On the refusal of (big-S) Symbolic castration

In considering what we can learn from Lance Armstrong, I argued that aside from the moral outrage, we needed to consider if he has something to teach us about the nature of situational resistance – an insistence that goes beyond mere defences against anxiety in a relentless pursuit of innovation pointed towards overcoming a lack. I ended by asking how such courage was mobilised. What follows is a continuation of the dialogue with Simon on this point.

Simon Western: If the unconscious is ‘the knowledge that speaks for itself'(Lacan), then the question arises as to not only what makes us react to stressful situations, but what guides us to choose them in the first place? What is the lack that creates the desire to hurtle down a mountain with immense courage, and at the same time to risk all personal credibility and social capital by cheating? With Lance Armstrong there was a lack of a father in his life, which seemed to create a desire for him to overcome this lack in two ways: a) showing the world he could do it alone, he could beat the best and beat cancer too; b) to buck any form of paternalistic authority, from his coaches or from the governing body of cycling. For Lance, the rules didn’t apply to him – i.e. no father = no paternalist authority for me! The film showed this with great clarity.

Philip Boxer: ‘Hurtling down the mountain’ is the relation to an objet petit a that comes in the place of a lack[1]. The following sets out my understanding of this “lack” and how it relates to Armstrong ‘risking all’.

What is meant by the relation to ‘lack’
Lacan’s understanding of lack started from lack of being – manque à être. The Freudian insight of “Wo Es war, soll Ich warden” (where being was, there I shall be) was understood as asserting that in seeking to be where Being was, the ‘I’ was inevitably putting itself in relation to the lack of the drive structure[2]. Doing this, however, involved a double subjection: firstly to the relation to the other, mediated by the effects of a relation to the Imaginary space-time-bounded reality, itself subject to the effects of signifying structures. Secondly, to the relation to the unconscious, the drive being a necessary consequence of the structural characteristics of the lack of the unconscious in support of embodied being-in-relation-to-lack.

Lacan came to understand the subject’s relation to this support to their identification in terms of the sinthome, the consistence of a Borromean linking together of the Real, Imaginary and Symbolic registers that was the subject’s particular way of being-in-relation-to-lack. There were three ways in which this lack was experienced, reflecting progressive transformations in the subject’s relation to his or her subjection (taken from Lacan’s Seminar IV – La relation d’objet):

  • Frustration, in which the subject seeks to bring a Real object into being in the place of an Imaginary lack experienced within the context of the containing maternal (big-S Symbolic) matrix – the child’s frustration is at not having what s/he wants when s/he wants it.
  • Privation, in which the subject puts a big-S Symbolic object in the place of a Real lack experienced within the context of an Imaginary reality of the family story – in response to what is actually lacking, the child develops his or her own signifiers and begins to search for his or her own signification of those signifiers, with all the problematics arising from there always being something not yet found.
  • Castration, in which the object that comes in the place of a structural lack of the big-S Symbolic is accepted as being Imaginary within the context of an acceptance of the subject’s relation to the Real – over the course of time, the subject accepts that no-one can ‘have’ what they want and that ‘being’ is always in relation to a lack aka the relation to the lost object/presence of an absence.

What is interesting here is that “death” is a way for the sovereign ego to talk about an encounter with a limit aka lack of being. This is why courage and the ‘pointing up’ with his fear were so important to the alpinist. “Death” is a way of rationalizing why fear exists, except much of the time it is not death per se, but just an encounter with a limit that frightens the sovereign ego. So perhaps it might be better to speak of the ego’s ‘fear of castration’ rather than the death instinct. In whatever way it is spoken of, however, these progressive transformations form a cycle, or course, in the sense that we are always learning about ‘lack’ in this structural sense[3].

Helpful in this is Lacan’s later naming of the ways in which we get stuck at different points in the cycle (taken from Seminar XXI – Les non-dupes errent). So frustration follows experiencing an impossibility of being able to say everything; privation follows from an acceptance of the impossibility of being able to write everything[4]; and castration follows from an acceptance of being in relation to the nothing-to-be-said in the present moment – the Real that is a ‘beyond’ of meaning – as a way of avoiding saying at least something![5]

Philip Boxer: So culling various biographical details from available sources, it appears that Lance’s mother, Linda, was 17 when she gave birth to him, having dropped out of high school. Soon after his parents divorced, his father abandoning Lance when he was two. Armstrong never saw his father after that, and Lance later referred to him as “the DNA donor”. In 1974, Lance’s mother married Terry Keith Armstrong, adopting Lance when he was 4. So we can say that there was an Imaginary lack – his father was not there – and that the Real object of the stepfather might at first appearances have limited the frustration Lance experienced.

Linda saw athletic potential in her son early on and encouraged him to participate in a variety of sports. Armstrong was running and swimming at 10 and taking up competitive cycling and triathlons at 13. At 16 he became a professional triathlete. So what of the place of the father in the family structure within which he grew up? We can hypothesise that there was a Real lack there, in the sense of the privation brought about by the abandonment that continued to occupy the place of the father in Linda’s relationship to her son. Here we can speculate that Lance developed particular ways of organizing signifiers that covered this Real lack which involved the place of competition in his life, but which also involved a refusal of castration.

From this speculation on his story therefore, the cheating sounds like a refusal of castration by getting stuck in trying to realise signifiers for what is impossible-to-say. In the following fragment from his history, we perhaps get a glimpse of his ego’s refusal of death coinciding with a superhuman effort, within the context of his friend’s death:

In the 1995 Tour de France, three days after teammate Fabio Casartelli died after a fall on a mountain descent, Armstrong vowed to win a stage race for his Italian friend. As the support staff pulled up alongside to give him a status report on the riders behind him, Armstrong waved them off. “I don’t need to know,” he said. “Nobody’s going to catch me.” No one did. Armstrong rode the last few hundred meters with his hands off the bars, index fingers pointing to the heavens. Armstrong recalls the eerie experience: “There’s no doubt there were four feet pushing those pedals that day.” (Racing the demons – inspired by fellow survivors, Lance Armstrong refuses to give in to cancer.)

Simon Western: I agree. He seemed to suffer from an unconscious-conscious dissonance between his great courage and the feelings of being a cheat, that he couldn’t acknowledge even when he consciously admitted cheating (i.e. there was no conscious acknowledgement of shame). ‘The unconscious spoke clearly for itself; when his unconscious took him back to racing after four years break, which reopened all the drugs questions and led to his being exposed, losing social capital and great wealth. When asked why, his conscious rationalisations for this did not answer the question fully, for him or for others, who proclaimed: but why did he do it!! I concluded that his unconscious vis a vis the death drive, took him back to die a public death in order to rid himself of the internal dissonance he felt, but could not rationally acknowledge. Even though he consciously rationalised the cheating, the feeling and emotions of being a cheat did not go away. For repression gets rid of the cognitive thoughts, but leaves a trail of emotions in the body.

Philip Boxer: Yes. On this reading, there is an unconscious refusal of castration, the corollary of which are the narcissistic and perverse defences of the ego trying to sustain its sovereignty. But is this refusal of castration what you are referring to as the death drive? I think so, and of course why shouldn’t you (along with many others, more often expressed in terms of the death instinct). But my point is that by not doing so, it fails to make room for understanding something else about what is going on, apparent when you say:

The knowledge that speaks for itself, that spoke loudly and exposed Lance in order to both kill him publicly but also perhaps to set him free.. this was where the film started. He spoke emotionally of getting his first bike as young child – “for the first time I was free – a bike sets you free!”

This something else is not so much Lance’s bike as the way of being that he takes up when bicycling. This is perhaps Lance’s sinthome. Even though his ego refuses, the Real insists, demanding that Lance pay with his being as he understands it to be in relation to bicycling. This liminal space that he finds himself in as a consequence is, in a sense, exactly where he needs to be to continue to work through (what we have speculated to be) his refusal of castration.

Where is the courage in this?  I think it is in Armstrong’s continuing insistence on being true to his sinthome which, whether he liked it or not, brought him to face a beyond of his refusal of castration. Will he find that he still ‘is’ on the other side of this castration? We shall find out from the way he takes up competing again!

[1] In saying that objet petit a is the ’cause of desire’, what is meant is not that the objet petit a causes the desire (in the sense of a material, formal or efficient cause), but rather that it becomes the (final) cause of desire in the sense of a flag standing for a shared cause.
[2] Drive structure is a relation between four things in Freud: Drang, thrust – the tendency to discharge psychic energy; Ziel, the aim; Quelle, the source – the gap defined by a rim-like structure; and Objekt, the object. For more on this see Structural Gaps – the wigo/wiRgo relation
[3] In the same sense that there are always instances of small-s symbolic equation to be worked through. See How does ‘sophisticated’ group mentality relate to basic assumption behaviour?
[4] Godel’s theory of incompleteness (or undecidability) shows how any system of thinking can be presented with a statement, the truth of which is undecidable. This is the function of the paradoxical intervention… In this refusal of castration, this undecidability is not accepted.
[5] These two sets of three are the accommodative (centrifugal) and assimilative (centripetal) forms of the Borromean linking of the three Registers (Imaginary, Symbolic and Real).

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