Lacanian Review Online: The Point of Sacrifice

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When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do

(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)

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LRO – COVID-19 2020 #6
17th March 2020

 




The Day the Earth Stood Still
Bogdan Wolf

 

Virus is a pure force, the real without borders or limits. It must be taken at its most radical at the time of impact: terror without terrorist, identity or objective. The name Lacan gave to this nameless real had to therefore be in the negative: “it doesn’t work”. It doesn’t work for it is situated as external to failure to enter any form of collaboration with the symbolic, to strike a deal, to be tamed, to submit to instructions and to immunisation. Maurice Blanchot, who has written on psychoanalysis, described the “mythical cell” of cancer as “the refusal to respond” wherein analysts can find an indication of the location of the real. He continues: “here is a cell that doesn’t hear the command, that develops lawlessly, in a way that could be called anarchic. […] it destroys the very idea of a program and wrecks the possibility of reducing everything to the equivalent of signs […] and, from this perspective, is a political phenomenon, one of the rare ways to dislocate the system, to disarticulate, through proliferation and disorder, the universal programming and signifying power”.[1]

Let’s have no illusions about it. The force of the viral cell that has swept the world for over a month now, has no equivalent except for the primary signifier that leaves the mark of language on the body prior to any sense effect. Blanchot clearly places the cell outside the universal, paternal order. This has not stopped prevented us from acknowledging our powerlessness in continuing our attempt to humanise the viral cell by calculating the algorithm of mortality and the statistics of increase of deaths from country to country. In effect, scientists and politicians have made the lethal cell believable.

To approach the primary mark of language on the body, Lacan went beyond the literary and paternal solutions and pointed to the saint. Who is the saint? It is the one whose body remains external to seductions of meaning, and to authority built on it, and who renews his affliction with the real every time he encounters corporeal trauma. The saint embodies part of the waste attributed to him and embraces the real. He even, in some incomprehensible way, loves the real albeit we would have to distinguish love of the real from loving one’s delusion or one’s symptom such as the woman. Saints have always shown a bizarre love for a person that in Latin, per-sonnare, signifies a body present through sound, voice. Saints were never chumps of the powerful, religious or secular alike, or indeed of the capitalist bosses. Francis of Assisi was an anomaly and a deviation in Church ranks which only accentuates the singularity of “it doesn’t work” for a speaking being. In the eyes of Pope Innocent III, Francis brought the shameless, opulent Benedicts to their knees and, in effect, refreshed the relation to the causa Dei. The saint, as Lacan approached him, incarnates the trashitas, rather than caritas, which amounts to assuming a place on the map drawn up by the real that undermines political programs and displaces the capitalist interest in all pursuing wealth into anarchic variants of social concern.

It is interesting to learn that some scientists, like Dr John Ashton and Paul Hunter, support this orientation towards the social dimension. But there are also those whose interest oscillates between the genetic history of the SARS CoV19 and the possibility of calculating statistically the end of humanity. The history of the viral pathogen shows us it is an effect of 11,000 years of mutations that lead back to one, supposed origin. Geneticists concede that the viral spreads of past decades are mutative examples of genetic sequence variations, in this case RNA and not DNA, that recently (pig’s, bird’s, bovine flus), turned out to be less harmful to humans than the one we are currently dealing with. It goes all the way back nowhere else than to the animal kingdom where bats and pangolins are the main carriers and culprits.

The lures of science have not stopped those who feel the impact of the epidemic from taking steps and compiling food supplies as well as bales of toilet paper to ensure their safety when panic reaches the stage of the somatic reactions requiring anal hygiene. Everyone is puzzled, yet everyone knows. With the World Health Organisation declaring CoV 19 a world pandemic, we have now entered the stage of political strategy. Donald Trump for one went on to cancelling all flights to the EU, which surprised many. The space for political phenomena of this kind is only emerging now, as Blanchot anticipated. After the initial impact, and a gradual reconciliation by the WHO in cooperation with various governments that deaths will spiral, we are on the road to write another chapter on the unconscious and its politics. It is in this sense that Freud, not knowing what he was doing, and Jung when he was still an analyst, approached American with a declaration they were bringing a plague. The virus of the unconscious, prior to any semantic mutation, is indefensible because we are all subject to ignorance in the face of forza del destino of the primary signifier. Which is why Lacan called it a “bearer of infinity” with a potential of inflicting anyone who comes into contact with it. Making the virus believable in this way puts it in the position of the not-all, -"x Φx. Every time someone comes to analysis, he brings a virus he does not want to hear or to know anything about it.

Political strategies vary at present. On the continent schools, universities, public gathering museums, restaurants, cinemas, theatres are gradually being shut. In the EU, there is a lockdown on flights en masse, and sport and seminar events are cancelled for at least a month. The level of isolation is growing which makes us all more connected. This resembles a state of war and goes well beyond the hysteric’s demand being alternately refused and following the master command. Instead we are dealing with the socio-economic rupture of pandemonic and diachronic proportions. For many, British government acts too slow. Isolation means economic disruption which in the face of Brexit should be delayed as long as possible. But the delay also reveals the trait of a modern political leader who flees the scene of disaster to hide in the delusion of getting on with business as usual. What will awake those leaders? This does not look like an encounter with the real but a strategy to delay, hold back, and reason: prudence in the face of a hiccup. Is panic and turmoil (émoi), where Lacan situated the little real, a, that shakes the system, the only way to set things into motion? The virus virility is still not recognised as a political phenomenon.

Professor Dr John Ashton was very critical about the political strategy of Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer[2]. He has only been in the job since January this year and his career was in pharmaceuticals and biology. Dr Ashton called Boris Johnson’s position on Coronavirus “a disgrace”, and reproached people in charge for allowing biologists and pharmacists to dominate the whole issue. What it ignores is the social dimension and the lack of expertise how to organise social groups and communities in the event of pandemic. Dr Ashton was equally critical, which was supported by a more moderate academic Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia, of the new proposal of “herd immunity” calling it a “fantasy narrative”. As he plainly put it, herd immunity is not only unethical but allows the virus to run wild across society and communities until mortality rate goes above 60%. Only then would the virus be assimilated and turn into home flu, a domesticated Other. Apparently, this already happened in the past in Tahiti when its population was decimated after Captain Cook left them. From the Lacanian perspective this proposal amounts to forcing to create a community of saints through a trait of incorporation of the Other’s jouissance. Needless to say, this approach would be a complete reversal of the immigration policy whereby a foreigner has for millennia been the carrier of diseases which led to border closures and internal isolation. To introduce isolation due to the viral threat, one must be in close proximity to suffering within social community. Otherwise it’s a Stalinist tyranny, as Dr Ashton remarked.

A community of saints does not exist, let’s add. The nearest to it, a community of analysts, does not believe in the common good but in the not-all the traumatic real, different for every member of the community. An attempt to tame and domesticate the real of the virus for all would serve as a demonstration of failure to symbolise it and to make it domicile. A prospective loss of millions of lives appears not to deter the British politicians to drop the idea at the very moment it emerged. If you can’t defeat it, submit to it, even bring it on. A friend shared with me a memory of an interview in which Johnson envisaged building beaches where sharks keep watch. Nietzsche’s motto “live dangerously and build your houses under Vesuvius” smacks of politics of masochism when espoused by a national government. The UK answer to the threat is politics of delay and avoidance. It reveals a trait of ignorance linked to letting the death drive run wild or to being already dead. It is no surprise that Lacan approached death as imaginary and put life on the side of the real that fails and thus pushes, urges us to seek new signifiers that apply to groups and communities. It could work, as Lacan showed in “British Psychiatry and the War”.

On the day when the earth is slowing down and coming to a standstill, British politicians revert to the position of their colonial masters watching impassively the course of events and misleading population, so that there is no economic disruption. Hence the refusal to collaborate with colleagues from the continent to introduce measures to suspend for the time being institutions, organisations, including corporations. We are getting closer to the point of sacrifice to keep things in order in accordance with what people voted for.

 


[1] M. Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. A. Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p. 86-7.

[2] Professors J. Ashton and P. Hunter were interviewed by Matt Frei on LBC Radio on Saturday 14 March 2020.

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