Saturday, May 9, 2015

Emerging Jouissance

The problem with human desire is that, as Lacan put it, it is always "desire of the Other" in both genitivus subjectivus and genitivus objectivus: desire for the Other, desire to be desired by the Other, and, especially, desire for what the Other desires - envy and resentment are thus a constitutive component of human desire, as already Saint Augustin knew it so well - recall the passage from his Confessions, often quoted by Lacan, the scene of a baby jealous for his brother sucking the mother's breast ("I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother.")

Based on this insight, Dupuy proposes a convincing critique of John Rawls theory of justice: in the Rawls' model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they are based on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits. What Rawls doesn't see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully "justified," and would thus be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice. Rawls thus proposes a terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties, thereby missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is given a choice by a good witch: she will either give him one cow, and to his neighbor two cows, or take from him one cow, and from his neighbor two cows - the peasant immediately chooses the second option. (In a more morbid version, the witch tells him: "I will do to you whatever you want, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbor twice!" The peasant, with a cunning smile, asks her: "Take one of my eyes!")

Friedrich Hayek knew that it is much easier to accept inequalities if one can claim that they result from an impersonal blind force, so the good thing about "irrationality" of the market success or failure in capitalism (recall the old motif of market as the modern version of the imponderable Fate) is that it allows me precisely to perceive my failure (or success) as "undeserved", contingent... The fact that capitalism is not "just" is thus a key feature that makes it palpable to the majority (I can accept much more easily my failure if I know that it is not due to my inferior qualities, but to chance).

What Nietzsche and Freud share is the idea that justice as equality is founded on envy - on the envy of the Other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it; the demand for justice is thus ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the Other should be curtailed, so that everyone's access to jouissance should be equal. The necessary outcome of this demand, of course, is asceticism: since it is not possible to impose equal jouissance, what one CAN impose is only the equally shared PROHIBITION. However, one should not forget that today, in our allegedly permissive society, this asceticism assumes precisely the form of its opposite, of the GENERALIZED superego injunction "Enjoy!". We are all under the spell of this injunction, with the outcome that our enjoyment is more hindered than ever - recall the yuppie who combines Narcissistic "Self-Fulfillment" with utter ascetic discipline of jogging, eating health food, etc. This, perhaps, is what Nietzsche had in mind with his notion of the Last Man - it is only today that we can really discern the contours of the Last Man, in the guise of the hedonistic asceticism of yuppies. Nietzsche thus does not simply urge life-assertion against asceticism: he is well aware how a certain asceticism is the obverse of the decadent excessive sensuality - therein resides his criticism of Wagner's Parsifal, and, more generally, of the late Romantic decadence oscillating between damp sensuality and obscure spiritualism.

So what IS envy? Recall again the Augustinian scene of a sibling envying his brother who is sucking the mother's breast: the subject does not envy the Other's possession of the prized object as such, but rather the way the Other is able to ENJOY this object - which is why it is not enough for him simply to steal and thus gain possession of the object: his true aim is to destroy the Other's ability/capacity to enjoy the object. As such, envy is to be located into the triad of envy, thrift and melancholy, the three forms of not being able to enjoy the object (and, of course, reflexively enjoying this very impossibility). In contrast to the subject of envy, who envies the other's possession and/or jouissance of the object, the miser possesses the object, but cannot enjoy/consume it - his satisfaction derives from just possessing it, elevating it into a sacred, untouchable/ prohibited, entity which should under no conditions be consumed (recall the proverbial figure of the lone miser who, upon returning home, safely locks the doors, opens up his chest and then takes the secret peek at his prized object, observing it in awe); this very hindrance that prevents the consummation of the object guarantees its status of the object of desire. The melancholic subject, like the miser, possesses the object, but loses the cause that made him desire it: this figure, most tragic of them all, has free access to all he wants, but finds no satisfaction in it.

This excess of envy is the base of Rousseau's well-known, but nonetheless not fully exploited, distinction between egotism, amour-de-soi (which natural), and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself to others in which I focus not on achieving the goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it:

"The primitive passions, which all directly tend towards our happiness, make us deal only with objects which relate to them, and whose principle is only amour de soi, are all in their essence lovable and tender; however, when, diverted from their objects by obstacles, they are more occupied with the obstacle they try to get rid of, than with the object they try to reach, they change their nature and become irascible and hateful. This is how amour de soi, which is a noble and absolute feeling, becomes amour-propre, that is to say, a relative feeling by means of which one compares oneself, a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others." (Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jacques, first dialogue)

For Rousseau, an evil person is NOT an egotist, "thinking only about his own interests": a true egotist is all too busy with taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortunes to others, while the primary vice of a bad person is precisely that he is more occupied with others than with himself. Rousseau describes here a precise libidinal mechanism: the inversion which generates the shift of the libidinal investment from the object to the obstacle itself. This is why egalitarianism itself should never be accepted at its face value: the notion (and practice) of egalitarian justice, insofar as it is sustained by envy, relies on the inversion of the standard renunciation accomplished to benefit others: "I am ready to renounce it, so that others will (also) NOT (be able to) have it!" Far from being opposed to the spirit of sacrifice, Evil is thus the very spirit of sacrifice, ready to ignore one's own well-being - if, through my sacrifice, I can deprive the Other of his jouissance... Is this sad fact that the opposition to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, or at least a meaningful utopian project, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament? Where is here the celebrated freedom of choice, when the only choice is the one between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence, a violence which is almost exclusively directed against one's own - the cars burned and the schools torched were not from rich neighborhoods, but were part of the hard-won acquisitions of the very strata from which protesters originate.

Which is why the notion of evaluation is crucial for the functioning of a democratic society: if, at the level of their symbolic identity, all subjects are equal, if, here, un sujet vaut l'autre, if they can be indefinitely substituted to each other, since each of them is reduced to an empty punctual place ($), to a "man without qualities-properties" (to recall the title of Robert Musil's magnum opus) - if, consequently, every reference to their properly symbolic mandate is prohibited, how then, are they to be distributed within the social edifice, how can their occupation be legitimized? The answer is, of course, evaluation: one has to evaluate - as objectively as possible, and through all possible means, from quantified testing of their abilities to more "personalized" in-depth interviews - their potentials. The underlying ideal notion is to produce their characterization deprived of all traces of symbolic identities. Here the standard Leftist critics who denounce the hidden cultural bias of evaluations and tests miss the point: the problem with evaluation, with its total objectivation of criteria, is not that it is unjust, but precisely that it IS just.
-Slavoj Zizek, "Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters"

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