(or: how to check your privilege in the mirror stage)
(This post starts as a polemic against its direct antecedent, Versions I: Yngwiepocalypse, which is shorter than our usual content and light on technical prerequisites. You should skim it at least).
The core technical component of the “Yngwie thesis” was the dereference operator. Had the “Yngwie” thesis been presented as facticitous (that is, if it had been claimed that de-signification is quable to the ambient conditions that govern the interfacticity), we we’d be short of a technical account of de-referencing. Even then, we merely alluded to de-referencing as a kind of intermediary causal layer for “de-signification”. The story therefore went: an erosion process on the reference/dereference double-ledger accounting led to critical flaws in the dereferencing operation which led to de-signification which led to the Crisis, dukkha, postmodernity, etc.
But contra yngwieism, there is little to nothing that connects de-signification to a breakdown scenario (the Crisis). “Signification”, to begin with, is at best a cluster of unmoored hermeneutical “educated guesses” about structure-making (and may we remind the reader that structure is structured like a structure); in practice, it functions as a spacey reverb-filter echoing out of finer ideas about semiosis that are most effectively as reverb (as self-destructuring sound-mass). As a concept candidate, de-signification, with the awkward hyphen that prevents it from collapsing into design-ification, tries to say something crisp about something spacey and reverberative. Of course it doesn’t work.
Dereference (as a concept candidate emancipated from yngweism) fares somewhat better. It mirror-stages reference, which has a clear structural role in the semiotic domain of Yngwian aesthetics and is even more concrete (with concrete and even dramatic consequences for improper dereferencing) in the scenario of structured access to computer memory.
Building from that I want to say that there’s a a Greimas-like binary between an operation and a “de” operator connecting the referencing operation and the dereferencing operator; that in the rift between operation and operator there functions a structural, genericized version of the mirror-stage rift that psychology used to believe happened to humans. I can’t say that. It’s too large a claim. It doesn’t pass easily into the “we” voice that spells out theory. It comes from staring at trees and walls for too long and feeling like something coalesces. But it needs so, so much detail to be teased out, so much scholarly charliework and it will bore my readers so, so much. (I know by now what brings readers to the blog and I’m too human not to care).
So I’m not saying that. I’m giving it a suspended “thesis” name and say that it eats the “Yngwie thesis” for lunch while absorbing its essential nutrients and minerals. I’m going to give it a name — something like the “genericized mirror stage”; sexier than that, but not salacious; maybe sexy in the desexualized version of fashion-magazine heroin-chic that showcases a potential for sexual seduction that is not there but lies latent like the energy of a compressed coil.
What other “de-x/x” binaries are mirror-stages? We’ve just sketched a scenario in which Kate Moss is desexualized and de-seductive — the two videos linked in this sentence will explain more without derailing this text. There are more interesting pairs, I think; I think deconstruction can be restated as a mirror-stage of construction. Deconstruction claims to detach the primitive bond of thinking from its surroundings in concrete determinations (Foucauldian microphysics from the Zizekian perversity of ideology; Lacan from biology; art from nude models and fruit baskets; Derrida from the logos of Christianity, only so superficially manifested in writing); it grows into something much more robust, a worldmaking thing that transcends the world of its infant desire; but it is shackled to this genericized id.
But we want (one thing the reader needs to notice is the we- and I-voices weaving back and forth) to try something else for size: deserving. I’ve noticed the mirror-stagity of deserving while reading this essay on liberal theodicy, which zeroes in on Rawls and plucks from Rawls a core agitating motive that in one dizzyingly powerful gesture connects political activists from all stripes to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake:
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls remarked that “no one deserves” their social ascendancy and the natural gifts—intelligence or industriousness—with which they achieved it. The fact that one person was endowed with them and another not was “morally arbitrary.” A theory of justice aiming at fairness rather than fortune would reject any sense that people deserved their class position.
(The essay is not long and strongly recommended for readers that don’t have the meaning of “theodicy” fresh in mind right now.)
Consider the ongoing discussion about inequality-generating prosperity. It’s not hard to find someone who will strongly side against Pareto improvement as an axiological growth path. In the thought experiment where every arrangement can be posited without pondering the policies that lead us there, such antiparetians will prefer an arrangement where the poorest and most wretched are worse off, provided that the luckiest are closer to them. I’ve personally heard only two barely cogent arguments for this position. One comes from the bad psychological experience of envy cited as an override; an alternate form of this is that being comparatively poor produces an existential dread with having failed to compete. More realistically but less relevantly, the issue of money in politics — rigorously, that societal power scales nonlinearly (and heavily so) with wealth.
At one level, these are all axiological issues — roughly that money and wealth fail to suture left and right axiologies (which doesn’t matter in General Axiology, but who can get through to these people?). At a lower level, they’re fundamentally linked via Rawls to the veil of ignorance and to deserving one’s privileges. But de-serving mirror-stages out of serving. Words are a theoretician’s best friend: serving and deserving are, at least superficially, reference/dereference pairs (also straddling right and left axiologies; maybe we’re on to something) on a morality of responsibilities and rights.
I’ve sort of click-baited this to look like a polemic against “SJWs” and such, but in light of the above there might be something utterly sensible about mots d’ordre like “check your privilege”. This is the bikini all over again: what the Rawlsian veil (a mystification, a counterfactual beyond [inter]facticity) displays is interesting, but what it conceals is the objet a. It displays a theodicy; this theodicy is a gesture of seduction that suggests a Lisbon earthquake before one even happens (much like Blackbeard’s engine of virtual violence). What the bikini of theodicy claims to conceal is the other-wordly order that justifies this one — the victims of the Lisbon earthquake as they’re sucked upwards into Heaven.
Did we suddenly change the subject to produce a vague effect of siding with “social justice”? That’d be an interesting, albeit cynical strategy: leave theory intact, so that anyone who works through it realizes what’s really going on; but at the same time produce surface disavowals of proscribed positions for lazy skimmers. This is something intellectuals have done many times under authoritarian governments. But it’s not what’s happening here — or if it is, not at a such direct level.
Read again — we said might be and proceeded with a bikini analysis of Rawlsian theodicy. But we could never endorse any particular reading of what is hidden by the bikini — that’s the impossible object of desire. We might even identify it with the connection to the whole-otherness that is severed at the (Lacanian infant) mirror stage, the umbilical cord, but it’s never that that you want. But Rawls claims inside the bikini is the Lisbon earthquake, the radically unexpected event (straight from the Meillassouxsian grand dehors, the geological accretion of the Earth) that shakes Leibniz-Candide’s optimism and forces intellectuals to ponder a world that maybe is not fair. This later becomes the immiseration thesis in Marx, the nuclear catastrophe, the Piketty catastrophe, the climate-a-hard-rain’s-a-coming panic…
Am I saying liberal intellectuals want the worst to come? First, no — you’d have to ask a sample of people you consider to be liberal intellectuals… Second, no — the core point of Lacanian theory is that one can’t put a finger on what one’s desire; it’s concealed by the bikini. Third, no — I’m developing in this text something that’s not a subjectivity-form. Here the mirror stage does not separate an unconscious from an id, but a “de-x” operator from a “x” operation. We’re talking about a deserving operator. It arises from a serving operation which arises from the natural structure of Man — specifically from his big head that prevents full development to happen within the womb. One is therefore born incomplete and partially of-nature (cf. “failure to thrive”). In short, one is born in debt.
This principle (a beautiful classical phrasing is non nobis solum — not us alone) is something that I’ve rediscovered multiple times with friends, in relaxed meatspace chats over coffee that inevitably border on the existential: one owes the world, not the other way around. After thriving in early infanthood (again, acquiring enough weight to be viable), one’s no longer of-nature, but falls into a social and physical infrastructure that one couldn’t have possibly devised, let alone built. If one wants to eat, one has to work (this is Uriel Alexis‘s “reality principle”).
This is where the dark ineffable desire for the Lisbon earthquake — again, one that is in the pair serving/deserving, not necessarily in people) — comes up: it’s the mirror-stage desire to be articulated and whole in oneself, not bound to the umwelt, that produces the Imaginary order, sets the stage for the signifying chain to emerge, etc.
This gets us finally to privilege. Discourse of privilege is not a simple matter of not getting what one deserves (a misalignment of right axiologies); someone who is defrauded of money or presents as “incel” simply didn’t get what they wanted and thought were theirs by right. Whatever the secret unconscious desires of incels are, they’re clearly related to what is typically hidden in actual bikinis; it’s possible even that the core illness has to do with the disconnect between these unconscious desires and the sex drive that arises from hormones produced in the testicles. Therefore: simple — volunteers should be getting these guys laid for the good of society.
Discourse of privilege is not about getting what’s mine: I have the clear impression, for example, that at least a small fraction of “male feminists” are sincere. It’s rather a more complicated relationship with the Rawlsian bikini that, at the same time that it appears to promote the Other’s subjectivity as a focus of concern, sublimates the plain principle of existential debt: one no longer owes the world for one’s liabilities; rather, service happens in the bikini (or rather in what it is imagined to be in it) and requires a great deal of work not to meet the immediate demands of the world, but to understand and promote understanding of the bikini.
The great political tension produced by discourse of the privilege has to do with the lack of yet another mirror-staged operator — desublimation. As it stands under ongoing conditions, discourse of privilege is unable to discharge the existential debt it has — apparently, but not in any real sense — vaporized. Because its proponents cannot circulate this debt (in exchange for whatever they think that they do that’s valuable), the very structure of deserving wilts. Thereafter e.g. a corporation can no longer focus on making what’s valuable (in such a way that they deserve their profits).
Two things could be attempted with the “Yngwie thesis” in this scenario. First, we could fix lost dereferents — poverty refers to injustice which refers to privilege — but now we reject Pareto improvement and are willing to make the poor worse-off. This is interesting but sets up on a slippery slope — ultimately we have to refer to “true moral values”, but bouncing back from crisis could lead us astray from the road to General Axiology. Second, we could trace back those non-desublimated debts back to their originator — roughly the Ben Shapiro move. But back in this metaphorical innocent village where everyone just did the things they have to do — who knows who owns what?