Call for Applications – Pittsburgh Summer School in Contemporary Philosophy – Formalism and the Real: Ontology, Politics, and the Subject

Readers of the blog may be interested in a philosophy symposium this summer that I have a hand in organizing. I’ve pasted the full information below the fold, but please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions. Read the rest of this entry »

Antigone and Abraham in Melancholia

One of the most striking scenes in Melancholia comes when Justine and Claire step outside the mansion to see the sky lit up by two large heavenly bodies: the moon and the planet Melancholia. Claire suddenly notices that Justine is missing, and when she finds her, Justine is splayed out nude, basking in the uncanny light. This is a striking contrast to Justine’s previous behavior — during the wedding sequence, she can muster up no desire for her new husband, and when she takes aside a young man and has sex with him, it is more an expression of dominance and spite than lust. In the second half of the movie, she has difficulty sustaining any kind of affect whatsoever, recoiling from a warm bath and declaring that a favorite meal tastes like ashes. Yet here she is, responding to the prospect of the world’s annihilation with unmistakable erotism.

This scene serves, for me at least, as a kind of “quilting point” tying Melancholia to the story of Antigone. Read the rest of this entry »

On Being a Psychologist

As a psychologist/psychotherapist, I have always found it fascinating the ways in which strangers react whenever I inform them that I’m a psychologist. To avoid awkwardness, I know many psychologists lie about their profession to total strangers. It is interesting to note the ways in which strangers respond to my disclosure. I also think it opens up a window into the ways in which Americans thinks about psychotherapy.

One of the major responses I hear from people is “well, we’re all a little crazy, right?” Cue the nervous laughter. In these moments, the stranger is often dreading some sort of mini psychological evaluation and attempting to avoid my (fantasized) all-seeing eye by demanding that I give him/her a clean bill of health. Here I am being placed in the position of the subject supposed to know. Read the rest of this entry »

The Subject-Supposed-to-be-Awkward and Group Dynamics

(Note this is an updated post that I wrote years ago on my personal blog. I’ve expanded the original post and it is worth the re-read.)

In Seminar XI, Lacan argued that whenever the subject who is supposed to know (SSK) exists then so will transference. The typical neurotic patient will grant the analyst his trust, and thus allow him to assume this position of knowledge. Furthermore, as soon as the analyst is the positioned as the SSK, “he is also supposed to set in search of unconscious desire” (Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 235). The patient comes into analysis assuming that the analyst has some sort of understanding of his symptoms. Of course, this is untrue. Psychoanalysts are not mediums and have no special intuitive capacities. This belief of the patient is the very thing that often motivates him to enter analysis. The patient interprets the analyst’s interventions as information from the SSK, sometimes granting the analyst omniscient powers.

I’ve been thinking more about Lacan and the way we sometimes attribute certain characteristics to different people (e.g the analyst as the SSK). In social groups, especially group therapy, it is very common that a scapegoat emerges. Generally, this person sticks out in the group as being different and thus worthy of hate. The group tends to project their hatred onto this individual and treats this contaminated group member as a “leper” who must be kept at a distance. Inevitably, the group turns against this one person and alienates the person from the group. Scapegoating is a universal phenomena and it can take many forms. Read the rest of this entry »

Balance and imbalance

Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.

Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.

This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Read the rest of this entry »

“Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why Zizek doesn’t have a political program

From Less Than Nothing, pp. 1007-1009 (yes, I’ve finished the thing):

Faced with the demands of the protestors, intellectuals are definitely not in the position of the subjects supposed to know: they cannot operationalize these demands, or translate them into proposals for precise and realistic measures. With the fall of twentieth-century communism, they forever forfeited the role of the vanguard which knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path. The people, however, also do not have access to the requisite knowledge–the “people” as a new figure of the subject supposed to know is a myth of the Party which claims to act on its behalf…

There is no Subject who knows, and neither intellectuals nor ordinary people are that subject. Is this a deadlock then: a blind man leading the blind, or, more precisely, each of them assuming that the other is not blind? No, because their respective ignoance is not symmetrical: it is the people who have the answers, they just do not know the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer…. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that the prohibition of incest is not a question, an enigma, but an answer to a question that we do not know. We should treat the demands of the Wall Street protests in a similar way: intellectuals should not primarily take them as demands, questions, for which they should produce clear answers, programs about what to do. They are answers, and intellectuals should propose the questions to which they are answers. The situation is like that in psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but does not know what they are the answers to, and the analyst has to formulate the questions. Only through such patient work will a program emerge.

I am reminded here of my post on Lacan’s pedagogy.

On Seminar XI

Seminar XI was the first of Lacan’s seminars to be published and also his first to be delivered to a broad educated audience beyond analysts in training. As such, it seems to be regarded as a kind of “go-to” self-introduction to Lacan. Rereading it for my tutorial with Stephen Keating, however, I was disappointed. It has some suggestive remarks, some helpful clarifications of concepts, some development of important notions (objet petit a, the Real, the element of sexuality), some intriguing discussions of the relationships among psychoanalysis, religion, and science — but I’m not sure what it really adds up to.

The problem, for me, is that the thing seems to go off the rails once he starts talking about Merleau-Ponty, and then it never recovers. He promises a coherent development of the four concepts (unconscious, repetition, drive, transference) in their interrelations — and then we spend like a quarter of the time randomly talking about vision? Transference in particular never seems to get the necessary development: I got the sense that he was continually saying, “And of course I’ll really explain transference next time!”

Am I missing something?

Posted in Lacan. 3 Comments »

On being over halfway through Less Than Nothing

I’ve been reading Less Than Nothing on and off for at least six months at this point. When people ask me about it, I always say, “Whenever I’m reading it, I think it’s probably the best thing he’s ever written, but once I put it down, I have no motivation to pick it back up again.” The reason for this stems precisely from the book’s greatest merit — it really is a comprehensive synthesis of Zizek’s thought. The problem is that I’ve already done my own synthesis, so few of the big conclusions are “news” to me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on Seminar VII

Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.

As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. Read the rest of this entry »

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