What are we thinking of when we speak of ‘The Real’?

I read this article in The Guardian yesterday (Vidal 2020). The point he is making is that it is humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that is creating the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses.  We cut down the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts.  When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

He goes on to quote an article in The New York Times from the end of January (Quammen 2020) that pointed out that we faced two mortal challenges:

“Short Term – we must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this nCoV-2019 outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global pandemic.  Long Term – we must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was – it is – part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.”

This is the point made by Simon Western in his article on Covid-19. He observes that Covid-19 is a master signifier organising a truth “that is reviled as it undoes the omnipotent fantasies of 20th Century modernity”, a truth of “precarious interdependence and connectivity”, in which “Covid-19 is an example of the traumatic Real, breaking through a collective unconscious fantasy that we ‘can just carry on carrying on’”. He concludes that “it is time to stop enjoying our symptoms and face the Truth being enunciated by the Real.” 

‘The Real’ is being used here in more than one sense. In one sense (as Larry Hirschhorn put it in a private communication on March 12th) it is like “the true Covid-19 cases in the background [as distinct from the reported cases] … [that] have the overtones of ‘The Real’ in the Lacanian sense [of a return of the repressed]”. In another sense (as Anthony Berendt put it in a private communication on March 18th) it is “something about what we have done to the world and often do to each other … another intrusion of the Real that must be defended against”. Can we be thinking of both senses when we speak of the Real?

In lacanese, it helps to distinguish the necessary-Real from the Real-impossible. The necessary-Real is the Real of the Freudian repetition and drive familiar to the psychoanalytic clinic.  When Lacan speaks of the repressed returning in the Real, he is speaking of the way we take up being in relation to this necessary-Real, the relation to which we experience as desire. Those experts who speak in the name of the discourses of Capitalism and Science invite us to give up on taking personal responsibility for being true to desire, qua lack, by transferring it onto them.  But so too do the discourses of Politics and of Movements invite us to transfer authority onto their leaders. 

The Real-impossible is the Real of which Simon speaks in his article when he describes it as “something beyond language, an essence that cannot be symbolised”. It is dangerous to be thinking in terms of essence here, aka hypostatic thinking, for reasons that I return to below. It is better to think in terms of a Real that is wholly beyond any possible form of knowing. This is not to say that this limit to knowing does not change over time, for example as a consequence of the innovations made possible by developments in molecular biology.  But those changes in what can be known affect our being through our own and others’ experiencing.  Covid-19 is engendering such experiencing, both through the manner of its emergence as a pathogen and through the nature of our responses; but so too are the processes of digitalisation changing what it is possible to know.  What is at stake with our relation to the Real-impossible, then, is not so much our being true to desire as our shared ethical commitment to finding ways of realising desire in the sense of realising what still remains beyond any current possibility. 

The seductions of the discourses of Capitalism, of Science, of Politics and of Movements are in tempting us to turn away from our shared ethical commitment. These seductions offer to initiate us into ways of getting closer to an essence that cannot be symbolised, to a pleroma [1] of a not-yet- or a yet-to-be-realised, even if this means ultimately speaking of it in terms of going to heaven. An antidote to these seductions is in understanding the Real-impossible not as an essence but as a void, a kenomatic [2] radical absence, a relation to which we take up through the ways in which each one of us seeks to realise desire – acting as if we know while knowing that we do not. ‘Desire’ here does refer here to being in relation to the drive’s object-relation and its necessary-Real. It refers to a being-in-relation-to-lack, a being in relation to the Real-impossible.  The challenge here becomes not what of the repressed that we bring to our consciousness, but what of our being that we bring towards the void.

What of the effects of Covid-19, then?  Are we to see it as a judgement, to be considered alongside the effects of global warming?  Or are we to see it as a challenge to the ways in which we currently take up our being, as a questioning that challenges us to innovate by going beyond what we know?


[1] That which fills, a complement. In Gnostic theology, the spiritual universe as the abode of G-d and of the totality of the Divine powers and emanations. It also appears in Colossians ii.9: “In his body lives the fullness of divinity, and in him you too find your own fulfilment.”

[2] “But what would be the real void, the true kenoma, and not the one which only pretends to be humble and empty? […] the merely apparent desert that only ‘resembles the void’ derives from the falsity of the Christian kenosis, which overtly presents itself as an act of self-humbling—the God plunging into the scathed dimension of the finite life—but secretly harbours the inversion where all the pride of the unscathed—the perfect self-sacrifice—is still being preserved. […] The real void, beyond any pretense—and in that sense truly kenomatic — is offered by the act of tsimtsum, the non-sacrificial re-treat of God, which does not leave creation in the state of the ‘infinite grief’, and the necessity to repeat the gesture of self-offering.”  Bielik-Robson, A. (2019). “The Marrano God: Abstraction, Messianicity, and Retreat in Derrida’s “Faith and Knowledge”.” Religions 10(22).

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