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Obscene Supplement: A Reaction

with 5 comments

At Salon.com, Cary Tenis, in his advice column of sorts, he responds to a letter by a woman complaining that her and her boyfriend, while they both make good money, have radically different relationships with money. She spends what she implies is a “normal” amount, while he lives “frugally” and in something of a vow of miserly poverty. Miserly, because he “earns a decent income as a teacher and has investment income.”

In other words, he takes the oldest and most central rules of the Capitalist game so seriously—above all, save and work hard—to the detriment of the Superego injunction to enjoy (i.e. consume). What’s more is he, in a certain sense, wins the game according to the given rules, but not according to the unspoken ones of late Capitalist ideology. More amazingly is the way he gets criticized for being a miser, when what really bothers everyone complaining on the Letter Writer’s behalf is that he himself takes on the poverty that they need someone else to take on for them. It also doesn’t help that the guy seems to be satisfied with his way of life. In other words, there is an other way to experience jouissance.

Here it seems to be an Otherly jouissance, because the discipline with which he lives his life is focused on holding back the pleasure of consuming. It is this holding back, but especially in the dimension that he can tap into this comparatively (though not actually) infinite source of pleasure (i.e. consumption), that he has mastered in order to enjoy bearably. In other words, his enjoyment is not genital at all, but in a certain sense psychotically grounded in an anal pre-genital phase of development. To this end, inasmuch as he always risks being consumed by the Other’s jouissance should he partake in it as others do, he probably doesn’t know how to consume without being over-whelmed, which is why his life depends as much on not spending as it does making money. Money being the fiat of all commodities, which is to say obscured social relations of stolen surplus labor/jouissance, in a Capitalist society money (qua capital) is a libidinal and economic intensification. Only through the Symbolic mediation of the consuming practices of ideological identities are members of Capitalist society normally able to handle the intensity of social labour/desire. For the boyfriend, he doesn’t ascribe to the ideological identity of the age, the all-enjoying consumer, and therefore don’t know the first thing about what to do with money.

This identity is only commanded from off-the-scenes, as it were, while the official line of the Capitalist subject is: save and work hard. The guy is successful not because he hears the obscene superego injunction to consume, which creates an ambiguous meaning to money, commodities and things of consumer enjoyment; he’s successful because in the absence of such an external injunction telling him what to do with his money, and in the world of an otherwise operating Symbolic order, he knows how to take literally what others take metaphorically.

His impulse to save is really an impulse to hold off the unbearable pleasure he risks in consuming it should he let it invade him the way Cary Tenis and his commenters seem to endorse. The difference between him and the CEO or the more traditional miser, is that he has no ideological supplement to make his practices coherent to him, which directs a mode of consumption. Not having been installed in the Symbolic order properly, so it seems, which makes itself clear here in the absence of a (capitalist) subjectivity, his lack of a consumer-identity means he lacks the ability to consume except directly through work.

What’s also interesting is vis-a-vis this psychotic relationship to money, there is a certain kind of feminization insofar as the female sexuation has been reproduced as a literal character of poverty as well as having access to the Other’s jouissance, normally under the care of a male’s endorsement. The LW is more typical of the sort of masculine subject that enjoys her much jouissance in this mediated way, and feels threatened by not only the Other’s jouissance, but the one who knows how to deal with it directly. If her enjoyment is, as it were, achieved through a certain kind of will to Nothingness, then the boyfriend enjoys by not-willing. If only the LW talked more about what was so great about the actual sex!

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Written by Joe

April 28, 2008 at 10:36 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I think, though I confess I haven’t read the article on salon, I would be tempted to argue that the boyfriend is, in fact, engaged in a much purer early-capitalist practice than it initially seems, or appears to his “normal spending” girlfriend. After all (see Weber) capitalism depends on a kind of asceticism that pushes the capitalist to save rather than spend. After all, the successful capitalist accumulates wealth, not things.

    What the girlfriend appears to be under the influence of is a later-capitalist anxiety about the stratification caused by this tendency to accumulate. She finds herself firmly entrenched in the middle-class. She remains there and does not dip below or abover her class position because she neither saves nor overspends. The boyfriends habits cause her anxiety because he threatens to save his way right out of the middle-class, threatening her sense of normativity.

    At any rate, I’m not sure jouissance is at issue in this discussion at all. Everyone seems to be operating on the level of a more simple pleasure, one that works insides the bounds of the every-day capitalist ideology and threatens neither their subjectivity nor the structure within which they operate. This sounds like a very ordinary anxiety. One that is built in to the system – his transgression is not radical, but necessary – all part of the illusion of movement within the fixed ideological apparatus.

    But, again, haven’t read the article.

    forward in fits and starts

    May 1, 2008 at 8:41 am

  2. I agree with you on the first part. I borrow Zizek’s point that in Late Capitalism not only do the official rules regulate things, but an unofficial, obscene set of conditions as well, of which the contemporary capitalist subject is unconscious and usually enough physically removed from. For reasons that I don’t go into in the post, or do I think I can in great length in this comment, the “old rules” don’t suffice to make a tolerable Capitalist world (for the capitalist).

    Now, that the girlfriend describes his saving as a sort of hyper-preparation for retirement complicates my inclination to see this as a potentially psychotic compensation for something lacking in his world. She seems like she wants see a particular problem here though, so it’s hard to understand the whole Symbolic situation from this lone letter. The guy’s lack of care for his image, however, makes me think he’s not trying to fulfill some ideal or an ideological identity. I don’t know exactly what to make of his complaints against her consuming-habits either, other than a reaction against (this is where it comes in) a threat to his jouissance—i.e. his capacity to live the way he does, which seems comfortable for him. The thing is, if he aspires to what his girlfriend wants, I think everything collapses for him.

    I also agree with “his transgression is not radical, but necessary” while at the same time disagreeing with the sense I think you mean. Of course it is necessary, but in this sense it is radical too. It is transgressive in how it radically takes the overt, if often broken rules of Capitalism—work-hard and save—so seriously. It’s not transgressive because it’s an ideal way to live, but because it reveals an obscene supplement to the otherwise normal Capitalist world.

    I could go a bit Nietzschean on you and compare it to the “sacred No” of the Lion. The point is not to merely be a lion, for Nietzsche anyway, but to convert (I think reveal) the “thou shalt” into “I will.” The lion battles the green-eyed dragon, though here the boyfriend can function strangely as both—living out a Sacred No and showing us consumers something about themselves they violently repress. Maybe I’m just screwing the metaphors up.

    Joe

    May 1, 2008 at 9:45 am

  3. aha – you’ve now got right to the heart of my apprehension of your use of the term ‘jouissance.’

    You equate jouissance to “his capacity to live the way he does, which seems comfortable for him.” This is precisely, in my reading of Lacan et al, the opposite of jouissance. Jouissance is linked to discomfort, to obliteration, death, to collapse.

    The boyfriend’s comfort here is linked to his entrenchment. He is firmly lodged, however awkwardly, inside the symbolic order of late American capitalism – nowhere is he approaching its boundaries (where he may find his jouissance, the dangerous sort of pleasure at the failure of the symbolic).

    I might have to give you a pass on the Nietzsche – after all, as long as the lion is acting authentically (in the Heideggerian sense) he is the lion, but his actions are basically indistinguishable from the actions of others – its all in intentionality… hmmm. This needs more thought.

    forward in fits and starts

    May 1, 2008 at 3:27 pm

  4. Well, now that I’ve had more than my fair share to say on the subject, I’ve just gone and read the column. I have to say… the way the boyfriend is described by the letter writer – he seems a bit perverse.

    I think a psychoanalytic reading of the motivations of either party is probably unavailable to us though. Her post feels exaggerated to me, even hyperbolic. But, as described, he does serve an interesting function – he exposes the absurdity of the order of things by following certain rules of capitalism so completely. Maybe jouissance is in play here…

    forward in fits and starts

    May 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm

  5. Again, I am in agreement with you concerning jouissance. However, the only comfortable world (from this psychoanalytic perspective) is one in which we can sufficiently hold jouissance at bay while not being absolutely taken from us. It threatens to destroy us while being that which makes life worth living. In the Oedipal universe, we are saved from mOther’s threatening desire by the appearance of the name-of-the-Father, which takes on some of the mOther’s desire for/from us. The simpler Freudian formulation of all this is in how we are torn from our mothers (by the Father), while being offered the possibility of a (symbolically) proper mate later down the road.

    So, when I say his jouissance is threatened, which is why he attacks his girlfriend’s lifestyle (and the possibility of integrating with it), I am being tongue in cheek about how I want to read him as a psychotic. You suggest perversity, which could also work, as also an obsessive neurosis.

    Reading him that way means making a lot of assumptions about him and his relationship to money and his girlfriend, so I agree that this kind of analysis can get kind of silly really quickly. I wasn’t struck by his reactions to to his girlfriend as she reported them so much as her over-all reaction and the comments further elaboration of what I think was the same reaction. What seems clear to me is that people are bothered by how someone can play the game the way that he does, the way that it ostensibly is “supposed” to be played, and yet get away with not adopting a proper symbolic identity (as much as one is revealed in the whole article). It’s like he has the cheat-code and all it is

    In the end, we don’t know squat about the guy, but I wish we did, just as I do about the situation in general. More than that though, what was so great about the relationship didn’t really come up except in generalities about how great the sex and company is.

    Joe

    May 1, 2008 at 4:27 pm


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