[Image from the movie version of Everything is Illuminated]
[A review of the psychoanalytic ontology of the Symbolic, the Imaginary, the Real would be helpful in reading this post.]
There’s this passage in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated that, in the midst of the romanticism that permeates the book, stands out perhaps as so romantic that it betrays an inherent truth. Uttered in an exchange between Brod and her adoptive father Yankel, it reveals, I think, something quite profound about the workings of love. The whole exchange is worth quoting at length:
It’s not ladylike, he said. You look like a little boy when [your hair is] so short.
Don’t be a fool, she told him.
But doesn’t it bother you?
Of course it bothers me when you’re a fool.
Your hair, he said.
I think it’s very pretty.
Can it be pretty if no one thinks it’s pretty?
I think it’s pretty.
If you’re the only one?
That’s pretty pretty.
And what about the boys? Don’t you want them to think you’re pretty?
I wouldn’t want a boy to think I was pretty unless he was the kind of boy who thought I was pretty. (76)
This last utterance, of course, is a performance: a self-asserted individual’s (Brod’s) defiance of the tyranny of the image. An act of rebellion, in other words. An instance of resistence. In contrast to Yankel, who (in Lacanian terms) we can say willingly operates in the realm of the Imaginary–conscious of images, wary of their import to other people, how they’re going to be interpreted, represented in others’ heads, and then be a springboard for all these fantasies that others (e.g. the boys in the town) will create (e.g. “Brod is boyish” or “Brod is not pretty” hence “Brod is not desirable” and then “I do not love Brod”)–Brod refuses to accept its terms. In uttering the words she does, Brod, in effect, says: I couldn’t care less about what other people think. I couldn’t care less about images.
It is tempting at this point to say that, in rejecting the Imaginary, Brod asserts the Real, her singularity. This is true only to a certain extent, however (i.e. only within psychoanalysis). True, there is indeed a stark difference between Brod and Yankel’s responses to images. While Yankel is all too ready and willing to submit to the rules (of the Symbolic) that he detects in the Imaginary (e.g. a girl looking like a little boy is not desirable; hence: Do not look like a little boy!), Brod does not care. She couldn’t care less. She declares (in my words, this time): Take it or leave it. If the image I convey is not to your liking, well, sorry. I guess nothing’s going to pass between us. If, on the other hand, you are someone who–already! (does not need to be forced, does not need to be convinced)–likes the image that I convey, then perhaps something can happen between us. That’s the only relationship (potentially productive of desire) that I can/will accept.
However, Brod’s statement also betrays (as is apparent in my paraphrase) that she is still conveying an image (that of a little boy). It may not be the one the social conventions tell her to convey (a girl with beautiful, long hair)–but, point is, the image is still there. There is still an image, in other words. The image is already (inevitably, as a given) there. Thus, while it can be said that, in her rejection of socially sanctioned images, Brod is rebelling against (the Law laid down by) the Symbolic, she does not rebel against images per se. While she undermines the laws as to which images to select (and perform), she does not question the law itself that says that there are images and that she must operate with them (i.e. in the realm of the Imaginary).
In this way, Brod manifests what can be called the Lacanian psychoanalytic resignation to the rei(g)n of images. Images are there. They’re everywhere. We have no choice but to operate with them. No matter what we do, no matter our intention, we will inevitably give out certain images (some of which will be labeled (by the Symbolic) good, some bad) (that are then going to be the springboard for all types of fantasies (that are going to shape how other people think of us and what kinds of relations can be formed)). There is nothing in the world you can f**king do about it. We have to operate in images. We (have to) live in the Imaginary. While Brod undermines (the labeling done by) the Symbolic, her operation within the Imaginary itself she is resigned to.
This defiant act by Brod seems to me to be the only kind of resistance that working within the framework of (Lacanian) psychoanalysis allows, i.e. not the undermining of the Imaginary (and its images and fantasies) altogether, but merely the questioning of certain images and the Law that privileges them (i.e. that says they are desirable), i.e. the Law laid down by the Symbolic. It is in this way that (a certain kind of) psychoanalysis (such as the one that the author, Foer, practices) can claim to preserve the Real, one’s singularity (broadly defined, one’s desire; in Brod’s case, how she performs herself, i.e. how she wants to be. (She wants to cut her hair ridiculously short. Now, if that makes her give out the image of a little boy, so what?)). Now, this in itself is a brave feat, and for it Brod (and Foer, in his deviation from and challenge to psychoanalysis) is to be admired.
It is not enough, however. The utterance–that defiant act, Foer’s challenge to psychoanalysis–stops short of total critique. While what the Law says (Do not look like a little boy!) is indeed defied, the basic structure–the psychoanalytic division of realities into laws (the Symbolic), images (the Imaginary), and desires (the Real), and their operations (e.g. everything is filtered by images, with overarching laws saying which ones ought to be conveyed)–is preserved. Moreover, come to think of it, even as the Law (the Symbolic) is defied, it is not only the Imaginary that is preserved. As mentioned above, operating within images is itself a law. Hence, as it turns out, the Symbolic was not really (fully!) rooted out. While Foer’s working within but deviation from psychoanalysis (as instanced here by Brod’s utterance) may thus make it seem that it is only the Imaginary that is retained, in truth, the basic structure and all the orders–which, isn’t that the established order?–are preserved.
Thus, working within/from a psychoanalytic framework (as Foer does), it is possible (as Brod demonstrates; which, it must be pointed out, psychoanalysis does not even do, claiming again and again that desire is the Other’s) to assert the Real (which is Foer’s deviation from psychoanalysis). This is done, however, within (i.e. while preserving!) the (established) order(s: Symbolic, Imaginary). What this reveals is that while deviations from psychoanalysis may allow the revolt of singularity (which, again, must be pointed out, mainstream psychoanalysis does not encourage! (Doesn’t this bespeak why Foer needs to deviate in the first place?))–this, were it to happen, takes place within the Imaginary–which (as established above) is moreover not really a revolt against the Symbolic, not in the least because it is the Symbolic that paves the way for the Imaginary in the first place.
(This is why Deleuze and Guattari, instead of working within a psychoanalytic framework, practice schizoanalysis instead. While they don’t play take it or leave it with psychoanalysis, taking some things that are useful, they do recognize, if it were to be pertinent, the need to radically reshape (twist to a point when it’s no longer recognizable?) it: schizoanalysis. One of the products of their efforts is the claim that everything is Real, including images–but also desires. Hence, so the argument goes, they all mesh together, all these different things, with no reason why images get to filter desire, why desire should operate within images rather than the two–and other components as well, like language, bodies, etc.–operating in the same field and affecting each other. With this assertion, Deleuze and Guattari are able to imply that there is no reason to accept the tyranny of images. Desire does not have to be mediated by it.)
Now, why is this how things work out for Brod? What could it be that stops Brod–the strong, smart individual that she is–from executing a total critique? Why does Brod–otherwise rebellious–not rebel against that one law that imposes images on her, her in images (which thus preserves all the orders, the established order)? What is it that’s able to keep her from fully resisting? Is there an explanation for all this (other than an oversight by Foer)? What powerful force could it be that is able to short-circuit the revolt of singularity, keep Brod from fully asserting her desire, the Real?
Isn’t this none other than the force of love?
Perhaps Brod–the smart girl that she is–is just being practical about all this. After all, what power has she–but a girl–to disrupt the workings of (the) structure (of the Symbolic, the Imaginary, the Real) and escape the realm of images? Her father, Yankel, a man, proves even more compliant when he but kowtows to the particular images imposed by the social (the Symbolic). Brod at least recognizes the potential in resisting particular images, in that way being more assertive than Yankel (against the Symbolic). But why, when it comes to the Imaginary itself (the realm), she stops short?
Perhaps here Brod but merely admits that as a man, a human being, there is nothing in the f**king world she can do, even as she rejects particular images, to escape the realm itself of images (the Imaginary). Faced with structure–the Other–man is–to put it simply–powerless, and Brod is simply making no pretense of being some exceptional human agent who can do something to escape the Imaginary, disrupt structure, change the way that things are. Thus she is led to deploy a Kantian critique and not a Deleuzian one.
Does not this sound all the truer when we remember–going back to the quoted text–that all these dealings with images is encapsulated within the greater (than the abstract psychoanalytic ontology) structure that motivates all this inquiry in the first place, i.e. the laws that say what is desirable or not, or, more broadly, the laws (but not only laws) and workings of love? After all, when Brod says, “I wouldn’t want a boy to think I was pretty unless he was the kind of boy who thought I was pretty,” what the image that Brod conveys is concerned with is its effect on an other who could or could not (because of this image) possibly love her.
And isn’t Brod’s response but the response that we are all resigned to when it comes to love? Like her statement, isn’t it true that you cannot force another to love you, or–like a conscious, skillful, effective agent–do something–like manipulate your image, project something else (that you hope will, this time, catch the attention of the other), even be something else–to make another fall for you? If he was the kind of boy who thought I was pretty, then he would think I was pretty. I don’t need to convince him. I don’t need to make my case. If his body resonates with mine, then they–like a miraculating machine–should simply find their way. Find each other. If not, if he happens to desire someone else, then there is nothing–not growing my hair long, not changing the clothes I wear, not changing my sex organs–nothing in the f**king world I can do to change how he feels. Love–that structure, with its rules, its dynamics, the way it works (so, really, it’s a machine)–is so much bigger than us, we who like to think of ourselves as self-assertive egos. No human agent–faced with love–can possibly dictate who will be connected, who will move on, who, broken, will fall apart . . .
(This powerlessness in the face of love is of course not tantamount to being contented with things such as Platonic love, where love (supposedly) remains spiritual and is accepted as such. Hence, one is led to be resigned to it, contented by the idea rather than its actualization (That’s how it is. There is nothing in the f**king world I can do . . .). Thus, it does not matter if it happens or not. It would be accepted as love just the same–even if it is stuck in the mind. (That’s Platonic love, what can man do?) Concepts like this constrain desire–a very Real thing–to memories, ideas of what could have been, i.e. the Imaginary, such that, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, all that love/desire gets to produce are imaginings, fantasies–when desire is so much more powerful, composed as it is of desiring-machines that produce very Real things (e.g. a sexual act, a child, but also immaterial things, such as a relationship, or even but a short-lived non-physical connection between two people (that may perhaps then lead to one or both doing something very material, e.g. writing a book)). In other words, contenting oneself with ideas like Platonic love is but a wasting of desire–if not in fact leading to asceticism. Brod’s statement should not be made as an excuse to not do something when one does feel something. While the statement implies that we cannot choose who we desire or that we cannot do anything about whether another desires us or not, when we do desire–even when it’s not mutual–we have to do something about it, if only to find out that the other does not desire us (if only to move on and find another to desire).)
Hence Brod’s import of this insight about (the machines of) love to the way that she handles the abstract ontology of reality itself, playing around its rules (to in some way assert the Real) but essentially accepting the Real’s place in the Imaginary and (tacitly) (the Law of) the Symbolic . . .
Is that it then? Like Brod, we can be all smart (working around the Law) and assertive (selecting how we perform ourselves, asserting our desire that way (as already established, within))–but, faced with the prospect of love, that structure, the powerful machine bigger than any of us–what, upon encountering it, we are led to fall to our knees, powerless, hoping (pleading!) that, subject to its mercy, in the right time, in the right place, we would be given (as a left-over?) (who we) desire?