I finished reading Chapter 2, “From Symptom to Sinthome,” of Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology today. I find myself reading this book in installments, meditating over the content for a bit, then taking notes, before finally establishing a semblance of understanding. Today, I followed the usual procedure and something transcendent occurred. I dove head-first into the muck of my subconscious and made a very important self-discovery. Ready to hear all about it? Cool. Here goes…
I am going to do my best to put these complex abstractions into my own words before I explain how the content enabled me to do a little psychical excavation of my own. Let’s start with this idea of the symptom. I have mentioned it in prior posts. We all exhibit, or manifest, external symptoms of unconscious motives. In fact, most human behavior derives from these symptoms. According to Zizek, the field of psychoanalysis “conceived” the concept of “symptom” as the human supplication to the Big Other (to fill the void or fix the problem) inherent to human existence (SOI, page 79).
Rewind. (cue the tape noise).
Ok. The Big Other is the imaginary authority we perceive, and this entity is most often engendered by the infusion of cultural norms into our psyches from birth. Culturally, societally, religiously, and personally, we imbue figures–individuals and/or organizations with the manifest authority of this imaginary other. Cool. Now that we have that covered…back to the symptom.
Zizek argues that this symptom–however it manifests–carries within its transportation system its very meaning or interpretation (again, page 79). That’s all well and good. I mentioned in a prior post a symptom I regularly manifest, which is my desperate solicitation for validation from others, particularly esteemed individuals who have already obtained a following of their own. But it isn’t enough to identify and interpret the symptom. Jacques Lacan noted that patients did not get better following the identification and interpretation of the symptom. The question that follows: why not? Lacan proposed a simple answer: people do not get better because they, somehow, in a very distorted fashion, enjoy the symptom (SOI, page 80).
I will use my own example, once more, to deconstruct the idea further. My symptom presents as a desperate solicitation for validation. To be more specific, let’s imagine I tweet at someone I really respect. What follows after said mention (by me speaking to said respected individual via said Twitter) is that I compulsively open the app to check my notifications to see whether or not I have been acknowledged by said respected individual. This behavior is tiresome, addictive, and poses a threat to my interpersonal (you know–real life) relationships. I am well aware that this isn’t a healthy behavior. I even know, on a conscious level, that it is tied to my compulsive need for external validation, and yet I persist. The behavior is harmful to me–on multiple levels–and I even hate that I do it, and yet I persist. How can one insinuate for even a millisecond that I enjoy this behavior?!
Zizek explains “The symptom is…a way for the subject to organize his enjoyment…Lacan…tried to isolate this dimension of enjoyment as that of fantasy” (SOI, page 80). This hearkens back a bit to the dream-form analysis of Freud. Basically, we have a “traumatic kernel” (Zizek’s quirky little term) which implants within the unconscious during the original event. This kernel is enshrouded in fantasy, and it is the perpetuation of the fantasy that generates the symptom. Thus, it isn’t enough to isolate and understand the symptom; one must also investigate the fantasy, embedded within–thereby fueling, the symptomatic behavior. The question to ask is this: what enjoyment do I get out of persisting in this self-destructive behavior?
Here is where my personal breakthrough begins. I have been pondering over the original event I shared a few days ago in my post entitled “Symbolic Necessity.” I spoke of my experience as a child, when my mother warned me against sharing positive outcomes of academic performance because of the threat my achievement posed to my older brother. I isolated my “traumatic kernel” as the ingrained perception that success was dangerous, and since that is a universal idea, I examined relationships and experiences that transferred some particularities of the original event. However, there was something I missed, but it is because I thought it too obvious to constitute my own “Real” traumatic kernel. Nevertheless, I will share. My mother and I have always had a contentious relationship. From extremely early on. I don’t feel it necessary to labor over the details, but I can safely say that my mom had a transferential relationship to me. Thus, she manifested unhealthy behaviors–envy, manipulation, etc…which were her own symptom(s) generated by her own fantasy enmeshed in her own traumatic event unbeknownst to me. With that said, and with full disclosure, I have to admit that my actual trauma was not this idea that success was a danger to me, but it was this idea that success alienated me from my mother. The fantasy thus born was the fantasy of finding unity, intimacy–some kind of camaraderie–with her.
How, then, would validation seeking behaviors indicate a desire for union with my mother, when the only way to have said union is through personal failure and degradation? Someone just flipped the switch on the insanely bright LED lamp chillin’ in my unconscious! While I thought I was seeking validation all these years, I have, in actuality, been seeking the inverse. It’s a pattern I can delineate from as early as Middle School all the way to yesterday. My manifest symptom–the compulsive clamoring for external validation–has trailed behind a massive impediment, which is the terrain upon which I travail–it’s unreasonably Odyssean. I reach far too high because–brace yourselves, people–I desire failure. I compulsively quit things–not from the fear of failure, as I have always surmised, but from the fear of success. I have enjoyed my symptom–I have placed myself in situations, galvanizing for the inevitability of failure–because I am chasing the fantasy that I will earn my mom’s love and loyalty if I can debase myself so she can feel empowered.
What next? Zizek states, “analysis achieves its end when the patient is able to recognize in the Real of his symptom, the only support of his being.” Further, “That is why the Lacanian definition of the end of the psychoanalytic process is identification with the symptom.” I read the last statement several times, not fully comprehending. Then, I put my explication hat on, and basically translated for myself the word “identification” to “relationship.” The process is complete when the analysand understands his relationship to the symptom. This happens after the symptom is identified and interpreted, after the fantasy is revealed, and after the patient goes “through the fantasy” and obtains “distance from it, of experiencing how the fantasy-formation just masks, fills out a certain void, lack, empty place in the Other” (SOI, page 80). For me, my mom is my mOther. She has her own lack. It was born with the genesis of her own trauma. She enacts symptoms that perpetuate her own fantasy, which fills in the lack of her respective Big Other. My fantasy has always been to share a special bond with my mother. I have believed, wrongly, that in order to do so, I must also share in her disappointment–her feelings of inadequacy; thus, I enact my own symptom to perpetuate my own belief that by creating my own failure, I can finally connect with my mom.
Today, I walked through my fantasy. It’s pretty cavernous and cold. Frigid, actually, and the muck from the surface is still affixed to the soles of my shoes. I plan to keep walking forward, however. I am striving for the distance–to obtain it, so that once and for all, I can give myself permission to thrive.
P.S. I don’t hate my mom. Nor does she hate me. She cannot help her internal antagonism and she is not remotely aware that it even exists. This isn’t about blaming my mother for crap from the past. On the contrary, this is about liberating myself from self-destructive behaviors that are tied to a false internal belief I have about the state of my relationship with my mother. Also, I am unfortunately aware, as a parent, that I have likely already infused traumatic kernels into my children, with which they will have to contend, in time. I hate it, but such is the state of our human existence. We all have trauma, yet each of us, in turn, must decide whether or not to plunge into it. To do so is salvation.
Disclaimer: I haven’t been in school for a number of years, so I am well aware my annotations are not in any appropriate style. But, I did tell you the title and author of the book, and I am reading/studying from the second edition, published by Verso in 2008, if you decide to find the original text and check it out yourself. Also, as noted in prior posts, all of my Zizek posts are related to the book study, facilitated by Peter Rollins, in a course made available via Patreon. He has not yet broadcast the seminar for this chapter, so what you see here is my own imperfect, unprofessional analysis and application of what I read. My credentials are: English degree. Thus, I have no formal training in philosophy, theology, or psychoanalysis–just a fascination with and impulse to study all of the nerdy things!