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NLS-Copenhagen: ""The real in the XXIst century: a few paradoxes and challenges" by François Sauvagnat

"The real in the XXIst century: a few paradoxes and challenges"

François Sauvagnat

Whereas Lacan gave several successive definitions of the "real", one of the main common points between them is the special relationship between the real and  anxiety. This is sometimes forgotten when things are taken in a formal or descriptive way, but it becomes quite obvious if we refer to the two ''myths'' Lacan has created about it, the ''lamelle'' (Position of the unconscious) --  a new version of Aristophanes' discourse in the Banquet, and the "lathouse"  (seminar XVII), in which he predicts an uncontrollable use of electronic  waves which is currently more than common. Both of them can be understood as new versions of Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, especially the second, although it could not be foreseen before the advent of the cybernetic movement.

The new impotence of the master

It is commonly admitted that revolutions are determined by shifts in technique (the Marxist “modes of production”), in Lacanian terms, in the way the modes of control (S1) are affected by new kinds of knowledge (S2). Due to new discoveries, new repartitions of knowledge and power are pushed forward, new actors come to the fore and claim their share of power, which the master in his turn attempts to recover, etc. Democratic societies are frequently presented as those in which the repartition between the master and the knowledge allows a certain degree of individual agency and privacy for citizens, as opposed to totalitarian societies, and it is clear that the new technologies have tended to blur this popular distinction. In fact, even if thinkers promoting “free society” like to quote Carl Popper, they rarely  escape from mentioning the infamous Carl Schmidt on the necessity for the State to remain unpredictable  and “beyond the law”… and classically end up claiming that a true democratic State “would know” when and how to refrain from the arbitrary; in Lacanian terms, what would be the “reasonable” repartition between S1 and S2.  Thus a certain balance is supposed to be maintained between security and privacy.

This, classically, leaves in the dark a series of “unrecognized” practices, which do not fit too well with the image of an “open society”, such as police provocation, which Franz Alexander in his remarkable Psychoanalyse der Totalpersönlichkeit(1921), used as a model of the sadistic superego. What new technologies have induced, thanks to the dematerialization of recording techniques, is a growing difficulty to differenciate, at the level of privacy control, between totalitarian and liberal states.

 In the current case of new digital technologies that use waves as their vehicle of communication, the most striking  changes concern the limits of  bodies – an issue that happens to be a classical preoccupation of Lacanian psychoanalysis (notably, Lacan’s use of topology). As long as knowledge was typically recorded on paper, bodies remained mainly unaffected by whatever was written until published and/or enforced; but since publication can now be made on easily accessible, dematerialized networks that is bound to be retrieved some day – in spite of desperate attempts to enforce censure --,the function of publication has run out of control, any text can become accessible, and the limits between privacy and what pertains to general security are blurred. A psychotic patient quoted by J. Lacan (Seminar Le Sinthome) was complaining that not only were autonomous voices echoing in his head; he had recently discovered that they were broadcasted, to his total despair.The current panic over who is listening to whom, who has the right to “intercept” what, and who has the right to plant what kind of software into whose hardware is of course reminiscent, for many clinicians of the kind of anxieties frequently experienced by psychotic subjects.

The current notion of the impossibility to fully locate the enemy is of course closely connected to this uncontrollability of signifiers; Lacan, after Hans Fehr and Theodor Reik, noted that one of the immediate consequences of humanism at the beginning of the XVIth century ( the promotion of critical reflections on religion and politics through the popularization of the printing press) had been the increase of the use of torture in investigative criminal procedures promoted by the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (because the subject was “no longer believable”);  there is little doubt that  the “ticking bomb argument” popularized in the 24 series – torturing a suspect in order to know where a time bomb has been planted – also has a “magical punishment” side. It is a magical attempt to address the new uncontrollability of signifiers, by blocking, erasing the subjects suspected to be recipients of a new form of knowledge, and to re-integrate the S2 into the S1. The new difficulties to control knowledge imply that the master signifier will be endangered far more than before in his attempt to maintain an encompassing “oneness” submitting the S2 to its authority. Organizing an insurgency or a counterinsurgency in a foreign state, facilitating sectarian conflicts,  classical practices of the main World powers since de-colonization, have become all the more perilous as the current networks allow, not only a powerful increase in these classical techniques of propaganda, but also the immediate exhibition of how a smart manipulative campaign has been devised. In the same manner, due to the pervasive nature of current information techniques, and the impossibility to monitor them fully, the difference between whistleblowers and enemy combatants has been blurred by the very uncontrollability of  the technology we now depend on.

“Love thy neighbor…”

In Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Freud, in an apparent response to O. Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes, shows that the dissatisfaction provoked by the progress in Civilization -- understood  as a gradual departure from the unsophisticated satisfaction of drives such as it has, since,  been depicted by  historians like Norbert Elias--, and the renunciations it implies, has in fact  been predicted by the unsustainability of  the  Christian motto "love thy neighbor". This was the hidden principle, not only of Kant's transcendental moral maxim, but also of his hope that the expansion of democratic states would decrease the occasions of war, and of the socialist principles that were implied in all the progressive projects at the beginning of the XXth century -- let us not forget that Freud knew personally Otto Bauer, the brother of his "Dora" case and most outstanding socio-democrat leader in Austria. Freud briefly states that this is bound to create more and more "nervousness", and for good reasons. In his Entwurf einer Psychologie (written in 1895), he depicts the fundamental Other as  a "real", "irrepresentable"  figure, which at best can be characterised as "feindlich", hostile. There is little doubt that for him, this is a fundamental reality of humankind which no noble project will ever be able to erase: the primary qualification of the object cannot escape that of “Feindlichkeit” (Triebe und Triebschiksale), we need enemies, at least to locate the "real" we are carrying along wherever we may go. This also gave a specific colour to some of his jokes (Freud notoriously carried along two notebooks, one for cooking recipes, and the other  for  jokes). The famous specialist of criminology Melitta Schmideberg (Melanie Klein’s daughter), who welcomed him in London in 1939,  indignantly  reported that when she said to him  " War is such a terrible thing, what a waste, if you think  of all these people being bombed and all the efforts we are doing to save them!", he bluntly replied "Yes, one wonders which fate humanity deserves more!".

Although this, and other such jokes, have been understood  by the usual Freud-bashers as the proof of his fiendishness, it is clear to us that one of the main sources of what we call the "real" lies here: in the neighbour, and the "scandal" of the second Christian imperative  (Gospel of John, 13:34 ἀγάπην ἔχητε ἐν ἀλλήλοις;Mark 12:31 δευτέρα αὕτη, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν, etc). As Mc Luhan ominously remarked, the dramatic facilitation of mass-transportation, in the last decades, has made all men neighbors, at least potentially, and this has considerably expanded, especially thanks to the numerous appliances and gimmicks that the creativity of contemporary firms puts at at our disposal. Not only do we now dwell in the same village; some of the appliances we are endowed with now threaten the very limits of our body. Now the real question is :  What shall we do with the threatening neighbor? (let us think of the old Irish  "drunken sailor" shanty); we all know how each nation defines itself as having to control, to reform, to fight against etc. others, and when this is not enough, does this to minorities. There is something utterly "unnatural" in trying to go against this trend -- some of the pro-"PRISM" arguments can certainly be boiled down to this: at a certain level, if there can be no certain limit between one individual and another, we are all prone to believe that the "neighbor", in the Christian sense, is a terrorist!  -- and one can consider that it has been a specific task of psychoanalysis to go beyond our "natural" inclination, and attempt to explore this uncanny dimension (as we all know, at least one of the professional bashers of psychoanalysis has declared that J. Lacan was a "shrink from hell"). If there is any sense in Freud's famous motto, Wo Es war, Soll Ich Werden, and the modification it implies from the Greek "Gnothi seauton", it is in the admission that our enemies are at least as much an imaginary reflection of our own necessity to sort out the “real” as downright scoundrels. An imaginary other devoid of any "real" trait is a dream that could very well turn into a nightmare.

New jouissances, new symptoms

When presenting us with his notion of real in the 70ies, J Lacan insisted that it had to be articulated with the two other dimensions, the imaginary and the symbolic, but also that there were two ways these three dimensions could be articulated. The dextrogyric way (ISR) produces inhibition, symptom and anxiety, whereas the levogyric (IRS) produces the jouissances (jouissance of the Other, phallic jouissance and sense). Thus, in the case of Little Hans, the uncanny phallic jouissance (R/S) determines the child’s anxiety (R/I), which he tries to solve with the “horse metaphor” (S/R); a lateral effect of this is the inhibition he is beset with (I/S); the father’s attempts to modify his position by travelling with his son evokes new forms of transgressions (R/S), but the real change occurs with the fantasy in which Hanna, who has become immortal, jumps on the horse (I/R), in an “atypical” resolution of the symptom through a modification of the jouissance of the Other.

The promotion of new kinds of real is bound to have at least two kinds of effects: modifying the modalities of jouissance, but also the way we build up our symptoms.

We already can see how our patients are affected by the new offers of social networks and the dramatic changes in the status of demand that constitutes the core of neurosis according to Lacan ("the neurotic... confuses demand with desire", Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir ); neurotics face nowadays a growing invasion of demands from the other; not only can their facebook page allow state agencies of disputed legitimacy to track down who they are, where they have been, and what they are supposedly up to; not only can the same pages allow advertisement firms to target them for individualised propaganda campaigns; not only can their bank accounts be visited by unwanted hackers; their love-life is also considerably over flooded by the innumerable messages, pictures, links and "likes" inundating their accounts; refraining from responding immediately to such solicitations may break up a promising fling or even a long-term relationship; instant response is bound to be misinterpreted – occasionally at least. Whereas J Lacan spoke of the love-letter as one of the main  paradigms of writing (Seminar XX), texting has become a risk to the limitation of bodies, expanding the realm of guilt with the weapons of shame. In a famous vignette, L'homme au tour de bonneteau (the monte trick man), Lacan showed how the dream of a woman, told to her lover, could become a crucial interpretation in the psychoanalysis of the latter, although it was not uttered by the analyst himself.  In other terms, the “analytic session” has a specific topological structure, that can include outside actors (especially when they are expressions of the “jouissance of the Other”). The explosion of  “social networks” is bound to multiply  this sort of occurrence, in such a way as to force us to  underline the absolute specificity of the analytic session, especially the new sort of topology of desire that should be calculated.

New propaganda, new modes of control

Since the end of WW I, the increased  applications of propaganda, not only within commercial transactions, but also as a principle of government (E. Bernays, E. Lipman) -- differenciating between technocrats in the know and consumers whose happy ignorance should be artfully cultivated --, has resulted in the enthusiastic promotion of the enjoyment of commodities, in a renovated usage of theological discourses on the infinite joys of the afterlife (C. Lasch, J.C. Milner).It seems that the current state of technology has considerably enhanced the import of this kind of discourse: not only should the consumer relish in ecstasy while enjoying the divine goods that have been aptly produced and distributed to him/her (some advertisers frankly declare that their faithful consumers are “addicts”), not only should he consume the corrective produces that will ensure that he/she will eliminate the surplus calories thus absorbed; he now has to communicate his/her views about consuming to his/her followers.

In the 1940ies the cybernetic programs conveyed an enthusiastic message: computers would enhance the efficacy of radars, bomber airplanes and  factories; they would also help in the planning of social projects; but the most fascinating prospect was still to  come: the analogy  established by L. Kubie, McCulloch and Pitts with bodily, especially nervous, functioning. While J. Lacan developed his graph of desire as a Freudian reflection on the consequences of this new paradigm of control, on the other side of the Atlantic, alongside with technological progress, a  series of futuristic prophecies were proposed, whose common point was certainly that human behavior could be boiled down to chains of signifiers. The various components of the PRISM program  and its many local equivalents still match with this general script. However, many objections have stepped in the way, especially when it comes to the capacity of chains of signifiers to account for mental states, consciousness, or even bodily functioning. We still do not really know in full details how the various biological mechanisms operating our bodies actually work and communicate, beyond the electric impulses that fascinated the creators of cybernetics; genetics have proven far more tricky than expected, and body chemistry still remains somewhat elusive.

Dump thy body!

This did not prevent "futurists" to predict "dramatic progress" in the understanding and the amelioration of the human species, and several bodies have been cryogenized -- they are to be de-frosted when the real thing will be there. In  the last decades, the notion that the human body was bound to be ameliorated by technology, that aging and even death could become optional has become more and more popular. However something rather strange occurred recently, when one of the most vocal prophets of transhumanism proposed a kind of enhancement no one had ever thought about. In a famous book, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, frequently presented as the most imaginative of all geeks, drawing on  the “law of accelerating return”, following which an exponential increase in scientific knowledge was currently on its way, took the next step: he declared that  enhancing our bodies could prove an insufficient goal; thanks to the advent of nanotechnologies and huge leaps in computer science ("singularism"), at least some of us  would soon be able to upload their "total" programme (whatever this might prove to be) onto a computer, and finally migrate, exit  from our bodies and dump them like used cars. A series of interesting objections soon followed, but they seemed to miss an important issue: what thinking owes to the imaginary dimension; what the globality of "consciousness" owes to the inhibition, to the "débilité mentale" induced by  the gestalt of the body. Besides, it does not seem that  everyone would be happy to dump his body with the enthusiasm of a car consumer avid to dispose of his old wagon in order to  purchase the newest trendy model. 

Curiously enough, dumping a part of one’s body has also played an important role in the British debates on apotemnophilia – which not only demonstrated how dangerous a literal application of the DSM could be, but also what strange side effects a strictly Neoplatonician reading of transsexualism could have. In fact, whereas the “transsexual identity” thesis has been hugely popularized, it only represented one view of the question; in John Benjamin’s theory, for instance, “severe transsexualism” represented only extreme cases in a continuum where borders remained highly questionable, and the notion of “identity” was carefully avoided.

From the inexistence of the sexual relationship to the heterogeneity of “gender identities”

Quite arguably, much of  Lacan’s elaborations about the Real was derived from the famous turn of the century theme of bisexuality; the Freudian notion of the impossibility to represent the difference of sexes had strongly contributed to extract it from the ideologies of degeneration and decline (launched by Spengler’s “Untergang des Abendlandes”), and Lacan has proposed, in his writings of sexuation (Seminar XX), to show how it implied a variation from the Aristotelian  logic of classes.

Freud had been a warm supporter of the bourgeois feminist “Sexualreform” movement and a sympathizer of the homosexual “Humanitäre Komitee”; Lacan refers several times to the Feminist movements, especially the American Beauvoirians, and part of his Encore seminar can obviously be read as a sympathetic contribution to feminist elaborations.

Some forty years later, the notion of “gender”, originally applied to intersexual states by J. Money, has totally pervaded the debates, and moved into the legal domain with the gracefulness of an elephant in a china shop. Three main issues have been debated:

- Whereas sexuation was clearly understood to be an issue that pertained to intimacy, to the intimacy of what Lacan calls “énonciation” (that is, as I have shown, the subject’s intimate relationship to his sadistic superego), “gender” has become a “public”, “performative” phenomenon. The highly vocal, “unapologetic” tone of some of the proponents of “gender performativity” has had the embarrassing result that “gender” is no longer seen as a mere “intimate identity” issue but predominantly as a “legal” issue of equity, about which every “democratic State” should produce “liberal” laws, for fear of being considered as “backward”, or even worse, totalitarian. In other words, what is demanded from “gender politics” is a contribution to liberal thought, and even at times…to be an argument for “regime change” in countries described as “hostile”!

- The lack of common ground between the debates on gender assignation for intersexed subjects (J. Money), the “feminine gender” (A. Oakley) the “gay gender” (H. Hay) and the “transsexual gender” has hardly been clarified, even less mitigated. Even if the “queer movement” has tried to blur “rigid identity” definitions, the actual debates  have been in fact: how quickly should an intersexual child be “assigned”; at what age should a reportedly transsexual child be reassigned; to what extent are white women analogic of Blacks in the US; how different is a trans – from a cis-woman; should gays get married– and to whom; should lesbian groups accept Male to Female transsexuals within their ranks? In fact, it seems that each issue, each “group” has remained deeply heterogeneous to the others.

- The recent promotion of the “transgender” category has created some embarrassment in all the countries which had glorified themselves for liberally adopting the “transsexual” category, while secretly hoping that surgical reassignation would create at least a “stable” new gender. In fact, not only the effectiveness and  duration but also the relevance of “total reassignation” have been called into question by a series of controversies and/or scandals (for instance, in the UK, the case of Sam/Samantha/Charles  Kane, who became a sort of a modern Tiresias), which in turn have promoted the notion of a un-operated “transgender” group. This interesting result, after decades of claims that surgical reassignation was an “absolute emergency”, has been facilitated by activists of the intersexual community, who, based on personal experience, could  testify how catastrophic “immediate assignation” had been with some of their members. A result that could have been foreseen if any attention had been paid to the partition proposed by Lacan between the problematic of the foreclosure and that of the phallus in On a question preliminary to any treatment of psychosis whatever – a partition that could explain why the “push-to-the woman” will never be the sole psychotic solution to the indetermination of “sexual identity”.

The new political and commercial  propaganda methods, based on a failed reading of Freud by his “double nephew” Edward Bernays, implied that jouissance should be of the same nature as consumption. In fact his position seemed closer to Gustave le Bon’s theory of the “psychologie des foules”, the masses dominated by infantile passions, and proposed a curious solution to Dostoievsky’s paradox of the “Great Inquisitor”: reintegrating the “triple power” of mystery, miracles, and authority into commodities. Ignoring Freud’s lessons about the death drives, this principle has until now steadily accompanied the growth and merchandizing of technologies: they have become the new commodities, which each of us is invited to consume in order to meet the sublimity of the master, at a time when his coherence is less and less obvious.

It remains our duty to accompany our fellow neurotics on the difficult path of desire, by demonstrating how heterogeneous desire is to consumption.