Keeping It Real

March 10, 2005

What did Jacques Lacan mean by "the Real"? I found out, sort of, by walking across my apartment in search of a copy of the recent re-translation of his Ecrits -- a volume replacing another (somewhat notoriously unreliable) translation released by the same publisher more than 20 years earlier.

When a manufacturer of toasters finds out that its toasters are defective, it will issue a recall. About halfway to the bookshelf, the light bulb went off: Time for a class action suit!

Suddenly, a rogue housecat interposed himself between my feet -- causing immediate "walk failure" and consequent wrenching of lower back.

Now, the Imaginary is for Lacan the dimension of the human human psyche that permits us to feel more or less cohesive. It is the raw material of ego identity. By contrast, the Symbolic includes all the systems we use for communication and exchange with others. It is "language," very broadly defined. But what about Lacan's third term?

Just to back up a little.... I'd been reading Slavoj Zizek, the wild and woolly cultural theorist, who is about as Lacanian as they come. He slings the lingo like a pro. But every so often, my reading comprehension disappears, like the steam from a bowl of cooling soup.

Zizek refers to the Real "escaping" the Imaginary and "errupting into" the Symbolic. Which is good to know, but not that helpful. It left me wondering: "OK, the Real -- what is it? And where?"

And then, out of nowhere, I got an answer. The Real is a silent but (potentially) deadly housecat. The realm of the ego's Imaginary dignity is violated. The order of the Symbolic is reduced to groans and obscenities. The Real is what leaves you on the floor.

Fredric Jameson, the lefty lit-crit guru maximus, once equated Lacan's concept with the Marxist notion of History -- a word that Jameson always capitalizes, like the name of a god. History, and hence the Real, he explained, "is what hurts."

OK, but does that mean my cat embodies History? (I've just founded a new school of thought. Either that, or the pain killers are finally kicking in.)

Zizek is known for illuminating Lacan's work with examples from daily life and popular culture. But Astra Taylor, who is now putting the finishing touches on a documentary on Zizek, figured that the film would work better if some of those illustrations were themselves illustrated. So the exposition will include animated sequences -- in short, brief psychoanalytic cartoons.

People who have spent time puzzling over Lacan's quasi-mathematical diagrams can only greet this news with both curiosity and the sense that, after seeing the film, they are probably going to have some really weird dreams.

In any case, Zizek: The Movie will premier at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on April 21, with the subject of the film himself in attendance. And the filmmaker is preparing to tour college campuses with the documentary this spring, with screenings now scheduled for Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Taylor is still putting her travel plans together, so anyone interested in arranging a campus showing should contact her. For more information on the film itself, check out its Web site. Zizek: The Movie goes into general release this fall.

Also on the world-premier front..... Revolution Books, the largest chain of Maoist bookstores in the United States (not that they have had any competition in quite a while) is holding parties to celebrate the publication of From Ike to Mao and Beyond, a memoir by Bob Avakian, whose full and rather awesome title is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

The book sports blurbs by Cornel West (who says that Avakian's "voice and witness are indispensible") and Howard Zinn (who calls the memoir "a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary"). The reader learns of the Maoist leader's love of doo-wop music, his passion for basketball, and his skill in the kitchen as a maker of waffles.

There is much to disagree with in the book. Avakian, for examples, refers to Stalin's "errors." It is hard to think of his lethal purges as some kind of epistemological blunder. The difference between "committing mistakes" and "committing atrocities" is not just semantic.

And yet the memoir itself is -- ideology aside -- incredibly interesting. The author is the son of a federal judge (now deceased) in the San Francisco Bay area. The book paints a fascinating picture of Berkeley during the 50's and 60's. The campus upsurge of the Free Speech Movement is just the start of a long march, with stops in China (during the Cultural Revolution), Chicago (where "Chairman Bob" becomes the maximum leader of a small party), and Paris (to which he relocates around the time Reagan comes into office).

Suffice it to say that the author will not be attending any book parties or news shows. I asked a representative of the publisher, Insight Press. She indicated that preserving the security of the Chairman is a high priority, while an appearance on Good Morning America is not.

Meanwhile, another volume by Avakian is due this month from Open Court, an academic publisher in Chicago. Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics is a collaboration with Bill Martin, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University. Portions of it are available online herehere, and here.

At one point, they note that the slogan "Serve the People," made famous by the little red book, could be used -- with very different intentions, of course -- at a McDonald's training institute. This is, on reflection, something like Hegel's critique of the formalism of Kant's ethics. Only, you know, different.

A footnote to history: In an article a couple of years ago, Avakian recalled taking a course on Paradise Lost when he was a student in the honors program at Berkeley. The professor teaching that course was one Stanley Fish.

Proof that higher education in America is in the hands of wild-eyed radicals? Is Fish's academic empire-building just a way to create a Shining Path to postmodern communism? And what about this "John Milton" character? Is it just a coincidence that the leader of America's Maoists once studied the poetry of a man who was the minister of propaganda for a revolutionary movement (the Puritans) that seized state power and executed the rightful king?

I report, you decide.

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