In a world about to go down in the history of the human race, it seems that we exist in a recurring dream of disenchantment. Toys, bodies and spirits break. Machines and systems and cultures and societies break down. Relationships and signifying chains break up. Reason itself at the beginning of the 21st century appears less as a break through, but as something akin to a psychotic break. And if reason is the symptom of an irrational problem, what part does the mind play in this? Bloody wars engineered by power-hungry leaders or profit-seeking regimes have blasted the discourses of history; maimed, killed, exiled orphaned and traumatised millions of human beings. Bloodless revolutions have stained the pages of psychiatry, literature, philosophy – if emancipation is an idea that necessarily belongs to those who forge chains, it is not facetious to pose the question: Is madness a solution?
The title and the content of this nineteenth issue of Double Dialogues alert us to some congenital state of brokenness. We arrived at this conclusion at the term of two Double Dialogues conferences—one held at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide, the other convened at the National Opera Center in New York—where artists and academics gathered to ponder the question ‘why do things break?’ The year was 2017. A crazy year. A scary year… The thirteen works gathered here address the question of breakage in a variety of forms and styles, and from diverse perspectives. However, before announcing the tenor of each piece, I’d like to reflect, ever so briefly, on what I have called ‘the era of brokenness’.
Madness is no longer a privilege. After all, Beckett once said: ‘We are all born mad. Some remain so’. Jacques Lacan went further: ‘Everyone is mad, that is, delusional’. Faced with the absurdity of life, the fetishisation of trump cards and the disarticulation of signifying chains we had, until recently, no choice but to construct meanings either related to established discourses or private inventions. Both choices involved a delusion. Once upon a time, one was on the side of neurosis; the other on the side of psychosis. Nowadays, nosologies are blurred. Lacan’s son in law, Jacques-Alain Miller, who also contends that madness is universal invented a new term in the late 1990s: ordinary psychosis, which covers the spectrum of untriggered psychoses. There is no space here to go into details—even to define my terms properly—but I will argue that in a society where the Oedipus complex has become obsolete, where the Name of the Father and the Phallus are bogus, where the Other does not exist, madness is general and solutions singular. So, no, schizophrenia—though one of the many faces of madness—is not a solution. Schizophrenia teaches us that there are forms of creating that are subtle and transitory out of the fragmented body and its invasive jouissance. Schizophrenic tendencies, trends and other manifestations are but symptoms.
Let me offer you a story by way of illustration. I hasten to say it is based on a true incident in the life of a friend of mine. I have appropriated the facts and grafted onto them my own delusions, fantasies, anxieties and figures of speech. The title is ‘Machine Love’:
He flew too close to the sun, and had an MRI. An injection: a small amount of radioactive material. He was surprised to see the nurse would not administer it. Instead, she wheeled in a machine the size of a small washing machine. Come hither my ride fractionator, he said. The nurse didn’t blink. She programmed how much liquid to use via a screen and then stuck a needle into his arm. The line was linked to the contraption, and oh, mirabile dictu, the stuff dispensed at the push of a button. A smooth, cold ride. Machine love. And then into the big One. The scan done, he was wheeled out of the imaging room together with the meagre refuse from the procedure. What the eye doesn’t see, he said… but the nurse had gone. His body screamed: he was auto-propelled.
You see where I’m coming from and, no doubt, going. We are all mad. In a world ruled by excess consumption and compulsory jouissance, love, empathy, compassion are depleted. The madness at stake is not psychotic—though it could be—Lacan writes: ‘One can believe only that about which one is not sure. Those who are sure… do not believe. They do not believe in the Other, they are sure of the Thing. These are psychotics’ (1965: np). Above all, what is at stake is ‘a disturbance at the inmost juncture of the subject’s sense of life’ (Lacan 2006: 466) and the inventions that a subject can bring to bear on his or her own life: the bricolage. In the story ‘Machine Love’, the psychic disturbance is accidental, even existential: it arises because both other and Other have been replaced by machines. Inventions are a response to disturbance, and therefore transitory. These are also of a linguistic nature—not quite epiphanies, though they could function as such. These inventions are produced by a ‘know how’ that Lacan first identified in his seminar on James Joyce with respect to Joyce’s life-long ‘work in progress’ which, Lacan suggests enabled Joyce to prop up a wonky ego through a specific mode of jouissance most markedly and consistently deployed in Finnegans Wake.
The question at stake in an era where the One, and indeed the Other of the symbolic, does not exist, rests on the question of invention, that is of how each of us can cope as social being. This statement can be approached from two perspectives. On the one hand, the universal collapse of traditions and social values apparent in the way modernity shattered the consistency on which ideals and lifestyles were created. This would mean that speaking beings are thus left to their own devices in their search for anchoring points and means of identification. On the other hand, the idea that the Other of the symbolic is a pure invention, which cancels the idea that the subject is the effect of the signifier as articulated in the Other.
To profess the non-existence of the Other of the symbolic, or to argue that it is an invention suggests that we are conditioned to become inventors and that language has become extraneous to subjectivity. We have to find the function of the language machine. In other words, language determines the subject but it is also plugged into the subject like an apparatus for which there is no book of words. The function of language is no longer regulated by some transcendental locus, some ‘treasure trove of signifiers’ (Lacan 2006: 682) and needs to be discovered anew so that it can be made use of by each one of us.
In an article titled ‘Psychotic Invention’, Miller applies the Lacanian concept of extimacy to our current predicament (2012: 263). The extimate is that which is most interior while at the same time circulating to the exterior of being. Thus, if language makes us human, it also poses as an instrument to ex-sists to us. Miller goes as far as saying that language ‘erodes the organs of the body… and makes them problematic’ (259). This echoes Lacan’s punning on the fact that Joyce discovered that MAN was not a body, but had one (1987: 33). Similary, in the current era we are no longer subjects of language, but have a language that feels foreign. It seems that we are left with the solution intimated by the schizophrenic. We have to invent ways of working with language. It is a matter of ‘know-how’.
Stephen Muecke and Jamie Wang tackle the question of ‘know-how’ head on in our era with ‘Eternal Return: “Becoming” Anew in Online Time and Space’. Their two act presentation grapples with the idea of eternal return. Incorporating static images of physics experiments interwoven with moving images from Godard’s Alphaville, they gesture towards the breaking of binary codes through spooky simultaneity at intergallactic distance.
Rina Bruinsma’s ‘Sky’ explores the role of physics and mathematics in seeking to describe the way things are and whether it is possible for things to be any other way. Hers is a story that grapples with causes as preceding effects. A universe that is non-contingent. A universe that can be explained by mathematical laws. Is the universe whole, or is it one that is breaking, she asks. And who are we within this universe?
‘Worms and Time and Worlds’ works with the fetid rot of Susan Pyke’s singular world: it is one that breaks into bodies of others. One that celebrates the fact that skin does not bind the self. Indeed, the self is a remnant—a break-away, mutable and necessarily unshackled.
In ‘The Broken Body’ Heather Taylor Johnson introduces herself self as belonging to a ‘remission society’. She scrutinises invisible illnesses and how her own creates the paradox of an identity that lacks yet makes her whole. She stresses that it is that which has been broken from her body that must be articulated and even made visible through words.
‘The Analyst’s Laugh’ by Jennifer Rutherford offers an insightful critique of the discourse and practice of psychoanalysis. Although its frame of reference is distinctly Lacanian, it can be transposed onto a more general approach to psychotherapy. This wry fiction dove-tails with Amelia Walker’s theatrical poems ‘A Nervous Break (Through…), which also questions the foundations of discourses pertaining to mental health and ‘nervous breakdowns’.
‘Like Clay’ and ‘Scary’ centre on the mother-child relationship to explore the nexus between body, mind and language. While Julia Prendergast explores postpartum psychosis as an avenue to enact the breaking down of subjectivity, I focus on the point at which a daughter must decide whether to care or not to care for her senile mother in order to investigate their broken relationship, ensuing trauma, and lasting damage for the daughter.
John O’Carroll’s ‘Rhapsodies of the Prostate’ brings us back into seemingly firmer ground, that of the body. In this moving non-fiction piece, O’Carroll documents his encounter with cancer and countering of the effects of the illness on his body, its functions; his mind, its imprints, longings, musical flights looping him back into life, blood, flesh. Hope. ‘Keeping Billy’, traces a boy’s trajectory up to the first point break in his life as told by John Charnamboulos, offering a counterpoint to O’Carroll’s narrative.
‘Between Wedding Cake Island & here’, a collaboration between writer Josephine Scicluna, composer Daniel Dewar and sound technician Nao Anzai explores microscopic detail, repeated and shifting across the track’s time. The repeated progressions are played live, rather than recorded and looped. These are the elements responded to in the narrative poem; the scratches sounding like steel guitar strings, harshly played and fading off, consuming themselves, the way being stuck eats away at our hearts. We are lucky to have both text and audio for this piece.
Anamaria’s ‘The Riddle of the Saviour and the Swallow’ ends this querky collection of works on brokenness by interrogating madness with Kafkaesque flair, looping us back to where we began, yet offering an answer only fiction can afford. In a world beset by alienation, it seems we exist in a recurring dream of disillusionment. The history of reason – history as reason – poses itself at the beginning of the 21st century as a congenital madness. And if reason is the symptom of an irrational problem, schizophrenia may be a symptom, though not a solution.
When he came down, the world unlit. He found the kid at the back of the shed. Caught her on her knees with a rock held above her head. Saw the baby bird with a broken wing on the ground. Gently, he took that rock from her hand. He walked the girl inside. Fixed a splint on the baby bird’s wing and cradled it in cotton wool inside a shoe box. Berloody oath! Next morning he held the bird in the palm of his hand, opened his fingers, and he bird flew out. Oh, so high. Too high for words.
Lacan, J 1965 Le séminaire, Livre XII: Six problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse. Unpublished.
Aubert, J 1987 Joyce avec Lacan. Paris: Navarin.
Lacan, J 2006 Ecrits. Trans. B Fink & R Grigg. New York: Norton.
Manguso, S 2010, The Unprofessionals: New American writing from the Paris Review. Penguin: New York.
Miller, J-A 2012 ‘Psychotic Invention’, Hurly-Burly: 8.