Like many Americans, waiters make me uncomfortable. Their performance of servitude hypostasizes ontological difference, therefore symbolic castration, and as a neurotic, that bothers me. It didn’t bother Lacan. He loved barking at waiters. Lacan understood that there is no love and desire without perversion. We can only meet other subjects on the terrain of their symptoms, and must have the courage to lash them if they demand it. But love is hard. Far easier to retreat into the Beautiful Soul fantasy that, by not participating in the S&M ritual of being waited on, I am a good person.
So, a few days ago, I was sitting at Starbucks downloading the new Mandingo scene from Blacksonblondes.com when a dynamic young woman sat down across from me and introduced herself. I could tell by her bright voice, her big smile, and the fact that she called me “tu” instead of “vous” that she was trying to sell me something. What she said to me in French might be approximated as, “Hey, I’m Charlotte. Mind if I chill with you for a minute?” Now, I am a balding, middle-aged man. I don’t “chill” with anyone. I deployed my best imaginary axis-busting analytic frown. This social media speak had to be nipped in the bud quick. To Charlotte’s credit, she calibrated right away to my dour mien. Her speech immediately became less bombastic and more articulate. It turned out that she worked for a talk show on France 2 called “Comment Ca Va Bien” and wanted to know if I would be interested in sitting in the studio audience for a taping. I said yes. She gave me an address in the Paris suburbs and told me to be there at five PM the next day.
“Oh yeah, and wear a solid-colored shirt!”
I was met at the door by a mean-looking security guard who led me to a holding pen with about fifty other suckers. Half an hour later we were herded towards a coat check and instructed to fork over our phones. Not just turn them off, give them up. This was the first surprise of the day. We refuse to give up our iPhones for mass, for class, for Don Giovanni, even for Grandpa’s funeral, but tell us we’ll be on TV and the precious phones disappear with no protest. More proof, if any were needed, that the secret chambers in which the gaze of the Other is realized are the true locus of the sacred today.
After castrating ourselves, we were herded to a huge pastel sound stage dominated by a happy-looking ovoid table. At its head sat Stéphane Bern, the dapper host, whose personal brand could be approximated as “everyone’s favorite amusing and non-threatening gay uncle”. I had never heard of any of the guests present. They all appeared to be C-list has-beens: raddled meat ready for the reality circuit grinder. The “special guest” was a washed-up TV actress named Véronique Jannot who had just written a book about spirituality called “Au fil de l’autre – voir la vie autrement” (published by Michel Lafon, who refused my novel). The introductory montage showed a photograph of her wearing a flowing white gown and standing next to the Dalai Lama. At this moment our handler exhorted us silently to clap and cheer. “Please give a warm welcome to Véronique Jannot!” She walked onto the sound stage accompanied by her dog. How much did she pay her publicist to come up with this calculated quirk in an attempt to rejuvenate her own flagging brand? As soon as she got to the table, one of the other guests, a randy septuagenarian actress rendered troll-like by her numerous botched facelifts, made a big spectacle of clomping around the table on her super-high heels, hugging Véronique Jannot, and exclaiming in a raspy, Joan Rivers voice, “She’s so cute…I just want to take a bite out of her!”
At this precise moment, a technician yelled “Stop!” from the wings. Everyone froze as an assistant bolted onto the sound stage. Beauty expert Janane Boudili’s makeup was melting under the hot lights. The makeup guy fixed Janane’s eyeliner and hustled back off stage in ten seconds flat. The actors went back to their seats. “Go!” Like an unpaused DVD, they immediately came back to life in mid-sentence. Danièle Evenou jumped up and with the same terrible enthusiasm clomped over to Véronique Jannot a second time, threw her arms around her neck with the same big collagen smile, and executed the same performance of spontaneity, with a little extra hug this time: “She’s so cute…I just want to take a bite out of her!” The Tibetan Buddhist smiled in the exact same “enlightened” way as she had the first time and the program went on as if nothing had happened.
The taping went on like this for three hours. It was exhausting. We were obligated to clap and cheer on command every time Stéphane Bern uttered a predictable witticism. The benches were surprisingly uncomfortable. We were not allowed to talk to each other. The cadaverization to which we were expected enthusiastically to submit had a distinct flavor of bondage. In other words, Charlotte had roped us into a perverse scenario in which we were reduced to mute stand-ins for the Other. If the simple desire to believe in the object (a) is neurotic, the attempt to realize it via the performance of a ritualized scenario is properly perverse. The setup was even more explicitly perverse in that it substituted a mute, gazing, bound Other for a blind, incomplete, unbound Other whose last substance is nothing but an unpredictable signifying chain (which is to say, desire). Where the neurotic flees the confrontation with the Other – because he knows that the Other is his master – the pervert provokes this confrontation in an attempt to dominate the Other, or rather, to perform a fantasized domination of an ersatz Other, thereby denying his subjection to the law of desire. The goal of shows like Comment Ca Va Bien is to realize the Other and, in so doing, liquidate its Otherness.
We have all seen schizophrenics walking down the street talking and gesturing to the voices with vacant expressions in their eyes only to realize that they are actually just normal people speaking on Bluetooth headsets. A similar hijacking of consciousness was happening to the freaks on stage. The presence of the gaze, incarnated by the cameras as well as the studio audience, functioned like a Bluetooth headset beaming the Other’s fantasized voice straight into their mouths. (This phenomenon is worth exploring – television as a means of transubstantiating the gaze into the voice?) The discourse of this mutilated Other flowed from them with a truly demonic smoothness. Where full speech is mined with pauses, hesitations, spontaneous gestures, changes of course, etc., the speech that bounced back and forth between the talk show guests was as bright, compact and hollow as a racquetball. At no point during the entire show did anything like a lapsus occur.
In other words, the people on stage were very ill. Their witty repartee was an absurd caricature of authentic human communication. One of the reasons Lacan gave his object the name of (a) is because it is a small piece of the big Other, A. We cannot access A without passing through (our fantasy of) (a). Clearly the people on stage believed themselves to be in the presence of (a), which of course has no positive consistency. In this sense, they formed a perfect perverse community of denial. After all, everything on stage proclaimed the overwhelming reality of the gaze, from the studio audience to the scrambling technicians to the cameras which, like any technological object that incarnates a libidinal object, necessarily generate a gravitational field of perversion. If anything, the television personalities on stage reminded me of drug addicts. Their object of predilection, the gaze, bypassed language and acted directly on their bodies, temporarily canceling symbolic castration (hence the smooth discourse) and producing a manic, euphoric state. More generally, the whole spectacle was pathetic, in exactly the same way that it is pathetic to watch a drug addict get high and believe himself to be joined with his (a).
Another curious but important detail: never once did any of the actors make incidental eye contact with anyone in the studio audience, even when the cameras were not rolling. We were…the sun. In Seminar XIII, Lacan remarks that the sun, in Plato’s allegory of the cave, unites what cannot be united, namely Truth (jouissance) and Knowledge (S2), and that for this reason it is a false concept. The actors could only maintain their fantasy that jouissance and discourse intersected in (a) if they scrupulously avoided glancing at the fake sun that illuminated them.
I was lucky enough to be seated next to a psychotic woman who explained to me between takes that she regularly attended such screenings. During the course of the show, she several times exclaimed answers to the questions, mouthed the responses spoken by Stephane Bern, and commented to herself (“That’s true!”). Like a child playing a video game and moving along with the characters, she was totally engrossed in what was happening. The surreal set-up – what is a sound stage if not an incarnation in space of the “open” psychotic unconscious? – probably offered her a unique opportunity to encounter a representation of her own enigmatic relationship with the Other as well as the gaze and the voice that traversed her.
As soon as it was over, we were unceremoniously hustled out the service entrance by a security guard. Goodbye, get the fuck out of here and don’t try to hassle Véronique Jannot for an autograph.