Friday, February 12, 2016


"Imagine: a rather attractive man in his thirties persuades a young man he meets at a shopping mall to come home with him. Soon after they arrive, he photographs then drugs the boy, strangles him and dismembers his body with a saw. The victim's skull may be boiled for safekeeping; the head of another (seven male visitors are murdered) may end up in the man's freezer, while his genitals could very well be stored in an iron soup kettle. According to the killer himself, he enjoyed sex with parts of the corpses of his victims and, again according to the perpetrator of these acts, he was just preparing to eat the heart of one of the young at the moment of his arrest.

Certain forensic scientists have, apparently, come to think of predatory killers "as not merely disturbed but evil. Evil is that their deliberate, habitual savagery defies any psychological explanation or attempt at treatment."

While we might think that pyschopathic sadism would, by definition, exclude the category of sanity, the emphasis on sanity is in fact necessary: it authorizes the displacement of analysis from the psychic to the moral, thereby preserving the psychic from any traces of an ineradicable ethical stain. Habitual savagery is not a property of mind. The affixing of moral categories thereby becomes a tactic of unavowed self-purification; it sequesters certain persons and certain behaviors in a different universe from that of the moralists. Expelled from the psychic, these moral monsters are confined within the satisfyingly unimaginable and theologically sponsored universe of evil. It would be a psychoanalytic truism to say that this gesture of expulsion is a sure sign of the monster's proximity to our own psychic life. If we were already guilty of impulses made horrifically manifest in the crimes of serial killers, what better (or worse) way to protect ourselves Dahmerism than to declare it humanly inconceivable?

And yet, to recognize our closeness to the possibility of serial killing (and, on a larger scale, of genocide) might, unexpectedly justify an appeal to the highly suspect category of evil. Now, however, its invocation would not be a key element in a self-vindicating move form the psychological to the moralistic, but would rather be the sign of a very different sort of move: from the explanation of psychology to a psychoanalytically grounded ethic. Nothing is more absurd, Freud asserts, than what is perhaps the most cherished biblical commandment: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This commandment, revered as "one of the ideal demands" of civilized society, is "really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man," which, Freud claims, dictates not that we love our neighbors, but rather that we exploit them, rob them, rape them, murder them. Much of Jacques Lacan's 1959--60 seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis is a gloss on Freud's profoundly disabused view of the moral law that enjoins us to love others. The way in which Freud confronts this commandment is, for Lacan, the very heart of Civilization and its Discontents: "that is where he begins, where remains throughout, and where he ends up. He talks of nothing but that."

"That," for the Lacan of the ethics seminar, is the problem of evil--not, however, an evil projected onto an alien other, but rather evil as an intractable murderousness constitutive of the human itself. If we dismiss the more or less optimistic psychoanalytic theories between Freud and Lacan, theories that would make us more or less happy by way of such things as adaptation to the real and genital normalcy, then we may judge the great achievement of psychoanalysis to be its attempt to account for our inability to love others, an ourselves. The promises of adaptive balance and sexual maturity undoubtedly explain the appeal of psychoanalysis as therapy, but its greatness may lie in its insistence on a human destructiveness resistant to any therapeutic endeavors whatsoever.

Not only that: while insisting on the nonerotic character of this aggressiveness presumably opposed to love, Freud undermines his own resolutely embraced dualism by recognizing the "extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment" that accompanies satisfied aggression. Both the continuity and the incommensurability of sexualized aggression and what we ordinarily mean by sex are simply and profoundly designated by Lacan's use of the jouissance. Jouir is the french word for coming, for having an orgasm. Lacanian jouissance unavoidably evokes orgasmic pleasure, but it is a sexual pleasure that sex can't give; indeed, it pushes pleasure beyond itself, to the point of becoming the enemy of pleasure, that which lies "beyond the the pleasure principle." My neighbor's jouissance," Lacan states, "his harmful, malignant jouissance, is that which poses a problem for my love"--the insurmountable problem of an ecstasy dependent (for both my neighbor and myself)--on my being destroyed. Jouissance accompanies the "unfathomable aggressivity" at the heart of both the other's love for me and my love for the other. It is this intractable and ecstatic destructiveness that we refuse to acknowledge by projecting is, as evil, on others, thereby denying our own ineradicable guilt.


"The exercise of violence or power upon some other person or object," the attempted mastery over the external world. This is an ego-project, a defensive move (or a pre-emptively offensive move) against the world's threatening difference from the self... Intense narcissistic pleasure sexualizes satisfied aggression. An achieved "mastery over the external world" swells, we might say, the triumphant ego. "Unfathomable aggressivity produces a harmful malignant jouissance

Freud's most profound originality, it seems to me, is to propose not only that satisfied aggression is accompanied by an erotic excitement, that it produces a narcissistic jouissance, but also, and more radically, that the sexualizing of the ego is identical to the shattering of the ego. Freud distinguishes between, on the one hand, the narratives of both the sexual act (leading up to and climaxing in orgasm) and sexual development (leading up to and climaxing in heterosexual genitality) and, on the other hand, something like the very essence of the sexual that would consist in a shattering of ego boundaries produced by any number of "unaccountable," unclassifiable objects. There are degrees of self-shattering, ranging form such examples of sexually stimulating simulation as intellectual strain, verbal disputes, and railway travel, to the ultimate devastation of the ego and the subject in death. What all these very different stimuli have in common is their ability to set affect free from psychic organization; unbound affect produces the excitement of jouissance. The extraordinary narcissistic enjoyment that accompanies satisfied aggression at once hyperbolizes the ego and risks shattering its boundaries. 

The death drive as a drive to destroy others would add very little to a fundamentally nonpsychoanalytic Hobbesian view of human nature. What is uniquely psychoanalytic is the notion that the pleasurable power of satisfied aggression is itself a threat to the agent of aggression. In Freudian terms, the hyperbolic ego risks being shattered by its own narcissistically thrilling inflation. Thus, sadistically motivated narcissism is also masochistically satisfying. Psychoanalysis makes a concession to categorical ways of thinking by providing different, even opposing, definitions of narcissism, sadism, masochism, but psychoanalytic thinking lies outside of categorical thought. 

The most disorienting aspect of the psychoanalytic map of the human psyche is a group of unstable polarities (sadism and masochism, eros and thanatos, ego and super-ego), polarities whose opposite points, or locations, or instances, can simultaneously maintain, if only for heuristic purposes, their distinctness, and collapse into identity."

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