Loosening Up

2 April, 2012

Pierre Bruno


Psychoanalysis is probably not elastic enough to provide the kind of diving suit needed to protect civilisation (Kultur, in Freud’s language) from its discontents. To put my cards on the table, let’s say that the object here is to make discontent a symptom, not in order to eradicate it, but to use it as a vector in order to transform the past, so as to free the present from its debt, even by the very act of beginning to talk. When a symptom is interpreted it doesn’t disappear, it becomes insurrectionary. To establish with some effectiveness what this recourse is about, we can begin with what three largely unrecognized ancestors of Freud—the Apostle Paul, St. Francis of Sales, and François Fénelon—understood by the term “impossible supposition”: namely, that God exists and curses me even—and above all?—if I dedicate myself to loving him absolutely. This bold trio did not recoil in the face of this eventuality—which is less impossible than people suggest—and they declared with one voice, “I would love Him anyway.” In Freud, this “anyway” is echoed in the only recognised injunction addressed by the analyst to the analysand: “say it anyway.” Once it is heard and applied, this “anyway” effectively ceases to be a command and becomes the beginning of an emancipation, because the speech that emerges thanks to this “anyway” irremediably creates a distance in relation to the sagacious sachem (God, maybe, or an analyst) whose existence it thereby questions, without necessarily realising that it is doing so. (Indeed, that is why Fénelon, devoted believer that he was, found himself suspected of heresy by Bossuet, that worthy representative of the ecclesial nomenklatura).

A leader induces sleep
From this emerges the fact that the contestation of an order, which is to say of a disorder made permanent, is never generated by anything other than a single subjective spark, and not—this mistaken perspective is due perhaps to a hasty reading of Marx—by the kindling of the masses. If psychoanalysis has made any progress since its extraordinary discovery by one person (not by a great research laboratory), it is because it has taken up the Freudian critique of mass psychology and, with Lacan, promoted a collective logic. This is articulated one to one, but the real question is why this one acts. Now this singular act is inconceivable without the other. This is, first of all, the other on whom I count and for whom there can be no question of that other not, in turn, counting on me. Next there is a second other, whose function is to prevent the subject from being satisfied with being the one on whom the first other could count. From here, one acts and, above all, the first other, moving to where the act first took place, acts in turn, and likewise for the second other, and so on for as long as the algorithm remains unbroken. It is essential to add that in this configuration the act is never what is deduced from knowledge (the line trotted out by old spiritualist philosophy), since there is no act that does not precede knowledge. Seeing things in this light, we can get an idea of what structures a revolutionary movement, whose first characteristic is unpredictability even if the “conditions” have, as they say, all been met (but we also know that the conditions can have long been met without anything actually happening). We can also understand why the best way to asphyxiate a revolutionary movement is to provide it with a leader, whose very presence gives mass psychology primacy over collective logic. This sleep-inducing action of the leader may have the virtue of fixing the revolution in place, of preventing its permanence and elation, of ordering its stasis, but it also brings the risk of ablating what it is about, or even of perverting its goals.

The desiring discard
Let’s be daring and take the next step. In psychoanalysis, only one thing is demanded of the analyst, which is that, in this two-step with the analysand, he or she should allow himself or herself to be, in the end, discarded like rubbish. That is where the psychoanalyst’s reluctance to act (by hearing, interpreting, or ending the session) comes from, not from some prudent fear of doing harm. Not to act, that is to say, to inscribe oneself within an inertia out of which hollow speech is bound to emerge the winner, means the assurance of staying in the warm place that is transference, or in the refrigerator of hatred, because you can always justify yourself being hated, against the analysand, whereas nothing compensates for being dumped on the side of the road when the analyst’s psychoanalysis has not led to the point where this demotion is coloured positively by desire, in that it puts a seal on both parties’ freedom.

Here, perhaps, art could learn a thing or two, for, like psychoanalysis, it is always at risk of being ambushed by the mortal sin of religion, which constructs love as servitude. Kierkegaard, long ago, said that an artist must content himself with being a “medium” (not in the parapsychological sense but in the sense of a binding agent in painting). It’s not easy to say exactly how religion threatens art, or rather, how it threatens to turn art into religion. Let us set aside cases where art is explicitly in the service of religion because it treats religious subjects (Christ on the Cross, for example, or the Last Supper). For one thing, we cannot prohibit such a choice—on what grounds would we do so?—and for another, the way the subject is treated may on occasion amount to a stone tossed through the window of religion. However, there is a danger when art is assigned as its sole purpose that which we call beauty. Freud doesn’t have a lot to say about beauty, but we may note that in a dialogue with Rilke, who had lamented that the beauty of a summer landscape with flowers in bloom would disappear in winter, Freud maintained that the ephemeral character (Vergänglichkeit) of beauty is precisely what makes it valuable. Even more moving, in 1926, when a journalist asked him if he was concerned about posthumous glory, Freud answered: “I am far more interested in this blossom than in anything that may happen to me after I am dead.”1 These words should be sufficient to convince us that Freud’s idea of beauty was anti-religious (what “may happen to me after I am dead” is of little importance) and, above all, that he did not see beauty as being something perennial that would guarantee its creator (whether man or God) the eternal survival of his name.

What justifies the idea of art as irreplaceable is its relation to what Freud called das Ding and Lacan la chose. This “thing” is what emerges when the symbolic part of language has abdicated. To take only a minimal example, the cast made of the empty space between the legs of a chair (Bruce Nauman) transcends, by its simple presence, the classical geometric problematic of space, in the same way that the invention of perspective (and there are sound reasons for the debate over whether this innovation was primarily artistic or scientific) rendered earlier symbolic coordinates obsolete.

Now, in this sense, beauty does not march at the same pace or in the same direction as art. To set the tone here, can an artist, if he is to be worthy of the title, not have sat beauty on his knees, as did Rimbaud, and found it “bitter”? In his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan questions the function of beauty and offers the beginnings of an answer: beauty is a “second barrier” that, coming after the good, excludes us from the radical field of desire, which is the field of the death instinct. At the same time, it awakens us to desire in its function as an illusion, and in this sense is not unrelated to the function of fantasy. This thesis is reaffirmed in the seminar, and remains unchanged thereafter: “This reference point, in so far I properly designated it as being that of beauty, in so far as it ornaments, has the function of constituting the last barrier before this access to the last thing, to the mortal thing, to this point at which Freud’s meditation came to make its final avowal under the term of death instinct.”2 This only heightens our sense of perplexity at the functions of art and beauty. On one side we have the Thing, whose presence art is supposed to produce, and on the other the death instinct, that is to say, the radical version of the equivalence between death and nirvana, which beauty is supposed to wall off. Perhaps we could displace the question by transforming it in order to make it more legible. The death instinct is deduced from symbolisation, which, by means of language, perpetrates the murder of things. Still, langage, in its concrete presence as langue, is not immaterial but has its own materiality which constitutes the writer or poet’s raw material. Nevertheless, at the same time, language and virtualisation have their own inclination, whose raison d’être can be found in what we call semantics, which is indeed immaterial. Art bestrides this razor’s edge, between, on one side, an iteration of forms already given to matter, tending to hide that materiality, making art an increasingly funereal manifestation, and, on the other, an extraction of that which, in the field of the death instinct, is not dead so long as a form is made for it. (That is why, strictly speaking, there is no creation that is not ex nihilo.) Here we need to consider dream work, which consists of the making of such a form, and the question that arises is whether that form was not already a kind of writing (écriture) even before it actually appeared. Finally, I should point out that it is not a question here of old and new, since old forms can always confront us with the presence of the Thing. The capacity to endure remains the only non-negotiable criterion for judging the value of a work of art.

Bitter Beauty
So what about beauty? Beauty could be the very form of the presence of the Thing, but that would be to forget its other face. If, indeed, the function of beauty is primarily to offer us a barrier against access to the field which also happens to be the only one that can open us to what, in the supposed emptiness of death itself, is full, it would not be absurd to say that beauty goes in the opposite direction of art. So as not to adopt this extreme viewpoint, it would be possible to consider beauty as the filter that allows us to see the sun without being blinded, and that beauty is ultimately less the form of the Thing, which is a matter of art, than its framework, which makes it pleasant to contemplate. Be that as it may, to return to Rimbaud’s adjective for beauty—“bitter”—art that would not involve, or have involved, the destruction of this frame, could never be of any interest to us. Kant’s act of genius was no doubt to have had this insight when he distinguished between the sublime and the beautiful, connecting the first directly with the noumenon.

On fetishes
In what way is this meditation on the beautiful essential when it comes to experiencing other civilisations and solutions than that of financial capitalism, which has now reached a dead end? With Freud, beauty is a moment of grace for the subject in the presence of an object that reveals das Ding, that is to say, as I stated above, that part of being which does not depend on the symbolism of language. True, one could no doubt define the horrible in the same way, but that would only highlight the polarity between the two. To distinguish between them, is it enough to note that beauty implies acceptance by the subject whereas the horrible implies rejection? On this question, Baudelaire’s thesis is economical: too much beauty turns to horror. Perhaps we could limit ourselves to a simpler explanation: from the very beginning of human history, men have selected the aesthetic forms that corresponded to the needs of survival, just as (forgive the prosaic comparison) in the history of taste we have, at least up to the present, preferred the caloric to the non-caloric. Either way, Lacan continues in the Freudian vein, but while he is not indifferent to the presentification of the Thing in beauty, he also grasps the fetishisation that goes along with this, and then conceptualises it, whereas Freud, in his indifference to his posthumous existence, merely evoked it. In a recent book, Le capitalisme à l’agonie,3 Paul Jorion recalls an observation in which Marx says that it is not man who inherits, but the Earth that inherits a man. We can plausibly generalise this observation and say that it is not the demands of financial capitalism that command money but the demands of money that command financial capitalism. Now, while there is certainly some truth in this observation, this truth is not the real (ce vrai n’est pas le reel); it stems from a fiction that gives appearance the sanction of its realism. One couldn’t dream of a better illustration of what Marx calls commodity fetishism in order to illustrate this fiction. Under certain material conditions, social relations between men, and depending upon men, assume in a fantastic manner the form of relations between things. Marx evokes the kinship of fetishism and religion, in which the products of human thought (the idea of God) are presented as real beings (the existence of God). The relation between this fetishism and the fetishism spoken of by Freud in 1926 is striking. In Freud, too, there is an opposition between the—real—recognition of castration, and the fantasy of denial by means of the fetish as a stand-in for the absent penis. In an interview given to philosophy students in 1966, Lacan recognises that Marx preceded Freud in his interpretation of fetishism, but also states that the fetish supports what we call work value, by erasing the fact that this value is the product of a determined social relation between men, and by presenting this value as intrinsic to the commodity, that is to say, independent of the relations between commodities.4 There is no need to spell out the way in which this neat schema for explaining the fetish can be applied to beauty, thus making us attentive to what, in the fascination with beauty (on the part of both of the artist and the public) can lead to the mutation of exhibition galleries and museums into churches.

Association and gravitation
To conclude, in a society forcibly modelled on the workings of mass psychology, the other is my fellow, but he or she is simultaneously foreclosed as alterity. The eugenic ideal of beauty is not far off. The only wind of freedom still blowing here comes from the fact that by borrowing a feature from the person who embodies my ideal, in a process of identification, I move from having to being, thereby staking out a distance—an unconscious one—in relation to this incarnate ideal. As emancipation goes, it’s not much. In collective logic, on the contrary, the basic axiom is that the other counts only as alterity and is worth nothing as a clone. The only thing that can bring together a Martian and a Venusian is a common undertaking, which is an ambition that has always implicitly haunted the actions of artists. Seen from this point of view, the contemporary period is fraught with a tension between increasing socialisation, which must be reckoned on the positive side, and a hyper-mediatisation of individuals who, however, are more interchangeable than we think (the cinema of the 21st century is exemplary in this respect). The latter aims to neutralise the former but, fortunately, its efforts will no doubt be in vain. Why this methodological optimism? Because, whatever pleasure he or she may derive from it, no subject can agree to be reduced to merely the surplus value of an Other, parental or otherwise. Psychoanalysis and art, scandalously enough, are concerned with the human, not with the Thing. The need is to find in the work a mode of association that affords access to its gravitation. This implies a rejection, on the one hand of the religious path, which sterilises everything by rejecting sex as an accident, and on the other of the psychological path, which is merely another of those false sciences that Molière taught us to laugh at.

1. Ernest Jones quotes this reply in his Life and Work of Sigmund Freud.
2. Lacan, Jacques, Le Seminaire VIII, Le transfert, Paris: Seuil, 1991, p. 15.
3. Jorion Paul, Le capitalisme à l’agonie, Fayard, 2011.
4. Lacan, Jacques, Autres écrits, Seuil, 2001.