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Umbr(a)Review - Umbr(a)
by The Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture
Center for Psychoanalysis and Culture, 2001
Review by Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W.
May 1st 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 18)

            As one of the many who in initial efforts to comprehend the writings of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan have been driven to near despair, I can report that I found the current (2001) issue of Umbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious to be quite rewarding. Many fine works expositing and interpreting Lacan’s ideas are now available, and should be consulted by those seeking an in-depth grasp. Nevertheless, for those who, like myself, benefit also from a ‘hands-on’ use of Lacanian concepts and ideas in varying contexts, e.g., philosophy, literature, social and political thought, feminism, queer theory, etc., Umbr(a) (and not only the 2001 issue being reviewed here) provides a particularly lucid way into the more arcane heights and depths of the Master’s creation. For example, the two concluding articles in the last section of the issue (“Sublimation and Homosexuality), the ones most heavily invested in Lacanian psychoanalysis. These articles are relevant to aesthetics, queer theory, and social and political theory, as well as to psychoanalysis.

             The first of the two articles mentioned above, “The Strange Detours of Sublimation: Psychoanalysis, Homosexuality, and Art” is by the highly regarded feminist theorist (who has written extensively on Lacan), Elizabeth Grosz. The second of the two is queer theorist Tim Dean’s “Perversion, Sublimation, and Aesthetics: A Response to Elizabeth Grosz” (Dean has authored several books, and co-edited the recent Psychoanalysis and Race). One of the points of interest here is the way in which the two authors diverge, despite that both have important commitments to Lacan. The crux of the matter turns upon different conclusions regarding the implications of psychoanalysis for aesthetics in general, and in particular, whether or not psychoanalysis consigns “high” art to being one more means of valorizing and enforcing heteronormativity. This is Grosz’s position, which she bases upon an extended, comprehensive, and extremely clear presentation and discussion of Freud’s and Lacan’s views on sublimation. Lacan, by showing that Freudian psychoanalysis is better understood as a theory of the origin of desire in the symbolic, shows also, that sublimation sublimates non-normative sexual objects and aims, and that therefore art, especially that which is not “popular” or mass consumable, is a means of denying homoeroticism and enforcing heteronormativity. “Popular” or mass-consumable art is, for Grosz, more open to non-heteronormative aims and objects. This is the point that Dean disputes.

            Dean’s point of departure from Grosz is given in his remark that “I would like to suggest that art has more to do with queerness than with regulatory norms” Dean then points to artists such as Emily Dickenson and Mark Rethko, who, in artistic gestures that Dean interprets as revealing the significance of Lacan’s view of Freud’s ‘death drive” as reflecting the fragmented nature of drive as such, create “high” art as bearing within it “aesthetic challenges to intelligibility” and “indecipherable variation” that sublimely manifest rather than suppress queerness. In presenting these views, Dean provides a fascinating and lucid explication of the psychoanalytic theory of the death drive.

            Thus, both articles “teach” Lacan reliably and coherently, and I find that in the context of a very nitty-gritty discussion of gender and art that I can grasp what Lacan is getting at handily. Indeed, the articles, neither of which mentions or even alludes to patriarchy once, stimulated me to wonder whether or not an unspoken assumption of both Grosz and Dean is an equation of heterosexuality with patriarchy.  If so, I would be inclined to dispute this. Thus, the articles have stimulated in me desires both to read other works by both authors and pursue my own thoughts on the relevant issues.

                        The first section of Umbr(a), The Universal, contains three pieces. The first two, “Theory, Democracy, and the Left: An Interview with Ernesto Laclau” and  “Stage Left: A Review of Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left” are interrelated in that the interview deals with the same book reviewed in “Stage Left.”  The book itself contains three separate sections authored by, respectively, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slovo Zizek. This section is primarily a discourse in radical democratic theory in relation to the Gramscian notion of hegemony (ideological production of class, contra Marx). However, each of the three authors or parties to the discussion have psychoanalysis, or what they see as the liberatory potential of psychoanalysis, as a necessary component of their political thought. Thus, while the discussion does not at all focus primarily on psychoanalysis (except arguably in the case of Zizek, who is the foremost exponent of Lacanian psychoanalysis today), the views of each and their differences cannot be understood unless the Lacanian influence is understood. This section of Umbr(a) 2001 closes with Sinkwhan Cheng’s “A Plea for Civility: An Asian Woman’s Reply to Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women’?”  Cheng, using Balibar’s notion of neoracism, i.e., postcolonial racism that emanates from the residual Western superego or residue of cruelty in ‘civilization’, deplores what she sees as Okin’s commitment to the superiority of the West in the “West and the Rest” version of globalization.  Neoracism is then conjoined with envy and hatred of the different modes of jouissance extant in different cultures, cultures which Okin wants to eliminate. (‘Jouissance’ is a term introduced into psychoanalysis by Lacan to reflect his notion of pleasure.)

            The second section of Umbr(a) also contains three articles. The first, Marc de Kesel’s “Antigone’s Fart: Some Notes Concerning Simon Critchley’s ‘Comedy and Finitude’” deploys ideas drawn from Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, and especially Lacan’s notion of “desire” to counter Critchley’s claim that rather than expressing human finitude, tragedy, for example Sophocles’ Antigone, depicts personae who, as tragic heroes, are shown to transgress, rather than appropriate, their finitude. Kesel shows that, au contraire, even though Antigone is fully aware that her burial of her brother will without doubt mean her own death, she makes clear “that desire can transgress the reach of the law…” For Kesel,  Antigone’s self-interpretation would read: ‘…I reveal that the law, which made my desire possible, is radically finite’. Kesel continues: “That law too is in fact but desire, that is, an instance which, it’s true, wants to reign in the universe, but nevertheless only can want, desire that.” It would be interesting to have had a response to this article, too. For myself, Lacan’s views on ethics are compromised by the way, reminiscent of the techniques of some analytic philosophers, that he circumscribes the ethical domain. Nevertheless, even those with limited background can learn much from the essay about Lacanian psychoanalysis.

            The same can be said about the next contribution, Kirsten Hyldgaard’s “Truth and Knowledge in Heidegger, Lacan and Badiou.” Here, Hyldgaard seeks to show that the notions of truth and knowledge in the three thinkers are homologous, although Badiou receives less attention than the other two.  Hyldgaard begins by remarking that Heidegger’s post-Being and Time conception of truth as alethia, or uncealedness, reflects the influence of  the psychoanalytic notion of a symptom as both concealing and revealing the unconscious. The author then discusses Heidegger’s favorable interpretation of the Plato of the cave in The Republic, which exemplifies altethia as a process of formation, and Heidegger’s unfavorable interpretation of the later Plato as having fallen away from alethia and adopted a truth as correctness schema. Hyldgaaard next maintains that there are homologies among the categories of neurosis, perversion, and psychosis and the Existenzialen of Being and Time on one hand, and between the psychoanalytic concepts of repression, disavowal, and foreclosure and the former triplets. What follows is a fascinating discussion of Heidegger that aims to reject historicist interpretation of his thought by denying that he postulates a “real” (Lacan) that is “outside” of or “before” the symbolic, assuming, it seems to me, that historicism requires such a preexistent real that then guarantees the continuity of history throughout its constant change.

            The next essay, by Sam Gilespie, “Neighborhood of Infinity: On Badiou’s Deleuze: The Clamor of Being”, is a defense of Badiou’s critique of Deleuze. The essay is a lucid discussion of the differences between Deleuze and Badiou and a presentation of Badiou’s basis for claiming that Deleuze is not au fond a philosophier of multiplicity. Gilespie describes Badiou as a “complex thinker who weaves Cantorian set theory, Maoist politics, Lacanian antiphilosophy, and Mallarme’s poetics—among other things—into a philosophical system that can easily meet the challenges posed by Heidegger, Levinas, and Deleuze.”

            The final paper in this category or section of Umbr(a) 2001 is a defense of Deleuze against Badiou. Ophir and Azoulay maintain that Badiou has failed to understand the transcendental character of Deleuzian ontology—i.e., that the unity in multiplicity of Being are such that on the level of transcendentality the multiplicity is not a matter of simulacra or things, but is internal to Being as such: “The oneness of Being should not be opposed to the multiplicity of simulacra or things, but to the multiplicity of its own transcendental bifurcations.”

            In conclusion, Umbr(a) is a valuable resource of  ideas and discussion for all those interested in psychoanalysis in general and in Lacan in particular.


© 2002 Marilyn Nissim-Sabat


Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W., Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Lewis University, Romeoville, IL , Clinical Social Worker, private practice in psychodynamic psychotherapy, Chicago, IL, Member Executive Board, Assoc. for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry


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