Three Essays in Psychoanalysis: The Jouissance of the Cultural Superego

This is the second of my series of essays in, rather than on, psychoanalysis. In preparing these pieces, I hope to provide for myself fertile ground from which to grow additional thoughts and reason through some of the evergreen problems in psychoanalysis and ethics. It is worth noting, also, that these three essays were written in the span of about sixty minutes

What does the cultural superego, above all else, demand? Or rather, what is its “stated” demand? It demands that one love thy neighbor as thy self. It demands that one enter into a kind of egalitarian relational with the “diverse” subjects interpellated into ideology. The cultural superego effaces difference and suggests that all are equal in content and the same in kind. We are all “one,” units to occupy space in ideology. For the narcissist, or the philosopher, (they are one and the same) there is no contention more odious. Lacan, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1986), has exposed the function of the cultural superego in an astonishing close reading of the process of neighborly love. Lacan writes:

“every time that Freud stops short in horror at the consequences of the commandment to love one’s neighbor, we see evoked the presence of that fundamental evil which dwells within this neighbor. But if that is the case, then it also dwells within me. And what is more of a neighbor to me than this heart within which is that of my jouissance and which I don’t dare go near?” (Lacan 186)

Lacan goes on to write:

“My egoism is quite content with a certain altruism, altruism of the kind that is situated on the level of the useful … all the neighbors are maintained equally at the marginal level of reality of my own existence … Perhaps the meaning of the love of one’s neighbor that could give me the true direction is to be found here. To that end, however, one would have to know how to confront the fact that my neighbor’s jouissance, his harmful, malignant jouissance, is that which poses a problem for my love.” (Lacan 187)

The cultural superego says “I want you to love your neighbor.” But are we to believe this? Lacan says no. Like Saint Martin and the beggar (“But perhaps over and above the need to be clothed, [the beggar] was begging for something else, namely, that Saint Martin either kill him or fuck him”), the object of desire that is stated, loving thy neighbor, falls vastly short of the jouissance. To begin in elucidating the jouissance of the cultural superego, we can begin with what we can exclude. After all, in Lacanian terms, loving thy neighbor is the one thing that the cultural superego cannot allow. Such a narcissistic and consumptive love threatens to undo the relationality that the cultural superego seeks to instantiate through this maxim.

The jouissance of the cultural superego is precisely the sublimation of the jouissance of the subjects that are organized under its rule. The stated aim of the cultural superego, to inspire neighborly love, is not the jouissance of the cultural superego. Still, Freud argues in Civilization and its Discontents that this neighborly love is the refocusing of libidinal energies away from jouissance and toward this relation. Lacan reveals both how wrongheaded Freud was in this regard and precisely what the jouissance of the cultural superego is. That is: the production of beauty. Beauty is a barrier to the jouissance of the subject. Lacan writes:

“The true barrier that holds the subject back in front of the unspeakable field of radical desire that is the field of absolute destruction, of destruction beyond putrefaction, is properly speaking the the aesthetic phenomenon where it is identified with the experience of beauty — beauty in all its shining radiance, beauty that has been called the splendor of truth.” (Lacan 216-217)

How often is it that the particularly libidinous engage in the production of beauty? And what a trap has been laid for us. Perhaps a quotation from Kanye West might be productive here. In an interview with Details magazine, he says:

“People ask me a lot about my drive … I think it comes from, like, having a sexual addiction at a really young age. Look at the drive that people have to get sex—to dress like this and get a haircut and be in the club in the freezing cold at 3 a.m., the places they go to pick up a girl. If you can focus the energy into something valuable, put that into work ethic…”

Crudely put, and obvious ideological interpellation aside, the sexual addiction West describes is merely libidinal energy rushing toward jouissance that the cultural superego frantically seeks to mediate. West shows himself as a victim of the cultural superego who has sublimated his jouissance and redirected his libidinal energy in favor of the jouissance of the cultural superego: the production of beauty. The jouissance of the subject and the jouissance of the cultural superego are mutually exclusive and yet mutually constitutive. And yet, there’s certainly a paradox that must be elucidated more clearly here. Is it not my libidinal energy redirected by the cultural superego that has produced this work? Though my jouissance is displaced, that structure has found satisfaction in my analysis of it.


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