The biggest section in American bookstores is usually the self-help section. We’re addicted to our symptoms and we’re told by the industry of self-help techniques and motivational books that we can find self-betterment if we follow the latest best-seller that offers the secret code for living a free life. We find inner solace in yoga, meditation, and weekend spiritual retreats, and in books that teach us how to develop peace of mind as a vehicle to out-performing a colleague at work, or better tolerating the daily annoyances of life. These modalities of bodily and spiritual discipline are fully commoditized, instrumental in their applications, and built around a market-based end or goal: perform better at work, overcome negative personalities, etc. but put in the language of vague spirituality.
Martin Heidegger seemed to predict this technoligization of spirituality as a form of techne in his essay on the question concerning technology. Even philosophy itself is not immune to this tendency. We have seen the rise of philosopher therapists, or experts that counsel people through philosophical knowledge.
What self does this industry speak to? I would argue that the self we construct in these various self-help books is basically an adolescent self. The Freudian cultural thinker Larry Rickels points out how the adolescent body becomes the scene for constituting societies built around un-mournable death. Rickels documents the transfer of the institution of psychoanalysis from Germany to California and how this diffusion coincided with the emergence of mass culture mediatized group herd mentalities that became the site of an unrealizable series of traumas that were unable to be assimilated back into the larger society.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud points out that we have a missing death cult in civilization. California would come to inhabit this death cult and media technology would form the mourning void left in a million death wish’s. Formed around an un-mournable death, society foists up the adolescent body to fend off an impossible proximity to death. In the adolescent terminal, transference doesn’t stop. For Adorno, all mass culture is a return to primal structures, participating in it requires castration, and in exchange, incorporporation into the group herd.
Rickels points out that “a covert operation of narcissism is required to defend against the inevitable break-up of a merely – mirrorly – corporeal narcissism” (Rickels, The Case of California Pg. 117). As we find in psychoanalysis, the very formation of mass culture is a formation that seeks to protect narcissism. The self-help discourse, while often seeming to advocate a break with this regime of narcissism often goes to reinforce it. How could it not? In one popular book of self-help, The Four Agreements, we are advised to never take anything anyone says personally. In Barbara Ehrenrich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, we are presented with the brutal underbelly of the self-help discourse. The manuals for self-help in the economic downturn sound more like self-defense instructional’s for shrugging off toxic co-workers, for securing your sphere of influence, for forcing you to simply use positive attitudes to overcome our suffering.
I have always been fascinated with self-help. My first foray into leisure reading came with reading self-help books as summer reading after high school. Today, I am knee deep in psychoanalysis and Lacnian studies. Today, I take a strictly Foucauldian perspective. The demand to know yourself is completely arbitrary. It’s a disciplinary injunction that limits the space of what I am capable of. It renders inoperable the full range of what a body can do and inscribes the subject into a disciplinary routine that habituates them to the micro power mechanisms that subjectivize the self to a limited regime of self-knowledge. In Mari Ruti’s new work on Lacan, The Singularity of Being, we find a framework for understanding how this discourse of self-help can be re-worked along a Lacanian axis. Psychoanalysis argues that there is something inside you that is more than you, an excess that is never assimilated. It is this enemy within that causes Freud’s famous death destructive drive.
After reading Mari Ruti’s new work, The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within, I felt strongly that Lacanian psychoanalysis might provide a means for short-circuiting the self-help discourse.
In Ruti’s essay, which is going to be a book soon, we see the positing of what she refers to as a singular self. There are three levels to the self that Ruti develops, there is your subjectivity, which refers to the way that you are Interpellated into institutional life, what the church, school, and the family impose onto you. This is your subjectivity. Then there is your personality, which is formed through a series of imaginary relations that remain in Lacan’s imaginary realm, a series of frustrated attempts to ground a consistent self that’s supposed to perform in the realm of the social. Your personality is thus the most artificial self, constantly undergoing change and flux. It is the site of self-help interventions, and remains the primary zone by which the self-help discourse seeks to repair. What they miss is the third dimension to your self, the singular self.
Your singular self is the self touched by the real, what we might call your character. The singular self expresses something about your desire and its relation to your drives. The singular self is composed of the unsocialized elements of ones life. What makes life unique is our relation to this core of undeadness, which connects us to a sort of innate existential loneliness.
The singular self is the bruised self. That part of the self we are told we should keep at bay in self-help discourse, that part of the self that we musn’t let out of its cage less we lose our power or it limits our advancement at work, etc. If we take a Lacanian approach to singularity, we see how the accessing of the dimension of singularity occurs as a relation to our drives. It consists of the materiality, singularity is thus the infamous excess that problematizes political subjectivity and revolt. The excess is immeasurable, it is infinite. Our singularity might be infinite, but that infinite is infinite qua its inaccessibility of the Thing that it is ultimately after, the das Ding that desire forms around. Our singularity deals thus with the transcendent, and in this dealing we relate the transcendent as a negation of the social. The Christian legacy here under St. Paul’s radical community of believers who shrug off the social and negate their social identities for radically new participation in the coming community is thus an example of how singularity can function on a communal level.
At the core of Ruti’s theory of singularity is the notion that the crisis of consciousness that psychoanalysis presents to humanity is something that must be solved through socially recognized objects. Here she differs strongly from Badiou and Zizek as we will see below. Our singularity is what causes us to get caught up in the social, but it is also what sets the stage for revolt against the social is thus hard wired into our ontological makeup as it were.
The singular self is thrown back into the symbolic in a series of dialectical encounters with the original crossing into the real. The inhabitation of the real is the space of dreams, of fantasies, and ultimately of the self’s ability to try them out and inhabit them temporarily. But we’re always thrown back into a station that we must occupy; the socio-symbolic life world ultimately seeks to normalize the subject.
What brings us back from our honeymoon with the real is what in psychoanalysis is referred to as the repetition compulsion. We connect with the core of our singularity through a character or a self that is able to enable us access to the transcendent. But the yearning for the transcendent comes both at the point at which I have reached a feeling of completeness and at that moment I experience a profound lack of being self-realized.
The repetition compulsion takes us to the same station despite our desire to inhabit another one. The repetition compulsion also offers a type of homeostasis as well – giving our life a kind of predictability. The repetition compulsion is one part trap and one part a form of “destiny” (Ruti, Pg. 1116).
One’s singularity emerges at the site of a wound, of where the ego was, the id shall return. Think of the sheltered child, raised in a narrow and enclosed religious environment who enters into the hedonism of modern consumer culture and experiences a sort of cultural shock that is traumatizing. This brushing up with the real forms their singularity in a knot between the symbolic (their subjectivity) with the real (the exposure to unbridled enjoyment). Singularity forms at the point of their break with this symbolic order that was constructed around them, and the confrontation with the trauma of leaving it behind. The Lacanian argument here is that the self is most singular in the break, in the confrontation with the real between the not yet defined self of a new symbolic they have yet to create and the real of the escape from the original symbolic. “It is when the lack caused by the signifier meets the (earlier, more originary) lack of the real that the spark on infinity gets ignited” (Ruti, Pg. 1125).
Formed around an originary and a symbolic lack, the self yearns for the transcendent. What Ruti points out very clearly is that the singular self is what yearns for the transcendent because we feel that we have lost something infinite or infinitely valuable that we possess the capacity, however tentatively, to covet what surpasses our customary life-world. The symbolic life world that we inhabit becomes the ground for a revolt, a spiritual revolt that longs for the singular touching on the real yet we are faced with the repetition compulsion.
The repetition compulsion is responsible for taking us to the same “station” (emotional state, depression, etc.) over and over, even though we aim for another. The repetition compulsion also offers a type of homeostasis as well – giving our life a kind of predictability. Repetition gives form to our jouissance and thus molds our desire, serving as a shield to unmediated enjoyment that we would experience as unbearable. There are two facets to the drive rooted in undeadness, there is the repetitive drives that are linked to the symptoms, and there is the dark drive of singularity that liberates the spell of ambition.
Thus we are brought back to square one: self-help inhabits this drive of vampiric symptomal torsion, caught in the meshes of sociality and narcissism. The psychoanalyst and cultural critic Eric Santner proposes that we refer to the drive of singularity, the dark drive that is capable of re-circuiting the symbolic
Ruti remarks, that “if ones character can get caught up in the meshes of sociality, it can also fissure the surface of this sociality to resist” (Ruti, Pg. 1135). While not prepared to advocate a break with the symbolic entirely, Ruti accuses the idea of a break with the symbolic as nihilistic. Ruti points to three modalities for resisting the symbolic:
1. Zizek’s act, which is a radical night of the world that is plunging into the deadly jouissance of the real regardless of its consequences.
2. Badiou’s event, where the subject becomes something more than a mortal being.
3. Santner’s blessings of more life gives the subject a way to take the lack and symbolic investiture and refers to it as a calling, as something that takes the subject beyond their sociosymbolic normal interpellation. Interpellated in the Althusserian sense with a miracle.
“If we are to take the Lacanian account of singularity seriously, we must admit that what really counts in life is not our ability to evade chaos but rather our capacity to meet it in such a manner as to not be irrevocably broken or demolished” (Ruti, Pgs. 1136 – 1137). This position, I argue is a dose of the real that self-help must interject into its discourse in order to remain authentic to what is most singular about us.