Melancholia and the Cartesian Subject

is there a female genius

In his lecture On Melancholy, Zizek claims that melancholia occurs not when we lose the object, but rather when the object is still here but we no longer desire it. According to Zizek melancholia as Freud defines it in Mourning and Melancholia shouldn’t be interpreted as if it is a product of the failure of mourning, but rather as the premature mourning of an object before it is lost. According to the orthodox interpretation of Freud’s essay, the work of mourning is to symbolize the loss and transcend it, so that one can go on with one’s life as usual. Melancholia takes over the subject if the work of mourning fails in rendering the subject capable of accepting the loss. A melancholic is s/he who cannot come to terms with the loss and turns the lost object into an unattainable object of fascination, and melancholia is the obsession with that which is not, or no more is. Against this interpretation Zizek pits Agamben’s reading of Mourning and Melancholia where he claims that melancholia is a premature mourning, that in melancholia it is not the object but the object cause of desire and consequently the desire itself that is lost. For Zizek this is precisely the Cartesian subject’s mode of being. The Cartesian subject lives under the shadow of a loss and that loss is the desire for God. God is not dead yet, but we no longer desire it. It’s not for nothing that Lacan once said “desire is a relation of being to lack.” But we are no longer in 1953 and as Zizek points out time and again there is a shift in Lacan’s attention from desire to drive, from symptom to sinthome, and from mourning to melancholia towards the end of his seminars.

In his Organs Without Bodies, Zizek undertakes a critique of Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of the Body Without Organs, claiming that what Deleuze and Guattari have in mind when they use the concept of desire is precisely the Lacanian drive, or the Freudian death-drive. This confusion of concepts on behalf of D&G is in stark contrast with Deleuze’s use of the concept in Difference and Repetition. For therein Deleuze attributes a positive quality to the death-drive, just like Lacan does later in his career.

If we keep in mind that drive is the fixation on impossibility and desire is the relation of being to lack, we can see the profoundly Lacanian dimension of Deleuze’s thought as he wrote Difference and Repetition. Even in The Logic of Sense Deleuze still affirms desire as lack. It is only with his collaboration with Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus) that leads Deleuze to create a new concept of desire, desire as production. But the whole thing turns against itself in time and the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of desire turns out to be the Lacano-Freudian concept of death-drive.

If you are governed by the death-drive you constantly fail in achieving the goal but keep doing it in spite of that, keep saying it, keep failing, perchance to fail better as Beckett would have put it. Lacan’s interest in the concept of death-drive arises from a Kantian insight. Kant says that education or cultivation does not target the animal in human, but the unruliness in human. This unruliness is the death-drive itself. It is the site of the production process of eternal truths. Death-drive already disturbs nature, but it is not yet culture. The subject as death-drive insists on the truth of the unknown.

Descartes was the most insistent philosopher on the truth of the unknown. One can even go so far as to say that he was the first philosopher to have systematically took it upon himself to prove that eternal truths can be created. The Cartesian subject is extremely paradoxical in that its claim to truth rests on an impossibility; that there can be a beginning of an eternal being. The question is how can something eternal have a beginning? Given a second thought this paradoxical situation resolves itself. For it is not that the eternal truth did not exist before we realized it. It has always already existed, but it is only now that we are coming to a realization of it. When Descartes says “I think, therefore I am,” that’s precisely what he means. It is only in so far as I think of a being that it exists, even if that being is me. For Descartes there can be an indiscernibility between thought and being. Perhaps that’s where the melancholic Cartesian subject is stuck. For as Nietzsche once put it, “man would much rather will nothingness than not will.”

In his analysis of Nietzsche’s eternal return Deleuze develops for the first time the idea that repetition is the repetition of difference. One insists or subsists in what one says or does only insofar as it dissolves itself into its molecular components in and through language. The violent action upon the void within the subject constitutes the symbolic identity of the subject as split. This split subject constantly moves away from what it thinks itself to be as it attempts to express itself in and through language. The reason for that is its mode of being; a becoming in-between the unconscious drives and the conscious desires; the subject as death-drive is a void within and without the symbolic at once.

This finally brings us to the issue of the split nature of reality itself. The melancholic Cartesian subject cannot access the reality in-itself precisely because the reality is always already split in-itself. Strange though as it may sound the in-itself is itself split. And stranger still, that split is not within something, but rather between something and nothing. We can say that the gap between the real and the symbolic is included within reality itself. Perhaps that’s why Zizek insists on the need to affirm the mediation of illusion, the necessity of fantasy in accessing reality as it is in-itself. At this juncture one cannot help but remember Meillassoux’s dictum, “the only thing necessary is contingency itself.” And therein resides the call for the need to establish a non-relation to the world for us, in the way of constituting a relation to the world as it is in-itself, as pure multiplicity. This requires the production of a new mode of being in the world in such a way as to be in relation to the without within this world, to an outside inside this world, a non-correlationist relation to nothing itself. Is it worth mentioning that Deleuze’s “impersonal consciousness” is something akin to that mode of being? It is this transcendental inconsistency itself that regulates, governs and drives the Deleuzean plane of immanence, and precisely for this reason Deleuze calls it the transcendental field of immanence in his last book, Immanence: A Life, where he attempts to clarify his “transcendental empiricism.”

The Deleuzean “univocity of being” is the flow itself, it is the flow of being becoming in-itself, and it is only death that brings about the completion of this process, it is only in death that being becomes in-itself, that is, as nothingness, as a void, as an absence, as non-being. And there, where something is split from nothing, novelty takes place, it takes the place of nothingness and death, hence giving birth to new life, an impersonal life, the life that is not of something, but the life that is non-being itself, the being of death within life which drives it as an undercurrent. And therein also resides the link between Deleuze’s concept of the impersonal consciousness, Jung’s collective unconscious and what Nick Land would later call cosmic schizophrenia.

Let it suffice for the time being to say that transcendental materialism is repetitively different from transcendental empiricism, in that what’s at stake in transemp is the action of the unconscious upon the subject, whereas in transmat the situation is retroactively reversed in a progressive way; it is the subject’s indiscernibility from the unconscious that’s at stake in transmat. Influenced by and influencing Zizek, Adrian Johnston’s transmat adds to Deleuze’s transemp the role of the external matter itself as internally constituted in the self-constitutive process of the subject. Profoundly Hegelian indeed to say the least…

More on that later, though…

15 thoughts on “Melancholia and the Cartesian Subject

  1. Reblogged this on noir realism and commented:
    Cengiz has great post on Zizek’s lecture On Melacholy. Well worth a read in that it also brings in Deleuze : “This requires the production of a new mode of being in the world in such a way as to be in relation to the without within this world, to an outside inside this world, a non-correlationist relation to nothing itself. Is it worth mentioning that Deleuze’s “impersonal consciousness” is something akin to that mode of being? It is this transcendental inconsistency itself that regulates, governs and drives the Deleuzean plane of immanence, and precisely for this reason Deleuze calls it the transcendental field of immanence in his last book, Immanence: A Life, where he attempts to clarify his “transcendental empiricism.”

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