Mari Ruti recently released a book called The Case for Falling in Love, which has put her in front a far more mainstream audience than she used to have. She is, after all, an academic by profession, Harvard- and Brown-educated, whose book on Jacques Lacan and his followers, The Singularity of Being, is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s not surprising to me that she’s released a very mainstream book, though: her writing is so wonderfully clear and accessible that it will serve, if nothing else, as a point of reference the next time I wonder if a book I’m reading is overdoing the academic obscurantism.
I interviewed her recently over The Singularity of Being because it struck me as the kind of book that those who, like me, are interested in all the “What comes after Lacan?” questions would love.
The book’s description goes:
The Singularity of Being presents a Lacanian vision of what makes each of us an inimitable and irreplaceable creature. It argues that, unlike the “subject” (who comes into existence as a result of symbolic prohibition) or the “person” (who is aligned with the narcissistic conceits of the imaginary), the singular self emerges in response to a galvanizing directive arising from the real. This directive carries the force of an obligation that cannot be resisted and that summons the individual to a “character” beyond his or her social investments. Consequently, singularity expresses something about the individual’s non-negotiable distinctiveness, eccentricity, or idiosyncrasy at the same time it prevents both symbolic and imaginary closure. It opens to layers of rebelliousness, indicating that there are components of human life exceeding the realm of normative sociality.
PJ: I’d like to focus on the first half of your book, where you elaborate the idea of “singularity” in various ways: in opposition to “personality,” by reference to Lacan’s later seminars, and in dialogue with certain strands in post-Lacanian theory.
You call singularity “a function of the real,” something that “opens to layers of being that exceed all social categories and classifications.” As real, it shakes up the subject’s self-identity, brings to it what I sense to be a certain violence: something exceeds the story I tell myself about myself, and how I play the part of “me” socially.
But your book doesn’t emphasize violence, and that’s what I found truly odd about reading it the first time around: I’m just used to expecting from post-Lacanians like Zizek and Badiou a certain obsession with the dramatic, these revolutionary acts and truth-events. Whether I like it or not, I’ve trained myself, and have been trained by their work, to think of the “act” as somehow suicidal before it is anything else.
Could you talk about your approach to writing about these topics without glorifying the spectacular? Did you make a conscious decision to be less aggressive about the political applications of Lacan’s work?
Mari Ruti: I love the way you describe singularity: as what shakes up the subject’s self-identity, bringing to it a certain violence; as what exceeds the story I tell myself about myself, and how I play my part socially. That’s exactly what I was getting at with the notion: I see singularity as a kind of swerve, or rupture, in both our narcissistically mediated personality and socially mediated subjectivity; it represents an eruption of idiosyncrasy that can be derailing or even embarrassing, but also potentially a source of passion and creativity.
I definitely didn’t make a conscious decision to be less aggressive about the political applications of Lacan’s work. The relative lack of the spectacular – that the politically destructive or suicidal aspects of Lacanian theory are not central to the book (though they are an important part of it) – is due to the fact that I didn’t approach Lacan with this specific angle in mind. I love much of Zizek’s work, and I have learned a huge amount from him, but I’ve always been aware that there is a Lacan that isn’t Zizek’s Lacan, and that this other Lacan is just as interesting. This is not to say that Zizek is wrong – though I sometimes think he could be more right – but merely that he has a very specific orientation, a very specific approach to Lacan, and that this is not the only approach.
When I first started reading Lacan, I hadn’t read any commentators. So I formed my own understanding of him before reading folks like Zizek. This understanding sometimes coincides with that of Zizek, but other times it doesn’t. One thing that keeps taking me in a direction different than that of Zizek is that I try not to lose track of the fact that Lacan was an analyst, that as much as he was a philosopher and critical thinker, he was primarily talking about psychoanalysis as a clinical practice. I’m not sure how good an analyst he was – the word is that he wasn’t always that great – but the one thing I’m fairly certain of is that he didn’t want his patients to commit suicide. He had all kinds of clinical goals – reorienting the patient from the imaginary web of narcissistic fantasies to the lack at the core of being, etc. – but suicide definitely wasn’t one of these.
The lack of drama that you refer to actually isn’t that uncommon in Lacanian theory. If you read clinicians like Bruce Fink or Lewis Kirshner, there is very little drama. Likewise with Kaja Silverman, who is one of my favorite interpreters of Lacan. Even Alenka Zupancic and Eric Santner, who are very close to Zizek, aren’t that focused on the violent. And, in all fairness to Zizek, neither is he all the time. It’s just that the spectacular aspects of his work tend to stand out so this is what readers remember best. He’s quite clear in some of his texts that the act – while certainly intrinsically destructive or suicidal – can, in certain circumstances, lead to a reconfigured social world, that something constructive can rise from the rubble. And Badiou’s truth-even is less a matter of destructiveness than it is of seeing things in a new way, of rendering – to paraphrase him – the impossible possible. Granted, here Zizek and Badiou often disagree, with Zizek emphasizing the destructive and Badiou emphasizing the potential for the new. But my point is that there are many ways to understand the eruption of the real within the symbolic, and that suicidal violence is just one of these.
PJ: Do you find it odd that a reader could have been taken aback by the straightforwardness of your approach — that someone with an interest in this area could actually not be used to a lack of drama in these discussions?
Mari Ruti: No, I don’t find it odd at all. This is because I’m used to dealing with people whose Lacan is Zizek’s Lacan. Now, in your case, though you are familiar with Zizek, you’re not hostile to my rather different approach. Indeed, you seem to enjoy the different orientation – something I’m grateful for. I’m much more used to dealing with a more resistant reaction to my seemingly “odd” Lacan. Let me put it this way: because I teach graduate seminars on contemporary theory, I often get students (almost invariably male) who are so fanatically faithful to Zizek that it’s hard to get them to even consider alternative approaches. Sometimes I discover that these students haven’t ever read more than a few pages of Lacan (usually, it’s the Mirror Stage), so that their entire (and often quite adamant) interpretation of Lacan comes from Zizek. This tends to annoy me a little because this degree of dogmatism is the antithesis of critical thought. Zizek has done Lacanians a great service in making Lacan exciting to so many young thinkers. He has this rock-star effect that is kind of amazing. But there is a downside, namely that those loyal to him can be unreasonably hostile to any interpretation that differs from his. I get this sometimes when I give talks as well. If someone in the audience is a die-hard Zizekian, they are likely to attack me just because I’m saying something that doesn’t sound like Zizek. This is totally ironic, of course, given that one of Lacan’s aims was to teach us that the subject who is supposed to know actually doesn’t. That is, worshipping the master is more or less as un-Lacanian as one can get.
Along closely related lines, the relative lack of drama in my book may have something to do with the fact that I’m fairly skeptical of armchair radicals. For example, many of the “revolutionary” Zizekians in my graduate seminars lead very comfortable middle class or upper middle class lives – the kinds of lives I couldn’t even fathom when I was their age (I grew up without indoor plumbing). Some of them live with their parents in affluent neighborhoods dreaming about a revolution that I suspect would genuinely scare them if it actually ever came to pass. And as hyper-privileged subjects, these guys are so used to others (and I suspect particularly their mothers) catering to their every whim that when they get a female professor (me), they have no qualms about telling me that I should teach my classes exactly the way they would like them taught (usually with less reading and a slower pace). This doesn’t apply to most of my graduate students – who are absolutely lovely – but I have learned to be wary of the 23-year-old guys who proclaim themselves to be Zizekian radicals: they are often dismissive of female critics and they often seem to have a problem with a female professor, particularly one whose take on Lacan is not the same as Zizek’s. Maybe women just don’t seem “revolutionary” enough to them? I don’t know – but this has been my experience. And I would like the radical rhetoric to have a real-life referent of some kind. It seems to me that if you’re still eating out of your parents’ fridge, all the talk about a suicidal plunge into the real is just that: talk.
By this I don’t mean to dismiss radical politics. And I find Zizek’s political rhetoric quite compelling at times. But I don’t appreciate the fact that so many of his followers seem to replicate his blindspot about feminism (and other related political struggles having to do with racism, homophobia, and postcolonial exploitation). If he sees all these “causes” as being a form of identity-politics – and thus not a “real” form of politics – it’s because he hasn’t actually read much in the relevant fields (if he had, he would know that the critique of identity-politics is central to them). This is an issue I take up in the conclusion to The Singularity of Being.
PJ: You write that “The ‘no’ of the ethical act may be more exasperated than ecstatic in the sense that it demands change at any cost.” I’m interested in this exasperation, and the overall sense I get from your book in general: a sense of humanism, of trying to think beyond the coldness of the Lacanian understanding of human existence. It seems to me that you’re always writing about people — and that you don’t let yourself forget it, since speaking strictly of the sinthome and the Symbolic can make us forget what it is we are finally dealing with. Does this sound like a fair assessment?
Mari Ruti: You caught me: I’m a closet humanist. More seriously, I would say that combining posthumanist theory with more traditionally humanistic concerns – concerns that have to do with basic existential questions about how to live – has always been my trademark as a theorist. My dissertation – which became my first book (Reinventing the Soul: Posthumanist Theory and Psychic Life) already had that quality, which didn’t exactly make my life easier during the late 1990s, the heyday of posthumanist theory within the American academy. But it’s probably also what got me a tenure-track job in a very tight job market because it set me apart from others in the field. Indeed, isn’t this the reason you’re interviewing me now – that I sound somehow different (odd or strange, as you put it above)? I’ve even written a couple of fairly “humanistic” books (books where it’s not so much humanism that seeps into posthumanism but rather posthumanism that seeps into humanism). For me, the distinction between humanism and posthumanism, while historically important, often seems quite artificial, and therefore conducive of the kind of dogmatism that I (again) think is counterproductive to intellectual inquiry.
I’m also aware that my personal background has informed the choices I have made as a thinker. For instance, a lot of posthumanist theory has been focused on how we are all devoid of agency and disempowered in relation to the larger symbolic world. I agree that we are. But for personal reasons – having to do with my formative experiences – I have always felt that I couldn’t quite afford the idea that I don’t have any say over the parameters of my life. Simply put, I have needed to believe in a degree of agency to survive as an emotional entity. More generally speaking, I find that the emphasis on “constitutive” disempowerment – which is characteristic of contemporary theory – can lead us to overlook the fact that this ontological condition really isn’t that hard to bear in comparison to more specific, more circumstantial modalities of disempowerment. When people reach the “no” of the ethical act, it’s usually not because they’re worried about being split by the signifier. It’s because their lives are unbearable for some concrete sociopolitical or economic reason (poverty, racism, inequality, oppression, being persecuted in this way or that). This is why I linked the act to exasperation, to times when your life feels so unbearable that you are past the point of negotiation, when you don’t give a damn about what the big Other wants, when you act regardless of consequences because you no longer feel like you have any choice.
You’re absolutely right that I’m always writing about people. And I believe that so was Lacan. I know that it’s easy to lose track of this when confronted by the more structuralist aspects of Lacanian theory. But, again, if you read him as a clinician, you can’t just ignore the fact that he was trying to figure out some basic things about human life and particularly about what sometimes makes this life so hard. And, when it comes to my own writing, I do my best to steer clear of the kind of theorizing where the quest for the next critical edge turns into a fetish – where the only thing that matters is that you sound radical. This is obviously related to what I said above about armchair radicals. I don’t mean that I don’t see the value of the kind of pathbreaking – or even utopian – thinking that exceeds the parameters of what our current “reality principle” deems possible. I can definitely understand the drive to push theoretical arguments to their extreme limit so that something new – some perspective that has remained invisible – becomes visible. But when the rhetoric loses touch with a real-life referent, the enterprise strikes me as a bit hollow. For example, when I read Lee Edelman’s argument about queer subjects needing to embrace the death drive, I keep thinking: fine, but then do it – give up your tenured job and commit social suicide; if you’re not willing to do it, then why even talk about it? People of course commit social (and even actual) suicide all the time. But as a political stance it seems somewhat counterproductive.
PJ: The Singularity of Being has not been out for very long. Could you explain, as plainly as possible for anyone who knows Lacan but has not read your book, what you sought to do by bringing out the notion of the singularity of being?
Mari Ruti: As I started to say above, I was striving to capture something about parts of human experience that can’t easily be codified either by the imaginary structures of personality (my semi-coherent sense of who I am; my ego-bound appreciation of my “image”) or by the symbolic structures of subjectivity (my social being; the being that uses language to “make sense”). To put the matter slightly differently, I was interested in moments when the real intrudes into (and sometimes even momentarily overwhelms) our imaginary and symbolic support systems. Without these systems, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world as socially intelligible subjects. But I wanted to talk about the energy that percolates beneath, or in the fissures of, these structures (the “undeadness” within us, as it were). Most of us work quite hard to keep this energy in check. But sometimes we can’t, and that’s one way in which singularity leaps forth.
Let’s say you’re giving a presentation and you’re trying to stay calm, coherent, and seamlessly poised, but your body is derailing you so that you start blushing, stammering, and losing the thread of your thought. Well, one could say that this is a moment when something about the bodily real, about the drive, intrudes into your otherwise well-organized life, making it impossible for you to hold onto your imaginary and symbolic identity. In my terminology, this is a moment when some part of your singularity – of what hasn’t been totally co-opted by imaginary or symbolic structures – announces itself.
Many people experience such moments as embarrassing. But if we reorient our perspective, we can see that they express something rebellious within us that refuses to be fully socialized, that refuses to be “reasonable.” I think that we live in an overly level-headed and pragmatic culture – one that attempts to minimize all such displays of singularity in part because it wants us to function like well-oiled productive machines (Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of the performance principle jumps to mind here). The eruption of singularity throws a monkey-wretch into the system; it disrupts our relationship to the hegemonic symbolic. This is why it can be a force of resistance.
Lacan famously juxtaposed desire and the modern work ethic in Seminar VII, talking about the ways in which our society suppresses desire so that “work can go on.” Unruly displays of desire, in this context, become displays of rebellion. In many ways, I was trying to get at something similar with the notion of singularity. And I was also trying to explain something basic about creativity, about the ways in which the real can animate the signifier so that the signifier is filled with new energy, with new possibilities (see below).
A slightly different way of explaining the positive impact of singularity might be this: I recently had the pleasure of hearing a very funny talk by Todd McGowan – who instantly became my favorite Lacanian. His talk, while insightful, had none of the usual dryness of an academic presentation. He kept rocking back and forth in his chair, telling jokes that had the audience howling, and letting himself appear a little out of control in the sense that he was filled with an infectious energy that was overflowing the boundaries of the nominally academic context. What was so fantastic about this is that there wasn’t a person in the room who wasn’t riveted. At the end of it, I turned to my graduate student (who happened to be at the same conference) and said, “That’s what I mean by the singularity of being.” And it felt that only someone who really understood Lacan – as McGowan does – could have conjured it up in quite that way. Indeed, isn’t this exactly what Zizek does in his public appearances: the man appears just a little insane which is one reason we find him so compelling. People often talk about charisma. Hannah Arendt talks about the “daimon.” I talk about the singularity of being. It’s a bit like charisma combined with a hint of craziness.
PJ: There’s a good deal of pedagogy in your book, entire sections that explain certain aspects of Lacan’s work (desire, the drive, sublimation). You often wrap them up by pointing to the implications of what you’ve been explaining for your own work on singularity. What kind of reader were you expecting to find when writing this — someone who needed a few theoretical reminders, or someone who could potentially find what you were saying wrong or irrelevant unless you very clearly stated the relationship between your work and the work you were building on? Someone else entirely?
Mari Ruti: I think that there tends to be a pedagogical tone to my writing for the simple reason that I’ve taught for a very long time. For financial reasons, I taught Harvard undergraduates for eight years when I was still a graduate student. This teaching was done mostly in theory classes where we were reading texts we all really struggled with, so that a big part of my task was to translate what seemed incomprehensible into something a little more comprehensible (while stressing that the opacity could never – and perhaps should never – be completely conjured away). And of course, I’ve been doing the same ever since I became a professor. This lengthy classroom experience has left an indelible imprint on my writing so that now I find it hard to write anything without being a little pedagogical about it.
But there is also an ideological component to this – one that is related to some of the things I’ve been saying. On the one hand, I love working with difficult texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations precisely because they are not clear-cut or transparent. On the other, I’m increasingly impatient with the kind of writing that uses opacity to hide the fact that the arguments that are being developed are actually not that complicated. There tends to be an assumption in contemporary theory that the more difficult the text, the more rigorous it is. But I don’t think this is always true: the longer I read theory, the more convinced I am that sometimes authors write confused (and confusing) texts because their arguments actually are confused. Let’s say I’m reading a paper by a graduate student I can’t quite understand. I’ve learned over the years that if I press that student on it, he or she often can’t tell me what the argument is. I suspect the same is true of many published authors.
The Singularity of Being is actually less lucid than my other books. I’ve always told people that, for a contemporary theorist, my writing is embarrassingly clear. In this book, I did expect the reader to have some understanding of Lacanian theory. But I also wanted to write in a manner that would be accessible to non-specialist readers. And if I try to draw out the intersections between my thinking and that of others in the field, it’s because I subscribe to an ethos of intellectual generosity in the sense that I like to show that theorizing tends to be a communal enterprise, that ideas rarely arise in a vacuum. That said, I have published other books that have virtually no quotations or notes, so that sometimes I opt for just letting myself speak without worrying about what others have said. It depends on the project. This one seemed to call for dialogue with other thinkers in the field.
PJ: In the early chapters of the book you speak of moments of transcendence: “sexual ecstasy and heightened states of creativity are the most obvious examples of such experiences. They strip away the symbolic and imaginary layers that usually keep our rebellious singularity in check.” You describe “absorbing moments of creativity” that are “characterized by a hyperfocused or elated state that temporarily makes us lose touch with the historical quality of human experience.” This is great, and it brings Lacanian theory much closer to the creative process than I think it was — apart from Lacan’s long discussion on Joyce, I don’t know that Lacan was consistently interested in discussing this aspect of life in detail. Do you think that by focusing on these transcendent moments, Lacanian theory could move into a new direction altogether? Something a little more phenomenological, but also “singularly” Lacanian?
Mari Ruti: Again, I think that this is a matter of emphasis. We’re talking about the subject’s relationship to jouissance. Critics such as Zizek and Edelman have focused on the destructiveness of this relationship, and for a good reason, namely that jouissance always has something to do with the death drive. But Lacan also theorized jouissance in relation to transcendence, most centrally in Seminar XX on feminine sexuality. I’m the last person on Earth to resort to male-female binaries – I’ve actually just written a book on how moronic this makes us – but this is one instance where I would say that there is something that many male critics (not all, obviously, but many) miss in Lacan because there’s something about jouissance that they just don’t “get” – something that isn’t about death or suicide but about transcendence and transformation. In Seminar XX, Lacan talks about the male mystic who can’t access jouissance because he is fixated on the phallus – “encumbered by the phallus,” I think, is the wording – and this may have something to do with the tendency of some male thinkers to theorize as if giving up the phallus (and the symbolic that that phallus supports) automatically meant that then there is “nothing” (death, suicide, pure destruction). But I don’t think that this is the only way Lacan understands jouissance.
Jouissance as an opening to transcendent moments is one alternative to the Zizekian preoccupation with the death drive, and the two aren’t even necessarily mutually exclusive because transcendent experiences are often accompanied by a kind of self-shattering. The other major way Lacan theorizes jouissance is in his reading of Joyce, where he is interested in how jouissance infiltrates the signifier. Lacan recognizes that the manner in which Joyce manages to bring together the symbolic and the real in order to create a swerve in the field of symbolization is at the root of his creativity. This is of course what Julia Kristeva argued in the 1970s – precisely when Lacan was giving his seminar on Joyce – and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Kristeva went to Lacan’s seminars and she heard something that was clearly there but that theorists like Zizek have not for some reason been able to hear, and this is the link between jouissance and innovative ways of using the signifier. In this sense, we don’t need to take Lacanian theory in a “new” direction because Kristeva has already done much of that work for us. It’s just that most people who read Zizek don’t read Kristeva.
If I’m drawn to this reading of Lacan, it’s in part because it reflects my experience as a writer: when I write, it often feels like something takes over the process, like the signifier is being carried by a force that drives it in directions I don’t intend. In more humanistic times, people talked about inspiration. I talk about the Lacanian real, about “hitting the real”, as Roberto Harari puts it.
PJ: Out of curiosity more than anything else — there is an audiobook version of The Singularity of Being, which strikes me a wonderful but also very strange. I wouldn’t have expected an audiobook to be made out of an academic text like this. Can you talk about this? Could this be the start of a new trend?
Mari Ruti: This is a situation where the enigmas of the other truly are also enigmas to the other. The audiobook totally baffles me. The idea of someone listening to someone read my book on Lacan is a bit surreal. It conjures up the image of “Lacan for the masses,” doesn’t it? I’m not sure Lacan would have liked it. And I’m not sure I like it. But, then again, I’m always happy when I get an email from a random non-academic reader who stumbled upon my Lacan book and is totally excited about the arguments. I figure that a little Lacan for commuters can’t hurt.