Monday, 15 March 2010

Buzzing 2: Ecological Love and the jouissance of the fly

Man is ... a funny sort of animal, is he not? Where in the animal kingdom is the discourse of the master? Where in the animal kingdom is there a master? . . . if there were no language there would be no master ... because language exists you obey. Jacques Lacan, ‘Milan Discourse’ (1972).

Jouissance of the Other ... of the body of the Other who symbolizes the Other, is not a sign of love’. Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX (1972)

In Ecology without Nature (2007) Timothy Morton mounts an impressive attack on the ‘eco-mimesis’ that characterizes much environmental art and criticism which, in the wake of Romanticism, constructs a fantasy of immersion in the natural world that is indistinguishable from the contemplative state of the ‘beautiful soul’ whose pleasure precludes acknowledgement of participation in the environment and consequently ethical responsibility for it. In contrast, Morton wants to abolish the dream of nature and replace it with an ecology that recognises the creatures of the world as independent subjects with whom we should interact as such. Morton concludes his book by suggesting that the ‘best way to have ecological awareness is to love the world as a person’ (201). Furthermore, he writes, ‘the best way to love a person is to love what is most intimate to them, the “thing” embedded in their make up’(201). His specific example is provided by William Blake’s poem ‘The Fly’: ‘Am not I / A fly like thee? / And art not thou / A man like me?’ (see above)

What Morton means by ‘thing’ is not exactly clear, but given the prominence of Jacques Lacan in his readings (pp. 198, 202-3) I am assuming that it is a reference to the centrality of ‘das ding’ to Seminar VII. What, then, is das ding of the fly? It is a strange question because das ding is an effect of language; for Lacan, only speaking beings relate to a Thing around which the (death) drive, articulated by the whole Vorstellung of the subject, its means of self-representation, circulates. I am not sure that flies speak, although certainly they buzz. Can this buzzing represent the fly for the buzzing of all the other flies or for other speaking, musical, noise-making beings so that it might be loved as a person? What (ecological) system would need to be in place for this to be possible, and for such 'love' to become structurally mutual?

For Lacan, the very structure of the signifying chain implies some Thing outside it upon which the chain uncertainly grounds and articulates itself. The order of intimacy imagined for the world of nature, particularly animal nature, is often associated with the jouissance that has to be sacrificed in the name of human civilization. It is towards this jouissance that the drive aims, thereby becoming a death drive because it is located beyond the pleasure principle that marks the limit of civilized comforts that are always of course more or less comfortable for some. Projected in the void, the Thing is identified as both the absolute Good beyond the symbolic order and the absolute Evil of suffering implied through its deprivation by the Other. This Other, moreover, is always represented by another person, one’s neighbour, whom Christ commands that one love as oneself. Lacan notes that Freud ‘stops in horror’ at the Christian commandment to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ since it summons-up the unfathomable hostility that inhabits the neighbour that one recognises on the basis of one’s own hostility. ‘And what is closer to myself than that kernel of jouissance in myself to which I dare not approach?’. At the interior limit of the Thing (on the basis of which Morton suggests we must love another creature as a person), equivalence is established between jouissance and suffering: ‘he’ always enjoys at my expense and vice versa.

Animals are located squarely in this economy when Jeremy Bentham makes what is probably the founding ecological statement relative to ‘man’ and his animal neighbours: ‘The question is not can they reason, can they talk, but can they suffer?’ Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1823). If animals can suffer, they can also enjoy, and it is certain that man sees that everywhere he looks. Moreover, it is on this essentially economic and imaginary basis (calculating the jouissance of the other) that ecology seeks to intervene in the world. This economic relation is also central to Blake’s poem, where, in the first stanza, it is precisely the jouissance of the little fly’s ‘summer’s play’ that provokes the violence of the poet’s ‘thoughtless hand’ (his unconscious wille or death drive, no doubt). Accordingly, this thoughtlessness immediately provokes the thought of equivalence between man and fly because the poet’s own jouissance (dancing, drinking, singing) will at some point be brushed aside by some other ‘blind hand’. The fourth stanza begins with a typical Blakean conditional: ‘If thought is life ... And the want / Of thought is death’, ‘Then am I / A happy fly, / If I live, Or if I die.’ While the ambiguity of this last stanza, based as it is on a conditional, can mean so many different things, Morton reads the poem as a ‘Cartesian meditation’ so that even though the mutable pleasures of the body are perceived to be as ephemeral as a fly, subject to the ‘blind’ vicissitudes of life and death, they provide the essential locus of happiness. At the same time, thought is able to maintain a sovereign distance through identifying with both. ‘Instead of bemoaning the fate of living beings ... the poem identifies with the “evil” (the “thoughtless,” “blind” mechanical operation) and with the insect’ (202). For Morton the poem has the doubleness of a Cartesian-Utilitarianism. Perhaps this can provide the rationale for an ecological, machinic ‘thought’ to manage the problem of the other's jouissance through a regime of happiness in which humans and animals (even flies) are equivalent and have equal rights? ‘Social mediation’, Morton writes, ‘is required to aid the creature’, a mediation based on what society imagines and ‘thinks’, which is to say calculates, about the creature’s ‘thing’, its jouissance (Morton, 2007: 202).

It is here that the ‘Cartesian-Utilitarian’ ecology seems to take on the same structure as contemporary capitalism where the master signifier is concerned with accounting for the right to jouissance. In his Milan Discourse (1972), Lacan provides an algorithm for capitalist discourse by adjusting slightly the Discourse of the Master. Capitalist Discourse is produced when the subject ($) displaces the signifier of the master from the position of agent to that of (repressed) truth below the bar (see above).

In ecological terms, we could say that Man-the-master (Man who masters nature precisely as an effect of naming it) is displaced by the animal-subject ($) who is liberated through its right to jouissance/happiness (a) which bears on it from the position of production. The signifier that marks the difference between ‘man’ and the ‘animal’ is displaced and they enjoy an imaginary equivalence in which an animal can be loved as a person even as humans are understood purely in terms of their drives and interests, calculated statistically, and understood through ‘swarm’ behaviour as part of ‘hive minds’ that ‘buzz’ in the network biosphere. It is of course this system of ‘bionomic’ ecological capitalism (S2) ‘socially mediates’ to produce the conditions that enable the animal-subjects ($) to enjoy and be happy. (S1) represents the laws of governance that command and regulate capitalism (S2) and its institutions to produce the surplus jouissance (a) that enables the animal-subjects to enjoy more or less equally in bovine contentment. Following the arrows, it can be seen that the discourse works in a continuous loop like a machine. In his Milan address, Lacan commented that ‘it is the cleverest discourse that we have made. It is no less headed for a blowout. This is because it is untenable . . . it suffices so that it goes on casters (ça marche comme sur des roulettes), indeed that cannot go better, but that goes too fast, that consumes itself, that consumes itself so that it is consumed (ça se consomme, ça se consomme si bien que ça se consume)’ (11). The animal-subjects consume themselves in the all-consuming machine, but they do it more or less painlessly; jouissance is regulated, distributed through the excess commanded by the ‘blind hand’ of the bioeconomic machinery of joy – or at least until the blow out.