Anxiety

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Todd McGowan on the age of anxiety after the age of prohibition

Extracts from “Enjoying What We Don’t Have”

 

Under the rule of the traditional master, prohibition sustains the possibility for this type of enjoyment: we can enjoy an act because it transgresses a societal prohibition

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Prohibition makes our enjoyment possible by offering us the possibility for sacrifice. We sacrifice the good and violate the prohibition.

– Todd McGowan

 

The death that we bring on is not simply the price that we pay for smoking; it is the means through which we enjoy the act of smoking.

every cigarette is really killing the smoker. If it didn’t, the act would lose its ability to provide enjoyment (though it may still produce bodily pleasure).

 

– Todd McGowan

 

traditional … prohibition sustains the possibility for this type of enjoyment: we can enjoy an act because it transgresses a societal prohibition.

 

– Todd McGowan

The power of the figure of the master today derives from its ability to mobilize enjoyment in seemingly opposed ways: the follower simultaneously enjoys obeying and transgressing the law.

enjoying transgression and enjoying obedience become the exclusive province of conservatism, and emancipatory politics is stuck with knowledge, which provides enjoyment only for the experts themselves (and those who identify with them).

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Though the transition from the dominance of the discourse of the master to that of the university is a revolutionary transition, a key element remains the same.

the dominance of university discourse as a social link has the effect of installing the master in a position of near invulnerability, in clear contrast to the position that the master occupies within the master’s discourse. By facilitating this change in position, the expert, whether intentionally or not, works in service of the master. Scientists, diet gurus, and world-renowned economists may appear to be calling the shots today, but they function as stand-ins for the concealed master.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

As the truth of university discourse (and expert authority), mastery is hidden and all the more effective because of this obscurity within which it dwells. The Form of the Superego The change in the master’s status makes itself felt through a corresponding change in the status of the superego, and this is a change that has distinct ramifications for political activity.

Freud understands the superego as an internalized representative of the law. He describes it as an extension of figures of parental authority and sees the subject’s relation to it in those terms.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Rational fear of punishment, Freud recognizes, is not sufficient for engendering properly docile subjects. An irrational force for obedience must supplement this rational fear, and the superego embodies such a force. In his account of the superego, Lacan picks up on Freud’s claim that the superego draws its energy from the reservoir of the id. The proximity of these two psychic registers in Freud’s schema leads Lacan to dissociate the superego from prohibition and to align it with an imperative to enjoy.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

In his Seminar XV III Lacan claims: “ The order of the superego . . . originates precisely. . . in this call for pure enjoyment, that is also to say for non-castration”

Even when the superego bombards the subject with imperatives that appear in the guise of prohibitions, Lacan insists that these imperatives actually command enjoyment. The superego … constantly reminds the subject of its failure to enjoy, and it promulgates an ideal of the ultimate enjoyment as a measuring stick against which the subject can contrast its own failures.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

No subject can obey the demands of the superego because the ideal it provides remains ever out of reach. The closer that the subject approaches to it through obedience, the faster it recedes. The superego enjoins an enjoyment that it never allows the subject to find.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

the superego only emerges as such with the rise of expert authority and the decline of the traditional master. No one theorized such an agency before Freud, and though this doesn’t necessarily mean that the superego didn’t exist before it was recognized, it does suggest that the superego didn’t really make its presence felt as a distinct and powerful agency. Under the regime of the master, the idiotic and purely despotic dimension of the law manifests itself in the figure of the master. The master lays down the law that must be obeyed not because it is justified or practical but simply because the master says so, and the master’s authority derives from the nonsensical and completely random fact of birth or wealth. This idiotic dimension of the law seems to disappear with the rise of expert authority. In everyway, the expert’s status and dictates have a justifi­ cation that the master’s don’t. Education and training qualify the expert for the status of authority, and the expert’s pronouncements never command

 

– Todd McGowan

 

The rule of knowledge places emancipatory politics in a difficult position. It cannot abandon the project of the Enlightenment without ceasing to be emancipatory, and at the same time it must find a way to incorporate enjoyment into its program. If emancipatory politics places itself on the side of knowledge, it abdicates its former position as a challenge to authority and becomes associated with the restriction of enjoyment rather than the unleashing of it. And as the representative of expert authority, emancipa­tory politics appears as the thief of enjoyment. The knowledge it forces on us produces a feeling of lost enjoyment.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

this pleasure can only be imaginary: it is more the image of a future pleasure to be obtained than an actual pleasure experienced. This is the fundamental problem with the logic of accumulation the would-be pleasure that derives from enrichment. Every capitalist subject has experienced the dissatisfaction that inevitably results from actually obtaining the desired commodity.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Rather than devoting all my free time to watching pornography, I spend part of it working at the food bank. For Spinoza in his Ethics, I become ethical when I cease thinking from my own private perspective and approach an Amor intellectualis Dei,… in which I can think in terms of the whole of creation rather than simply view isolated events from my limited perspective. This movement from the private and self-interested to the public and concerned for the whole defines almost every ethical project. But psychoanalytic thought does not conceive of ethics in this way. It is through enjoyment itself, not the sacrifice of it, that I genuinely encounter the other. An insistence on enjoyment is at the same time an insistence on ethical subjectivity. The neighbor or real other is the enjoying other.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Traditional authority figures ruled through prohibition: they demanded that subjects sacrifice their enjoyment for admittance into the social order. This type of paternal authority governs through the establishing of distance

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Zizek points out, “Today’s boss or father. . . insists that we should treat him as a friend; he addresses us with intrusive familiarity, bombarding us with sexual innuendos, inviting us to share a drink or a vulgar joke,” and as a result, “we are deprived even of the private space of irony and mockery, since the master is on both levels: an authority as well as a friend.”

 

–  quoted by Todd McGowan

 

The proximity of the contemporary paternal authority deprives the subject of any space for private respite, and at the same time, it confronts the subject with its own obscene enjoyment. What results is not a traditional subject of desire, a subject struggling with lack, but a subject wrestling with a disturbing presence.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

to Eric Santner, contemporary anxiety is an anxiety “not of absence and loss but of overproximity, loss of distance to some obscene and malevolent presence.”

 

– quoted by Todd McGowan

 

Authority has become too close, and its obscenity has become visible. The transformation of paternal authority — a turn from the prohibition of enjoyment to a command that subjects enjoy themselves — fundamentally alters the subjects relation not just to authority itself but to the other as such. Whereas prohibition creates a social authority that exists at a distance from the subject — or that installs distance within all of the subject’s relationships — the absence of an explicit prohibition leaves the contemporary subject in the proximity of a real other. The social field of prohibition is a terrain stripped of all enjoyment where everyone is reduced to the form of symbolic identity. Without this terrain (which is the contemporary situation), one encounters the other beyond its symbolic identity, the enjoying other.

Through restrictions on enjoyment, these societies covered over the real encounter between the enjoying subject and the enjoying other.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Altman reveals that the family is not what Christopher Lasch calls a “haven in a heartless world” but rather a redoubling of that heartless external world. At the very moment when characters want to retreat from the pressure of the enjoying other into a domestic space free of anxiety, they find the enjoying other appearing in an even more inescapable form.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

The subjects who have to sacrifice themselves for the cause most often have to do so in order to avoid losing faith in the cause. In short, the danger lies not in the true believer — the authentically enjoying other —but in the one who wants to believe but cannot.

 

– Todd McGowan

The absence or nothingness that castration produces can have the effect of reassuring the subject: it provides the subject with a sense of distance from the other and breathing space for itself. The trauma of the rupture it occasions has a pacifying reverse side. We experience anxiety when the absence that castration produces — the lost object, or objetpetit a — ceases to be an absence. As Lacan puts it in his seminar devoted to the topic of anxiety, “It is this sudden appearance of lack in a positive form that is the source of anxiety.” We expect the absence that is the lost object, but we encounter a field of representation where this gap has been filled. Social authority appears nonlacking and ubiquitous, never allowing the subject the space to desire.

The total presence of the authority leads to anxiety because the child in this situation has no distance from the other’s enjoyment. This situation proliferates from the parent/child relation to every social relation.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

The most common strategy for escaping the anxiety that inheres in today’s subjectivity is the recourse to cynicism. The cynic adopts a posture of nonchalance toward the enjoyment of the other, seeing this enjoyment as nothing special. For the cynic, there is no such thing as real enjoyment, no object that has more value than any other. Cynicism allows the subject to see through the fiction of the impossible object and to see it as just another everyday object. For example, Diogenes, the parent figure of cynicism, masturbates in public in order to demonstrate that activities seemingly laden with enjoyment (like masturbation) are really just everyday affairs.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

Despite the cynical knowledge that … belief is false, the cynical subject does believe in the enjoyment that comes from belief, and as a result, cynicism doesn’t offer the respite from anxiety that it initially promises. Unlike cynicism, the opposite strategy —the attempt to restore prohibition and paternal law — involves an avowal of the lost object and its ability to deliver enjoyment. We try to create the requisite distance from enjoyment through our various efforts to resurrect prohibition, to return to the reign of traditional symbolic authority. These efforts most often take the form of various fundamentalisms.

 

One of the chief appeals of fundamentalism is its promise to reintroduce a barrier to enjoyment into the experience of contemporary subjectivity. By reintroducing this barrier, fundamentalism promises to keep anxiety at bay, to allow us to attain some distance from the enjoying other. But like cynicism, efforts to restore prohibition end up returning the subject to the situation of anxiety rather than providing relief. Contemporary fundamentalism derives its energy not from the idea of restricting enjoy­ ment but from the idea of unleashing it. It promises increased enjoyment through restriction, and it delivers on this promise, though in doing so it produces even more anxiety. As fundamentalism restores prohibitions, it creates more intense sites of enjoyment.

 

– Todd McGowan

 

As Slavoj Zizek puts it, “ It is this excessive and intrusive jouissance that we should learn to tolerate.”  When we tolerate the other’s “excessive and intrusive jouissance” and when we endure the anxiety that it produces, we acknowledge and sustain the other in its real dimension. Tolerance is the ethical watchword of our epoch. However, the problem with contemporary tolerance is its insistence on tolerating the other only insofar as the other cedes its enjoyment

 

– Todd McGowan

 

To endure the anxiety caused by the other’s enjoyment is to experience one’s own simultaneously. As Lacan points out, when it comes to the enjoyment of the other and my own enjoyment, “nothing indicates they are distinct.”

Thus, not only is anxiety an ethical position, it is also the key to embracing the experience of enjoyment. To reject the experience of anxiety is to flee one’s own enjoyment.

 

– Todd McGowan

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