“One should not look at anything. Neither at things, nor at people should one look.
Only in mirrors is it well to look, for mirrors do but show us masks.”
Oscar Wilde, Salomé
This quote has been hanging around me for quite some time now. It appeared in the exhibition catalogue of my first and last solo show as a contemporary artist, coinciding with the aftershocks of the 9/11 crisis. The exhibition entitled ‘art, artifice, adoration’ revolved around the story of the alleged WW1 spy, Mari Hari, executed by firing squad in Vincennes. As a single mother, Dutch born Margaretha assumed the identity of an exotic Javanese dancer in order to survive. Mata Hari’s artifice resulted in death and the exhibition marked the death toll for my aspirations as an artist, the images of 9/11 seeming in excess of symbolic digestion, the production of yet one more image seeming unnecessary, indulgent, wasteful. I turned to study images instead and embark on my own symbolic death through psychoanalysis. Such a wager producing not only the inexistence of God, but of the impotence of the father as guarantee of speech.
Twenty years later, we face yet another crisis. This time it threatens each of our bodies. Australia, having commenced the year with ravaging bushfires, now participating in a global pandemic. In this short time, we have become well acquainted with masks-first “P2 masks” entered our vocabularies and, within an instant of that instance, “N95 masks”. I see in today’s headlines: “The one COVID-19 number to watch”. The ‘growth factor’, the new measure of all things, taking the place of the father, is the only thing that counts. I read: “There’s one single number that reveals at a glance whether the coronavirus outbreak is getting better or worse. In coming weeks, it’ll be worth understanding and keeping track of it”. Keep track of this number if you want to understand! The calculations of our bodies held in the safety net of scientific committees, presented to us as graphs- instantly legible inscriptions addressed to the whole of society. If we each do our bit, we can change the trajectory of this inscription for the greatest good-utilitarianism’s injunction of the “greatest”, the maximum, the useful, at the expense of the singularity of pleasure and pain that refuses to be measured relatively. So long as we keep looking in mirrors that only show us masks.
The use of online conferencing platforms enables us to get back to work with minimal disruption of productivity. We adapt readily, fit into our neat little boxes on the screen that defy both contagion and speaking all at once. We have to learn to interject differently, to prepare a script in advance, to communicate effectively. Yet suicide rates have sky-rocketed and crisis lines are receiving unprecented numbers of calls. There is no doubt our masks and distance from people and things, are increasing anxiety in very singular manifestations despite our communal efforts to “flatten the curve”. Masks and mirrors are inadequate faced with the invisible real.
What escapes the specular image of masks and mirrors is the body of LOM. LOM, introduced by Lacan in Joyce le Symptôme, is homophonic with what precedes it: “Nous sommes z’hommes”. We could translate as “we the people”, the opening phrase of the preamble of the US constitution or the 1789 Déclaration, its preamble oscillating between the ‘Man’ (l’homme) of the title and the people (les hommes) of its opening line. Lacan emphasises the “sommes”, the being of the people in an ontological register devoid of substance. “We (are) the people” as a generalised mass only count to the extent that we assume a pre-given place on a graph, communicating via lathouses, the only “[e]vidence of a common measure and an exception, which, under his rule, bends”;1 a utilitarian function in which the Name of the Father is replaced by the injunction to Count!2
But LOM, this minimal condition of the human,3 escapes this generalised mass. LOM, with its erased definite article, homophonically both singular and plural, gender neutral, trinitarian and with its resonances with the three letters DNA, is not on the side of being but of having. “Man has a body, it is by the body that one is had. The other side of habeas corpus”.4 Previously, in the 1974 seminar in Nice, Lacan had said: “Man loves his image like what is closest to him, that is his body. Only, his body, he has no idea of it. He thinks it’s me. Everybody thinks it is them. It is a hole. And on the outside, there is the image. And with this image he makes a world”.5 This hole in the centre of life, marked as a letter of lalangue, of L-O-M.
One of the things man can do with his body is speak, but he speaks with de l’une bévue, the blunder6 of lalangue. In effect this renders his body useless compared to animals endowed with the instinctual knowledge they require for survival. The unconscious, as the speaking body, is not at all useful in the utilitarian sense. It operates in a manner that is “detrimental to happiness and the well being of the subject…Through the stupidity of the unconscious the human species survives”’7. So whilst by his body he is had, LOM is never fully reducible to biopolitical capture because this inherent uselessness, this opaque kernel of jouissance, renders him incapable of being fully represented. Something always escapes and remains on the side of the singular, leaving him with a body only he can do something with.
What longing do we have for a new use of bodies? Bodies political by virtue that they are countable one by one as part of a collective, not a homogenous mass condemned to be graphically represented by the discourses of science and capitalism? An urgency has arisen as the “requirement for post-Joycean psychoanalysis: aim for an analysis that is not two-dimensional”.8 If the real is life, as Lacan inscribed in the circle of the real during La Troisième, then it is equally the impossibility of life. ‘We the people’ suddenly tossed out of our comfort zones and into the uncertainty of an invisible pandemic that forces us to invent something. Mata Hari, or “eye of the dawn”, was able to do something with her body in order to survive, for a while at least, an awakening that led to a certain satisfaction. Salomé, well, there’s another satisfaction. Each left idiotic, countable, opaque remainders- scraps of symptoms, no longer speaking the language of the Father,9 in the place of History.
- Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘Le Despotisme de la Utile: la machine panoptique de Jeremy Bentham’, Ornicar? 3, May 1975
- See M-H Brousse for a discussion on the “statistical superego” in “Ordinary Psychosis in the Light of Lacan’s Theory of Discourse”. Psychoanalytical Notebooks, No. 19, July 2009.
- Jean-Claude Milner elucidated this during a recent trip to Australia. See Relire le Révolution, or in English, Political Considerations About Lacan’s Later Work, Crisis and Critique, vol. 6, no.1.
- Lacan, Joyce le Symptôme, Autres Ecrits.
- Lacan, The Lacanian Phenomenon, Seminar of November 30th, 1974.
- Literally “twice seen”.
- Jacques-Alain Miller, A Reading of Some Details in Television in Dialogue with the Audience, Barnard College, New York, April 1990.
- Eric Laurent, A Portrait of Joyce as a Saint Homme, TLR5, p. 30.
- See Eric Laurent, L’Envers de la Biopolitique, p. 43.
Image: Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax, Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893), detail.