Das Ding and the Impossible Good of the Subject

Daniel Avatar

The injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is a tall order for almost anyone, and one that is problematized by the advent of psychoanalytic discoveries of lack, the crisis of symbolic investiture, and the very constitution of the subject. In contrasting Santner with Žižek, their distinct ethical positions become more apparent, and the rich toolbox of theoretical devices available for combating what Santner refers to as the “undeadness of biopolitical life,” and what Žižek calls the “unfathomable excess” of the Other are more widely understood. Both thinkers present unique, and in many ways, very different strategies for “moving beyond” and “working through” the ethical impasses the Other presents.

The call to “love thy neighbor as thyself” becomes problematized in Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, as the very core of the intersubjective relation is actually rooted in an unconscious structural relation to the realm that Lacan refers to as the symbolic. Lacan develops the neighbor as “das Ding”, the Thing, a pre-symbolic object characterized primarily by affect and appearing in the symbolic realm prior to any and all representation. Das Ding is a substanceless void, and in structure is equivalent to the neighbor. Lacan deals with the neighbor in most detail in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, where we find that the neighbor itself is an object of ethical inquiry. To Lacan, ethics “occurs precisely when man poses that question of the good he had unconsciously sought in the social structures.” The Other takes on a “thing-like” character based on an excess materiality that always resists symbolization in the domain of the real. In lieu of defining Lacan’s registers of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary, this paper will develop the primary concepts related to Lacan’s ethics of the Other.

The Other is an object of proximity filled in by a certain distance, what Lacan refers to as proximity, “the neighbor is identical to the subject, in the same way that one can say the Nebenmensch that Freud speaks of as the foundation of das Ding as his neighbor.” Lacan’s theory of the neighbor-as-das-Ding is after all very much indebted to Freud:

“and so the complex of the neighbor divides into two constituent parts the first of which impresses through the constancy of its composition, its persistence as a Thing, while the other is understood by means of memory-work…”

It is das Ding that must be understood to unravel the otherwise smooth functioning of the neighbor as we traditionally understand it from liberalism and multiculturalism, more of which will be explored below. Lacan characterizes Das Ding as “a primordial function located at the level of the unconscious Vorstellungen.” Das Ding ultimately indicates that there is no sovereign good; and thus no possibility to constitute the good in the realm of the subject. “There is good and bad and then there is das Ding” – the Thing remains unfathomable, an excess, outside of the moral relationship.

Since Lacan’s ethics is based on the subject suppose to know, i.e. subjectivity is beyond mere identity and recognition. The Lacanian subject is always beyond identity – “the subject is not imminent to the discourse that creates it.” Das Ding is posited at the center of the subject’s desire, but das Ding itself is simultaneously excluded – it is something that only a representation can represent. Representation, in the Lacanian theoretical universe is a form of apprehending, and representation will always develop out of the good of das Ding, but as we see from the example of the neighbor, das Ding presents itself as something that has already defined the good through an unconscious relation to the social, or the symbolic realm. The subject can only formulate their relation to das Ding as bad through their symptom, which is most typically fantasy, more of which will be discussed below.

When faced with the ethical injunction “to love thy neighbor,” the primary procedure for the multicultural and Judeo-Christian models are to keep at bay the proximity of the neighbor, as the neighbor is inhabited with an uncanny jouissance. To Lacan, one truly encounters the Other not when one discover her values, dreams, and wishes, but when the subject encounters the neighbor as jouissance. As Žižek has suggested, what the predominant liberal multiculturalist model has neglected is this very direct encounter with the “traumatic kernel” of the Other in favor of PC engagement with the “decaffeinated Other.”

“I encounter the other in her moment of jouissance. When I discern in her a tiny detail – a compulsive gesture, an excessive facial gesture – that signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter is always traumatic, there is something at least minimally obscene about it, I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gap separating me from it.”

The encounter with jouissance is most often equated with Lacan’s dimension of the real. Jouissance is the excess of stuff that penetrates through the pores in the surface, like a science fiction alien whose liquid excrement remains both a void to be filled over in a lack of “an excess of existence over representation”, or it might also consist of “representation without existence.” Since reality only occurs in so far as the real is not fully experienced, reality happens at the shortest distance from the real through fantasy, hence the ugliness of the real stands for existence itself.

The postmodern multiculturalist mode of engaging the other, as Zizek has noted, runs along two primary modes, that of the New Age, and the Judeo-Christian, both of which are merely displacing a form of pathos onto an Other that is more authentic, and this ends up causing a sort of inverted racism. This inverted racism, of keeping at far proximity the traumatic Other is in many ways a resurgence of Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” whereby the Other is deprived of their own cultural identity and forced to enter the totality of the repressive capitalist culture. Encountering the Other at the level of das Ding, without depriving that Other of its symbolic jouissance, which the liberal multiculturalist requires, is by definition an exclusivist act by the distance it maintains towards the Other. The ethics of distance to jouissance will be developed via the ethical theories of Eric Santner and Slavoj Žižek, but before examining them, we turn to Lacan’s ethical system.

Lacan’s Ethics: A Matter of Form and Freedom

What are the ethical implications of Lacan’s understanding of the neighbor? Since “the question of ethics is to be articulated from the point of view of the location of man in relation to the real?” As Zupancic correctly points out, ethics appears in the encounter, it is something that happens to us, it throws us out of joint, because it always inscribes itself in a given continuity as a rupture, a break or interruption. This is when ethics comes into play; i.e. will I act in conformity to what threw me out of joint? For Lacan, emphasis is placed on desire, “have you acted in conformity with the desire which inhabits you?” for after all, it is desire that aims at the real.

Understanding the precise relation between Lacanian ethics and the good becomes a matter of form for Lacan, similar to Kantian ethics. The register of the real in Lacan’s theoretical period from 1959-60, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis depicts das Ding as that which always eludes symbolization. This inability to symbolically integrate das Ding indicates that das Ding always stays separate from ethics, which would in other philosophical schools of thought (utilitarian ethics, and Aristotelian ethics in particular) seek to naively interject the thing, or more precisely, “the good” into the realm of representation, which can never be symbolically integrated. Lacan’s presupposition of das Ding’s impossible symbolic integration is rooted in his allegiance to the Freudian “universal law of incest and the Oedipal complex” that structures human desire and the “I-other” relationship, where good and evil seem to coalesce and das Ding is the remainder. Das Ding, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis comes to inhabit language a negative way, as that which manifests desire for the real. Thus, the real, in ethical terms is an extra moral matter, similar to what we find in Kant’s moral system.

“If a man is to become not merely legally, but morally, a good man… this cannot be brought about by gradual reformation so long as the basis of the maxims remain impure, but must be affected through a revolution in the man’s disposition… He can become a new man only by a kind of rebirth, as it were through a new creation.”

Kant and Lacan are both placing ethics, and ethical change ex nihilo, and both develop their ethical systems out of a material excess, for Kant the excess is pathology, and for Lacan it is object petit a. Both systems are seeking to manage the “excess of the real,” and Zupancic argues, Lacan’s passage a la act is identical to Kant’s allegiance on form in his development of the Groundwork. For Lacan, the faculty of desire does not point to any particular act of desiring but to the frame of desiring as such, similar to how Kantian form points to duty. The surplus in relation to legality and to the ethical is what is dealt with by form – the main point being that for Kant it is incumbent to follow the form of duty. Kantian ethics demands that an action not only conform to duty, but it mandates this conformity be the only content or motive of that action. Form itself must be appropriated as a material surplus, in order for it to determine the will, and Kantian form is the same as Lacan’s conception of object petit a, the thing that persists beyond surplus enjoyment.

The metaphysical question to both systems of ethics becomes: how can form become matter? If ethics becomes a second nature to Lacan and Kant, then ethics functions as a drive and isn’t ethics at all. As Zupancic argues, object petit a and Kantian form are introduced to solve very similar conceptual problems. The form of something and pure form is the same duality between demand which the formation of a need and desire. Kantian object drive is nothing but the drive of the will. The Lacanain subject’s separation from the pathological object petit a produces a certain remainder, a remainder that constitutes the drive of the ethical subject.
We are beginning to see the contours of a Lacanian subject forming that is not rooted in a nightmarish ontological rut. On the contrary, as Ed Pluth has noted in Signifiers and Acts: Freedom in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject, Lacan’s ethics are rooted in a view of freedom of the subject.

Importantly, the subject can change the destiny of an unconscious desire to the point of “being verbal to the second power” – since “every act of speaking involves an act of addressing an other – always implying a search for recognition from a third party other,” a true ethical act is one that does not address the big Other. As Pluth observes, “an act does not receive recognition for its identity from an other… it is thus not the subject that acts, an ‘act subjects.’” Thus, the Lacanain subject can never locate the good in the subject, but the subject is able to overturn their lack of capacity to assume their own symbolic identity. The capacity of the subject to overturn their symbolic situation will be examined via Slavoj Zizek and Eric Santner’s reading of the ethics of psychoanalysis.

The Psychotheology of Over-Proximity

The ethical problem of proximity to the neighbor ends up bringing up a number of ethical implications for how to position ethics in Eric Santner’s work, The Psychotheology of Everyday Life. According to Santner, the ultimate problem of the neighbor falls on whether we accept the Other in their jouissance, or real excess, and in so doing, how we come to handle this over-proximity? Santner refers to the Freudian excess as the “undeadness of biopolitical life,” and his primary ethical concern is in how to convert the excess into a “blessings of more life.” The undeadness colors everyday life as “a paradoxical kind of mental excess that constrains by means of excess.” Santner develops a different type of Otherness than that of Lacan, based on Jean Laplanche’s psychoanalytic theory of “seduction. ” Laplanche was an intimate student and colleague of Lacan, and in his conception of the Other, or the “enigmatic signifier” the traumatic encounter with the other’s desire becomes constitutive of the inner strangeness we call the unconscious itself. Therefore, unlike the Lacanian Other, Santner’s Other is stripped of its material properties, a position that evokes Derrida’s notion of the spectral aura of the Other:

“the other is not reducible to its actual predicates, to what one might define or thematize about it, anymore than the I is. It is naked. Bared of every property, and this nudity is also its infinitely exposed vulnerability: its skin. This absence of determinable properties, of concrete predicates, of empirical visibility, is not doubt what gives to the face of the other a spectral aura.”

The subject is placed in a relationship with the enigma of the Other’s desire not through language (as in Lacan) but through an unconscious transmission that is neither simply enlivening nor simply deadening but rather “undeadening” – the encounter with the Other produces an internal alienness that has a sort of vitality, and yet belongs to no life at all. This “undeadness” creates an encounter with legitimation, or what Freud referred to as the death drive, a “too much-ness” of pressure and the build of an urge to put an end to it.

Important to Santner’s ethical project in the Psychotheology is the way that the excess structures one’s symbolic identity in institutions. Symbolic identity in institutions creates an “excess of validity over meaning” whereby the symbolic identity and meaning of all community’s, individuals, or groups remain an utter mystery to that group, and this group identity crisis is constitutive of modernity as such. Santner develops this notion of group identity crisis from the Hegelian observation that the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians were also mysteries to the Egyptians themselves. What psychoanalysis offers in the face of this “excess of validity over meaning” is a positing of theoretical tools to rework the transference into institutions. Santner’s psychoanalytic model of transference is similar, but quite different than that of Zizek and Lacan. In both versions, the “working through” to traverse the fantasy of the neighbor/stranger who dwells there with us is central.”

Santner incorporates “new thinking,” or Franz Rosenzweig’s “metaphysical thinking,” from his famous post WWII text, the Star of Redemption to confront the Freudian mental excess, or what he refers to as “old thinking.” Old thinking is the condition where man has subjected himself to the excess but has simultaneously turned away from the challenges and claims of everyday life in the face of that excess. Rosenzweig is indebted to Freud in Moses and Monotheism in his construction of subjectivity, where we find the subject constituted on the unconscious, and bound up with sovereignty through symbolic investments into institutions. By institutions, Freud refers to all places that endow the public with social recognition and intelligibility. Freud’s conception of identity formation in Moses and Monotheism is based on one’s allegiance to their transgressions: myths, narratives, and cultural systems that help to organize fundamental human anxieties, conflicts and wishes. What is crucial in Santner’s reading of Moses and Monotheism is the basis of social solidarity with a group and with institutions:

“we are in a form of life, truly animated by its spirit, not so much when we agree with its basic rules, – i.e. its public sanctioned form of the good, but rather when we are haunted by its spirits, plagued at the level of our immemorial transgression that is structurally transmitted by the from of life and narratives of that solidarity.”

Before “crisis of symbolic investiture” can be examined, the ethical implications for adopting the “blessings of more life” in the face of the Freudian excess of mental life needs to be explored.

The overarching emphasis of the text is on the biopolitical subject, with biopolitical life – life that has been thrown by the enigma of its legitimacy and stripped of its place within a meaningful order. How do we come to understand this form of life?
“To be thrown by the enigma of legitimacy is to be seduced by the prospect of an exception to the space of social reality and meaning, by the fantasy of an advent, boundary, or outer limit of that space that would serve as its constituting frame and power, its final, self-legitimating ground.”

The release from this hold is a release from an exceptional beyond. Santner refers to this release as transcendence from undeadness into “biopolitical animation,” a harnessing of the surplus value of life that is accessible via the unconscious. Again borrowing from Freud’s introduction of trauma into the social fabric in Moses and Monotheism Santner describes the “too much” of biopolitical life, as a certain pressure that interrupts the working of the pleasure principle, and the patterns of diffusion that constitute human everyday mindedness in its normal functioning. The pleasure principle reveals that the human mind is always operating under a sort of posttraumatic stress syndrome. Santner’s “too muchness of biopolitical life” is rooted in Feud’s theory that trauma must contain an excess of demand, and the means “to address an other.” A trauma only becomes possible when the “too muchness” of one’s address to an Other persists beyond what can be translated as a demand. There exists a surplus cause that always persists beyond any determinate lack and its possible satisfaction, a surplus that is beyond the workings of the pleasure principle.

Santner ethics at this point, in light of the crisis of symbolic identity is concerned with whether we ought to assume our identity in the social body based on the symbolic mandates that determine our identity, or whether the subject ought to break with this system. The two poles of ethical action he develops are the “sciences of symbolic identity,” and the “ethics of singularity.” The strength of Santner’s ethical position is that only when we “truly inhabit the midst of life” are we able to “loosen the fantasy” that structures everyday life. Thus, similar to what we see in Lacan, to own one’s fantasy is to really live as a free subject, aiming at the truly ethical question that Lacan poses: “have you acted in conformity with the desire which inhabits you?” for it is desire that aims at the real.

2 responses

  1. ‘Africa rising’: Hope or impossibility? – Journal of People

    […] Ding and the Impossible Good of the Subject’, danieltutt.com, (December 14th, 2009), https://danieltutt.com/2009/12/14/das-ding-and-the-impossible-good-of-the-subject/, [accessed September 18th, […]

  2. dylan

    Thanks for the the animated writing, I’ve been stumbling upon your articles randomly for awhile now and they always help me in my frustrations with Lacanian/Zizekian nuance. I wish I could sit in a class though, something more structured than an imbecile googling “difference between das ding and the thing”. Thanks for the lessons Daniel.

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