Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 3 – Desiring the Thing

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Prelude: A Detective Story

In this chapter he argue that psychoanalysis offers us an ethical that is not defined by striving towards the Good. Crockett believes that a Lacanian ethics is oriented towards a desire for the Thing, which is located in the Real (hence, beyond the symbolic order and the Other). Lacan interpreted Freud’s statement that “where it was…it is my duty that I should come into begin” (52). That is to say the proper subjectivity emerges from where the id (it) was there the analytic subject should come to situate herself. Crockett notes the shift in Lacan from the imaginary (narcissistic relations) to the symbolic (intersubjective, social) and ultimately to the Real (that which resists symbolization). The word suggests the death of the thing; hence Mark C Taylor argues that the body was always already lost (i.e. virtual). This Thing for Taylor is forever out of reach, but Lacanian psychoanalysis offers us resources to conceptualize the Real and its relationship to the ethical structure of desire. This ethics will be radical insofar that the Thing lies beyond good and evil.

Beyond Good and Evil (Das Ding)

For Lacan, the Thing is not only beyond the symbolic, but when we attempt to represent we can only recognize it as not. Thus it “is characterized by its absence, its strangeness” (54). Lacan understands classical philosophy as a utilitarian ethics oriented towards happiness or the Good, which Lacan realizes only affects the symbolic and imaginary registers. Both desired and forbidden the Thing is beyond good and evil (e.g. the incestuous desire for the mother), beyond representation. The child’s renunciation of Oedipal desires is both positive and negative. While forever losing the original unity with the mother, the child gains access to the symbolic by entering into language. The Name-of-the-Father is what breaks up the original mother-child matrix, and if the child refuses to submit to the Law then he will fall into a psychotic subjective position.

The Thing, the Other, and God

This Lacanian reading of the Thing criticizes modern continental philosophy of religion’s fixation on the Other. Both Levinas and Derrida argue for an ethics of the Other as wholly Other. This ethics of alterity demands that we recognize the Other as laying claim to us unconditionally, and not surprisingly God can be thought as a prime example of the Other. However, to equate the other with God, falters because it “conflates the symbolic with the Real” (56). Crockett teases apart the ramifications of Lacan’s famous dictum that “desire is desire of the Other”, one interpretation suggesting that our desires are not our own. On the one hand, this shared desire promises a sense of community, however, on the other hand, one has to recognize that our very most innermost desires are in some sense a byproduct of the symbolic sphere we inhabit. Now, we come to the theological implications. If we want to understand the Thing as God then we must recognize that this God cannot be understood in classical terms as the Supreme Good. In his later works, Lacan began to associate desire with the Other, whereas the drive is related to a circulation around the inaccessible Thing. Lacan and Taylor both recognize that the death of God means one thing: that God has always already been dead. Crockett wants us to move past deliberations of God’s objective existence, but rather to think of the Real qua Thing for which conceptions of God can serve as a helpful parallel. To conclude, Crockett writes, “God can metonymically represent the Real, which resists symbolization, which must be present as an absence to symbolize or represent anything” (58).

The Question of Sublimation

Returning to sublimation, Crockett reminds us that satisfaction is always partial because the Thing is outside of representation. This explains why the repressed returns. He has already deconstructed the difference between the material and spiritual (in chapter I) in such a way to complicate any straight linear relationship between sex and religion. There is no outside sublimation. Even sex itself is sublimation. Following Deleuze this sublimation can never be vertical but rather horizontal, rhizomatic. Sublimation as a repetition of difference is an endless substitution in which one cannot properly distinguish between the material and the spiritual. “Original desire is for God as Thing, metonym for the Real beyond signification” (60).

The Ethical Structure of Desire

In Seminar VII Lacan related the Thing to creation ex nihilo because it the signifier of signifying as such. Lacan said, “creation of the signifier is out of nothing because the vase is ‘an object made represent the existence of the emptiness at the center of the Real that is called the Thing, this emptiness as represented the representation presents itself as nihil, as nothing’” (61). Crockett argues that the Thing is often associated with evil in traditional ethics because it is the Thing that resists symbolization. He compares the dedication to the Thing as represented by Antigone’s refusal to give ground on her desire to have her brother properly buried. Antigone incarnates genuine sublimation because her fidelity to her desire leads to the terrifying sublime of the death drive ultimately resulting in her own suicide. Finally, Crockett concedes that differentiating between authentic desires and the desire of the Other is almost impossible. This difference can only be understood as a virtual difference, not an actual difference. This gap that separates desire of the Thing and desire of the Other is a hole burned in the Real by the Thing.

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