Welcome to the Deserters of the Real

Much of my discussion so far has revolved around terms that are simultaneously common enough not to require definition and so theoretically loaded as to demand a statement of allegiance to one of several possible critical approaches.  What follows is a brief discussion of theory; if you are particularly averse to poststructuralism, you can feel free to skip this post and rejoin the blog next time. If you’re more committed to theory, you’ll probably find this discussion unsatisfying.  But rest assured, no actual poststructuralists were harmed in the making of this essay. 

My continued invocation of fantasy, along with the use of “imaginary” in this chapter’s title, requires the help of that most unhelpful of thinkers, Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s poststructuralist revision of Freudian psychoanalysis is brilliant in its scope, vexing in its terminology, and thoroughly confounding in its prose. Rather than get bogged down in Lacanian arcana (Larcana?), I want to briefly consider the conceptual triad that took on increased prominence throughout his career: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real.   While these ideas are rooted in Lacan’s elaboration of the Mirror Phase and its relation to the Oedipal, we have little need to engage with the Mirror Stage here.  Still, the Lacanian emphasis on developmental stages (and early childhood in particular) has a presumably unintended benefit:  Lacanian thought finds remarkable illustrations in children’s entertainment and fairy tales, a coincidence that I hope to leverage in the explanation that follows.  

The Imaginary is related to the portable self-image that we all carry with us once we enter into language and subjectivity.  If we close our eyes, we have an image of ourselves that only partially aligns with exactly how we look at the present moment (since we are not actually looking at ourselves from the outside at all times).  The existence of the Imaginary in one’s mind has little relation to one’s actual existence in everyday life; instead, the Imaginary is the set of prefabricated images and notions against which we compare what we experience and see in real life.  The Imaginary allows us to identify and to mis-identify.  If we see an animal and identify it as a dog, we are recognizing the Imaginary notion of the dog as it maps onto the actual dog.  But if we are the human characters in the 2002 Disney movie Lilo & Stitch, we mis-recognize an alien genetic experiment as a dog because a dog is the closest available referent we can apply to this only vaguely dog-like creature. Only in the sequels can the humans unfailingly identify other alien genetic experiments, because Stitch has now provided an Imaginary model for them.   

The Imaginary is essential precisely because it enables recognition, but it is limited because that very recognition is literal and reductive.  The Imaginary allows for one-to-one matching, and its projection of templates onto the Real has distinct implications for paranoia.  But this literalism is a dead-end, much as the Oedipal child’s fixation on the actual mother and only the mother threatens to turn the Family Romance into an unwinnable, endless Cold War.  The Imaginary fosters a false sense of identity between the thing represented and its imagined representation, an inflexible resistance to substitution.  Steven Spielberg’s A.I (2001) turns this inflexibility into the stuff of tragedy:  a couple whose terminally ill child is kept in suspended animation decide to compensate for their loss by acquiring David, an android built to function as a young child.  But both David and his adopted mother Monica suffer from a deficit of supplementarity and substitution; when the mother’s biological child is suddenly cured, she does not have room in her heart for both.  By the same token, David has been designed with a limitation that makes no sense as science fiction, but is emotionally powerful for the fable at the heart of the movie:  David can only ever bond with one person throughout his entire existence.  Once he has bonded with Monica (somehow, Monica’s husband is not an issue here), he is doomed to love and need only her.  Thousands of years later, David still longs for Monica, and can never be happy without her.  David’s (robotic) love is entirely Imaginary; unlike an ordinary child, he cannot transfer his affections to someone else, cannot engage in the sorts of symbolic substitutions that generally mark adult, non-incestuous love. 

It is the Symbolic that allows (indeed, requires) abstraction and substation. Lacan’s Symbolic Order encompasses practices, customs, laws, and traditions—the very systems that structure our understanding of the real without having a specific physical manifestation to wholly embody it.  The Symbolic assumes a distinction between, say, the laws of a country and the physical copy of the constitution that elaborates the laws, or between the economic value of two different denominations of currency and the physical reality of the actual bills.  Americans who still use (or can remember using) checks to pay their bills theoretically have a more immediate relation to the abstraction of economic value than one does when handling cash.  Most checks are ordered from banks or from stationery companies, but there is no reason not to accept as a check a scrap of paper on which all the necessary banking information is written—virtually nothing inheres to the materiality of the check. Compare this to the Soviet and post-Soviet fixation on the physical document to the point of fetish, from bureaucrats turning up their noses at wrinkled paperwork to cashiers warily inspecting the physical integrity of the money changing hands, as if small tears or crumpled bills somehow detract from the inherent value. 

The Oedipal boy’s progress towards (heterosexual) adulthood is all about accepting the Symbolic, giving up a sexual claim on the mother in favor of substation by another woman (and the attainment of the father’s place in the triangle).  Again, Disney comes to our rescue here, in that one of the recurring themes of feature cartoons for children is the creation of a new family to take the place of a broken one (Lilo and Stitch, Up, Brother Bear) 

The Symbolic is also the precondition to any understanding of alterity:  it is the Symbolic that demands a structuring of the self in relation to the Other. The Imaginary can only create the (lower-case) other, the alter-ego that is merely a projected version of one’s imagined fantasies about the another being.  This is the “imaginary capture” that Lacan says can only be countered by the “supremacy of the symbolic over the imaginary.” The Symbolic Order is the set of laws and rules that make a community of Others possible, the “pact” linking “subjects together in one action” ( Lacan, Jacques. Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1. Trans. John Forrester. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1991.)  

Both the Symbolic and the Imaginary fail to fully apprehend the Real, which precedes all language and signification. The Real is that which language (and the Symbolic) can only approximate, but never grasp.  Intensely physical pain, for instance, or severe trauma break down the both Orders and bring us closer to the primal state which, once we have entered into language, we can no longer properly conceive: the state of pure, unmediated physicality. 

Where, then, does this admittedly oversimplified Lacanian triad map onto “Russia as an imaginary country,” and how does it connect to the conspiracy and paranoia that are the subject of most of the rest of this book? In this case, the concepts of the Symbolic and the Imaginary have some taxonomic value, if we look back at the main categories of texts I propose to study (fictional narratives whose prime concern is Russia itself, poetical/philosophical tracts, and the news media/blogosphere).  Many, but not all, of the tracts are founded on a reductive approach to geopolitics that can easily be assimilated to the Imaginary: Russia, America, the West, all become reified and caricatured as entities with essential, unchanging cores, an essentialism that is Imaginary par excellence  (Indeed, all essentialism could be termed Imaginary by definition, an assertion that probably covers this very statement about essentialism). The (new) media’s framing of world affairs in the past several years, in eagerly appropriating the terminology of Eurasianists, nationalists, and conspiracy theorists, actively insists on an Imaginary understanding of Russia and its perceived enemies.  This understanding replicates the primary flaw of the Imaginary approach to the Other, in constructing an other than is based on one’s imaginary understanding of self.  Thus the state media caricature of the United States and the State Department requires that American government and politics be structured as vertically as the state media presents Russia: every political expression or opposition to Putin’s government (whether within Russia or without) is part of Obama’s master plan. 

The fictional narratives oscillate between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, as a function of the tension between ideology and artistry.  In the case of prose fiction, the more committed the text is to actually being a novel, the more likely that the Imaginary systems of the tracts used as sources become subject to productive Symbolic play.  Returning to Bykov, Living Souls then turns out to be a novel that plays with the Imaginary conceptions of Dugin and Koestler (among many others), complicating them through juxtaposition and novelistic expansion.  To switch metaphors for a moment, he is taking two-dimensional figures and making them move through a three-dimensional space.  

The conspiratorial “Russia narratives” examined in this book are symptoms of a disease of the Imaginary, a dogged insistence not only on the integrity of the Imaginary constructs at stake (“Russia,” “the Jews”, etc.), but on the argument that the creators and consumers of these narratives have themselves bypassed the deceptions of the Imaginary and truly reached the Symbolic.  Conspiracies (in Russia as elsewhere) are second-order simulations, models of the world whose truth value lies in the assertion of their esoteric nature.  Conspiracies purport to be the deep structure buried beneath a deceptive, superficial representation of the world; belief in them requires superimposing the conspiracy on the presumably random, disordered world of the Real.  The conspiratorial model is not a pure substitute for the Real—it is not virtual reality, but something closer to augmented reality: the goggles that helpfully display explanatory information about the objects in the viewer’s field of vision. 

Next:  Huge Tracts of Land