I hear from my friends that their champion has won a prize for peace, and I feel sure that, given the kind of peace for which my friends have settled, their champion deserves exactly this sort of recognition.
As I write my son comes by with a tub of Lego heads garnered from the field of battle. “I had not thought that death had undone so many,” I tell him. “Nevermore,” he says. A bit of nevermind and never mind and ravens, because he’s that kind of allusive nine-year-old.
Nine years ago I nursed him, as often as not all by myself, with a tiny flexible straw on one of my fingers while his mother worked the breastpump out of motor-sound range in the next room. My fingers like the multi-breasts of great Diana of the Ephesians about whom the people in the Bible story got so excited.
Some of the faces of the Legomen are fixed and tightlipped but many of them show the big O where they have been wrenched from the neck, and the O’s mix with the faces like captions of silent screaming. An anthem of O’s from the guernica box, a sad sigh of Oh’s and might-have-beens. A medley of nuance streaming through this single oft-repeated orifice, this single vowel, howl.
The Big O
Can I recite once again the true fable of language? You’ve heard it before, but this one has a twist, like a Legoman’s lost neck. The twist, this time, of how we came to settle for this terrible social contract, for all the terrible social contracts that are about sending ourselves away from the here and now to be performed elsewhere as an antic, degraded version of ourselves by such a thing as a leader.
Long before we’re born, our parents start preparing for us with words. Talking about us. Talking to us. Murmuring down into our hydraulic vat of preparation where the hip-hop percussion of systole and diastole calls out the minutes and hours. They’re readying a linguistic tabernacle for us, mixing metaphors, spreading Benjamin Moore’s new low-VOC colors on the walls of the nursery.
We’re born into a pre-established place in our parents’ linguistic universe, a space hundreds of years old. At first, we cry to get stuff. But after a while, in order to get stuff, we have to use words that are not our own and cannot possibly correspond to our complex situation. Just think of how many words we might have wanted to use to describe the nuance of a medley of diverse itches and the pleasures of relief we might imagine from various scratchings, the whole time that our caregivers are pestering us with words like “milk” or “diaper.” A thousand times after we have tried to say “I demand the lovely contrapuntal microbrewed synaesthesia of a joyous twisting semi-scratch in my left nostril up high near the convergence of the ear canal and the organs of taste” using only the grunt-words “milk” or “diaper,” we finally relinquish that demand in favor of the short list of satisfactions actually on tap: satisfactions that correspond to hunger or butt-itch.
Thus even our desires are alien, and worse—what we meant becomes what someone else imputes our meaning to be. If we cease crying because we are given milk, our cry must have “meant” hunger. Meaning is thus the meaning of others, of an other. The Other. Capitalized because it’s the big one, the from-now-on one. The mOther tongue, as Bruce Fink says of Lacan’s recitation of the fable, with the big O of otherness as language itself. In the end, we are ourselves the Other. Try flapping your mother’s tongue when you don’t even know that you can control your own hands, and you’ll have some idea of how alien we are even to so intimate an intimacy as our mother tongue. So what happens to the pleasures of that left nostril? In the land that flows with mere milk and honey, where does that inexpressible pleasure go? Let us name that place ‘the unconscious’.
The Political Unconscious
Our first social contract, then, is with our mother, and it is disastrous. No wonder that later our successful passage into the world of adults will be signaled by our monosyllabic submission to the alienating and distancing mechanism called leadership. It hardly matters whether the political space is a tyranny or a democracy. In the first our unwilling yes is demanded and in the second it is our willing yes that will be extracted. What is important is that in both we will forfeit the complex poetry of our desire in favor of the yes-grunt of submission to the leader.
The political unconscious is therefore not a metaphor for the linguistic and personal unconscious but rather its adult formation. The carnival of barely distinguishable fools is kept in the big O of the capitol city in order to wage various wars and give each other peace prizes. In this particular country where I live, the big O city literally begins with O, to remind us that we aren’t actually the country just below that begins with A and has that French liberty statue. All to no avail. Canadians are narcoleptics who wake up every five minutes having forgotten that they are not Americans. The big “eh.” In French the big Other is the big Autre.
If all these word games make you feel sleepy, imagine how babies and voters feel.
I nursed my son, and in that sense I am his mother. His big Other is bigger than most. Perhaps he dreams of digital breasts, and will need to fork out for therapy later in life. Hey, sew me, pal.
Democracy as Milgram Experiment
By the time we are old enough to think about them, language and leadership, the means of defrauding us, appear to be our most intimate selves. No wonder that we can see in our mind’s eye a world of itches attended to, of water and air cleaned, of rivers running free, wars abandoned, cities becoming gardens, and yet still march off somnambulistically to the voting booth to make the monosyllabic yes-grunt that keeps the war machine running.
The Milgram experiment of 1961 and its various replications remind us that the majority of people will torture and kill others if the authority asking them to do so appears to be legitimate enough and if the dirty work can be done at a distance (even if it’s someone in the next room screaming and banging on the wall). It turns out that we do not have to be a freak or psychopath to endorse and instigate massive suffering in others. It suffices only that we be the Big O to ourselves, self-strangers who have not awoken to our power to cease sending ourselves elsewhere.
We moderns are blood-drenched in the pathos of this essential misunderstanding. Democracy, our most inauthentic gesture, the way of sending ourselves elsewhere, goes unquestioned because it is fixed before we are socialized as political subjects. Indeed, our submission to it is our entrée into adulthood. It is socialization itself.
If there is a greater irony than the fact that the way we ensure we our not ourselves, democracy, appears to us as the very guarantor of selfhood, it is surely that most ancient fact about ourselves, that our mother tongue long ago served to guarantee that our own desires would not be our own.
The lights are out now, and the Legomen are singing into the dark. “O,” they are singing, “O O O.”
DAVID Ker THOMSON teaches at the University of Toronto. This paper was written to his freshmen humanities students this week to “lesson” their anxiety about the topic of their first paper, which could be about anything at all—a leaderless paper. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org