Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Confessions: St. Augustine on the Borromean Knot

Several texts have been folding, unfolding and folding together in my imagination lately: Keller's 'planetary entanglements' in her Cloud of the Impossible, Lacan's "Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," and Marion's In the Self's Place. Happily, both Tad DeLay and Slavoj Zizek, two powerful apologists of Lacan and his work, have provided provocative lenses through which Descartes' cogito comes into focus in Ecrits and in Marion's examination of Augustine's Confessiones.

Zizek rewrites, in my reading, Descartes' infamous cogito, ergo sum, in his rewriting of dialectical materialism in Absolute Recoil (Verso: NY, 2014):

What if total knowledge entails inexistence, and existence as such implies a certain non-knowledge? Such a paradoxical relation between being and knowing introduces a third term into the standard opposition between ordinary materialism...and subjective idealism---things exist insofar as they are unknown (209).

I read here a flux between thinking and being, a paradox resolving, or at least playing out, in an equilibrium reaction that flows in either direction---between reactants and products---depending on the presence of catalysts or other influences that favor one side the equilibrium. Neither side undergoes complete annihilation, yet undergoes aphanisis, a ghosting, an evacuation. The system here is certainly dialectical, even as Rahner might understand the term, but it is also a Schwebe, an oscillation that can never land on a midpoint between being and thinking, knowledge and existence. Hence, the system allows for a condensation of a subject. In this sense, the oscillations become a waveform that has potential for a phenomenological reduction in which something can make an appearance, even if that appearance must, paradoxically, also be a disappearance, not terribly unlike Luke's aphantos on the road to Emmaus.

Lacan's Borromean knot of the registers the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary (RSI) provides a place for the play of aphanisis. Delay's discussion of the RSI in God is Unconscious is instructive, and his intuitions are very interesting. 

The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real operate in a diachronic and synchronic fashion, that is to say, they cannot be entirely separated...[T]he three are not things qua regions of the psyche, and they are not meant to be understood with exactitude. Lacan's theory is always meant to be turned over and played with as a useful tool (8).

Lacan's triple register functions in synchrony. The Imaginary, Symbolic and Real are entangled in such a way that we cannot investigate one without invoking the other two. The unconscious should be analyzed as a language (17).

Delay has cited Ecrits here, in particular, "The Agency of the Letter," emphasizing that the unconscious is a language and the discourse of the other (16). I am more sympathetic to Delay's first insight that places RSI on 2 axes, than with his monaxial synchronic function; but I also embrace his suggestion of knotty entanglement of the RSI and a resultant spooky action at a distance.

Before letting Lacan speak directly to us from Ecrits, I now take the liberty of playing with the RSI 'as a useful tool.' The representation of the RSI as a 3-ringed circus, or a Borromean knot is helpful in grounding the observations of Lacan, Marion and Augustine. Taking as my point of departure Delay's flexible system of the registers, I want to re-imagine the RSI as regions in relationality that do not actually intersect, yet form a closed system, as a Mobius strip might be twisted, like a helix, into a knot, such that a single strand makes up the entirety. Further, the knot can be imaged as a looping track, something like a cloverleaf road work. There is a flexibility in the twists, such that the strand can be lifted into relief, like pulling on a slinky. There is no inherent overlap in the knot's structure, so that the are no actual Venn intersections, but if pulled out like a slinky, virtual intersections appear and can be viewed from above or below.

Keeping in mind this dynamic Borromean slinky-pretzel, Lacan's concepts from "Agency of the Letter" find a safe place to land, even as they are threatened by Zizek's aphanisis. Interestingly, Augustine haunts Lacan's essay. This hauntology will become clearer when we look at Marion's reading of the Confessiones, but Lacan is already in an Augustinian mood when he seeks to 'demonstrate that no signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification..." that no language can 'cover the whole field of the signified (Ecrits, Norton:NY, 1977, trans. A Sheridan, p. 150; here referencing 'De significatione locutionis' of the De Magistro).

The word 'agency' in the title of Lacan's essay is the translator's choice, reflecting as it does Freud's 'agencies' of the ego, id and superego; but I prefer 'insistence' in place of 'agency,' mainly because of Lacan's own title in French (L'instance de la Lettre), but also because 'insistence' has nearly become a technical term for what John Caputo says God does, and for what Delay, following Lacan, wants the unconscious to do. We should therefore hold 'agency' and 'insistence' (and even instance in both French and English) in a dynamic tension of oscillation (Schwebe), if for no other reason than to keep things honest.

Lacan presents a rather passionate voice in "The Agency of the Letter" and that passion is amply demonstrated in his assertions for metaphor and metonymy.

...[I]f a symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so, any more than to say that man's desire is a metonymy. For the symptom is a metaphor whether one likes it or not, as desire is a metonymy, however funny people may find the idea (175).

Though it is somewhat 'old hat' to view metonymy and metaphor as on the same axes as syntagm and paradigm, respectively, I shall not depart from that wisdom here. In fact, I want to allow symptom and desire to reverberate on our Borromean slinky-pretzel, with all deference to Jakobsen and Saussure (cf "Agency," 154). Paradigm, symptom and metaphor play out when we pull the slinky in a vertical axis, while syntagm, desire and metonymy play on a horizontal axis of the natural attitude.

Lacan asks, "[i]s the place that I occupy as the subject of a signifier concentric or excentric [sic], in relation to the place I occupy as a subject of the signified" but that question is "of knowing whether I am the same as that of which I speak. And it is not at all inappropriate to use the word 'thought' here. The play of metonymy is here the decision "to be only what I am," which is in "fact that I am in that very act." The play of metaphor is that "if I dedicate myself to becoming what I am, to coming into being...I lose myself in the process" (165 f.). "This signifying game between metonymy and metaphor...the active edge that splits my desire between a refusal of the signifier and  lack of played until...I ought to say...: I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think" (166). Lacan introduces his own early version of aphanisis in this splitting 'game.' Yet, definitively, Lacan cedes to Freud: "Wo es war, soll Ich werden." I must come to the place where that was. This is one of reintegration and harmony, I could even say of reconciliation" (171).

Reintegration, harmony and reconciliation form an essential grammar in Augustine's Confessiones. Though it is a great error to attribute a proto-cogito to Augustine, Marion has discovered Lacan's 'process' of the play of refusal to know or to be, to think or exist within the thought of the Confessiones. The heart is restless until it finds rest in God. Such restlessness is a process of praise, of relationality, of discovery, of oscillation, and aphanisis.

According to Marion, 

confessio opens a space where the ego and its readers enter not only into a dialogue between themselves but especially into a place, where the charity of God can reach them. The model of the confessio, in fact, brings about a reduction of the natural attitude, which permits coming to the question of God, namely love. It therefore operates as an erotic reduction (In the Self's Place, trans. J. Kosky, Stanford Univ. Press: California, 2012, 54 f.).

In Augustine's hands, confessio as praise and reconciliation performs the phenomenological reduction that shifts from the simply mimetic to the semiotic gesture, in which the tension between being and knowing allows both the self and its place to appear. The waveform of Schwebe collapses in the relationality of the folding textures of the genre, bringing something new into focus.

Here is the crucial text that folds, Lacan, Descartes, Augustine and Marion into the reduction.

Saint Augustine is perfectly willing to admit the argument that connects thought to being; he even inaugurates it and will impose it upon posterity (including Descartes); but he refuses to let this same argument produce and consecrate any ego known by itself...[B]ut he...observes that, when I think and am (or think that I am), I do not take possession of myself as an ego that would say I myself...[I]n thinking, I am put at a distance from myself and become other than I myself, that in thinking, I do not enter into possession of any myself that could exactly and truly say itself is saying I, that the more I think myself (and the more I am by thinking), the more unknowing I become of who I am and alienated from myself. In a word, access to my Being in and through my thought, far from appropriating me to myself as for Descartes, for Saint Augustine exiles me outside myself...[T]he cogito, supposed to appropriate me to myself as a myself, expels me from myself and defines me by this very exile. I am therefore paradoxically the one who in thinking knows that he is not (belonging to) himself, does not know his essence and can never say (himself), rigorously, myself. (63)

Marion reading Augustine and Descartes uses language similar to Lacan reading Descartes and Freud. Though Marion seems to be describing something more static than Lacan is describing, Lacan's play of metonymy and metaphor merge with Marion's alienation and exile within Zizek's reading of Lacan's very dynamic aphanisis and the 'paradoxical relation' of being and knowing. In the disappearing of Marion's/Augustine's 'myself' in apophatic 'unknowing,' the myself/ego shifts from thought to being, whose expulsion is alienation and exile. Here, Marion seems to be putting on Augustine's lips (che vuoi?) Lacan's "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think" (Ecrits, 166).

In the chemical equilibrium reaction analogy given above, there are, in the movement from thinking to being, knowledge to existence, only reactants in the oscillating flow favoring one pole or another. In the erotic reduction of divine love, the ego "can enter into the distance that opens me in the self's place" (99). It is not therefore finally in alienation, but in the vita beata, that only the oscillation that collapses, and not the distance that opens me. And here is where Augustine enters the roller coaster of the Borromean knot. If, as Lacan notes, the divine is located in the ineffable Real, it is through the syntagmatic, metonymic ride that the self can find its place there. But we can only see the self's arrival from above and below, through the paradigmatic, metaphorical, vertical axis, where knowledge and being are finally understood as not on a collision course, but on a gliding above and below each other, passing one another safely, to play again another day.

The threat of an actual aphanisis dissipates, for it has always been an illusion perpetrated against reality by certitude, which is the symptom playing out on the axis of metaphor. Augustine could have never felt the threat, as Marion magnificently demonstrates, because the oscillations of exile and alienation always collapse in the place of the self, on a horizontal axis, in the metonymy of desire, where the ego and the divine come into view through praise and reconciliation in the erotic reduction, and the saturated phenomenon of the univocity of love, the untroubled rest in the vita beata. This movement is, as Dante would later illustrate, a transition from the Imaginary into the Real, where Vergil cannot go, and only Beatrice can lead.

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