April 15th, 2004

Full Speech Ahead

In working on my conference paper yesterday, I read sections of Kaja Silverman's World Spectators. I haven't done as much with that book as I did with her previous works. But I probably should have, when you consider that I was taking classes with her when she was in the process of writing it.

<em>World Spectators</em> cover

The experience reminded me of what a superbly clear theorist she is, taking extremely difficult ideas and making them understandable without compromising their complexity.

I was particularly impressed by this passage about Jacques Lacan's distinction between "empty speech" and "full speech". It follows a discussion of his debt to Heidegger, specifically the role that the concept of death plays in the mustachioed one's philosophy. The word "end" in the first sentence is, therefore, a synonym for "death". Also note that the "analysand" is the patient undergoing psychoanalysis:

Lacan suggests that it is not through conscious will or determination that we orient ourselves toward our end, but rather through full speech. Within "Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis," Being-toward-death thus becomes a discursive effect. And, far from representing linguistic repetition as a vehicle for mastering the past, Lacan celebrates it there for its capacity to bring us against the limits which define us.

Empty speech, which Lacan consistently defines in opposition to full speech, is the deployment of language on the part of the analysand to say "what" he is. It is predicated upon the belief that we can be spatially and temporally present to ourselves, and that language is a tool for effecting this self-possession. But instead of leading to self-possession, empty speech is the agency of an "ever-growing dispossession." When we speak empty speech, we lift ourselves out of time, and freeze ourselves into an object or "statue." We thereby undo ourselves as subjects.

Empty speech represents a refusal of symbolization in a second sense as well. It is what the analysand literally or metaphorically utters when he responds to the figural forms through which the past returns as if their value and meaning were immanent within them. Here, too, the analysand attempts to "entify" or "fill up" the signifier -- to make it identical with itself. He refuses to accede to temporality, to the fact that every psychically important event depends for its value and meaning upon reference to an earlier or a later one. The analysand also fails to see that with his object-choices and other libidinal acts he is speaking a language of desire. Empty speech is what the analysand classically utters during the early stages of the analysis.

The latter stages of the analysis ideally bring the subject to full speech. The analysand engages in full speech when he understands that his literal and metaphoric words are in fact signifiers -- neither equivalent to things, nor capable of saying "what" they are, but rather a retroaction to and anticipation of other signifiers. Full speech is also speech in which the analysand recognizes within what he has previously taken to be the "here and now" the operations of a very personal system of signification -- the operations, that is, of what Lacan calls his "primary language."

To understand that one is the speaker of a particular language of desire is to know that the past cannot help but repeat itself in what will be. It is also to know that one's previous libidinal choices insist in the very words one utters. To grasp oneself as the speaker of a particular language of desire is consequently to apprehend the futural nature of the past and to "reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come."

But to assume one's language of desire implies more than apprehending the futural nature of the past. It also means accepting the condition upon which any of us speaks: manque-à-etre. It means accepting, that is, we are beings who lack "being." This is only in part because of the "murderous" effect of words. It is also because what subjectivity finally represents is something like a "long speech." And, as with the individual sentence, the meaning of this speech will be decided only with the final punctuation mark.
Fixity, then, is the problem to be overcome in the course of analysis. The patient has to stop believing in a stable identity that exists outside of the stream of time.

But isn't repetition a kind of identity?

If you keep coming back to the same things, that return defines you. I suspect that the difference, for both Lacan and Silverman, is that the repetition is never absolute.

Some patterns repeat without variation, though that is an idea that proves harder to attain the closer you look. Most of the patterns we discern in our minds, however, are founded on the principle, not of the self-identical, but the self-similar. Lay different examples of a pattern over top of each other -- I'm speaking metaphorically, of course -- and you will find that the edges don't quite match up, that the correspondence is "fuzzy" in the mathematical sense.

It's interesting to note, in this regard, that the nature of fractals -- my senior science fair project comes in handy once more -- is to generate self-similar and not self-identical patterns. The easily popularized math of the 1980s and 1990s -- fractals and fuzzy logic -- thus proves strangely convergent with post-Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Clouds are an obvious example of self-similarity in nature. A cloud looks like other clouds of the same type -- cumulous, cirrus -- but no two clouds are exactly alike. More pertinently, similar cloud formations will produce rain in one circumstance and no rain in another. The outcome is not determined in advance.

What this suggests in terms of repetition in the language of desire is that, for all the similarity of an individual's actions over time, the end is not fixed until it comes. The language of desire may seem teleological in the sense that the end reconfigures everything that has led to it, but, since the telos is never known in advance, the material effects of the apparent teleology differ hugely from the sort one finds in, say, Christianity.

Confronted by the despair of students who regarded Lacan's point about full speech as bleak, Silverman insisted that, while the amount of freedom given to an individual is not great -- she used Lacan's phrase "little freedom" -- it is still enough to make possible a "repetition with a difference."

Repetition with a difference is the definition of self-similarity.

I suppose the most important take-home point here is that a temporal understanding of subjectivity actually allows more room for change than the fixity of a stable identity.

No one wants to be a statue.
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Dead Moon Dad

Last night I told my graduate class the story of how when Skylar was first born, she seemed to think that the camera was her father. I rarely had it out of my hands. And I still take a lot of pictures, particularly since the stealing of the mini-DV. Now, though, Skylar can return the favor.

This is a picture she took of me on Monday, when she spent the day with me -- and the redoubtable folks in the Undergraduate Advising office -- at work:

Dead Moon Dad

I think we'll get her a digital camera of her own soon. She's really into the aesthetic.

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I'm sitting at cpratt's computer desk while he plays X-Box Live with other bears around the country in the next room. danlmarmot is still at the drink-up following his rugby practice.

I'm feeling peaceful. Chris and Dan's house has always done that for me. This is a new house, though, quite different from a half-good, half-hood area of San José. At Salmonberg -- the original name of Redmond, Washington -- there's more than one acre, trees, and the pleasures of a European aesthetic throughout.

Dandy House

And Microsoft is only miles away.

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Fire Chief

Kim was worried that Fire Chief wouldn't bloom until I'd left for Seattle, digital camera in tow. But she -- the leader cactus -- came through in the nick of time:

Fire Chief

Emil Nolde, eat your needlessly fascist heart out. . .

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