The Aesthetic Contingency Of Life – Narrating The Finite In A Time Of Images, Part 1 (Isabella Guanzini)

Below is a continuation of a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe. 

The following is the first installment an article, for which the second can be found here.

The View of the Other

In the painting “The Ambassadors” (1533) the artist Hans Holbein the Younger makes a conscious use of anamorphosis, and testifies with a perfect technique that it is not always the direct, frontal, and sovereign view of things that encompasses significant details.

Sometimes it is necessary to change the perspective and to decenter the view in order to perceive what transcends what one sees, but is nevertheless the important thing.  The portrait of the two young ambassadors, a politician and a churchman, depicted at the height of their power, highlights their pompous clothing in a symbolic manner. Offered a view from the side at a certain distance, the observer suddenly experiences a memento mori, materializing in a skull. The skull, when viewed from the front, initially appeared as a deformed object that disturbs the elegant scenery without surprise, especially if one moves to the side, not without surprise.

Because of a sophisticated optical distortion, the anamorphic stain reveals a profiled symbology of vanitas, a call to death awaiting everyone.[1] In this painting, as well as in the works of Alfred Kubin and Edward Munch, there is a snare that captivates the observer, forcing him in a way to look down. The anamorphic skull initially appears as an undifferentiated and eerie “object” that stains the majestic representation of temporal and spiritual power over the world. By means of a displacement, a change in the visual field, death appears as that which deactivates every rule and erases every sovereign attitude, by interrupting the illusion of worldly self-fulfillment. In this displacement it is the image itself that “observes”, and the observer suddenly finds himself observed.

In Seminar XI (The Four Basic Concepts of Psychoanalysis) Jacques Lacan makes reference to the anamorphosis as an exemplary structure that indicates a shift in the gaze necessary in psychoanalysis for an apprehension of the desire of the subject[2]. Lacan shows that the “object,” or that which is at the center of desire or life, always presents itself in an anamorphic form, because it does not tolerate a direct encounter.

“The Ambassadors” designates a picture in which the painted object seems to observe the viewer. It dominates the scene with its mystery, giving the subject a sign of what is both hidden and visible. In his analysis, Lacan illuminates the fact that the meaning of reality can never be totalized and that there is never a comprehensive view. There is always a remainder, a necessary shift that shields the ideal from any kind of direct access.

All this shows that Holbein, ensconced at the center of his epoch in which the subject emerges and these geometric optics are produced, makes something visible, which it turns out is nothing but the subject as a semblance that visually incarnates that Phi-less [(-φ)] of castration. The -φ centers the entire organization of desires across the framework of the basic instincts.[3]

The anamorphosis thus reveals that the subject is missing, displaced, obstructed, always permeated by the field of the other. One can state that the view is the place of the other. He is the lost object that is always displaced with respect to the perspective that sees him. He afford an understanding without ever being caught – like the oracle of Delphi in the definition of Heraclitus: “The Lord Apollo at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals , but it gives a sign.”[4]. The gaze, in fact, is never reflective, but it is that which is always absent in the contemplation of that for which it is impossible to form an image[5]:

The view appears to us alone in the form of a strange contingency, a symbol of what we find in our field of vision, as it were by way of our experience – that constitutive lack” of castration anxiety. Eyes and eyes are for us the split in which the impulse manifests on the level of the visual field.[6]

According to Gérard Wajcman, the medieval man remained inscribed in the other’s field of vision, namely in the creation and in the protection of the eyes of God. Before one saw, one was seen, one was the object of the other’s view. The “Big Other” is this symbolic dimension that can be personified or reified, as God or as the idea to which I am attached (freedom, law, peace, communism, nation).  It is the symbolic substance of our lives, not only of the explicit symbolic rules that regulate our social coexistence, but also the complex web of unwritten implicit rules that determines our speech and action.

Despite its fundamental power, the Big Other is fragile, insubstantial, virtual in the sense that its status is that of a subjective subordination. In his book The Stolen Letter[7], Lacan claims that a letter always gets to its destination, even if it is not sent. It can even be said that it is the only letter that reaches its destination completely, even if not sent. The true addressee is not a real person, but the great Other Itself.

The same applies to the symptom. The addressee of my symptom is not another human being but the virtual Big Other. Social life is characterized by various unlettered rules and prohibitions, even if these rules are not explicitly stated. Nonetheless, the impact of the great other on everyday acting and thinking is strong. When the subjects interact, they not only relate to each other, but always trench upon the virtual Big Other as well.

Modernity breaks across this medieval horizon by disclosing an ever more intimate private life space. The subject secures itself as subject with an unequivocal view that dominates the world, which it perceives from a safe distance, starting from a hidden place that lies beyond the sight of the other. It is not seen; it sees. The cogito ergo sum means that I exist to the extent that I am not seen, namely, to the extent that the center of gravity of my being is withdrawn into a private space that I feel is beyond the public eye of the other. The “birth of intimacy” increasingly closes the “third view” of the individual and the collective.

The symbolic order, the structure of being in communion and having respect for the relationships that determine our common life together as well as for the social project as a whole, is finally exhausted. As Weber said, we are now living in an epoch of disenchantment[8].  The fragmentation and evaporation of transcendence has generated pluralities and differences while multiplying forms of knowledge, so that today collective subjectivity no longer entails meaningful co-living with one another.

Common belief in a transcendent reality had the power to structure reality by means of a unifying code, to enliven the social body and to regulate social exchange. Subjectivities of the twentieth century are driven by what the French philosopher Alain Badiou defines as the “Passion of the Real” (passion du réel), that is, the will to directly stabilize one’s relationship with the world without mediation and protection.[9] In contrast with nineteenth century visions of utopia, ideologies, and anticipations of the future, “the twentieth century wanted to put the thing into action itself and thus realize the longed-for new order”[10].

That is a decisive change in the gaze and in the direction of action. The “tree of life”, already dislocated in its origins and reachable only in an “anamorphic” way, is now placed in the center of the garden. It was initially imperceptible to the human eye and thus the possibility of becoming an “available object” was foreclosed. That distance served as a protective shell, sheltering the human race[11]. In the time of disenchantment, this “gown of grace” is removed so that reality becomes available to the will to control and to the power of the acting subject. In this way it becomes a surface of projections and an expansion of the ego:

To the extent that the tree now moves into the center and becomes inhabitable by man, namely,  at the moment when man begins to transform the open garden into a delimited horizon of his own desire, man begins to locate his ego in a projection-narcissistic manner.[12]

Slowly the modern and postmodern subject develops into a direct observer, a beneficiary and consumer of a world of available things. While the first was associated with a sense of guilt, in the second, the post-political subject of the consumer society is exposed to a chronic sense of inadequacy that defines the psychology of our meritocracy.

In Civilization and its Discontents (1930) Freud uncovered the tension between the individual and civilization, which lies in the excess of inhibition and sublimation of impulses in the name of order and the security of society. Such a limitation of instinctual life, necessary for a dignified human life together, necessarily produced neurotic tendencies to the extent that the subject in the name of the reality principle was massively called upon to sublimate the pleasure principle.

In the present combination, the psychic situation of individuals is reversed. If the previous century was characterized by the setting of boundaries (Gödel, Freud, Marx, etc.), then the new century is that of eliminating them. In the name of the right of infinite enjoyment, there seems to be nothing left that is impossible.  With this conception of progression, we open ourselves to the dimension of the post-human, where the ultimate fulfillment of the individual, thanks to science, does not take place in a social, but in a purely biological realm (no suffering, no aging and no dying thanks to the technology and the different hybridization of our organism, seeing their own needs met regardless of gender, age, social status).

In the footsteps of Jacques Lacan, Massimo Recalcati says that in the hypermodern contemporaneity the “discourse of the capitalist” has played a dominant role, promoting a continuous and creeping delusion exposing the individual to the greatest risk of his subjectivity, namely the eradication of the subject of the unconscious[13]. Today’s omnipresent exhibition of intimacy, along with the search for the “true” ego, has supplanted the site of the unconscious, leaving the subject to the arbitrariness of its inclinations.

The celebration of the intimacy of the “self” is claimed to be a genuine site of truth. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, Hegel states that the plant is an animal that has its innards outside its body in the form of roots or flowers[14]. By analogy, one could say that the decentralized symbolic order make up the mental innards of the human animal. The symbolic substance of my being, the roots from which the ego draws its spiritual nourishment, are external to the ego. The impossible dream of the New Age is precisely the transformation of humanity into a spiritual animal, which, detached from his body, wavers in an immaterial space, without having any substantial roots or alterity.

The Dialectic of Desire

The illusion of a narcissistic independence and an uprooted solipsistic identity is right from the beginning the center of Lacan’s thinking, as well as a reaction and resistance to the psychology and psychoanalysis of his time. His return to Freud, especially in his first seminars, is to be understood as a resumption of the agenda of Freud’s essay On Narcissism[15].

As Recalcati writes, Lacan’s teaching opens as “a profound reflection on the gesture of narcissist”.[16]  Lacan interpreted psychoanalysis according to Freud as an enfeebled history, because the genuine intentions of its founder were buried or misunderstood. Lacan considers ego-psychology[17] with its theory of the autonomous ego as “a kind of constriction and disparagement”[18], which aims at the development of the potentials of the ego and sees itself as an orthopedics and self-realization of the ego. According to Lacan, however, it can never be the goal of psychoanalysis to “strengthen the ego.”

The ego, in his opinion, is rather a construction of the imaginary, a crystallization or internalization of self-images as well as of images of one’s own body, which are projected back by others on an individual. These imaginary relationships produce identifications (love) and rivalries (hate, envy) insofar as they are relationships between comparables. There are two subjects – on the one hand, the ego, the individual ego, which is actually, in the output of Freud and Sartre[19], an imaginary and mirrored form[20], and on the other hand, the subject whom Freud called the “core of our being.” The ego is a narcissistic mask, a psychologistical illusion, a fiction, a harlequin, offering an alienated and imaginary firmness.

Lacan situates the second subject, which he also calls the “true subject” (le sujet veritable), in the unconscious. In Function and Field of Speech and Speech in Psychoanalysis of 1953 and in Seminar 1: Freud’s Technical Writings (1953/54) he describes the self-conscious subject by employing the French reflexive pronoun moi / mihi, in contrast with the true subject of the unconscious.

The singularity of the subject must inscribe itself into a horizon of the general, because the “ever” is absolutely irreducible to the individual. “C’est moi” – this is a  I am a type of reflexive sentence. For Lacan, reflection is a metaphorical expression that means nothing but “to mirror”. The recognition in the mirror is an imaginary misunderstanding and leads to the division of the subject into moi (ideal ego, the “imaginary subject”) and ever, the subject of speech or of the unconscious. From this observation follows the paradox that sounds paradoxical: “That I am not the ego” (le je n’est pas le moi).

The origin of psychic suffering is therefore not grounded in a weakening of the ego, but in its exaggerated reinforcement, which corresponds to the paranoid structure of the alienated ego and extreme madness[21]. The unconscious, according to Lacan (as for Freud), is first of all a reason to be distinguished from the conscious, but not irrational, because it is the revelation of a truth and not a revelation of any primal instincts.

This truth is the truth of desire. The word “desire” is a fundamental term in psychoanalysis and Lacan, also claims a centrality of desire, at least until the publication of Écrits. Lacan also translates desire with the word vœu – vows, vocation, gifts, “inasmuch as desire is the most intense of what is given to the subject at the stage of consciousness in his realization as a subject”[22]

The Lacanian version of Freud’s motto “where id was, there shall ego be” is that the ego should not conquer the id in order to progress in enlightenment and control of the instincts. Rather, it means that the ego should refer to the place of the id. The ego should dare to approach the place of its truth, to make contact with the desire to listen to the call and the movement of desire.

Lacan thinks with Hegel (and with Hegel’s interpretation of Alexandre Kojève) that desire is not one-sided confined to negating or destroying the object. Rather, desire turns to another desire, namely to the desire of the other. It is not looking in the mirror, but in the other. It is not a need that is directed to an object, but always lives in an intersubjective dialectic. Therefore, the subject always aims at a relationship that transcends the merely objective world, opening the existence to the possibility of desire (of the other). This thought Kojève expresses with great power:

Human or, rather, anthropogenic desire, which constitutes the individual who is free, historical and conscious of his individuality, freedom, history and historicity, is thus different from animalistic desire (through which a natural, merely living and only a feeling of one’s own life possessive being is constituted) by the fact that it is not directed to a real, “positive” given object, but to another desire.[23]

Because of this structure desire, in the perspective of symbolic order, configures itself as a question of recognition. As Recalcati points out, “the human world can not confine itself to the merely paranoid drama of narcissistic reflection: the subject is not exhausted in being alienated in his ideal image and therefore trapped in the double, but above all, it is part of the world the symbolic, to that world which is guided by the law of the word “[24].

The mirrored nudity that mesmerizes the gaze of the ego is not the symbolic “light garb” that protects the mystery of the subject, “but the consequence of the attempt to be absolutely self-presentable (along with the desire for the portrayal of God) in the mirror of one’s own immeasurable desire.”[25]  Lacan is convinced that the narcissistic circularity of desire can only be interrupted by the law of the word.

The word, or language, however, has no merely denotative function and must not be reduced to mere communication.  The word transcends this schema, because it has appeal, the call and invocation of the other. It allows the desire to be detached from the physiologically instinctive dimension of needs in order to inscribe it in the human realm of symbolic gratification tied to recognition between subjects.

While the “full” word is carried out by the Other, the “empty” word is full of the “I” and empty of the desire of the Other. If one is only an ego, there is no room for the desire, which is always the desire of the other, so that when the ego is in the middle, there are only imaginary images of an empty desire. This means that the subject, as Lacan sees it, is always represented by a “signifier for another signifier.” It is never the patron of one’s own being, nor can it be fixed in any identification, it can never consist of one signifier.

The subject is always inscribed in the field of the other. It is dependent on its syntax, but at the same time it is always excluded from its system insofar as there is no signifier that can completely determine the subjective contingency. Here lies the power and vulnerability of subjectivity, which is characterized by a nomadic and unstable identity, subjected to infinite variations, opened to possibilities of ever more recent subjectivizations, and constitutively “packaged” by the field of the other.

The crucial point in Lacan is the relationship between the symbolic law of the word and the law of desire. The subject of the unconscious is enlivened by desire; it is regulated by the symbolic order and by the function of the Father. With this figure, Lacan refers to the Big Other, to a third function whose decline we perceive today in the culture and processes of social transformation[26].

The figure of the third breaks the symmetrical, imaginary and narcissistic reciprocity between ego and other.[27]  The Big Other is eccentric to the mirrored Other and not reducible to its reflection. It releases the hypnotizing captivity in the mirror. The father as a third breaks down the family internal “two-person relationships” or the mother-child unit and “intervenes as a third term, which is often experienced as alien or even unwanted”[28]. It is not only about the complex of weaning, but also about the intrusion, the penetration of the Father into that enjoyment founded on the imaginary duality, the reflection “I and the Other”.

Characteristics of these mirror bindings are the “greedy separation” and the “jealous ambivalence” in relation to the other, whereas the paternal sublimation makes it possible to triangularize this aggressive and erotic duality. Lacan calls this third term “name-of-the-father”. The “name of the father” is to be understood as a metaphor for a father’s function, which does not necessarily have to be a biological or real one.

Isabella Guanzini is Professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Graz. She is the author of Hegel e Paolo: L’amore fra Politica e Messianismo (Vita e Pensiero, 2013) and Europa mit oder ohne Religion? (Vienna University Press, 2015).

[1] See. J. Baltrušaitis, Anamorphoses, ou Magic artificielle des effets merveilleux, Paris 1969, 146.

[2] J. Lacan, The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Basic Terms of Psychoanalysis, Berlin 1987, 91-95.

[3] Ibid., 95. According to Lacan, life is humanized only by the law of the caste, which imposes the loss of part of enjoyment (weaning, intrusion of the third – the father). The humanization of life happens only in the encounter with a symbolic law, insofar as this law, by denying incestuous enjoyment as impossible, introduces into the subject a defect that first forms the subject as subject. The power of Oedipus concerns the separation of the subject from its merging enjoyment, marked by a destructive pursuit of totality. With Less-Phi (-f), Lacan refers to the fact that the image of one’s own body never appears as a totality or always with a defect

[4] H. Diels, The Fragments of the Presocratics, 3 volumes, Hildesheim 2004, 1, DK 93.

[5] Because of this motif Lacan adds to the Freudian instincts also the show and invocation drive, respectively the view and the voice.

[6] Lacan, The Seminar. Book XI, 79.

[7] J. Lacan, Schriften I, Weinheim / Berlin 1990, 7-60.

[8] The increasing intellectualization and rationalization does not mean an increasing general knowledge of the conditions of life under which one stands. But it means something different: the knowledge of it or the belief in it: that one could, if one wanted, experience it at any time, that in principle there are no mysterious, unpredictable powers that play there, that one rather plays all things – in principle – can control by calculation. But that means the disenchantment of the world. No longer, like the savage, for whom there were such powers, one must resort to magical means to control or solicit the spirits. But technical means and calculation accomplish this. Above all, intellectualization as such means “(in: M. Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf, Tübingen 1994, 9).

[9] See A. Badiou, The Century, Zurich / Berlin 2006.

[10] S. Žižek, The doll and the dwarf. Christianity between Perversion and Subversion, Frankfurt a. M. 2003, 68f.

[11] K. Appel, God – man – time. Historical-philosophical-Theological Considerations on Christianity and New Humanism in the outcome of the Bible, Hegel and Musil, First Transition: From the Universal Age to the Feast and to Death, 24-31.

[12] Ibid, 28.

[13] M. Recalcati, L’uomo senza inconscio. Figure della nuova clinica psicoanaliti- ca, Milano 2010.

[14] G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences in Fundamentals, § 348.

[15] S. Freud, On Narcissism, Leipzig 1924.

[16] M. Recalcati, Jacques Lacan. Desiderio, godimento e soggettivazione, Milano 2012, 10.

[17] Ego-psychology is a psychological theory that complements classical Freudian psychoanalysis with aspects of ego development, defense mechanisms, and the functions of the ego. The founders of first-person psychology are often called A. Freud (The Self and the Defense Mechanisms, Vienna 1936) and in particular H. Hartmann (ego psychology and adaptation problem, Stuttgart 1939).

[18] J. Lacan, Name of the Father, Vienna 2006, 14.

[19] J.-P. Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego: Philosophical Essays 1931-1939, Reinbek near Hamburg 1982.

[20] J. Lacan, The Seminar. Book I. Freud’s Technical Writings (1953-1954), Berlin 1990, 212.

[21] See. Recalcati, Jacques Lacan. Desiderio, godimento e soggettivazione, 34 – 41.

[22] J. Lacan, Name of the Father, Vienna 2006, 69.

[23] A. Kojève, Hegel. A visualization of his thinking: Comment on the Phenomenology of Mind, Stuttgart 1958, 13f.

[24] Recalcati, Jacques Lacan, 68.

[25]  K. Appel, God – Man – Time. From world time to celebration and death, 29.

[26] J.-P. Lebrun / E. Volckrick (éd.), Avons-nous encore besoin d’un tiers ?, Toulouse 2005.

[27] The doctrine of Lacan can be understood as a great meditation on the subject of narcissism. The theory of the mirror stage (J. Lacan, The Mirror Stage as a Builder of the Ego Function, in: ders., Schriften I, 61-70) is one of Lacan’s most famous conceptions. According to Lacan, the ego comes into the world between the ages of six and eighteen, if kept in front of a mirror. The child first recognizes itself as something else (as a reflected object in the mirror). It sees its unity, its whole corporeality only in its duplication in the mirror, before that it was only a fragmented (corps morcelé) body: the child responds to the knowledge and identification of oneself in the mirror with a “jubilee gesture”. However, at the same time, it is also depressed because it immediately understands that the image in the mirror is just an ideal image, a perfect idea of ​​its identity to which the child will never adapt. This shows the dimension of helplessness that characterizes human life and the division that will shape the subject throughout his life.

[28] B. Fink, The Lacanian Subject. Between Language and Jouissance, Vienna 2011, 85.

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