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A Response to my Introduction

A former student and friend, Catherine Ribeiro, wrote me an email in response to my Introduction on splitting. I have her permission to reproduce it here, and will respond to it in another post. Here is her writing:

I’m split: how could I adopt a set of ethics exactly contrary to the only way I know how to bear the world, reserving parts of myself, predictively doling the rest out, less because another manner of behaving would be too frightening, but simply because it would be too much effort? I speak in no way as someone who doesn’t believe that others are deserving of trouble, but avoidance does seem a worthwhile strategy to reserve that trouble only for some. No one has the time to process the demands of all those around them. No one has the time to make present their demands for all to hear. If a world came to be in the ethics of this introduction, I imagine, it would be perfectly fluid: no stoppage would delay our abilities to make our needs or even wants present before others. Speech would be immediate: we would be knowable, and knowable because we would be able to speak ourselves. We’d know of a self of which we could speak—even one transient between different desires, different states. We wouldn’t choose favourites to present ourselves before. We wouldn’t stall before moments of recognition, moments of permission. All would present to all as objects to be related to. Exhausting.

What of that self that is preserved when one offers up every possible substitute for that hard self at the centre (if we could conceive of such a thing as existing)? And what, really, is one hiding away when the strategies for concealment can be so diverse—as you say, “fantasy, escapism, dissociation, blanking out, addiction, and acting out”. One offers a stoic self and then an indulgent self, a loving self and then a withholding self, an angry self, a calm self. Every iteration of the self can be imagined as a subterfuge: They are only strategies, only diversions. Surely each of these facets offer glimpses of that “self” which they aim to obscure. Acting out can seem to be instead to anxiously present an array of options to another: “Take me, I’m yours—but please, choose a favourite.”

Of the self at the centre: None. There’s nothing to be known but those momentary desires which, at one’s best, one might possibly make communicable to another. Best case scenario. What I conceal in prediction of what others want, if I conceal it well and long enough, is not a part of me anymore. Only what is rehearsed remains. What I don’t want, what I don’t show, is lost to the memory of only those who’ve seen it. What I efface that no one has seen is lost. It is not retained as the special heart of me at the centre: it ceases to constitute me any longer. I am made up of my selective showings. Those who have been witness to me remind me who I am. I (one) hold(s) up an assessment from my child psychiatrist. Look: it says here I’ve never related very well to others; I’ve always been something of a loner; I like to stand apart from the crowd and analyze. This would be the authority! It looks good to me. I desire it. Someone said it of me. And so, I endure. Who else is there beneath my predictive displays? No one, of course.

Elsewhere, you include this Zizek quote:

Man wants to be loved for what he truly is; which is why the archetypal male scenario of the trial of woman’s love is that of the prince from a fairy tale who first approaches his beloved under the guise of a poor servant, in order to insure that the woman will fall in love with him for himself, not for his princely title. This, however, is precisely what a woman doesn’t want—and is this not yet another confirmation of the fact that woman is more subject than man? A man stupidly believes that, beyond his symbolic title, there is deep in himself some substantial content, some hidden treasure which makes him worthy of love, whereas a woman knows that there is nothing beneath the mask—her strategy is precisely to preserve this ‘nothing’ of her freedom, out of reach of man’s possessive love…[1]

And you say, yourself:

            And if she has interiority, if her body is a full vessel, than it verifies that he too is whole.

If our speech, received in the ethics of full interpersonal permission, can make our true selves known to others, then so too can we interpret fully the speech of the other. So too can we interpret the demands of the other—shrouded in all their particularities and occlusions—to translate those demands into a picture of that desiring subject. What do they want from me? We are all hysterics in this corresponding hope of knowability: if I am knowable, so is (s)he whom I want to know. If I am hiding something at the centre, so are they. If my displays are ruses, screens before a secret, so are theirs! In this scenario, I have two privileges: I believe I know that I can display myself in a way the other desires, hiding whatever true self I think I retain; I believe I can get to the bottom of the other, outsmart them, discover what is hidden there, some secret that they are less skilled in keeping.

How long does the sea cucumber spend without its armour? How quickly does it regenerate? Perhaps the time in between is the equivalent of grief. Or better: a nap. There are times when I part with my “second self”: in emotional danger, I recede and display nothing. Or: I experience a sort of eruption, display all parts of myself at once (acting out). Either way, it leaves me: for a moment I am bereft of feeling both internal and displayed. The second skin sheds, I rest, and another returns: I am again ready to face the demands of others with that self-atop-the-self. Or: with the performance of what is myself. Is the bare sea-creature flesh, the serene wordlessness of grief, the true self? Probably not. The moment some other person intervenes, another skin will always generate—plump, vibrant, and ready to be shown off.

I give myself up to be torn apart (certainly I’ve issued this specifically as a sexual demand). How do I recognize the difference between myself in rupture and myself in splitting? One is willed and the other accidental? Even if I permit it, either process is a danger to me.

Fantasy of reward sits aside fantasy of control: I know what to give to maximize results. I know what to part with to maximize returns! I am a smart player in the economy of relation! Great disappointment of the self: the rejection of causality: the impossibility of understanding not only why others behave they way they do with me, but why I behave the way I do with them. And further, the understanding that there is no why, at least not one: the tangled mess of prior events that have resulted in all of the whys can’t be torn apart. I can’t set one away from the other. The horrible gift of the present is inextricable. I have to somehow make myself known in a way that doesn’t hinge or rely upon a communicable narrative of the past—no, I’m not who I am because this happened, and then this happened, and you see—then this next. Actually, before each new object, I too am anew. This is a product of the encounter. The task then becomes to make myself known specifically as before this new object (which is part of the exhaustion of total, uninhibited relation). This is a lot to expect of oneself: to make each new self known to each new intervening object each new time. Even this sentence is exhausting.

(Of course, such an explanation of being before-or-with others runs a little close to telling them, (always loudly): This is what you do to me! Which is a bit akin to acting out. The diversion. Not so easy.)

There is so much we don’t know about ourselves because we’ve defensively split it away from our consciousness. And then there’s all the stuff that we don’t want others to know about us, so we partition it off and give only what we think they want. Or, in a spirit of despair or excitement, we try to give it all away—“take me, I’m yours”—only to find that there is an intransigent part that will not be given away.

Which of the facets of personal knowledge do you think we are most apt and eager to avoid knowing? Trauma? I’m playing a bit dumb here. But I want to know what, exactly, you think these pressure points might be.

So, I guess: I don’t know. At the end of this introduction, half of me feels like I ought to join a chorus with it, shout it at the world: Don’t hide, friends! But with the same set of demands upon myself, I reject them. I should be able to choose when to shut off. I should be able to choose when to avoid those whom I wish to avoid. My own behaviour feels like the only arena of life in which choice is not a lie: I’m not choosing between objects or environments that are realistically quite equivalent (commodities, communities, comraderies), I really am choosing how to conduct myself. I realize that saying I want to be able to choose how I conduct myself is in no way the same as avowing that my conduct is ethical. One can always make the choice of unethical behaviour (and so often one does!) Of course. But I’m not convinced that selective shutting isn’t necessary for life in the complicated mess of what we know: I can’t welcome all those before me. I have to make a priority of some. I know attention is not finite, but time certainly is. Relation is a sort of labour. I get so angry when I feel I’m not paid my share because, I think, my vulnerability deserves to be matched! I don’t know how to avoid this feeling, but maybe this feeling is not a fact. Maybe insofar as (often imagined) concealment is a strategy for the subject to maintain herself as such, it ought not be so quickly condemned. (I mean, to a certain extent, isn’t “concealment” just a conscious explanation of behaviour that really is, in fact, displaying just how we feel in those moments of it? Consider: all passive-aggressive behaviour; all attempts at arousing jealousy in romantic partners; all competition with a straight face.) There must be some middle ground: to honour our commitments to one another while at once understanding that we can’t invite everyone into proximity with us. Some must remain behind a barrier.


[1] (“Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father, or How Not to Misread Lacan’s Formulas of Sexuation” Zizek, Lacanian Ink 10, 1995

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