Monday, February 23, 2009

Lacanianizing the Media

Jacques Lacan is a curious figure. Spouting cryptic semi-messianic universalizing statements such as “there is no sexual relationship” or “the unconscious is structured like a language”, Lacan’s psychoanalytical re-engagements with Sigmund Freud’s theories since the 1930s have been the subject of much controversy and debate. Nonetheless, Lacan-speak (or what Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek calls “Lacanese”) gained significant (if not notorious) currency in the language of new Media Theory, an intellectual marriage fostered in the 1960s partly through the arrival of “French” theory on American shores, and a growing desire to understand the powers of these media in shaping contemporary subjectivities. Particularly potent to these theorists was Lacan’s 1930s formulation of the “mirror stage”, which suggested that the social subject was precipitated through a primal act of “misrecognition”. According to Lacan, the pre-mirror stage infant experienced the self and the world as fractured and heterogeneous; it was only through the process of “misrecognizing” the image of the self in the mirror as the self could the infant then posit a homogeneous, totalized and self-enclosed ‘subject’ (what Lacan called the “Ideal-ego”), ultimately an illusion which serves as a focal point for the subject’s hopes, fantasies and desires.

If the subject’s entire experience of the self was predicated upon a function of “misrecognition”, indeed an internalized illusion of totality, then it followed that cultural products in society were equally functional sites of identification, conceptual “mirrors” which appeared to “reflect” what socially acceptable subjectivities produced by agents outside the subject. In short, culture itself could be conceived as a mirror upon which the subject misrecognizes him/herself, assuming the images and products he or she encounters as “ideal-egos” on which the self is regulated, constructed and kept in check. Because of the primacy of visual identification in Lacan’s mirror stage, it should come as no surprise that film theorists were the first to pounce on psychoanalytic modes of identification through the cinema. In Britain, the film journal Screen edited by Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath embraced Lacanian psychoanalysis with much enthusiasm, combining it with Louis Althusser’s theories of subject-formations in the matrix of ideology of the 1970s. Althusser’s essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (a Marxist analysis of Ideology that incorporated Freud’s psychic topologies) strongly suggested that ideology “hails” or “interpellates” its individuals as subjects, cueing early film theorists to the possibility of cinema’s subversive potentials as a giant “interpellative” machine of ideology. As such, early incarnations of ‘screen theory’ in the 1960s and 1970s attempted to:

“... uncover the symbolic mechanisms through which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon readers, sewing them into the film narrative through the production of subject positions.”

Particularly productive in film theory was the notion of the “gaze” of the filmic actor and how audiences misconceive the “gaze” as intended for them. MacCabe’s highly influential essay Realism in Cinema (1974) proposed that the staging of the “gaze” through clever film editing ultimately produced a hypothetical subject-to-be-looked-at. This ‘receiving subject’, so to speak, was less offered to the spectator that had it thrust upon him; the spectator misrecognizes himself as the recipient of the “gaze” (just as he misrecognizes his image for himself in the Lacanian mirror stage), and rather passively occupies the receiving role structured for him by the film. As a heuristic tool, Lacanian psychoanalysis provided these early theorists with a persuasive insight into the “socio-political context of production” as to how “the filmmaker’s (and by extension the culture’s) view of the world became confused with, or displaced by, the spectator’s view”.

Because explorations of Lacan’s mirror stage in media theory tended to (over)privilege the visual over other sensorial facilities, musicologists required another heuristic model in order to access the shifting boundaries of sonic subjectivities through the technological encounter. Their source of inspiration ultimately lay with Lacan’s reconfiguration of Freudian psychic topologies, which Lacan reformulated as the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. For Lacan, the order of the Imaginary was the site upon which the subject’s fantasy of the “Ideal-ego” was projected as total and unfragmented. The Symbolic order marked the infant’s entry into the realm of language – by appropriating and mastering the use of language, the subject carved a linguistic space of inhabitation within a field of signifiers. However, entrance into the Symbolic through the mirror stage meant forfeiting the infant’s pre-Symbolic state of heterogeneity (his or her relationship with the mother) for illusory totality and self-determination. This introduced a “lack” into the psychic structure of the newly-formed subject (since his/her relationship with the mother is perceived as a unity, a lack-of-a-lack); there is no subject first without lack. The order of the Real thus designated the pre-Symbolic space of inhabitation, and occasionally perforates the Symbolic through trauma and severe psychic perturbation.

For Friedrich A. Kittler, these three orders corresponded directly to the three media technologies of the gramophone, film and typewriter. These three psychic orders bore more than just a passing affinity to these technologies; according to Kittler, Lacan’s tripartite topology effectively theorized the separation of psychic life according to the spaces of inhabitation afforded by these machines in the first place. That is, the machine was no longer neutral territory upon which subjects played out their desires and fantasies. Rather, the machine and the subject enjoyed a symbiotic relationship through which the specifications of the mechanical medium organized the subject’s psychic reality. In fact, Kittler goes so far as to suggest that the Lacanian division of the psyche was an epistemological model which was historically enabled through the production of these media, as Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Michael Wutz point out:

“Hence, the distinctions of Lacanian psychoanalysis ... appear as the “theory” or historical effect” of the possibilities of information processing existent since the beginning of this century.”

Specifically, Lacan’s order of the Symbolic “now encompasses linguistic signs in their materiality and technicity” as made possible through the typewriter: first through the production of standardized “alphabetized” readers, then through higher forms of encoding via computers and the binary system. Recalling Saussure’s famous description of language as a system of “differences” without “positive terms”, Kittler argues that both people and computers are “subject to the appeal of the signifier”, disciplined according to an abstract chain of endless signification without a final “positive” term or destination. With sound recording, however, Kittler designates the gramophone Lacan’s order of the Real, since “only the phonograph can record all the noise produced by the larynx prior to any semiotic order and linguistic meaning”. Alongside the reproduction of phonemes (which conceals the pure, abstracted signifier), the phonograph simultaneously stores the “waste or residue” of “noise”, a sonic excess that is never fully soluble in the realm of the Symbolic. Finally, the medium of film is matched with Lacan’s order of the Imaginary much in the same way the early film theorists sought a relationship between image and subjectivity. Nearly reproducing their claims word for word, “Film”, Kittler claims, “was the first [medium] to store those mobile doubles that humans ... were able to (mis)perceive as their own body”.

It is in Kittler’s insistence once subjectivity as psychic symbiosis between man and machine that leads Nicholas Gane to view him as a theorist of “Post-humanism”. For Gane, Kittler’s exploration of the psychic landscapes between man and machine recasts Lacan’s discourse as a “material definition of consciousness” which (like information theory) “does not start from the question of meaning” but focuses on the ways in which “meanings are generated by an underlying technological framework”. Kittler, Gane asserts, bears the bright new torch of “post-human sociology”. But perhaps Gane’s joyous verdict steps too far ahead of a pressing question too quickly. If Gane’s evaluation of Kittler locates him within the coordinates of an epistemological counter-move (one is tempted to believe as reactionary to human-sociology), then are Kittler’s arguments rhetorical or descriptive? To put it another way, are Kittler’s post-human (cyborg?) psyches the well-paced products of strategic writing in order to overcome certain problematic binaries latent in academic writing (such man/nature or man/machine binary logics), or do they actually articulate a current state of reality?

For Richard Middleton, the answer is the latter; or rather, the latter made possible through the former – new strategies of binary subversion enabling a new logic of social inhabitation beyond power-impasses. Middleton’s work has already invigorated the field of popular music studies through the appropriation of vast Lacanian topics, and in the essay Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, argues that new music technologies (especially that of the DJ “mix”) allow listeners to transgress embodied categories of identification (like race, age or gender) in embrace of a post-human existence. Indeed for Middleton, the (often dense though virtuostic) force of his polemic revolves around the peculiarities of the voice as a bearer of Symbolic meaning and (recalling Roland Barthes) traces of the body. Reproduction technologies and recording apparatuses act as:

“... an acoustic mirror [...]. ‘Reflections’ of the vocal body, traversing anamorphically the gap between mouth and ear, have a capacity to short-circuit the ‘normal’ distinctions between inside and outside, self and other – for ‘the moment we enter the symbolic order, an unbridgeable gap separates forever a human body from “its” voice. The voice acquires a spectral autonomy, it never quite belongs to the body we see.’”

Virtually paraphrasing Kaja Silverman’s concept of vocal “projection” and “introjections”, Middleton offers us a psychoanalytic sonic counterpart to filmic “gaze” theory by theorizing the fundamentally split nature of the sounding voice. There is something “excessive” about the voice that escapes pure acoustic reflection, a dimension of its production that is inevitably “lost” whenever we speak or sing. What Middleton also draws attention to is the extra-Symbolic aspect of the voice, or what Mladen Dolar calls its “third level”, the “object voice” which stubbornly resists symbolisation. For Dolar, this spectral “object voice” is literally what Lacan called the “object petit a” (the little object/the object cause) beyond the mere Symbolic or the aesthetic, a “lever of thought, as opposed to the anthropomorphic masquerade of thinking”. But what is Lacan’s object petit a? To put it crudely: an impossible object of pure alterity that produces a horizon of desire just out of reach, a desire that can never be satiated. As Tood McGowan describes:

“Desire is motivated by the mysterious object that the subject posits in the Other – the object petit a – but the subject relates to this object in a way that sustains the object’s mystery [i.e. sustains his desire]. Hence, the object petit a is an impossible object: to exist, it would have to be simultaneously part of the subject and completely alien.”

Phonographic technologies reproduce precisely this “spectral” quality of this forbidden, disembodied voice, amplifying its “impossible” qualities (in the absence of an originating body to verify its “true” source) through its mechanical mode of presentation. But transfixing oneself upon the qualities of the object petit a as a site of barred jouissance (enjoyment, the threshold of pleasure/pain) in the (re)produced voice “places previous systems of both gender and race relations into crisis ... whose underlying mode ... is one of hysteria”. After all, the very “barred” qualities of the object petit a renders this transmogrified voice thoroughly inconceivable, throwing familiar epistemological structures of elucidation and familiarity into disarray. However, there is a positive note at the end of all these “impossible” objects. Examining the strange vocal qualities present in the tracks of ‘Dr Funkenstein’ (“strangely positioned in a frame of reference between the simian and the avian”), Middleton suggests that these yet-(epistemologically)-identifiable “creatures” may provide (sonic) platforms to rehearse our encounters with post-human Others as a template for intersubjective ethics. On the other hand, “changes in cultural technology” help to illuminate the pre-existing complexities of body politics, allowing us to materially “grasp ... the potentially fluid and always problematic nature” of these social relationships, and to articulate/inhabit new bodies – and possibilities – of being.

Hence for both Kittler and Middleton, Lacanian psychoanalysis possesses more than a mere casual relationship with reproduction technologies. Granted, their theoretical theses are inverted: while Kittler fathoms Lacanian distinctions of the psyche as beholden to technological changes, Middleton believes that phonographic technologies allow us to perceive our problematic (Lacanian) subjectivities with greater perspicuity. Nonetheless, mapping the nebulous terrain of the human psyche is a difficult one; what Lacanian psychoanalysis allows theorists to do is to creatively imagine new wirings of the unconscious amidst shifting social, cultural, political or technological geographies by stressing the horizons of thought and language. Paradoxically, it is these restrictive horizons in the first place that allow us to articulate different possibilities of being, construing the subject as a problematic yet exciting canvas upon which to paint (many) alternative future(s).


Sheela said...

Love your blog.
Have you seen the ad Zizek did for A&F?

HT, with T for Teh said...

Haha, no I didn't, but I'm not surprised that he did that! I'm actually surprised you even bother to read my rantings!