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LacanReview - Lacan
The Silent Partners
by Slavoj Zizek (Editor)
Verso, 2006
Review by Paula Satne Jones
Oct 3rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 40)

 In developing his particular renewal of psychoanalytic theory, Lacan established a dialogue with some of the most important thinkers of the Western philosophical and artistic tradition. The links between Lacanian thought and authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, Sophocles, Racine, Shakespeare, Joyce and Duras are well known and have been extendedly researched; they are the well-known Lacanian 'partners'. There is, however, another series of names which are rarely mentioned or not mentioned at all by Lacan but are crucial for the understanding of his work. This new volume edited by Slavoj Zizek explores the links between Lacan and some of these 'silent partners' with the underlying goal of recuperating Lacan for Marxist theory. The book is divided into two parts: silent partners in the history of thought, and silent partners among artists.

The volume consists of a collection of sixteen articles authored by different scholars from Europe, North America and South America. Each author contributes a chapter with the exception of Slavoj Zizek, who has contributed three. By Zizek's own admission, the aim of the volume is not 'to enable readers to approach Lacan in a new way but, rather, to instigate a new wave of Lacanian paranoia: to push readers to engage in work of their own, and start to discern Lacanian themes everywhere- from politics to trash culture, from obscure ancient philosophers to Franz Kafka' (p. 3).

It is often said that Lacanian psychoanalysis in the English-speaking world has been more influential in the fields of cultural studies, literary criticism and film than it has in those of clinical psychology or analytical philosophy. This book proves once more that this is in fact the case. As a general rule, most of the contributions do not address practical aspects of psychoanalytic theory. However, as with every general rule, an exception can always be found. One such exception is Joan Copjec's article entitled 'May '68, The Emotional Month'. In this article, Copjec examines Lacan's surprising response to the student revolts of May '68. Such a response can be found in the seminar delivered by Lacan that very same year: Seminar XVII: The Underside (or Reverse) of Psychoanalysis. In his seminar, Lacan not only accused the students of not being radical enough, but also, and more interestingly, he ended the seminar by abruptly announcing that the final aim of psychoanalysis is the production of shame. Why invoke shame as the final aim of analysis in the context of 1968?

Copjec answers this question by analysing Lacan's concept of affect [or jouissance in Lacan's preferred vocabulary] since after all shame is a form of affect. She does this by relating Lacan's concept of jouissance to Freud's concept of anxiety, Sartre's voyeuristic gaze and Levinas's feeling of 'being riveted' [Levinas being the only of the three authors that can be called a 'silent' partner].

From Freud, Lacan takes the idea that affect is the discharge, the movement of thought. When this movement stops and becomes inhibited, affect is known by the more specific name of anxiety. However, Lacan goes a step further than Freud because whereas Freud maintains that anxiety, unlike fear, has no object, Lacan asserts that anxiety is 'not without object'. On the contrary, anxiety is the experience of an encounter with an object of a different kind: object petit a, as it was famously called by Lacan. With respect to Sartre, Lacan also goes a step further because he points out that the gaze that assaults the voyeur from behind is none other than the voyeur's own, that is, his own surplus-jouissance. Finally, we can also relate Lacan's concept of affect with Levinas's phrase 'riveted to being'. Levinas's phrase has the implication that being rather than immediately being our being, is forced, adhered or stuck to our being. Here again, Lacan advances Levinas's argument because for him, the being to which we are riveted or stuck is specifically jouissance.

In Seminar XVII, Lacan also claims that anxiety is the 'central affect' around which every social arrangement is organized. The anxiety that the encounter with one's own jouissance produces must admit some form of escape if society is to be possible. It is at this point that Lacan opposes the Analytic to the University Discourse - a discourse that Lacan linked with the rise of capitalism. In the modern-capitalistic world, originary anxiety is transformed into moral anxiety. Although the modern guilt-laden subject still experiences jouissance, this jouissance, says Lacan, is a sham. 

The fraudulent nature of this jouissance comes from the fact that it gives one a false sense that at the core of one's being there is something possessable as an identity (racial, national, ethnic).The universalizing tendency of the University Discourse does not end up forsaking these inherited identities or differences, but welcoming them with open arms.

It is against this background that Lacan's call to shame makes any sense. 'His is a recommendation not for a renewed prudishness but, on the contrary, for relinquishing our satisfaction with a sham jouissance in favour of the real thing. The real thing – jouissance - can never be 'dutified', controlled, regimented; rather, it catches us by surprise, like a sudden, uncontrollable blush on the cheek' (p. 110).

Copjec's article is interesting not only because it offers an excellent interpretation of a very difficult Lacanian passage, but also because it reminds us of the necessity of going back to the 'real thing' and abandoning the universalizing discourse of identity and difference.

It is important to note that throughout the different chapters of the book there is one author whose presence is overwhelming: the mentions of Hegel are second in number only to that of Lacan himself. Even Zizek admits that Hegel is hardly one of Lacan's silent partners by pointing out that 'in the index of the Ecrits, Hegel appears more often than Freud himself!' (p. 1). However, Zizek continues 'Lacan's almost exclusive Hegelian reference is the Phenomenology of Spirit in its reading by Alexandre Kojeve (and, to a lesser degree, Jean Hyppolite)' (p. 2). The idea is that references to Hegel are to other aspects of his philosophy that have influenced Lacan and remained silent until now. Thus, Timothy Huson analyses the relation between Lacan's 'logic of the signifier' and Hegel's Logic, whereas Adrian Johnston explores the relation between the works of Schelling and Lacan.

In 'The 'Concrete Universal' and What Comedy Can Tell Us About It', Alenka Zupancic also refers to Hegel, more specifically, to his account of comedy. The author notes that there is a prevalent postmodern view of comedy in which comedy 'is the genre that emphasizes our essential humanity, its joys and limitations. It invites us to recognize and accept the fact that we are finite, contingent beings' (p. 189). Zupancic lucidly connects this way of understanding comedy with a philosophical tradition that has been dedicated to undermining the metaphysics of infinitude and transcendence, establishing instead a 'metaphysics of finitude' (p. 190) in which finitude appears as our great contemporary narrative. To this conception of comedy, Zupancic opposes an alternative conception of Hegelian origin. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel considers comedy to be the most accomplished spiritual work of art. Comedy appears as the final figure of the section entitled 'Religion in the form of art' and as any final figure of a dialectic movement, it constitutes the moment of the concrete universal, that is, the moment when the universal stops being empty and realizes itself through the individual. This conception of comedy as the concrete universal, together with a Lacanian analysis of jouissance as something that with its always excessive 'surplus' nature introduces 'a fundamental contradiction in this finitude itself' (p. 194), allows Zupancic to arrive at what she calls the 'physics of the infinite', which serves as an alternative to the contemporary doxa of human finitude. It is infinite because the contradiction involved in the human condition is a contradiction that cannot be qualified as finite (because it is not something with a necessary and inherent end to it), and it is 'physics' because this necessary contradiction is always materialized in very finite objects and actions. The ethical and aesthetical consequences of the physics of the infinite are a lot more radical than those of both the metaphysics of the infinite and the metaphysics of the finite.

Zizek's contributions are, as always, brilliant and a pleasure to read. In 'Kate's Choice, or, The Materialism of Henry James', he advances the thesis that Henry James greatest achievement 'is fully to assert, as the basic defining feature of modernity, a lack of any transcendent ethical Substance, while simultaneously avoiding the easy position of ethical relativism' (P. 294). He proves this by an analysis of The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. With respect to the first novel, Zizek contends that the novel can be read from the perspective of the three main characters, Milly, Densher and Kate. He then argues, contrary to some of the most accepted interpretations, that the only act with an ethical dimension is Kate's act. Kate is the ethical hero of the novel because in her final act she refuses to live the lie and chooses to lose both Densher and the money. The Golden Bowl, in contrast, ends 'in a great moral crash' since none of the main four characters that constitute the intertwined couples, Maggie/Amerigo and Charlotte/Adam, is capable of committing a final ethical act.

 One of the many chapters that also deals with literature is Mladen Dolar's 'Kafka's Voices'. Although Lacan never mentions Kafka in his published work, in his Seminar IX: Identification, he mentions Kafka's short story 'The Burrow' while introducing his topological theory. However, Dolar shows that the connection between both authors is more far-reaching. The author starts by reminding us of a debate in the interpretation of Kafka. We have on the one hand those who interpret Kafka's universe as the universe of the transcendence of the law. Against this interpretation, Deleuze and Guattari have shown that in Kafka, the law is pure immanence. Although Dolar accepts that the second reading is 'far more useful', he still thinks that it 'does not quite cover what is at stake in Kafka' (p. 313).

The problem with this reading is that it eludes a paradox: the paradox of an emergence of a transcendence at the very heart of the immanence.

 Dolar's thesis is that Kafka is generally misperceived as the depressing author of total closure without any possible exit, which is precisely why the solution of pure immanence does not offer a good answer to the problem of interpreting Kafka. Instead, Dolar thinks that in Kafka's corpus there is a possible moment of exit. He examines three strategies which offer an exit and that 'are all connected with the instance of the voice - precisely as a point of paradox' (p. 316). The three stories analysed by Dolar where the voice offers a possibility of exit are 'The Silence of the Sirens' (1917), 'Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk' (1924) and 'Investigations of a Dog' (1922). Since Kafka is without doubt one of the great literary voices of the XX century and it is true that he remains quite 'silent' in Lacan's work, Dolar's contribution is original and refreshing.

Other silent partners also discussed in the section dedicated to 'thought' are: A. Badiou on the Pre-Socratics; M. Bozovic on Diderot; S. Ons on Nietzsche; and B. Bosteels on A. Badiou. In the section dedicated to art: R. Pfaller on the comic and the uncanny; S. Zizek on Richard Wagner; S. Jottkandt on Turgenev; L. Chiesa on Artaud; and F. Jameson on Lacan and the Dialectic.

This is a very diverse and eclectic volume. The book will appeal to the reader of literary theory, film and cultural studies and perhaps also to the social theorist and the philosopher interested in the continental tradition. Adrian Johnston, in his review of Sarah Kay's Zizek: A Critical Introduction published in this website, notes that 'When Zizek declares that he employs, for instance, popular culture as a subservient vehicle for the deployment of speculative theoretical philosophy - the "Many" of Zizek's examples ultimately serves the "One" of a project aiming at the "reactualization"(as Zizek himself puts it) of Kantian and German idealist thought through the mediation of Freudian -- Lacanian psychoanalytic metapsychology -- he is quite serious'. Given Zizek's project of reactualizing German idealism through Lacanian theory, one should not be surprised at the major presence of Hegel in this book. However, this book will not appeal to two types of reader: the psychoanalyst interested in clinic and practice and the philosopher interested in the analytical tradition. Since analytical philosophy is very important in the English-speaking world, it is sad that the field of psychoanalytic studies in English has not engaged in a dialogue with this tradition. From the point of view of analytical philosophy, it would be interesting to investigate, to give but two examples, the implications of the psychoanalytic concept of drive for philosophical notions of human freedom or the role of jouissance on motivation and action. Unfortunately, this book does not offer an answer to these questions and others, and thus it does not engage in a much-needed dialogue between these two important traditions of the English-speaking world.


© 2006 Paula Satne Jones


Paula Satne Jones, PhD candidate, Centre for Philosophy, University of Manchester.


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