Après-Coup in extremis: Futurism and A-Historicity in the Work of Freeman, Lacan and Woolf

One of the many achievements of Beth Freeman’s Time Binds is its persistent interrogation of how temporality produces subjectivity, as opposed to the other way around. This preoccupation which is defined by Freeman as “queer temporality” is a queer project that is attentive to “the gaps and losses that are structural and visceral” (2010, 11), to projects that “jam historical sequence,” (13) as well as the notion of a queer time that has “emerged from within, alongside, and beyond this heterosexually gendered double-time of stasis and progress, intimacy and genealogy” (23). This jibes with the psychoanalytic conception of the “time of the subject,” which is premised on a simple Freudian idea, the timelessness of the unconscious (Freud 1920, 28), which means that unconscious mental processes “are not ordered temporally, that time does not change them in any way and that the idea of time cannot be applied to them” (ibid.) The subject and the unconscious are inextricably linked but they are not the same. For Lacan, the timeless unconscious implicates the subject in so far as the speaking-subject, which alienatingly comes to be in language, is coincident with the moment of its arrival on the scene of its own utterance, that is, in the synchronic unfolding of speech (2004, 258). The unconscious is an economy within the subject that is made up of a cacophony of psychic linguistic elements and extra-linguistic bodily residues, what Freeman refers to as “the metaphoric and the corporeal” (2010, 8), that obeys at best only the simplest rules of logic; a logic sometimes without grammar. Thus the unconscious emerges only at the time of its enunciation. In this vein, Lacan writes that “when the subject appears somewhere as meaning, he is manifested elsewhere as fading, as disappearance,” (2004, 218). The subject therefore is no less and no more than an effect of language, her cause being the signifier that in a first move splits the subject and “translates a signifying synchrony into the primordial temporal pulsation that is the constitutive fading of his identification” (2006, 708). In a second move, which emerges from the signifying cut of the signifier and is installed as a metonymy, the constitution of the diachrony or “history” is inscribed in points of fading which return to points of Freudian fixity, correlative to unconscious wishes (708-709). Thus, the time of the subject is a-temporal and a-historic, and is linked to an unconscious that is not specifiable by reference to the clock but features instead in disruptive a-temporal instances of unconscious desire, such as in parapraxes and in irruptions of meaningless jouissance (enjoyment). Such a queer temporality of the subject is in keeping with Freeman’s project of de-reifying space and time and privileging queer possibilities.

Freeman links her brilliant executed commitment to a queer reading of time to Butler’s turn from a theory of performativity to the subject that turns back on itself and its pasts and “traffics in the deep time of the prior” (64). Freeman also invokes the Freudian notion of Nachträglichkeit or après-coup (after-effects), or “deferred action” (ibid.) This is a kind of synthesising of the past in the present, with the importance of after-effects being determinative rather than demonstrative. This is illustrated in Freeman’s description of the “perverse Freudian body” that “became the scene of and the catalyst for encountering and re-distributing the past” (8) and by her “antigenealogical” reading of Frankenstein as an exemplary mode of narrative event-making après-coup (97). Après-coup is the transformative effect of the signifier on current psychic elaboration that de-historicises, and it inscribes a continuous process of writing and re-writing of the past, obviating its reification as a static archive or an entombed depository of either affect or language. It is not the historical events of the past that concern, but rather the way they exist in memory and how they are reported. In this respect, Lacan writes, “the unconscious is the chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a lie: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be re-found; most often it has already been written elsewhere” (2006, 215), an aim that would no doubt resonate with Freeman’s project. It is to this blank or void that the time of the analytic session is directed, a chronologically measurable space that paradoxically does not ignore the existence or the impress of time. It is by free association that the void is introjected, which is indispensible to the analytic premise of identifying not with somebody or something by way of cure, but rather identifying with the impenetrable and unquantifiable void from which desire and enjoyment take their contours, a kind of dis-identification.

I argue that it is possible to trace such a movement of dis-identification, albeit momentarily, in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in which she satirizes objective and passionless history, “embracing,” for Freeman, who is also interested in the book’s narrative resonances, “a juicily queer mode of seeing and writing the past” (2010, 106). Orlando’s experience of history, which for Freeman is “as a set of directly corporeal and often sexual sensations” (107) is, I propose, also suggested in the distinction that Woolf draws out between the function of the signifier for the masculine and feminine Orlando. The masculine Orlando’s failure to write poetry and construct and define his life via the signifier is supplanted, qua a passage into femininity, by a regression to a mode of feminine difference that is impossible to define other than by the experiential sum of its passions and ecstasies. In contrast to the cold masculine struggle, the feminine Orlando’s jouissance of writing is described as entertaining what she terms as ‘quivering sensibility’ and “extraordinary tingling and vibration” (Woolf, 1993, 165). The feminine Orlando leaves us in little doubt of the vicissitudes of her enjoyment, exclaiming that what matters is: “something useless, sudden, violent; something that costs a life; red, blue, purple; a spirit; a splash … free from taint, dependence, solitude of humanity or care of one’s kind; something rash, ridiculous … ecstasy – it’s ecstasy that matters” (199-200). However, such a happy reveling is double-edged as it becomes excruciating in “dreams which splinter the whole and tear us asunder and wound us and split us apart in the night when we would sleep” (204).

http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Pelicula/Orlando03.jpg accessed 13 June 2014
http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Pelicula/Orlando03.jpg accessed 13 June 2014

Ultimately I argue that Orlando/Woolf’s orientation to a feminine mode of being and enjoyment, no doubt fueled, as Freeman puts it, by an ars erotica “between and across the bodies of lusting women,” (2010, 106) namely between herself and Vita Sackville-West, is subsumed by Woolf’s loyalty and commitment to the signifier, made explicit in Orlando’s encounter with the present at the conclusion of the novel in which the a-historical chaos is resolved in the generative impress of her daughter, whose birth introduces the cut that signals a now “unavoidable” death.

To return to the question of identification with the void, a mode of dis-identification, it is within a poetics of the field of love that Woolf draws out an uneasy, non-binding, inconclusive yet subtle distinction between masculine and feminine. Exclaiming “but love, – as the male novelists define it – and who, after all, speak with greater authority – has nothing whatever to do with kindness, fidelity, generosity, or poetry. Love is slipping off one’s petticoat and –” (188), Woolf continues, “love, the poet has said, is woman’s whole existence” (187). She places woman on the side of the encounter with “the progress of her own self along her own past” (124) in addition to the contingency of the encounter with love that has real effects through a direct encounter with the void, what the “–” (the single dash) at the end of Woolf’s quote above refers to. This question of void is doubled for a woman, as in Lacanian terms, being a woman is doubly sustained by love as being loved is equivalent to being what the other lacks but also inasmuch as one loves on the basis of one’s own lack and women lack the phallus. Women lack the phallus inasmuch as they are less subtended by the phantasy of “having” the object that plugs the void and they are less encompassed by a phallic identification with having or its other side, not-having. This means that the feminine subject identifies with the void and it is from the void that subjective coordinates are gained, coordinates that support the operation of love. As Lacan puts it in his eighth seminar, love “is to give what one does not have” (Transference, 18 Jan 1960, 11). In other words, to love is to place the lack of the subject on the side of the other and it is to this agalmic void in the other that love is addressed to one who paradoxically “has” what the subject does not possess. For it is only within feminine structure that the illusory quality of the masculine ‘all’ of knowledge is revealed which obsessively tries to cover over and make whole the central void of being. That is why it is a requirement for the conclusion of an analysis that the analysand, regardless of his/her sexual identification/position, assume the feminine position, a position that quite simply opens out to the void. Woolf invokes an encounter with the void in Orlando, arguably the result of her feminine erotics with the aptly named Vita. We can only surmise that her turning away from the void was later tragically re-encountered in an unsurvivable and unbarred way in the depths of the River Ouse.

To conclude, a comment on the feminine Sapphic finger, eloquently elaborated by Freeman in the third chapter of Time Binds. It refers to the passage in Orlando in which we are told that in the records of his tenure as Ambassador at Constantinople “there was a hole in the manuscript big enough to put your finger through” (Woolf, 1993, 84). Freeman reads this as “a kind of finger penetrating the holes in memory and manuscript,” being an exemplary example of “Orlando’s aesthetic of lesbian fingerplay” (Freeman, 2010, 110). For Freeman, this ‘digital technology’ (ibid.) stands as a queer counterpoint to analog/normative historicization and historical progress and “restores an eroticized materiality to the gaps and imperfect sutures between past and present” (111). Here I think we can add to this by identifying a trap – the tendency to focus on the finger and to forget the void, a retroactive phallic emphasis that separates truth from knowledge. It may be that truth (and therefore a fiction) is on the side of the phallus/finger, which is a sign, but it is only one sign and ultimately it is the void and not the finger that is determinative.

Works Cited

Freeman, E. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, London, 2010.

Freud, S. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” (1902), Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIX, Vintage, London, 2001, pp. 7-64.

Lacan, J. “Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” (1953), in Écrits, Trans. B. Fink, W.W. Norton and Co., London, 2006, pp. 197-268.

——– Book VIII: Transference, (1959-60), Private Trans. C. Gallagher.

——– “Position of the Unconscious,” (1960), in Écrits, Trans. B. Fink, W.W. Norton and Co., London, 2006, pp. 703-721.

——– The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, (1964-65), Karnac Books, London, 2004.

Woolf, V. Orlando, Penguin Books, London, 1993.

Eve Watson