Where have the fathers gone?

18Jun07

/1/ – The Great insults

In several texts Žižek has pointed out the great insults to humanity and our perceived role in the universe. The first is Copernicus’ discovery that we are not at the center of the universe contrary to the bible. The second great insult comes from Darwin – we are not even the creation of god but the result of a ‘grotesque’ kind of evolution. The third great insult comes from Freud – not only have we lost our cosmic place and origin but we don’t even control ourselves, we are wrought by desires and an unconsciousness that disrupts our view that we are fundamentally rational creatures.

I am tempted here to add the rampancy of capitalism as the final insult to humanity, as the great cultural insult – after divinity, biology, psychology are ruined, capitalism functions as the deathblow to culture itself – we cannot even produce ‘rationally’ but only produce more forms of production to distract ourselves.

This final insult leads us to the concept of the father, which is a question of abstract authority (law or Law) as well as gender. Isn’t it clear that the authority to be debunked after the aforementioned ones would be the social and in particular the micro social one, that of the father?

One of the tropes of the industrial revolution seems to be the decline of the social worth of the father and, in postmodern theory in particular, this decline has been echoed in the distrust of the Freudian Oedipal drama. In her jumpy text Is Oedipus Online? Jerry Anne Flieger points out the importance of defining Oedipus in a more vague way and that it’s meaning is far from diminished in these millennial times.

/2/ – Father as law

As Žižek and others have pointed out – the decline of the material presence of the father figure does not mean a disinterest in the paternal figure as such and, contrarily, may in fact suggest a furthering strengthening of such a figure through abstraction. Basically, as pointed out in my entry on faces, the disbelief in a particular other, this or that person, can often lead to the more paranoid belief that there is a big Other, an elaborate system, here instead of the father as figure we may simply see the law. In his article “The Big Other doesn’t exist” Žižek begins by pointing out that in Totem and Taboo Freud supplemented the myth of the Oedipal father with the concept of the primordial father, the father who lies at the heart of the Law.

In the standard Oedipal drama the father stands as the bar to the child attaining the incestuous love object so that child develops external desire due to which the child harbors an unconscious desire to murder the father whereas in the myth of the primordial father, the children actually murdered the father in order to release the jouissance (enjoyment) that he harbored. The death of the primordial father returns as a kind of guilt symbolically gelled in the Law. Freud knows that this didn’t ‘really happen’ but he is simply attempting to illustrate the passage from humans as more intelligent animals to creatures which harvest culture, society and rule. [Incidentally Freud drew his idea of the harem and the primordial father from an early theory of Charles Darwin having to do with ape behavior...]

While our belief in the big Other as an obscure ultimate authority (such as god) has declined, the big Other lives on (and may even be magnified) in the symbolic universe. This can be seen, again as Žižek points out, in an absurd comment from Groucho Marx: “Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?” This kind of logic is exemplified in the experience of treating an obviously stupid and corrupt bureaucrat or official with respect because the law speaks through them. So even though we know that they are corrupt or disgusting or whatever, the fact that they sit on the bench and wear the robes mean that we must play into the fiction that the person truly embodies the law because they are a judge, cop etc.

/3/ – A Masculine symbolic?

To bring this back to the topic at hand – don’t we see exactly the same thing in the change of action heroes over time? Think of the difference between Nicolas Cage and Arnold Schwarzenegger as action stars. In Cage’s three major action films (The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off ) he is constantly under pressure to assert himself with his speech, to come off as a bad ass, to make the audience believe his words over our eyes (to tip our hat to Groucho). Schwarzenegger on the other hand, if any thing, undermined his toughness with his speech by utilizing stupid pun after stupid pun as he liquidated countless enemies. [A personal favorite is in the movie Predator where Arnold's character kills a man by throwing a large hunting knife into him thereby sticking him to a pole and Arnold retorts 'Stick around']

Let’s take a strange point here – what does it say about the dominant form of the male creature (or maybe more accurately masculinity) that the dominant ‘men’s magazine’ has shifted from Playboy to Maxim? There was an article in The Guardian some time ago (which I cannot find for the life of me) that discussed exactly what this shift can be seen to mean. The author argued that while Playboy was more sexually explicit, at the same time it was, at least somewhat indirectly, self destructive in that it assumed it’s readers would grow up or their interest in the publication would shift. There is no such veiled hope in the likes of magazines such as FHM and Maxim. [A recent Salon.com article suggests that this has to do with the decline of magazines on the whole, that while Playboy always tried to be literary, this is certainly not the cause with its contemporary equivalents.]

Now while the presupposed end result suggested was no doubt rife with heteronormative assumptions (something along the lines that one day, after all the womanizing, one would ‘settle down’) still there is a kind of implicit imperative in the contemporary men’s magazines that is far more terrible – it is that which celebrates the figure of ‘the mook.’ The mook, as discussed in the excellent yet terribly depressing Frontline special “The Merchants of Cool” is the standard obnoxious, loud mouthed idiot that dominates MTV and almost any form of media that sets after the 18-25 year old demographic. Amongst their ranks you have Howard Stern, Tom Green, and the boys of Jackass (Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O etc).

This kind of figure seems to be at once the rejection of the father role as well as subjection to the super ego injunction to ‘Enjoy!’ As Žižek has argued, by way of Lacan, the superego represents the external which is internalized, such as laws. In current times one feels guilty for not enjoying, for not pursuing the various pleasures available via capitalism. Isn’t the image of the ‘deadbeat’ dead always capitalistic (since the central fatherly thing has been reduced to economics?) in that he is pursuing the wrong desires (younger women, convertible etc) instead of paying child support, sending gifts etc?

/4/ – The most Freudian of shows? or Kill your father [LOST spoilers ahead...]

While the show Lost is saturated with various thematic fluctuations, one thread that has remained prominent throughout is that of fathers. At least half of the main cast has what could be politely deemed ‘serious daddy issues’ and in particular the characters John Locke and Ben Linus. While these characters stand out, I do not exaggerate – Kate killed her step father, Sawyer dedicated his life to avenging his father (who was murdered by Locke’s father), Jack turned in his father essentially ruining his life and fights not to become him, Hurley had an absent father, Jin tried his whole life to leave his father beyond, Sun was terrorized by her father et cetera.

But nothing surpasses Ben’s story. After years of abuse he decides to murder his father and everyone he knows. Ben’s father never forgives him for ‘killing’ his mother by being born and abused him through his entire life. In order for John to join the ranks of Ben’s Others, he requires that John kill his father, whom he’s been obsessed with much of his adult life. John’s father, the ‘man from Tallahassee,’ in order to be free. John is incapable of the act and, through one of Ben’s friends discovers that John’s father is the man Sawyer has been looking for. John locks the two in a room and the deed is done.

Ben’s case is even more extreme in that he murders his abusive father along with all his father’s associates in order to join the others. Ben is equally if not more totalitarian than his own father given the fact that he imprisons and attempts to brainwash a boy because he might have impregnated his daughter.

So how is the father drained of its power yet at the same time brutally haunting the present? As Žižek discusses in “A Letter which did arrive at its destination” every father is a failure, they always fail their ‘symbolic mandate’ and leave the child to settle their debt, in one way or another. Fatherhood then is the very embodiment of failure, of accepting the blame, of ‘being the bad guy.’ It is this embodiment of failure that makes the father so unbearable, the fact that we always already accept the authority and that all the little details of our father (their rudeness, they way they eat, etc etc) are truly horrible because they unconsciously remind us of the ridiculousness of the authority.

/5/ – Building on the corpses of our fathers or Even for an eggshell…

Now, as Žižek points out, to obtain freedom from the father means assuming the position of the father. So while the necessity of the father remains, its power is diffused and place into the symbolic attributing to its ambiguity. Is there on some level a desire for the obscene father to return shatter the sort of meandering search for symbolic authority. And, in a sort of ‘looking awry’ at Deleuze and Guattari’s assumption that capitalism uses the concept of the father to continue itself, that it produces neuroses, one should assert that, following Lacan, that it is capitalism that causes the neuroses in that it embodies them. While often people are almost completely devoid of jouissance, the neurotic is consumed by it so that s/he becomes a kind of zombie, animated by little rituals, obsessional and believing that the father is dead to avoid the figure altogether. The fundamental prohibition, the no/name of the father should not be ignored/rejected lest (as it is this prohibition which paradoxically creates desire) the final insult of capitalism become the final insult as well as our guiding star. The point of psychoanalysis in contemporary times, to echo both Žižek and Badiou, is that the problem is not being forbidden to enjoy, but being threatened to constantly enjoy. Because not only is this mandate of enjoyment self contradictory (in that it is mandated) but the kind of enjoyment demanded is a decaffeinated enjoyment, where the malignant qualities as well as the substance have been excised.

In short we get the father with all the flaws and none of the authority and we become the terrified Hamlet, unable to come to a resolution. Happy father’s day!

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One Response to “Where have the fathers gone?”

  1. 1 Nick

    Hi Naught Thought,
    I don’t really have anything to add, as you know psychoanalysis much better than I do, but I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work!


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