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ESSAYS Mousse 73

Ça m’est égal: The Involution of Desire

by Estelle Hoy

 

Winslow Homer, The Fox Hunt, 1893. Photo: Geoffrey Clements / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

 

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

 

At a table bearing crisp white linen, lilac wine, and petit fours sits Jacques Lacan’s objet petit a—the unattainable object of desire. It’s that which can never be attained, the cursive unjoined, an evaporating, kaleidoscopic curse. The crux of this desire is embedded in impossibility. Our pursuit of “the good life” and its proximity to fantasy is a relation that leaves us tonguing the cold ceviche of perpetual lack—an asymptote approaching zero for infinity. A quasi-judicial state between reality and trying to imagine things incorrectly—a dreamlike drift, an algal bloom, a cruel optimism that leaves us ultimately debased. 

 

Featuring:

Lauren Berlant
as Queen of Hearts

Jacques Lacan
as Cheshire Cat

Jacques Lacan dual role
as Mad Hatter (stand-in: Slavoj Žižek)

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
as Tweedledee and Tweedledum(b?)

Alice played by you.

 

Being a seasonal Lacan reader (mostly winter, obvious masochist), it’s hard to believe anybody’s a seasoned reader of his seminars. I’m convinced nobody genuinely understands the chaotic mathemes and algebraic antagonisms. I have an above-average commitment to understanding things, but—I’m being punk’d, right?

Lacan’s concept of objet petit a was foraged from the ideas of other psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud’s “lost object,” Melanie Klein’s “partial object” and Donald Winnicott’s “transitional object.”1 A triptych of lunatics. Translated from French into English, objet petit a is, to be tragically literal, small object o. Suspiciously, Lacan himself—with a Cheshire Cat grin no doubt—instructed that the phrase remain untranslated, “thus acquiring, as it were, the status of an algebraic sign.”2 (Not vague at all.) Our high priest saw a certain contradiction at the heart of objet petit a, and in his eleventh seminar from under a lilac tree in some Zen garden, he sermonized with sly neutrality: “This paradoxical, unique, specified object we call the objet a.3 It’s paradoxical directly because of the relation between its emergence and its loss. Slavoj Žižek clarifies this for us through his usual maniacal tics: “This coincidence of emergence and loss, of course, designates the fundamental paradox of the Lacanian objet petit a which emerges as being-lost.”4 The idea is, objet a is not an actual object we once possessed but then lost. The very moment it emerges, it does so as a lost object.

An argument for beauty-school dropouts everywhere.

It’s perhaps our fratboy Lacan’s most salient contribution to psychoanalytic literature—a perpetual foreclosure of desire. Maybe the intellectual powerhouse had his own Mad Hatter-esque conversion disorder, or some other type of psychiatric transgression. Intellectual insecurities aside, the pursuit of unattainable desire is an egregious setup, especially if that desire results in our un-flourishing.5 When nonsense is at the heart of things, anyone who argues for an affective overhaul deserves a second ovation. Queen of Hearts Lauren Berlant beheads, well, pretty much everything in her outstanding book Cruel Optimism (2011). In a complex critique of desire, Berlant argues that all attachment to desire is optimistic “if we describe optimism as the force that moves you out of yourself and into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying ‘something’ that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept or scene.”6 In other words: optimism is pretty ambitious. It’s a wonderland fantasy where people in Technicolor coats and lace neck jabots hoard idealizing theories about how the world, how their world, must add up to something. Optimistic desire is cruel when the object that ignites a sense of possibility (in Berlant’s case, liberal capitalism) actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which the person risks striving. Which is to say, we’re duped by the fantasy bribe of capitalistic abundance that’s built on shifting goalposts and quicksand. The scenes are many: the pursuit of stability in a politics of pernicious instability; the pursuit of instability—the freelancer’s signifier of emancipation from “zombie managerial enthusiasm”; the pursuit of financial success in a politics of obscenely uneven wealth distribution.7 Then the hound chase for a cultural capital that perpetually mutates and the diabolical commodification of our lovers, demanding they alone meet our every need. A tongue-panting fox hunt. We’re moored to an idealized, nearly utopian future that will never come, speaking as though the desired future were a hypothetical problem to be solved.

We want the royal flush.

To the sound of seven trumpets, says our litigious monarch in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to keep in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run at least twice as fast as that!”8 

Like Alice, we eat the petit four of promise—the promise of an exceptional event that shatters the ordinary. The dysmetropsia reveals itself when we taste the Eat Me cake of capitalism and grow sizable enough to hit the inevitable glass ceiling. A Tweedledum(b) paradox, growth that shrinks us, little and belittled—optimism and her twin, delusion. (There’s a Marie Antoinette “let them eat cake” pun in there somewhere, but I’m not the artistic powerhouse I desire to be). It’s a political economy of unflinching disavowal, a running from the present chasing an illusion, at once thoughtful and stupefying. Our drama of adjustment, our bourgeois-fantasy couplet is nullified vividly by John Ashbery in an anthem to the seas. Poem, untitled. Obviously. 

“We were warned about spiders, and the
Occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our
Neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had
Created,
Reminisced about other, different places–
But were they? Hadn’t we known it all
Before?
In vineyards where the bee’s hymn
Drowns the monotony,
We slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been
Except for the weight of the present,
That scuttled the pact we made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
Nor need to turn around either.
We were lost just by standing,
Listening to the hum of the wires overhead.”9

Ashbury paints a schizophrenic mélange of all the signifiers of cruel desire and pointlessness: other, different places, better places, a new prettier season to drown out the monotony and heaviness of the present. An olio of recurrence, a poem for Demeter, Greek goddess of the seasons. Allegories of futility, vapidity, denial, an unending palimpsest with an elementary narrative: déjà vu. Whilst measuring his feelings against Antonio Vivaldi, or T. S. Eliot, or Tom Waits’s “Sea of Love,” he runs toward displays of seashells, the arias of bees, jellyfish chandeliers. Yet instead his arrival is marked by a decaying seahorse, foreclosure signs in the neighbor’s yard—the electric hum of capitalistic nothingness. Awake to dissolution, Ashbury stands lost—a Lot who knows too much. If he should turn around he might just metamorphose into a pillar of salt. Whatever our experience of desire is in particular, the ever-present inclination is to return to a future galaxy of fantasy, to the next Jurassic dawn of limestone and sterling ruby.

What choice is there but to join the great run? Alice, too, lived out a terrific psychosis, a borderline with existential ennui running from her immediate surrounds toward an assuredly upbeat, psychedelic future. There’s a lava of reasons for her sprint to the red Jaipur of wonderland, most prominent amongst them the staleness of the day-to-day. Burnt out by seven. Impressive. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (themselves high-functioning patients) must also have felt the heaviness of the ordinary. In a somewhat cynical move in Anti-Oedipus (1972)—to be brazenly reductive—the twins sought to reassert the specificity of the content of day-to-day life.10 Understandable, really, the master narrative can be sonofabitch boring. Likewise, Alice capsized the quotidian with her own performative aesthetic, no longer tied to the apron strings of the present, albeit through psychoactive drugs. (Where were her parents?!) It’s a severance from the present of whatever it is seven-year-old prodigies reject—routine, authority, mnemonics . . . bedtime? An insomniac’s rationality. Or as our philosophy twins infamously tantrumed: 

“Shit on your whole mortifying, imaginary, and symbolic theater!”11

The objet petit a, its cruel optimism, is perhaps in the final analysis a politics of the present—an intense aversion to the ordinary. The present lost its muchness. And yet we’ve reached an impasse between the ordinary present and an impossible wonderland, a sense that the world is at once intensely dull and aspirational. It could be shortsighted to think of optimistic desire as cruel. I have a fidelity to cynicism—sure, cynical philosophy is pretty much my manna, but there’s something pretty excellent about maintaining your sea legs in perpetual lack. This brings us to a key question: Are there advantages of striving for impossibility? Or perhaps: Who benefits from our striving for impossibility? What Lacan maybe could never understand while sitting above the commoner in his pricey Mozart analyst’s couch is that perhaps we create unattainable desire to run from a political present that is, well, pretty shitty a lot of the time. It makes life bearable and unbearable at once.

Which is all to say, in our search for fantastical anthropomorphic creatures, fleur-de-lis tummy tucks, and double kinesthesia, we ultimately shift from kaleidoscopic to microscopic. In a baroque Tourette-like tic, Žižek perversely submits that we just enjoy our symptoms, but I’m not sure I’m okay with embracing desire for things that emerge as dissolved. I like delusion as much as the next person, but I’m running behind on an appointment with the present. Or as a neurotic, pocket-watch-consulting rabbit might say: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” 

That said, who doesn’t want advice from a caterpillar?

 

[1] Bruce Fink, Lacanian Psychoanalysis Theory and Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[2] Bruce Fink, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 116.
[3] Fink, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, 268.
[4] Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), 15.
[5] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 39.
[6] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 2.
[7] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 221.
[8] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8164.Lewis_Carroll?page=2.
[9] Reproduced in Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 28.
[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (1972; repr., London: Continuum, 2004).
[11] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 67.
[12] Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies, 18.

 

Estelle Hoy is a writer and academic based in Berlin. Her second book, Pisti 80 Rue de Belleville (After 8 Books, 2020) was just released, with an introduction by Chris Kraus. Her forthcoming book, The Midsommar Letters, cowritten with Sabrina Tarasoff, is scheduled for release with Mousse Publishing in spring 2021.

 

 

Originally published in Mousse 73

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