Thursday, October 22, 2009

Keenan and the Impossibility of the Real

“It would seem that truly progressive and radical action could only be catalyzed by real experience.”

“As Control Room shows us, what is authentic and real is lost in the multiplicity of representations”

“We live our lives in language and thus in representation…Yet even if the real is hidden, it exists and by inference and patient study, we can make out its shape. Only the most devoted attention to the real can help us make judgments and take actions which are both responsible and efficacious” (Keenan quoting Michael Ignatieff, 91).

As was mentioned in some of the posts for this week (above), in the readings and especially during our discussion in section, the notion of the real and the necessity to grasp or capture it came up repeatedly. It was argued that we are no longer able to maintain a real lived experience (a space that we were once able to occupy), whether it is from a condition of post-modernity, of overexposure, or as a result of the virtual.

However, one finds it necessary to ask, “Was there ever a time when that was possible?”

If we think about the real as the Lacanian Real, then this Real is seen as an impossible real, an unoccupiable point, a space that is irreducible to meaning. Psychoanalysis would tell us that beyond the signifying network, beyond the visual field, there is nothing. There is nothing beyond representation. It is only through the Symbolic Order that we have any ‘lived experience’ and there is (was) never a time when these experiences weren’t mediated. This is what Thomas Keenan seems to be pointing to in “Looking Like Flames and Falling Like Stars.”

In his essay, Keenan responds to critics such as Michael Ignatieff that argue that the use of media technologies during war in Kosovo produced a ‘virtualization of reality’ and made, for its spectators, a sentiment that they “may no longer ‘care enough to restrain and control the violence exercised in their name’” (Keenan, 90). Keenan offers us a rather different reading of the status of the virtual, comparing it to the role and status of language:

“The technologies of communication thus introduce a basic confusion into the analysis, the dissolution of opposition between real and virtual […] Neither real nor simply virtual – it is the reliability, the moral sureness, of this distinction which is withdrawn from us, and which makes our predicament political. This confusion is precisely the condition of any significant decision, and it is the normal state of language” (Keenan, 92).

If we are to make the comparison of the virtual to language in terms of its function in the symbolic, then the evasions and resistances to the virtual and the desire for the real are areas that must be interrogated. Is the discourse of the real and its construction as an unrealized ideal, the way that it seems to function in the excerpts presented in the beginning of this post, symptomatic of a subject’s constant strive for totality? Does resistance to the virtual and the desire for the real become based in a nostalgia that never was, in a loss that was never had? How does the insufficiency of signification construct one’s own subjectivity?

Returning to psychoanalysis and the relation of the real to the subject, Joan Copjec articulates Lacan’s notion of this relation:

“The fact that it is materially impossible to say the whole truth – that truth always backs away from language, that words always fall short of their goal – founds the subject…The subject is the effect of the impossibility of seeing what is lacking in the representation, what the subject, therefore, wants to see” (Read My Desire, 35).

So where does this leave us? If the subject is founded on these very impossibilities and lack, how can we think of Keenan’s argument in this context? How can we think of these resistances to the virtual if, “the problem of the virtual, if it is one, is as old and as profound as that of language itself” (91)?

Monica Garcia

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