Here's the text for a presentation I gave over the weekend at the 4th Annual Crossing Borders Conference at USC.
I am very much in agreement with Slavoj Zizek’s opening remarks from his article “Love They Neighbor? No Thanks!” any serious critical work today must have a dimension of psychoanalysis to it. The reduction of it to reductionist slogans, dodges its necessity for theorizing the role of things such as recognition and desire in our everyday lives.
Until last year however psychoanalysis was a limited part of my work, a cool quote from Zizek here, a dense and disarming quote from Lacan there to throw off the reader. This changed however after I was called out and subsequently interpolated last year as a “Lacanian.” Never really conceiving myself as one, I decided instead of refusing the title and replacing it with a post-ideological sneeze guard distance from all formal theories, to instead own it, and augment it slightly, paradoxically and impossibly with the term indigenous. So at present, theoretically, I enjoy trying to occupy the gap between these two highly incommensurable terms, as an “indigenous Lacanian.”
This however is not directly related to, but always in the background of the current phase of my work. This paper for example is more my attempt to formally engage with Lacanian theory, and engulf myself in it. Seeking a critique from within it, rather than a safe distance without.
Turning to the title and topic of my paper, after noting a number of directions I could go in my long winding title, I decided to emphasize “Lacan Avec Evangelion.” Therefore in the vein of Lacan’s infamous “Kant Avec Sade,” or the work of Marquis de Sade as the truth of Immanuel Kant, this paper is a weak form of Lacan Avec Evangelion or the truth/limits of the theories of Jacques Lacan through the epic anime Evangelion: Neon Genesis. I should apologize here however. Given the time limit and the fact that it would take much time to show clips to help acclimate you with the anime, I’ve had to focus less on the anime and more on Lacan.
First, let me give you some brief background on the anime.
The initial run of Evangelion: Neon Genesis was 26 episodes from 1995 - 1996. The anime takes place in the year 2015, 15 years after a mysterious explosion called Second Impact has killed half of the earth. Mankind is now struggling against a new threat, strange, powerful monsters called Angels.
Each of these angels are towering giants that possess an AT field or "absolute terror" field which makes all conventional weapons useless against them. Through a secret extra-national organization SEELE and its subsidiary NERV, mankind has created weapons to fight back, Evangelions, or EVAS, huge biomechanical mechas who can only be piloted by 14 year children, born following the Second Impact. Three of these children are the series' main characters, Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu.
Third Impact, another catastrophic event is what is at stake in the fight with the Angels. According to passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls, whoever wins, man or Angel will inherit the earth, will be the life form that continues to evolve.
The intent behind the creation of the Evangelions therefore is to fight off the Angels, yet at the same time begin the human instrumentality project. Which is mankind's attempt to control Third Impact and at the same time artificially move mankind into the next evolutionary stage. According to one of the series characters, "so mankind, a race of flawed and incomplete seperate entities, has reached the end of its evolutionary potential. The instrumentality project will manufacture the evolution of man's separate entities into a single consummate being."
Given that this is the narrative structuring point for the anime, the possible union of the "I" and the "Other" it makes it almost too perfect for psychoanalytical interrogation.
Throughout the internet on anime fanboards you can see this psychological complexity being theorized. At different points, the characters evoke so clearly different psychological theories and disorders. Shinji, who is the focus of the film, as the Third Child, pilot of Eva Unit 01, and the son of NERV's commander Gendo, is a classic case of Avoidant Personality Disorder. Rei Ayanami, the First Child, pilot of Eva Unit 00, is a classic Schizoid Personality, thus the fact that it is later revealed that she is a clone of Shinji's dead mother makes sense. Asuka, the Second Child, Pilot of Unit 02, is a narcissist, a point made even more clear by virtue of the fact that she is one of the few western faces that appear in the anime. One could also conceive of each of these children as different parts of the Freudian psyche, Shinji the ego, Rei the superego and Asuka the id. In another formulation, Shinji represents the destrudo, Rei the thantanos and Asuka the eros.
Moving onto Lacan.
What distinguishes Lacan theoretically from both structuralists and post structuralists is his open fidelity to the subject. Evangelion Unit 1, both the mecha and its pilot, Shinji represent this subject that emerges out of the Enlightenment.
Descartes’ mantra of "I think therefore, I am," is the grounding of the primacy of thinking over being, a crucial point whereby the space for the self-determined, transparent subject emerges. The displacement of the unreasonable unfreedom of "God thinks therefore I am."
The creation of the Evangelion units is the apex of humanity, as characters throughout the series indicate. It is the height of man’s scientific prowess, which ultimately led to the taming of a God. Each Evangelion is biomechanical, an artificial metal shell which imprisons a creature made from the DNA of Adam, the beginning of all life.
Against a universe that man finds himself born into, desperately seeking a place for itself amongst the handiwork of God, Evangelion is such a mark. "Humans can only exist on earth, but the Evangelion can live forever. Along with the human soul that exists within. 5 billion years from now when the sun, the earth the moon are gone. The Evangelion will exist, just so long as one person remains." "It will be one more proof that mankind existed."
But the result of this grounding, this determination isn’t transparency, certainty, but madness. While the Evangelion represents the zenith of modernity, its kernel, its soul is Shinji.
Slavoj Zizek notes in his text, The Ticklish Subject, there is a crucial dimension of the cogito and the subject, which most formulations miss, namely this madness. And it is this madness that leads to his defense of the Lacanian subject and the Cartesian cogito. Lacan’s theory of man is therefore close to the statement of Martin Luther, that far from the light of the universe, man is actually the shit that fell out of God’s ass.
Throughout the series and in particular its concluding episodes we see Shinji undergo a number of hysteria devolutions, processes of radical and deductive doubt similar to that of Descartes. For example, when Shinji himself undergoes human instrumentality, he is reproached by all the people in his life, all those he could never become close to, never admit his love or hate for. As all the minds of humanity merge together, he attempts to retreat to that point of pure reason, pure universality. Gone are the colors, the clear lines, in the anime Shinji becomes a sketch, floating along a white expanse with no perspective.
He is thus confronted with the false choice that Malden Dolar describes in his article "Cogito and the Subject of the Unconscious," the choice which Descartes encounters but suppresses. The choice similar to that of one being held up and asked "your money or your life." In this case, the difference is "your thought, or your being." The moment you think however, you have already made your choice and being has been lost.
That state of being that Shinji and Descartes arrive at is unattainable, beyond the ability of representation, all that remains is the maddening fantasy of its loss.
The subject is therefore, as the Evangelion series illustrates so brutally, always at a minimum hysterical. It may take forms beyond this (such as psychosis, neurosis, obsessiveness), but an incessant questioning, a traumatic uncertainty, a radical doubt always persists, is always there, disrupting the very stability of that “there.”
Why? Why is the Lacanian symbol for the subject a capital S, with a line through it, marking this eternal split?
Shinji’s story strongly mirrors in interesting ways the trajectory of Lacan’s subject, distraught, tortured by thought, divorced from being. All humans according to Lacan are born premature, incomplete, producing an infant desire to be one with the mother. To be the object of the mother’s desire. But her desire is always deflected elsewhere, never enough to complete the link with the child.
In the film, this gap is symbolized through the death of Shinji’s mother from a NERV experiment, this putting him securing under the Law or Name of the Father, or into the universe of his father’s work, NERV, Evangelions and fighting for humanity’s survival against the Angels.
First a clarification must be made here. The crucial difference between Lacan and Freud is Lacan’s emphasis on language as opposed to biology for the basis for his theories. The law of the Father is therefore not so much the father himself, but instead a function of language. A condition of alienation the subject experiences through its constitution in language.
The anime begins with Shinji being called into NERV, to pilot EVA Unit 01, by his estranged father, whom he barely knows. Upon entering his father’s universe, there is only castration, hysteria. The Law of Shinji’s father is everywhere, as the NERV headquarters is structured around his demands and plans. He is therefore not so much a physical presence, as he is a barrage of disembodied injunctions, a sporadic voice compelling Shinji to fight! To kill!
Language exists prior to the subject and persists beyond it. Lacan’s structuralist tendencies show here, in that language is fundamentally alienating. Since the signifier signifies the subject for another signifier, I am never in language, but always outside of it. The subject, always split in language, attempting to articulate a desire can only do so through a borrowing of being.
This is what the mirror stage stages. A completeness which creates the self and the ego, but by virtue of the apparent completeness of another. The fragmentation of the body, its malfunctions, the way certain signifiers become trapped within certain organs, this is all momentarily repressed through this enchanting image of completeness of being in this other.
What the ego can never completely extinguish however, is how my identity is always contingent upon this other. This is the incessant trauma of the subject, the ghastly schism which Shinji’s hysteria illustrates so viscerally.
What does the other want from me? What am I to this other, who is always watching me? The question of who am I, is always echoed by an other who must respond to ensure that something exists. That the “I” am here.
There is for Shinji and the other characters an eternal desire for recognition. Desire, according to Elizabeth Wright, is always desire for recognition of one’s identity. Throughout Evangelion there is persistent emotional violence, reproaches, crippling dependencies. There exists within each character a dependency of desire that lies beneath the ability of the ego to exorcise or articulate.
At one point, Shinji rejects the Evangelion unit and its violence and refuses to fight anymore, leaving NERV and running away. When he is recovered several days later, an Angel attacks. Will Shinji rejoin the Evangelion and destroy the Angel? In this scene and numerous others, his ambivalence is marked by the word “want.” “If that’s what you want me to do.” “What is it that you want from me?”
In this ambivalence we can see the split that haunts all subjects. “I want you to want me.” Shinji’s negotiation to anticipate, to match, to entrench himself in the other’s responses. Not, do you want me to fight? But, it seems too much to make someone else fight, I’ll fight. A twisting around the elusive space of the other’s always evasive desire.
The response of the other never corresponds to my desire. Never fulfills it. But yet, what happens in Evangelion is this very impossibility.
[show Human Instrumentality clip from The End of Evangelion]
This embrace however far from a soothing or comforting oneness, is a traumatic shock. This resistance, this trauma takes place at two levels. The ego, as the defender of the I, its spin doctor resists this potential loss, this dissolution on the basis of its own existence.
Yet at the same time, this return to the form prior to the subject is traumatic, because according to Lacan, that oneness and wholeness that the subject eternally seeks to recover never existed in the first place. It is only retroactively fantasized. This is where the Lacanian definition of ideology emerges. Ideology is the narration of solidarity around this loss. It is the naming of an other who is responsible for this loss.
As the scene shows, human instrumentality is far from harmonious, but instead we see what Hegel refers to as “the night of the world.” A world of partiality, of pure existence, with no essence and not even the fantasy of essence. A scene similar to that from the film Being John Malkovich, where John Malkovich himself enters himself. He encounters a world full of those who are not him, those who are him, those who are more him than he is. The split lies at the neck of thought and being, you and someone else.
This union is always felt through the split already found in the subject. The difference between human instrumentality and everyday ife is that now there is not distance from this split. There is no ego to deny it. There is no misrecognizing of it, not rationalizing it, no narrating it.
Because of Lacan’s high fidelity to the subject, the I and the Other must always remain separate, distinct. The union of the I and the Other, would entail the death of the subject. This fact explaining a number of Lacan’s infamous theoretical oneliners, such as “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” and his definition of love which I’ll define in a moment.
Given this fundamental alienation, that trauma is the condition of the subject, that the subject is at some level nothing but a mélange of narratives establishing a relationship to and meaning of trauma, is there any agency? Yes, of course there is.
[show “one final I need you” clip from The End of Evangelion]
It is the end of Evangelion that gives us an insight into Lacan’s theory of agency. Human instrumentality takes place and mankind becomes collapsed together into a huge primordial soup, where all minds teeming together as one are lost.
Shinji along with everyone else, lies between two deaths, the first death which takes place the moment instrumentality begins, the dissolving of the walls and divisions which constitute selves and individuals and the 2nd which lies at the end of this hysterical devolution, which cannot be symbolized as any representation of it presupposes an objective point from which end could be seen. Namely a point outside of this One.
As all of humanity slides downward in madness towards this new waiting collective consciousness, Shinji is on the verge of getting what he always wanted, a life without divisions, without gaps or breaks between those around him. The enormity of Rei’s rebirth and remaking of the earth, overshadows Shinji and his sole act in choosing instead of this new world, the old world. A Lacanian Act is always at a minimum suicidal, it is always a strike at oneself. Shinji’s act to not join this new consciousness, but instead return to his solitary, isolated, lonely traumatic life, a literal representation of Lacan’s Act. Shinji strikes at himself, before he becomes lost.
Authentic agency in Lacan’s theories only takes place when the agent accepts the void of the act, when he or she acts without guarantee. The symbolic network is what provides consistency to our actions and our speech. It presupposes a network of existing meaning and existing others who will not only respond, but also ensure that everything will mean something, although we may not be able to control what. The symbolic network has numerous other names, Fate, God, Karma, Listening networks. The act is always risky, always suicidal, always impossible because of the way it acts without and beyond any rational guarantee.
The agent accept the void within themselves and the void without, the fact that there is no Big Other, no ultimate guarantor of meaning, and therefore somehow requilts the social, radically changes what is thought to be possible. Making the once impossible, everyday, ordinary.
The final scene of The End of Evangelion is Shinji on a beach with Asuka, whom he both loves and hates. Before them is the pool of humanity, reduced and evolved to a single mind.
One could argue here that it is just Shinji’s act or it is Asuka’s as well, but because of this act, the Symbolic network has been remade. The impossible has taken place, but the structuring conditions of subjectivity remain. The towering visage of Rei’s face lies split, one eye still peering at Shinji and Asuka, not merely an echo of a previous symbolic order, but the gaze (Ego Ideal) through which the subject’s actions become possible. Although the world has shifted beneath his feet, Shinji is hardly a stalwart Superman, he is once again the alienation and dependent split subject of Lacan. Fundamentally alone, fundamentally in love.
During both of their terms in the madness of human instrumentality, Asuka had called Shinji pathetic, a coward and he had attacked her, almost choking her. After discovering both him and Asuka alone in this brave new world, the Lacanian mantra of love is illustrated all too well, “I love you, but there is something in you more than you, a tiny piece of the real, which is why I must mutilate you.”
Shinji attacks Asuka, his hands again around her neck and then he begins to cry. Asuka in turn, calls him disgusting.
For Lacan, there is no end to this story, it continues on dialectically, the subject absolutely able to change the Symbolic world around is, fundamentally unable to alter the forms of its own constitution. The impossible will happen, things will change, but what we can read from this ending is that the subject cannot. The radical change is always too traumatic for the subject, to close to the means of its constitution. And so while the Symbolic can be radically altered, the split in the subject will always return, along with it, this potential for greatness and its inexorable madness.