Desire: Push Theories and Pull Theories (Part 2)

Desire: Push Theories and Pull Theories (Part 2)
Zen Master Jianzhen sails to Japan

This essay serves as the second part of the work began last week in which I trace two contrasting categories of theories of desire. These two pieces play a pivotal role in our ongoing series on the question of self-destructive behavior in humans.

I moved quite a bit of this essay into the footnotes to keep the body of the text as focused as possible, but don't miss the footnotes if you're looking for a few items to get fleshed out in more detail. As always, thank you for reading!

In last week's essay I posited a distinction between Pull theories of desire and Push theories of desire, we observed two representative scenarios which demonstrate how lack or nothingness functions in desire, specifically, Augustine's stealing of the pears, and a library book which is missing from its assigned location.

You might have noticed though that these two cases of lack actually operate from slightly different mechanisms. In the first case, we overlaid an abstract system of signifiers (the Dewey Decimal System) onto reality to create a gap in our experience, but in the case of Augustine and the pears, we observe the operation of the Law to arouse desire through prohibition. How do we explain the difference between these two operative instances of lack?

The Symbolic and the Imaginary

While there are many differences between these two instances, let us simply note the one most pertinent at the moment — one is structured like math and one is structured like a story. These two different kinds of lack roughly map to two of Lacan’s three dimensions which compose experience, namely, the Symbolic and the Imaginary (Lacan's third dimension being the Real, but we will not address that here). While the Symbolic relies on the logic of substitution to produce lack, the Imaginary engages in re-presentation by way of analogy.

Language operates in the Symbolic where arbitrary symbols and signs replace objects such that we can use discourse to traffic in the symbols instead of the actual objects. Lacan draws on Ferdinand Saussure's views of language (a connection I've explored more deeply elsewhere) in which arbitrary symbols become connected over time with specific regions of thought, which in turn enables us to exchange symbols with others instead of remaining trapped by the challenge of sharing thoughts between minds directly. This logic is one of substitution, in which one thing (the Dewey Decimal System's number, for instance) gets exchanged for another thing (the actual book we are seeking), and this substitution creates a gap where the symbol is its own thing while also standing in for something else entirely.

The Imaginary engages not in this substitution, but an analogical operation of re-presentation where something is “both like that and not like that” simultaneously. Here we witness the oscillating logic of “identification” and “difference” which defines the Imaginary, and which facilitates the profound ambiguities of fantasy. When the specular dimension gives shape to thought in the Imaginary, we must look to a literary device to perform the trick which causes nothingness (lack) to emerge, rather than leaning on the mathematical operation of substitution performed in the realm of the Symbolic. This operation resembles a simultaneous veiling and unveiling (this is why Heidegger wandered off into poetry, never to be heard from again).

Psychoanalytic theorists have emphasized at least (but not only) three mechanisms which the mind employs in fantasy to insert a void into our world — castration, theft, and absence. We will take this three as illustrative, but I challenge the reader to identify other narrative forms which generate a gap or absence in the patient’s world.

Castration — This mode of nothingness generates a void through the putting in jeopardy of an object. This gap arises as an anxiety about the potential loss of an object, thus making the object both present and absent to us simultaneously. The potential loss of the object is now a core part of the object’s being. We have placed a lack at the heart of the object. [1]

Theft — In this mode of nothingness, a void subsists through the belief that another party possesses the object which belongs in that space. It's empty because someone took it or perhaps coerced us into giving it to them. [2]

Absence — Absence as a mode of nothingness creates a void by generating an object which is always-already-lost from the moment of its emergence. This is to say that the object never did exist at any point, but the hindsight perspective of consciousness experiences this object as having been lost already. [3]

How lack pushes, or, the object-cause of desire

At this point we must ask an important question about pull theories — why does a lack push rather than pull? Shouldn’t a void, like a black hole, be continually pulling objects into itself in an attempt to fill it up? This question hits on another crucial premise built into various push theories, and we have already provided a hint at the answer in the expositions above concerning the narrative means of lack production.

The thread which runs through all the mechanisms of generating lack is that they put into motion a search. The “missing” book on the shelf prompts an investigation in search for the book which should be there. The threat of castration catalyzes a struggle in which the individual subject to the interdiction must snatch the threatened object from the jaws which threaten to swallow it up. The one whose object has been stolen embarks on a journey to retrieve and regain this object, and the one who experiences an object as lost seeks for it high and low. Even if the melancholic responds with an infinite resignation which refuses to search for the object and instead enjoys it perpetually as lost, this is still just one distinct pathological strategy which is induced in the subject by the object’s absence.

A gap causes the whole system to move. Without the gap, stasis reigns.

Consider the dynamics of a lynching mob very closely — what mobilizes the mob is precisely the absence of the perpetrator they intend to punish. The mob must rally together to locate the guilty party in order to mete out punishment. The mob is a roaming maw, seeking to devour a victim, and it will not stop until it has expended the full energy of its vengeance. This is why anyone could potentially become the victim of the mob, because the mob is simply a desire (for vengeance) in search of an object. No process of formal indictment is necessary, because the void of the perceived injustice propels the mob inexorably forward until it can exhaust itself in the violent ritual of pouring out its wrath on a victim. The mob creates its villain in the act of destroying them. The sacrifice is made holy precisely in its immolation.

Lacan provides the crucial insight here —

"What distinguishes Freud here from all the authors who have written on the same subject... is the idea that the object of the human quest is never an object of rediscovery, in the sense of reminiscence. The subject doesn't rediscover the preformed tracks of his natural relation to the external world. The human object always constitutes itself through the intermediary of a first loss. Nothing fruitful takes place in man save through the intermediary of a loss of an object... The subject has to reconstitute the object, he tries to find its totality against starting from I know not what unity lost at the origin (emphasis added)."

We can see here a swipe at figures as ancient as Plato. These thinkers in their investigation continually grope after a recovering of a lost unity. For Plato, all knowledge is simply a recollection of forgotten and cloudy memories from the realm of the Forms, even going so far as to contend that the process of learning is remembrance. Indeed, this same tendency seems to mark human inquiry in general as we commonly conceptualize the work of knowledge as an uncovering of an insight which existed prior to our excavation of it.

Regardless of the configuration though, the push theorist accuses the pull theorist of falling for fantasy’s noble lie which through a trick of the eye makes every constitution appear as a re-constitution. The object which appears to demand a recovery is precisely what motivates and covers over fantasy’s true operation — the formation of the object for the very first time.

Ultimately, we have to this point been describing what Lacan calls “the object-cause of desire,” or objet petit a (object small a). Since an object which embodies a lack propels our desire, there must exist both the desired object and the object which causes desire (object a), and these two must not be confused. Though they coincide within the context of fantasy, they are not the same.

I intend to explore the notion of object a at a later date when I delve deeper into a ego formation and the self-destructive behaviors which result as the subject grapples with this process, but the crucial insight which these pieces are trying to emphasize is that while the desirer purports to speak about their desired object in fantasy, we must not be confused too much by the nature of this contingent object which they name in their fantasy [4]. Instead, we must pay close attention to the relation between the subject and their desired object, for the fantasy is a frame which the desirer uses to provide narrative shape to their relation with their lack.

[1] We can see castration clearly in the formation of the Oedipus Complex, for castration is precisely the threat which accompanies the Father's command for the child to separate from the Mother. The boy's penis is included in the family network by way of its exclusion — it has no place and thus must sire its own family. The penis embodies a void by virtue of its structural (dis)location under the threat of castration. The penis is the site where lack is covered over.

[2] Here we may look to the Oedipus complex again, but rather than focus on the threat of castration, we foreground the perception of what is taken away by accepting the terms of the deal the Father offers to the child. Moving beyond the overly literal metaphors of killing one's father and sleeping with one's mother, a Lacanian perspective on the Oedipus Complex dramatizes the human's passage into society, which is to say, the rigid maze of social relations and their attendant tools and rules. Through accepting the external rule of law and a separation from the all consuming bliss of unity with the mom, the child finds themselves in the social world founded on self-alienation through language. In this state of alienation, the child can't help but shake the sense that perhaps their entrance into this realm of roles and duties entailed a loss of some sort. Whereas castration as discussed previously emphasizes the vice of the decision in which the child must choose, nothingness as 'theft' places the accent on navigating the consequences born in the wake of this decision.

[3] In a way, this mode of nothingness operates in the reverse of castration. In castration, the potential loss of the object incorporates an absence into an actually present object by way of the threat of its exclusion. However, in the mode of nothingness as primordially-lost, an absent object is made present to us through our experience of it as lost. This requires the creation of a purely formal gap in the structure.

[4] This is not to say that the contingent object tell us nothing, but rather to say that we must not be fooled or lead too far astray by particular details or preconceptions about how that object should relate to other objects.

I'm not saying this explicitly in the essay, but part of what I'm getting at is a critique of Jungian depth psychology which attaches significance to the appearance of particular objects under the belief that certain objects possess a fixed set of transhistorical meanings in human consciousness. Thus, the appearance of, say, a king indexes for a Jungian to a particular range of possible interpretations which have been determined with reference to the body of cultural, artistic, or literary output of cultures. This is why Jungians employ the unique terminology of "Archetypes," whereas no other psychoanalytic stream does this.

I find this theory unconvincing and unnecessarily restrictive by virtue of its confidence at the outset in believing that certain fantastical elements in the patient's fantasy must map to a known set of interpretations. Human desire is inherently plastic, and can take up many different objects and subjective configurations which must be investigated afresh in their uniqueness in every individual.

Free weekly emails in your inbox every Friday morning