The Phallicized Face: Towards an Objectifying Ethics or the (Real) object of science


Here is a paper thinking with Speculative Realism (in the second half) in relation to the object and ethics that I gave this past weekend:

Against the dominate ethics of the Other, of which Emmanuel Levinas is exemplary, psychoanalytic ethics could, in the contemporary moment, be dismissed as reckless solipsism. The erroneous stability of the ethics of the Other (built on a shaky ontologization) and the current characterization of Lacanian ethics, involve a parallel structural slippage of their central objects – the face in the former and the modality of the Real in the latter. It is my assertion that the philosophical paradigm of Speculative Realism can serve to elucidate an ethics of the Real object. First a diagnosis of Levinasian ethics is required.

For Levinas, the Other is a kind of augury that points to the Good through the subjective overflow of its being – its call to the subject which is articulated by the human face. The face of the Other, Levinas argues, demands compassion in its bearing of otherness (Totality and Infinity, p. 66). In this sense Levinas redefines the very parameters of relation in that the ‘relation-to’ of the standard composite of relation is re-composited into a ‘relation-through’. Or, more complexly, the relation to (of same to same, of subject to an objectified other) becomes a relation through (of subject through Other to the Good). For Levinas, it is imperative that the relation to the Other be not one of subject to object but of one of subject to subject – one that takes the radicalism of subjective being into full consideration – the subject as an infinite transcendence, constantly overflowing its own bounds (Totality and Infinity, p. 27).
The problematics of this philo-relationial array can be summed up thusly:

1 – If otherness as such pre-exists and, at the same time, has to be detected by the subject in the Other by way of an encounter with the Other, how can alterity be ontological as it is for Levinas? (Totality and Infinity, p. 43). If alterty is ontologized, that is, if alterty is the zero point of being, then the difference between difference and difference and between the same and the same is collapsed.

2 – If Levinas’ relation-through can be seen as an attempt to bypass sheer alterity, then his hypostatization of the Good must be a divergent alterity, one other than a difference from difference. This third form of difference is codified by Levinas as the gaze of totality on the subject and the other (Totality and Infinity, p. 121). To have a base of difference, one must, as does Alain Badiou, assert that difference is an ‘inconsistent multiplicity’ and that terms such as subject and other are decisions and acts made upon this multiplicity after the fact and cannot exist within them.

If totality gazes at the subject and the other, that is, if the difference of difference and difference must rely on a third that splits them, then such a force must be absolutized which would undermine Levinas’ phenomenological injunctions. A fixed gaze would undue the structures of sameness which Levinas attempts to destroy (Totality and Infinity p. 43). If the otherness of the other is absolute (Totality and Infinity, p. 194) then from where does this gaze come which is not subject to relativity nor to relationality? It is here we engage a relevant psychoanalytic thread.

In psychoanalysis, the other (small O) as subjective effectuation/alteration arrives via the ego ideal, affecting the subject’s relational bearing through their secondary narcissism. Since Levinas insists on the ontological currency of his conceptualization of otherness, it cannot be said to exist only as an affective imaginary array as in Lacan’s formalization. Yet, questions in to this realm are closed by Levinas on the formal level, when he supplants ontology with ethics – relation becomes the ether of being. Furthermore, and on the level of content, Levinas dismisses teleological desire when he reproaches psychoanalysis for doing just that (Totality and Infinity, p. 65) and supplants the notion of an ontological ground with alterity as being. Levinas’ glaciation of alterity leads, in fact, to a existential indefiniteness to be quickly passed through towards the Good. This is why the object of the face must remain open to the subject for the thirdness of community to witness in order for Levinas’ claim that his reworked sense of relation is, in and of itself, ethical.

The problem here becomes one of facing desire. For Lacan, the face must be taken as only a mask, as an object, as the screen of desire which facilitates the lack of the subject – (Subjectivity and Otherness, p. 150). For Levinas however, the world is ontologically anthropomorphized and such a reduction is impossible. In Existence and Existents Levinas is clear that the other is object-less and that the object, in contradiction, must be “free to us” because, if it was not, it would obtain qualities that would make it disarmingly similar to the Other (Existence and Existents, p. 35). Returning to the Other as the face of lack, such an articulation of objects would, through their effect, disrupt the ether of enjoyment imperative for Levinas – the elemental bathing where we experience un-striated enjoyment. While Lacan counters this idealistic view of enjoyment, to counter Levinas’s view of objects will require a philosophical injunction. By secluding ethics from desire, Levinas attempts to inoculate the automatic disgust towards the other that Freud describes in Civilization and its Discontents. If the beyond of the Good (or the absolute Other) is linked to the Other as such, it would seem that either a pursuit of the Law would be resurrected (via masochist enjoyment) or as an ontological inactivity at the base of the Law in a Kafakesque sense of bureaucracy.

While Levinas merely sweeps the phallus under the rug of the face, psychoanalytic ethics viciously turn away from objects such as the face. Recently, however, Lacanian ethics have been more and more grounded in particular subject formations, as well as, in terms of a dictum, allying it, with the injunctions of the superego.

This phallicization of ethics surrounds the figure of Antigone and whether she embodies the ethical imperative and whether this imperative is tied to pure desire, or drive which, as Lorenzo Chiesa points out, implicitly solidifies Lacanian ethics into an imperative which betrays its radical core. The figurization of Lacanican ethics found in Lee Edelman’s No Future and arguably in Zizek’s use of Bartleby in The Parallax View, shifts the Real of ethics, from that of the Real Real, to the Real of the imaginary. My suggestion is that the object, as a form of immanence, as the un-thought stof must be brought into psychoanalysis and opposed to the formal object, the object as concept, and therefore be split from the Lacanian subject.

If psychoanalysis is, at its core, an applied philosophy, as that which parasitizes various theoretical bodies in order to diagnose their symptoms, then it could be argued that the psychoanalytic articulation of the object remains trapped in a classical philosophical context, circling around its very impossibility. Such an ambiguity leaves open the possible solidification of imaginary figures into psychoanalytic conceptualizations allowing Lacan’s ethics to drift away from the generative Real. Francois Laruelle’s configuration of the Real as pure immanence, to be thought with and not of, provides the exemplary form for saving the object of ethics.

Ray Brassier, who radicalizes Laruelle’s object sundered from the subject, does so by taking up the core of Laruelle non-philosophy. Non-philosophy seeks out the core decision of every philosophy in which the Real, as thought of, must be replaced with a Real to be thought with. This decision Brassier writes in Nihil Unbound “divides immanence between an empirical datum which it supposes as given through the a priori factum, and a transcendental immanence which it has to invoke as already given in order to guarantee the unity of a presupposed factum and a posited datum” (123). Thus, the philosophical object is self defining whereas Laruelle’s object is determined in the last instance, at the moment where matter settles into an object available to thought. To return to the field of ethics: if the Real is to be objectified it must not be figured – the object created in this case must be the always already existing object – the non-formal object – the object which exists only as a hunk of matter, as not metaphysical substance, but a discontinuous cut in ontological synthesis itself.

Here the innards of psychoanalytic materiality enter the pincers of speculative realism – as Lorenzo Chisea points out, Lacan dismisses the very question of Stof merely as the water which flows through the power plant of the Real Real or generative Real, a Stof which Lacan disregards. Alain Badiou, whose articulation of materiality is at least partially psychoanalytic, dismisses Laruelle’s non-philosophy as a mysticism of the One rooted in a realist science. This dismissal, however, hinges on psychoanalysis’ relation to science which, while beyond our scope here, formalizes all truth via a Cartesian mathematization of nature and a narrow focus on the cogito. The issue, as Bruce Fink states, ultimately comes down to the rift between the psychoanalytic object and the scientific object. Yet, for Brassier and Laruelle, the scientific object can be unformalized and un-mathematized, in such a way that it is vaguely psychoanalytic in that it is always-already a left over, simply a polyp of matter. To return to ethics, the question becomes one of materiality over matter (hyle) and whether there can be an ethics of the unformalized object – of the generative Real as the non-discursive possibility of all discourse.

Yet, there seems to be an almost imperceptible filament separating the functional place of the hyper-chaotic storm of the generative Real and that of the purely formal master signifier or phallus. It is here we return to the face. How do we stop science from being phallicized or otherwise figured – how is it not always about the face (of the scientist)? Lacan’s attack on the formalization of science holds only when science attempts to remain immune to itself. At its best, science is self striking requiring an exorcism of the anthropocentric poltergeist. When Badiou calls the brain merely a tool of man and dismisses the biological sciences outright – one cannot cringe at the anthropocentric idealism of such a statement, which may echo the sentiment of Lacan’s “Science and Truth.” While Fink argues that “Science must come to grips with the specificity of the psychoanalytic object” (140) it would seem that it is instead the duty of psychoanalysis to make sure the scientific object is consistently dissolved into potential objects in the generative Real. Psychoanalytic ethics dismiss matter as mere but unavoidable stof. Following this, Lorenzo Chiesa’s conclusion that a Lacanian ethics is one of the new as good, risks being subsumed in the figuration of the Real as Bartleby for Zizek and queer heroes for Edelman. Brassier’s adaptation of Laruelle’s non-philosophical object, finds support amongst his fellow speculative realists – particularly Ian Hamilton Grant and his reading of Schelling.

Grant, through Schelling and Lorenz Oken, explores the generative capacity of the inorganic and how this inorganicity shatters the bounds of Cartesian mathematized materiality. Grant argues that post-Kantian philosophies predominantly ignore the inorganic focusing instead on the opposition of number and animal, epitomized in the contrast between Deleuze and Badiou. Inorganicity as the self construction of matter, as an ontological protoplasm – the slime of being – provides the very possibility of all philosophy.

While Lacan grants nature a certain ontological rottenness (via his concept of anti-phusis), it is unclear to what extent this is an anthropocentric rottenness resulting from the ugliness of civilization. It seems clear that materiality begins where matter ends or, in Adrian Johnston’s terms, a reverse entropy erupts (materiality) once matter is pitted against itself. This birth of a material unground cannot cleave the morphological residue which shapes the contours of all possible being. The inorganic supplants the formal whether it is mathematical, empirical or ethical. The ontological centrality of Levinas’ ethics slights the inorganic completely, burrying the atomic sludge of being.

While one could, as Chiesa suggests, anchor novelty to ethics through void-braced Badiouian materiality, the stronger ethical move would be to engender and accept the creation of new objects beyond all conceptualized forms. In this spirit, the Speculative Realist fascination with HP Lovecraft has culminated in Reza Negarestrani’s suggestion of a Cthulhoid ethics – the question ‘what is next?’ without regard for the limitation of human faculties. The true test of an ethics of the (Real) object, lies in an understanding of an object’s inexhaustibleness, of, to follow Graham Harman, the impossibility of ever reaching an object’s molten core. The conjectural sciences allow for inventive speculative philosophy which is not limited by probability and calculations but unveils an object that is little more than the bare capabilities of matter, the uncountable strands and immeasurable patterns of hyle. Science, when it eradicates its stubborn anthropomorphic haunt, does not attempt to suture the subject, as Lacan argues, but gleefully beheads it. Against Levinas, and with Brassier, we should embrace philosophy as “the oraganon of extinction” as a practice which, to quote Thomas Ligotti, pulls the flesh back on the “ontological fraudulence of the human species.”

Again, following Brassier, we think according to objects, and these objects are real but not empirical and transcendental without being ideal. Thought is abrasive to life and any attempt to figure the generative real is to fabricate a soul or self and force it into a organism which is nothing more than a lonely meat sack rotting at the window of human perception. Lacan’s instruments, ethical and otherwise, shine at the moment where the material threatens to soften the coarseness of matter, when a master signifier is taken to be ontological, when someone attempts to plant a humanist glow beyond the dumb muteness of the face.


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