“a something, a greater than which cannot be conceived.” St. Anselm
Amidst the fanfare and excitement over Lady Bird, (my prediction is that it cleans house at the Oscars) a lingering debate about the film is whether the family of Lady Bird really “lived in poverty.” Some people want to suggest that her position was really just lower middle class striving, a more ordinary American family struggling with “money troubles.”
Yes, the father was unemployed at the time of her being in high school but her parents were together and they provided a fairly stable family. The virtue signaling in this critique is clear: we must reserve the designation of “real poverty” to a much more narrow and rare category. But if we accept this definition of poverty as a totally marginal phenomenon than we suppresses or even repress the more ordinary poverty that Lady Bird experienced.
Can we say that Lady Bird’s poverty, or relative poverty, was a determining factor in the tension and anxiety she faces? Was her relationship with her mother not over-wrought by money troubles and did not these money troubles animate and drive most of the tension between her and her mother and didn’t Lady Bird even hide the reality of her living on “the other side of the tracks” to her more wealthy friend? Yes, the mother had a history of trauma and alcoholism from her own family, but she wanted to get beyond it, and she remained in many ways the rock of the family especially in the face of her husband and Lady Bird’s father losing his job. So the question of her position of being in or out of poverty is too over-determined by a more complex ensemble of other class relations: cultural capital, symbolic capital and so on. Poverty is thus too vulgar of a category to hinge our reading of the film around.
I want to suggest that the film portrays class conflict more so than it portrays a family “in poverty.” The question that sticks out to me is why is she so heroic? What drives her striving, despite her apparent class position? I’m tempted to forget the hysterical question of whether she is or is not in poverty, and rather ask how class is so easily transcended by her. How does she move with such grace amidst a society riddled with seemingly annoying class difference and conflict?
Making a Name for Oneself
To answer this question, we have to ask how does Lady Bird make a name for herself? The film hinges on this beautiful theme from the beginning when we see her in church going through the rituals of the communion. We immediately pivot to her high-intensity, unfiltered insistence on calling herself “Lady Bird.”
Lacan argues that one’s proper name is what establishes not only the identity of the individual, it also establishes a more transcendent link to the symbolic register as such. The proper name one is given is a pure signifier, determined by Aristotle’s law of identity, “I am what I am” — the proper name is God given. You cannot delete the properties of a proper name, it persists. If the proper name is a primary link to God, the act of abolishing or swapping the proper name is an act on par with atheism. But one must perform an act to be an atheist in this context, this is a practice that is rare. Lacan develops the concept of the sinthome to designate this concept of how subjects convert their core symptom into a new name. He thus links the symptom to the proper name and finds a model for this in the creative genius of James Joyce who develops a plurality of names through his writing. Joyce famously invents a name for himself through his writing.
But the establishment of a proper name is not only about the establishment of divinity and tying the subject to the symbolic order, we should remember the connection Lacan draws to psychosis in this context; the psychotic has foreclosed the proper name, they have foreclosed the symbolic that the proper name opens up and makes possible.
So the defiance of Lady Bird insisting on going by “Lady Bird” and not Christine or her given name is interesting because it is a defiance that is seen as inconsequential. Those around her barely see her singularity. It is us the viewers that see her genius and the couple of sincere friends, but everyone else sees her as “peculiar” and “weird.”
Inventing a new name is also about the invention of a new form of enjoyment, which for Lady Bird is a source of self-assurance. The reason we identify so strongly with Lady Bird centers around her incredible unfiltered self-assurance despite being an outcast and weirdo. This source of singularity, which goes unrecognized by most everyone around her except her actor boyfriend and her longtime best friend, is what makes Lady Bird so endearing.
For Lacan, unlike Kant and his ontological proof of God, where God exists as causa sui, or as a cause of itself, God for Lacan is and the “is” ness of God is found in the identity God grants to himself in the name. What the ontological argument for God demonstrates is that for every thing to exist, one can always think that there is something bigger. It states: “everything might be thought, and might be thought always, with something bigger.” Lacan’s point is that this “something bigger” than God can be written, and it is the a, which is the something more. Thus, Lacan posits that God is not causa sui, rather, God is because to say this would mean that it is possible to go from the concept to existence.
The I am what I am from the Bible—the establishment of God’s name for Lacan, is not as St. Augustine translated it: I am who I am—Lacan argues that it is I am what I am which implies that in the statement God has obtained his name of jouissance and has justified the access to his name of jouissance. Lacan notes that St. Anselm gets at the Names of the Father when he refers to God as “a something, a greater than which cannot be conceived.”
The film taps into this thesis of God’s existence in the relation between the proper name and God — fast-forward to the end of the film, where Lady Bird introduces herself to a new potential boyfriend (or one night stand) at a party in New York and asks him, to paraphrase: “why does everyone accept the name that God gave them” making an explicit link to this understanding of God as linked to the proper name.
Lady Bird, at this moment realizes a new relation to her proper name. She goes into a church in New York and is moved to embrace her given name, the name of the father. So the rite of passage that this realization opens is what psychoanalysis calls Oedipal itself — Lady Bird sheds her old enjoyment register which was tied up with her invented name and accepts a new regimen of singularity, one now couched in a more harmonious link to the paternal signifier. Lacan notes that the name of the father is what grants access to a form of desire that is beyond the smothering desire of the mother – it thus makes sense that Lady Bird shares a universal desire of her home with her mother as a way to shift their conflict in a new direction.
The State, Capital and Neoliberalism: Implications
I’ve written quite a few pieces on the mutation of childhood in neoliberal capitalism, in different places here and here. My argument is that neoliberal capital more and more poses the family unit in the position that the state played in welfare state Fordism modes of labor.
Today, as Melinda Cooper argues, the family has come to serve as the naturalized mode of determining the movement of initiation and mobility in society.
Where the state and society evaporates as a naturalized set of stable backdrops to determine the division of labor, the family now plays an undue role in mediating ascendance and class mobility. My question is what does this mean for the process of Oedipalization?
My view is that neoliberalism poses the family unit itself as a site of market competition. The family becomes only tolerable by performing a profoundly delayed defiance against it. In this sense, Millennials are striving in ways that reverse the Joycean invention of the name — the marketization of the family results in a more contingent realization of the destiny of the name of the father, precisely because the father is not given a transcendent or fixed position within neoliberalism.
One can thus interpret this situation in several ways. A libertarian non-Christian anti-authoritarian would of course see some positive potential in moving away from Oedipal structures and the family as a site of passage. It is fascinating in this context to examine the alt-Right Oedipalization of Trump as a market stand-in for a divine name.
For the pseudo libertarian, the marketization of the family might present the hidden source of liberation of the subject insofar as the older Fordist regime also necessitated a break with the transcendent structure of the family as the site of divinity.
But if neoliberalism breaks open the false God as established from paternal authority as a transcendent process outside of market relations, assured by the stability of the state, thus one enters into this stable relation and then they must escape it. This trajectory was all according to plan. Today, this formula is haywire, it has no teleology — the name of the father has no teleology.
Thus, the question that neoliberalism’s emphasis on the family asks is that if we seek to re-affirm the family’s authority because the family functions according to the logic of the market and the logic of the capitalist discourse–what we get is bad news and intensified conflict. To advocate a return to Fordism, we immediately see the conflict that animates the alt-Right and Trump phenomenon itslef, namely inter-generational conflict between Baby Boomers living in shame for destroying the Welfare State that ensured the stability of their transcendent authority which they have now lost.
The Marxist wager in this situation remains attentive to the hypocrisy of liberal Lacanians who might see both danger and liberation in the marketization of the family. While the standard position of psychoanalysis is that Oedipalization remains a necessary rite or passage for the subject, there is a risk that one enters into a nostalgic longing for a return to the transcendent position of the family under welfare state Fordism. It is worth noting Sarah Brouillette’s review of Cooper’s book which stressed this risk, accusing Cooper of effectively longing for a return to welfare capitalism and thus neglecting the oppression it wrought on subjects. The point being neither option: neoliberalism or a return to welfare state Fordism remains viable as a means to resolve the Christian and communist dream of an eventual withering away of the family and the state.