Pornography and the Paradoxes of Pleasure – On the ‘Identity of Perception’
- Evan Spiegel, founder of Snapchat (now Snap), announcing the launch of his company’s camera-embedded glasses.
When we look at a sunset, or into the eyes of our partner, or at pornography, what do we see? More precisely, what are we looking for in what we see?
Capturing what we perceive in an image is not the same as experiencing it directly, and an attempt to bridge this gap between image and experience is what Evan Spiegel, founder of Snapchat, is articulating in the quote above.
But most of the time, we can never experience something ‘directly’, as it were. Many people have the experience of trying to take in the view from the top of a mountain or a skyscraper, but at the same time feel somewhat distanced from it. This is perhaps what, unwittingly, the compulsion for image sharing through apps like Snapchat is servicing.
Psychoanalysis is also interested in how this gap is bridged. At the centre of his early model of how the psyche works Freud puts the effort to create what he calls an ‘identity of perception’.
This article will be about that concept.
In approaching this concept, problem number one is how to explain pornography.
Growing reports of ‘porn addiction’, seemingly fuelled by the ease of accessing it online, tells us something about the nature of satisfaction. But even if the category of ‘addiction’ needs justification here, it nonetheless indicates an important point: that the compulsion to search for a particular object of satisfaction is ongoing, perhaps endless. Members of Reddit’s ‘NoFap’ community frequently complain that they are seeking something very specific that will admit of no compromises, but which at the same time is never found. What testimonies like these tell us is that even if there is an abundance of sensory stimuli (porn), this isn’t enough. There is still something missing in the experience of satisfaction that compels the search perpetually, to the point of ‘addiction’.
The gap between an understanding of Lacanian thought versus the impressions gleaned from popular psychology often comes down to the extent to which this gap between an experience – and all the practices of representation, inscription, and registration that encode and transform this experience – can be appreciated.
By the late 1890s, what Freud needed was a ‘metapsychology’ – a theory of how the mind works, and how it works with the body – that he could use to explain the things his patients were reporting. His training was as a neurologist, but Freud thought what he was seeing were not neurological problems, they were psychological ones. Neurology did not furnish a good enough theory, so he decided to come up with his own. James Strachey, Freud’s English translator, calls the collection of ideas that Freud produced the ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’. Freud however left his manuscript untitled, but referred to it as a “psychology for neurologists” (Letter 23, in The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes, 1887-1902, p.118).
Over the course of 1895, Freud laboured over his project, but constantly hesitated over its release. “To make an announcement on this now would be like sending the six-months’ foetus of a girl to a ball”, he wryly quipped (ibid, Letter 25, p.121). The problem he was trying to solve, despite being a neurologist, was to understand the psychological mechanism of defence. But Freud’s project ballooned, and he soon admitted, in candid letters to his friend and confidante Wilhelm Fliess, that he had become engulfed in a project to understand “something from the centre of nature…. In fact, the whole of psychology” (ibid, p.123). In the end, he gave up. “Anyhow, skittles and mushroom-hunting are far healthier”, he wrote in one letter to Fliess (ibid, p.123).
The project is shelved in early 1896 and does not appear again for another fifty years.
But some of these ideas Freud comes back to. In 1899, as part of The Interpretation of Dreams he is trying to explain, in metapsychological terms, his idea that dreams represent wish fulfilments. But what is a wish? If wishes are – as he believed – the “sole motive force” for the construction of dreams (SE V, 568), where do they come from, why do we wish in the first place, and what explains the form they take?
Freud’s idea is that every wish involves a curious process of establishing what he calls an ‘identity of perception’. Understanding this concept is crucial in answering the questions we began with.
Here’s how he explains it. Let’s picture, as he did, the experience of the newborn baby:
So whenever we hear the term ‘identity of perception’, we should think: ‘identical of perception’. What we are trying to do in establishing an “identity of perception” or “perceptual identity” (SE V, 566) is to search for the same thing. The process Freud describes represents an ongoing effort inherent in the psyche to make one perception match another; a constant drive to establish correspondence.
Lacan comments on this idea throughout his work. But one of the important points he highlights is that this process of establishing an identity of perception will happen irrespective of whether the reality fits it. “It doesn’t matter whether it [the perception of satisfaction] is real or hallucinated”, he says, “such an identity will always tend to be established. If it isn’t lucky enough to coincide with reality, it will be hallucinated” (Seminar VII, p.31).
Elaborating Freud’s idea, Lacan believes consciousness itself is made up the “consistency of perceptions” that results from this process. What we understand as reality is based on “the articulation of perceptions between themselves in a world” (Seminar IX, 10th January, 1962).
Stepping away from the theory, we see the attempt to establish an identity of perception especially clearly in autism and obsession. In autism for example, there is often a hyper-sensitivity to something missing or out of place in a room, and autistic subjects may appear uncomfortable in unfamiliar environments. Likewise, we could see the obsessional passion for orderliness – arranging furniture in a particular way, or insisting that everything be in its proper place before it is possible to feel comfortable – as attempts to reach an identity of perception. In both cases there is an urgent need for a correspondence of detail.
But there is a further elaboration. Our experience of the outside world is developed from the perceptual function, but not through it alone. Part of the work of the psyche is to bind perceptions into representations, which will take the form of thoughts.
In this sense, the gap that interests Freud lies less in the difference between perception and reality and more in the difference between perception and thoughts. What needs to be explained is the process of turning one into the other, of moving from perception to representation.
So Freud separates the work of the psyche into two parts: the primary and secondary processes.
So just as ‘identity of perception’ meant a search for the same perception, so ‘thought identity’ means a mapping of thoughts to the memory of satisfaction. Although Freud elaborates on this in The Interpretation of Dreams, the heritage of the idea is in his abandoned Project from 1895 where he postulates that “The aim and end of all thought-processes is thus to bring about a state of identity” (SE I, 332). The two processes aim therefore towards the same end.
But beyond the account of how these two processes aim at achieving a state of identity, there remains an underlying metapsychological question: how does a perception get converted to a representation, and then to a memory?
Freud had thought about this problem before. On 6th December 1896, he writes the so-called Letter 52 to Fliess, which picks up some of the themes abandoned from the Project the preceding year. Here he presents a process by which:
Lacan’s preference for the term vorstellungreprasentanz from Freud – meaning what comes in the place of representation, or the representatives of the representation – approximates this gap between perception and memory that so interested Freud at the start of his work.
But let’s think about this point. If a perception furnishes – at best – an index, we still have to explain how the perception is translated into something that means something for the subject. In other words, how can we move from a simple indication or registration of perception to something with a signification? This is the question asked by Jean Laplanche – a contemporary of Lacan’s, though not one of his followers – in the mid-sixties.
Despite theoretical divergences, he too thinks that the critical point comes with the infant’s encounter with what is at first an enigmatic signifier.
Both Lacan and Laplanche agree that what makes this signifier enigmatic for the young child is that it indicates something about the desire of the other, and that – crucially – this desire is of a fundamentally sexual nature. Indeed, Lacan even says in Seminar XI that he believes the whole process of negotiating an identity of perception is conditional on this enigma being confronted and responded to by the child:
Some scholars of psychoanalysis – like the former director of the Freud Archives, Jeffery Masson, believe this indicates a literal ‘seduction’ (i.e., sexual abuse). He claims to have found evidence of this in Freud’s former patients, but which he believes Freud himself cowered away from.
On the other hand, more considered theorists note that Masson makes no attempt to engage with Freud’s abandoned seduction theory or the reasons for its abandonment. Jean Laplanche, who devoted a large portion of his work to a reassessment of Freud’s seduction theory (into what he called a ‘general theory of seduction’), argues that we do not need to specify how this sexual desire was manifested to the child – whether intentionally or otherwise – and is careful to point out the different senses in which we can understand ‘seduction’ in Freud’s theory (see Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, chapter 3).
Whether we take this to mean the unintentional actions of the child’s caregivers or their words does not matter, this ‘enigmatic signifier’ still functions as a signifier which the child has to assimilate in some way in order to make sense of the world. In trying to come to terms with this enigma, Laplanche’s conclusion is very minimal: “The human being is, and will go on being, a self-translating and self-theorising being” (New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, p.131).
On this question of ‘self-translation’, Lacan goes one step further. For him, the psyche’s drive to a ‘thought-identity’ means the subject is enmeshed not just into an entire signifying system, but moreover that this system operates completely autonomously to him or her. For Lacan, we do not get to choose the translations we make. In the effort to repeat or re-find an original experience of satisfaction, the unconscious will lead us from thoughts (Gedanken) to a “concatenation of thoughts which escapes from us” (Seminar IX, 10th January, 1962). In place of the experience itself, there will only ever be the invocation of signifiers as attempts to denote it.
Whether humans are translation-making animals (Laplanche’s view) or whether they are simply the effects of an autonomous system that works irrespective of them (Lacan’s view), it seems there is a fundamental push to encode perception into a symbolic system on the grounds that the presentation alone will at some point fail in guaranteeing an identity of perception.
Think for example about how we establish someone’s identity. We can never just rely on recognising their face. Identity has to be encoded into some kind of symbolic system in order to be recognised. DNA, biomarkers, ID numbers, and unique identifiers are not just supplements to establishing identity but almost inevitable consequences of the effort to do so.
We see the same thing happening even when someone dies. When the individual is no longer around, their identity is not simply obliterated, but neither is it enough to live on in the memories of their loved ones. Funeral rituals, memorial services, and commemorations on anniversaries all mark this loss in a symbolic system that is able to persist independently of the people involved. When Lacan noted that “The human object always constitutes itself through the intermediary of a first loss”, and that “Nothing fruitful takes place in man save through the intermediary of a loss of an object” (Seminar II, 136), he was alert to the fact that it is only after the loss of the object that the push to a symbolic, combinatorial system becomes activated, as if in response to the inability of the psyche to process the object’s loss.
André Green – another of Lacan’s contemporaries who didn’t fully agree with him – saw the push to establish an identity of perception at work elsewhere.
Invited to speak at Lacan’s Seminar in 1965, he presented the idea that the phenomenon of negative hallucination (not seeing something which is there; as opposed to positive hallucination: seeing something which is not there) – demonstrates the gap between perception and representation encapsulated in the term vorstellungreprasentanz (Green, Seminar XIII, 22nd December, 1965).
A classical Freudian example of negative hallucination at work can be found in fetishism, as Freud explains it in his 1927 paper (SE XXI, 149). Freud’s argument is that it is the lack of the representation of the phallus in a member of the opposite sex, even though it is perceived, which leads to a disavowal, a refusal to acknowledge, which is the mechanism behind the fetish:
The fundamental point that Green notes in his presentation at Lacan’s Seminar is that in order for something to be deemed ‘identical’ it’s not enough for it simply to be perceived:
Green’s comments point to what we might call the first fundamental paradox of satisfaction.
We saw that Freud thought there are two fundamental processes – the primary and secondary processes – and two associated attempts by the psyche to establish order – via an identity of perception, and an identity of thoughts (SE V, 602).
Lacan’s idea is that one thought leads to another and they can be linked in a chain of signifiers. On his view, the unconscious is a signifying system in the way it inscribes or binds perceptions.
The problem comes when we recognise that the key thing about a signifying system is that it first of all represents difference. Any signifying system needs to mark one element as separate from another, regardless of its material properties, just like a reference system for a book in a library will indicate that one book is different from another, irrespective of what is in them.
Satisfaction however, as per the laws of the primary process, will seek for the same. Even though both processes strive towards an identity, the process by which any element – the stuff of thoughts being one – is taken up into the signifying universe will inherently lead to the establishment of difference. In this way, satisfaction and the signifying system are fundamentally at odds.
Lacan states this paradox in Seminar IX from 1962:
The search for an identity of perception can never be fulfilled because of this contradiction between two processes. On the one hand the drive towards identity but on the other the necessity for differentiation.
With this paradox in mind, we can see then why it was a mistake for many post-Freudian analysts to try and trace a path further and further back to find the original object or experience. When someone comes into a psychoanalysis it is often with some form of the question ‘why am I the way I am?’ But this can lead to a fruitless regressive search, trying to pinpoint the moment in early childhood that can explain everything.
But it’s not that the object never existed in the first place, rather that the apparatus of the psyche prevents a perfect coincidence with it again. As the paradox described above implies, the repetition that the secondary process sets in motion – the perpetual displacement of the signifier that characterises the symbolic – may nonetheless have the establishment of identity as its aim, but this will be a ceaseless, repetitive search for an object that will forever be out of reach. Once you are fucked by the symbolic you cannot get un-fucked.
This problem was put in a slightly different way by Jean Laplanche. Trying to look for an ‘original’ or ‘primal’ scene is foolish because the only means of access to it would be through a chain of representations, thoughts, or memories. But this is exactly what any such experience is logically prior to. The ‘original’ scene, object, or experience was itself what demanded the effort of self-translation or signification that Laplanche describes, but was yet to be taken up into the network of representations that would have allowed any meaning to be conferred on it. This is why any ‘discovery’ of a primal scene or primal object seem like a dud. As Laplanche puts it:
The effect of the paradox described above is to make it appear as if something was always already determined, that it could never have been any other way. The weird logic of time brought about by this effect of retroactive signification is captured in Freud’s use of the term nachtraglichkeit, translated brilliantly by Laplanche as ‘afterwardness’.
So we have a contradiction that turns on the fact that if the primary process aims to establish identity the secondary system has the effect of establishing difference. An ‘original’ object or satisfaction is therefore out of reach as soon as the secondary process is triggered.
Even if it is futile then to look for a ‘primal’ scene in our personal history, Freud noticed something strange when he talked to his patients. In a way that was very subtle and often unnoticed by the patient themselves, Freud detected a kind of condensation of seemingly disparate elements around a theme, or a collection of themes, in the things his patients told him. It was as if the things they chose to speak about – although seemingly part of an unrelated train of thoughts – nonetheless orbited a central locus. Even if this could not be articulated directly, it found expression in the constellations built around it. As a result, Freud thought he could allow his patients to ‘free associate’, confident that wherever they started he would be led to something of importance.
This was not just a feature of Freud’s patients on the couch but is a feature of our everyday lives. In the seemingly unrelated things people do or say, we can often detect certain kinds of patterns, as if a central enigma in someone’s life needs to be grappled with, or a fundamental question demands to be answered. Indeed, the idea that a neurosis represents an attempt to answer a question was for a long time Lacan’s model for neurosis. Questions such as ‘Am I a man or a woman?’ and ‘Am I alive or dead?’ characterised the different ways neurosis structured itself.
Much like a detective in a murder mystery will search for a criminal’s ‘M.O.’ – a modus operandi – the psychoanalyst may orientate the analysis by asking what scene a person is trying to stage in the things that they do or say.
Lacan called these repetitive elements that condense around a theme ‘neuroses of destiny’ and in the mid-sixties he connected them to Aristotle’s distinction between tuche (something accidental, whether the result of good or bad fortune) and automaton (the drive to repetition that coat-tails off this accident) (Seminar XI, 69). Even if x, y, or z happened to someone as a child, why is it that this particular event matter to them? Why is this experience remembered and given weight over any other? Although we won’t go into it here, this problem has been grappled with by psychoanalysts from Freud onwards in the form of the question, ‘What makes a trauma traumatic?’
But let’s explore the basic idea – shared by Freud, Lacan, and Green – that our words and actions have a tendency to organise around a central nucleus.
The way that we use language is preconscious: we can choose at a preconscious level what we want to say and how we want to say without having to think about it. Nevertheless, it retains a relation to what Lacan calls an “unconscious reserve”. By ‘reserve’ here Lacan says he has in mind an Indian reserve, with a social network already established (Seminar XI, p.68). When we speak, the force that Freud detected has the effect of clustering our words around a nucleus, but very often this condensation is only detectable at the signifying level. Someone may use a certain word, for instance, to describe their relation to two things that appear unrelated in their everyday life.
Green’s idea in the commentary he gives in the session of 22nd December, 1965 is that this condensing force compels certain combinatorial mutations at the signifying level, the level that Lacan describes as being the (‘Indian’) reserve of the unconscious. Rather than being a repository of seething lust and violence, the unconscious is much more like a social system in the networks it establishes between differential elements.
But Freud also detected that, as he approached this nucleus, there was a nodal point that his patients could not go beyond in what they said, or a hard core that it was impossible for Freud to punch through. Things would get stuck – the interpretation of a dream would go no further, or associations on a given theme would run dry. In Lacanian terms, this kernel or nucleus is what we call the ‘Real’ (Seminar XI, 68).
Lacan gave a beautiful image to this in 1975 when he said that “the soul of the symptom is something hard, like bone” (Conference et entretiens, in Scilicet 6/7, p.60). What Lacan meant by the ‘symptom’, in the widest sense, corresponds to this M.O. of the subject, the point to which they are led to return through a repetition that seems to have a life of its own, but which has a hard core that is unmoveable through traditional practices of psychoanalysis. This is why Lacan felt he had to totally reconceptualise what a psychoanalytic psychotherapy meant at the end of his life, beginning with the idea of a ‘universalised’ symptom which existed as a kind of knot, as if tying together the different threads of the subject’s life.
How does this relate to the identity of perception? Lacan believed that something belonging to his category of the Real would always be encountered if we followed the primary process to its logical conclusion. Rather than simply a process that aims towards the satisfaction of a wish, establishing an identity of perception meant coming into proximity with a satisfaction that was in some way ‘too much’, too excessive or too invasive.
In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud gives us a fascinating example of how this works.
The process of establishing an identity of perception is essentially a process of deduction – of asking, ‘does x correspond to y?’ This is the experience we have, Lacan notes, when waking up. If we are disorientated when we first awaken we have to ask ourselves essentially this question to become re-accustomed to our surroundings and the fact we are awake again. (Seminar XI, 68).
This is why, when Freud discusses identity of perception in The Interpretation of Dreams he does so starting from a dream that appears to be constructed entirely around a waking up – the dream that has come to be known as the dream of the burning child. It is the dream of a bereaved father who has fallen asleep while the body of his recently-deceased son lies in the adjacent room. At some point, a candle falls over and sets fire to the pall that covers the coffin. Before awakening, the father dreams that his son is approaching him with the eerie plea, ‘Father can’t you see that I’m burning?’
What’s interesting in this example is not simply that the dream is constructed around the reality of the overturned candle, but rather the form that his construction takes. Lacan suggests that what we find in the son’s ‘Father can’t you see that I’m burning?’ points to something much more anxiety provoking and fundamentally traumatic in their relationship (perhaps, Lacan speculates, blame for the son’s untimely death) (Seminar XI, 68-69). It is as if the series of representations that proceed from the smell of burning or the light of the fire start to have a life of their own; that the tuche or accident of the toppled candle generates the automaton of some uncomfortable truth in the father-son relationship.
The fascinating thing about this dream is that it shows how the search for an identity of perception (making sense of the smell of the burning or the light from the fallen candle) gives way to something more frightening and unpleasant at its core (the reproach to the father that can be read in the son’s haunting words). This is what Lacan labels the Real.
If we picture the attempt at an identity of perception (the primary process) leading to the concatenation of thoughts or representations (the secondary process) as a spiral, what sits at the centre of this spiral is something that is un-reachable, un-representable, and ultimately the common heritage of all that is both satisfying and horrifying.
This then is the second fundamental paradox of satisfaction – that there comes a point when the pleasure we aim for stops being satisfying and starts being horrifying. Early in his work Freud labels this point das Ding (the Thing); later he calls it beyond the pleasure principle.
In what can be read as a precursor of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, Freud suggests in the Project of 1895 that the infant will perceive another child in terms either of itself, or what cannot be assimilated to the idea of itself. We can recognise here the search to create an identity of perception by matching what we understand about ourselves with what we recognise in others. In Lacanian terms, this matching takes place in the register of the imaginary. But at the same time there is something which cannot be squared with the image, something inassimilable which remains fundamentally alien to the subject. In Lacanian terms, this is the real.
Freud’s idea is that if the drive to establish an identity of perception aims at the restitution of an experience of satisfaction, when the infant confronts another child there will be a two-way reference: first to itself, and then to the caregiver that provided or did not provide the experience of satisfaction. This will result in a relationship marked by a profound ambivalence. The infant’s reasoning is that,
The part that is not like himself is what Freud labels the Thing (das Ding). Lacan makes this foreign element even starker in two ways. Firstly, by arguing that there is no such thing as a primary narcissism (the infant lacks a ‘self’ to compare the other child to, and so is fundamentally alienated in the image of the other). And secondly, that the central question posed by the subject in the process of establishing an identity of perception is whether one can even trust the Other; whether what we receive from ‘outside’ is a reliable sign (Seminar IX, 10th January, 1962).
This opens the door to what Lacan calls a psychoanalytic ‘ethics’. Ethical living means appreciating this second fundamental paradox of satisfaction, and recognising that it is viable neither to live in a state of ascesis or in a permanent hedonistic pursuit. What Lacan is teaching us is to be wary of taking our own pleasure too seriously. Devoting our lives to whatever we might consider to be the Supreme Good – whether religion, sex, or career ambitions – is not necessarily what is good for us. What saves us from ever having to experience the intensity of an overly-close proximity to the Thing is the automaton, or repetition, inherent in language as a symbolic system, which keeps us circling around it but never having to confront it. In its place we simply have sexual desire – a paltry satisfaction but a safe one – which we see in the endless searching for the perfect object of pornography that is evident from the testimonies of Reddit’s ‘NoFap’ community.
In this sense we are both fucked and un-fucked by the symbolic.
The third fundamental paradox of satisfaction is that we get pleasure not from an object as such, but from the path taken around the object.
This illustrates the fundamental characteristic of human sexuality – we get turned on not by a direct confrontation with the object, but by tracing the path of representations that lead around this object. After all, pornography does not show us the direct encounter with the flesh and blood partner, but instead presents a scenario in which the marginal elements of that encounter are hyper-invested in place of the ‘perfect object’ that meets our exact requirements for arousal, the thing that ostensibly motivates the scenario in the first place.
Just as the network of representations circulate around the Thing, the search itself becomes the libidinal object, rather than any object at the end of it. Thanks to the process of socialisation into the symbolic order (the “Indian reserve” of the unconscious) this in itself brings satisfaction.
The essential motor of human desire is the attempt then not just to re-find the object (through an identity of perception) but to re-constitute the object through the defiles of a symbolic system. This is what is redemptive in what pornography offers us.
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