Showing posts with label other. Show all posts
Showing posts with label other. Show all posts


Quotation: On the Self in Relation to the Other in Psalm 139 of the Hebrew Bible

In this post, I talk about a passage from the Hebrew Book of Psalms that extols the self with respect to the Other.
Photo by Les Triconautes on Unsplash
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.
Psalms (139:13-14)
The Ancient Songbook of the Hebrews
     The Hebrew Book of Psalms is an ancient songbook — but its music has been lost. No one quite knows how the psalms were set to music. All we have today are the words. Perhaps the words were sung a capella, or they were meant to be recited in a rhythmic pattern. There is a general suggestion that a lyre harp was the main instrument of choice. Attributed to the ancient King David, the psalms of the Bible number one-hundred-fifty. Each Psalm is a plaintiff voice to God, a prayer, but when read, the Psalms closely spell out a philosophy of the self.
     The "I" in Psalm 139 is an "I" closely tied to the experience of an Other. The first words of the Psalm are "Lord, you have probed me, you know me" (139:1). The Psalm sets the experience of the self in relationship to all-knowing God, a being who "knit me in my mother's womb" (139:1b). The experience of the self is one of relationship to a being greater than the self, a series of steps that brought the self from nothingness to being. Read in this way, the self is not an isolated molecule, a desiccated thing, a piece of something. The self is intricately bound up with the Other in such a way that the self is the other.

The Point-of-View of a Self Looking Backward 
     I have seen Psalm 139 used as an argument against abortion. The reasoning goes that since God has formed us in our "mother's womb" — the act of terminating a pregnancy is the annihilation of a future self. I imagine that suits pro-lifers well; and, I do begrudge them for their argument. But I see the verse of Psalm 139 tells a different story. The language of the Psalm is from the perspective of looking at oneself in awe. It is an epiphany that comes with awareness, with a self-consciousness that only comes from a sense of becoming. "I am a self!" — is a type of understanding a developed being has — that type of awareness that "I am a self — and this 'knowledge is too wonderful for me'" (139:6).
     The self of Psalm 139 is the self that has achieved the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I come into this world kicking and screaming. No one asked my permission to exist. But here I am. I eat. I feed off my mother's milk. I kick. I squirm. I am dependent, and I barely recognize my own image; the world is me, and I am the world. But I break into self as a kind of divided self. I acknowledge that I am a "me," and it is traumatic for I feel at once the break from the other. It is a seismic break (but one that I do not remember distinctly). But I came out of it and entered childhood, with its ravages and glories, into adolescence and then into adulthood — where I now stand. I imagine David, the eternal lyricist, wrote this Psalm in middle-age — not as a mewling boy, not as the teenager who slew Goliath, but as the King who one day woke up to an understanding of his own being.

Positive and Negative Aspects of the Self in Relationship to the Other
     I do think there are positive and negative aspects of a self in relationship to the other. In Psalm 139, this relationship is seen as positive, as one that pervades one's being with an empowering message — that you are wonderfully made. It is the voice of a parent, for example, that has buttressed you with confidence, and you have internalized this encouragement. An inner voice that carries you through the toughest of times. But there is also a negative aspect of a self in relationship to the other — it is the demanding other. I see this demanding other when I cede over my power to another that seeks to punish. When I am not right in the world. When my being feels as if "foes ... conspire a plot" against me those "enemies I count as my own" (Psalm 139:20; 22b).
     I call the positive self concerning the other the creator. It is the feeling of being right with the world — perhaps that feeling one gets as a child when your teacher places a gold-bright sticker on your classwork, and you carry it home beaming. I call the negative self for the other the destroyer. It is the feeling of not being right with the world. Crushed by the other, we succumb to self-loathing and self-sabotage. The other of Psalm 139 saw us unformed — "my days were shaped before one came to be" (Psalm 139:16). The self stands between this tension of positive and negative forces. The "I" of the self entangled with an other.

What is a Self Free of this Entanglement?
    Zeus conspired to chain the old gods in a locked chamber in the underworld. Sons grow up to overthrow their parents. A self "knit together" in the womb grows up to be independent — at least, isn't that the purpose of adulthood? Freedom for the self is real. But true freedom is terrifying. I think of the choices I make in my life — most of them are habitual. Born out of necessity. Out of duty, even. But in that space of habitual service, can there be something like freedom? It is not every day one makes life-changing decisions — but I feel like there are axial moments in the life of a person that has set the pathway. Maybe there is more than one path. I do not know. 
    An axial moment in dance is when the dancer fixes their body in one place, using the spine as a focal point, so as to find optimal movement for all the joints. It requires determination, strength, and a nimble body — one that I do not have! — but I like the metaphor. I was knit together in my mother's womb but now I find myself standing on two feet. What is next? What step do I take? That choice is what defines me. And do I make it my own? Yes. That is what I hope.
What was your axial moment? Let me know in the comments.   

NABRE: New American Bible Revised Edition. United States, Saint Benedict Press, LLC, 2011.


The Function of the Other in Lacan

In this post, learn about Lacan's analysis of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter".
Jacques Lacan, French Psychoanalyst, and Theorist
According to Jacques Lacan (2006), “the subject’s unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (p. 16). Lacan’s correlative thesis is “the unconscious is structured like a language” (1998, p.2).
Lacan sees in Edgar Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter” (1844) a privileged illustration of the Other’s discourse in relation to the unconscious and the structure of a letter to always contain the possibility of return. In the Poe detective story the interrelationship between the primary characters: the Queen, the King, the Minister D., and Dupin (a French version of Sherlock Holmes) are each in turn inhabited by a letter and its undisclosed contents, seen first as a compromising piece of evidence against the Queen, and then, as becomes evident in Lacan’s reading, a metaphor for the function of the Other modulated by the presence and absence of the letter and the way in which the Other, which does not “exist,” inhabits and is inhabited by the subject. The plot of the Poe story is thus: the compromising letter is displayed in full sight when the King enters the royal boudoir, “the primal scene.” Hoping to avert the King’s eye from the incriminating letter, the Queen places the letter face down so as not to attract undue notice. The Minister D., at that moment, walks in and is able to discern the Queen’s deception because of his “lynx eye.” Producing an identical looking letter from his breast pocket, the Minister concocts a discourse with the King while at the same time nonchalantly placing the facsimile letter on the bureau. The Queen can do nothing. When the conversation between Minister D. and the King is terminated, the Minister picks up the Queen’s letter and leaves the room. The Queen is dispossessed of the letter by the crafty Minister. By possessing the letter, the Minister is in hold of power over the Queen. The Queen promises a sum of money to the person who can retrieve the letter and return it to her. The detective Dupin orchestrates a plot to retrieve the letter from Minister D. Once he determines the location of the letter -- between the jambs of the fireplace -- he craftily replaces it with a facsimile and is able to restore the letter to its proper place and reap a reward.
The Other functions in what Lacan terms the symbolic order. Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” is part of his larger reading of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In this book Freud speculates on the existence of an inextricably charged compulsion in each human being to repeat past, original trauma (Widerholungszwang). Lacan claims repetition compulsion is to be understood as a structure of repetition based on the insistence of something like a letter in a long signifying chain. The letter is a material signifier in the Poe story. According to Lacan’s developmental model of human subjectivity articulated in his “Mirror Stage” essay (1942), the self, upon leaving dyadic union with the Mother is captured into a “symbolic dimension” which hitherto “binds and orients” it (Lacan 28). Schooled in the thought of Alexander Kojève’s reading of Hegel, Lacan’s theory of intersubjectivity is based upon a theory of alterity that is spelled out by the equation “the I is the Other.” Rimbaud, the boy poet, put it nicely, "Je est autre." In other words, there is no subjectivity without intersubjectivity. I cannot name myself as an “I” in the symbolic order without an embedded relationship to something outside myself which defines me. The birth of the subject arises out of an imaginary misrecognition which in turn is sublimated under the domain of the symbolic order, so that it is “the symbolic order which is constitutive for the subject” (Lacan 29).
The subject is divided between a mirror image of its self, what Lacan calls the imaginary, the topos of images, dreams, and libidinal desires, and the symbolic order, the purview of language, the law, thought, and desire for an Other. The subject is thus barred from access to a signified, written out in the formula S/s, and is circumscribed under the auspices of the signifier. The realm of the imaginary is related to the symbolic but there is a bar wedged between the gestalt of the spectral image and the name of the father, the law, of the symbolic order. What constitutes the self is an intractable search to locate the lost wholeness of the Other. In this way, Lacan rewrites Freud’s observation that the little child realizes his mother (the m/Other) does not have the phallus. Upon realizing that the mother does not, in fact, have the phallus, the child cognizes that the phallus must be lost and goes in search of it in order to restore it to its proper place. We have here the Lacanian explanation of symbolic desire built upon Freud’s idea of the Oedipal Complex as well as the repetition compulsion. The search for the mother’s phallus is forbidden by the Father/Law. The law intrudes in the form of the symbolic father who cuts a decisive “no” into the child’s forbidden desire.
Lacan, J., & Fink, B. (2006). Ecrits: The first complete edition  
in English. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

----, & Sheridan, A. (1998). The four fundamental concepts of
psychoanalysis: the seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI. New  
York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Muller, J. P., & Richardson, W. J. (1988). The Purloined Poe: Lacan, 
Derrida & psychoanalytic reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.