If what Freud discovered, and rediscovers ever more abruptly, has a meaning, it is that the signifier’s displacement determines subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate, regardless of their innate gifts and instruction, and irregardless of their character or sex; and that everything pertaining to the psychological pregiven follows willy-nilly the signifier’s train, like weapons and baggage.
- Jacques Lacan, The Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’. 1955.
Just as there is a power to punish, a power of working (labor-power) [force de travail], etc., there is a prephonetic and prephonological speaking-power, but it’s always invested in phonetic and phonological productions.
Such a formula is capable of generating, if not a “new” linguistics, at least a new functionality of objects traditionally described by linguistics, both the structural and the generative type: for it is a question of a generativity that’s considerably less Cartesian but, hopefully, a little more “powerful” [puissant]. What this generativity first contains is the critique—not the destruction, but the displacement—of the instrumental and functional conception of language [langage]: language does not speak to communicate, it speaks (to) speak and (to) communicate eventually, as if speaking were first an immanent process, a production, a speaking speaking before being this spoken speaking that linguists call a “Corpus”, thereby turning it so easily into a simple instrument of communication. Speaking language [langue] is the formula of a pregnancy: as if the means were pregnant with its ends, gained the dignity, continuity and limitlessness of its ends and sovereignly attributed to itself their nobility for “itself”. This is precisely what an “active” linguistics must think from the start: speaking [le parler] as simply speaking [parlant] our generativity to us, an unlimited speaking that enjoys its limitlessness.
- François Laruelle, Toward an Active Linguistics (The Notion of Phonesis), (translated by Taylor Adkins, full here)
‘Basically, I have only one object of historical study, that is the threshold of modernity. Who are we, we who speak a language such that it has powers that are imposed on us in our society as well as on other societies? What is this language which can be turned against us which we can turn against ourselves? What is this incredible obsession with the passage to the universal in Western discourse? That is my historical problem.’
- Michel Foucault
The sensation of the corpse is immanent. When traversing space, we feel the body. With time we feel the death of the body. At moments I have felt as if I was pulling my body, a corpse around with me. I am sure this is not atypical; in fact, if it is not consciously experience, the death notation is sublimated into the unconscious. Dreams, or lack of remembering them, indicate all types of interesting formations that people attempt to avoid whilst awake. The Spectre of the Corpse haunts us, but we cannot investigate it psychically when there is so much white noise; the sensation of the corpse has been both physically and psychosomatically diffused from contemporary Western culture. Culturally, the so-called West, has been devoted to eliminating death from the public discourse. As Michel Foucault so aptly pointed out, graveyards moved slowly from the centre of the city to its periphery; executions moved from public spectacles to indoor, intimate events betwixt the accused, the law assemblages and the victims. A narrowing of the spaces for death discussion occurred in Europe around the 18th Century. A whole assemblage of devices of the imaginary came into play, especially lanced onto the body of the newly constructed being: hitting- creating- a regime for the homo sapien at its earliest with the child. Foucault states,
When, with Rousseau and Pestallozzi, the eighteenth century concerned itself with constituting for the child, with educational rules that followed his development, a world that would be adapted to him, it made it possible to form around children an unreal, abstract, archaic environment that had no relation to the adult world. The whole development of contemporary education, with its irreproachable aim of preserving the child from adult conflicts, accentuates the distance that separates, for a man, his life as a child and his life as an adult. That is to say, by sparing the child conflicts, it exposes him to a major conflict, to the contradiction between his childhood and his real life. If one adds that, in its educational institutions, a culture does not project its reality directly, with all its conflicts and contradictions, but that it reflects it indirectly through the myths that excuse it, justify it, and idealize it in a chimerical coherence; if one adds that in its education a society dreams of its golden age [...] one understands that fixations and pathological regressions are possible only in a given culture, that they multiply to the extent that social forms do not permit the assimilation of the past into the present content of experience.
Here Foucault draws a line, an analysis, and also makes a conclusion. Generally, Foucault is not prone to both diagnosis and prognosis. The “sparing the child [of] conflicts” also, of course, means shielding them from death. As theological certainties diverged, multiplied and divided into Enlightenment questions, a new aegis was needed: the certainty of the child, the innocence of the child, and the perfection of childhood. And more importantly the certainty of adult, the parental arbiter of Truth, the realm of nuclearised family; the existential crisis provoked by various accumulations, new assemblages, lines of flight, flows, break-flows, rhizomes, circles and protestations sparked an unconsciousness of the conscious.
Above we behold Holbein’s Dance of Death from 1538, here Death is present; or, more radically, Death is presence. The psyche construction is variant, heterogenous and diffused by our perspective eyes, descriptors and nouns, yet I aver a consciousness of the unconscious is present. The unknown, yet imminent presence of Death is consciously present. Oppose this to my earlier matrix of an unconsciousness of the conscious, and the picture becomes clearer: The unconscious is not a mere ‘negation’ of the conscious, it stands alone (U), yet there is space between them, far more complicated than ‘the preconscious;’ it is negated consciousness or -Q. Or, in other words, the negation of consciousness exists in- and without- whilst still being retentive of its existent juices; Jacques Lacan asks simple, yet striking question (almost a Koan), “What is an unconscious thought?” In other words, the Middle Ages addressed Death without a mere negation, unlike post-18th Century European morals, which is process or ‘drive’ but really without an object of desire (Heaven, etc.), or with desire as its own object (X=X) . For instance, in contemporary Christianity, the loop between drive and even the most basic object petite a never reaches a line, it is always in the Imaginary: ritual flights: whether ‘speaking in tongues,’ mass services, or ‘paradise on Earth’ memes from Jehovah’s Witnesses to anarcho-primitivists. In our limited vocabulary, it is difficult to say much more theoretically, as we are in a regime of pure drive (-X): a ceaseless obsession with categorisation- taxonomy, circulation, monitoring, checking, checking, checking; asking our-Selves ’what is there, who am I, how am I, how are you?’ Even, and especially, if this process is unconscious, for we live in what I am calling the ages of an unconsciousness of the conscious.
Holbein’s imagery typifies the way ‘feudal-theological’ death can be juxtaposed to the (post) Enlightenment-era negation of the negation; or the sublimation/repression of the death drive even further into the basements of our psyches. Death is not stamped out after the 18th Century from our psyches, but it is certainly dissected, pressed into obsessive sublimation, regression, repetition, repression and endless process or drive (-X). New regimes of taxonomy label, insert and prod the scalp, the corpus, new ‘races’ are created, new ideals of sexuality and familial bondage bubble and turn in stew. The corpse is becoming alive. Animated! Zombies. Here is a Turning from an consciousness of the unconscious to an unconsciousness of the conscious. In the first Q —> (U) via (-Q), and in the second U —-> Q via (-Q), then later —-> (-X) (X=X). However, it isn’t this simple. First, “a culture does not project its reality directly, with all its conflicts and contradictions, but … reflects it indirectly through the myths that excuse it, justify it, and idealize it in a chimerical coherence” exemplifies a cultural assemblage of U —-> Q via (-Q), or movements from theological collectivity to theo-educational sublimation/regression/repression. Foucault notes the obsession with ‘bringing to light’ the asylums, mad houses (with Philippe Pinel), and the later regimes of total bio-political control obsessed with transparency, processes and knowing; adding Freud, Lacan and Marx (F+L+M = Wha?) together we can note these psychosocial accumulations lead (or are led by) a transition from feudalism to mercantile petite bourgeois individualising (not individualism at this point) in parts of 18th Century Europe.
Within Holbein’s 16th Century imagery is the kernel of this accumulation, or perhaps the initial Symbolic 16th Century individualising snowball turned later into the 18th Century individualism avalanche, and our contemporary celebratory- consumerist- celebrity cultural ‘cute’ unconsciousness: American (!) Halloween.
Anne E.G. Nydam writes,
Holbein’s Dance of Death wasn’t first published until 1538, possibly because of disapproval of its content – it was pretty seditious in some ways, highlighting the corruption of pope, emperor, and magistrate, among others. Despite or because of this, it was popular enough to change the Dance of Death genre. For example, before Holbein it had been common to depict Death and all the people in one large scene dancing together (perhaps pointing more directly to the Black Death and other episodes where many people were struck down at once.) Holbein instead showed separate vignettes of each person being summoned in his or her own daily environment. Sometimes Death is actually the one killing the victim, not just notifying him that his time has come, as had been the standard before. Holbein’s Death is often quite mischievous, as for example stealing the rich man’s money, or trying to draw the astrologer’s attention away from the heavenly spheres and toward contemplation of a skull instead.
Remarkably, the visibility of death in Holbein’s oeuvre leads “away from the heavenly spheres and toward the contemplation of a skull instead!” Here we have the individualising aspects that later become atomised features of daily life, psychic assemblages and (later, 21st Century) ‘social networks.’ But for Holbein, Death is “quite often mischievous, as for example stealing a rich man’s money;” Matthew 6:20 implores the reader/listener to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Also Death could be playing with Matthew 19:21, where Jesus states, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Both statements obviously revived – within all Christian traditions – during the Reformation (Holbein was commissioned by Catholics, Lutherans and Humanists alike).
At this time of year [Halloween] people in my neighborhood blithely decorate their houses with skeletons, skulls, and Grim Reapers, thinking of it as fun and festive. It occurs to me that perhaps we should reconsider our condescension toward people in what we like to call Dark Ages and ignorant times — they apparently had a much more sophisticated and multi-faceted view of images of Death. What we glance at and dismiss as cute holiday decor they would perceive as moral lesson, social commentary, and humor, simultaneously knowing the very real fear of Death and acknowledging what it says about life.
The consciousness of the unconscious transmogrifies into the unconsciousness of the conscious. Hereby, “with Rousseau and Pestallozzi, the eighteenth century concerned itself with constituting for the child, with educational rules that followed his development, a world that would be adapted to him, it made it possible to form around children an unreal, abstract, archaic environment that had no relation to the adult world … culture does not project its reality directly [to a child], with all its conflicts and contradictions, but that it reflects it indirectly through the myths that excuse it, justify it, and idealize it in a chimerical coherence.” Simply, the ‘child’ becomes a sheltered being, educated in the ways of the Imaginary, yet not into the Symbolic or the blotchy mistakes of the impossible Real. As we live in an ever widening- heightening- zenith of the Imaginary, pure drive (-X) of an unconsciousness of the conscious, Nydam’s remarks should be taken even more seminally, “it occurs to me that perhaps we should reconsider our condescension toward people in what we like to call Dark Ages and ignorant times — they apparently had a much more sophisticated and multi-faceted view of images of Death. What we glance at and dismiss as cute holiday decor they would perceive as moral lesson, social commentary, and humor, simultaneously knowing the very real fear of Death and acknowledging what it says about life.” We need Symbolic efficacy, or as Foucault noted “one understands that fixations and pathological regressions are possible only in a given culture, that they multiply to the extent that social forms do not permit the assimilation of the past into the present content of experience.” Here, I will end this process.