Zizek and some Trendy French Intellectuals: Lacan, Foucault, Althusser, Artaud

On Tue, 11 Aug 1998, Doug Henwood crossposted from Zizek:

"Of course, one can argue that this disidentification is something entirely different from the lesbian parodic imitation subversion of feminine codes - none the less, the point remains that the difference is one between the two modes of disidentification, not between identification and its subversion. For that reason, an ideological edifice can be undermined by a too-literal identification, which is why its successful functioning requires a minimal distance from its explicit rules. Is not an exemplary case of such a subversion-through-identification provided by Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Schrueik, the novel whose hero wreaks total havoc by simply executing the orders of his superiors in an overzealous and all-too-literal way? The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from this paradox is that the feature which effectively sustains identification, the famous Freudian-Lacanian einziger Zug, the unary feature, is not the obvious one, the big 'official' insignia, but a small feature, even the one of marking a distance from the official insignia. When a lesbian imitates-parodies-repeats-subverts the standard feminine code, does she not thereby, at a 'deeper' level, assert her 'true' queer identity, which requires such an ironic-subverting-parodizing attitude?"

An aporia indeed. Interestingly, Adorno talks extensively about the identification-principle, and points out that the thing is always mediated by the process of exchange: to identify something, to cognize or think it through, means already to externalize it, to experience it as something outside of the subject. The kicker here is that our own subjectivities are also problematic: we're creatures of late capitalism, and were formed by the pressures of the marketplace, so we experience our own identities as alienated objects or conditions somehow imposed on us from outside. The answer here isn't to denigrate subjectivity still further, the way Lukacs saw modernism as being mere decadence compared to the healthy, flourishing vitality of pre-1848 culture, but to develop that subjectivity still further: to go beyond what we are and reach for what we might yet become. This is where Zizek's use of Freud gets problematic: he's pointing out that class identity is experienced as a Freudian drive or 'Trieb', which involves a constant renegotiation of boundaries or the formal principles of identity -- its juridical and legal superstructure, as it were.

So far, so Lacanian -- but this superstructure is itself historical through and through: it emerged out of social necessity, the requirement to organize society so as to make accumulation possible, i.e. the necessity of making subjects reasonably identical in the context of a national or international market. This is where I wish Zizek would read a bit more of Bourdieu, who goes into painful detail about how social fields are really competitive micromarkets, which jostle for position, stage internal fights as well as external turf wars, arrange for the valorization of social and other forms of identity, etc. Zizek still has this Lacanian notion of identity as being about small things, small differences which constitute the larger ones; that's true, but not concrete enough. His example of Full Metal Jacket avoids the obvious question of what interpellation really means in the age of multinational capitalism: Kubrick's film ends with the soldiers singing Mickey Mouse and marching into the dusk. But that's where it should *begin*: with the Fifties and the arrival of multinational capitalism, video postmodernism, etc. Kubrick's flick is really just another unsatisfactory rewrite of the existential war films of the Fifties, rather like Spielberg's latest exercise in a Clintonite neonationalism. Compare this with genuinely progressive works like Yimou Zhang's "Red Sorghum" (it's about a people's war, ultimately) or the battle-carnage of a John Woo flick, which is all about the violence of a decentered market competition, where giant multinationals run and gun for one another across the expanse of the global market like the dinosaurs of yore (and plucky Hong Kong mammals carve out temporary niches of resistance for themselves).

-- Dennis Redmond


Thought I'd contribute here, re: Freud, Zizek, et al., from one facet.

"Biographical trauma narrative": I wrote the following in the early stages of recovery from heroin addiction. On one level, my experience of using was that of a kind of deconstitution of subject, a movement of psychic implosion where boundaries gave way, where the meeting ground of subject & society was renegotiated. Where the subject, the private, consolidated the social, the public, to it's body, thereby "stealing" it's social nature (not letting it be it, not being a social being).

Maybe a counter-example will help. Antonin Artuad, a chronic opium addict, can be read as a non-example (see Derrida's La Parole Souffle) of thought colonized by language. More to the point of one's pain, *irrespective of comparison to others' pain*, as being inarticulable, of language never being wholly adequate to one's body ("All writing is garbage," "The Situation of the Flesh"). Counter to this would be Freud, and the necessity of discourse, at least provisional articulations, for maintaining boundaries of subject & society. Of "constant renegotiation of boundaries or the formal principles of identity".

Or, consider heroin use as the inverse of the demand for accumulation, of jettisoning "the necessity of making subjects reasonably identical in the context of national or international market." Yes, the "drug addict" is an identity common among subjects. Yet the subject here is very problematized.

Anyway, if nothing else I hope this poem brings some pleasure.

[warning: this poem contains multi-valent pronouns]

At Gateway Station

This secret's radiance is all

That's left of it, that somehow passed

For living. Only one sheer soul

Remains, who braves so pure a trust.

Only . . . embellish my lament

For now, excuse my absolute

And lavish tardiness, augment

The vacancy my starting out

Repeats. Each day a tangled stone

Treated itself to the same mess,

Fed up. This over-stocked glow thrown

Down untouched routes too far to pass.

-Alec Ramsdell

p.s. I remember my friend relating an anecdote about Lacan. At the end of a lecture, one of his final lectures, he told his students something like-- you all can go on being Lacanians. I for one, am a Freudian. Any thoughts on this?


When discussing Foucault's relations with Marxism it should be kept in mind that at the Ecole Normale Superieue he studied under Althusser who helped to convert him to Marxism. As a young man Foucault joined the French Communist Party but was later expelled. By the 1950s Foucault was proclaiming himself to be a Nietzschean and he was taking an anti-communist political stance. During the early 1960s he served on commission to reform French higher education that was set up by the Gaullist regime. Most of his colleagues seemed to assume that he was a Gaullist. But by the mid-1960s his politics began to shift sharply leftwards. During a teaching stint in Tunisia he found that many of his best students to be communists and he became very close to them as they battled repression by the Tunisian government. After the May-June events of 1968 he became increasingly drawn to the young Maoists. During his Maoist years Foucault was active in struggles for the rights of mental patients and the rights of prisoners. After the mid 1970s he drifted away from Maoist politics (as did most of his erstwhile Maoist friends) but he supported the Iranian Revolution. As someone noted in his last years he took an interest in Hayek and Austrian economics. I seem to recall reading somewhere that he is viewed in some quarters as one of the initiators of the revival of liberal thought among French intellectuals.

It is obvious that Foucault's political trajectory was complex. His relationship with Marxism was complex and tortured. It is interesting to note that despite his various political shifts he always remained on good terms with Althusser who always praised his books. As Scott suggests even when Foucault was explicitly anti-Marxist he continued to draw upon Marxist thought. Foucault's D & P is full of arguments that few Marxists would much trouble with. In much of his work he seemed to be attempting to synthesize Marxian and Nietzschean ideas. Whatever one might think about the ultimate compatibility of Marx and Nietzsche it must be admitted that there is a long tradition of attempts to synthesize the ideas of these two thinkers (going at least as far back as Bogdanov & Lunacharsky).

Jim Farmelant


Althusser's own autobio *The Future Lasts Forever* confirms all the stuff about his Catholic and Royalist background. In his autobio he says he remained a believer until around 1947 but even afterwards he remained involved with Catholic groups. Even when he became an atheist his atheism had a Catholic tinge to it (somewhat reminiscent of Santayana). Thus, he says that he used to tell his friends in the Catholic groups that "Atheism is the modern form of the Christian religion." He also recounts that he wrote an article about the state of the Church which later became a favorite among liberation theologians. For him, "Christ was the embodiment of Christianity as revealed in his evangelical 'message' and revolutionary role...If what Christ was the mediator or the mediation, then what he mediated was nothingness and therefore God did not exist. Father Breton told me there was a whole history of such ideas in negative theology and among the mystics."

In other words Althusser in his youth seems to have anticipated the radical theology movement of the 1960s which was popularized by the Anglican bishop, John A.T. Robinson (and which today is promoted by Don Cupitt).

Althusser throughout his life remained on good terms with Catholic intellectuals. After he killed his wife in 1980, they were among his strongest defenders. It has been said that in his last years when he release from confinement in psychiatric institutions that he maintained a relationship with a community of Catholic nuns outside of Paris.

Althusser's admiration for August Comte is curious since Marx & Engels held him in contempt. Yet it seems evident that Althusser's notions concerning the proper roles of intellectuals owed much to Comte. And his admiration for Comte probably was in part conditioned by the fact by Comte's own admiration for the medieval Church which he thought provided a kind of model for the reconstruction of modern industrial society.

Jim Farmelant


Perhaps there are others on this list who have little acquaintance with various people in the French intellectual world who have come up in recent discussions, such as Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Bataille, and Artaud. I have read a little Foucault, and none of the other people.

So as not to get left behind entirely, I have tried to catch up on my reading. I have just finished a small volume on Artaud. In fact it is a book by Martin Esslin, who appears to be a bourgeois academic scholar of the theatre who has written on people like Beckett and Pinter.

The book, entitled _Artaud_, 1976: London, is one of the "Fontana Modern Masters" series, which seems to be composed of small summaries of the life and thought of various Famous Men of the 20th century, and yes, as far as I can tell, they ARE all Men. Not very fair to the women, especially since Mailer and Lawrence (D.H., I suspect) are on the list. They are not all 20th century Men actually. Among the politicals on this list are "Marx" by David McLellan, "Chomsky" by John Lyons, "Fanon" by David Caute, "Guevara" by Andrew Sinclair, "Trotsky" by Irving Howe, and [YIPES, to quote Klo] "Lenin" by Robert Conquest!!! (Probably NOT the dispassionate alternative to Ulam's book that we were seeking. ;-) )

The reader being forewarned about some of the possible sources of bias, I proceed.

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was an actor (stage and cinema), poet, playwright, theatrical producer, and essayist. However, mainly he was one of those artistic people who have strange and appalling lives - sort of like Warhol, Mishima, and (perhaps most closely) Basquiat (this is a great film btw). To speak with the voice of mainstream psychology for the moment: he was psychoneurotic for his entire adult life, and completely psychotic for the period from 1937 probably to the end of his life. To speak with the voice of antipsychiatry: he was labelled as "mad", imprisoned, and tortured with electroshock. Artaud rejected Marxism and his writings and life were profoundly individualistic and nihilistic.

Artaud spent the period from 1915 to 1919 in and out of sanatoria for a "nervous ailment." In 1919 he began to take opiates for "headaches" and was addicted to them for the rest of his life.

During the 1920's Artaud mostly supported himself as an actor on stage and in the cinema, including such films as "Napoleon" and "The Passion of Joan of Arc". In his stage acting he showed talent but was somewhat hindered by the unorthodox way he would sometimes portray characters. The author reports that on one occasion, rehearsing the role of Charlemagne, he entered the stage on all fours and crawled toward the throne like an animal. When the director objected, he stood up and contemptuously remarked, "Oh, well, if you're sticking with truthfulness..!" ("Oh! Si vous travaillez dans la verite! Alors!")

In 1923 he tried to get some of his poetry published in the avant-garde Nouvelle Revue Francaise. When they rejected it, he argued the point in letters to the editor along the following lines: "I have a nervous ailment which makes it impossible for me to put down in words what I see. I know that this makes my poetry inferior. But, doesn't that make it more valuable than ordinary people's poetry, which does not come out of such a struggle? The point is that words can't adequately express experience anyway, so my poetry, which acknowledges its inadequacy, is better than other works which hypocritically pretend to express the truth about emotion and being." (My paraphrase.) "Where others want to produce works of art, I aspire for no more than to display my own spirit." (Artaud) This correspondence was published and won him some literary reputation.

In 1925 Artaud joined the Surrealist movement (which was a circle with a definite membership). Editing an issue of their journal, he published letters to the Pope and to the Chancellors of European Universities in postmodern style, denouncing their western logic:

Europe crystallizes and slowly mummifies under the chains of its frontiers, its factories, its law courts, its universities. The frozen Spirit cracks under the slabs of stone which press upon it. It's the fault of your mouldy systems, your logic of two and two makes four, it is your fault, University Chancellors, caught in the nets of your own syllogisms. You produce engineers, judges, doctors unable to grasp the true mysteries of the body, the cosmic laws of being, false scientists blind to the world beyond the Earth, philosophers who pretend they can reconstruct the Spirit...

This letter was reproduced as a leaflet by the rebellious students of the Sorbonne in 1968!! I doubt if Foucault could boast as much.

Shortly after this, however, in 1926, he was expelled by the Surrealists, who were joining the Communist Party. He responded with a pamphlet: "Did not Surrealism die the day when Breton and his adepts thought they had to join Communism and to seek, in the realm of fact and matter, the fulfillment of an endeavour which could not normally develop anywhere but in the inner recesses of the brain?" Artaud believed that Marxism was just another form of Western rationalism. "Artaud insisted that the social, material, external plane was of no interest to him because it was only a pale reflection of inner realities." (Esslin)

Around this time, Artaud began to develop his ideas for a radically new type of theatre. In a manifesto launching the Theatre Alfred Jarry, he called for a theatre which would be not just "play" but a "genuine event." A theatrical performance should be like a police raid on a brothel; it should be addressed to "the whole existence" of the audience. Ultimately people "will go to the theatre as [they] go to the surgeon or the dentist."

Parenthetically, this programme reminds me a lot of a thing that a friend of mine and I came up with many years ago as undergrads at Cornell which we called the "Theatre of the Social Psychology Experiment." We were not influenced by Artaud; we were working independently! The idea was to do strange things to the audience and see how they reacted. It was sort of like Candid Camera, come to think of it. (Was Allen Funt influenced by Artaud???? Hmmm!) As an example, in the middle of the second act of the play the audience might hear, from the back of the theatre: "THE BOX OFFICE IS BEING ROBBED! THE BOX OFFICE IS BEING - NO! NO!!" **BANG!!** **BANG!!** "Uuuuuuuuurrrrrrggghhhhhhh..." The actors would, with apparent insincerity, attempt to calm the audience. A lot of improvisation would follow.

Anyway, back to Artaud! The Theatre Alfred Jarry did a few experimental things. Esslin describes one performance, the first half of which was a showing of the (banned) Soviet film _Mother_, and the second half of which was a dull and vacuous scene being presented "without the author's permission." At the end Artaud revealed that the author was Claudel, a Christian playwright who was also an ambassador, whom Artaud denounced as an "infamous traitor!"

Next, however, Artaud put on a Strindberg play with the cooperation and support of the Swedish embassy. This incensed the Surrealists, who came to the first performance en masse. Esslin writes, "Furious that Artaud had accepted subsidies from a foreign government and allied himself with the cream of society, these Surrealist interlopers hurled insults at the actors about being in the pay of Swedish capitalism. Artaud replied from the stage that he had only agreed to produce it because Strindberg himself had been a victim of the Swedish establishment. At this some Swedes walked out of the theatre. It was a memorable scene." It was fun to go to the theatre in those days!! At the next performance, Artaud fingered the Surrealists who tried to get in, pointing them out to the police.

The Theatre Alfred Jarry eventually folded. Artaud scraped along on his acting money, which he supplemented by writing false travel articles. In 1931 Artaud saw an exhibition of Balinese dancing, which much affected him. This, he became convinced, was the model for his new type of theatre: little speech, no stage setting, reliance on music, sounds, gestures, and costume, surrounding the audience, affecting it by non-verbal and non-rational means. He began writing the essays on the theatre which were later published as "The Theatre and its Double." The 'double' is life itself.

In 1932 he wrote the First Manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty. The name "Theatre of Cruelty" reflected the uncompromising approach which he proposed to take to the audience: "I intend to do to the audience what snake-charmers do and to make them reach even the subtlest notions through their organism." The actors in the theatre would also suffer, being cruel to themselves, and reach the audience emotionally through the sincerity of their own suffering. The writer would be unimportant. The individual actors would be unimportant; they would gesture and move and speak or make sounds according to a precisely pre-arranged scheme, like playing the roll of a player piano. (My note: this means that the producer is the only one in the building with any autonomy.)

Around this time, Artaud fell in love with Anais Nin, who writes of him at this time: "The theatre for him is a place to shout pain, anger, hatred, to enact the violence within us ... He is the drugged, contracted being who walks always alone, who is seeking to produce plays which are like scenes of torture. ... He talked with fire about the Kabala, magic, myths, legends .." He was writing a book called "Heliogabalus or the Crowned Anarchist," about the homosexual and perverse Roman emperor; some critics see this as an autobiographical work.

In 1935 the Theatre of Cruelty presented its first and only work, "The Cenci", by Artaud. It was a big flop. Apparently it had many problems, including the fact that the female lead was not a professional actress but one of the financial backers. This was a tremendous blow to Artaud, and apparently sent him off the rails. He ceased to try to create organized "theatres". He wrote, "I no longer believe in being associated with others ... because I no longer believe in the purity of mankind." After this his life and projects became truly non-normal.

Artaud spent most of 1936 traveling to Mexico to study the life and peyote ceremonies of the Tarahumara people. On his return, he became increasingly preoccupied with magic, miraculous signs, and magical objects. A friend had given him an Irish walking staff. He became convinced that it was the very staff with which St. Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland, and had great powers. While studying the Tarot, he had a revelation of the end of the world. He wrote a brochure called "The New Revelations of Being" foretelling the destruction of civilization by Fire, Water, Earth and 'a Star which will occupy the entire surface of the air, in which the Spirit of Man had been immersed.' 'On the 7th of November (1937) the Destruction explodes in Lightning. The Tortured Man becomes, for the whole World, the Recognized One, the Revealed One.'

To meet this cataclysm, he decided he had to go to western Ireland, the country of St. Patrick, where his staff had come from. He wandered aimlessly around there and ran out of money. He believed that his staff was "Jesus Christ's own baton and it is Jesus Christ who commands me, and all that I shall do; and it will be seen that His teaching was for Metaphysical Heroes and not for idiots." Artaud apparently could not speak English. In September, 1937, he was arrested in Dublin; the author guesses that he was trying to get into a monastery where there might be "French-speaking monks." He was detained for six days and put on a ship for Le Havre. On board, he attacked two crew members who were carrying tools, whom he believed were trying to harm him. He was subdued and put in a strait jacket. On September 30, he arrived in Le Havre, and the French authorities confined him as a dangerous lunatic.

Artaud spend the next nine years in mental institutions. His letters became full of wild conspiracy theories and persecution fantasies (although of course he was in fact being held captive. Furthermore, as the Germans occupied northern France, it became clear that they actually were killing the "insane."). He wrote that Jews and the French police were in league with "initiates" of secret societies to deprive him of the opiates that the needed. He wrote that the French police collected the semen of millions of hypnotized people to poison him with. He wrote that all the sins and filth of the world were being borne by him. He became convinced that sex was evil. He wrote that originally people had been created without sex and without the need to defecate; food was eliminated by 'lumbar evaporation.' It was during this period that he dedicated one of his books to Hitler. (Whose agents had the power of life and death over Artaud at the time, I suppose we have to remember.)

To save his life, his friends and family arranged for him to be moved to another institution in Vichy France. At this new location, Artaud was subjected to electroshock treatment. The doctor in charge claimed that this treatment greatly improved his behavior and "was dispelling his obsessions and delusions," and his writing after 1945 does seem more lucid and less delusive, by conventional standards.

In 1946 a committee of artists raised funds for his support and won his release. He returned to Paris and did a lot of writing. One of his most influential pieces, a reaction to a Van Gogh exhibition and to a criticism of it, was "Van Gogh, le suicide' de society" (Van Gogh, suicide-d by society). This was a polemic against psychiatry, which influenced Laing, Szasz, Foucault, and the whole debate over "insanity".

In 1947 he was given permission to prepare a radio broadcast. He prepared a tape of a "radiophonic poem" with four voices, xylophone, and percussion. In the text, Artaud said that he had "heard about a plan according to which the United States, afraid that they would be lacking cannon-fodder for future wars .. were stockpiling the sperm of little boys about to enter school in deep frozen form to be used in artificial insemination for the subsequent production of soldiers. In another passage God was called no more than shit and ridicule was heaped on the Mass as well as Jesus Christ." The government refused to air the tape.

Artaud died of cancer in 1948.

Well, how do we react to this? Of course we could just say "this guy was a lunatic and we don't have to pay any attention to him, either to debate his theories or to condemn his anti-Communism, anti-Semitism, or praise of Hitler." But of course Artaud disagrees. He claimed throughout that he was NOT insane. Isn't there an argument to be made that, to deal with Artaud with dignity, we have to take him at his word and take his fascist tendencies as being authentic? That anything less is impermissible paternalism and discrimination? That it would have been better to shoot him as a fascist than to electroshock him to forcibly "cure" his "madness"? (I know there is PLENTY of debate over such issues. Most people affected by schizophrenia feel it as a serious disability, not as liberating vision. Whether this is solely the product of social pressure or not is the subject of debate among those affected.)

In any case, Artaud was not any more mad than the next avant-garde artist for much of the time from 1921 to 1935, say. So we can look at Artaud's stuff from that period more dispassionately. And I think it's fair to say that the fascist tendencies are there -as well-. There is the desire to smash all convention: but from the right or the left? Communists and Nazis both want to smash bourgeois conventions.

Looking closely at the "theatre of cruelty", you see a situation in which the actors and the audience are all being manipulated by a single will. The will is Artaud's. Is this not a fascist dream? Of course Artaud here and there likened the all-encompassing nature of his "theatre" to folk festivals and religious rituals. But those involve the conscious and willing participation of the populace; they break down the producer/actor/audience categories (the folk festivals anyway). They aren't like "going to the dentist." They aren't "cruelty." Isn't this individualistic transforming artistry very much like the "theatre" of Nazism itself: the symbols, the sounds, the "Sieg Heils", the Nuremburg rally of 1936, Leni Reifenstahl's cinema, etc.? I think so.

In capitalist society, artists like Artaud are a segment of the petty-bourgeoisie. If they accept the conventions and rules of society, they are pulled in two ways: to be successful bourgeois themselves (Stephen King, Madonna, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas) or compliant proletarians (like many fameless actors, actresses, commercial artists, and so on). If they oppose and denounce the established order, they are still pulled in two ways. They can join with the workers and oppressed and add their creativity to the collective struggle; but this means sacrificing the petty-bourgeois individualist illusion that they can remake the world through their own efforts. Or: they can reject other people, cling to that very illusion, and attempt to destroy society as an unaided individual; which is, to be a super-being, to have godlike power. This is madness even if you don't have schizophrenia. It's a fascist fantasy.

Therefore I think the Sorbonne students really WERE incautious when they reprinted Artaud's leaflet in 1968. (Esslin also criticizes them, but from the right; he says they didn't suffer as Artaud did and were just shouting for no reason basically.)

Just some personal thoughts,

Louis Paulsen