25 April 2013

Zizek’s Post-Traumatic Speculative Fiction

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:08 am

The past two days I’ve participated in a lively thread about post-traumatic subjectivity at the Attempts at Living blog. In the course of the discussion I became aware of an essay by Slavoj Zizek entitled “Descartes and the Post-Traumatic Subject.” [The Abstract and a link to the PDF of the paper  can be found here.] Having read Zizek’s essay, I’m not sure what value there is in writing a post about it. I once did a lot of PTSD counseling and might do so again in the future. Does Zizek offer practical therapeutic advice? No. Does he reframe post-trauma in a way that has psychoanalytic value? That question might be worth considering, although I regard Zizek’s frame as a constraint to break rather than a context to step into. Does he reposition post-trauma politically? He does, and that’s what I find most objectionable about the essay. Is Zizek claiming that what he writes is true? If so, I don’t see any evidence supporting his truth claims. Alternatively, is Zizek telling a story, writing a kind of fiction, an alternative reality in which characters can act and events can be staged? Previously I’ve concluded that I get the most personal value out of metaphysical speculation if I regard it as a fictional genre. Do I find value in Zizek’s speculative “short story” about the post-traumatic subject? I do. In fact, I think I can adapt it for a chapter in my own fiction that I expect to write next week. So I’ll write this post about Zizek not as a critique but as a kind of summary description of a fictional world, an oppressive apocalyptic vision.

In some realities, what the subject fears is the inability to attain desires. In that sort of reality, trauma is the definitive obstacle to the fulfillment of desire. Trauma maims or kills you so that you cannot pursue your desire. Trauma removes that which you desire from the field of possibility, making further pursuit pointless — learned helplessness. The post-traumatic subject becomes passive, psychically numb, alienated, zombified, reduced to brain and body without a heart and soul. Trauma permanently severs the link between desire and fulfillment. Post-trauma, desire dies because it cannot possibly be fulfilled.

But that’s not how Zizek’s alternate reality works. Zizek begins his story by rehearsing (his version of) the Freudian-Lacanian fiction about trauma: that the victim actually wants to be traumatized.

For Freud (and Lacan), every external trauma is “sublated,” internalized, owing its impact to the way a pre-existing Real of the “psychic reality” is aroused through it. Even the most violent intrusions of the external real — say, the shocking effect on the victims of bomb-explosions of war — owe their traumatic effect to the resonance they find in perverse masochism, the death-drive, in unconscious guilt-feeling, etc.

In ZizekWorld, what one fears is what one desires. And what one desires is to be hurt, to be victimized by the sadist, to be punished, to be dead. I desire what I fear: some might regard this construction as a delusional phantasm, a subjective fiction. Trauma, when it comes, could be regarded as the irruption of the Real, destroying the fantasy, clearing the way for the individual who was previously immersed in a fictional delusion to get a little more real, to start becoming a real subject. But that’s not Zizek’s story. In ZizekWorld, not only does the subjectively Real incorporate the phantasm of imagined trauma: the image of the trauma is central to the subject’s reality.

Why? In Zizek’s fictional universe, as in many other parallel universes, the human subject is activated by desire. But here’s the twist in ZizekWorld: if the subject’s desire is ever fulfilled, then the subject loses the prime motivation to do anything. The object that someone desires is never really the cause of desire; if the object is attained, then desire must shift to some other object, some other potential source of fulfillment that must be pursued. At some unconscious level the person occupying Zizek’s fictional world understands this to be the case: if ever my desire is truly fulfilled, then I have nothing left to motivate me, no emotional engagement in the world.

In ZizekWorld, then, it’s not the permanent impossibility of fulfillment that kills desire. What kills desire is the fulfillment of desire. And so in effect the subject desires that which would kill desire, which would in effect kill the subject. The subjects in ZizekWorld are animated not by libido versus death drive, but by libido intertwined with death drive. And it is trauma that, catastrophically, fulfills the subject’s desire. In trauma, the phantasmatic image of desire held at a distance by the subject suddenly and uncontrollably closes the gap — between subject and object, between desire and fulfillment, between libido and death. Trauma destroys the object of desire because the object was always just a stand-in for death. And now death has come upon the subject, killing the object of desire. And trauma kills the subject of desire too, because the subject is intrinsically organized around desire.

But in ZizekWorld, killing the subject of desire doesn’t kill the subject altogether.

All different forms of traumatic encounters, independently of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbolic…), lead to the same result — a new subject emerges which survives its own death, the death (erasure) of its symbolic identity: after the shock, literally, a new subject emerges. Its features are well-known from numerous descriptions: lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment — it is a subject who is no longer “in-the-world” in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. This subject lives death as a new form of life — his life is death-drive embodied, a life deprived of erotic engagement; and this holds for henchmen no less than for his victims.

The resurrected undead zombie subject is born again, its desire fulfilled. Should we feel sorry for the post-traumatic subject, and angry at the perpetrator of the trauma? Not in ZizekWorld.

What if we surmise that the cold indifferent disengaged subjects are NOT suffering at all, that, once their old persona is erased, they enter a blessed state of indifference, that they only appear to us caught in unbearable suffering?

The post-traumatic subject feels no pain because pain, like all feeling, is a product of a subjectivity fueled by desire, and the desiring-subject is dead. What then do trauma and its consequences mean in ZizekWorld? They mean nothing, since meaning is another product of the desiring-subject, a story that the subject tells itself about what it desires and why, how it goes about pursing its desires, why it is thwarted, etc.

In ZizekWorld the post-traumatic subject lives on, without desire, continually repeating the same meaningless sequences of actions again and again, the death drive decoupled from libidinal investment. And who are these “degree zero” subjects, these shells without substance, these “autistic monsters” that populate ZizekWorld? They are the “new proletariat”:

the exploited worker whose product is taken away from him, so that he is reduced to subjectivity without substance, to the void of pure subjective potentiality whose actualization in work process equals its de-realization.

Presumably in ZizekWorld the new proletarian masochistically wants to be exploited, feels he deserves it as punishment for his guilt, wants to be reduced to performing repetitive meaningless tasks. Who else are the post-traumatic subjects occupying ZizekWorld? Those cold-blooded killers, terrorists, and suicide bombers, those mindless followers of orders dictated by their authoritarian leaders, the Muslims:

When one looks an autistic subject (or a “Muslim”) into the eye, one also has the feeling that “there is nobody home.”

I could go on to discuss Zizek’s negate-the-negation shtick, whereby trauma ironically doubles the original primal trauma of symbolic castration from the Mother by the Father, a trauma that creates the subject in the first place. But this is enough I think: I’ve got my own fiction to write. We can certainly envision a Leader in ZizekWorld who organizes the zombified new proletariat in order to accomplish a violent revolution. Even if they’re killed or maimed in the battle it doesn’t mean anything, because they’re already dead, beyond meaning, beyond suffering. Or the ruling class can simply continue to exploit their undead workers, who don’t feel it anymore, who don’t care about anything anymore. Or the Muslims can be bombed into oblivion, since they’re already undead zombies. I can use these fantastic totalitarian speculations of Zizek’s for my own sinister fictional insurgencies…

22 April 2013

I Like My Similes Like I Like My Metaphors

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:57 am

[I’m about two-thirds of the way through the current book. This excerpt comes from the immediately preceding one.]

“Hey Lois,” he shouted out the open office door as he veered toward the flipchart. “Go get us a round of beers if you would.” He studied the top sheet for a few seconds before ripping it from the pad and tossing it to the floor. Uncapping the black marker he began writing something at the top of the page. The marker was nearly out of ink and Karas flung it across the room, its tip making a short grey smudge on the wall between two of the taped-up sheets before caroming onto the hardwood. He snatched up the red marker and began again:


“This is the progression, yes?” But Karas wasn’t waiting for the Courier to keep up with him now. “We’ve always thought – I’ve always thought about the progression in individual terms. A man becomes a mighty man becomes a god. Pilgrimage as decisive and extreme movement away from the norm, from the collective. The outlier becomes a double outlier, and maybe finally a triple outlier. Instead of waiting for the one in a million to come along we would accelerate the difference engines, turbocharge the thrusters, propel more of the exceptional people out of orbit. Some of them might shoot out of sight altogether, never to be heard from again. But others – well, instead of launching one revolution at a time they might catalyze simultaneous cascades, multiple singularities in art, science, economics, warfare…

“Still, there has always been the statistical underpinning. Difference relative to the norm, stretch out the axes of deviation. We’ve always speculated that a society of outliers might emerge, reticulated through the Portals via some unknown and perhaps unprecedented mechanisms exceeding mere empathy and cooperation. We didn’t want the Stations to be seen as anything more than termini linking the Trails, transient nexuses for Pilgrims passing through as each by each they pursued their separate trajectories into exceptionalism.

“But now we face the empirical facts: most of the Pilgrims are going nowhere fast. Money, power, sex, prestige – the vectors and endpoints are all so fucking predictable. Sure there are exceptions, and exceptions are what we prize above all. Maybe our project is doomed from the start, but we wanted to establish the preconditions and the apparatus and the impetus for cultivating a whole host of exceptions. Hey, we should make that our new motto.” Karas turned back to the flipchart and printed in large block letters, filling the sheet:


Lois brought in two tall tapered glasses of cloudy beer with a skim at the top. “Belgian blond lambic,” she announced as she placed one of the glasses on the conference table in front of the Courier.

“I like my beer like I like my women,” Karas insinuated archly as Lois handed him the other glass.

“Cold and flat and murky?”

Karas watched Lois walk back out to the antechamber.

17 April 2013

I’m Shocked, Shocked

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:16 pm

…to find that US hospitals make more money by fucking up than by doing it right. From this NYTimes article:

Hospitals make money from their own mistakes because insurers pay them for the longer stays and extra care that patients need to treat surgical complications that could have been prevented, a new study finds. Changing the payment system, to stop rewarding poor care, may help to bring down surgical complication rates, the researchers say. If the system does not change, hospitals have little incentive to improve: in fact, some will wind up losing money if they take better care of patients…

The study is based on a detailed analysis of the records of 34,256 people who had surgery in 2010 at one of 12 hospitals run by Texas Health Resources. Of those patients, 1,820 had one or more complications that could have been prevented, like blood clots, pneumonia or infected incisions. The median length of stay for those patients quadrupled to 14 days, and hospital revenue averaged $30,500 more than for patients without complications ($49,400 versus $18,900). Private insurers paid far more for complications than did Medicare or Medicaid, or patients who paid out of pocket.

The authors said in an interview that they were not suggesting that hospitals were trying to make money by deliberately causing complications or refusing to address the problem. “Absolutely not,” said David Sadoff, a managing director of the Boston Consulting Group. “We don’t believe that is happening at all.” But, he said, the current payment system makes it difficult for hospitals to perform better because improvements can wind up costing them money.

Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for American Health Insurance Plans, a trade group for insurance companies, said in an interview that the study illustrated that the entire health care system needed to move away from what she called “the perverse incentives of the old fee-for-service system that emphasized quantity over quality, and toward methods of payment that reward better care.”

…Dr. Barry Rosenberg, an author and a managing director of Boston Consulting, said the study came about because his firm was working with Texas Health Resources to find ways to reduce its hospitals’ surgical complication rates, which, at 5.3 percent, were in line with those reported by similar hospitals. Part of that work involved analyzing the costs, and he said the team was stunned to realize that lowering the complication rates would actually cost the hospital money. “We said, ‘Whoa, we’re working our tails off trying to lower complications, and the prize we’re going to get is a reduction in profits,’ ” Dr. Rosenberg said in an interview…

In an editorial, Uwe E. Reinhardt, an expert on medical economics from Princeton University, called the study’s findings “troublesome but not surprising.” He called the current payment system “untoward,” adding that it “can tempt otherwise admirable people into dubious conduct.”

16 April 2013

Springtime for the Homeless

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:30 am

UPDATE: The Shelter just announced that it’s going to stay open tonight and tomorrow night before closing for the season. Maybe my post helped in shaming management into it.

Winter Sheltering services are available from October 15 through April 15 for any adult in need.

That’s what it says on the website of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. It’s not true: any “adult in need” who has already spent 90 nights at the Shelter during the current “warming season” cannot spend another night there. And capacity isn’t nearly adequate: while the Shelter sleeps 160,  another 100 people spend their nights sleeping on the floors of churches and synagogues that have agreed to provide “overflow” shelter during bad weather.

But today is April 16 and according to the Shelter’s calendar the season is now over: the Shelter is closed tonight and every other night until October 15. Presumably in the warm weather homeless people are not “in need” of an indoor place to sleep, even though it is illegal to sleep outdoors in Boulder. Here’s what Boulder looks like today, April 16, out my back window:


Today’s local forecast: Moderating temperatures will change morning scattered snow showers to rain showers by late day. Patchy freezing drizzle possible. High around 45F, low of 31F. Winds SE at 15 to 25 mph. [Currently it’s 25F, so the meteorologists were being a bit optimistic about the low.]

Tomorrow: Cloudy with snow showers becoming a steady accumulating snow later on. Cold. High 36F, low 19F. Winds N at 15 to 25 mph. 1 to 3 inches of snow expected.

10 April 2013

Undead Text

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

That’s the first line of The Shadow of the Wind, a 2004 novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón that I’ve been reading. Yesterday I was searching my document files — my private cemetery of forgotten texts — for a fragment I remember having written, thinking that I might be able to splice it into the fiction I’m presently writing. I never did find what I was looking for, but I did come across a document from 2004 that read like a Ktismatics blog post before Ktismatics even existed. Better late than never, I figured, so I reformatted the document as a post. I titled it “Wallace Stevens, Bond Man.” While proofing it I was remembering a couple of other posts I’d previously written about Wallace Stevens. So I googled myself: it turns out that I had already turned this same text into a Ktismatics post. It’s called On Keeping Your Day Job, posted in August 2007. So it was three years after having written the text that I turned it into a blog post, but that post is nearly six years old now and I’d forgotten all about it. Sometimes even the resurrected texts find their way back into the crypt.

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