Near the very end of Thomas Pynchon’s “derisive” novel, Gravity’s Rainbow—(arguably an unparalleled caricature of the subject’s oscillation between the phallic object and castration: a disruptive “repetition-automatism” that is set in motion by a constitutive tension between these two axes of subjectivity—better known as desire and anxiety—which, in turn, disturbs and ruins all orders of consistency)—there is a scene in which Beaver invites Roger Mexico and Pig Bodine to a fancy upper-class dinner party. Once there, they engage in a game of conjuring up outrageously disgusting food alliterations, speaking them out loud so that the other dinner guests can overhear them:
“Oh, I don’t know,” Roger elaborately casual, “I can’t seem to find any snot soup on the menu….”
“Yeah, I could’ve done with some of that pus pudding, myself. Think there’ll be any of that?”
“No, but there might be a scum soufflé!” cries Roger, “with a side of—menstrual marmalade!”
“Well I’ve got eyes for some of that rich, meaty smegma stew!” suggests Bodine. “Or howbout a clot casserole?”1
At this point, anonymous voices from down the table begin to murmur annoyances and disgust, which only provoke these roguish characters to continue with their obscenities, referring to made-up dishes, uttering things like: “discharge dumplings,” “vomit vichysoisse,” “cyst salad” with “little cheery-red [sic] squares of abortion aspic, tossed in a subtle dandruff dressing,” and so on ad nauseam. The guests around the table quickly become bilious; some start gagging; someone vomits even.
Aside from the burlesque Marxism of this scene—the parody of an austere upper-class dinner party getting sabotaged by a pair of outlandish “low-culture” subversives; the way in which, by simply uttering a few revolting words, these disruptive agitators manage to get a bunch of upscale patricians to purge themselves of their “inner substance”—the essential enigma at play here is nothing more than a reflection of those real-life circumstances in which, puzzling as they may sometimes seem, real effects can nevertheless be produced by something that is not real. Is this point not illustrated well by the segment of the Pynchonian universe provided above, in which words, in the form of vulgar obscenities, cause the dining patrons to get sick and vomit? Most of us are (unfortunately) familiar with this sort of episode; someone says something so repulsive and off-putting that, incidentally, such an utterance churns one’s stomach just enough to bring about a fit of gagging, or even vomiting. How are we to make sense of this peculiar occurrence, in which a real physical effect is brought on by something that, in the positive sense of things, is not there in reality, something that is there in thought and words only, that is, in language? To answer this question, we should take as our starting point the well-known Lacanian triad, Imaginary-Symbolic-Real (ISR). This triad constitutes the three realms that encompass the subject’s psychological activity, which, as such, functions to place both subjectivity and psychic phenomena within a specified framework of perception of, and dialogue with, the external world. We will start with the first two registers, Imaginary and Symbolic.
In terms of the Imaginary, one should notice that the most fundamental and immediate experience we have of eating food, for example, always involves a certain amount of abstraction, a subtraction of certain features about eating that are too embarrassing, unpleasant, even too disgusting, to be consciously accounted for. That is to say, rationally speaking, we all know that our consumption of food entails nothing more than the placing of dead, inert matter into a hole in one’s face, mashing it to a pulp with one’s teeth with the digestive aid of saliva, until one swallows what is in there, pushing it through a series of bloody tubes and organs, where it will eventually be broken down in the stomach by bile and enzymes, turned into excrement, to then be canalized through the gastrointestinal tract before being deposited into a toilet. However, while we are eating, this is, of course—quite literally—not included in the image we have of eating. In order to enjoy our food we must (unconsciously) disavow this crude and actual affair—that “unedited” raw reality lurking behind the very ordinary act of eating—precisely so that, in dealing with the consumption of food, we are not dealing with the real act of eating. Rather, we are dealing with an imaginary image that precipitates the normative, common act of eating with which we are all familiar. And this imaginary image, itself, nonetheless has a sort of effervescent reality all its own: this image allows for us to have a pleasurable experience of eating, or, to be more precise: it structures the way in which we deal with eating altogether.
Which brings us directly to the Symbolic aspect of all this, simply because these two orders (Imaginary/Symbolic) are hooked onto each other. Here, one is dealing with the way in which one’s individual experience of eating is, at the same time, a certain kind of shared experience, which comes into existence precisely by disavowing the more un-pleasant, immediate aspects of the reality inherent to the act itself. To wit, generally speaking, we all share in a sort of “common knowledge” of eating—e.g., we cook with recipes, we learn and internalize a certain amount of food etiquette, we all practice at least a middling degree of table manners, and so on—which is structured around a very specific kind of conventionalized image of eating, an image that, to reemphasize a point made earlier, structures for us the very act of eating we engage in precisely by masking the crude rawness of the act itself. What I am essentially getting at here is that, the Symbolic order intervenes and subverts the field of distinction between a ‘real object’ and an ‘object of knowledge’, whereby this distinction is then elevated into, and staged within, a larger epistemologico-ideological space; thereby structuring the way in which we experience reality in toto. This is precisely what Lacan, in Book XI, means by the claim that, “a concerted human action, whatever it may be, […] places man in a position to treat the real by the symbolic”: the Symbolic is the determining order of the subject, and, mutatis mutandis, the subject is, as such, an effect of the Symbolic. But in order for this to happen, some “original” piece of the Real must resist symbolization, that is, I must disavow and disqualify a certain facet of reality, a slice of reality that goes unaccounted for in order for me to experience the symbolic structure of my lived reality.
There is, of course, a heinous and diabolical side to this, which finds its apogee of expression in perhaps one of the more atrocious and execrable moments of modern history. In 1936 the Soviets invented a van, disguised as a bread van, equipped with a gas chamber in which prisoners were suffocated and killed by the van’s engine fumes. Thereafter, in September of 1941, following Himmler’s visits to Russia, a paramilitary death squad of Nazi Germany known as “deployment group B” (Einsatzgruppen B), led by the commanding officer Arthur Nebe, was given the task of liquidating patients of the asylums in the cities of Minsk and Mogilev. Nebe soon came up with his own idea of constructing a van with a hermetically sealed cabin into which carbon monoxide gas from the automobile’s exhaust could be used for killing operations. These vans were used at the Chelmno extermination camp up until the gas chambers were developed.
The real sense of horror behind all this is not simply that these vans existed and were used. Rather, the source of this hideous barbarism belongs to something much deeper and more radical: the way in which, in order for the drivers of Nebe’s gas-vans to do what they did, they had to dispense with a certain facet of reality—(the fact that they were committing outright murder)—thereby, in the very process, off-loading their ultimate responsibility for the lives they were taking onto some Absolute qua “sacred Cause”.2 Is this not, as Žizek puts it in the introduction to God in Pain, a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the “religious suspension of the ethical”: “on a mission from God, one is allowed to kill thousands of innocents”? Or, to put it in more secular terms, as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote in The Nazi Doctors: Large groups of people can be easily moved to commit mass atrocity in so far as there is a “claim to virtue” placed behind the act. That is to say, before a large group of people can commit any mass atrocity, they must convince themselves, as a whole, that what they are doing is not wrong but instead beneficial to a larger-than-the-individual “sacred Cause” (e.g., The Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, Manifest Destiny and its pursuant removal of America’s indigenous, the Holocaust, the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, and so on…). We should consider, then, that the real sense of horror may derive from something that is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, “human, all too human” in us. It is too easy to dismiss the Nazis, or, for that matter, those responsible for the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, and so on, as inhuman and bestial—for what if the problem with such perpetrators is, as Žižek puts forward, that they are “human, all too human”? What Žižek is attempting to disclose here is precisely
what “Lacan tries to accomplish […] in all his great literary interpretations […] [A] point at which we enter the dimension of the “inhuman,” a point at which “humanity” disintegrates, so that all that remains is a pure subject.3
In other words, the “pure subject” is to be conceived, in a manner of speaking, as an empty “receptacle” into which its (Symbolic) substance is received. The recent film The World’s End (2013), written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, and directed by Edgar Wright, does a spectacular job depicting this Lacanian concept of the pure subject (despite being, arguably, one of the more lackluster films starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). Five friends reunite to visit their hometown, Newton Haven, where they attempt to finish their failed pub-crawl from twenty years earlier. In the midst of trying to reconcile the tension between their past and present lives, they soon discover that the town has long since been invaded and taken over by alien robots, its population having been replaced, one by one, by these otherworldly intruders. There are two things in and about this film that strike me as somewhat fascinating. One: its recurring turn to the etymology of the word ‘robot’, that it basically means “slave”; derived from the Czech word ‘robota’, which means: “forced labor.” And two: that it is none other than the alien-robot-Things which enslave their human subjects, disarming their human subjugates by infusing them with their own alien blood (which is blue, by the way), which thereby induces in their victims an acute complacency with the reality of what’s actually occurring. What I find so interesting here, specifically, is the pairing of these two aspects, it creates a sort of “short-circuit”; in other words, there is a dialectical reversal occurring here, which we should focus all our attention on: for is it not as if the real “robots”—which, of course, if we were to take this designation literally, we are talking about “slaves”—are the humans themselves, and not the alien-robot-Things that have enslaved the people of Newton Haven by means of invading their human bodies? Moreover, in the act of colonizing the human bodies, these alien-robot-Things render their human subjects hollow. Is this not an apt metaphor for the pure subject’s relation to the Symbolic? The Lacanian concept of the pure subject (in the case of The World’s End, the humans themselves) is none other than empty form itself, which receives its Symbolic substance (the alien-robot Thing) with which the subject comes to identify; that is to say: the Symbolic is the determining order of the subject, and, mutatis mutandis, the subject is, as such, an effect of the Symbolic.
This phenomenon renders perfectly the absurd logic behind the functioning of the Symbolic order, in which the “mask-mandate” matters more than the direct reality that assumes the mandate. Here, one does not believe their eyes, so to speak, in so far as one fully submits to the efficiency of the symbolic fiction: the way in which this fiction structures one’s experience of reality. As Žižek reminds us in his essay “With or Without Passion”: in one of the Marx brothers’ films, Groucho Marx, when caught in a lie, answers angrily: “Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?”
This functioning [of the Symbolic order] involves the structure of fetishist disavowal: “I know very well that things are the way I see them/that this person is a corrupt weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge, so that when he speaks, it is the Law itself which speaks through him”. So, in a way, I effectively believe his words, not my eyes, i.e. I believe in Another Space (the domain of pure symbolic authority) which matters more than the reality of its spokesmen.4
Can we not arrive at the logical conclusion, then, that it is in this strict sense—that is, by turning to the paradoxical logic that is behind the efficiency of both the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, as it is explained above—that Roger and Bodine were able to induce vomiting in others simply by using their words!
Well now, the notion of the Real, the prize we have all been waiting for, can be discussed. There is an entire series of definitions for the Lacanian concept of the Real, but the basic starting point is that the Real is, paradoxically, both the foundation for the process of symbolization (for it precedes the Symbolic order), and, a piece of excess, a remainder, a leftover of symbolization that eludes any symbolization whatsoever. One should not overlook the crucial way in which this lends itself over to the political field:
The typical politics of the good aims at a future not inhibited by a limit that constrains the present. This future can take the form of a truly representative democracy, a socialist utopia, a society with a fair distribution of power and wealth, or even a fascist order that would expel those who embody the limit.5
In other words,
no amount of progress can ever heal the loss that founds subjectivity, even though this is precisely what the ideology of progress promises. And even instances of empirical progress—say, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s in the Unites States—are accomplished through a repression whose content inevitably returns (in the form of segregated housing, private schools for affluent whites, and so on) […] [T]he investment of progress always produces its opposite as an obscene supplement […]6
Thus what one should acknowledge in these times is the obscene obverse of today’s “global village” in which everyone celebrates their differences by partaking in the “free” markets of liberal capitalism, a world in which everyone involved supposedly has equal rights, an equal opportunity to prosper, and so on: the rise of new forms of immiseration, and the increase of slums around the world; new forms of slavery, and the recrudescence of labor camps (e.g., the Chinese ‘Laogai’); new forms of racism and apartheids; the construction of new walls to protect the first world from a flood of immigrants, resulting in new social exclusions; the seizure of communally-held land/public spaces by private industry and multinational corporations; the ecological dismemberment of an entire planet, and climate change by global warming—for this is the unconscious truth about globalization. The crucial point that one should take away from this is that: any symbolic structure always has included within it some “staining” element, a non-rational protuberance that embodies the symbolic structure’s “own point of impossibility around which it is articulated.”
No less important to note, the Real also accounts for the way in which, with regard to the ISR triad, each dimension of the triad is interwoven with one another, precisely in the sense that the entire triad is reflected into each of its three terms. In other words, the Real is that which is inscribed into the very core of what it means to be human. To return to our more mild example from earlier, that of eating food, notice that there exists a minimal difference between the natural, organic constitution of the food we eat (including the natural processes of digestion to which the act of eating is nonetheless a vital component), and, the way in which we “de-naturalize” the objects that become our food, as well as the act of eating itself. To help spell this out some, let us turn to another example here. Consider one of the crucial discoveries made by Freud—that of the human dimension of sexuality: the fact that there is an indissoluble difference between “natural” sexuality—as it is conceived of in the conservative-traditional terms of sexual reproduction, including the latter’s requisite sex organs—and, human sexuality: the various ways in which we partake in sex, how we conceive of sexuality—not in any “natural” sense, but in terms of sexual satisfaction in and of itself. It is not easy, Freud tells us, to decide what is covered by the concept ‘sexual’;
If […] you take the reproductive function as the nucleus of sexuality, you risk excluding a whole number of things which are not aimed at reproduction but which are certainly sexual […]7
It is this minimal difference, an antagonism between the two sexual positions as such, which reveals an irreducible gap between both positions. And it is none other than fantasy itself—which paradoxically emerges from, and situates itself within, this abyssal chasm—that strives to reconcile this innermost antagonism by means of an imaginary order that is symbolically regulated. This is precisely what is definitive of human nature (what constitutes the passage from human being to being human). In other words, sticking with the provided example of sexuality, Lacan’s famous claim, that “there is no sexual relationship” (“il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel”), must be taken literally: there is always a radical difference between the raw reality of copulation and its phantasmic supplement (which, in its “highest” extrapolation, merely bespeaks of the radical difference that is, as Hegel would put it, contained within sameness itself—for are we not discussing here the fact that it is none other than sexuality itself that differs from itself? In other words, the difference that holds between two terms, a veritable antagonism as such, is actually inherent to each of the two terms themselves; which is to say: the difference is included, the opposite is always-already accounted for, within the subject itself; the subject differs within its own “oneness” precisely because there is a difference between the subject itself, and its empty place of inscription). In any case, can we not posit the claim that, to say that there is a difference between the raw reality of copulation and its phantasmic supplement implies that
all variations and displacements of sexual practices […] are so many desperate attempts to restore the balance of the two [sexual poles, which account for difference per se].8
The main point here is that the structural imbalance of the “sexual relationship,” in all its figurative and literal senses, is precisely what gives dialectical motion to all development, to the very “progress” from one form to another. As Žižek puts it, “sexuality is the domain of ‘spurious infintity'”9: viz., the transcendent fantasy that is often held to be over and above—separated from—(in order to conceal) the raw reality of disjunction and imbalance, is nonetheless “false” since it is this structural imbalance that engenders the fantasy itself; that is to say, the fantasy, produced as such, is inviolably bounded by its Other. Or, to put it differently: the symbolic authority of our unconscious fantasies is, as singer-songwriter Scott Walker once crooned in the song “Montague Terrace (In Blue)”: “A fist filled with illusions [that] clutches all our cares.” It is this, which, in all its (metaphorical) complexity, accounts for the Real.
So, to couch all this once more in our original, clement terms of eating food and what not, one can say that all “variations and displacements” of preparing and eating food are just so many attempts to restore a lost balance between two positions! This “lost balance” is of course to be referred to as the inaccessible, hard kernel of the Real itself, the “Real-Real”. It is on account of this innermost Real antagonism, as such, that the subject vacillates between two differences that are contained within its own sameness: the difference between “human being” (the human that is animal), on the one hand; and, on other hand, the latter’s phantasmic supplement—being-human (the animal that is human): how we conduct ourselves in the world—how we relate to the world at large and, with one another—the way in which we believe we should. And we must not lose sight of the Symbolic-Real that is caught up in all of this: the fact that there is a real effect to the fantasy component that is embedded in belief itself, for it is this very fantasy component which structures how we believe we should relate to the world (for example, if one is taught to see mountains as dollar bills, instructed to believe that mountains are retainers of resources to be exploited, blown to bits and razed for access to strata of coal, then one will see and treat mountains this way; if one is taught to believe that mountains are a dynamic landbase, essential to the lives of many other beings, then one will see and treat mountains another way).
All that said, there is also the dormant threat of an explosive intrusion of the Imaginary-Real—another, more menacing way in which something that is not real can produce a real effect: how the mere mentioning of “meaty smegma stew” and “cyst salad” with “little red squares of abortion aspic, tossed in a subtle dandruff dressing,” can cause the complacent Other to vomit up their “inner substance.” So, the next time you find yourself at some bourgeoise dinner party—you know exactly what it is you should do!
- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 729-31.
- According to a Wikipedia entry for “Gas Van”, one “disadvantage” to using these vans was that “drivers could hear the victims’ screams, which they found distracting and disturbing.”
- Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 42.
- Slavoj Žižek, “With or Without Passion: What’s Wrong with Fundamentalism? Part I,” Lacanian Ink, https://www.lacan.com/zizpassion.htm
- Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 20.
- Ibid., 291N32.
- Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 376.
- Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, 12.
- Ibid., 13.