AUGUST 28, 2013
IN MARI RUTI’S WORK, the prosaic topic of modern love is the pivot around which a rigorous examination of community, ethics, and subjectivity turns. Her new book The Singularity of Being focuses on what makes human life as we know it profoundly unintelligible, overwhelming, or strange, in spite of (or because of) our need to engage and live with others. Ruti engages with the recent “posthumanist” turn in philosophical thinking through a discussion of the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, famous for his notoriously opaque seminars on (among other topics) Freud in the 1950s and 60s.
As psychoanalysis, beginning with the turn-of-the-century writings of Freud, understands it, the subject is a subject of the unconscious and not of metaphysical certainty. Rather than follow the self-assurance of Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), Freud, and Lacan after him, insist that the subject in this statement be read as coming to think from the place where it is not, from the place of the unconscious: a repository of buried traumas, repressed fantasies, and otherwise unprocessed desires that shape and drive its unique trajectory through life. For Lacan, this subject is barred from wholly realizing all fantasies of integration and satisfied desires (which are part of a realm he calls the “imaginary”) in order to exist in a normative social structure. The subject must give up such claims before participating in the world dominated by language (which Lacan calls the “symbolic).
However, there is something that inevitably “falls out” of the subject’s integration into the symbolic structure, something that cannot be wholly accounted for by language’s categories and classifications, and that is the “real.” In Lacan’s work, the real comes to stand for a hard kernel of unintelligibility, potentially unbearable but simultaneously always alive and pulsing through the symbolic structure. This is where we find the “singularity” of Ruti’s title. Singularity, as Ruti’s book develops it, is “characterized by fleeting glimpses of negativity rather than by any fullness of personality, it destabilizes the subject on the level of its bodily ‘perseverance.’”
In her understanding of singularity, Ruti emphasizes not merely pure non-meaning as the truth of the subject that ultimately leads to its destitution, but the possibilities invoked by the subject’s inevitable break with meaning. In this break or point of excess lies our singularity, “a rare existential nudge — an awakening to life that ruptures what we have hitherto understood to be life.” Without this, we are merely motors of “repetition compulsion,” a term Freud uses to characterize how we habitually repeat unconscious processes. While this compulsion keeps us at a safe distance from the break that would make us confront the void-like core of our being, it also lends an artificial homeostasis to our lives. Thus, the repetition compulsion can also draw us toward unconsciously investing energy into the institutions and structures of the symbolic itself. However, trying to master or fully grasp the dictates of these systems, of anything that is other to the subject, is a futile exercise because we can never satisfy or truly know the other’s desire. Consequently, “that we are frequently humiliated by the very structures of power that sustain our existence is, in many ways, the foundational tragedy of life.”
In The Singularity of Being, Ruti departs from other philosophers, such as Lee Edelman and Slavoj Žižek, who have been influenced by late Lacanian psychoanalysis. For these thinkers, a subject’s singularity often correlates with its revolutionary, absolute, and violent capacities to respond to the break that founds it and resist the imperatives of the normative symbolic structure. The ur-figure for such forms of singularity would be Sophocles’s Antigone: defying the laws of the city of Athens in order to give her brother Polynices a proper burial, she sets in motion her own inevitable annihilation. It’s a striking feature of Ruti’s work that she is not interested in privileging such “self-annihilation.” Rather, her concern is to recuperate singularity as a way to initiate a different kind of swerve in the symbolic, something that opens the subject to her transcendence or capacity for agency. Simply enduring our own constitutive mortification (and beyond that, the varying kinds of trauma and lack that characterize socially structured forms of oppression) would render us automatons, when in fact singularity is also constitutive of humanity, forcing us to think beyond our mortification in idiosyncratic ways.
This brings Ruti close to another contemporary Lacanian, the French philosopher Alain Badiou, and specifically to his theory of “the truth-event.” For Badiou, the truth-event is a rupture in the realm of existence that compels our fidelity and fundamentally transforms the course of our lives. In Ruti’s reading of Badiou, the truth-event “enables the ‘some-one’ to attain the complex status of a ‘universal singular,’ of a subject who is at once ‘singular’ (in the sense of being unique and inimitable) and ‘universal’ (in the sense of being traversed by a truth that is applicable to everyone without exception).” The subject of a truth (and for Badiou, there is no subject proper before the truth-event) therefore remains within this domain of the “possibility of the impossible,” fundamentally touched by a kind of immortality or transcendence belonging to the truth-event. The subject of truth therefore contextualizes singularity by inviting us to think of it not simply as a singular resonance in the vein of grammatical oneness, or aloneness, but rather along the lines of infinity, as a kind of capacious “immortal within” (as the subtitle to The Singularity of Being puts it). For Ruti, the more relatable example of this “hitting on infinity” is the amorous situation, to which she devotes a large part of the book’s latter half (in Badiou’s work too, “love” plays an important role as one of philosophy’s four truth-conditions).
So where does Ruti’s idiosyncratic take on our relation to our own singularity, as well as that of others, lead us? When we acknowledge the other’s “thing-ness,” Ruti writes, we are in a terrain where “the ethical concern is no longer how we might manage to recognize others as our equals even when they hold different values — how we might build a viable ‘human’ community out of radically divergent opinions and outlooks — but rather how we are (or are not) able to meet the ‘inhuman’ aspects of the other.” The acknowledgment of the other as potentially unknown, holding on to some “touch of madness,” comes with its fair share of potential problems. When we love someone for their singularity, don’t we particularize and privilege them? Don’t we elevate them over others, because of what we find special in them, and what they find special in us? In other words, don’t we distinguish both ourselves and others through the event of love?
The conclusion to The Singularity of Being raises a number of questions regarding just this dilemma. Ruti follows the possibilities opened up by treating the other as a face, an ethical stance first developed in the mid-20th century by Emmanuel Levinas. The other as “face” arrests us, and becomes the locus of our ethical responsibility by drawing us outward, and toward it. But “when I profess to love the other as face,” Ruti remarks, “I ignore those with whom I have no face-to-face relationship.” This is where the injunction of love ultimately seems to call not for mastery or understanding but rather for what lies frighteningly beyond it: “Ethics, from this angle, is not a question of loving the other, empathizing with the other’s suffering, or forgiving the other for its violence or indiscretion. Instead, ethics as justice is entirely indifferent to the particularities of the other’s (face-bound) situation.” Only when we acknowledge the ambivalence that accompanies the acknowledgement of the other’s singularity — their face as a potential site of repulsion or a shadowing of the real — do we really get out of ourselves and into the realm of possible justice.
A book like Ruti’s is not concerned with pragmatic questions of how to succeed in love, money or happiness. At the same time, The Singularity of Being never surrenders its distinctly humanist commitment to real lives. In doing so, Ruti reminds us that the opacity of the other, just like the potential opacity of philosophical and psychoanalytic ideas, cannot — and should not — entirely be conjured away.