We’re All Mad Here

Among the small (frankly, the dwindling) number of purely academic blogs that haunt the blogroll on the right, one of the hardiest survivors, along with Spurious in his infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering melancholy, is the Lacanian blog Larval Subjects.

Jacques Lacan is a difficult writer, and a specialist who appeals to specialists, and the very comprehensiveness of the Lacanian expansion of Freud tends to alienate people who are not already within his orbit. He has had a tremendous impact on the academy, and recently, English-speaking theorists have benefited from the translations and critical studies done by Bruce Fink. Nonetheless, I think Lacan will suffer from the coming backlash against postmodernism, maybe fatally so. (A backlash fueled partly by the fact that the key figures in postmodernism are very old or already dead, and new scholars will replace them and want to oust them.)

Even were that to happen, the archives at Larval Subjects would still be worth reading, and a recent post entitled “I Think You’re All Lunatics” is a good example why.

LarvalSubjects writes:

In his forward to Anti-Oedipus, Foucault points out that fighting fascism does not simply consist in fighting fascist social organizations, but rather it above all consists in fighting the fascism within: Our own fascist desires. In this vein, I’ve begun to notice that I think all of you are lunatics. That’s right, I think you’re all absolutely crazy, off the wall, and completely nuts. I’m not proud of this, and it certainly doesn’t make me a very good Lacanian. After all, as Lacan says at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, the desire of the analyst is not a pure desire, but is rather a desire for absolute difference. The thought that makes me shudder, the thought that makes my stomach burn with acid, is the thought that I don’t desire difference….

And, of course, if I think all of you are mad in your desires, your fixations, your obsessions, your persistant fears, themes, and anxieties, then this must mean that I believe myself to be sane. That’s right, I must believe myself to be normal and healthy. Yet in reflecting on my day to day life, with the way I obsess, the things that I fixate on, the dark fantasies that sometimes inhabit me, the way I don’t allow myself to sleep or enjoy, the varied forms of abuse I heap on my body, and so on, I can hardly say that I am a model of health. No, I don’t have a particularly nice sinthome….

Is it truly possible, I wonder, to ever desire the difference of the Other, or is this simply impressive sounding talk? Perhaps there are others that truly desire Otherness and I’m simply a fascist pig. Lacan liked to poke fun at philosophy, calling it a paranoid discourse striving to establish a regime of the same and identical: The hegemony of the imaginary, striving for the whole, completeness, and an eradication of difference. Perhaps my sickness has been produced by philosophy, or perhaps my sickness, my inability to desire difference, is what has drawn me to philosophy. I would like to stop thinking everyone is insane.

First of all, that’s hilarious. Second, isn’t it interesting how inoffensively it reads? I responded:

The fact that you may be mad certainly does not mean you are wrong about the rest of us. While I think you ought to interrogate yourself on the question of whether you really desire difference (in the ethical sense of the ought), recognizing that you are mad might mean that, in your desire for absolute difference, you deplore the multiple manifestations of a symptom you and lots of others share. This is often how I understand my own projects of cultural critique — I hope for a common project of sanity emerging from a common recognition of one’s own madness. A madness that lacks even the distinction of being individual, being one’s own possession.

Both LarvalSubjects and N. Pepperell (of Rough Theory) asked me to elaborate, and I might as well do that here.

The problem of difference, and the desire for difference, and a feeling of guilt over not desiring difference enough, is not just a Lacanian problem. It is really the major source of guilt and anxiety fueling the majority of postmodern writing, which, taken together, constitutes a canon that has practically no other subject besides self-incriminating, self-ironizing anxiety.

First of all, I think the discussion cannot go anywhere (besides towards a useless anguish) until we recognize that we live according to an extraordinary tolerance of individual difference, and the blogosphere proves it. No matter how close I might feel to the writers on my blogroll, anyone who clicks there and leaves this space immediately feels the difference. They are ushered into spaces that look dramatically different. They potentially leave my world, of the academic blogger writing under his own name, and enter the world of an anonymous blogger writing about her own life, with only the most occasional nods to intellectual work (many of my friends blog to other ends). The length of the entries differs. The governing notions of propriety change. The sense of humor changes, disappears, or emerges in some different and doubly funny form.

So, LarvalSubjects’s feeling that the rest of the world is mad, which probably represents a real horror on his part (one that he immediately curbs, guiltily), is pleasantly balanced by his links to other writers and his willingness to engage with them, a willingness that suggests a similar kind of openness in his real affairs.

What, then, forces LarvalSubjects to look beyond these initial signs of tolerance, towards some kind of fascistic intolerance of which he is guilty? One of two things must be at stake.

First of all, it is possible to feel guilty about positions that appear to be deeply subjectively grounded, even though they have implications for all of us. Thus, for example, it is possible to be guilty about defending secularism, since so many people derive such obvious and felt benefit from their religious beliefs and practices.

Difference transcends itself as content but not as form. It is a mistake to overlay a desire for difference onto disagreement in the public sphere. Evangelical believers have an interest in me as a subject; part of their difference from me involves their belief that I should become identified with them, at which point I myself would no longer desire difference. I come up short against the limit of difference, just as I do in the classroom, where as a teacher or as a seminar participant I encounter readings that are unjustifiable, and that don’t have recourse to difference.

So far, so good. But what about the more personal issues at stake here, which LarvalSubjects links to his obsessiveness, his problems with sleep and enjoyment, his abuse of his body, and his dark fantasies?

I imagine that, outside of public matters of disagreement that preclude difference, LarvalSubjects is thinking about self-defeating phenomena. All of the work I’ve done writing for this blog, and all of my own experiences with the bitter alienation he is describing, persuade me that the essential symptom/syndrome of this moment in Western life is undecidability and indeterminacy. That means, with respect to individual neuroses and psychoses, that all of them are acquired secondhand, and dropped or revised with startling ease.

Is there a single way of abusing one’s body that has not been chronicled in films, television shows, medical handbooks, websites, and so on? Is there a single pathology of sleep that is not known, catalogued, campaigned against, satirized, and vindicated? If, right now, eighteen people are singing simultaneous versions of “Folsom Prison Blues,” is it really possible to talk about a dark fantasy of murder in a shocking manner?

Certainly, for a given individual, all of their pathologies describe a complex of some kind, but even those complexes are so liable to changes and substitutions that most people who want to be famous (e.g. as artists of some kind) would give their right arms to have a complex as rich and internally consistent as Schreber’s. My troubles with sleep now aren’t the same as they were ten years ago, nor my taboos, and if all these were the same in 2017 as they are now, I’d in all honesty have to count that as an accident, and possibly a worrying sign of stasis.

I am glad that the most egregious and strange obsessions, prohibitions, and fantasies are out there on the table, picked up and passed around like costumes. We can talk about them, thanks to our strange and theatrical time, rather than having to live them out under a false banner of destiny.

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