- The Transference in Culture
James Penney belongs to the valiant band of theorists who reach out to their cultural studies colleagues to explain why certain of their cherished assumptions derived from Derrida, Foucault, Butler, and Deleuze, among others, demand interrogation and to show how psychoanalytic theory, properly understood, would benefit them. (Disclosure: one of Penney's essays was included in a volume I co-edited with Dennis Foster and Slavoj Zizek on perversion and the social relation [Duke 2003]). He successfully challenges a formidable array of contemporary prejudices that are virtual pieties in the liberal humanities, such as 'appeals to the universal are inherently unethical'; 'subjects are functions of ideological interpellation and occupy multiple subject positions'; 'the political imperative of the humanities is to analyze how the victim of a power relation is denied a voice'. By articulating his theory in accessible terms and applying it to works in philosophy, postcolonial theory, cinema, and painting, Penney makes one of the strongest cases I've seen for the significance of psychoanalysis in work that aspires to ethical and political value. Students of cultural studies, especially those interested in the political and ethical implications of their work, would be well advised to take note.
At its most fundamental, Penney's work demonstrates that (contrary to current dogma) psychoanalysis is a theory of sociality. We become subjects when we become aware that the love we demand issues from an Other who is inaccessible and unknowable. The demand for love is the same as a demand to know what I mean to the Other: in this relationship, I locate the knowledge of the truth of my essential being outside of myself. To the extent that I share certain beliefs about the way to attract the love of the Other (what makes me significant to the Other/others), I feel myself to belong to a recognizable social world, despite the fact that each lure I deploy is both a genuine effort to make the Other declare my true value and a way of avoiding the realization either that I am not worthy of love or that the Other does not exist as such. This transferential relation (transferential because the demand addressed to the Other is transferred to particular human beings who serve as stand-ins) makes me a subject, although it occasions much uneasiness and has to be managed, most notably by imagining that the Other makes a demand upon me to be a certain way in order to receive love. Crucially, it is impossible for any subject to remain a subject without submitting to the transference: the social relation, despite and because of [End Page 191] its asymmetricality, is essential to subjectivity.
Penney devotes his first chapter to edifying his readers about this relationship both in ordinary language and in more technical terminology derived through analysis of works by Freud and Lacan. He points out that
the subject issues in the transference its demand for identity, for meaning ... which the subject experiences as a demand from the Other with which it might potentially comply. Our humanity for Lacan is defined by a radical uncertainty about what society expects from us, what role it wants us to play, what identity it expects us to assume. We respond to this uncertainty with a demand for a path to follow, an ideal to uphold ... Inevitably, however, the Other has to respond with a failure/refusal... The social resists all our demands that it provide an unambiguous and just law to which our desire might unconditionally submit. We are never fully satisfied that we have succeeded in conforming to society's opaque expectations, that we have met the elusive criteria for the Other's love(pp8-9).
In fact, the subject experiences that opacity not as evidence of the Other's inherent inability to offer up the subject's meaning (for the subject is thoroughly invested in locating its own meaning in the Other) but rather as the spur to create an unconscious fantasy of how best to provoke the Other into...