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

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

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.

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.

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.

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…”

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
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!".

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
ἀλλήλοις;Mark 12:31
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

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.

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

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.

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!

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. 

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”

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.

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

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:

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

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.

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”.

new political and commercial  propaganda methods, based on a failed
reading of Freud by his “double nephew” Edward Bernays, implied that
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.

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



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