Friday, February 26, 2010

allegory and automaton (2)

Discussing causality in the Physics, Aristotle contrasts automaton (αυτόματον), or pure spontaneous chance, with tyche (τύχη), or luck. Good or bad luck, he proposes, is telic: it always implies a relation to an aim or telos and therefore can only happen to subjects (human agents capable of ethical praxis). Chance is what happens to objects lacking intentional agency.

Lacan in his theory of trauma (“Tuché et automaton” from the 1964 seminar) revises these terms. Automaton now designates “the symbolic,” the network of signifiers, the machine of signification. Subjectivity is a relational position within the automaton: a social place or voice from which the production of speech and meaning can issue. The “real” is what stubbornly resists capture by this automatic or self-driving process of signifying, emplotting, narrating, interpreting, allegorizing, etc. – while at the same time serving as its ground, as the necessary condition of subjectivity as such. Tyche, or trauma, is the encounter between a subject and this unassimmilable real – an encounter that remains “missed” and can only be retro-emplotted, belatedly and incompletely.

Trauma, then, is a crisis-provoking moment in the ongoing process of subjectivization. When the outside irrupts on the inside, the fact that interiority and exteriority are mutually constitutive is strikingly revealed. The subject shudders at the exposure of her precarious position – and, defending herself, represses, avoids, acts out.

In literary terms, allegory is the automaton of interpretation that dissolves every apparently transparent symbol into its essential otherness: a formal vehicle of automatic mediation.

In philosophical terms, freedom and unfreedom are a dialectical unity that marks the crossing of nature and the human, individual and society.

In psychoanalytic terms, this same juncture-crossroads is the riddle of subjectivity itself: the production of consciousness through the socialized automaton of language.

In this light, automaton is the allegorization of subjectivity. Language is the material-spiritual means by which individual consciousness emerges within and against society, the organized network of objective relations among subjects. Language is the interface between embodied nature and the global social process.

The unfolding of the possibilities inherent in this structure (freedom, happiness, the promise of a liberated, reconciled humanity) points back to the element of blindness and domination in human relations.

For the automaton of automatons, the master logic of logics, is that dominating automatic process that, generated by reasoning subjects, became a hostile, globalized and self-reproducing material sovereignty over them: in one word – capital.

Contra po-mo reductions of reality to language, the problem of freedom does not melt away into the already-given and endless play of signifiers. The wordy knot of subjectivity only re-exposes the social force field – that objective factor that conditions and constrains possible subjectivities.

Not language identified with reality, part mistaken undialectically for whole, but the organized field of relations between subjects must be the object of transformative praxis.

Language is a commons, a good held in common, not subject to scarcity. And yet access to it is controlled – enclosed and unfree, insofar as it is mediated by structural concentrations of power in class society.

The problem of access to language (education, culture, autonomy, life-possibilities) returns us to the problem of capital and domination: the dissolution of author-subject into automaton offers no escape from politics.

Allegory exposes the mortal ground of transience. But the automatic mole keeps digging, tunneling word-to-word and word-for-word. As politicized consciousness, the same mole breaks through the spell of social fate and exposes the transformable relations driving systemic processes.

Change every period above to a question mark, that goes without saying.

Two more questions: Where stands the image in this? How to relate Benjamin’s “dialectical image” – the true image of past, bearing a nucleus of revolutionary time – and Lacan’s “imaginary?”

(Photo: Athens, December 2008)


  1. "The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image."

    Guy Debord, 1967

  2. "I cannot wait for the day I can plug a chip into my brain and be able to know this / write like this."

    js, 2010