The Category of the Real

Freud’s theory of the unconscious was formed around Aristotle’s notion of the automaton. Aristotle characterized the real as a category always beyond repetition and returning – the area of the unconscious. The first thing you are taught in psychoanalysis is that the patients reality must not be taken at the level in which he (the subject/patient are interchangeable) puts them.

Since nothing can be apprehended in absentia, the subject’s reality always consists of a hitch, which first presented itself in psychoanalysis as trauma. Trauma, as Freud puts it, was always in opposition to the pleasure principle and to the reality principle.

Lacan, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis examines the role of repetition in Freud’s development of the “slip” and the reality principle, and most importantly to the system of the unconscious. To Freud, reality remains in abeyance, in restraint, in suspense. Reality remains between perception and consciousness.

The best example Lacan gives of reality as always leaning towards fantasy is through a story he shares when he is woken up from a nap. I’m woken up from a nap, but the knocking on my door initiates a dream – this dream brings a recollection or a fantasy image into my mind in the form of a representation. I can only bring myself back into symmetry with waking reality through another process of making a representation.

The representation that I make coming out of the dream then is homage to the missed reality. Since reality always repeats itself, it ends up being a missed reality to immediate perception and hence is always elusive. Hence, the dream is not simply a fantasy fulfilling a wish, but desire is the crux of the dream image – the dream takes the place of the representation of reality.

Freud borrows his core concept of repetition from Keirkegaard, to concretize his concept of repetition; considers the process of repetition a “split” within the subject. The split is what constitutes the characteristic dimension of analytic discovery and experience. Lacan considers the split the signature feature of the gaze. The gaze is that which is eluded and passes as something in our scopic field. The world does not provoke our gaze, but the other provokes the gaze, which is why a feeling of strangeness occurs upon conscious realization of the gaze. The Lacanian subject does not see where it is leading, it follows. The gaze is inapprehensible of all the objects the subject can comprehend and materially grasp – the gaze is the underside of consciousness. The gaze is imagined by me in the field of the other.

Perception is not an internal faculty – it is always externalized. As such, the self I see myself warming is not the same as “I warm myself by warming myself”, or “I see myself seeing myself.” To Lacan, perception is always in the apprehension of objects. As soon as I perceive, my representations immediately belong to me.
Lacan’s subject, when reduced solely to the certainty of her own being begins to actively annihilate her own essence. Her certainty is always filled with an inherent lack, and as such, her subjectivity is rendered devoid.

Understanding the Lack of the Unconscious via Postmodern Art

To fully understand this lack and the concept of object petit a, we turn to Zizek.
The object petit a works in an inverse relationship, take love – the more that you love something, the more it eludes your grasp, and the more that you give it, the more that it piles up. To fully understand how object petit a works in terms of capitalism and market Marx’s notion of commodity surplus is linked to the surplus enjoyment and the superego command.

The capitalist desire system elicits a different response from male and female. The male plays it out in the name of the father, who is obsessional in the face of the superego command to enjoy, while the female is hysterical. The only way for the man to overcome this obessional phase is through some hidden reference to the unbridled superego injunction to enjoy – going to the extreme, transgressing the limit – this is why it is men who are forced to go to the extreme to embrace the superego limit.

The same effects are apparent in art: modernist art was able to depend on an outside avant garde movement that could transgress the establishment. Now the excess of obscenity is fully integrated into the capitalist market, and commercial art.

The divine space is ever elusive to the artist’s repertoire. Trash is made to fill in and replace the sacred place of the thing. The ever threatening idea that the grail, or the spiritual will reveal itself to be the trash, devoid of sacredeness keeps the prior modernist idea of sublimity in abeyance. The postmodern problem is creating the void, not in filling the void as was the modern problem with a positive object petit a.

This notion of a loss of scared space in postmodern art we get from both Lacanian object petit a and Hegel’s idea of radical opposites. Hegel said that “spirit is a bone”, a proposition that posits there is a spirit (or subject) only insofar as there is some material, inert leftover that resists its spiritual sublation/appropriation/mediation. The object is not external to the subject, it is its internal limit, and it is the bar by which it prevents the subject’s full realization.

The object (cause of desire) is no longer the materialization of the void. The object falls out of place but what happens is that the object takes the place of the missing void, it occupies the void, or the missing space. This is what is called the passage a la act, or “creative sublimation” in a late capitalist form.
The sign that all artists are seeking to fill in the sacred place is a sign that we operate in a symbolic order that is no longer composed of symbolic efficiency. We operate in a symbolic order where every presence represents its potential absence simultaneously.

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