In The Fragile Absolute, Zizek famously describes Coke— and presumably all Soda— as a solid example of the Lacanian objet petit a. He disparages Coke: “its strange taste does not seem to provide any particular satisfaction,” saying additionally that it offers us no real use-value, having neither the thirst-quenching properties of water, nor the desired effect of beer or wine. He mentions a Jacques-Alain Miller quip about the high-fructose magic of soda: “the more you drink, the more you get thirsty, the greater the need to drink more of it.” There is always that surplus-jouissance and lack of well-quenched unity, an impossibility that, like capital, he believes tends toward an hysteric. That is to say, toward Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. But, my question is: is there really a problem here? Does this not sound like an ideal desire? This wonderbeverage, this brain tonic, this brown, fizzy elixir— Soda.
Soda strikes an ideal balance between the flavorless and utilitarian uses of water— which for me is like quaffing down air or a jar of marbles— and the truly hysteric effects of beer and wine. Soda offers us a sustainable desire and happy vice, a moderate-to-lovely caffeine-high, a perfectly locomotive and unending fount of desire, and an object which sits pretty comfortably between supply and scarcity. Water is everywhere, free— barely noticed as a commodity at all— basically a step up from oxygen. Wine, on the other hand, demands an ascending spiral of connoisseurship, an hysterical chain-of-substitution that ends with thousand dollar Cabernet and weekend trips to the Mendoza Valley. Or, just as bad: with a descending spiral that dead-ends in the drooly world of alcoholism.
Lets see… Does Soda necessarily reflect its mode of production? Certainly the species thrives in its habitat. Let me praise, then, the free refill and the soda fountain. The Golden Goose. The ever-moreness that supports my chosen vice. This praiseworthy impossibility of an unwanted satiety.
Let me also praise, meanwhile, the soda can. Twelve ounces that emanate worth, value, and weight. Palettes of Dr Pepper and Pepsi that belong in well-guarded vaults. Cans that are an irreducible unit. When I come to a soda machine, and deposit fifty cents, here I stagger at the miracle of exchange. In labor hours— for a second, returning to Ricardo’s terms of value— this shiny object would take me days to form and fill. The aluminum. The sugars. The flavors. The carbonation. The life-giving caffeine.
I will now extol my to-go container, my trusted companion— and perhaps yet another symptomatic object, a sign of American dromocracy, of speed and the multi-task. Admire its spill-proof top, a marvel of design! Do I stop and sit to eat and drink? Never: I refuel in mid-air. I drink my vegetables. This is my ethic.
Here we stand— Kristie, Sienna and I— off the shores of Coney Island, famed birthplace of the Happiness Industry. Astroland is closed and yesterday’s dream rudely interrupted. We wander on to Brighton Beach, near midnight. Mexicans are speaking in Russian to one another. We’re in New York, city and state for two weeks, to escape the Philadelphian Winter. New York may be further North, but the houses are kiln-hot, and the microclimate of the city must trap some of that heat billowing out all the open windows.
Winters, especially in Philadelphia, always prompt Doubt. Why? Because they make you overexamine and thin out your desires. In summer, our ostensible object of desire comes under far less pressure: “I know: let’s walk down to South Street and get some pizza or something.” Along the way, desire becomes interworked with other objects and cathexes— we get happy substitutions, sublimations, syntheses, aggravations, triumphs— to the point that the ostensible object of desire can fade and fall away, overcome by other ends.
In winter, at least when we’re feeling lazy, this cannot happen. We have only direct and meager satisfactions. Fewer objects. Indoor objects. Warm objects. Barnes and Noble. Coffee. Soup. Shower. A welcoming doorstep in the neighborhood. Less possibilities for our objects to cathect and intermesh with, in order to become strong, healthy, well-buttressed desire-complexes. Plus, consider it negative conditioning: being outside is pretty much equivalent to being in pain.
In New York, the Fun-Pass obviates this a little. There are as many nodes in our webs-of-desires as there are stops on the subway. One week, twenty five dollars, and a smooth continuum between all points in space. The subway itself becomes a node, an object of desire. We rode the airtram over the river from the quasi-mythic Roosevelt Island, after a muddy visit to the Socrates Sculpture Park. We hid under the seats of the Six Train, past the terminus, in order to catch sight of a ghost station, closed for half a century. It turned out to be a brick arch lined with incandescent lights, but the fun was in the espionage, the histrionics, ducking in gum and shoejuice. We could stop and listen to weird, sponsored Shred-Metal-Violinists, finishing their sonatas with an airkick and applause. Desires fill the space and stuff in between.
Also, I’ve been in Philadelphia for years now. The gleam has worn from even the shiniest things. Not so much in a visible, declarative way. But in the emotive glow of things. In the scent of things… I need new aromas… The nose is the last index of the real experience, of the uncaptured. In Lacanian terms, it is a bastion of the Real, in that smells have for whatever reason escaped our symbolization. The nose has no language. Or has a brutish one. A scent floats by, and we can only describe it by identifying it with something visible and tangible, by linking it up with other senses…It can’t be described on its own terms. It only smells like strawberries. Or something burning. Smells like body odor… Scents are rarely captured, either physically or by language. They are left-out of our representations: our books, films, tales, pictures, and sounds. They remain in situ, stuck in the flux of experience or paperclipped to our long-buried memories. And it’s so much harder to lie without a language. The Nose: first to sniff out the uncanny, the unheimlich, in a new country, lover, swirl, or scenario. The first to know when the working and tangible has grown stale or rotten inside… I can wait a little longer, I suppose, for Spring to come and the Earth to burst open again… This will tide me over…
The Ostensible Object of Desire.
Strong desires find strength not for the singularity of their ostensible object, but because of the fragmentation of this object: once it has been thoroughly shattered and left as shards in the flesh of every other object, semiologically and energetically. But in the energetics of desire, as in the semiological movements of meaning, even when there is a singularity in the object of desire or in the meaningfulness of something (as in Tillich’s “symbol of ultimate concern”), it is not because of that object, but rather because of the interplay of that node— that ostensible object— with countless other nodes, objects, and forces.
The heat and substance of desire comes as much from interconnection, just as meaning and meaningfulness come from a knottiness in our webs-of-significance. Far less comes from an object’s emanations or from the vacuum-force of the privation or lack. All desires are desire-complexes: panoplies, structures, and tangles— existing in relation with all other desires and things. The accepted anatomy and cycle of desire— unity, privation, frustration, acquisition, satisfaction, unity— is a classical oversimplification that does not reflect the real and total practice of our desires. The way desires work on, in, and with us.
The purported telos of our desires— the “object”— is only an ostensible object of desire. A token, idol, lure or bait. Reified. Constructed. Waved in front of our faces. Sometimes, even, like ruby slippers, as a distraction from the real wants and workings. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves how this object is made to apparently hold up the desire-complex, like a keystone. We also have to ask ourselves why we only think of desire as a teleological lack and why we only think of the object as a discrete unity.
As I’ve remarked before, even for the two desires that most closely mimic this dynamic— food and sex— the paradigm does not really hold. We can ask ourselves what is the object of sex? It seems, on first asking, that there is some initial, whole object that emanates value… A desirable, significant Other… that lucky someone…Man or woman… But what is the value of this object and how do we go about acquiring it to fill in the hole of our privations? That is, once we have our object, what exactly do we plan on doing with it?
Kisses, caresses, coitus, conception, approval, self-perpetuation? In the mix, there are power-relations of conquest and submission, love and hate, approval and opprobium, the giving and receiving of pleasure, cramps and orgasm, wanted and unwanted offspring, trophies and anxieties, both “little deaths” and immortalities— what and where again was that discrete object? The other person does not fill in a lack, so much. You and they, combined, act as the loci of many forces.
The “acquisition” of the sexual object is not as simple as filling a person-shaped hole in your Being. Nor do we wish, fundamentally, to do so, to accomplish an end or capture a telos. Sexual desire-as-desire is not the wish to ejaculate or procreate, or to complete any end. Likewise, with eating, our food-desires do not strive merely for the elimination of a lack— we want to eat, to starve then savor, to sample and combine, to expand our desires and stomachs. Hunger and nourishment are merely the premise for our food-desires, the give-and-take that agitates our food-desires. Just as the veiling-and-unveiling dynamic might pique the libido and get us to commit countless, filthy acts that I blush to name. In the larger sense, desire does not strive for satisfaction: it moves, it agitates, it keeps lacks open, it fills them, it overfills them, it digs new ones.
Sex and food aside, what about other desires? Say that I love dancing— tapdancing. What is the desired object of tapdancing? What is the lack that outlines the shape of this object? What would count as the final and strived-for unity in the dancing-desire? It seems obvious here that dancing-desire is a positively rather negatively defined force, that spreads, perpetuates, and bleeds into other desires. Something that grows not towards any telos or completed end, but centrifugally and into new varieties, much in the manner of a Nietzschean will-to-power or Dewey’s growth-for-growth’s-sake.
This Object-fills-Lack picture of desire leaves us bewildered then when we come to understand desires in larger chunks, like the will-to-live and the lust-for-life. It compels us to ask: what is its object then? What is its end? What would eliminate this lack and give us final unity once more?
Within the Object-fills-Lack thinking, we have two answers to this. Either we become a whole object subsumed within a larger desire— a greater purpose or divine desire outside of ourselves— or we posit Death itself as a culmination of life-desire… Perfectly sensible within this thinking. If there must be an ultimate object, and any corresponding life-desire is an inversely-shaped hole yawning at the center of our Being, what else could fill and complete this lack other than this: our sacrifice, our Death, our lives and bodies filling the lack of an open grave?
I come from another school on this one. A school that does not think of our death as necessarily ours or as an attainment, a fullness, or as absolutely fundamental to life or desire. Life-drives or life-desires could just as easily yearn for an immortality, somewhat to the degree that Unamuno conceives it. He quotes Spinoza to prop up his meaning on this one. From Part III of the Ethics: “Unaquaeque res, quatenus in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur —tht is, Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being.” I borrow this again, not as a metaphysical proposition, but as a guiding image: that life-drives strive and plead for more time on the Clock. That the youthful boy of twenty (or the hyperthyroidal man of thirty), with desires full to brimming, has at his center an immortality rather than his mortality. He has more time to begin undertakings, the ones most fundamental to his self-creation. Death is an exteriority, perhaps as it is traditionally and mythically conceived. Death is, once again, a wraith and a visitor… A party-pooper. Related to life as closing-time is to a mall or supermarket.