Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Strawberry, noun

In his seminar on The Psychoses, Lacan discusses Anna Freud’s infantile dream, used by Freud as a basic example of wish fulfillment, which reads in its entirety, “Big strawberries, raspberries, cakes, porridge.” Lacan asserts that the “essential phenomenon” of the dream is not the appearance of the particular objects in it, but their metonymic syntax, characteristic of a nineteen-month-old—“the positional function that places them in a situation of equivalence” (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, SE IV:130; quoted in Lacan, Le Seminaire, Livre III, Les Psychoses [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1981], 259; The Psychoses 1955-1956 (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Gregg [New York: W.W. Nortion, 1993], 227). Understanding noun parallelism allows Anna to understand how things may be held to be equivalent and so substitute for one another: here begins a power that Lacan will grant to ontology but not to the ontic. It’s possible, however, to confuse the idea that libidinal attachments use and depend on a formal system with the idea that the formal system is more significant in each instance than the particular shifts it enables. That depends on the kind of significance we're thinking about. Anna Freud has done more than exemplify how things may move around, and how she may enjoy the fact that they can move around. She has also made a claim that these objects and not others have appeared. This claim is not a fantasy, as the claim that the objects are absolutely necessary, irreplaceable, would be, or the claim that the strawberry is literal would be. (The question “What is the strawberry?” is still hard to answer.) Their particular appearance and no other reflects the innumerable registrations of occurrences and thoughts that happen to make up the state of affairs named Anna Freud on that night, and makes its small contribution to certain specific futures of Anna Freud (who will now be written about, for example, as the person who dreamed this dream). There is no regnant particularism in this claim. It's not as if the appearance of strawberries could be reduced to a bid by Anna for the hegemony of the cult of the strawberry and the exclusion of the blueberry. Rather, in the registration of the strawberry, something has happened that may later be forgotten, substituted, or repressed, but that cannot unhappen. This is neither irrelevance nor tyranny, but history.

Claudia Brodsky has recently tried to redescribe the indexical power of reference, and this power is also evident in the nineteen-month-old Anna’s dream:

language [need] never be related . . . to the historical, to the actuality and pastness of events . . . . language that, ever molting, lives by shedding its skins, can momentarily make but, of itself, never mark a context, never fix in time any one in the stream of signs. . . . [I]ts force is made available to the individual mind when its place in space is encountered in time, and that place is never given, by language or the earth, but marked, unearthed, built. (In the Place of Language [New York: Fordham UP, 2009], 143.

“Big strawberries” is not only the discovery of the grammar of the adjectival phrase but Anna’s energetic, not-to-be-taken-for-granted declaration of what has taken place--even as this declaration does not obligate her own feelings about what has taken place beyond the day. We can, as traditional philosophy has always done, shake out the contingent particulars and contemplate the form. But to say anything about the functions of these abstractions or even to perceive them as meaningful is to reintroduce everything that was subtracted, not by hypostasizing their “content” but by indexing the relevance of the system by connecting it to a historical moment (asserting that it is relevant to a society today; in this case, that syntax is good for, renewable by, its ability to describe dream strawberries).

Forms themselves are historical--grammars, as well as others--and are remade by cumulative shifts in their usage. As Leo Bersani notes, discussing Foucault, Freudian “psychoanalysis powerfully argues against the illusion that new ways of structuring relations can simply be ‘performed’” (“Fr-oucault and the End of Sex,” in Is the Rectum a Grave? [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009], 133-138, p. 137). For Bersani, Foucault’s stress on epistemic breaks, which Foucault often discusses as breaks in formal organization, gives an idea of what new relations look like once we have worked through sufficiently the resistance to performing and even to perceiving them; they occlude the incremental work of shifting bodies that precedes the breaks. The notion of epistemic breaks, in this light, always reflects on the aftermath of working through, on broken obstacles, neither explaining nor intending to explain why what has happened has happened. Epistemic breaks indicate work previously done, implicitly too small and fleeting to have been taken seriously by society. The “new relational modes” proposed by dissident sexuality, for example, evolve from the movements of bodies in different combinations, enabling very different perceptions of reality, according to “a few major strategies” of organization that change on a longer time scale: the inertial, yet ultimately historical syntaxes of possible relation. Bersani thus envisages a communal change of which psychic action, accumulations of registration, furnishes a more comprehensive account than "agency." While for some critics Foucault’s nonpsychological treatment of power structures seemed to disallow action altogether, for Bersani Foucault’s epistemic breaks neglect, on the contrary, the depth of the problem of action against resistance, giving the resulting action but not—-perhaps necessarily not—-its incremental process. Freudian thought helps Bersani with his interpretation of Foucault because it posits a molecular history for each structural shift.

In this molecular history, action will have consisted in noticing the cumulative connections of heterogeneous bodies: in perceiving, registering, arranging, naming, representing, comparing, in attending to one’s own confusion, in uncertainty, attraction, grief, and satisfaction; in the interaction and expiration of ontic elements and of ontologies, along with the linguistic relevance claims necessarily made on their behalf. Action will have consisted of registering the transient particulars maligned by ontologists, whose recombination constitutes the history and the opportunity of ontological spaces.

Image: photos of Anna Freud, 1895-1982


Cuff Link said...

I'm not sure if its appropriate to comment and I hope that I'm not being rude. I had a question about this wonderful piece that you've written. In your conclusion you eluded to the "expiration" of ontic elements and it threw me off a bit. Can we say that this element is "expired"? I read epistemic breaks as a changing and not necessarily an expiration.

Am I wrong to suppose that there are epistemic breaks of varying degrees and that, in some cases, an ontic element of knowledge could completely disappear? That is beyond physical or psychological trauma. Could someone reason with a concept to the degree that the concept itself ceases to exist? Is that a stupid question?

RT said...

Thanks for your question--it's a really great question.

It basically depends on what counts as "expired," and I think it's good to bring this issue to the foreground more. If we believe that everything material, all energy, transforms rather than expires, then do we want to say that the traces of occurrences, even mental ones, don't expire, in the sense that their bases are physical too? Something like this is what Hegel is saying when he says that sublated things aren't annihilated, and what Derrida is saying when the trace always escapes. Arendt also writes in Eichmann that it is impossible for "holes of oblivion" to exist, by which she seems to mean that it is impossible for memories and experiences to disappear completely, despite the deaths of the relevant people. I got fascinated with this question in that context, in which it's so clear why she, why one, would want to think that. However, I'm also unhappy with the use of this idea that expiration is impossible to argue then that no human experience is completely forgettable. There's a paradox here because we can't point out when something has been utterly forgotten. But it seems to me more unreasonable to assume that nothing is, than to assume that some things are, even though both conclusions are necessarily speculative. I'm very interested in what the costs might be to our inability to conceive, or leave a space for, expiration which is beyond physical or psychological trauma exactly as you say. Later--much much later--it's all gone, isn't it? I mean the universe and all that. ;> Is that not relevant? why not?

For reasoning with the concept until it doesn't exist, is that like the coin in Derrida's "White Mythology," whose legend wears away with use? At some point I want to say it does cease to exist as a coin, even if as matter it has come to be something else.

If these are things you've been concerned with I'd love to hear more.

Cuff Link said...

I feel honored that you took the time to answer my questions. I am also very happy to have found your blog and to know that it exists. I'm not a very intelligent person but I have a verve for important ideas, often ideas that test the limits of my own capabilities.

I think I can see what you are saying. Derrida's coin or Zeno's paradox. It is impossible to prove an absolute. If the coin could indeed vanish from our hand or we could find the exact middle of some thing, the rest of the questions should become irrelevant (or may cease to have ever existed). So it may be that it is not practical or useful to ask if something can disappear. But I wonder if, through psychoanalysis, it is useful to approach (conveniently ignoring arguments on ethics) the limits of nothing.

It's very interesting. Thank you again for creating this blog. I look forward to reading much more. I'll try not to bother you too much. Thank you.