Saturday, 13 December 2014

Playing with Lacan ... Love, Desire & Cowardice

This post is not to be taken overly seriously. It is an over-simplified approach to Lacanian thought. I take him as the 'other' against whom I measure my argument but it does no justice to the complexity of his performance. I write performance because I cannot take him seriously as a formal thinker but only as a poet or life-dramatist arising out of the surrealist tradition. My contribution is thus necessarily merely playful and provocative despite its formalism.

Are we captured by our environment? Do we create an image of ourselves designed to allow us to operate in the world? This is Lacan's early insight - that, whether he is precisely right about its origins in our condition of coming into the world, persons construct imaginary selves to navigate reality.

The Invention of Reality

The imagined self is to all intents and purposes our reality - it is our operating system. Our self-constructed imagination of the world merely gives us imaginary selves to test out new ways of dealing with our environment. The imagined self may be functionally and pragmatically 'real' but it is not the whole story of our body's relationship to reality.

Freud and Lacan, by observation and experimentation, saw that this imagined self would see reality as material or social fact at one level but then re-interpret it with narratives that were somewhat false. The conclusion drawn was that persons need coherence and completeness in preference to truth whenever the truth is neither coherent or complete.

Falsehoods to oneself and others are thus the very stuff of humanity. It is the imagined self of the other that is the person that we will have deal with. No imagined self is a reliable guide to the world or to its own full self - Anton Wilson's biogram. It is a projection, a performance, an actor or actress.

We can re-interpret this eighty years on by considering the piecemeal nature of our sensory inputs (as increasingly revealed by neuro-science) and the instant subconscious choices that create coherence out of fragmented reality as we create our own sense of 'reality'. The self is building an interpretation of reality out of its own expectations and templated choices.

Becoming Paranoid

Barriers to reality (what actually exists 'out there') are thus two-fold - the choices made by sensory inputs (which may have strong genetic elements) and the construction of reality out of the sensory inputs (which is redraft of a previous mental draft and so dependent upon its own past). Without a conscious redraft, our mental text originates from the one with which we were born and which has had overlaid upon it all the cultural and social habits that Anton Wilson calls the logogram.

Paranoia arises when our mental text (and our description of the world is linguistic and not merely experienced) begins to redraft sensory inputs in a radical way to avoid any creative redrafting that would return us back to a right understanding of both ourselves and the world. Investment in the original mental text has become so great that reality must now change to save the text - the imagined self spins off into insanity.

In the most extreme cases, the mental text becomes the world - which perhaps is analogous to those social insanities where texts become the world for whole societies. Personal madness is the ideology of an imagined self taking charge of reality dysfunctionally just as social madness is ideology dictating social action, perhaps in excess of invented functionality. This will be dealt with below.

Lacan suggested that human knowledge itself was 'paranoiac'. He was sociologically right insofar as defining existence imposes boundaries on existence, an ordering of existence, that detaches the knower from existence itself. However, this is not a value judgement just an observation.

The Rationality of Madness

Lacan's greatest insight was perhaps to point out that madness is perfectly rational once certain understandings are in place, much as ideology is perfectly rational once you accept certain initial absurdities (such as God or scientific materialism or the 'war on women') and then link real phenomena to what is presented in the world in the light of these absurdities.

Madness is always logical in this sense. The relationship between the body (which is detached from the imagined self or ego) and the sub-conscious - an insight of Reich in his work on body armour - brings the body back into consideration as a sign and signal of not only physical but mental pain. The logic is far more hidden in neurosis than psychosis but it is there.

A physical pain might be interpreted as a mental signal that is seeking from the imagined self some reconsideration of its own mental drafting. The conditions of such a pain (if not organic) give profound clues to the nature of any redrafting of reality that is required to bring the body back into line with a workable imagined self.

Language in this respect is a mediator so that physical pain and the subconscious use of language are all appeals to the desire that the 'text' refuses to recognise. These are words that are demanding to be included in our text instead of being left to the side unused.


Words and images provide a data bank for analogy - much as magical thinking uses language and imagery analogically to build alternate realities where people have more control, at least imaginatively, of their lives. This data bank can be plundered to hold the line against internal rigidities and stop the march to full paranoid detachment.

Whenever external texts are used - whether for the person or the society - we are seeing the half-way house of near-madness that we referred to in a previous posting, that point where texts and words are used both to protect society or the individual from their own true nature and to suggest adaptations to make things tolerable but not 'true to themselves'.

The words are thus never the thing, never the person and never representative of the human condition, but the free play of words permits an entity the opportunity to assert some value that is more in accord with reality (as society or person) than the imagined and constructed self of ego or ideology.

Words, gestures and images are our first line of defence (if they are our words and not the words of others) but they are also a 'false friend' because they compromise from the start with the very nature of ideology to set terms on the permissibility of our language and with the imagined self whose adaptations are to be constructed almost entirely out of inherited words and images - references back to something 'golden' that should have have been rather than what is if we were only to look and see.


Language is at the heart of our alienation as persons. Language gets in the way of us being who we are even as it is the most effective tool for our being able to function in the world with and against others. Every time we are defined by ourselves or others, we lose something of our complex selves. Every time we define, we insult the complexity of the other person and mislead ourselves about the nature of social reality. The social sciences are the sciences of misleading ourselves in a disciplined way.

Nevertheless, the point about words is that they are not a simple matter of relationship between signifier and signified but that each word is a connection to other words which connect ad infinitum into the past. The tension between the ego-draft (or social-draft or ideology) and the alternate possible draft that each use of language implies is profound.

Every dissident thought within a society that is expressed in words has revolutionary potential because it offers an alternate reality to the 'given' draft.  Every imaginative rethinking of reality has the same potential for the liberation of the individual. Reality is symbolic. Art and magic are ways in which people attempt to circumvent language but even they are, like poetry, evasions, failures to look language in the eye and challenge its domination of us.

But, and this is where madness comes into the frame, a dissident thought or imaginative rethinking of reality that is not in accord with objective physical and relational reality beyond the social and beyond the individual is in danger of replacing the 'zombie' conditions of the ideological-social or the socialised person with a form of madness. Which makes us ask - what is madness under such conditions?

What is Madness?

The reality of madness as a biological and so physical reality, making people dysfunctional in the world and often deeply frightened and miserable, cannot be dismissed. In the individual, such madness debilitates and destroys but, in a society, it creates either an alternate ideological 'reality' (a false reality) or a form of free-floating paranoia which is where we may be heading in a rootless cosmopolitan globalised society where the ideology is to have no ideology other than distrust.

In 1968, Lacan famously said to the students: "I won't mince my words. What you want is another master". Perhaps he remembered Kojeve's lectures on Hegel and the master-slave dialectic but the point is well taken. To remove one ideological framework is to imply its replacement or collapse rather than paradise - to be liberated from a thesis, the ideologue feels he must enslave himself to the antithesis. This is no liberation, just a swapping of seats.

This gives us a clue to how we may handle symbolic reality whether as persons or as a society. The answer is a somewhat trans-human one because it suggests a conscious awareness of one's symbolic history and an active acceptance or rejection of its components rather than the assumption of it as a whole that is intrinsically right and proper.

If we learn who we are because of the defining of oneself in language by others, then, if we become that definition, we are no longer who we are to ourselves but a creation of history and the social. If we are not comfortable with this then, despite the claims of the Hegelian 'realists', we have a choice to rewrite history, redraw social relations and redefine ourselves. Our future is not cast in stone - we can re-make it through resistance to the texts that define us.

The Hidden 'Other'

This may involve asking whether significant others are oppressive or supportive and ruthlessly rejecting those who stereotype or define us to meet their own needs and not ours. The same culling may take place in the acceptance or rejection of ideas or pleasures. Why do we go to Church if it gives us nothing? Why vote if it changes nothing?

This is where Lacanian insights are useful when the question is asked to whom you are appealing when you act in a such-and-such way. If you go to church, who are you going to church for? If you vote, who are you voting for (not in terms of the candidate but the 'hidden watcher' who helped create your symbolic universe)? What are these habits and what secret anxieties to they hide?

It cuts both ways. If you ostentatiously do not go to Church or vote, who are you ostentatiously trying to tell that you do not go to church or vote? Language as change presupposes some 'other' to which talk or speech is directed. How to stop speaking to the other and engage in a conversation with your secret self does not say you will or should go to church or vote or not but it will bring the decisons into line with who you are and should be to yourself. For the record, I don't go to church and only intermittently vote when I feel it is important.

The paradox in personal and political language is that language as ego-construction and ideology blocks off reality but linguistic expression appears to be the only means of effecting any change to social conditions or to the person. We cannot live without language but the world in which it is our master and the world in which it is consciously used as our tool or weapon are very different.

The Intellectual and the Other

This applies as much to culture and politics as personal relations. One speaks if not to an identifiable other then to an 'other' who serves as reason for speech. The radical intellectual is speaking to no one that he sees while writing his article nor to every person who may read it but is speaking to an imaginary interlocutor who is a projection of himself. He is trying to order the world because he feels the need for order in himself.

After a while, the functional nature of the intellectual, as of the person, coalesces around this symbolic other who is really an avatar of himself. Indeed, with modern communications technology, we have avatars of the self speaking to yet other avatars of the self in order to communicate with the wider universe. The multiplication of self-avatars represents the very essence of a new phenomenon - the virtual society mediated by the internet.

Beyond all this lies the 'real' which might be confused with the existentialists' Existence but which is really that which lies between Existence and our own symbolic and imagined personal or social realities. It is that which is there, including the material effects of other men's dreamings, but which is not articulated to be there - it is the dark matter of being and it comprises most of our world.

We only know it is there when we consider the possibility of its being there or notice the lack behind what we see or experience as there. Perhaps its non-existence in our minds is what makes us into zombies because only non-zombies can see what exists as a function of what is not there (as a 'lack').

The Ineluctability of Political Persons

The Lacanian distrust of the 'I' statement is critical here. When someone says that they approve or disapprove of military action against (say) Syria (under conditions where their opinion matters not one jot to the action itself), then the assertion is an expression not so much of the 'I' but of something behind the 'I'.

This helps to explain one of the great truths of Facebook - no matter how much reasoning is employed, most persons most of the time 'stick with their position'. The 'position' is derived from something beyond access to new reasoning and that derivation is almost certainly embedded in some 'other' that is being identified as essential to identity.

To some extent social intelligence can be defined by the looseness of this identity - we have all seen the 'vulnerable' personality who scuttles from a robust Facebook Group debate because they think a critique of the existence of God or a questioning of the existence of patriarchy is a personal attack on them. They feel bullied because they have weak identities while their opponents are often just secure in their ability not only to challenge but to be challenged.

These 'weak identities' are matched by weak identities who are bullies - people who cannot argue through the logosphere but must attack the person. Both types - the weak and the bullies - tend to get exuded by the strong in free debate and, as in 'real life', the weak seek protective regulation to buttress their weak identities and the bullies seek regulation to enforce their world view on others.

Persons and societies will always be divided in these ways in all possible human worlds because persons and societies not only have multiple perspectives in themselves but societies have the multiple perspectives of multiple persons. The person who is militaristic may live inside a person who is socialist without any awareness of the rational problem of both existing together. Almost any set of rationalising variations is possible even if the vast majority fall into easy to accept categories that make life easier for themselves.

The ego will readily rationalise all this into something that passes for reasonable but, in doing so, it will redefine its terms to allow it to undertake this mental legerdemain and, in doing so, become more resistant than ever to reasonable criticism - precisely because the structure they have created is a paradigm that cannot afford any cracks. Like madness - as we have seen - political ideologies are always perfectly logical in their absurdities.


An ideology like Marxism, for example, might go through the process whereby a core inherited belief (say, the withering away of the State) and the actual practice of power require a rigid totalitarianism to hold them together. The personality type that holds together incompatible propositions by its nature is likely to feel happiest in an authoritarian ideology of this type.

The more internal contradictions in relation to the messiness of the real world, the more the collapse into Authority. The difference between the authoritarian and the liberated is, thus, the difference between seeing the accumulated history of one's situation as a 'given' to be managed or as an opportunity for further change and experience.

Institutionalisation, with its body of inherited codes and behaviours, represents both the paradise of the authoritarian and the hell of the libertarian. The first, desperate to extend order over reality, tries to impose church, state, party, marriage and law on the latter. The latter is often disadvantaged because there is no will to put in place the organisational structures required for their own survival.

This is not to say that institutional organisation is not necessary to undertake functional tasks (like provide clean water or get a plane to fly) but only that there is a difference between creating functionality for individual will or pleasure and creating functionality for symbolic representation. The challenge for the anarcho-libertarian is how to create sufficient organisation (an innoculation, if you like) against the virus of authoritarianism - and it is a challenge generally evaded and a fight generally lost from naivete and incompetence.

Markets & Love

The market brokers functionality for individual will or pleasure but the existence of authoritarians and libertarians alongside each other in the market makes the market problematic. Libertarians are rarely equal in political or cultural purchasing power - and so societies like persons are perpetually conflicted or else sclerotic.

Authoritarian obsessionalism in societies and persons tends to a living self-mortification just as a libertarian curiosity about the 'other' (a perpetual desire for the new) might lead to neurosis if the understanding of what is actually going on in the desire is limited.

It may seem odd to introduce the idea of love or desire into the discussion at this point but it is the relationship to desire that defines our accommodation to this world. The point about desire and love is that demand is never able to be satisfied once that path is chosen.

This is very disturbing to some people. It results in an unconscious denial of desire (the impulse of the so-called 'great religions' which are at the heart of the institutionalisation of culture) which, of course, is worse than acceptance of desire because it denies not the possibility of fulfilment of desire but the fact of desire itself - absurd because it is human to desire.

Displacement of Desire

Displacement of desire may result in fetishism in the person but it also has social effects in the displacement into an obsessive interest, without functional value in terms of direct acquisition of resources or power or participation as an individual, in politics or culture or sport. Above all, it tends to voyeurism or exhibitionism.

These are displaced desires for actual power or participation and are as absurd as fetishism - yet wholly necessary for those who have not been able to fulfil their desires 'in action' so to speak without the crutch of observing and commentating on the performance of others.

But if anything explains the persistent anxiety of the thinking person, it is this - the inability never to know what the mysterious other truly wants. Not knowing what the mysterious other - woman, self, interlocutor - wants is the source of passion and creativity but also anxiety, depression and indecision.

As Lacan pointed out in the 1950s, all desire has fetishistic qualities insofar as all attraction is to the components of the desired as much as to the whole of a person - a preference for redheads, say, over any other hair colour. The desire for love may be unconditional but love is directed very conditionally despite claims to the contrary. There is always something specific being desired whose direct expression is usually being avoided or evaded.

Sex and Existence

It is uncovering our real desires without the need for displacement which is interesting because we are all embedded in a world where there is no language and so no social order that can deal with sex or the fact of existence.

The only step we can take is to capture language for ourselves regardless of the effects on others. Take: 'I love you'. This is now so socially embedded in its multiple meanings that it is difficult to say for many people. There is an anxiety about misunderstanding. So, something important is often never expressed. Instead of taking the risk of saying it and then exploring the meaning through action in the world, it remains a phrase that festers in the hearts of the meek.

One approach might be to recapture this and other phrases by stating them regardless of the anxiety, shifting responsibility for the anxiety to the other person. Does this seem cruel? Not at all because the other person is free to make what they wish of the language and reject or accept on their terms - and so things can move forward. The 'sayer' simply has to accept the risk of rejection and 'rejection fear' is at the very heart of human cowardice and leads directly back to the easy fall into the jackboot and the uniform. 'Belong me into order', the frightened human rabbit says.

This is a revolutionary reversal of traditional modes in society. Instead of allowing anxiety and rational argument to thwart desire out of fear of consequences, the default position becomes the expression of desire and the acceptance of consequences. Ours may be the first non-aristocratic society where that is possible - in theory.

Final Linguistic Trickery

However, desire has become associated in our culture with an authoritarian notion of 'sin' and controlling desire has come to be an 'ethical' position yet it is quite possible, indeed probable, that 'sin' actually lies in an unnecessary state of anxiety and the failure to communicate and that the relief of tension involved in expressing desire will result in ethical consequences.

Remember - this is linguistic trickery. The revealing of desire is not the acting out of desire. Saying 'I love you' or 'I hate you' is not rape ... words are not actions, a proposition very difficult for modern liberal totalitarians to understand. To say, we repeat, is not to do - words are not things in the world. Assuming consensuality, the desire might then be acted out but the consensual nature of human relations is a given here. The expression of desire must include this courage to accept rejection.

To communicate desire and accept the consequences of rejection is truly revolutionary. It enables learning - both to find new ways to express desire and to adapt to others' different ideas of desire. It stands against authority and the 'other' as arbiter of anxiety and it enables the libertarian to draw a line in the sand against both the authoritarian and the weakness of liberal fears, against both the rat and the mouse.