Writers’ Blocks, Childhood Blocks

What follows is an attempt to get out of a writer’s block that has lingered in the drafts because it very much worked but now seems a little redundant as a result. Nonetheless, some things to get out of my head and on the screen…

Tobi Haslett, “All the Images Will Disappear”:

[Annie Ernaux is] not afraid of the word “truth.” As she proclaims in A Woman’s Story, she will seek “the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words.” But: “I would like to remain a cut below literature.”

Below literature. What form should this writing take? A formless form: a text that mutates and proliferates but also lops off its own limbs. The works slam into and displace one another, skitter across their boundaries or seize uncharted territory, drilling repeatedly into certain eras while leaving others unexposed, such that the power of this corpus — its philosophical intensity and moving execution — only fully strikes you once you’re four or five books deep. That’s not to say that a given volume won’t be affecting on its own. Aesthetic pleasure glints at the jagged angles of the fragment.

I started writing differently when we left London, and reading differently too. The pandemic had already encouraged the writing of a diary amidst the general confusion. I started reading the diaries of others — Kafka, Nin, Woolf. I have kept writing regularly in vignettes, fragments, and blocks ever since.

Post-pandemic writing of all kinds goes in search of lost time. It is hard to remember how that time was spent, because memories of a time before were all we had to focus on. Broken thoughts from a broken time. But there is something effusive in the fragments and between them.

My mental health dips and I struggle both to sleep and to get out of bed for two or three weeks. I want to write to pass the time but every time I sit down at my desk, I feel my bed pulling me back. Anxiety reigns and I feel fearful of the far future. Thinking is suddenly hard. I lock myself down unnecessarily and wish I could articulate something, anything, to get my brain moving again, so that the body might follow.

Eventually, the blockage starts to give way.

Blocks are a good way of tackling writers’ block. Every time I have the urge to write but have nothing immediately clear to say, I sit down and start typing and see what happens. A fragment here and a fragment there. That the blocks don’t yet cohere matters little. Something forms in the in-between.

Oftentimes, the writing is repetitive. I write about writing and not writing here too regularly. But communicating the experience of writers’ block remains one way to get past it. I commune with blankness and soon find myself filling the void with noise. Eventually, the noise takes shape.

I hear a refrain.

Deleuze and Guattari, “1837: Of the Refrain”:

I. A child in the dark, gripped by fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus.

II. Now we are at home. But home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds… The forces of chaos are kept outside as much as possible, and the interior space protects the germinal forces of a task to fulfill or a deed to do…

III. Finally, one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended on its own to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.

(Mark Fisher always hated “Of the Refrain”. Strange… The chapter seems fundamentally Spinozist to me. As Mark writes: “On one side, the refrain is a territorial marker, the tracing of an interiority; on the other, it opens out into the cosmos.” But in 2004, he also called it “Hegelian-humanist-improv-high culture-Radio 3 tedium-mongering of the worst kind”; later, he says it is “dripping with the worst type of Nietzscheanism in its vision of a cosmos efflorescing with creative innovation.” Personally, I’m not entirely sure where the frustration comes from. It is one of many points of disagreement, the other being a poor (no doubt post-Landian) distain for Bataille. It’s one of those topics I wish he’d written on in more depth, if only to clarify the contradictions… Mark always seemed to hate most emphatically the things that seemed most appropriate to him on paper. A sentiment I can nonetheless relate to. Criticism comes quick when regarding those things that one feels one should love the most.)

I return to critiques of the family-form.

September is here, and a somewhat formal return to university life looms after a summer spent working in my local pub. The new book is out too and now I need to buckle down for the second year of my PhD.

I keep coming back to Kafka and his place within Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy. “No one is better than Kafka at differentiating the two axes of the assemblage and the making them function together”, they write in A Thousand Plateaus. Kafka is the first k-punk. “K., the K.-function, designates the line of flight or deterritorialization that carries away all of the assemblages but also undergoes all kinds of reterritorializings and redundancies – redundancies of childhood, village-lite [life?], love, bureaucracy, etc.”

By January, I need to have written a book chapter that should hopefully be published in a collection of essays on performance and schizoanalysis. I’m reading Kafka’s diaries again, specifically a new and complete translation. I’m thinking a lot about blocks.

My thesis is looking at Deleuze and Guattari’s “orphan-philosophy” — a loose-termed approach that has been discussed by some but which mostly needs constructing on my part. Orphans figure in their philosophy infrequently but significantly, becoming an elusive figuration for, a vague symbolisation of, the anti-Oedipal nomad. It intrigues me because Oedipus was himself symbolically orphaned, first and foremost. Freud forgets this. Do Deleuze and Guattari? I’d argue their anti-Oedipus remains an Oedipus, albeit untethered from (Freud) the father. Oedipus regained in the negation. A new Oedipus, who still wanders erratically but whose fate is not so predetermined.

There are a few choice passages here and there that signal the orphan’s importance, but Deleuze and Guattari’s work never hangs on the orphan’s ragged coattails for long. They turn and move on quickly. The Orphan appears to be, for them, an always-already orphaned concept.

One such passage is in the Kafka book. They write the following:

To be sure, children don’t live as our adult memories would have us believe, nor as their own memories, which are almost simultaneous with their actions, would have them believe. Memory yells “Father! Mother!” but the childhood block is elsewhere, in the highest intensities that the child constructs with his sisters, his pals, his projects and his toys, and all the nonparental figures through which he deterritorializes his parents every chance he gets. Ah, childhood sexuality — it’s certainly not Freud who gives us the best sense of what that is. The child does not cease reterritorializing everything back onto his parents (the photo); he has his own lowered intensities. But in his activity, as in his passions, he is simultaneously the most deterritorialized and most deterritorializing figure — the Orphan.

It is a passage difficult to make sense of out of context, but what it gestures towards is the truth of an experience I find so tantalizing and feel a great nostalgia for — a gesture of unforgetting one’s displacements.

My favourite childhood memories are those spent in games, imaginatively traversing a local milieu.

I often think about how open-world video-games were once such a novelty because they replicated this childhood experience of viewing the local neighbourhood as a map to be traversed in a million different ways. I think back to playing video-games like Spyro the Dragon, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Goldeneye, using the maps of certain levels to construct entirely new and wholly imagined role-playing games. (There may be a significance to James Bond being an orphan; to Solid Snake also being an elusive (adult) ward of the state; to Spyro rescuing dragon-children from egg-snatchers; to Link, the doubly lost boy who does not fit into his community of lost boys.)

The worlds of Spyro stick in my mind — the worlds you wander that are full of archways that give way to levels proper. The levels were always secondary in their linearity, guiding you towards a given goal. I’d dash around the worlds that contained various levels for hours, no task or goal assigned, just imagining a whole new game within the engine. Sandbox games grew out of this pleasure, I am sure… The world reimagined as a truly smooth space.

Running around our local neighbourhood in the summer felt like that. It was easy to imagine the suburban layout or even the school yard as an entirely other world, where no space was off limits. Even as an older teenage, we’d get high and hop fences, cutting our way across the neighbourhood along trajectories that were ours alone. Sometimes we’d play “knock on ginger”, as we called it — otherwise known as “ding dong dash” or “knock-a-door-run”. Provoke an engagement; disappear as fast as possible. Suburban poltergeists affirming an adolescent unlife. No one else would think to take the routes out that we did.

We’d hang out at the local skate park, where we were very much allowed to be, and local busybodies would still call the police on us, presuming illegality, underage drinking or some other form of mischief. (Eventually, a twenty-foot fence was erected around the park, to be unlocked by the local council — after a while, they stopped unlocking it.)

The mischief only emerged when the police did. Nothing to apologise for, we’d run away anyway, initiating a chase, giving ourselves an excuse to take routes outwards that we knew they wouldn’t follow, laughing, not all the way home but into other peripheral zones, waiting until it was safe to return to the skate park in fleeting clusters, ready to disperse again at a moment’s notice.

(Grand Theft Auto made this all too easy, because you can get away with so much more in that fantastical environment than you’d ever be able to in real life. For all the moral panics around the games encouraging actual criminality, the opportunity to roleplay as adults running from virtual cops took many of us off the streets. Kids love those games because they think they gain so much, but I wonder what kind of relationship to the real world is lost in the digital enclosure. The hollow freedom of a digital Wild West diminished an actual capacity for sprinting refusal in our own spaces.)

“Where are the parents?” is the charged question asked by those who demonise a nation’s youth for its playful loitering. They’re somewhere, elsewhere. It is not parental neglect that leads children to run astray. Out of bounds, every child relishes their temporary parentlessness, their symbolic orphanhood. It is the eternal allure of Harry Potters, Mowglis, Jane Eyres, Antigones. Orphans all.

Deleuze writes in “What Children Say”:

Children never stop talking about what they are doing or trying to do: exploring milieus, by means of dynamic trajectories, and drawing up maps of them. The maps of these trajectories are essential to psychic activity. Little Hans wants to leave his family’s apartment to spend the night at the little girl’s downstairs and return in the morning — the apartment building as milieu. Or again: he wants to leave the building and go to the restaurant to meet with the little rich girl, passing by the horses at the warehouse — the street as milieu. Even Freud deems the intervention of a map to be necessary.

As usual, however, Freud refers everything back to the father-mother: oddly enough, he sees the demand to explore the building as a desire to sleep with the mother. It is as if parents had primary places or functions that exist independently of milieus. But a milieu is made up of qualities, substances, powers, and events: the street, for example, with its materials (paving stones), its noises (the cries of merchants), its animals (harnessed horses) or its dramas (a horse slips, a horse falls down, a horse is beaten…). The trajectory merges not only with the subjectivity of those who travel through a milieu, but also with the subjectivity of the milieu itself, insofar as it is reflected in those who travel through it. The map expresses the identity of the journey and what one travels through. It merges with its object, when the object itself is movement.

(It is hard not to think of Deleuze’s writings on cinema and the movement-image; a milieu of coming-of-age tales for persons and people; Hollywood Westerns; Les quatre cents coups.)

Parents are themselves a milieu that children travel through: they pass through its qualities and powers and make a map of them. They take on a personal and parental form only as the representatives of one milieu within another. But it is wrong to think that children are limited before all else to their parents, and only had access to milieus afterward, by extention or derivation. The father and mother are not the coordinates of everything that is invested by the unconscious. There is never a moment when children are not already plunged into an actual milieu in which they are moving about, and in which the parents as persons simply play the roles of openers or closers of doors, guardians of thresholds, connectors and disconnectors of zones.

What I wouldn’t give to move through the world as I did when I was younger, when the real world felt mostly unknowable and arbitrary, when imagination could be superimposed on infrastructure with ease, such that it bent to your will, parental authority be damned.

I remember once absconding from class in Year 3 or Year 4, telling my teacher I needed the bathroom, and instead spending half an hour roaming the empty corridors of my school, imagining myself as a young Ratkin, seeing not only the vast corridors that dwarfed my small frame, but also the pipes and gullies hidden from view. I felt invisible and all-seeing. All felt traversable. Mapping out the world in my head, only to find new ways to transgress its boundaries.

There was nothing more exciting than an imaginary extension within of the playground outside. There was no sense of having total control over one’s environment, but shedding control absolutely. At lunch time, we would spend the hour exploring the peripheries of the fenced quadrant, forging secret passageways under the bushes and trees that lined its edges, burrowing warrens for play, constructing personal fortitudes against any watchful eye, scurrying every which way in the time allotted. Nothing was more thrilling than the thought of cutting our way across the entire world like that, dissolving compartments and blurring zones. Every site became an fantastical place of play, especially those sites that weren’t.

I often watch videos uploaded by a vibrant parkour community on YouTube. Storror. Dom Tomato. Team Phat. It has been strange to watch the gradual professionalisation of a Red Bull-sponsored urban amateur gymnastics, against a community of crane-climbers who have been thwarted by the enforcing of online terms and conditions. No ad revenue for criminality. Parkour nonetheless walks along an authorial and authoritarian tightrope, skirting the very edges of all territories.

I often wonder what the Situationists would make of them.

I also recently rewatched the first few seasons of Community. The episodes that stand out are tellingly the adventures constructed in small spaces, which remap the territory: the episode where the student dorms are converted into a giant blanket fort; the episodes where the entire school is transformed into a paintball arena. Hierarchies of authority are collapsed, the whole world is transformed. That is what children say.

This PhD project is, in some senses, a funded attempt at self-therapization; a knowing self-application of schizoanalysis. Narcissus in Bloom was a book written fragmentarily that gave me an implicit permission to live otherwise; “One or Several Mothers” — as it is tentatively called — is a grand extension of an essay written some years ago (I won’t recount the particulars). The intention feels much the same. I map out an argument as much for myself as for anyone else. In fact, perhaps more for myself than anyone else, eventually letting go of it in the meek hope that someone else might find it as useful to read as it was to write it.

After the impersonal tone of Narcissus, a return to the autoethnographic. The great frustration of my life remains the lingering impact, as I gradually approach middle age, of my earliest immemorable experiences. Adoption trauma produces constant challenges to emotional regulation. I feel detached from the concept of family, a symbolic orphan, a stray. Family never fit as it was supposed to. The childhood block, malformed, is never quite resolved — it must be continually re-narrated.

There is as much joy in the affirmative realisation as there is discomfort in the difficulties it nonetheless produces. The re-narration of the childhood block affirms and depresses in equal measure, sending me cascading across an internal milieu at the slightest provocation. I am yet to get a handle on things. I hope to graduate, and graduate onto yet another way of living.

To be an orphan, symbolically or otherwise, is a subject position celebrated, desired; fascinating to cultures the world over. It is to be Peter Pan — to be lost (relatively speaking). Like Robin Williams in the film Hook, who forgets that he is Peter Pan. He is not a child, he asserts, making his own childhood inaccessible to him. In truth, he is Peter Pan, always was and always will be. He must return and once again leave Never Never Land, the land of double negation: childhood has already ended, but then must end again to be recuperated.

We must retain an understanding of the plasticity of our own subjectivity. We must unforget our child-like malleability. This is not to affirm the cliches of childhood, affirming a learned helplessness or an arrested development; rather, it is to understand the never-ending necessity of our capacity to constantly remap territories, entering and exiting milieus, forging new self-worlds.

What is the first thing we do when we feel lost, after all? Like a child lost in the woods, we begin to construct a mental map. It is to retune yourself to the landscape around you, to melodise its significances, intuiting resonances with a self unmoored. An emotional untethering feels no different, but it doesn’t help that the ground is constantly shifting.

J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy:

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

To be an orphan, symbolically or otherwise, signifies a kind of freedom, but one that — in spite of its ubiquitous cultural celebration — brings with it a constant sense of detachment. What troubles me most is the lack of any material safety net. Take a wrong turn, there is no turning back, no returning home. It is a subject position culturally celebrated, then, but socially unsupported. The danger of such a freedom thus carries with it a higher risk of falling out of society completely.

How to affirm an orphan-philosophy against all social stigma? How to cope with the alienation that comes from constant flight with no stable place to call home? How to wrestle with a freedom so many have fantasised about, which nonetheless rattles with a lack that should contain all the things that so many take for granted?

How to re-narrate childhood as an adult that allows a trauma to be a gift rather than a burden? How to defiantly reshape the childhood block? (Peter and Wendy; Anti-Oedipus and Pro-Antigone.)

Furthermore, on the refrain…

There is a clip from a Q&A with the YouTube personality Jacob Collier that breaks down a theory of chord construction for the layperson:

In my opinion, you can make every note work with every chord. It’s not really [that] a note is supposed to be there and a note is not supposed to be there. It’s not like right or wrong. It’s more: “There are strong decisions and there are weak decisions”, specifically with motion — like, motion of notes.

Collier plays a note that is usefully notated for us on the screen: Fmaj9/11/Ab.

“You might say, ‘That’s a bit weird. I’m not quite sure I understand what that sound is.’ But then, if I went…” He plays Dbmaj9/13. “And then all those notes make sense.” The memory of the previous chord’s discordance is resolved in relation to the chord that follows.

The amazing thing about horizontal composition rather than vertical composition is that you can validate every note. So I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘This note is wrong and this note is right’… So rather than say, ‘I won’t put that in my textbook of sounds’, I think, ‘Well, how can I justify that as a sound.’ … And that opens up your improvisational language a lot as well…

Rather than say, ‘This note is good and this note is bad’, it’s more, ‘This note hasn’t found its consequence yet’ or ‘This note is in the wrong context’. And that’s how you can move things forward. But I don’t think you should ever reject a note from a chord before trying all of the possible solutions to that chord.

Collier feels like a good example here, particularly in the context of Fisher’s previously noted distain for Deleuze and Guattari’s refrain. (Fisher constantly wrestled with an uncomfortable dissonance between verticality and horizontality in aesthetics and politics.)

Collier’s near-ubiquity on YouTube and his hippie earnestness will put many off him, I am sure. (His Takeaway Show in Paris was recently an earworm for me, I must admit.) But it is hard to deny the truth of what he says and the beauty of its demonstration.

It is an intuitive philosophy of music that resonates with a philosophy of life more generally – the improvisatory nature of life lived, its (social) composition… We act, we do things, and may often find that those actions do not find their own consequence either, or that we cannot yet justify them — it is always hard to fully account for one’s “mistakes” — or that a sense of alienation in a given social circle – in a family, even – is simply a bad context for us to be understood within.

The schizoanalytic approach is like this. Rather than tethering everything to the Freudian family – to mommy-daddy-me – to a major scale of social living, composing life vertically (hierarchically), we can compose hroizontally, through movement, through refrains, through milieus.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that anyone else necessarily has to like the decisions you make. It requires a certain defiance, which takes a confidence that is not always forthcoming. How to assert oneself within a confluence of relations that do not always flow in one’s favour?

This musical example feels apt not only for a life of conscious agency but also an experience of unconscious trauma. Trauma is a wrong note, free-floating within a refrain, without resolution. In an otherwise harmonious melody of movement through life, trauma clangs. Its persistence can irritate, unnerve, and even make one anxious. One wrong note can throw off the whole rhythm of a movement. If the wrong note cannot be erased, it is necessary to change the movement itself. We must ask ourselves how best to integrate the note into a wider symphony.

Here the symphonic analogy loses its footing. Life is not lived like a symphony is played — or shouldn’t be. Rather, it is a mode of composition that occurs before the orchestra plays a note. Improvisation is, in this sense, a living composition. Indeed, it is a composition that comes before orchestration.

This can be a difficult thing to achieve when the composition itself cannot simply be begun again – that is, when a composition is being actively played. How to integrate a wrong note when the movement itself cannot start over? Improvisation takes practice.

Guattari, in The Anti-Oedipus Papers, is emphatic on this. He routinely deploys images of the theatre to critique the psychoanalytic “art” of interpretation. The psychoanalyst believes they must “orchestrate oedipal representation.” The analysand must find their role, their instrument, their part within an already existing orchestration. Against such strictures, Guattari argues that psychoanalysis must be freed from its own staging: “the whole thing is fabricated in the oedipal theater, the decor is fake. This abyssal psychology doesn’t go deeper than the orchestra pit!”

Kafka, too, is suspicious of a theatrical bureaucracy. On 18th February 1922, he jots a note down in his diary. A brief sketch for a story, perhaps, undeveloped beyond this point, about a theatre director who exerts an omnipresent sense of control over his company; a theatre director, he writes,

who must create everything himself from the ground up, even the actors he must first beget. A visitor is not admitted, the director is busy with important theater work. What is it? He is changing the diapers of a future actor.

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari make use of a similar analogy:

The unconscious ceases to be what it is – a factory, a workshop – to become a theater, a scene and its staging. And not even an avant-garde theater, such as existed in Freud’s day (Wedekind), but the classical theater, the classical order of representation. The psychoanalyst becomes a director for a private theater, rather than the engineer or mechanic who sets up units of production, and grapples with collective agents of production and antiproduction. [Emphasis added.]

The task of schizoanalysis is to suspend the final staging and return to the moment of composition, to elucidate the construct of life as a perpetually unfinished work of art; a work of art that is not constructed linearly, as it may be perceived or performed, but fragmentarily, as we return to the blocks that give it structure: adapting them, removing them, writing new ones…

This can feel like an impossible task to undertake — but perhaps that is necessarily so.

Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction:

Childhood is not an object, any more than the unconscious, although this is often how they are both understood. The idea that childhood is something separate which can be scrutinised and assessed is the other side of the illusion which makes of childhood something which we have simply ceased to be.

[…] the question of the unconscious — its constant pull against our seeming identity (the unconscious is not the site of some irrational truth, its truth is merely this repeated slippage); the question of childhood — its threat to the idea that we have neatly picked up and resolved everything that came before on the way to where we are now. The issue of childhood sexuality is subordinate to these two questions. For it is relatively easy to acknowledge in the child a sexuality different from our own, if we can see this sexuality as something which is simply grown out of (rather like a set of clothes). In fact, Freud uncovered in the sexual life of children the same perverse sexuality that analysis revealed in the symptoms of his patients and which was expressed indirectly in their dreams. By stating that this perverse sexuality was in fact quite normal to the extent that it could be located in the sexual life of the child, and by insisting, furthermore, that it was only spoken in the form of a symptom because it was a form of sexuality which had to be so totally repressed elsewhere, Freud effected a break in our conception of both sexuality and childhood from which we do not seem to have recovered. The neurotic simply bears witness to the effects of what is always at some level an impossible task — the task of cohering the fragmented, component and perverse sexuality of the child. The fact that Freud used a myth to describe how this ordering is meant to take place (the myth of Oedipus) should alert us to the fictional nature of this process, which is at best precarious, and never complete.

Deleuze and Guattari talk about the childhood block as a period of time that is not compartmentalised and left behind as we enter adulthood, as a point of origin, but rather as an object that is continually re-narrated, repurposed, re-sculpted — not through direct access, but through the work of a living composition. Together, they turn to Kafka in order to elucidate the block-function.

Kafka, particularly in his diaries, employs a “broken form of writing”, they note; a “mode of expression through fragments.” They turn to Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China” as a meta-narrative that may illuminate his own writing process. The story begins:

The Great Wall of China was finished at its northernmost location. The construction work moved up from the south-east and south-west and joined at this point. The system of building in sections was also followed on a small scale within the two great armies of workers, the eastern and western. It was carried out in the following manner: groups of about twenty workers were formed, each of which had to take on a section of the wall, about five hundred metres. A neighbouring group then built a wall of similar length to meet it. But afterwards, when the sections were fully joined, construction was not continued on any further at the end of this thousand-metre section. Instead the groups of workers were shipped off again to build the wall in completely different regions. Naturally, with this method many large gaps arose, which were filled in only gradually and slowly, many of them not until after it had already been reported that the building of the wall was complete. In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.

Why build the wall in this manner? Why not start at one end and build continuously across? Why leave gaps?

The reason gestured toward comes from an overall understanding of the scale of the undertaking. To complete the wall could take generations. To proceed continually and linearly would perhaps lead to the erection of a strange structure, the most evolved parts of which only occur at the final end.

To approach this wall, we see the linear progression of skill and knowledge over time, such that invading nomads need only approach the earliest and more primitive end of the wall and assail it. (In Deleuze and Guattari’s analogy, we can understand childhood as a constant vulnerability.) But to break the wall into sections, constructed as a patchwork, would hide the earliest developments amongst a non-linear milieu; “thus, the essential prerequisites for the work were the most careful construction, the use of the architectural wisdom of all known ages and peoples, and an enduring sense of personal responsibility in the builders.”

Significantly, since the completion of the wall was a task that far exceeded a single lifetime, workers could instead look forward to the moments when sections of wall were conjoined. Events come together, ignoring any totalizing sense of final completion. It keeps a Sisyphean madness at bay.

Writing is like this. Blogging is like this. It does not proceed linearly. Fragments and blocks are constructed; small victories are attained. Occasionally, fragments conjoin; resonate with one another like a chord progression. Posts and stray thoughts give rise to essays, which give rise to books, which give rise to bodies of work. But forever and always, everything is already grasped in the fragments.

Life is like this. The self is like this. It does not proceed linearly. Events and experiences are traversed; small ruptures are sutured. Occasionally, events conjoin; resonate with one another like a chord progression. Hours and days give rise to months and years, which give rise to decades, which gives rise to a history that must itself be written. But forever and always, everything is already grasped in events.

Dating is a struggle at present. The thought of it brings me down. Best not to think about it at all. But the desire to connect up existences feels fundamentally human. The social animal finds untold pleasures in wandering into other lives. But, for me, the childhood block always gets in the way. I have yet to find a way to integrate it satisfactorily. (A “block” can be as much a frustrating imposition as it is an opportunity to imprint a design.)

The Freudian conception of family relates all significant others back to limited blocks, to mothers and fathers, as if our relation to each is a model for the gendered Other. Parental blocks are copied, reproduced, often disastrously. (Is your partner like your mother? Like your father?) But without any functional model to work with, instead feeling the absence of one and/or the other, there is a blank slate.

The blankness is no less terrifying. Others chalk it up to “abandonment issues”. Not quite. No mommy-daddy-me, just the blankness of me alone.

Grief is the earliest emotion experienced by a developing consciousness. Solitude is foundational. Solitude is so often silent.

Silence and solitude are to be escaped through a refrain, but sometimes a jailbreak is attempted for the wrong reasons. To return to silence a failure is to return to an already broken home, to the great quietude of one’s own disordered thoughts. You are left simply (or not so simply at all) with a sensitivity to loss of all kinds.

André Green, in “The Dead Mother”, gives a psychoanalytic account of a child who experiences a mother’s post-natal depression. (Anecdotally, people who, as children, experienced this kind of parental rupture share many issues in common with adopted or orphaned children, at least in my experience.) The sudden silence of mourning abounds infinite.

“If one had to choose a single characteristic to differentiate between present-day analyses and analyses as one imagines them to have been in the past,” Green writes, “it would surely be found among the problems of mourning.”

The dead mother is not a mother who is really dead, but rather

an imago which has been constituted in the child’s mind … brutally transforming a living object, which was a source of vitality for the child, into a distant figure, toneless, practically inanimate, deeply impregnating the cathexes of certain patients we have in analysis, and weighing on the destiny of their object-libidinal and narcissistic future. Thus, the dead mother, contrary to what one might think, is a mother who remains alive but who is, so to speak, psychically dead in the eyes of the young child in her care.

Green goes on to argue, in light of this, that the dead mother cannot be explained by Freudian lack — that is, by the Freudian penchant for castration. This is too patriarchal. He notes how, in psychoanalysis, “we never hear of the dead mother from a structural point of view.” Instead, Freud “specifically fixes castration anxiety and repression as a centre, in relation to which he places other types of anxiety and different varieties of repression, whether they come before or after, which is proof of the structural and genetic character of Freudian thought.” Green believes, however, that in restricting psychoanalysis to a patriarchal structure in this way, “one is doing violence as much to experience as to theory to save the unity and generalization of a concept.”

Castration is, of course, a very real form of violence in this way. It denotes a bloody act of severance, a mutilating loss exerted upon the body. To this omnipresent Freudian violence, Green adds a further anxiety that is no longer strictly tied to castration but rather to a less spectacular loss, since when we are “referring to the concept of the loss of the breast, or of object-loss, and even of threats relative to the loss of the superego and its protection, and in a general manner, to all threats of abandonment, the context is never bloody.” Castration, then, for Green, is a “‘red’ anxiety”, whereas the dead mother “bears the colours of mourning: black or white.” In other words, it denotes a “blankness” rather than a messy severance, the results of which nonetheless correspond to “one of the components of primary repression: massive decathexis, both radical and temporary, which leaves traces in the unconscious in the form of ‘psychical holes’.”

But the Oedipus complex still predominates. Green only gets so far in his unbloodying of Freudian violence. The massive withdrawal is itself withdrawn from view. Deference to Freud retained.

The cliches of Freudian psychoanalysis are made redundant. “Tell me about your mother.” A tacit acknowledgement, but the cliche obscures how spectral mothers are within Freudian psychoanalysis. And what of the mother’s spectrality for the displaced child? “Tell me about your mother.” Okay. But who is that, exactly?

Adoption trauma is compounded by losses of other kinds. My adoptive mother is dead to me, her own mental illness leading to physical violence that has never been acknowledged by her or anyone else present; my birth mother absent so long no meaningful relationship has been sustained. One or several dead mothers…

The lack must be contextualised but the negative space that surrounds the trauma does not look the same from all perspectives. Symptomatology is itself a theater adopted by the patient-understudy who has come to learn someone else’s lines.

In Êtes-vous fous?, René Crevel presents us with the first anti-Oedipus: Vagualame, later identified as Crevel himself. I make moves to translate a scene.

Vagualame describes a total withdrawal of himself from any relation with his parents. As a child, he loved the bear and little locomotive he took to bed with him alone, far more than he loved mommy or daddy. Crevel hates his mother, in fact, “since the woman who bore me, now dead, was too unconcerned in her lifetime with charming her son for any sensuality to arise from her. As a sniffling baby, from the age of ten months I preferred her maid, a certain Lucie, who perfumed herself with carnation.”

His resentment is palpable, and he views his mother’s disinterest through the repressions of class. “For a French bourgeois, a mother is a piece of furniture”, he writes. There is an air of misogyny to his disdain, but he perhaps despises a kind of bourgeois self-objectification that his mother represents. His mother is an ornate decoration, a symbol of bourgeois glamour. Sensuality is unbecoming, but like a Madame Bovary, Vagualame suggests a depressive-narcissistic relish to her sensual inertia.

Aged twenty-six, he moves to process his feelings. He takes himself to a psychoanalyst, but is immediately resistant to the whole process. The analyst asks him about an older woman — three years his senior — whom he has been seeing. Perhaps already sensing that the analyst is angling for a relation to the narrator’s mother, Crevel responds to the analyst’s questions with misleading non sequiturs.

“The woman you visited was older than you. First point. Did you feel any emotion in her presence? And how intense?”

“A newborn bat, fallen from I don’t know where, had crashed to the floor of the terrace where we were standing. As an adult, a bat doesn’t seem very exciting to me. But as a newborn, with poor, limp, cold, purple, raw flesh, and especially this one, its wings torn off, its neck broken, its chest marmalade…”

“Very good, very good. Which animal do you hate most of all?”

Le morpion“, he says. Public lice. Crabs. (“Jeu de morpion” is the French term for “noughts and crosses” or “tic-tac-toe” – a game of blocks and blocking, of forging and denying trajectories.)

The analyst takes these images on board, his enthusiasm suggesting these responses are more telling than the straight answers one might otherwise expect. The Unconscious is a challenge; the analyst welcomes its strange images, even when offered up cynically. Unperturbed, he moves back towards questions about Crevel’s family. He had an elder brother, deceased, and still has two younger sisters, whom he claims he always liked the best.

The analyst doesn’t believe him. He should clearly prefer the sibling who is older; a (dead) surrogate father figure, perhaps.

“[Y]ou must be mistaken, sir. Or rather, you dare not speak your mind. The phenomenon of resistance. A phenomenon well known to psychoanalysts. One last question, please. Are you afraid of going blind?”

Oedipus returns.

“More than anything else in the world.”

The diagnosis is clear, before analysis has even really begun:

It’s all very simple to explain. We find ourselves in the presence of a banal, classic Oedipus complex. You have visited an older woman, the mother. Without the slightest compassion for the bat-child who killed himself by falling out of the nest, poor thing, instead of feeling sorry for her, you only felt disgust, disgust and disgustment, and you hate the harmless crabs, but, by definition, parasites, therefore symbols of those smaller than you, of those to be born and whose childhood dreaded that they would come and take away from you what you considered to be your maternal affection. Are you shaking your head? You won’t admit it, and would like to deceive others as you deceive yourself — unconsciously, admittedly, when you claim to have preferred and still prefer the sisters who are your siblings to the elder brother. But let’s begin the analysis. I’ll take a pencil and paper, and sit behind you. Then, according to the method you’re all familiar with, you speak, enunciate, without any control whatsoever, whatever comes into your head. One second, please. Forget about me. I’m listening.

Vagualame keeps resisting, already having sense the Oedipus complex hanging over him from a mile off. He rejects the entire premise of this blinkered analysis:

It’s no use, Doctor. I’ve never had to say anything, even the most composed things, to anyone who wasn’t within my field of vision. The subconscious is no little ostrich girl. A presence would, perhaps, snatch its secret from it. An ambush, never. Would you happily walk down a deserted, unfamous street at night if you were sure that, behind the picket fence in the wasteland, invisible scoundrels were lurking? While most men indulge in thoughts of suicide, very few actually go through with it, but no one allows themselves to be murdered. So, Doctor, I avoid the dead ends where, with a knife to my throat, I’d have to spill my guts. After all, why shouldn’t we be frank? I know that I’m dealing with, and that I’m afflicted not with the classic Oedipus complex, but with the anti-Oedipus simplex. Deep down, deep in the heart, between the paves of the backyard, not even enough soil for the weed of obsession. That’s why I don’t know how to pass the time. I never wanted my mother. I only lifted the skirts of a kitchen girl in the country when I was four. But woe betide the man who didn’t want to sleep with his mother. Those who suffer from the Oedipus complex are not the sick ones, since they make up almost the entire population. On the contrary, as a poor, isolated man suffering from anti-Oedipus simplex, I could, paraphrasing Saint Theresa, shout to all the echoes that I suffer for not suffering.

But, is it the phenomenon of resistances […] I lied, not about my brothers and sisters, but about crabs, because frankly speaking, I adore these delightful little creatures. If I don’t have a little hello to take to them, in their bushes of hair, all night long I dream that their underground nephews, the termites, right in this solitary body that no voluptuousness has made invulnerable, are going to dig their gallery, along the legs, the trunk, the arms, the neck. And I collapse, almost an island of dust, on the colorless ocean of sheets.

A peninsula.

You can still go for your phallic symbol, but as everything becomes confused as it spreads, pantheism, for example, ultimately becoming one with atheism, so the pansexual interpretation of creates puts them all in the same bag, a puerile, tight-fitting, ballskin uniform that crushes the man’s sex, while the woman’s is sewn in tiny stitches from the very thread that holds the pieces of the costume together. At the end of the day, this material appears as unerotic, as unerogetic, as unerophilic, and certainly less subtle in vein and grain than the marble from which the Third Republic sprang the statues in its squares.

Now, Doctor, I ask you, the revolutionary spirit, the liberating force of a science that you claim to serve, but which, in reality, you do serve, into what vile dumpling will your hands, one of which is laziness and the other imbecility, turn it? And why is it that a dwarf pretends to seize the very high word, believing himself to be greater than it?

The attack on psychoanalysis angers the devotee in the room — understandably, since it comes from one who has proffered himself before it nonetheless. The analyst interrupts: “a science is only as good as its practitioner. So if you’re blaming my way of doing things, go ahead and do without psychoanalysis. Get stuck in your complexes until the day…”

The analysand has no time for this defensive manoeuvre. The rant continues, encapsulating Deleuze and Guattari’s anger at psychiatry in a more venomous bluster of surreality than even they could muster.

What? Threats? But if I did have complexes, they would be too precious for me to accept ever being empty of them. The most dignified men don’t have to feed their inferior brothers with their confessions, their marrow. And what would you do, psychoanalyst, with everything you’ve taken from me? You must be bursting at the seams with all the mediocre secrets extorted from your clients. Thief, like all the others who don’t know what to do with what they’ve taken, it’s always the same flea market, the same fencing in the shadow of the temple, from where Jesus drove out the merchants. But the first step was to raze to the ground the temple itself, the palace of torment that masochistic humanity took centuries and centuries to build. We didn’t know dynamite, you would say, in Nazareth’s time. Nice excuse. The truth, men, the truth, us, the truth, me, the truth is that there’s not enough phosphorus, not enough red anger in the blood of our hearts. Hands too short (here, I’ll give you five phalluses twice over, psychoanalyst), my hands that I’d have liked to be palms of light, their ten fingers, their double-blistered anemia hasn’t even tried to tear the papier-mâché of the false ramparts that encircle me. I live caged, like my little comrades, a captive and too often proud victim of the bluffing individualism that pits creatures against each other for the vain joy of psychologists, worldly novelists and the multiform species of gossip and gossip-lovers. Salvation is nowhere, will be nowhere, as long as it is believed to be for some and not for all. The old scholar from Vienna, who showed mankind the naked silhouettes that the complicated draperies of the ancestral and vain phantoms had disguised, for the most disastrous confusion, his admirable words will only be of effective value the day when the crowd, the mob, the scoundrel, as you call it, after having dispossessed the snobs and the eccentric theories of the conservative rationalists who mock audacity, this crowd, this mob. For even knowledge comes at the price of blood, and whoever wants to acquire it must, after denouncing myths such as education for all and a thousand others of the same flavour, put out of action those who, having dispensed false benefits, only wanted to appear to be teaching in order to better conceal the most essential of liberating hypotheses.

So don’t swaddle children in false humility, or be surprised when, as adults, they wish to return to their mother’s womb, to forget a world where everything is forced upon them.

Guattari writes repeatedly of a patient in his care at La Borde, initialised as “R.A.” He is a difficult patient to integrate into the clinic’s radical non-hierarchical functioning:

R.A.’s general attitude was one where he was somewhat “cut off” from everyone else: systematic opposition to everything going on at the clinic (going down to the dining room, participating in activities, meetings, evening events, etc.); stereotypical responses that were always more or less aggressive (such as: “what?,” “hunh? ,” “I can’t hear anything,” “I don’t feel anything,” “I don’t want to,” ‘I’m dead,” “This place made me like this,” etc.) and that regularly interrupted anything anyone said to him as soon as the first words were spoken.

Things were not always like this. Guattari notes how, at one time, “there were several young, emotionally disturbed patients in the clinic who ‘adopted’ him and brought him along for different activities that we had been unable to get him to accept before.” But this does not last. R.A. had a tendency to run away. Most days, he seemed totally detached from reality.

R.A. was a writer, it is suggested, once upon a time. However, at that time, “he practically hadn’t written or read anything for years.” Guattari and Dr. Oury suggest R.A. copy out a book by another. Rather than write his own words, they suggest he start by rewriting a work produced by someone else.

The book was not selected by chance. It was The Castle by Kafka. Dr. Oury and I had noticed the similarities between R.A. and Kafka, from psychopathological and religious points of view as much as his external appearance, at least to the extent that we could judge from a photograph.

The exercise works. R.A. begins to write again. He keeps a journal. He makes reference to an entry from Kafka’s own diaries from 6th December 1910. (No such entry can be found in the recently published complete edition of Kafka’s diaries, translated by Ross Benjamin, at least under the date given by R.A. Perhaps the line between Kafka and R.A. has blurred for R.A. himself.)

Kafka, December 6, 1910

“I will never leave this journal. Here I must be resolute, because I can only be like that here.”

When I was a baby is an origin.

I am a bastard, I would have liked to write on smooth paper with no folds. I just went to the bathroom, it is worse than rot. I am worse than dead. I no longer have any natural senses. I am never hungry, never thirsty, never want anything, be it physical or moral, and I am more attached to the physical because I have lost all of my organic functions (breathing, digestion, sight, hearing, etc.) like I did before, a little. & I write this, I have no awareness of what I am writing, but a kind of silent word (I think of Felix when saying that); it makes me have attitudes, that is all. And I cannot believe that I will get out of it. What I am afraid of is sucking my thumb and walking like when I was little.

The journal is replete with childhood memories, relations to others, and night terrors of a mother’s “poisoned breast”:

Dream on insulin of the poisoned breast. I don’t know if I suckled it. Associated with Bernadette, whom I saw without seeing her. My brother knows how to deal with girls; it is the same thing for me as the poisoned breast of my mother. In the end, I am too much with my mother whom I never had (cloud). I did not have a father. At the henhouse committee, I had an unpleasant impression: “It is as if they were talking about me when they said that hens lay eggs” (to analyze well, I think). Complete immobility (nervous, corporal and sensitive). Everything, according to me, comes from the poisoned breast of my mother, and I am certain not to heal from it one day.

The excerpts from the diary end with no clear resolution. There is no sense of whether R.A. found himself healed or not. Maybe the end of the diary, of writing, is evidence enough.

Deleuze and Guattari eschew any sense of object-loss, tethered in Kleinian analysis to the mother’s breast withdrawn. For them, neither womb nor breast are landmarks of a primal home. They reimagine the Freudian breast, in fact. The breast is but a ball with a nipple-plug — and we all have nipples. The breast, as a connective passage in their machinic unconscious, is detached from but hardly lost absolutely. It has a great many roles. We can invent and assign as many as we choose.

Chia Yu Lien writes:

For philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, desire produces perpetually new objects. Unlike Freud and Freudian scholars, who consider desire as lacking and trace the desired object back to the mother-child relationship, Deleuze and Guattari argue: “the real object can be produced only by an external causality and external mechanisms; nonetheless this knowledge does not prevent us from believing in the intrinsic power of desire that creates its own object — if only in an unreal, hallucinatory, or delirious form.”

The childhood block (like the breast itself, perhaps) is a katamari; a kind of sculptural conglomeration (not necessarily formless, nor strictly representational) that is reoriented towards, retained, reshaped, remodelled, remapped, reconstituted throughout the course of the life it rolls through. A pebble in a pocket that is gathered together with other objects, one part of an assemblage, vibrating with the ever-present potential of its recontextualization.

The object is not lost, though it may be obscured by the dust it gathers. It is reformed constantly in the complexity of its relations.

We are constantly building new homes with the blocks of self and life.

I think about the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth — her iterations of “Mother and Child”.

In 1934, mother and child are conjoined in a flow. Two figures seem to shapeshift before us, distinct, free-floating, and yet constructed from a single piece of alabaster. Each borders on formlessness, the familial relation retained only through a sense of the diminutive.

Then, that same year, another iteration, this time cleft (à la bastard). The relation is nonetheless more obvious. A delicate nestling is made possible. The relation is visibly strengthened in its separation. The object-child, in its distinction, conveys more affectively a sense of maternal desire. The possibility of rearrangement, of placing the child elsewhere, at a distance, makes the bond appear closer. The objects produce desire in their very relation; desire does not produce the objects themselves.

Hepworth’s is a childhood block most explicitly. We project ourselves onto it, imagine the new ways the block can be narrated, repositioned, reshaped. But the separation of mother and child need not be understood as a loss. We could approach the object-child without having seen the object-mother upon which it once sat. We may nonetheless imagine the object’s journey, not only apart from the mother-object but from the limestone sedimentation it was first retrieved from, as raw matter.

We may return to Deleuze, who imagines how

sculpture ceases to be monumental in order to become hodological: it is not enough to say that it is a landscape and that it lays out a place or territory. What it lays out are paths — it is itself a voyage. A sculpture follows the paths that give it an outside; it works only with nonclosed curves that divide up and traverse the organic body and has no other memory than that of the material…

The object-mother and object-child, though signifying a relation in Hepworth’s titling, are still only rocks; their existence as hyper-objects is thinkable as soon as we pull back to loose veil of representation.

Deleuze then mentions the work of Carmen Perrin, whose sculptures often repurpose industrial materials to produce entirely new forms. These forms may echo an industrial past but also so much more. They become bodies that remain industrial, constructed with an engineer’s or an architect’s precision, that nonetheless open outwards onto a whole new set of aesthetic relations. Alien objects appear before us that beg the questions, “How were you made?” “How did you get here?” These questions are notably distinct from the more paranoid question of “Where did you come from?” “Where were these materials gathered?” A building site, perhaps? A scrap yard? A factory? The origin tells us nothing on its own. We instead try to map out a trajectory for the blocks before us,

not in order to assign an origin to them but to make their displacement something visible… [I]t is characteristic of this new sculpture to assume a position on external trajectories, but this position depends primarily on paths internal to the work itself; the external path is a creation that does not exist before the work, and depends on its internal relations. One circles around a sculpture, and the viewing axes that belong to it make us grasp the body, sometimes along its entire length, sometimes in an astonishing foreshortening, sometimes in two or more diverging directions: its position in the surrounding space is strictly dependent on these internal trajectories. It is as if the real path were intertwined with virtual paths that give it new courses and trajectories.

Perrin herself, though she grew up in Switzerland, was born in Bolivia. Every gallerist’s biography makes reference to these distant origins, perhaps missing her displacement altogether. “Carmen Perrin was born in La Paz” tells us nothing. That she grew up in Switzerland, that she is other to the milieu around her, is more to the point. Not “Where is she from?”, but “How has she moved?” and “How is she moving?”

Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman:

And, but, what of the “first matter“? What is this unknowable entity that has an existence in itself? Something that eludes the question “what is?” (tode ti). Might this not be the body of the mother, and the process of becoming flesh within the mother? Of becoming physis always already constituted as the hypokeimenon that defines the substance of man? Might it not be this bodiliness shared with the mother, which as yet has no movement of its own, has to divide up time or space, has in point of fact no way of measuring the container or the surrounding world or the content or the relations among all these? It cannot be shaped in any distinct mold. Fusion, confusion, transfusion of matter, of body-matter, in which even the elementary would escape any static characterization. In which same and other would have to find their meaning.

The mother matters; the child is matter made. At what point does the child come to matter for itself?

Perrin: a wandering woman reshaping matter. Perrin hysterical? Pre-psychoanalytic definitions of hysteria are predicated on a wandering womb. Julia Borossa summarises the old view, long dismissed for its biologically essentialising and heteronormative misogyny: “The womb is an animal which longs to generate children. When it remains barren too long after puberty, it is distressed and sorely disturbed brings the sufferer into the extremist anguish and provokes all manner of diseases besides.”

Freud reframes hysteria, moves from a wandering womb to a wandering mind — particularly a mind that wanders far from its parents, just as Oedipus wandered far from those individuals he falsely believed to be his family, before wandering again blind, after the truth of his incestuous relation is revealed to him. Hysteria is reframed not as a wandering womb, but a womb repressed. The wandering mind represses all origins. But why must wandering far from home be a problem?

Irigaray understands Plato’s cave as a hystera. Having left the cave, the movement of politics is predicated on an enlightened return. What if you don’t? Or what if it is only a memory of the cave that is returned to, rather than the environment itself? Then again, who remembers their time in the womb? What kind of return is possible for an experience outside of memory? What kind of return is possible when we are confronted by the trauma of enlightenment?

Crevel is a hysteric too, although perhaps we might see him more as a pervert. These, again, are Freudian terms. Rejecting the Freudian enclosure of mommy-daddy-me, he affirms himself as a post-Freudian bisexual flâneur, wandering through Paris and through all desires, crossing all lines.

But for Freud, all wandering takes place in the Unconscious. Crevel instead wanders consciously. This is his perversion. Sexuality is not repressed and left behind on the journey, as in hysteria, but is carried alongside, knowingly. The pervert assumes total egoic control over the preferences of the id. But this is the pervert’s illusion. The ego affirms what it can, but it only ever affirms in part, offsetting all the more that which remains repressed.

In this way, Žižek might understand Crevel’s “passionate (dis)attachment” as a hubristic rejection of the Unconscious. As he writes in The Ticklish Subject, “those who … advocate the subversive potential of perversions are sooner or later led to the denial of the Freudian Unconscious”. But this seems to suggest an impossible relation to the unconscious itself. Does Crevel deny the unconscious? No. It is precisely what he affirms, only denying its legibility to another. If, following Rose, we understand our relation to childhood to be like our relation to the unconscious, Crevel simply denies its easy interpretation, not only to himself but to the analyst who claims to possess a one-size-fits-all Rosetta Stone.

The problem with this kind of passionate (dis)attachment, for someone like Žižek, is that our affirming of new passions – or perhaps old passions that are made newly visible, or passions that we claim are otherwise – is that we presume radicality only to let more damaging affects in through the back door, through the Unconscious itself, which is supposedly being denied. He draws on cyberspace as an effective example:

On a more general level, it is interesting to note how, when one describes new phenomena, one as a rule overlooks their predominant hysterical functioning and prefers the allegedly more ‘radical’ perverse or psychotic functioning. Say, in the case of cyberspace, we are bombarded with interpretations which emphasize how cyberspace opens up the possibility of polymorphous perverse playing with and permanent reshaping of one’s symbolic identity, or how it involves a regression to the psychotic incestuous immersion into the Screen as the maternal Thing that swallows us, depriving us of the capacity of symbolic distance and reflection. It can, however, be argued that the most common reaction of all of us when we are confronted with cyberspace is still that of hysterical perplexity, of permanent questioning: ‘How do I stand with respect to this anonymous Other? What does it want from me? What game is it playing with me?’…

The dramas of the Ccru come to mind here; the Landian hysteric who wanders far in the name of radicality only to succumb to violent reaction. This introduces Žižek’s first pointed critique of Deleuze:

… is not Deleuze’s critique of ‘Oedipal’ psychoanalysis an exemplary case of the perverse rejection of hysteria?

Surely the opposite? Deleuze loves nothing more than a meander. What is rejected is the predetermination of Oedipus’s journey. No fate!

Žižek nonetheless continues:

Against the hysterical subject who maintains an ambiguous attitude towards symbolic authority (like the psychoanalyst who acknowledges the pathological consequences of ‘repression’, but none the less claims that ‘repression’ is the condition of cultural progress, since outside symbolic authority there is only the psychotic void), the pervert bravely goes to the limit in undermining the very foundations of symbolic authority and fully endorsing the multiple productivity of pre-symbolic libidinal flux … for Lacan, of course, this ‘anti-Oedipal’ radicalization of psychoanalysis is the very model of the trap to be avoided at any cost: the model of false subversive radicalization that fits the existing power constellation perfectly. In other words, for Lacan, the philosopher’s ‘radicality’, his fearless questioning of all presuppositions, is the model of the false transgressive radicality.

Is the issue here not instead that Deleuze and Guattari questioned Lacan himself? “Lacan was an event in my life”, Guattari once said in an interview. “Deleuze never took Lacan seriously at all, but for me, that was very important. It’s true I’ve gone through a whole process of clarification, which didn’t occur quickly, and I haven’t finally measured, date I say it, the superficial character of Lacan.” But Guattari frames Lacan’s thought, if not through hysteria, at least a kind of manic paranoia. Deleuze wandered through a philosophical milieu picking up whatever weapons he pleased, following no-one — so Guattari says — whereas Lacan approached Freud the master with a conspiratorial plotting, making Borromean knots from his Freudian yarn-work. Guattari continues:

There is a Freudian creativity that is much closer to theater, to myth, to the dream, and which has little to do with this structuralist, systemic, mathematizing … this mathemic thought of Lacan … It’s a meta-meta-meta-theorization; they speak about textual exegesis in the nth degree … So all that is ridiculous.

In Žižek’s text from 1999, we see the seeds of an anti-trans rhetoric advanced by him and many other Lacanians in the present. This “model of false subversive radicalization that fits the existing power constellation perfectly” echoes arguments that a contemporary identity-politics is simply the advancement of capitalist individualism taken to its (il)logical conclusion, as if the self and its representation were now as minutely customisable as a social-media profile. (Again, the unconscious is, if not denied, at least ignored.)

Žižek sees this imagined radical transgression, then, as a feedback loop. Transgression is only possible through true immersion and mastery of one’s own subjugation, such that those who proclaim freedom from social machinations are in fact those most immersed within them, who must then necessary repress their own adherence to material oppression through a pervert’s affirmation of its imagined possibilities. The problem with this, for Žižek, is that no escape is truly made; rather, the fantasy of escape becomes a powerful perverted mechanism of repression itself. Echoing the denunciations of idpol and a self-identifying approach to gender that proliferate in the present, he writes: “not only does confessional self-probing unearth new forms of sexuality — the confessional activity itself becomes sexualized, gives rise to a satisfaction of its own: ‘The repressive law is not external to the libido that it represses, but the repressive law represses to the extent that repression becomes a libidinal activity.’” He uses the example of politically correct language. To call someone “mentally challenged” rather than “retarded” does not somehow remove the sin of insulting judgement, but rather adds a pleasurable (and more patronising) dimension to the repression of one’s capacity for enunciation. “Mentally challenged” and “retarded” still mean the same thing, and the softening of the blow does nothing to upend the dynamics of power that legitimate our commentary on and misguided analysis of the Other. It only makes whoever is commenting feel better — even good — about their judgement. Or so argues Žižek.

The same argument can easily be used (and often is, implicitly) in contemporary denunciations of pronouns. To adopt alternate pronouns for someone, which differ from those assigned at birth, is simply a repression of one’s inadequacies dressed up as political radicality. To enforce their usage on others is to control language in a way that mirrors the oppression supposedly being rejected. 

Žižek’s argument, expressed in the neat lucidity of psychoanalytic theory, which implicitly professes that it has an answer for everything, is disastrously convincing. It promotes a violent self-questioning and triggers a depressive uncertainty in me that lasts for days. Reflecting on my decision last year to start living outwardly as non-binary, perpetually considering how best to represent oneself in ways that affirm an experience that is equal parts subjective and social, I am nonetheless left wondering if this decision were simply a perverse rejection of hysteria, a displacement affirmed such that “untruth” is renarrated as truth.

Then again, what does it matter? Though the decision is relatively recent, it allows the re-narration of past experiences in a more positive manner. The events of a life find a newly harmonious consequence. A psychoanalytic “modelisation of subjectivity” as a poor fit. (A rejection of the Freudian Unconscious, or the Unconscious retained with Freud denied?) There is a cruel irony to the fact that a contemporary denouncement of affirming one’s difference is nonetheless a telling denial of prior alienation. (It is an argument that carries even more gravitas when we consider the interjections of black study, affirming an otherness enforced from without to find new ways of living within and beyond the prevailing injustices of the present.)

Those that now loudly deny self-affirmation are precisely those who questioned a childhood conformity. The claim that “You’re not man enough” is internalised, made sense of in a new way, but then, this is cruelly denied after the fact. “You might now believe what we told you previously, but the truth is that you will never be any but a man.” Gender is wielded as a double-edged sword; to be non-binary is only to affirm the catch-22, the cutting both ways of the blade, which is itself denied by those who have so violently forged it. In this sense, it is not so much self-identification that is denied, since that has never been entertained in the past, but self-determination. Žižek and others highlight the paradoxical liberalism of libertarianism: your liberty has limits. The determinism of psychoanalysis, the determinism of the Oedipal myth – that one can never escape one’s own fate – does not offer clarity but makes action itself impossible. A psychoanalytic “realism”.

I want to deconstruct an image, a self-image, if only in order to get closer to the truth. A questioning of gender, from within and from without, returns as a truth that cannot be denied. Improvisation and composition are not anathema to one another; to compose in real time requires a responsiveness to one’s musical memories. You know all the notes, all the chords; how do you choose to order them from moment to moment?  

There is a certain shame that comes from identifying oneself as non-binary only now, at what feels like the late of the day. But this re-narration of one’s experiences is not simply useful for one’s own sense of self; it clarifies a life for those who live it with you. Kitty says something along these lines as I prevaricate over decisions made and to be made. “You always were non-binary, that is clear now.” A friend who has known me for six years reorders their sense of who I have been. It is not so much that a self-identification changes who I am, but rather that it clarifies who I have always been. I make more sense now, to myself and others. A relation and the affections that constitute it are strengthened in the acknowledgement. There was a reason we have long related to each other in this way, because even prior to an open acknowledgement, there is an intuitive sense of experiences shared.

New trajectory.

The trans experience becomes one of constructing a new self-image but also one of undoing the image that came before. But this is not to paper over past discrepancies but reorder them in a process of sense-making. It is a process of negotiating one’s memories, as a child would, such that, as Deleuze writes, your memories “are almost simultaneous with [your] actions”. This simultaneity might be understood as a flattening of the image of thought, thus undoing the image in its reconstruction.

I look over my shoulder, turning away from the bay window within which I am writing, to consider The Open Window, Matisse’s painting of the port of Collioure that hangs over my record player and rows of vinyl. I stop writing these fragments for a few days as something in the Žižekian critique leads me to abject despair. Michael suggests I do something else. If the inclination to write is still so forceful, why not simply write about something else? Take a break from the rabbit holes of PhD research; find another milieu.

Collioure returns to mind every time. I have been to the town on three different occasions, between 2008 and 2019, and the inspirations gathered there have yet to be processed. Strangely, it is a place I associate with so many things ending; each visit has been a prelude to some major shift in my social milieu – disconnection from my parents; the end of a long-term relationship – but it also constitutes the unstable centre of a whole new milieu of its own. It is a point of entry, to my mind at least, for a sporadic investigation into an occulted Occitania – a region of nomads, Troubadours; a site of inspiration and becoming for Joe Bousquet, Gilles Deleuze, Matisse, Piccasio, Braque, Simone Weil, Lawrence Durrell… and myself.

Collioure is the town in which Matisse found himself a wild beast. It is a place for the total reimagination of Form.

Éric Alliez & Jean-Claude Bonne write on Fauvism’s oft-misunderstood trajectory: “The very principle of Fauvism was the destruction of Form – hence its explosion of figurative space, its ‘anti-visual’ character, its absence of stylistic unity, its ‘schizophrenic’ tendency… the destruction of form, along with a refusal of the received alternative between Modernism and Tradition.” It is a notable precursor to cubism, and yet poignantly distinct from that movement’s tendencies (pioneered, it is said, not far away in the nearby town of Ceret, which I likewise visited on a number of occasions on teenage family holidays).

Alliez and Bonne refute a claim put forward by Clement Greenberg that Matisse was “precubist in essence if not by inflection”, since both movements produced, in Greenberg’s terms, an “altogether flat abstract art.” But what is missed in this spatial assessment is Fauvism’s far different relation to temporality. Cubism is, instead, a kind of spatial omnipresence – all perspectives on an object are viewed simultaneously, yes, but only space is flattened for the Fauves; time, instead, unfurls in another way. They write that “what Fauvism opens up is a new idea … of the temporality of art and of temporality in art … a becoming that produces nothing but itself, displays nothing but itself, in the events that it materialises via intensive construction”, thus producing “a ‘bloc of sensations’ completely disidentified with form” (with bloc being a notable term here again). Cubism, in this way, presents us with an perspective on the object depicted as a Monument; Fauvism is instead more hodological. The flatness of Matisse’s imagery, in this sense, produces a new cartography-art. Whereas cubism flattens all movement into a formal abstraction-as-noise, Fauvism retains the opportunity to look at an image over time. It does not enmesh all perspectives but flattens the moving focus of vision and, at the same time, retains it. “What Fauvism did was open up painting from the inside to the Outside, to the multiplicity of forces and to their multiplication, in an unprecedented conjunction with the arts.” In this way, “Matisse will have been the first to have grasped that a becoming-life of art could only be achieved through a true becoming-other of painting.” He composes the image in time, such that this time retained for the viewer – whereas cubism alienates our perspective in noise. Both ambiguate form, but Matisse does not lose the movement of his looking.

At school, I remember first studying the cubists. We would attempt to reconstruct their way of working by drawing that most famous object so often depicted: a guitar. With a rudimentary still life constructed in the centre of the room, we would rotate around it, layering perspectives, attempting to encapsulate the entire object in a spatial field. But here the guitar is always a centre of the activity. It is revolved around, notably unplayed and, in our renderings, turned into something unplayable. Matisse’s paintings do not wholly alienate the objects before us. He retains a certain signification, but flattens (or otherwise generalises) the relations possible. Alliez and Bonne consider Interior with Aubergines as a prime example.

The still life in the centre of the room appears as such. We can identify the vegetables, the other decorations that surround it, but these objects are rendered no differently than their surroundings. The view from the window appears no different to the assemblage more thoughtfully arranged. Another view, through a doorway where another arrangement of objects can be seen, does not appear in the background but rather alongside what might otherwise be the focus of our attentions. It is a style of painting that “touches on the problematic of decoration” in this way. Decoration is not such much background as it is everything. The very arrangement of life is as decorative as an object or the wallpaper or the very layout of home and the world beyond it. In thus being “subjected to differential relations of intensity” in our engagement with the image, Matisse forestalls “any kind of centred organic or hierarchical composition”. He produces a “truly radioactive decorativity”, such that even a “still” life reverberates with aesthetic potentiality that is “both turbulent (kinetic energy) and continuous (potential energy)”.

These early paintings are only Matisse’s initial experiments; Alliez and Bonne soon move onto consider how Matisse began to consider “how to integrate the ‘human’ into the decorative” in this way (as in one of the most famous subjects of his paintings, The Dance). These later paintings are not so different, however. One brings a stillness to movement, makes of dance something decorative, whilst the early paintings turn decoration itself into a dance. Relations of intensity remain the subject at hand. “The Matissean sign”, in this sense, as Alliez and Bonne write elsewhere, is “construction (on the basis) of forces that it expresses and which affect it (affectio) as the immanent cause of its intensity”, something they see most forcefully at work in Matisse’s late collage, The Snail.

It is a collage that may abstract a snail’s form, but it nonetheless retains some sense of how a snail’s shell is itself constructed. Snails, like all molluscs, “secrete layers of calcium carbonate, which crystallize and harden.” Though the concentric circles that make snails so identifiable appear like decorative spirals, they can be thought of as blocks that are made to cohere in an active construction. This growth, like the movement of snails themselves, is slow and often imperceptible, but there is movement here nonetheless. Indeed, in making the snail an assemblage of blocks, as Matisse’s earlier paintings blocked out inhabited spaces, the snail immediately becomes more animated. Like all of Matisse’s blocks, “[t]hey have an entirely relative value as sign-forms only is so far as they designate a habitat – first and foremost the environment of the painter [or the mollusc] – as a site for the expression of a decoration not meant to showcase or celebrate it by aestheticizing it – to adorn it, according to the traditional idea of the decorative – but to vivify it by animating it with incessantly renewed rhythms, in an unbridled constructivism.”

Life is like this. Writing is like this. No end in sight for each, as yet. Matisse-thought continues, nestled amongst the radioactive decorations of a body and life re-created and re-curated.

Far too many words written for a period of apparent writers’ block. Still, now once more, milieu remapped, there’s nothing more to say. For now.

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