In order for something to exist in the full sense of the word, it must first be named and recognized. The unconscious certainly existed before Freud, but in the absence of a name, an elaboration, and a community of the faithful, it could not join, then sublate, the bacchanal of existence. Bearing this in mind, the premise with which I would like to inaugurate this column is the following: the American Other does not exist in the strong sense of the term. It eats, it shits, it pollutes, it transforms, it creates, it destroys, but it does not exist. This denial of the symbolic Other must serve as the starting point in any attempt to understand the madness of contemporary American life.
Contrary to life in the United States, life in France can best be described as boring and frustrating. At every turn one is reminded that full jouissance is impossible. Public transportation stops running early. All-you-can-eat buffets are expensive, replenished infrequently, and lacking variety. Delicious soft drinks only come in small cups. France does not understand that capitalism is a carnival, and carnivals are supposed to be fun.
For the time being, the French symbolic Other continues to protect, with its various No’s, the void where we want to locate jouissance. However, there is something undead about the functioning of this French Other. Like a zombie, it seems to operate on reflex alone. It is no longer animated by desire, if it ever was. As far as I can tell, on the level of conscious belief, French people are as idiotically eager to realize jouissance as Americans. What shields France from the ravages of this fantasy is simple inertia. On the one hand, the inert sum of calcified gestures, reflexes, and habits that constitute the unconscious cultural heritage of a people who have had enough bad encounters with jouissance to be wary of it (as well they should) – a wariness that has, over time, been encoded in their corporeal habitus. On the other hand, the inertia of a built environment that, although it dates from the recent past, might as well have arrived on a meteorite, so epistemically foreign has it become, from the intact center of Paris to the relatively untouched hedgerows of Normandy. In a word, what preserves France from jouissance is not collective will so much as the many senseless inscriptions left in its organic as well as its inorganic body.
A banal example. In every cafe in France, a cup of tea costs considerably more than a cup of coffee even though there is no market explanation for this anomaly. I have asked innumerable cafe proprietors why this is the case and no one can give me a compelling reason. It would appear that tea remains, in the French imaginary, a foreign and therefore a luxury item. As an American and a consumer, this meaningless extra expense, whose sole raison d’être is some forgotten historical conjuncture which French people feel some obscure need to commemorate, infuriates me.
Of course, an inscription does not need to make sense to function.
The concept of the Big Other is natural for a Frenchman because he is constantly reminded of its socially realized presence, both outside of himself, in the form of the built environment he inhabits, and inside himself, in the form of the reflexes and gestures that inhabit him. As an American, I could not understand the radicality of this concept until I had felt it pressing upon my body from without as well as within.
Lacan was acutely aware of how easily signification could slide into tyranny once the former was divorced from the enigma of incarnation. Hence his attachment to the rites of the Catholic church despite his professed atheism.
The United States has not heeded Lacan’s example. Those meaningless traditions to which we Americans remain most passionately attached, like driving everywhere, are often nothing more than relics of a slightly earlier and slightly less virulent incarnation of capitalism. We have abandoned both the shared body of America and the individual bodies of Americans to the flux and reflux of the pure jouissance of signification, as incarnated by the signifier without a signified that is money.
In short, where France is boring, the United States is a grotesque, fascinating catastrophe.
Here we must pause before summarily dismissing American consciousness as insufficiently dialectical. For the Real is sly and eternally refuses capture. The symbolic Other that functions as its emissary can easily become the site of a violence and a cruelty that far exceed the violence of the Real itself. In its worst moments, the French Other castrates where it should circumcise. Whereas the belief in realized jouissance can only lead to destruction (after a more or less pleasant detour through mania), the gratuitous refusal of an ideal of abundance simply leads to a less extravagant but arguably crueler form of destruction: the gradual extinction of desire.
No desire without jouissance, no jouissance without desire. In the absence of a minimally constituted Other, desire drowns in jouissance. However, when the Other comes to conceal completely the sacred void at the heart of Being, desire starves.
We have an ethical duty to articulate desire and jouissance. The fact that this articulation is impossible in no way exempts us from our duty. Culture and politics are the tools with which we attempt to hold these two incompatible quantities together despite their active repulsion for each other. There is no ideal or permanent solution, only an endless series of more or less failed compromises concluded more or less joyously, what Hegel scholar Katrin Pahl refers to as “the way of lighthearted despair”. The goal of this column will thus be to chronicle the relative triumphs and failures of the French and the American approaches to this impossible ethical ideal.