the way Lacan reconceptualized the Freudian death-drive as the elementary form of the ethical act. Note that the act, insofar as it is irreducible to a "speech act," relies for its performative power on the preestablished set of symbolic rules and/or norms.
Is this not the whole point of Lacan's reading of Antigone? Antigone effectively puts at risk her entire social existence, defying the socio-symbolic power of the city embodied in the rule of Creon, thereby "falling into some kind of death" - i.e., sustaining symbolic death, the exclusion from the socio-symbolic space. For Lacan, there is no ethical act proper without taking the risk of such a momentary "suspension of the big Other," of the socio-symbolic network which guarantees the subject's identity; an authentic act occurs only when a subject risks a gesture which is no longer "covered up" by the big Other. For that reason, Lacan pursues all possible versions of this entering the domain "between the two deaths," not only citing Antigone after her expulsion, but also Oedipus at Colonus, King Lear, Poe's Mr. Valdemar, and so on. Up to Sygne from Claudel's Coufontaine-trilogy, their common predicament is that they all found themselves in this domain of the undead, "beyond death and life," in which the causality of the symbolic fate is suspended. Butler, in the above-quoted passage, too quickly conflates this act in its radical dimension with the performative reconfiguration of one's symbolic condition via its repetitive displacements. The two are not the same. In other words, one should maintain the crucial distinction between mere "performative reconfiguration," a subversive displacement which remains within the hegemonic field and, as it were, fights against it an internal guerilla battle of turning against the hegemonic field its own terms, and the much more radical act of a thorough reconfiguration of the entire field which redefines the very conditions of socially sustained performativity - in Foucault's terms, the passage from one episteme to another.
Is it possible to undermine also the most fundamental level of subjection, what Butler calls "passionate attachments"? The Lacanian name for the primordial passionate attachments on which the very consistency of the subject's being hinges is, of course, fundamental fantasy. The "attachment to subjectivation" constitutive of the subject is thus none other than the primordial "masochist" scene in which the subject "makes/sees himself suffer," that is, assumes la doleur d' exister and thus provides the minimum of support to his being - like Freud's primordially repressed middle term "Father is beating me" in the essay "A Child is Being Beaten." This fundamental fantasy is thoroughly "inter-passive." In it, a scene of passive suffering, or subjection, is staged which simultaneously sustains and threatens the subject's being - only insofar, that is, as being remains foreclosed, primordially repressed. From this perspective, a new approach opens up to the recent artistic practices of sado-masochistic performance. In such practices, isn't this very foreclosure ultimately undone? In other words, what if the open assuming/staging of the fantasmatic scene of primordial "passionate attachment" is far more subversive than the dialectic rearticulation and/or displacement of this scene?
The difference between Butler and Lacan is that for Butler primordial repression is the foreclosure of the primordial "passionate attachment," while for Lacan, the fundamental fantasy, the stuff of which "primordial attachments" are made, is already a filler, a formation which covers up a certain gap or void. Thus it is only here, at this very point where the difference between Butler and Lacan is almost imperceptible, that we encounter the ultimate gap that separates Butler from Lacan. Butler again interprets these "primordial attachments" as the subject's presuppositions in a proto-Hegelian meaning of the term, and therefore counts on the subject's ability dialectically to rearticulate these presuppositions of his or her being, to reconfigure and displace them. The subject's identity "will remain always and forever rooted in its injury as long as it remains an identity, but it does imply that the possibilities of resignification will rework and unsettle the passionate attachment to subjection without which subject formation - and re-formation - cannot succeed". For example, subjects are confronted with a forced choice in which rejecting an injurious interpellation amounts to not existing at all; under the threat of non-existence, they are, as it were, emotionally blackmailed into identifying with the imposed symbolic identity, "nigger," "bitch," etc. Since symbolic identity retains its hold only by its incessant repetitive re-enacting, however, it is possible for the subject to displace this identity, to recontextualize it, to make it work for other purposes, to turn it against its hegemonic mode of functioning.
What Lacan does here is to introduce a distinction between the two terms which are identified in Butler, the fundamental fantasy which serves as the ultimate support of the subject's being, and the symbolic identification which is already a symbolic response to the trauma of the fantasmatic "passionate attachment." The symbolic identity we assume in a forced choice when we recognize ourselves in ideological interpellation relies on the disavowal of the fantasmatic "passionate attachment" which serves as its ultimate support.This leads to a further distinction between symbolic rearticulations and variations on the fundamental fantasy - like the variations on "Father is beating me" - which do not effectively undermine its hold, that is, between this dialecticization and the possible "traversing" the very fundamental fantasy. The ultimate aim of the psychoanalytic process is precisely for the subject to undo the ultimate "passionate attachment" which guarantees the consistency of his or her being, and thus to undergo what Lacan calls the "subjective destitution." At its most fundamental level, the primordial "passionate attachment" to the scene of fundamental fantasy is not "dialecticizable."
An example of the reconfiguration of fantasy would be Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series. In the first film, the masochist fantasy in all its ambiguity is almost directly acknowledged, while in the following installments, it looks as if Eastwood self-consciously accepted the politically correct criticism and displaced the fantasy to give to the story a more acceptable "progressive" flavor. In all these reconfigurations, however, the same fundamental fantasy remains operative. With all respect for the political efficiency of such reconfigurations, they do not really touch the hard fantasmatic kernel - they even sustain it. And in contrast to Butler, Lacan's wager is that even and also in politics, it is possible to accomplish a more radical gesture of "traversing" the very fundamental fantasy. Only such gestures which disturb this fantasmatic kernel are authentic acts.
Here, one should look to the problematic of the original Hilflosigkeit ('helplessness,' 'distress') of small infants. The first feature to be noted is that this "distress" covers two interconnected, but nonetheless different, levels -- first a purely organic helplessness, the inability of the small child to survive, to satisfy his or her most elementary needs, without the parents' help, and second the traumatic perplexion when the child is thrown into the position of a helpless witness of sexual interplay among the parents, other adults, or between adults and him- or herself. The child is helpless, without "cognitive mapping," when confronted with the enigma of the Other's jouissance, unable to symbolize the mysterious sexual gestures and innuendoes he or she is witnessing. Crucial for "becoming-human" is the overlapping of the two levels, the implicit "sexualization" of the way a parent satisfies a child's bodily needs - say, when the mother feeds the child by excessively caressing him, and the child detects in this excess the mystery of sexual jouissance.
So, back to Butler - the crucial question concerns the philosophical status of this original and constitutive Hilflosigkeit. Is this Hilflosigkeit not another name for the gap of the primordial dis-attachment which triggers the need for the fantasmatic primordial "passionate attachment"? In other words, what if we turn around the perspective and conceive of the obstacle which prevents the infans fully to fit into its environs - this original "out-of-joint" state - in its positive aspect, as another name for the very abyss of freedom, for that gesture of "disconnecting" that liberates a subject from its direct immersion into its environs? Or, to put it in yet another way - true, the subject is as it were "blackmailed" into passively submitting to some form of the primordial "passionate attachment," since, outside of it, he simply does not exist. This non-existence is not directly the absence of existence, however, but a certain gap or void in the order of being which "is" the subject itself. The need for "passionate attachment" to provide a minimum of being implies that the subject qua "abstract negativity," qua the primordial gesture of dis-attachment from its environs, is already here. Fantasy is thus a defense-formation against the primordial abyss if dis-attachment that "is" the subject itself. At this precise point, then, Butler should be supplemented - the emergence of the subject and subjection in the sense of the "passionate attachment," i.e. submission to some figure of the Other, are not strictly equivalent, since, for the "passionate attachment" to take place, the gap which "is" the subject must already be here. Only if this gap is already here, can we account for how it is possible for the subject to escape the hold of the fundamental fantasy.
So what is a proper act? Jacques-Alain Miller proposes as the definition of "a true woman" a certain radical act - the act of taking from man, her partner, of obliterating, destroying even, that which is "in him more than himself," that which "means everything to him" and to which he holds more than his own life, the precious agalma round which his life turns. The exemplary figure of such an act in literature is that of Medea who, upon learning that Jason, her husband, plans to abandon her for a younger woman, kills their two young children, her husband's most precious possessions. It is in this horrible act of destroying that which matters most to her husband that she acts as une vraie femme, as Lacan put it.
Would it not be possible, along these lines, also to interpret the unique figure of the femme fatale in the new noir of the 90s, as exemplified by Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl's The Last Seduction? In contrast to the classic noir femme fatale of the 40s, who remains an elusive spectral presence, the new femme fatale is characterized by direct, outspoken sexual aggressivity, verbal and physical, by direct self-commodification and self-manipulation. She has the "mind of a pimp in the body of a whore." Two dialogues are here indicative - the classic exchange of double entendres about a "speed limit" which finishes the first encounter of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and the first encounter of Linda Fiorentino with her partner in The Last Seduction. In the latter, Fiorentino directly opens up his fly, reaches into it and inspects his merchandise before accepting him as a lover: "I never buy anything sight unseen," she says, and later rejects any "warm human contact" with him. How does this brutal "self-commodification," this reduction of herself and her male partner to an object to be satisfied and exploited, affect the allegedly "subversive" status of the femme fatale with regard to the paternal Law of speech?
According to standard feminist cinema theory, in the classical noir, the femme fatale is punished at the level of the explicit narrative line. She is destroyed for being assertive and undermining the male patriarchal dominance and for presenting a threat to it. Although she is destroyed or domesticated, her image survives her physical destruction as the element which effectively dominates the scene. The subversive character of the noir films is exhibited in the way the texture of the film belies and subverts its explicit narrative line. In contrast to this classic noir, the neo-noir of the 80s and 90s, from Kasdan's Body Heat to The Last Seduction, at the level of explicit narrative, openly allows the femme fatale to triumph, to reduce her partner to a sucker condemned to death - she survives rich and alone over his dead body. She does not survive as a spectral "undead" threat which libidinally dominates the scene even after her physical and social destruction. She triumphs directly, in social reality itself. How does this affect the subversive edge of the femme fatale figure? Does the fact that her triumph is real not undermine her much stronger spectral/fantasmatic triumph, so that, instead of a spectral all-powerful threat, indestructible in her very physical destruction, she turns out to be just a vulgar, cold, manipulative "bitch" deprived of any aura?
Perhaps what one should do here is change the terms of the debate by, first, pointing out that, far from being simply a threat to the male patriarchal identity, the classic femme fatale functions as the "inherent transgression" of the patriarchal symbolic universe, as the male masochist-paranoiac fantasy of the exploitative and sexually insatiable woman who simultaneously dominates us and enjoys in her suffering, provoking us violently to take her and to abuse her. The threat of the femme fatale is thus a false one. It is effectively a fantasmatic support of patriarchal domination, the figure of the enemy engendered by the patriarchal system itself. In Judith Butler's terms, femme fatale is the fundamental disavowed "passionate attachment" of the modern male subject, a fantasmatic formation which is needed, but cannot be openly assumed, so that it can only be evoked on the condition that, at the level of the explicit narrative line - standing for the public socio-symbolic sphere - she is punished and the order of male domination is reasserted. Or, to put it in Foucauldian terms, in the same way that the discourse on sexuality creates sex as the mysterious, impenetrable entity to be conquered, the patriarchal erotic discourse creates the femme fatale as the inherent threat against which the male identity should assert itself. And the neo-noir's achievement is to bring to light this underlying fantasy: the new femme fatale who fully accepts the male game of manipulation, and as it were beats him at his own game, is much more effective in threatening the paternal Law than the classic spectral femme fatale.
One can argue, of course, that this new femme fatale is no less hallucinatory, that her direct approach to a man is no less the realization of a (masochist) male fantasy; what one should not forget, however, is that the new femme fatale subverts the male fantasy precisely by way of directly and brutally realizing it, acting it out in "real life." It is thus not only that she realizes the male hallucination; she is fully aware that men hallucinate about such a direct approach, and that directly giving them what they hallucinate about is the most effective way to undermine their domination. In other words, what we have in the above-described scene from The Last Seduction is the exact feminine counterpart to the scene from Lynch's Wild at Heart in which Wilem Defoe verbally abuses Laura Dern, forcing her to utter the words "Fuck me!" And when she finally does respond, i.e. when her fantasy is aroused, he treats this offer as an authentic free offer and politely rejects it - "No, thanks, I've got to go, but maybe some other time..." In both scenes, the subject is humiliated when his or her fantasy is brutally externalized. In short, Linda Fiorentino acts here as a true sadist, not only on account of her reduction of her partner to the bearer of partial objects which provide pleasure - thereby depriving the sexual act of its "human and emotional warmth" and transforming it into a cold physiological exercise -- but also because of the cruel manipulation of the other's fantasy which is directly acted out and thus thwarted in its efficiency as the support of desire.
Is this gesture of intentionally and brutally dropping the spectral aura of the traditional femme fatale not another version of the act of une vraie femme? Is not the object which is to her partner "more than himself," the treasure around which his life turns, the femme fatale herself? By brutally destroying the spectral aura of "feminine mystery," by acting as a cold manipulating subject interested only in raw sex, reducing her partner to a partial object, the appendix to - and the bearer of - his penis, does she not also violently destroy what is "for him more than himself"? The enigma of this new femme fatale is that although, in contrast to the classic femme fatale, she is totally transparent, openly assuming the role of a calculating bitch, the perfect embodiment of what Baudrillard called the "transparency of Evil," her enigma persists. Here we encounter the paradox already discerned by Hegel - sometimes, total self-exposure and self-transparency, i.e. the awareness that there is no hidden content, makes the subject even more enigmatic. Sometimes, being totally outspoken is the most effective and cunning way of deceiving the Other. For that reason, the neo-noir femme fatale continues to exert her irresistible seductive power on her poor partner. Her strategy is the one of deceiving him by openly telling the truth. The male partner is unable to accept this, and so, he desperately clings to the conviction that, behind the cold manipulative surface, there must be a heart of gold to be saved, a person of warm human feeling, and that her cold manipulative approach is just a kind of defensive strategy. So, in the vein of Freud's well-known Jewish joke "Why are you telling me that you are going to Lemberg, when you are actually going to Lemberg?" the basic implicit reproach of the sucker-partner to the new femme fatale could be formulated as "Why do you act if you are just a cold manipulative bitch, when you are really just a cold manipulative bitch?"
This allows us further to specify the Lacanian notion of an authentic act. Act is to be opposed to mere activity. Activity relies on some fantasmatic support, while the authentic act involves disturbing - "traversing" - the fantasy. In this precise sense, act is for Lacan on the side of the object qua real as opposed to signifier - to "speech act." We can only perform speech acts insofar as we have accepted the fundamental alienation in the symbolic order and the fantasmatic support necessary for the functioning of this order, while the act as real is an event which occurs ex nihilo, without any fantasmatic support. As such, act as object is also to be opposed to the subject, at least in the standard Lacanian sense of the "alienated" divided subject. The correlate to the act is a divided subject, but not in the sense that because of that division act is always failed or displaced. On the contrary, act as traumatic tuche is that which divides the subject who cannot ever subjectivize this act, assume it as "his own," posit himself as its author-agent. The authentic act that I accomplish is always by definition a foreign body, an intruder which simultaneously attracts/fascinates and also repels me, so that, if and when I come too close to it, this leads to my aphanisis, self-erasure. If there is a subject to the act, it is not the subject of subjectivization, of integrating the act into the universe of symbolic integration and recognition, of assuming the act as "my own," but rather it is an uncanny "acephalous" subject through which the act takes place as that which is "in him more than himself." Act thus designates the level at which the fundamental divisions and displacements usually associated with the "Lacanian subject" are momentarily suspended. In the act, the subject, as Lacan puts it, posits itself as its own cause and is no longer determined by the decentered object-cause. Thus if we subtract from it its scenic imagery, its fascination with the divine majesty, and reduce it to the essential, Kant's well-known description of how a direct insight into the noumenal God as the Thing in itself would deprive us of our freedom and turn us into lifeless puppets paradoxically fits perfectly the description of the ethical act. This act is precisely something which unexpectedly "just occurs." It is an occurrence which most surprises its agent itself. The paradox is that in an authentic act, the highest freedom coincides with the utmost passivity, with a reduction to a lifeless automaton who just blindly performs its gestures. The problematic of act thus compels us to accept the radical shift of perspective involved in the modern notion of finitude. What is so difficult to accept is not the fact that the true act - in which noumenal and phenomenal dimensions coincide - is forever out of our reach. The true trauma resides in the opposite awareness that there are acts, that they do occur and that we have to come to terms with them.
This shift is homologous to that implied in the Kierkegaardian notion of "sickness unto death." The "sickness unto death" proper, its despair, opposes the standard despair of the individual who is split between the certainty that death is the end, that there is no beyond of eternal life and the equal certainty that death is not the last thing, that there is another life with its promise of redemption and eternal bliss. The "sickness unto death" rather involves the opposite paradox of the subject who knows that death is not the end, that he has an immortal soul, but cannot face the exorbitant demands of this fact - the necessity to abandon vain aesthetic pleasures and to work for his salvation - and so, desperately wants to believe that death is the end, that there is no divine unconditional demand exerting its pressure upon him. The standard religious je sais bien, mais quand meme is inverted here. It is not that "I know very well that I am a mere mortal living being, but I nonetheless desperately want to believe that there is redemption in eternal life." It is rather that "I know very well that I have an eternal soul responsible to God's unconditional commandments, but I desperately want to believe that there is nothing beyond death, I want to be relieved of the unbearable pressure of divine injunction." In other words, in contrast to the individual caught in the standard skeptical despair - i.e., the individual who knows he will die but cannot accept it and hopes for eternal life - we have here, in the case of "sickness unto death," the individual who desperately wants to die, to disappear forever, but knows that he cannot do it, that he is condemned to eternal life. The predicament of the individual "sick unto death" is the same as that of the Wagnerian heroes, from the Flying Dutchman to Amfortas in Parsifal, who desperately strive for death, for the final annihilation and self-obliteration which would relieve them of the hell of their "undead" existence.
In the criticism of Kant implicit in this notion of the act, Lacan is thus close to Hegel who also claimed that the unity of the noumenal and the phenomenal adjourned ad infinitum in Kant is precisely what takes place every time an authentic act is accomplished. Kant's mistake was to presuppose that there is an act only insofar as it is adequately "subjectivized," that is, accomplished with a pure will, a will free of any "pathological" motivations. And, since one can never be sure that what I did was effectively motivated by the moral Law as its sole motive, the moral act turns into something which effectively never happens, but can only be posited as the final point of an infinite asymptotic approach of the purification of the soul. For this reason, Kant, in order to guarantee the ultimate possibility of the act, had to propose his postulate of the immortality of the soul, which, as it can be shown, effectively amounts to its very opposite, the Sadean fantasy of the immortality of the body. Only in such a way can one hope that, after endless approximation, one will reach the point of being able to accomplish a true moral act. The point of Lacan's criticism is thus that an authentic act does not presuppose its agent, the way Kant assumes with misleading self-evidence, "at the level of the act" with his will purified of all pathological motivations. It is inevitable, then, that the agent is not "at the level of its act," for he is himself unpleasantly surprised by the "crazy thing he just did" and is unable fully to come to terms with what he did. This, incidentally, is the usual structure of heroic acts - somebody who, for a long time, led an opportunistic life of maneuvering and compromises, all of a sudden, inexplicably even to himself, resolves to stand firmly, cost what it may. Thus the paradox of the act resides in the fact that although it is not "intentional" in the usual sense of the term, it is nonetheless accepted as something for which its agent is fully responsible - "I cannot do otherwise, yet I am nonetheless fully free in doing it."
So, if we return for a brief moment to The Last Seduction, Linda Fiorentino's gesture nevertheless does not quite fit the description of a true ethical act, insofar as she is presented as a perfect demoniac being, as the subject with a diabolical will who is perfectly aware of what she is doing; she fully subjectivizes her acts, insofar as her Will is at the level of her wicked deeds. As such, she remains a male fantasy: the fantasy of encountering a perfect subject in the guise of the absolutely corrupted woman who fully knows and wills what she is doing.
Consequently, this Lacanian notion of act also enables us to break with the deconstructionist ethics of the irreducible finitude, of how our situation is always that of a displaced being, caught in a constitutive lack, so that all we can do is to assume heroically this lack, to assume heroically the fact that our situation is that of being thrown into an impenetrable finite context. The corollary of this ethics, of course, is that the ultimate source of totalitarian and other catastrophes is man's presumption that he can overcome this condition of finitude, lack and displacement, and "act like God," in a total transparency, surpassing his constitutive division. Lacan's answer to this is that absolute/unconditional acts do occur, but not in the idealist guise of a self-transparent gesture performed by a subject with a pure will who fully intends them. They occur, on the contrary, as a totally unpredictable tuche, a miraculous event which shatters our lives. To put it in somewhat pathetic terms, this is how the "divine" dimension is present in our lives, and the different modalities of ethical betrayal relate precisely to the different ways of betraying the act-event. The true source of evil is not a finite mortal man who acts like God, but a man who disavows that divine miracles occur and reduces himself to just another finite mortal being.
- Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997). Numbers in parentheses refer to the pages of this book.
- Butler demonstrates that the Foucauldian "body" as the site of resistance is none other than the Freudian "psyche." Paradoxically, "body" is Foucault's name for the psychic apparatus insofar as it resists the soul's domination. That is to say, when, in his well-known definition of the soul as the "prison of the body," Foucault turns around the standard Platonic-Christian definition of the body as the "prison of the soul," what he calls the "body" is not simply the biological body, but is that which is already caught in some kind of pre-subjective psychic apparatus.
- 97. Incidentally, Butler here blatantly contradicts Lacan for whom the unconscious is "the Other's discourse," i.e. symbolic, not imaginary. Is not the best known single line from Lacan the assertion that "the Unconscious is structured like a language?" Slips and gaps are not for Lacan thoroughly symbolic facts. They confirm the functioning of the signifying network.
- For example, apropos of the army life, such a "passionate attachment" is provided by a homosexual link which has to be disavowed if it is to remain operative. See Chapter 2 of Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997).
- One should link this opposition of attachment and dis-attachment to the old Freudian metapsychological opposition of Life and Death drives. In The Ego and the Id, Freud defines these drives as the opposition between the forces of connection/unity and the forces of disconnection/disunity. Dis-attachment is thus death drive at its purest, the gesture of ontological "derailment" which throws "out of joint" the order of Being. It is the gesture of disinvestment, of "contraction"/withdrawal from being immersed in the world. The primordial attachment is the counter-move to this negative gesture. In the last resort, this negative tendency to disruption is none other than libido itself: what throws a subject "out of joint" is none other than the traumatic encounter with jouissance.
- See Jacques-Alain Miller, "Des Semblants dans la Relation Entre les Sexes," La Cause Freudianne 36 (1997): 7-15.
- Lacan's other example is that of Andre Gide's wife who, after his death, burned all his love letters to her, considered by him his most precious possession.
- I rely here on Kate Stables, British Film Institute, London.
- The fantasy of the all-powerful woman whose irresistible attraction presents a threat not only to male domination, but to the very identity of the male subject, is the "fundamental fantasy" against which the male symbolic identity defines and sustains itself.
- For a detailed analysis of the scene from Wild at Heart, see Appendix 2 to Slavoj Zizek's The Plague of Fantasies.
- That is, the split between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciated/statement, the subject's "decenterment" with regard to the symbolic big Other, and so on.
- "Instead of the conflict which now the moral disposition has to wage with inclinations and in which, after some defeats, moral strength of mind may be gradually won, God and eternity in their awful majesty would stand unceasingly before our eyes... Thus most actions conforming to the law would be done from fear, few would be done from hope, none from duty. The moral worth of our actions, on which alone the worth of the person and even of the world depends in the eyes of supreme wisdom, would not exist at all. The conduct of man, so long as his nature remained as it is now, would be changed into mere mechanism, where, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but no life would be found in the figures." Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 152-153.
- After an authentic act, my reaction is always, "I myself do not know how I was able to do that - it just happened!"
- See Alenka Zupancic, "The Subject of the Law," SIC 2, ed. Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke UP, 1998).
- In a further elaboration, one should thus reread Lacan's matrix of the four discourses as three modes of coming to terms with the trauma of the analytic act. The master's semblance resides in the fact that he pretends to nominate and thus directly translate into the symbolic fidelity the dimension of the act. That is, the defining feature of the Master's gesture is to change the act into a new master-signifier. In contrast to the master, the hysteric maintains the ambiguous attitude of division towards the act, insisting on the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of its symbolization. In contrast to both of them, the perverse agent of the university discourse disavows that the re was the event of an act in the first place. By means of the chain of knowledge, he wants to reduce the consequences of the act to just another thing which can be explained away as part of the normal run of things.
- From 'Passionate Attachments' to Dis-Identification. UMBR(a): Identity/Identification no.1, 1998.