Zizek, Slavoj. “Melancholy and the Act.” Critical Inquiry 26.4 (2000): 657-81.

Zizek begins by stating that the Lacanian Big Other designates explicit symbolic rules and unwritten rules as well. Example of Robert Ebert’s movie rules—in a foreign land, in a car chase, a fruit stand will get run over, the grocery bag rule, etc—the Big other regulates our speech and actions. While not stated outright, disobeying them can be very bad.

One of those rules is mourning and melancholia. The dominant opinion is: “Freud opposed normal mourning (the successful acceptance of a loss) to pathological melancholy (the subject persist in his or her narcissistic identification with the lost object). Against Freud, one should assert the conceptual and ethical primacy of melancholy” (658). In mourning, a remainder occurs that fails integration through mourning, “and the ultimate fidelity is the fidelity to this remainder” (658). Mourning kills the lost object (again), while melancholy stays faithful to the lost object. The melancholic refuses to renounce the attachment to the lost object. (((This point is elaborated on by Derrida—we carry the world of the other; the dialogue continues)). This idea of maintaining attachments to the lost object can be used in multiple ways: from the queer one—gays should maintain attached to the repressed same-sex libidinal economy to the ethnic one: where the ethnic  group might lose their culture as it is subsumed by the capitalist tradition.

“The melancholic link to the lost ethnic Object allows us to claim that we remain faithful to our ethnic roots while fully participating in the global capitalist game” (659).

Anamorphosis- distorted projection or perspective, requiring a specific vantage point. Zizek says ideology works off of anamorphosis, where if we look at the ideology from a certain standpoint, then it makes sense; example, anti-semitism—the Jewish plot is the cause of all our problems. Anamorphosis distorts the idea of subjective and objective reality, since “the subjective distortion is reflected back into the perceived object itself, and, in this precise sense, the gaze itself requires a supposedly objective existence” (659).

This paradox does not hold in the melancholic, who mistakenly asserts that something “resist the symbolic sublation”, and “locate[s] this resistance in a positively existing, although lost, object. ” The melancholic interprets his/her desire as a loss, when it is merely lacking. The melancholic thinks that he/she possessed the object and has now lost it when in reality, he/she never possessed it at all. The melancholic confuses the object as missing, but in reality, it is lacking. That lack causes the object to emerge in the first place. The paradox comes when the melancholic thinks the object loss when in reality it lacks. “The melancholic subject thus elevates the object of his longing into an inconsistent composite of a corporeal absolute; however, since this object is subject to decay, one can possess it unconditionally only insofar as it is lost, in its loss” (660).

Zizek looks to Giorgio Amamben who “emphasized how, in contrast to mourning, melancholy is not only the failure of the work of mourning, the persistence of the attachment to the real object, but also its very opposite: ‘melancholia offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object’” (661). The problem is that the melancholic thinks what he possesses is lost—he mourns the object before the object is lost. ((((This problem happens with Maximo, who always wonders while all the stories that begin with Cuban being pure and great turn into something dark—he is suffering from melancholy, and even in Miami, where he possess a Cuban identity, through his food, his wife, and his community—he feels his Cubanness lost; later, he maintains connection to his identity through playing with the Cubans, through old stories, and through his jokes, but feels this abstract object loss, so he suffers the attachment to it—Also, his sadness comes from knowing that his homeland has forgotten him; he is no longer the German Shepherd of Cuba, he is the mutt of America. Having suffered one loss (losing his home), he suffers the loss of his Miami identity, he suffers the loss of his children, his friends—all before any of them are actually lost))))

As Zizek further explains “the mourner mourns the lost object and kills it a second time through symbolizing its loss, while the melancholic is not simply the one who is unable to remounce the object but rather the one who kills the object a second time (treats it as lost) before the object is actually lost” (662).

The manner to explore this paradox comes in the Lacanian distinction between the object and the (object) cause of desire, the feature that has us desiring the desired object. Something that we are usually unaware, “even misperceived as an obstacle.” The melancholic posseses the object but has lost his desire for the object: “. . . the cause that made him desire the object has withdrawn, lost its efficiency” (662). Lacan’s object petit a, is the void in reality around which reality is displaced and centralized. “This object is the sublime object (of ideology), the object elevated to the dignity of a Thing, and simultaneously the anamorphic object (in order to perceive its sublime quality, we have to look at it awry—if looked at straight on, it appears as just another object in a series)” (662).

The void-lack- only works when when it is embodied in an object. The object keeps the gap open. The void of desire embodies itself in an object that serves as a stand in. This void is best embodied in post-sctructuralist, Derridian, deconstructionist ethics: an ethics that calls for the always-already withdrawn negative trace of its own absence. We can never be fully present, accountable, ethical enough in the face of the other. The other is a void around which to build this ethics. Another example happens in Derria’s view on Marxism: we must keep true to the spirit of Marx, not the letter. Derrida’s radicalization means only the theoretical Marx, any actualization of Marx betrays the “spirit.”  As Zizek explains “on account of its very radicalism, the messianic promise forever remains a promise, cannot ever be translated into a set of determinate economic and political measures” (665). We can never be responsible enough to the other, our answer to the other will always lack. This gap between ethical responsibility and action betrays the problem of totalitarianism because the party attempts to fulfill this ethical gap with actions that betray and go against the people.

Democracy works as a perpetual working-ING, a “to-come”: “The to-come (a venir) is thus not simply an additional qualification of democracy but its innermost kernel, what makes democracy democracy. The moment democracy is no longer to come but pretends to be actual—fully actualized—we enter totalitarianism” (665). This democracy to come refers to when one is urgently called to answer the call of the other in the face of injustice. Derrida addresses the gap between ethics and politics, where ethics is the impossible response to the call of the other and politics is the need to act/respond. Ethics is always to-come; politics is a “here/ now”—in politics, in having to make a choice, we risk doing the wrong thing: “The ethical is thus the (back)ground of undecidability, while the political is the domain of the decision(s), of taking the full risk of crossing the hiatus and translating this impossible ethical request for messianic justice into a particular intervention that never lives up to this request, that is always unjust towards (some of the) others” (666). Ethics, then, opens up the condition of possibility for politics, while closing it. When I have to act in politics because of the ethical call, my action my hurt (some) others—will be unethical. The decision to act works on two levels:

First, we open up the gap between the ethical call of the other, and the decision to decide. Zizek elaborates, “the first decision is identified with/as the injunction of the Thing in me to decide [the other’s call/ the other’s decision in me]; it is a decision to decide, and it still remains my (the subject’s) responsibility to translate this decision to decide into a concrete, actual intervention, to invent a new rule out of a singular situation, wehre this intervention has to obey pragmatic and/or strategic considerations and is never at the level of the decision” (668-9).  Zizek wants to say that the Lacanian act is not along the lines of this deconstructionist ethic, where the “other’s decision in me” is not some structuralist view of a decentered subject of abyss of otherness I can never reach; rather, the Lacanian act refers to the subject’s direct identification with the other’s Thing/ injunction to action. The subject becomes the Other-Thing for “a brief, passing moment of, precisely, decision—directly is the Thing” (669).

An ethical act changes the very nature of what we think about ethical acts, the very idea of what is good.


Johannessen, Lene. “The Lonely Figure: Memory and Exile in Ana Menendez’s “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 41.1 (2005): 54-68. Routledge, 15 Aug. 2006. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.


Johannessen covers the discussion of exile and figuration. She examines how the exile attempts to re-map his/her new place in order to orient him/herself, in order to understand a new place meaningfully. Johannessen expresses that writin gin exile is writing in extreme. Her essay explores two levels: figuration- metaphor and analogy, which are the master tropes; and the manner in which the exile attempts to understand and familiarize him/herself in a new land. The exile uses old knowledge and applies it to new, unknown world in order to place him/herself. Migration is never merely happy or not—literature, like actual experience, has a growing number of displacement stories. Migration follows a wide range of motivations. The difference between groups depends on motivation. Exile, for instance, is marked by forced banishment; emigration is a choice for a better life.

Ana Menendez’s stories speak in memory, which remembers what has been left behind. The essay states, “The title story “In Cuba I was a German Shepherd” allows a reading that lends ear to the voice of memory as it obsesses with the past” (Johannessen 55). This essay wants to look at how “this voice” [memory] configures the narrative and how memory shapes desire. Johannessen says she will use tropology (the figurative use of language), Bakhtinian architectuonics (triad of model of human psyche; I-for-myself; I-for-other; and I-for-me), and cognitive linguistics. All these fields deal with memory, orientation, and relationships.

Memory unites the dissimilar, while similarity unites what is not continuous in memory. Borrowing the idea from Dianne Thompson’s The Brothers Karamazov and the Poetics of Memory, this essay quotes: “the continuity of memory makes us unite what dissimilarity (spatio-temporal) might otherwise separate; similarity makes us unite what discontinuity in the memory might hold apart” (Thompson (3) qtd. in Johannessen 55). The essay goes on to say that writing in exile intensifies this “sensitivity to temporal and spatial complexities and contradictions embodied in all attempts at representation” (55). Writing magnifies the disjunction between “home” and “place”—writing turns to home in order to restore familiarity in memory (55). Writing in exile highlights what was and what is, and attempts to recover home through narrative, “in order to recreate and restore familiarity, if only its memory” (55). Therefore, exile writers attempt to hold on to memories and to write in order to familiarize themselves with the world.

This familiarization attempts to “orient” self in the world. Writing attempts to restore the old world from nostalgic memory: the writer’s attempt to understand a new place through familiarization happens through the use of metaphor and analogy, “ ‘the master tropes’of migration” (55). Since the exiled lives in a new, unknown world, the exile uses analogy and metaphor to familiarize him/herself—to map his/her new world, a way of understanding. One comes to know the world through language—figuration or mapping—the exile takes what he/she knows and connects that knowledge to things he/she does not know. This “figuration” results in mixing of culture and language. Memory recalls what has been left behind. This idea leads to the essay’s contention that “The title story “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd” resonates powerfully with such compulsive retrospection, and allows a reading that lends ear to the voice of memory as it obsesses with the past” (55). This memory leads to exile’s desire.

Emigration leads to the need of making the unfamiliar and new into the familiar and understandable. The essay draws on cognitive linguistics to explain the idea of metaphorical mapping—the mapping of “source domains” that diverge from the “target domain.” The idea—from Heyden White and Antonio Barcelona—is that the exile projects old concepts on to new ones: “Language, custom, religion, and tradition undergo a certain degree of ‘figuration’ as they travel from one domain o another”—the two domains tend to blend (56). Migration parallels the idea of the “figuration process.”

The essay looks at Menendez’s stories, and it claims that the characters “and their relationship to the world display…a sensitivity to temporal disjunction and dislocation that challenges the coherence of the narrative’s inner space” (56). –plot summary   –focus on Maximo’s “nervous breakdown” (bottom 56-57).Looks at the park: essay claims that Domino Park becomes a separate entity of “American Miami” and acts as a “synecdoche of Cuba” (58). The park only matters to the Cuban immigrants who determined the “place” of the park, giving it meaning as they recreate a Cuban ritual. The Park, now—when Maximo visits it—has become gentrified and a tourist attraction. With the gentrification and touristification of the Park, the Park loses its synecdoche for the Cuabns (why? I don’t understand this logic?) The process works by taking something old but subordinate (Cuban Domino) and re-figuring it to match the new “thing” (America Miami). [An example is brujeira—where Cubans take an old, “pagan” religion and map it on to the new Catholic religion). The Park, however, has not followed these examples: “The park takes its cue, as it were, exclusively from what lies outside it” (58). The tour guide’s discourse objectifies Maximo and the Park, taking away the old Cubans agency in creating their own culture. [Again, I don’t agree—the Park, gentrified or not—arises out of Cuban culture, of bringing and introducing a Cuban ritual in to this space where only (mostly) Cubans over the age of 55 are allowed to participate. Objectification for tourist does not lead to inauthenticity of the ritual performed by the Domino players).

Maximo feels someone else’s will determining him “So even if the function of the park (as a site for playing domino) may not be basically altered from the point of view of the guide, the metaphorization it has been subjected to transforms it into a relic, an object for musuems, something that is lifeless” (59) – [Cubans who fled from Castro’s communism have always-already felt “someone else’s” will determining them].   The park attempts a one-to-one replacement that attempts to limit distance and past. [[I would argue no—that the Cubans who go play there KNOW that this park is a constructed space; however, as Raul says, they do not care. He embraces the spectacle. The Cubans know that this Park, in the middle of Miami, pales in comparison to what they had in Cuba—like most everything in Miami/America, none of it is as good as it was in Cuba.—‘eso no pasabar en Cuba]

Troping is a desire for replication not transformation; the exile space becomes itself the substitute for home. Johannssen claims that “Domino Park represented home with little regard for the new cultural domain in which it resided” (59) and that currently, the Park represents home as a constructed place, thus a caged zoo. Using cognitive linguistics, metaphor and metonymy, used to map knowledge to the unknown for understanding. Both, however, are different “Metonymy is [a] conceptual projection whereby one experiential domain (the target) is partially understood in terms of another experiential domain (source) included in the same common experiential domain” (Barcelona 4 qt. in Johannssen 60).

The essay relates memory to metonymy—metonymic memory selects what it remembers along continuous lines. For the exile, the idea of orientation does not involve making a ‘new home’—home is lost forever, and only lingers, frozen, in memory (60). Metaphor is not good for constituting the exile’s discourse “both because of its retrospective orientation, but also, and just as crucially, because the exile’s obsession is not only with memory but also oblivion” (60). Metonym is better since it “prefigures the exile’s mode of ordering” (60). The essay then looks at “In Cuba…”—stories about Cuba and past and follows two figurations: 1-similie—figure of despair of departure “roots dug in like fingernails in a good-bye” (Menedez 7). The 2nd– likens narrative to movement, where memory uses image of journey and space: “figuration is, however, inherently unstable, inaccurate, if for nothing else than the fact that the absence of figure does not exist” (61)—language opens up a gap between what is meant and what can be meant—this analysis sounds much like Derrida’s trace. The gap is itself a form, a “thing.” The figure that Maximo opens up is called “suspension” (61). Maximo’s memory illustrates memory and oblivion: memory connects him and separates him from his old home.

Maximo’s memories –his daydreams—become present in the figure of his wife. His memories, his daydreams, are a “synecdochical representation”, where parts (memory) stand in for the whole (Cuba). His memories stand in for that location, his home in Cuba. His memories represent how the exile occupies a certain place while remembering another place. This double creates a “discursive tension” that cause Maximo to “conflate and confuse” Cuban with Miami (62). Maximo thinks of his “other life” but that phrase is ambiguous—which is his other life? Johannssen wants to look at this tension—this suspension—and states that exile’s “double orientation” struggle for dominance; however, for Maximo, this “suspension” is neither Miami nor Cuba. Maximo is left without a place because he has no way to orient himself. He has no place from which to speak since he cannot reconcile his current place and his past; he is caught between place and time. (63).

Essay turns to joke, which functions along metonymic memory. The laughter directed at Anglo-American superiority and arrogance also pokes fun at Cuban “and his innocent provincialism in the face of the cosmopolitan new world he encounters” (65). He invests his naivety in the dignity. Essay says that he gets the laugh and “allows Maximo to escape his enclosure in a life lived elsewhere” (65). [I think this reading of the joke misses some nuances. I think that Maximo, a professor and well-read man in Cuba, knows that he is thought to be the provincial, poor man, and possibly uneducated man in the eyes of American society, and the joke is quite “literal”—in that new way literal means—in pointing out that Maximo was a German Shepherd in Cuba (a well respected professor), so the joke serves as a tragic reminder of his new place in America, in Miami, where he can no longer come off as a great and “pure breed”]

This annotation is of Cheng’s essay published in The Kenyon Review; since then she has published a book. I hope to get to it soon,


Cheng, Anne Anlin. “The Melancholy of Race.” The Kenyon Review. American Memory/ American Forgetfulness 19.1 (Winter, 1997): 49-61. JSTOR. Web. 15 July 2013.

Cheng begins by asking if we can ever get over race; she answers her question with no: one merely has to look at the way the “race card” gets played in society to see that the answer is no. She examines the idea of a “race card”—of a card that gets played. The implication is that if one holds a full deck, then they do not need to play the special card. The full deck implies an “idealized version of multiple subjectivity” (race, gender, ethnic, etc) (49). One only needs to play a card if one is outside of the game, “for to play the race card is to exercise the value of one’s disadvantage, the liability that is asset” (49-50). Cheng points out the paradox: the one who plays with a full deck does not need to pull out a special card.

[Or is the race card more like a Wild card? The race card is a card that gets played when you do not have the proper “real” card. A card used to try to get an advantage because your hand is short of the proper card]

Cheng looks at Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior where the narrator says she feels most at home when she is not at home. The narrator, who is always sick at home, but feels great in America, reveals the effect of affects. A sick body becomes one of hypochondria. That body only feels good when it is not at home, in displacement.

Freud sets up a distinction between mourning and melancholia, where melancholy is the pathological version of mourning; someone who cannot “get over the loss” (Cheng 50), the loss becomes incorporated into the ego. Remembrance becomes part of the self; since melancholy fails to let go, “is denied loss” [Derrida’s I carry the world of the other], Freud says “by incorporating and identifying with the ghost of the lost one, the melancholic takes on the emptiness of that ghostly presence and in this way participates in his/her own self denigration” (Cheng 50).  Cheng turns to Freud and his distinction between mourning and melancholy. Melancholy is the pathological version of mourning because melancholy does not allow the sufferer to “get over” the loss. As she points out “rather, loss is denied as loss and incorporated as part of the ego” (50). The act of remembering (of not forgetting) becomes part of the self. Freud, she says, reminds us that this taking on of the lost one, means that the melancholic “takes on the emptiness of that ghostly presence and in this way participates in his/her own self-denigration” (50). Taking this idea of melancholy, Cheng wants to apply it to race:

“As a model of ego-formation (the incorporation as self of an excluded other), melancholia provides a provocative metaphor for how race in America, or more specifically how the act of racialization, works” (50). America has a history of forming its identity through exclusionary practices (blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, etc), but America also does a good job of forgetting those practices. Since American identity is caught between these axis, the problem becomes how to remember America’s ugly past without slowing down progress? (51). Cheng presents the protagonist of Invisible Man as an example of the “minority as the object of white melancholia” (51). He represents an invisible body that cannot be forgotten. The ghost of that which society killed but the body remains. Mr. Norton represents the idea of progress. He supports black education and builds a monument on the progress of blacks in America off of the work of young black (ghostly) men. Cheng transitions into Toni Morrison’s critique of the American literary canon. The canon is full of books that look back at America’s past, but the canon is full of white people; therefore “the canon is a melancholic corpus because of what it excludes but cannot forget” (51). We have stories about the history of slavery and racism we cannot forget, but we fail to have very many minorities IN the cannon.

Cheng turns her attention to the melancholic minority. First, melancholy resembles what Derrida would term an undecidable: “. . . it designates a condition of identity disorder where subject and object become indistinguishable form one another. The melancholic object, made neither dead nor fully alive, must experience its own subjectivity as suspension, as excess and denigration—and in this way, replicate the melancholic subject” (51). A good cultural melancholic is the one who has a vision of herself without herself (as in the Kingston example). The idea that America is a melting pot is in itself a contradiction between assimilation and making a difference. The minority subject has to deny her/him self in order to inhabit the majority subject, thus suspending the idea of his/her own “minority” subjectivity.

Cheng goes into the example of Flower Drum Song where the minority, a father and daughter, celebrate their minority through illegality. The movie promotes assimilation. The two, illegal aliens, are actually ideal citizens. The father worries about breaking the law, as he is breaking the law. At the end of the movie, the daughter embraces her illegality in order to assimilate—in order to give herself over to citizenship and becoming the ideal citizen. Cheng states “More than a haunting concept in America, the “minority subject” presents a haunted subject. Minority identity reveals an inscription marking the remembrance of absence” (52). The minority subject is the melancholic one who is forced to renounce herself (instead of the lost object—in this case, the lost object is the minority subject, herself).

[this analysis of the minority embracing the illegality in order to become legal is interesting. The illegal has to assimilate, lose him or herself, in order to be legal. But in Cuban narrative, Cuban subject is here (by dry foot law) always legally. Cuban occupy a different space/place within the immigration narrative. The Cuban immigrant is the embodiment of U.S.’s victory over communism—Cuban represent a win for American ideology].

Freud realizes that even in proper mourning, the subject might suffer melancholy. In order to get over “it” the subject needs to already have been, somehow, over “it.” (53). Freud’s mourning entails a forgetting, which only reinstates the death: “Mourning implies the second killing off of the lost object” (53). Cheng makes an interesting connection between mourning and melancholy, stating that the melancholic integrates the lost object while the mourner forgets the lost object, but in both cases, the result ends up the same, with the disappearance of the lost object: “. . .the production of denigration and rejection, however re-introjection is concomitant with the production and survival of “self.” The good mourner turns out to be none other than an ultrasophisticated, and more lethal, melancholic” (53). The two methods are for the benefit of the subject who is dealing with lost—and in both cases, the subject either kills and denigrates the lost object (mourning), or hangs on to, fails to forget the lost object—both cases, in order to move on. In other words, the difference is that the mourner kills (again), in forgetting the lost object; the melancholic replaces the loss object with the very loss. The melancholic forgets the lost object and hangs on to the idea of loss (53).

In terms of racialization, these two methods deal with boundaries and blurring boundaries. Boundaries establish race; one defines the other against self. By identifying as one race, one identifies “other” races. While the issue of ethnicity is one of boundaries, we will never be able to set matters right. We are already conditioned by what society deems abnormal or broken—the language used to discuss and attempt to free those society oppresses is already caught up in and pre-conditioned by society. Cheng connects this problem to Freud: “In the way of Freudian logic, pathology defines health. Racial identity, as a moment of active self-perception, is almost always simultaneous with the racialization of another, an instance of othering” (53-54). Zora Neil Hurston, for instance, says she feels most black when contrasted with a white background. Where white defines black, “each defining the other’s pathology” (54).

The melancholic minority internalizes (assimilates) dominant cultural demands. This internalization is a matter of desire. What does the minority want? [Cuban culture is an exception of this idea of internalization. Cubans playing domino at Domino Park have intergrated their culture into America—not “internalized” the dominant culture. Indeed, the language, food, and general culture of the Cuban community show how little Cubans, at least initially (first wave Cuban immigrants) assimilated; I am not talking about Perez-Firmat’s 1.5ers who have create a new culture out of mixing Cuban/American].

The point is that the act of racialization, of denying and re-assimilating the other, of self-perception, is a melancholic act. The discourse of compensation denies the problem of how the discrimination was put in place, and fails to acknowledge the physical affects of the discrimination. Cheng wants to explore how racialization works through this melancholic heuristic. The ethnic subject attempts, like the melancholic one, to forget (who she is). Cheng asks, “If the melancholic minority is busy forgetting herself, with what is she identifying?” (54). The minority, as has been said, has “internalized dominant cultural demands” – so Cheng asks: what does the minority subject desire? “When it comes to political critique, it seems as if the desire itself may be what the minority has been enjoined to forget” (54). Cheng looks at Madame Butterfly, where Song, disguised as a woman, seduces Gallimard. Song’s desire is never explored; he is either the object of Song’s desire or critique of it. His performance must remain inauthentic if it is to remain a critique. Cultural assimilation requires relinquishment—a disguise.

This notion of cultural assimilation is common in literature. Homi Bhabha explores connection of assimilation and falsehood: mimicry is a colonial discipline that is doomed to failure. Mimicry means that ethnic other acts a little like the dominant culture but not too much. The attempt by the ethnic to “internalize the other” is for Bhabha an authoritive injunction. An example of this injunction to mimic the dominant culture can be seen in the servant Indian dressed as the English (Babar the elephant?). This imitation serves the purpose of showing that the ethnic is playing the game and trying to fit in, while also keeping the distance of never reaching “authenticity.” However, Cheng says that “The concept of melancholic racialization, however, implies that assimilation may be more intimately linked to identity than a mere consequence of the dominant demand for sameness” (55). This melancholic assimilation (passing, acting like dominant culture) is a fait accompli (an action that is done and cannot be changed). The ethnic subject forms an ego through this acting, but the ethnic other is never considered authentic. “Passing” becomes part and parcel of the ego, of the subject.

Cheng looks at Derrida, who also implies that the “disguise” becomes part of the subject’s identity. The very act of “taking in” the culture of the other becomes an act of self-constitution. This act of mimicry works on both the minority and dominant culture. As Cheng’s Invisible Man example illustrates “If he [invisible man] has assimilated only through his invisibility, then he also renders dissimilar and strange the status of their [white-anglo] visibility” (57).  Cheng sees this type of mimicry as a possible way to challenge and subvert assimilation. Assimilation only goes to undermine the culture assimilated.

This essay then falls into the idea laid out by Derrida on immigration and the breakdown of an in/out binary. Cheng focuses on Rinehart from Invisible Man, who is both religious and pimp, runner and gambler and lover, etc.. “Who you are depends on whom you are talking to, which community you are in, and who is watching your performance” (57). Cheng describes how performing becomes the actual thing; Song in M. Butterfly becomes the lover he was only playing—Zizek elaborates this point in stating that the mask we wear is actually who we are.

Cheng’s argument revolves around a Derridain deconstruction of absence/presence and of inside/outside. She says that “American culture is continually confronted by ghost it can neither spit out nor swallow,” and then later she says that the act of configuring authentic American culture is an act of exclusion that pre-conditions what is included: “The act of delineating absence preconditions presence” (58). What Cheng argues is the melancholy of race, is precisely what Zizek says is the problem with tolerance in racial matters. Cheng says that “ You carry the foreigner inside you. This malady of doubleness, I argue, is the melancholy of race, a dis-ease of location and memory, a persistent fantasy of identification that cleaves and cleaves to the marginalized and the master” (60).

What would Levinas think of this idea of carrying the foreigner inside you? If my subjectivity is predicated on the other, then I am by difference with the other, no?

I have one year to write my dissertation. 

I am honestly not very confident that I can do it in that time-frame, but I will do my best. From here on out, I will post my research as I read. I find it convenient to have this space out here in the interwebs as a back up of all the annotating I am doing in order to write my dissertation. 

Here are some sloppy ideas on Lacan’s influence on subjectivity. Comps are right around the corner, and I’m starting to freak out a little. Today will be spent on literature and fiction though. I’ll get back to the theory this weekend!

Freud and Lacan contributed to a radically new understanding of the subject as decentered, without a fully-present center that the subject controls. Freud took the idea that we are in control of our minds away with his introduction of the unconscious that subject are unaware of, and Lacan further complicated the subject by explaining how even “consciousness is structured like a language.” A result of Lacan’s structuralism, he posits that since language structures consciousness, the subject’s understanding of itself gets dispersed over sliding signifiers, never really knowing or understanding itself. This idea of the subject as constructed by language heavily influenced neo-marxist’s, such as Althusser and Zizek, ideas of ideology, as well as gender theorist, such as Irigaray. Lacan’s influence manifest most poignantly in the manner ideology affects the subject, who is constructed by language. These thinkers all use Lacan’s contributions to subject formation to reconfigure ways of thinking about the subject caught in ideology.

Althusser examines capitalism and the ideology at work within the system to explain how ideology (and capitalism) reproduces itself perpetually through Ideological State apparatuses (ISA). While this examination of ideology’s control over a population springs from Marxism, Althusser applies Lacan to Marxism in order to explain how subjects consent to ideology unconsciously. Maintaining the Marxist stress on economic causes, Althusser furthers this analysis to explain how ISAs function with autonomy. Althusser begins with Lacan’s concept of the Imaginary stage, the preverbal stage babies inhabit; at this point, consciousness is not Marx’s “false consciousness” but primordial. For Lacan, the subject then moves into language and the symbolic stages, also the place where the subject identifies with itself in the mirror, at the mirror stage. Althusser uses Lacan’s subject formation to explain how the subject is born into ideology, which, much like the Freudian unconscious, dictates how the subject behaves in society. Althusser posits that a subject’s individuality gets generated through social forces, and he uses Lacan’s mirror stage to explain how the subject identities itself in society.

Althusser states that ideology works on the idea of a Sign, where, in ideology, the sign is always (mis)recognized. While a subject might think that its actions are freely chosen, ideology sees to it that (unconsciously) its acts are pre-chosen. The subject, following Lacan’s subjectivity, sees an idealized version of itself, taught through ISAs and enforced by RSAs, in capitalism, but as it is in the mirror stage, this self is misrecognized; the subject puts itself in an idealized position in the capitalist system without realizing that it has no control over the system.

This analysis leaves a very bleak view of subjectivity, for how can a subject escape society’s trap when, as Marx put it “They do not know it, but they are doing it”? Althusser offers no solutions for the subject to escape. In Reading Capital, Althusser posits that more than answers, the questions posed need rethinking because the questions were based on the ideological answers already in misrecognition with the capitalist system. Furthermore, Althusser leaves very little room for critique since any critique arises out of the very ideology that has subjects tapped. More traditional Marxists critique Althusser’s lack of discussing class struggle, but if subjects are born into ideology, then the very idea of class and the structures of society arise out of ideology; therefore, by analyzing ideology, Althusser does—even if not directly—examine social structures. Lacan, through Althusser, contributes to rethinking Marxism, generally, and to thinking of ideology on the subject, specifically. Another problem to contemplate is who deploys this ideology? If subjects are all born into language, then the people in charge of ideology are also part of ideology and the analysis becomes a never-ending Russian doll or mirrors reflecting each other. Although, keeping Althusser’s idea about asking the correct questions in mind, Zizek examines ideology and the way it works in society as well, acknowledging that philosophy’s job is not to give answers but to ask the right questions.

Zizek strives to ask the correct questions, examining ideology and furthering what Althusser begins: ideology as the “thing” we participate in without knowing it. The subject’s belief in ideology establishes belief before the belief in ISAs. Again, just as in Althusser’s analysis of Lacan, the subject comes into ideology in the symbolic when the subject comes into language. Language, then, encompasses the subject—the space in which the subject lives (in a Heideggerian way, language is where the subject (Being) dwells). Zizek’s interest lies in the Lacanian Real and in the many manifestations of ideology, and how the Real accounts for language’s failure. The Real lies both within and outside of the subject, resisting the Symbolic’s attempts to describe it but also revealing the Real’s existence. Zizek views fantasy—object a—as a space that conceals the gap, which only proves the existence of the Real. The gap becomes what the subject most desires, imagining the other as possessing the thing that is desired. This “thing,” the gap, the desire of the subject that the other has, gets filled by ideology. Ideology tells the subject what to desire; much in the same manner that Althusser claims subjects follow ideology without awareness, Zizek claims that ideology tells the subject what to desire. Additionally, Zizek conceives of the Big Other as purely symbolic, yet having the power to order the subject’s actions. The Big Other is the institutions (ISAs for Althusser) that order reality, and the Real gets disavowed in favor of the symbolic. The Real, however, is “radically ambiguous…it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance” (Zizek, Looking Awry 29). The Real then manifest itself both in ordering the symbloci universe of the subject as well as intruding and collapsing that universe.

Zizek posits that postmodernism claims that we live in an era of post-ideology; while he claims that we are actually more in ideology than ever, only a cynical ideology. Therefore, Zizek explains that the Real causes conflicts that arise because of social reality, the symbolic order. The conflicts that arise from the Real fall outside of language, but the conflicts are seen in the manner ideology works on subjects. Ideology conceals the lacuna opened up by attempts to thematize the Real, which falls outside of language, and leads Zizek to purport that objective truth remains impossible but that ideology must exist since this antagonism exist, which is what Zizek analyzes.

Zizek views subject formation in much the same way as Althusser in that the subject is born into language and language is ideology. For Zizek, ideology hides the real problems and causes the wrong questioning, a notion Althusser already analyzed. For Zizek the way to ask the right questions is to step back and explore the moments of the Real that erupt into reality. Lacan’s influence on Zizek is pervasive; as Zizek explains, he uses Lacan as his theoretical base to analyze everything from Marx, Hegel, and Kant to Hitchcock, film nior, and popular culture. Lacan’s biggest contribution to Zizek is in the former’s later conception of Real and the barrier between the Real and reality. Zizek can be said to contribute to Lacan’s work by continuing this analysis that Lacan start later in his career. Both Altheusser and Zizek build on Lacan’s ideas of the Law of the father to explore ideology. In Lacan’s theory, the child meets the Law of the father to realize its place in a network where its choices in that network are already determined, established by the society it was born into. Just as the subject in ideology is born into ideology and must follow the law of the society it is born into.

The problem of being born into the regulations of society manifest in the manner society determines sexuality, which Irigaray critiques. Lacan’s contribution to Irigaray, again, lies in his theory of subject formation. For Irigaray, however, Lacan excludes women. In the mirror stage, the infant projects an imaginary body that is misrecognized; then in the symbolic stage—entrance to language—the infant further begins to create an ego. Irigaray agrees with Lacan on these points, and with the cultural influence on how the subject sees its body biologically. The problem for Irigaray, emerges in Lacan’s master-signifier being the phallus, thus privileging the male. The imaginary construction of the body holds the male body in higher esteem throughout Western discourses of science, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, leaving women out. The subject, for Lacan, must have a relationship to the phallus to attain social existence.

For Lacan, the infant wants to usurp the Master Signifier and have all of the mother’s attention. When the baby realizes the law of the father prohibits the infant from taking over, the baby begins to realize its place in society, acquiring its own relationship to the phallus. Sexual difference arises out of having or being the phallus. These processes happen through language, which Irigaray explores, especially how gender arises out of cultural constructs bound up with language. Therefore, Lacan’s contributes to Irigaray by establishing her departure point, the gendering of the subject through language (ideology for Althusser and Zizek). She takes a radical step back from Lacan, refusing to categorize or explain female subjectivity, caliming that doing so would interfere with women redefining themselves; she then posits the inability to describe the feminine outside of male hegemony. Her project becomes problematic, in much the same manner as Derrida’s: how can anyone redefine women (even women) if everyone is caught in male vocabulary that has excluded women. Lacan, himself, failed to realize how immersed within ideology he was when he privileged males over females, leaving females out. Nonetheless, Lacan gave Irigaray the vocabulary to begin discussing the exclusion of females from Western thought.

Lacan helps all of these thinkers examine the subject caught up in ideology because of language. Society establishes a language and forgets the power of that language to control culture and thought. Lacan helps Althusser, Zizek, and Irigaray formulate subjects and subjects place within society, and that place is a precarious one since the subject is so radically fragmented form the mirror stage on, and these thinkers focus on that fragmentation and how hegemonic powers take advantage of that fragmentation to control it populous.

And more…

How to Read Marx by Peter Osborne— and Perdue’s modules on theory.

1- Commodity: Fetish and Hieroglyph:

This book begins by looking at how commodities take on the form of a hieroglyph by becoming symbols for society in the manner a hieroglyph is a symbol.

Osborne lets us know that a commodity is, at first sight, a trivial thing, without any special properties other than its use-value. Humanity, through its activities, changes the material of the commodity in order to make it useful. The example given is a wood, which can be altered to make a chair or table (9). The table is merely wood though, until humans make a thing out of it, create it as a commodity. However, “The mysterious character of a commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value” (ibid.).

This explanation leaves me confused, so here is what Marx said:

commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far
as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful. This 
property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour
required to appropriate its useful qualities. […] Use-values 
become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute
the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of 
that wealth” (my emphasis, Marx 46). A commodity then is separate from its use-value and only acquires value through human consumption. The value is determined only when the object has entered into the system of exchange.

Osborne goes on to explain the commodity-fetishism, which is not a fixed desire on an object, as he claims the term is commonly misread, rather “Marx’s account is not about fetishism as a psychological condition of a subject, whose desrie transforms the significance of particular objects. It is about the fetish character of the commodity itself, a special kind of object: specifically, the fetish character of ‘form’, the commodity-form” (11). The fetish is not on the object but on the value placed on the object, the “value-form of the commodity.”

I must pause here to note that Osborne’s prose, I feel at times, is much more dense than Marx’s prose. The book is sloppily written, but I will try to get out of it what I can, always going back to the original. Anyway—onward…

We have to step back: commodity- all commodities have exchange-value-value of the commodity in relation to other commodities.

All commodities have use-value- a property that satisfies needs.

Marx states that labour also has two characteristics:

Concrete labor: the skills to produce an object, such as planning, hammering, sawing, etc.
Abstract labor: the power put into making something (the man-hours). What happens in capitalist society is that abstract labor gets transformed into concrete labor when abstract labor gets bought and sold as a commodity, which means that abstract labor then has to produce exchange value, and of course, means that the employee will want surplus value from this commodity. (See previous post on Marxism).

Another explanation of use value vs. exchange calue (thanks to Perdue’s modules)

USE-VALUE vs. EXCHANGE-VALUE: The usefulness of a commodity vs. the exchange equivalent by which the commodity is compared to other objects on the market. Marx distinguishes between the use-value and the exchange value of the commodity. Use-value is inextricably tied to “the physical properties of the commodity” (126); that is, the material uses to which the object can actually be put, the human needs it fulfills. In the exchange of goods on the capitalist market, however, exchange-value dominates: two commodities can be exchanged on the open market because they are always being compared to a third term that functions as their “universal equivalent,” a function that is eventually taken over by money. Exchange-value must always be distinguished from use-value, because “the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values” (127). In capital, money takes the form of that equivalence; however, money in fact hides the real equivalent behind the exchange: labor. The more labor it takes to produce a product, the greater its value. Marx therefore concludes that “As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” (130).

[Side note—again from Perdue: On commodity: “COMMODITY: “an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (Marx, Capital 125) and is then exchanged for something else. When Marx speaks of commodities, he is particularly concerned with the “physical properties of the commodity” (126), which he associates closely with the use-value of an object. However, use-value does not automatically lead to a commodity: “He who satisfies his own need with the product of his own labour admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values” (131). Commodities, therefore, “possess a double form, i.e. natural form and value form” (138). (See Use-Value vs. Exchange-Value.) The physical body of the commodity is made up of 1) the material provided by nature (e.g. linen, gold, etc.); and 2) the labor expended to create it (see Marx, Capital 133). Note that a commodity can refer to tangilble things as well as more ephemeral products (e.g. a lecture). What matters is that something be exchanged for the thing.” ]

Osborne explains how a commodity acquires “mysterious” or “super-sensual” qualities, becoming “Das Ding” or “Thing” (which relates to Lacan’s use of Thing for the Real, with similar qualities—qualities that cannot be put into words, that are outside of verbalization, with mysterious power). The commodity has both perceptible properties easily seen and non-perceptible properties (14). The super-sensible aspect of a commodity is expressed through price so that we believe that an objects price embodies the object—not the labor. As Osborne explains “When we encounter a car, a computer or a washing machine, we see its price as an expression of the value of the sensible object itself, rather than of the labour it embodies” (15). We fail to notice the labor put into the product and merely look at its price as a reflection of the product. This relationship reveals society: the price arises out of society’s relation between objects, like hieroglyphs, these relations and commodities need special interpretations.

Commodities become a fetish when money gets involved and so the object is imbued with “special power” in the monetary value of the object, rather than on the labor of the object. This relation reveals the exploitation of the workers, who remain mostly invisible. We encounter the objects of our purchases only in a market where we exchange money and with the corporations who sell us our products, and we never really come into contact with the workers who created the product. As the modules explain: “In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become “the direct incarnation of all human labor” (187), much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process, “Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action” (187). Although value ultimately accrues because of human labor, people in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

All of this control in capitalist society occurs because of ideology, which is where I will turn my attentions to soon—I think…

I don’t know if I will return to the How to Read Marx book–the writing makes concepts more confusing and I don’t feel I am getting much out of reading it.

More notes on the idea of Marxism–with a nod to neo-marxist:

Althusser believes that capitalism doesn’t solely determine relations. The base and superstructure are engaged in dialectic so that changes in the superstructure can affect the base. For example, changes in the ways we think about marriage can change things at the base, such as sexual relationships, which have changed over time.

Marx (and Engels) invert the Hegelian dialectic—rather than start from abstract ideas (master-slave), Marx starts with material world. The base is the economic base, the modes of production, the relations of production, the forces of production (technology, etc). The superstructure is culture and ideology. The question is: what relationship exist between these two?

Ideology distorts reality, and in a hegemony, ideology operates by way of consent. The distinction in ideology between communist Russia and the U.S.A. is that in Russia people were not free but knew it. In the U.S. people are not free but fail to notice.

The U.S. doesn’t know it isn’t free because, according to Althusser, of ISA-Ideological State Apparatuses that make us think we are free, individual thinkers, when we are not.

Every child goes through a social production, and the ultimate form of production are the conditions for reproduction; that is, social formation that will keep reproducing itself. Soceity reproduces itself through ISA, such as religion, schools, family, legal system—all of culture. All these things that are in place to make you a good, normal, conforming citizen with religion and education as the biggest ones in place to make sure society reproduces itself.

“To be a subject is also to be subjected”

Marx wants to examine this ideology and change it so that the worker is no longer exploited.

Capitalism is built on production, so the people who own the means of production exploit the worker. Perpetually, capitalism builds its wealth on unfair premises: it pays the worker as little as it can get away with—Marx argues this system does not work.

Part of the problem arises out of capitalist practices that determine values in society. For instance:

Use-value: value an object has because of its use—the value an object has that you are willing to put in labor into it to create it.
Exchange-value: arbitrary value placed on object (such as gold). A pound of gold against a pound of iron where iron is useful and gold is not, but someone, somehow, put more value on gold. The ruling class determines the value of an object that has nothing to do with its actual use-value.

These values have ramifications for consciousness in dialectical materialism; for example:

A farmer has a rake and a hose an the land to grow crops, harvest, and sell them. Then trackers are invented, which means less work for the farmer, but you need people to make a tractor. Now you have people working in a tractor factory to make money to buy the food that the tractor is used to harvest, instead of just growing the food yourself. Then to make things go faster, one worker tightens three screws on the tractor, and that is all he does. To save money, the factory makes robots to tighten screws, but now you need factories to make robots to make tractors to make the food that you are making robots for in order to make money to buy the food. One idea creates a need for the next idea, but sometimes the ideas contradict.

This line of ideas create alienation; the worker is alienated from the product and from the original goal. In alienation, all relations among people become monetary and cease to be human, rather merely a relation between labor.

Where the farmer would make food and trade it for goods, now someone makes tightens one screw on a robot that makes a tractor to harvest food, and the factory worker has no idea what his finished product looks like or what it is used for.