Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Parallax Object

The rise of melancholy in Europe temporally overlaps with the prohibition and gradual disappearance of different forms of carnival, of manifestations of “collective joy” (Barbara Ehrenreich) from public life (late 16th, early 17th century) —what conclusion are we to draw from this? The obvious one would have been that the prohibition came first: it deprived individuals of a key source of libidinal satisfaction, and this loss caused melancholy—melancholy bore witness to the fact that modern subjects live in a grey dis-enchanted secularized world from which ecstatic collective experienced disappeared…

What, however, if the causality is the opposite one? What if melancholy PRECEDES prohibition? What if prohibition is a way to resolve the deadlock of melancholy? One has to be very precise here about the structure of melancholy – in contrast to mourning, melancholy is not only the failure of the work of mourning, the persistence of the attachment to the real of the object, but also its very opposite: “the melancholy offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object.” Therein resides the melancholic’s stratagem: the only way to possess an object which we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as if this object is already lost. The melancholic’s refusal to accomplish the work of mourning thus takes the form of its very opposite, of a faked spectacle of the excessive, superfluous, mourning for an object even before this object is lost. This is what provides its unique flavor to a melancholic love relationship (like the one between Newland and Countess Olenska in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence): although the partners are still together, immensely in love, enjoying each other’s presence, the shadow of the future separation already colors their relationship, so that they perceive their current pleasures under the aegis of the catastrophe (separation) to come (in the exact reversal of the standard notion of enduring the present hardships with a view to the happiness to emerge out of them). In short, the mourner mourns the lost object and “kills it the second time” through symbolizing its loss, while the melancholic is not simply the one who is unable to renounce the object; he rather kills the object the second time (treats it as lost) before the object is actually lost—how are we to unravel this paradox of mourning an object which is not yet lost, which is still here? The key to this enigma resides in Freud’s precise formulation according to which, the melancholic is not aware of what he had lost in the lost object —one has to introduce here the Lacanian distinction between the object and the object-cause of desire: while the object of desire is simply the desired object, the cause of desire is the feature on account of which we desire the desired object (some detail, tic, which we are usually unaware of and sometimes even misperceive it as the obstacle, as that in spite of which we desire the object). Perhaps, this gap between object and cause also explains the popularity of The Brief Encounter in the gay community: the reason is not simply that the furtive encounters of the two lovers in the dark passages and platforms of the railway station “resembles” the way gays were compelled to meet back in the 40s, since they were not yet allowed to flirt openly. Far from being an obstacle to the fulfillment of the gay desire, these features effectively functioned as its cause: deprived of these undercover conditions, the gay relationship loses a good part of its transgressive beguilement. So what we get in The Brief Encounter is not the object of the gay desire (the couple is straight), but its cause. No wonder, then, that gays often express their opposition to the liberal “inclusive” policy of fully legalizing gay couples: what sustains their opposition is not the (justified) awareness of the falsity of this liberal policy, but the fear that, being deprived of its obstacle/cause, the gay desire itself will wane.

From this perspective, the melancholic is not primarily the subject fixated on the lost object, unable to perform the work of mourning on it, but rather the subject who possesses the object, but has lost his desire for it, because the cause which made him desire this object has withdrawn, lost its efficiency. Far from accentuating to the extreme the situation of the frustrated desire, of the desire deprived of its object, melancholy rather stands for the presence of the object itself deprived of the desire for itself—melancholy occurs when we finally get the desired object, but are disappointed at it. In this precise sense, melancholy (disappointment at all positive, empirical objects, none of which can satisfy our desire) effectively is the beginning of philosophy. Say, a person who, all his life, was used to live in a certain city and is finally compelled to move elsewhere, is, of course, saddened by the prospect of being thrown into a new environment—however, what is it that effectively makes him sad? It is not the prospect of leaving the place which was for long years his home, but the much more subtle fear of losing his very attachment to this place. What makes me sad is the fact that I am aware that, sooner or later—sooner than I am ready to admit—I will integrate myself into a new community, forgetting the place which now means to me so much. In short, what makes me sad is the awareness that I will lose my desire for (what is now) my home.

The conclusion is thus that melancholy precedes prohibition: what makes melancholy so deadening is that objects are here, available, the subject just no longer desires them. As such, melancholy is inscribed into the very structure of the modern subject (the “inner self”): the function of prohibition is to shatter the subject out of melancholic lethargy and to set alive its desire. If, in melancholy, the object is here, available, while the cause of the subject’s desire for it is missing, the wager of prohibition is that, by depriving the subject of the object, it will resuscitate the cause of desire.

Freud defined Trieb (drive) as the limit-concept between biology and psychology, or nature and culture—a natural force known only through its psychic representatives. One should make her a step further and take Freud more radically: drive is natural, but nature thrown out of joint, distorted/deformed by culture, it is culture in its natural state. This is why drive is a kind of imaginary focus, meeting place, between psychoanalysis and cognitivist brain sciences: the paradox of the self-propelling loop on which the entire Freudian edifice is based and which brain sciences approach with metaphoric formulations, without being able to define it precisely.

“Biography is in fact one of the occult arts. It uses scientific means – documentation, analysis, inquiry—to achieve a hermetic end: the transformation of base material into gold. While its final intention is the most ambitious and blasphemous of all—to bring back a human being to life.”

According to Freud, love arises out of the inhibited desire: the object whose (sexual) consummation is prevented is then idealized into a love object. This is why Lacan establishes a link between love and drive: the space of drive is defined by the gap between its goal (object) and its aim, which is not to directly reach its object, but to circulate around the object, to repeat the failure to reach it—what drive and love share is this structure of inhibition.

Insofar as, in love, only the lover sees in the object of love that X which causes love, the parallax-object, the structure of love is the same as that of the Badiouian Event which also exists only for those who recognize themselves in it: there is no Event for a non-engaged objective observer.
- Zizek, "Excursions into Philosophy"

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