Monday, October 8, 2007

Doubling Enigma

If we return to the source in Laplanche of the notion of “enigmatic signifier” used by Lear (below), more questions come up. Laplanche’s idea of enigma is an inspired theoretical invention (if it’s not my imagination, cited increasingly often in recent years). The enigmatic signifier is a message “proferred” by the adult to the child, in which the adult allows to be seen or heard something that cannot be understood by the child in its developmental state. “A message of exclusion is virtually inherent in the situation itself: I am showing you—or letting you see—something which, by definition, you cannot understand, and in which you cannot take part” (“Seduction, Persecution, Revelation,” in Essays on Otherness, trans. Philip Slotkin [New York: Routledge, 1999], 171). In his use of the “enigmatic signifier” concept, Lear claims that Aristotle and Freud use “happiness” and “death” in an enigmatic way with their readers. But Lear also seems to claim that happiness and death are necessarily enigmatic (as there is no developmental question here), that we’re constitutionally incapable of understanding any full use of them, regardless of the relationship between addressor and addressee. There is a similar duality in Laplanche’s text; on the one hand, “there is no enigma—as distinct from the purely scientific problem--other than that whose components are to be found, not in the objectivity of the data, but within the person who proffers the enigma” (171); there are “more explicit ways of allowing something to be seen than mere negligence” (170). On the other hand, the infant's world cannot but be enigmatic. Further, at the earlier stages of development the infant doesn't know enough to know when something is being given as a message or not, so he or she will sometimes receive as "enigmatic" things that are not messages at all. Freud, Ferenczi and Loewald point out that the child only gradually comes to be able to tell wishes from realities, and until that happens, is in its own view omnipotent, while other beings are also (dangerously) omnipotent. In the omnipotent world, then, every perception would be taken as a message until the notion of objective appearance--"scientific problem"--develops. Over-sensitive interpreters, skeptics, surrealists, and the like would be those who continue to have difficulty with gauging the difference between the two levels of enigma, or with taking the basic level for granted; those who see ambiguity in common utterances and a strange repleteness in familiar objects . . . .

Image: Claes Oldenburg, Spitzhacke(1982)

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