Home > Philosophy > 1997 After Postmodernism Conference > Lingis (background)
Dignity for Immanuel Kant is a practical concept. In the practicable field of our action, where everything we envision is a means exchanged for a good, and where goods once attained are means for further goods, there would be an end that is not a means for anything further, an unexchangeable good. This end Kant names a dignity. It gives a unilateral direction to the movements from means to ends.
The rational faculty, our rational faculty, is such an end for Kant. Our faculty of thought finds itself from the first subject to an imperative, to conceive concepts correctly and reason rightly, to conceive things with coherent concepts and relate them consistently. Thought is subject to the imperative for the universal and the necessary, for law. The sense of being subject to the imperative is the feeling of respect. What we respect in our rational faculty is the imperative for law that commands in it. But then our rational faculty must command our sensory-motor faculties, so as to perceive things and explore them such that they can be conceived with consistent concepts. Our rational faculty must make of our sensory and motor faculties, and the things of our environment, not the means for its constitution but the means for the exercise of its dominion. Thus our rational faculty is the end for which our sensory and motor faculties are means, but it is not itself a means for anything further.
For Kant respect for another is respect for the imperative for law that rules in another. The other figures as an exemplar of law-regulated perception and action that binds oneself also. And in practice one knows that the maxim for one's own action is rational if it can be universalized for all agents acting in a like situation. Thus we respect persons inasmuch as they are exemplary, inasmuch as in their speech they formulate and in their actions they diagram what is necessary for everyone.
Recent ethical thinking has instead sought to validate respect for agents in their individuality. Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the thought generalized in the language of a culture and the authentic thought that formulates the individuality of real things and situations. What one says--what everyone, anyone says--and what anyone who is fully rational says, concerns the general and recurrent lines of things and situations. But there is something irreducibly singular about the layout of things I perceive about me, and about the tasks that beckon to me and the implements that answer to my own powers. What I respect is what I myself can become. What I respect in others is the radius of implements and tasks that answer to their own singular powers. Bernard Williams locates individuality in "character," which he defines as the set of intentions and projects of an individual who, when he acts, acts according to his own desires and in the contingencies of a situation his own. For these thinkers too dignity is a practical concept. Slavoj Zizek locates it instead in the fantasy space, intrinsically bound to the sensual impulses of one's own body, which every individual opens in the symbolic system and language of his culture.
In his book Looking Awry, An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Zizek writes:
... avoid as much as possible any violation of the fantasy space of the other, i.e., respect as much as possible the other's "particular absolute," the way he organizes his universe of meaning in a way absolutely particular to him.. Such an ethic is neither imaginary (the point is not to love our neighbor as ourselves, insofar as he resembles ourselves, i.e., insofar as we see in him in image of ourselves) nor symbolic (the point is also not to respect the other on account of the dignity bestowed on him by his symbolic identification, by the fact that he belongs to the same symbolic community as ourselves, even if we conceive this community in the widest possible sense and maintain respect for him "as a human being"). What confers on the other the dignity of a "person" is not any universal-symbolic feature but precisely what is "absolutely particular" about him, his fantasy, that part of him that we can be sure we can never share. To use Kant's terms: we do not respect the other on account of the universal moral law inhabiting every one of us, but on account of his utmost "pathological" kernel, on account of the absolutely particular way every one of us "dreams his world," organizes his enjoyment....
Fantasy as a "make-believe masking a flaw, an inconsistency in the symbolic order, is always particular--its particularity is absolute; it resists "mediation," it cannot be made part of a larger, universal, symbolic medium. For this reason, we can acquire a sense of the dignity of another's fantasy only by assuming a kind of distance toward our own, by experiencing the ultimate contingency of fantasy as such, by apprehending it as the way everyone, in a manner proper to each, conceals the impasse of his desire. The dignity of a fantasy consists in its very "illusionary," fragile, helpless character. (Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (October Books, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 156-157.)
What Zizek calls the "fantasy space" is not simply a floating mass of images, but "the way a person organizes his universe of meaning in a way absolutely particular to him."
The Enlightenment had contrasted real perception and memory with fantasy, and had taken myths to be but the collective fantasies of a people. But anthropologists today hold that a myth must be seen as a map of the environment. It is a diagram using general categories to link together classes of things in particular ways, a way to organize the disparate things of the environment in a meaningful pattern. A myth is a collective symbolic structure shared by the members of a community.
But there is always a gap between the general categories used in the myth and the concrete and particular environment in which any individual lives and acts. Shamans and healers work to integrate individuals into the understanding of the community and into the community by dramatically reenacting the great mythic conflicts and victories in the bodies of their clients.
Some studies by Claude LÚvi-Strauss had particular influence on Jacques Lacan, and thus on Zizek. It happens that two societies, and two myths, enter into contact. The Islam of the Arab invaders and the old Zoroastrianism of the Persians. The white mythology of priests and missionaries and the old African mythologies of enslaved peoples in Mississippi, in Brazil, in Haiti. Now there is a gap between two competing mythologies.
It is in this in-between zone, where the two cultures and mythical systems imperfectly overlap, that the medicine men, faith healers, revival meeting preachers, and voodoo priestesses work. They work to bridge the gap between the universal categories of the myths and the concrete experience of the people. They interpret the enslavement and deportation from Africa to Brazil, Haiti, and Mississippi in terms of the deportation and enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. They identify the triumphant white-skinned saints set up in the altars of Catholicism, St George and St James, with Ogun and Olodum, African gods of thunder and bloodshed.
They work piecemeal, rather like jurisprudence works. For lawyers and judges do not simply have available the universal laws to apply to particular cases. There are always new cases, new crimes, white collar crimes, Internet crimes, and cases for which there are no laws. Lawyers and judges work with cases, individual cases, and connect them with previous cases, working piecemeal. Similarly, medicine men, healers, and Voodoo priestesses do not all subscribe to a common Creed and Confession. They deal with concrete cases, with individuals who come to them because they are at their wits' end, because the ordinary medical doctors have no cure for their sickness. The healers, and Voodoo priestesses work by "bricolage," that is, by tinkering with the system, using parts of the Christian mythology and parts of the Aztec or Yoruba mythology to make sense of what is happening in this individual. They have to invent, to fill in the gaps, to work by inspiration. They improvise rituals and sacraments.
Anthropologists, studying the biographies of shamans, healers, Voodoo priestesses, found that typically they had undergone some severe crisis in their own lives. They had fallen into deep depressions, had fallen prey to strange sicknesses, had suffered physical and nervous collapse. Do we have to simply identify them as neurotics and psychotics? Or should we rather say that neurotics and psychotics have shamans, witchdoctors, Voodoo priestesses inside them--or that they are shamans, witchdoctors, Voodoo priestesses occupied only with themselves? That their mental productions have all the characteristics of a myth, save one: they are myths concocted by the shaman, witchdoctor, Voodoo priestess within them? Thus Jacques Lacan called the fantasy systems of neurotics and psychotics private myths.
Individuals in our societies use categories and symbols from those that the culture has selected and fitted together in its discourse, visions, and enterprises to make sense of their environment. But it happens that an individual finds that the public symbolic system of his culture and community either has internal flaws, or that it does not adequately fit his own environment. Like a shaman, witchdoctor, Voodoo priestess, his fantasy uses bits and pieces wherever he finds him to fill in the gaps, elaborating his private myth.
Daniel Paul Schreber, a brilliant and vastly learned jurist, became Presiding Judge of the Saxon High Court of Appeals at the exceptionally young age of 40. His position laid upon him the most difficult and consequential cases, and the promotion itself put unusual expectations on him. Schreber began to suffer from tension, sleepless nights, worries, and obsessive ideas. Finally he collapsed, and was interned in a private psychiatric clinic, under the renowned Dr Flechsig. In the clinic Schreber was obsessed with hallucinations and delirium, and also became physically nonfunctional, catatonic and incontinent. in the Sonnenstein mental asylum, Schreber was isolated from the rational community. He was given treatments, such as rest, isolation from the concerns of the legal profession and from business and family matters, some medications aimed at calming his hypertension, at inducing sleep, hot baths. Professor Flechsig contemplated castration, which he practiced on a number of inmates in order to reduce their obsession with sexual matters. After six years, judging himself virtually recovered, Schreber determined to argue for his release. He wrote a full account of his illness, and of his gradual recovery of health, in order to win release from the court. The legal and medical authorities reported that while Schreber was still suffering from numerous hallucinations and delirious beliefs, he was competent to manage his own life outside the asylum, in the terms in which such competency was defined by the laws. Schreber was released, and in 1903 published the account he had written for the court, his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. But five years later had another collapse. This time he remained interned in an asylum until his death in 1911.
Schreber's book attracted the attention of Freud, who wrote a very important study of it. Studying the Schreber case served Freud to bring into his science important new directions and theories. Schreber is manifestly paranoid, Freud wrote: See how obsessed he is with Flechsig, with Flechsig's every word, with Flechsig's intentions in regard to him. Schreber hallucinates having anal sex with God, who is, as every Jew knows, male, a Father; Schreber, Freud concluded, is a repressed homosexual. Is not then repressed homosexuality the true cause of all paranoia? Were Schreber still alive, psychoanalytic treatment would consist in bringing him to see that: to see under the central fantasy of sex with God his own repressed homosexual longing. Schreber's Memoires continue to figure as one of the most important documents of psychosis studied in psychoanalytic training institutions. It is the richest, most vivid, most intense, and more intricate account psychiatry has of the inner world of a psychotic. Jacques Lacan wrote his dissertation on this case.
Schreber explains how his nervous system became hypersensitive to the point that he registered like intense electrical shocks the most minute shifts in the environment. He no longer felt in control of his body; instead his body was activated by radiations coming from the outside. Vibrations off things, cosmic rays, divine rays continually struck his nervous system, with charges of energy, agitating or paralyzing his body with their contradictory forces. He was a puppet agitated by superhuman and monstrous forces. He also felt all the voices outside were badgering him; the creaking of branches in the wind, the murmurs and cries of birds registered on his nervous system insistently, such that he felt continually forced to decode them and answer them--like an insomniac who hears a dripping faucet, and cannot drive it out of his mind, cannot help parsing it as a morse code message: drip, drip, drip-drip, drip drip, drip-drip-drip... Everything spoke to him, in a fundamental language, the Grundsprache, more archaic and primitive than the forms of German, French, or Polish. This being prey to cosmic and divine rays, being badgered continually by all the voices of nature, forced to try to give meaning to these messages that continually bombarded them, made his life an excruciating torment. Schreber also felt his own body metamorphosing. His chest was swelling, his thighs, his buttocks; he was loosing his virility, he was becoming female, he was being altered by a God who was attached to him, who found his ass irresistible, who was sodomizing him. He felt there was something depraved and loutish in God, who could not leave him alone, could not leave his genitals and anus alone. He felt himself become pregnant with offspring who would constitute a new, redeemed race.
Schreber set out to describe as carefully, as intricately as possible the environment as he experienced it in the months and years of his nervous illness, the reactions he felt in his body, the bodily changes he felt and the metamorphosis, the devirilization and feminization he experienced. He pursued this task with all the rigor and commitment to truthfulness of a high court judge. He found his experience not describable in the vocabulary of the current academic psychology and physiology. With his great erudition and intelligence, he often had to contrive new terms to describe the way his sensibility, his nervous system, and his glandular and motor system were functioning. To make his environment as he truthfully experienced it intelligible, he had to invoke metaphysical notions. He found the Christianity of his own education and century inadequate to explain the years of his plight, when he found himself not in the hands of a benevolent and providential God, but a plaything of superhuman forces in conflict. He invoked images and concepts from ancient Zoroastrianism, which he did not invoke as a sort of belief, but rather worked hard and scrupulously to adjust to the concrete experiences of things and of his own body and nervous system as he immediately experienced them. He explained that he was incarcerated in the asylum because Dr Flechsig lusted after his wife, and that Dr Flechsig was committing soul murder on him.
Schreber certainly was a sick man. He had suffered a collapse, due most likely to the piled up stress of being lifted to the highest position in the legal system at so young an age, as well as stress over the difficult and important legal judgements he had to make in his chair. No doubt there were a complex of physical effects of this stress and this collapse, including insomnia, bad digestion, biochemical imbalances, nervous hypersensitivity. Schreber was faced with alienation from his own body, from its normal functions, as well as alienation from his colleagues, his family, his profession, from contact with the outside world. He, who had wielded enormous power as a judge of the Supreme Court, was now subjected to the tyrannical rule of the asylum, and the proud and jealous figure of Doctor Flechsig. Highly intelligent, preoccupied with his own predicament, Schreber clearly saw how much the language of psychiatry and neurology failed to explain his state or remedy it. His Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was a vast undertaking to make sense of his state, his symptoms, the progress of his collapse and the stages of recovery. But was what he wrote anything but a private myth?
Daniel Paul Schreber was perceived as mad by his wife, his colleagues in law, by Doctor Flechsig. That, as he wrote, his body was activated by cosmic and divine rays was not true, and not exactly false, but neither verifiable nor falsifiable: gratuitous nonsense. They could only think that the birds in the asylum garden are just twittering to themselves as they pass; they are not addressing occult messages to Schreber and demanding he decode them and respond to them. They could not see that Schreber was turning into a woman, and could not seriously entertain the possibility that he was not really going to become pregnant as a result of anal intercourse with God.
What can be true is a statement that can integrated into the common discourse. Statements can be true, and first meaningful, only in the discourse of an established community that determines what could count as observations, what standards of accuracy in determining observations are possible, how the words of common language are restricted and refined for use in different scientific disciplines and practical or technological uses, what could count as an argument in logic, in physics, in history, in literary criticism or in Biblical scholarship, in economics, in penology, jurisprudence and military strategy. Truth requires a community with institutions, which set up and finance laboratories and research teams to gather information and observations according to community standards of accuracy and repeatability, institutions which establish what counts as argument and what counts as evidence, institutions which determine the grammatical and rhetorical forms in which scientific or technological research is to be reported and conclusions and legislation formulated. Truth presupposes institutions which select and train researchers, train people in the paradigms of what is established as pieces of successful research, train them to repeat them and apply them to batches of other material selected by institutional criteria, and certifies and evaluates the researchers and technicians. It presupposes institutions which select what research is to be published, and how it is to be judged. These institutions recruit and train their members and are financed and controlled by institutions that regulate the training and the command posts by which the established community monopolizes and elaborates the agencies of coercive power.
Aristotle has delegated to us the notion that truth is a property of judgments, a characteristic--of adequation--that inheres in a statement as its own property. But the establishment of truth is not at all the work of a solitary thinker who simply inspects the intrinsic properties of statements taken one by one. Every truth is an established truth, the truth of a certain institution or institutional complex. And every institution institutes or establishes a truth.
But every system of definitions, methods, and institutions that makes it possible for a community to agree what statements are true, also excludes much, not only as false, but as not making sense. What is not formulated in the instituted grammar of English, of scientific statement, of logical statements, does not make sense to that community. Thus to say that when someone turns on the switch and his computer lights up, that is because Wotan or Zeus breathe life into it is not something that we claim to be false, that our science of computer technology and electrical engineering can prove to be false. It is instead something that is nonsense, that does not make sense in the vocabulary and grammar of computer technology and electrical engineering.
In every community where there is a common language and grammar, and institutions to promote knowledge, there are also people whose sayings and behavior are categorized as not making sense. They are perceived as mad.
How does one determine that an individual is mad? Is it by his behavior and his speech? Are there certain identifiable acts which would decisively mark one as mad? Would they be acts totally inappropriate, unadapted to the situation? How does one determine that his discourse really is mad? Is it a certain proportion of false reasonings, invalid syllogisms, that show that one does not know how to think, or that one's mind is sick? Are there certain beliefs that mark one as insane? How does one differentiate between beliefs that are false and those that are mad? Believing the earth is flat, after Columbus's voyage? Believing in Zoroastrian gods in Germany in the nineteenth century? Believing that it is possible to give birth without having been inseminated by a human male? Believing in miracles? Believing that God could turn a male into a woman and impregnate her? Or is it a certain way of speaking, a certain grammar or rhetoric? Not speaking logically, not speaking in syllogisms? Speaking in rhythm or rime, or in a singsong manner, like chanting instead of arguing?
The perception that some people are crazy is part of the history of thought, and madness requires a historical definition. Madness means not making sense--means saying what doesn't have to be taken seriously. But this depends entirely on how a given culture defines sense and seriousness; the definitions have varied widely through history. What is called insane denotes that which must not be thought. Madness is a concept that fixes limits; the frontiers of madness define what is "other." A mad person is someone whose voice society doesn't want to listen to, whose behavior is intolerable, who ought to be suppressed. Different societies use different definitions of what constitutes madness (that is, of what does not make sense). But no definition is less provincial than any other. Part of the outrage over the practice in the Soviet Union of locking up political dissenters in insane asylums is misplaced, in that it holds not only that doing so is wicked (which is true) but that doing so is a fraudulent use of the concept of mental illness; it is assumed that there is a universal, correct, scientific standard of sanity (the one enforced in the mental health policies of, say, the United States, England, and Sweden, rather than the one enforced in those of a country like Morocco.) This is simply not true. In every society, the definitions of sanity and madness are arbitrary--are, in the largest sense, political. (Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn ()
We know that in point of fact Schreber's wife did commit Schreber, and that she worshipped Dr Flechsig, and that Flechsig took advantage of his adulation to obtain sexual favors from her. We also know that Flechsig had very real economic and political motives to discredit Schreber, who, as a distinguished judge and very learned man, could have done serious harm to Flechsig's reputation as a psychiatrist and of his money-making private clinic. A photograph shows Flechsig, in frock coat and with great patriarchal beard, seated at a huge oak desk, and on the wall behind him, like a cosmic map of his territory, a huge picture of the human brain. We know that the established Protestant Christian churches have a lot at stake in discrediting all the old pagan religions, as well as all new age religions.
Fantasy uses symbols from those that the culture has selected and fitted together in its discourse, visions, and enterprises. An individual finds that the symbolic order either has internal flaws or that it does not adequately fit his own environment. The symbols he devises, Zizek says, to cover over the gap, will then be "always particular." They cannot be made part of a larger, universal, symbolic medium." "His fantasy [is] that part of him that we can be sure we can never share."
We can never share Schreber's fantasy of being sodomized by God and turning into a woman because this fantasy was shaped to express what was happening to Schreber's body, and which Schreber found he could not account for in our common language of physiology, neurology, and medical pathology. We, for our part, have devised that common language of physiology, neurology, and medical pathology to formulate what we experience in our bodies.
But does not each of us have something of the problem Schreber had? The common language of physiology, neurology, psychology, reason, utility, practical action--the meaning-system of our culture--has to be applied to our own bodies, environment, and predicament in order to function, in order to enable us to make sense of our bodies and our environments. But the meaning system, the categories, are general, while we are individuals. There is a gap; each one has to fill in, with terms, with symbols, this gap. Each of us has a fantasy space; each of us elaborates a private myth.
Fantasy, Zizek says, not only in Schreber's case but in ours, is intrinsically bound to the sensual impulses of one's own body. It is especially with regard to what we find gives us pleasure, what gives us a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, what elicits and stimulates our desires, that the meaning-system of the culture is wanting. It is especially with regard to our own most bodily cravings and carnal desires that we elaborate our own fantasy, our own private myth. "To use Kant's terms: we do not respect the other on account of the universal moral law inhabiting every one of us, but on account of his utmost `pathological' kernel, on account of the absolutely particular way every one of us `dreams his world,' organizes his enjoyment."
The fundamental fantasy formed in this space is, Zizek says, illusionary, fragile, and helpless. It is the "`divine details' (Vladimir Nabakov) around which all his enjoyment is crystallized." It is the way "everyone, in a manner proper to each, conceals the impasse of his desire." The insatiable, infinite, desire there is in human sensuality is unsatisfiable, and can persist only in having this inevitable unsatisfaction concealed from itself.
Philosophy since Aristotle has distinguished between contentment and happiness. The satisfaction of needs, the acquisition and absorption of a content to fill up that emptiness inside produced by the consumption of bodily fuel and by evaporation and secretion of liquids, results in contentment. Contentment, simmering over the content assimilated, is a torpid and inert pleasure.
Happiness would be the total, integral, and permanent satisfaction of all desires. Kant argued that we have no real concept of happiness. We can give this abstract idea of it, but no thinker has been able to give the concrete formula. None of us, who pursue happiness really knows, really can say, what this happiness is. Yet no satisfaction of a need, no contentment, satisfies us; every time we satisfy a need, every time we obtain a content and feel contented, we long for something further.
Jacques Lacan, and Zizek, state it this way: Happiness is absent; is the absent object of desire. It is also absent from its concept, absent from our understanding, unrepresentable.
Yet this desire is desire for satisfaction; it can only exist as a desire that believes it will be, or can be, satisfied. The irremediable absence of its object is concealed from it. Desire is essentially illusory; it persists under the illusion that it knows what it seeks and that what it seeks is obtainable. Our fundamental fantasy, then, is the way each of us conceals the impasse of our desire. Schreber's fundamental fantasy of becoming a slut irresistible to God projects his impossible desire for happiness.
But it is the illusionary, fragile, and helpless character of the fantasy space in the core of an individual, Zizek says, that gives an individual dignity. It is what makes an individual not be content with the simple satisfaction of his needs and wants, not be content with contentment.
For Kant, dignity is the unexchangeable value, the term that is an end without being at the same time a means for something further. In the reverse way, for Zizek dignity would be that fantasy space which makes any state of the individual not be the end, be a means for a further end. It is what makes life not be simply the satisfaction of needs. This dignity, then, Zizek--like Kant--only defines negatively.
But it is the fantasy space in another that commands our respect. The fundamental fantasy of another is that which we cannot share. Bound intrinsically to the sensual impulses of his or her body, this fantasy fills in a gap in the meaning-system of the environment in an utterly singular way.
By acquiring some distance from our own fundamental fantasy, Zizek says, we recognize the contingency of the manner in which we organize our universe of meaning, and its impotence to really incorporate the other into it.
This conception Zizek turns into a very radical critique of psychoanalytic practice:
But is not the very aim of the psychoanalytic process to shake the foundations of the analysand's fundamental fantasy, i.e., to bring about the "subjective destitution" by which the subject acquires a sort of distance toward his fundamental fantasy as the last support of his (symbolic) reality? Is not the psychoanalytic process itself, then, a refined and therefore all the more cruel method of humiliation, of removing the very ground beneath the subject's feet, of forcing him to experience the utter nullity of those "divine details" around which all his enjoyment is crystallized?
Psychoanalysis works to expose Schreber's conviction that he was becoming a woman with an ass irresistible to God as a mere fantasy with no basis in reality. It works to make this one face the fact that he is in reality not a beloved child of God, that he is really the child of this father and this mother and is not a poor lost orphan, that she is not a budding genius, that she is not or a sexual tigress, that he is a shell-shocked solder and not a bird. Psychoanalysis is disrespect itself, the most far-reaching, deepest and most cruel humiliation.
Marriage turned into a shitstorm [a man I met once years ago wrote me] and I shut down for some five months--probably a nervous breakdown. Wife left yesterday. I could no longer take being a battered husband anymore. (The reason that I accepted her battering was because of the predator animals in me. My upper body, despite this illness,... can surge and irrupt into tremendous force and strength, with a fierceness in my eye that has my wife convinced--without any reason except for said fierceness--that the only difference between her and Nicole Brown Simpson is that Nicole is dead and she isn't yet. I have animals in me, the stallion as well as the plowshare horse (my legs) the white crane, the great blue heron, and a multitude of underwater aliens, that will tolerate abuse for the sake of love. But then there are others. A year and a half ago I showcased each animal in turn to her. It is not pretty to see my hands when the unhuman in me irrupts. The back of them become sets of granite phone cords, the fingers wolverine claws cocked. Her rageaholism kept getting worse and took me down too much for too long. I tried to get her to seek to manage it, but she became violent.... I become explosive (my fault). I told her to take her best shot. She took five. When she grabbed my jaw for the second time (the fifth shot)--with great force--I demonstrated a simple fact, viz., that I took the hand put her around took her arm up her back with my thumb on her wrist in such a way that if I wanted to she would have a three-way compound fracture of her wrist and did she now understand that violence and abuse is unacceptable in this house. She did not. I released her. What transpired when the Police Officers arrived three different times has still left me quizzical. I think I shall give you the same quiz I just gave myself. This quiz is: What animal was I with the police officers interrogating us and I on the verge of being jailed?
Despite numerous afflictions throughout my life, nothing yet has taken be down, nothing has taken me out. People seem to be amazed at this. "Why do you do on?" "Your life is not worth living." Et cet, et cet. Since I was born, as if it were a matter of any significance, I have pretty much known nothing but toil and trouble, suffering and sorrow. I was never touched with love as a baby; somewhat despised and resented. I had no reason to speak until I was 3 or 4, when I said "May I please have a glass of homogenized milk?" I was until then considered a "slow."
We lived at the southwestern edge of Ft Lauderdale, Florida just east of the Everglades. I spent my boyhood in the marshlands and rivers that ran into the Everglades. I did not go home much, since my father was a very cruel, mean drunk who was genuinely out to take me out. He delighted in his cruelty and enjoyed an impunity that he delighted in even more. I spent the years from 7 to 17 outlasting him--he with a .38 caliber S&W PS somewhere in the house (I never knew from one time to the next where); I with my cunning and endurance. I ran away from home at 17, never graduating from HS, never getting a GED. My last 2-3 years at my parents house I spent bodybuilding. To the point where I squatted (at 172 lbs.) 535 lbs. and won my weight division on my HS football team.
In circuses an elephant is tied to a rung with a string, not understanding (out of love) that it has the strength to not only rip the string but to bring the whole circus down. Likewise, I was strong enough to paint the walls with my emaciated father (who would start drinking my 7:00 AM, after his morning dry heaves six feet away from me while I was eating the breakfast I had prepared for myself--I was doing all my own cooking, laundry, etc. by age 14), but all I wanted was his love. And he would try to take me out. Just because, he hated me. Hated me for being more intelligent than him (not hard to do); being stronger and more athletic than him (not hard to do), etc.
Let me just say, though somewhat impaired, no one--I mean no one--dares fuck with me. I has been that way since I was in first grade. A bully tried to pick on me (I was very slight of build) but he found that he was picking on something wild, something unhuman and untamed who did not know how humans fought, could not fathom why humans fought and who only knew one way to fight--to the death if necessary. Otherwise one simply does not fight. The bully saw this wild thing emerge in my body, scared but with a fierceness in my eyes, with me not even understanding the shiftings and irruptions of power in my body (my upper arms, when I go into wolverine, assume 3" more mass each, while my chest expands about 5", with my hands shaped like those long steel-spike claws of the wolverine [ah, my most beloved of all my animals, my wolverine, my benefactor and protector of all my other animals; he is always around, always protecting all of us, such a beautiful, glorious animal--he even shows up on an MRI of my cerebellum just above it]} Thus the fight would be over before it began. Been that way ever since. Except now I carry a perfsev on me the size of a polar bears claw and sharp as a razor.
Although I am devoutly heterosexual (while nonetheless being a conscientious objector in the "gender wars"--think of me as a Lesbian trapped in a male body and you will understand me), as a young adolescent, I would, rather than go home, go across the street to a thirty-something male pedophile who would sometimes wish to molest me. I never ratted on him, finding him a very respectful, gracious man who had his needs in a society that didn't allow them. He was never rough with me. Never anything but gracious. But he was reviled by the community. I was asked to speak up. I did not.
When I was an adolescent a great she turtle had come in too close to feed on an orgy of some 3,000 squid I was in the middle of witnessing to. She was very sad, very tired, needed help. She was near a pier and imperiled and knew it. She let me ride on top of her in a loving gesture, an interspecies piece of steerage. We got out past the first reef, free of the freaks on the pier (I used to play interference against them with the big fish, the sharks and the 'cudas), out near the second reef, where she felt safe I guess, because then she scooted out and down at amazing velocity. She lives in me, in my sadness and loneliness. I was deeply honored by her and will always remember her. Tarpons I deeply honor, refusing all my life to ever catch one (since they simply fight to the death and their jaws are structured like bonefishes'--intricate layers upon layers of silvery bones, always gill-like in structure.
A mongoose lives just below my neck on the right. An otter on top of my head. Bats in the belfry--that is my head, of course. Except when it is empty, just emptiness, just the open. My neck is a king cobra; my legs are horses (I cannot and will not claim thoroughbred here); each of my ankles have been shattered over 700 times, and I asked last year if I could have then reconstructed with pins and rods an other bones from my body but the specialist says it is too late. So I fall down a lot. The odd thing about this is, though, I have somehow managed to learn the trick of not feeling any pain--even though it should lay me out for two weeks. I cannot do this with any other pain in my body, which is, to put it bluntly, nothing but ebbs and flows of pain throughout. (The medical profession describes my illness as a "pain that knows no boundaries" and a pain more painful than terminal cancer.)
I did not fabricate any of my animals. They came to me, unwanted, uninvited; but now much needed. They came to me! Just a few months ago a new animal came to me. Startled me. We had been getting to know each other in my trances; he coming up to me showing me his ways. Finally he took me into his confidence and, in a trance, let me become him. I have, in real life, always known him so well. He is the great Mako shark. About 800 lbs. It took maybe a year of him coming to me in my trances and dreams to show me and let me become him. Then one night, at 2:00 am, out of the blue, when I was in more pain than this human could bear, the Wolverine took over, growling, stalking, killer, fearless--looking for what is hurting the zoological garde; then the Bengal Tiger (a recent addition of my zoological gardens--6 months ago) took me over, tossing me about like a ragdoll. Such power! Such immense power! My hands in a weird open fist with fingers curled up, arms striking out and quickly back in after doing a three-fold set of circles in front of my chest. Then the Wolverine and the Tiger both took over and I became so powerful, so able to withstand the pain, enjoying the power, watching with fascination in the mirror my body change into unhuman shapes.
Respect is too weak a word to name what we feel before this man, when these extracts from his letter--a man for some years now suffering ever growing pain from an incurable degenerative nervous disease--a letter from a man who, in unending pain is dying--give us some insight into what Zizek called his fantasy space. Even awe is too weak a word.
What is also too weak is Zizek's account of the fantasy space and of the respect it imposes.
1. Zizek conceives of fantasies as a bricolage of symbols which are fitted into flaws and inconsistencies of the symbolic system of the culture in which one finds oneself. It is because someone's fantasies are formed by bricolage that they are "that part of him that we can be sure we can never share." What we share with him is the symbolic system that prevails in our cultural zone, and his fantasies are "`make-believe' masking a flaw, an inconsistency in the symbolic order."
But must we not envision symbols not only statically, as pieces of a system, but dynamically in their activity of formulating, shaping, and intensifying one's thoughts and one's feelings? Nietzsche envisioned value terms in a new way, not as designations of properties of things nor as terms that function to compare and rank things, but as confirmations and intensifications of surges of inner feeling. It is in exclamations: How good I feel! How healthy I am! How real I feel! How beautiful I am! that these terms receive their sense. One says "How healthy I am! because one feels it, and in saying it one feels still more healthy. To feel healthy is not to have the essentially negative notion of no-debility, no-sickness that we shape from the doctor's examination or from our own amateur-doctor's examination of ourselves, but to feel exultant energies to burn. It is once we have this positive, affirmative, confirmative sense of health from within that we can recognize it in others.
Do not the images and scripts of many of our fantasies function in the same way--not only and not always to concoct figures of ourselves that fit into the gaps in the symbolic order that prevails about us, but to confirm, consecrate, and intensify the surges of our own strong and ecstatic feelings? If these inner figures of ourselves are also figures of heroes depicted in our culture, that is not because the existing symbolic system determines the place, function, and contours of every term within it, but because our feelings surge with the strong feelings of others.
Schreber, in naming his ass a solar anus intensifies his sense of its radiant seductiveness. George Bataille was obsessed with the notion of a third eye, opening on top of his head to look directly into the sun. These are not terms and images that get their sense from the context, but images that radiate fathomless depths and resources of significance. And this man--what a word Wolverine is for him! Not simply a makeshift to fill in a gap in a meaning-system; instead a word sulfurous and snarling, a word upon being invoked that becomes incarnate in his swelling chest, his steel-spike claws.
2. A major defect in Zizek's account is the way the "pathological kernel", the sensuous impulses, is conceived negatively. Zizek conceives sensuality as desire, which would terminate in enjoyment, but is insatiable and doomed to an impasse, and therefore the fantasy that channels it is illusionary and helpless. Behind this Lacanian conception is the KojÚvian notion--but also the major theme of Western philosophy--that a living organism is a material system which opens to its environment because of an inner emptiness--a lack, a hunger, a thirst--and moves with the force of emotion in order to seize upon the substance that would satisfy that need. If need feeds upon itself and becomes insatiable, becomes "desire," it is because what it seeks gets enchained to objectives which are always further on, ungraspable and unspecifiable.
But the strength of our emotions does not comes from an exasperation of the inner emptiness of lack and need. Hungers and thirst do not arise only because the organism is porous, do not arise only from evaporation and leakage. It is the plenum of the organism which generates excess force that has to be discharged that activates an organism and produces superficial and intermittent lacks and needs. The strong emotions arise from excess energies which thrust our sensibility beyond the environment that surrounds the foetus and the infant as a nutritive medium, upon an environment which exceeds apprehension and comprehension, is tragic or comic. The primary and strong emotions are laughter and tears, blessing and cursing. The strong impulses of life actively seek out the surprising, the bungling, the nonfunctional, and the absurdity of a system where everything works, and blesses it with its peals of laughter. They seek out the corpse of the fallen hero, of the hummingbird fallen from poisoned skies, to preserve them with one's grief and tears. Laughter and tears, blessings and cursings are the strong emotions that drive us to discharge the excesses of energies in our healthy organisms upon a world full of sound and fury signifying nothing, a world of the free forces of nature, the sparkling of flowering fields and dunes of ice crystals, the shimmering of the winds and the wrath of storms. These emotions do not seek to terminate in a happiness indefinitely deferred. They are ecstatic; it is in their very release, the discharge of the excesses of their energies, that they know exultation.
What imposes respect is the sense of the other as a being affirming itself in its laughter and tears, its blessings and cursing. This respect is first the consideration that catches sight of the space in which the emotions of another extend.
The insulted honor of the peasant, the grief of a widow--it is bravery and strength that grieves--the affection of a child for a puppy command our respect. The misery of the trapped jaguar, the exultation of the young eagle taking to flight, the playfulness of the wolf cubs command our respect.
And this man--his wolverine rage, fearless and murderous, his Tiger snarl, his great blue heron vigilance, his peregrine ghostly hovering, his great sea turtle sadness and loneliness--what oceanic storms are these emotions--commanding more than our respect, more than our awe.
3. Zizek makes the essential activity at the core of an individual an activity of elaborating meaning. But our individuality is not constituted by a ceaseless spinning of an ever-wider spiderweb of referentiality. Zizek does not recognize the implosion of meaning in sensuality, where individuality is formed in a spiral of pleasure. Our sensuality is not an intentionality but an involution; it espouses the support and repose of the ground, sinks into the fathomless depths of the sparkling and dazzling light, into the decomposition of the hard edges of things in twilight, gets caught up in the rhythms of colors disengaged from the graspable contours of things, abandons itself to the hum of the city and the murmur of nature, and looses itself in the beginningless, endless anonymity of the night. Orgasmic voluptuousness is a collapse of posture, dismemberment of organs and limbs which glow for themselves, aimless movements of caresses, transubstantiation of flesh and glands from flexible to ferric and from compacted hardness to liquefication and vaporization. And this man--is it meaning that he seeks in his inner zoological garden? Meaning for what--his sickness, the place of his sickness in what? his life? his destiny? the world? history? Is it not rather this--this fearful ecstasy: "Then the Wolverine and the Tiger both took over and I became so powerful, so able to withstand the pain, enjoying the power, watching with fascination in the mirror my body change into unhuman shapes."
4. For Zizek the fundamental fantasy formed in this space is illusionary, fragile, and helpless. It is the way "everyone, in a manner proper to each, conceals the impasse of his desire." The insatiable, infinite, desire there is in human sensuality and enjoyment is unsatisfiable, and can persist only in having this inevitable unsatisfaction concealed from itself. Psychoanalysis, which forces the patient to recognize the illusory and helpless character of the fantasy that nourishes his desire, is a cruelty that removes the very ground beneath the subject's feet. Then the primary imperative of psychoanalysis, and of each of us who respects the dignity of another, must be to avoid violating that illusionary, fragile, and helpless fundamental fantasy. The means to achieve this is to assume a distance toward the fundamental fantasy that constitutes our own individuality, recognizing that it is irreducibly contingent, and is the way we too conceal the impasse of our desire.
Is it true that all the psychoanalyst can do, all that we can do, is to avoid violating the inner fantasy space of others? Is it not true that in speaking to another whose individuality is crippled, whose fantasy space is fragile and helpless, we speak to give him or her the free space of his or her excess energies and strong emotions, to give him or her his or her own voice, the voice of his or her laughter and tears, blessing and cursing? To give him the voice to howl his wolverine snarl, his great sea turtle sadness and loneliness?
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1998.]