Last August, the New Yorker published a piece on free speech by Kelefa Sanneh. “The Hell You Say” described recent and fierce battles over freedom of expression. Although the journalist did not directly address the issue of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, he pondered: “imagine a law written to make sure that controversial users –(…) say, (…) activists reproducing the Charlie Hebdo images of the Prophet Muhammad- wouldn’t be blocked or suspended by social-media networks merely for speaking out…”. Sanneh went on to evoke the different ways in which Britain, France and the US have recently dealt with online harassment by Twitter users...
...Two events that took place in New York City last spring and another in France last year suffice to illustrate the singularity of our respective national sensitivities when it comes to dealing with free speech. The first was the heated debate sparked off by a group of writers protesting in a letter about PEN America’s decision to give out a freedom of expression award to Charlie Hebdo. The second was U.S. District Judge John Koeltl’s ruling that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cannot stop a controversial ad from running on buses and subway carriages. What did the ad say? Alongside an image of a young man sporting a headscarf, it read : « Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah. That’s His Jihad. What’s yours? ». The work of an extreme right-wing organization including Jewish activists, the poster will thus be available for all to see shortly.
As unimaginable as it may seem, this ruling is in tune with recent decisions by the Supreme Court. In a 2011 controversial ruling that set it on the wrong side of public opinion, the Court stated that the First Amendment protected Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing at fallen soldiers’ funerals. In short, despite the dissenting voice of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the Court reaffirmed that freedom of speech is so central to the US that it will protect offensive -even hateful, protests.
Similarly heated legal debate over public safety and free speech took place in France last year. It focussed over a decision of the Conseil d’État to forbid French humourist Dieudonné -who is famous for his frequent anti-semitic outbursts, from performing his one-man-show. The fact the decision was prompted by Prime Minister Manuel Valls was part of the controversy, but many condemned what they saw as a clear infringement upon freedom of expression (insofar as none of Dieudonné’s performances has ever led to any demonstration of violence).
Both the French and the Americans, it seems, while voicing their profound attachment to the principle of free speech, impose limitations upon it. In France, the hateful ads that were authorized by Judge Koeltl in NYC would be struck down by the “Loi Gayssot”. But we have Charlie Hebdo. In the US, most newspapers decided not to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but Dieudonné would be free to hold each and every one of his performances, however distasteful they may be.
In Drawing Blood, published in the June 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Art Spiegelman criticized the news outlets that had “declined to show the (Danish) cartoons, professing a high-minded nod toward political correctness that smelled of hypocrisy and fear”. Should we chastise the US’s concern with decency? Or do we agree with Sanneh when he claims the “atomized Internet age” that has given way to “the non stop commentary of the social-media age” is responsible for an increasing sensitivity to the uses and abuses of language?
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, on both sides of the Atlantic, there will always be a situation in which one will not be free to speak one’s mind. We remain staunch opponents of anyone who might violate the principle of free speech but, in effect, it has never been possible, and will probably never be so, to exercise it completely. Freedom of expression leads us down the road of tricky debates and paradoxical statements. A quick look at Joyce Caroll Oates’s twitter account will convince you: while she endorsed the protest against the Charlie Hebdo PEN America award, Oates tweeted in favour of PEN which it is “important” we “support”.
Beyond borders and across the seas, in the privacy of their consulting rooms and for the past century, psychoanalysts have been introducing Freud’s golden rule to their patients: free association (which replaced hypnosis) was the method that would lead to uncovering the unconscious; it demanded the patient give up intellectual censorship and freely voice any thought that may have come to mind. If we wanted to joke about it, we could say that psychoanalysis starts with the analyst reminding his patient, in a kind of counter Miranda Decision introduction, that “nothing (he) will say can be held against (him) in a court of law”.
Need it be reminded that free association can only exist where public policy guarantees the exercise of free speech? “Freud and Free Speech: A Conversation Between Psychoanalysis and Democracy”, a colloquium hosted by NYU’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in October 2013 acted as a reminder that free association (and thus psychoanalysis) can only exist against the more general concern that we be allowed to speak, write and think freely. Yet analytic experience takes us one step further: if free speech is a necessary condition of psychoanalysis, free association brings to the fore the subject’s absence of freedom when it comes to his unconscious. Insofar as we are “employed” by language, we are always saying something other than what we think we are saying. And misunderstanding reigns…
Nonetheless, the “conversation” between psychoanalysis and democracy is of paramount importance. It foreshadows another conversation: one that Jacques Lacan deemed just as necessary and that involves the psychoanalyst and the subjectivity of his time. Lacan, in fact, went as far as to encourage those who cannot stay in tune with the subjectivity of their age to abandon their exercise of psychoanalysis.
In the wake of these conversations, The Lacanian Review Online aims at establishing yet another. Between the psychoanalysts, academics and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic who, to pick up on Lacan’s very words are both « well acquainted with the whorl (their) era draws (them) in the ongoing enterprise of Babel » and « aware of (their) function(s) as (…) interpreter(s) in the strife of languages » 1. We are confident this conversation will prove a fruitful and exciting one. It will provide us with an opportunity to exercise our right to free speech… even if we are aware –as psychoanalysis teaches us- that freedom of speech, as free association, is easier said than done…
1 The full quotation is « Let whoever cannot meet at its horizon the subjectivity of his time give it up then. For how could he who knows nothing of the dialectic that engages him in a symbolic movement with so many lives possibly make his being the axis of those lives? Let him be well acquainted with the whorl into which his era draws him in the ongoing enterprise of Babel, and let him be aware of his function as an interpreter in the strife of languages. » It can be found in "The Function and Field of Speech and Langage in Psychoanalysis”, in Ecrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. Norton Press. p. 264.
I first encountered Lacan's concept of the Big Other in the American phase of my education. Although I understood it intellectually, it didn't click on a deeper level until after I had lived in Europe for some time...
...In order for something to exist in the full sense of the word, it must first be named and recognized. The unconscious certainly existed before Freud, but in the absence of a name, an elaboration, and a community of the faithful, it could not join, then sublate, the bacchanal of existence.
Bearing this in mind, the premise with which I would like to inaugurate this column is the following: the American Other does not exist in the strong sense of the term. It eats, it shits, it pollutes, it transforms, it creates, it destroys, but it does not exist. This denial of the symbolic Other must serve as the starting point in any attempt to understand the madness of contemporary American life.
Contrary to life in the United States, life in France can best be described as boring and frustrating. At every turn one is reminded that full jouissance is impossible. Public transportation stops running early. All-you-can-eat buffets are expensive, replenished infrequently, and lacking variety. Delicious soft drinks only come in small cups. France does not understand that capitalism is a carnival, and carnivals are supposed to be fun.
For the time being, the French symbolic Other continues to protect, with its various No's, the void where we want to locate jouissance. However, there is something undead about the functioning of this French Other. Like a zombie, it seems to operate on reflex alone. It is no longer animated by desire, if it ever was. As far as I can tell, on the level of conscious belief, French people are as idiotically eager to realize jouissance as Americans. What shields France from the ravages of this fantasy is simple inertia. On the one hand, the inert sum of calcified gestures, reflexes, and habits that constitute the unconscious cultural heritage of a people who have had enough bad encounters with jouissance to be wary of it (as well they should) – a wariness that has, over time, been encoded in their corporeal habitus. On the other hand, the inertia of a built environment that, although it dates from the recent past, might as well have arrived on a meteorite, so epistemically foreign has it become, from the intact center of Paris to the relatively untouched hedgerows of Normandy. In a word, what preserves France from jouissance is not collective will so much as the many senseless inscriptions left in its organic as well as its inorganic body.
A banal example. In every cafe in France, a cup of tea costs considerably more than a cup of coffee even though there is no market explanation for this anomaly. I have asked innumerable cafe proprietors why this is the case and no one can give me a compelling reason. It would appear that tea remains, in the French imaginary, a foreign and therefore a luxury item. As an American and a consumer, this meaningless extra expense, whose sole raison d'être is some forgotten historical conjuncture which French people feel some obscure need to commemorate, infuriates me.
Of course, an inscription does not need to make sense to function.
The concept of the Big Other is natural for a Frenchman because he is constantly reminded of its socially realized presence, both outside of himself, in the form of the built environment he inhabits, and inside himself, in the form of the reflexes and gestures that inhabit him. As an American, I could not understand the radicality of this concept until I had felt it pressing upon my body from without as well as within.
Lacan was acutely aware of how easily signification could slide into tyranny once the former was divorced from the enigma of incarnation. Hence his attachment to the rites of the Catholic church despite his professed atheism.
The United States has not heeded Lacan's example. Those meaningless traditions to which we Americans remain most passionately attached, like driving everywhere, are often nothing more than relics of a slightly earlier and slightly less virulent incarnation of capitalism. We have abandoned both the shared body of America and the individual bodies of Americans to the flux and reflux of the pure jouissance of signification, as incarnated by the signifier without a signified that is money.
In short, where France is boring, the United States is a grotesque, fascinating catastrophe.
Here we must pause before summarily dismissing American consciousness as insufficiently dialectical. For the Real is sly and eternally refuses capture. The symbolic Other that functions as its emissary can easily become the site of a violence and a cruelty that far exceed the violence of the Real itself. In its worst moments, the French Other castrates where it should circumcise. Whereas the belief in realized jouissance can only lead to destruction (after a more or less pleasant detour through mania), the gratuitous refusal of an ideal of abundance simply leads to a less extravagant but arguably crueler form of destruction: the gradual extinction of desire.
No desire without jouissance, no jouissance without desire. In the absence of a minimally constituted Other, desire drowns in jouissance. However, when the Other comes to conceal completely the sacred void at the heart of Being, desire starves.
We have an ethical duty to articulate desire and jouissance. The fact that this articulation is impossible in no way exempts us from our duty. Culture and politics are the tools with which we attempt to hold these two incompatible quantities together despite their active repulsion for each other. There is no ideal or permanent solution, only an endless series of more or less failed compromises concluded more or less joyously, what Hegel scholar Katrin Pahl refers to as “the way of lighthearted despair”. The goal of this column will thus be to chronicle the relative triumphs and failures of the French and the American approaches to this impossible ethical ideal.
2014 was the 100 year anniversary of Freud”s fundamental but also transitional text, “On Narcissism”. A century has been more than enough to widen the gap between what Freud said and what many were too quick to understand. The word “narcissism” has now entered common discourse...
...and come to mean something like “selfishness” or “self-obsession”, thereby obscuring Freud’s more direct reference to the Greek myth: just as Narcissus” exclusively scopic pleasure in his own reflection led him to starve to death, so Freud refers to the megalomaniac dimensions of paraphrenia and the radical withdrawal of libido from the “external world”. Moreover, and not by chance, “On Narcissism” is also the text in which Freud first postulates the “ego-ideal”, precursor of the superego which he will locate at the core of the discontents of modern civilization.
One hundred years on, in a competitive consumer culture in which egotistical individualism has become the very mark of mental and social “health”, these Freudian lessons are more timely than ever.
Is it mere coincidence, then, that Twitter also declared 2014 the year of the “selfie”? We can agree in our Lacanian terms: social media and smartphones have elevated the imago to a precarious yet near ubiquitous existential condition. For many engaged in the constant digital capture of experience, it would be no exaggeration to declare “no selfie, no self”! “No picture, no reality”! “No “likes” or “pokes” or comments, no validation via the imaginary other! In the absence of a stable symbolic Other to pin the egoic image of unity with a structuring “thou art that”, there is a frantic and endless semblantisation of the ephemeral present. It is as if a consistent identity might be fused together from bits and pieces of data rather as the projection of 24 frames per second gives cinematic experience its seeming solidity – a struggle to animate the self, then. Yet as evidence of the new modality of the superego in our era, intrinsic to the selfie is the staged spectacle of Hollywood enjoyment: the selfie self is invariably smiling, laughing, displaying tireless sociability. That a suffering selfie would be more or less oxymoronic demonstrates that jouissance is not in the frame. Nor is this practice the exclusive preserve of technologically savvy teenagers: recall President Obama at Nelson Mandela’s state funeral posing for a selfie with fellow world-leaders.
Obama has also made very public use of the recent prosthetic extension of this “selfie” phenomenon, the “Selfie Stick”. This is an extendable length of lightweight metal that grips a mobile phone at the far end, but also, thanks to a connecting wire, places the button for operating the camera at one’s fingertips at the near end. So what “problem” is being solved by this device, and what does it reflect about changing forms of subjectivity? Two related problems, perhaps: firstly, the physical limitation of the length of the average arm in the standard selfie, and secondly, the difficulty of capturing the “group shot” when one’s friendship circle is large enough to demand a panoramic viewpoint otherwise out of arm’s reach. A third benefit, is the possibility of filming the highlight reel of one’s life in real time.
With the selfie stick then, we are in a very different phenomenological field from the classical and fundamentally Cartesian visual space of portrait painting. In Seminar XI, Lacan notes the links between Descartes’ Cogito and developments in both the science of optics and anamorphosis in painting. Yet that whole system depended on the fact that the imaginary space constructed by means of the laws of perspective also situated the viewer in a particular position: the lines that converged on the so-called “vanishing point” on a picture plane implied an infinity secured by God. Yet those same lines also assured the position of the viewer him or herself, whose subjective locus was therefore effectively divinely ordained. As the tired narrative of western art history has it, this picture plane was fragmented by the rupture of aesthetic modernism, when representational depth gave way to surface abstraction and the corollary idea of the “new man” became thinkable. Arguably however, iconoclasm in any era is a form of worship in reverse. Today in our so-called postmodern epoch, things are more fundamentally disorientating. Compared to the old painting tradition of vanitas, in which Lacan rightly situates the Holbein painting he discusses, the selfie and its extendable version is of an entirely different order. Vanitas was an attempt at dignitas. It appealed to a third, a symbolic Other, one that both denied and yet included mortality as the common denominator uniting humanity. Holbein’s inclusion of the anamorphic skull only spelt out the inner logic of vanitas as a genre. Because painting created objects lasting beyond the sitter’s lifetime, vanitas resonated with trans-individual duration and notions of “lineage” often linked to family names and thus to symbolic time. This desire to leave an image to posterity hardly corresponds to today’s understanding of “vanity” or “narcissism”, for it already implied a deep grasp of the relationship between signifier and semblance, lack and loss, that has largely dwindled with the decline of the symbolic Other today.
Where the medieval conventions of perspective created an imaginary geometry within the painting, situating the viewer in front of it but also within a world of divinely guaranteed coordinates, the front-facing camera of the smartphone has radically different effects. Firstly, it seems to facilitate the “I see myself seeing myself” that Lacan critiqued in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of visual perception. Secondly, the relationship to temporality is transformed: the instant nature of the “snap”, and the ever-present audience enabled by social media, impose a kind of limitless democratization on what was once referred to as “subject matter”, but which should be designated as such only with caution today. How else can we explain the nauseating monotony of photos of people’s dinner plates on Facebook? Or indeed the more or less indiscriminate quality of the selfie, for which any social occasion suffices as a pretext? The banalisation of “subject matter” also makes the (speaking) subject matter less. Thirdly, the selfie stick undoes the physiological bodily schema retained within the unassisted selfie by prosthetically extending the perceptual field beyond “arm’s reach”.
The ongoing alienation of the ego is discernible in the paradoxical structure of the selfie stick: in reaching for the ideal point from which to capture the essence of identity, it also underlines the constitutive nature of the lack in being. Perhaps in the near future the selfie stick will get longer and longer …? Parlêtre would be better served reaching for that other prosthesis that props life up, speech.