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Wrestling with the Angel

Wrestling with the Angel: Experiments in Symbolic Life

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    Wrestling with the Angel
    Book Description:

    Wrestling with the Angel is a meditation on contemporary political, legal, and social theory from a psychoanalytic perspective. It argues for the enabling function of formal and symbolic constraints in sustaining desire as a source of creativity, innovation, and social change.

    The book begins by calling for a richer understanding of the psychoanalytic concept of the symbolic and the resources it might offer for an examination of the social link and the political sphere. The symbolic is a crucial dimension of social coexistence but cannot be reduced to the social norms, rules, and practices with which it is so often collapsed. As a dimension of human life that is introduced by language -- and thus inescapably "other" with respect to the laws of nature -- the symbolic is an undeniable fact of human existence. Yet the same cannot be said of the forms and practices that represent and sustain it. In designating these laws, structures, and practices as "fictions," Jacques Lacan makes clear that the symbolic is a dimension of social life that has to be created and maintained and that can also be displaced, eradicated, or rendered dysfunctional. The symbolic fictions that structure and support the social tie are therefore historicizable, emerging at specific times and in particular contexts and losing their efficacy when circumstances change. They are also fragile and ephemeral, needing to be renewed and reinvented if they are not to become outmoded or ridiculous. Therefore the aim of this study is not to call for a return to traditional symbolic laws but to reflect on the relationship between the symbolic in its most elementary or structural form and the function of constraints and limits.

    McNulty analyzes examples of "experimental" (as opposed to "normative") articulations of the symbolic and their creative use of formal limits and constraints not as mere prohibitions or rules but as "enabling constraints" that favor the exercise of freedom. The first part examines practices that conceive of subjective freedom as enabled by the struggle with constraints or limits, from the transference that structures the "minimal social link" of psychoanalysis to constrained relationships between two or more people in the context of political and social movements. Examples discussed range from the spiritual practices and social legacies of Moses, Jesus, and Teresa of Avila to the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière. The second part is devoted to legal and political debates surrounding the function of the written law. It isolates the law's function as a symbolic limit or constraint as distinct from its content and representational character. The analysis draws on Mosaic law traditions, the political theology of Paul, and twentieth-century treatments of written law in the work of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Pierre Legendre, and Alain Badiou. In conclusion, the study considers the relationship between will and constraint in Kant's aesthetic philosophy and in the experimental literary works of the collective Oulipo.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53760-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Psychology, Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Enabling Constraints
    (pp. 1-48)

    Here is what concerns me: a growing sense that despite the varied and important ways in which contemporary social and political theory has attempted to understand and defend the cause of freedom, the latter is too often defined solely in negative terms, as a freedomfromlimits or constraints: oppressive norms, restrictive or prejudicial laws, the reified accretions of the status quo that make it resistant to change.

    When Georg Cantor defined mathematics as a practice of “freedom realized through constraints,”¹ he gave expression to something that is all too often overlooked today: that the pursuit of subjective freedom may...


    • 1 INVENTIONS OF THE SYMBOLIC: Lacan′s Reading of Freud
      (pp. 51-85)

      “To go through a psychoanalysis marks a passage, on the condition that my analysis of the unconscious as founding the function of the symbolic be completely admissible.”¹ With these words, Jacques Lacan sums up the two claims that this chapter will attempt to elucidate: that the analytic experience constitutes a “passage”—a transformation of the subject’s position with respect to the fantasy—only on the condition that the subject traverse the field of the symbolic, and that it is the unconscious that founds the symbolic function, and not the norms, ideals, or prohibitions that regulate social coexistence. Psychoanalysis is an...

    • 2 DEMANDING THE IMPOSSIBLE: Desire and Social Change
      (pp. 86-122)

      The traditional pessimism of psychoanalysis with respect to social change is well known. Even from its greatest innovators, we are used to a kind of jaded critique of social reform or political engagement as enthusiasm, wish fulfillment, or worse: Freud’s dismissal of Marxism as a delusional worldview,¹ or Lacan’s telling the student militants of May ’68 that “what you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master: you will get one.”² Both judgments point to the imaginary character of most social and political projects, or their tendency to aid and abet the idealization and wish-fulfillment that are the hallmarks of the...


      (pp. 125-150)

      The legal theorist Pierre Legendre has argued that the Romano-Canonical legal traditions that form the foundations of Western jurisprudence “are founded in a discourse which denies the essential quality of the relation of the body to writing.”¹ It emerges historically as a repudiation of Jewish legalism and Talmud law, where the rite of circumcision encodes the subject’s entry into law as an “allegiance to the absolute Writing,” or the “relationship between the human subject and the logical place of the Other” (110–11). In this shift, one understanding of writing is displaced by another: the material inscription of the letter,...

      (pp. 151-175)

      When we juxtapose the two polemics that in many ways bookend the long history of political theology—Paul’s polemic against the Jewish law and Carl Schmitt’s critique of constitutional liberalism—it becomes apparent that both authors challenge spatial notions of law that establish a boundary between an “inside” and an “outside” by topologizing “inside” and “outside” as continuous: through the “fulfillment of the law” in Paul, and through the strategy of sovereign exception in Schmitt. In his mission to the Gentiles, Paul argues that the covenant with the Israelites does not define the borders of the kingdom of God; the...

    • 5 THE EVENT OF THE LETTER: Two Approaches to the Law and Its Real
      (pp. 176-204)

      Alain badiou has made numerous and important contributions to the problem of the symbolic, including but not limited to the elaboration of what might be called a symbolic dimension to his theory of the event.¹ Strikingly, however, his work appears to leave no room for a symbolic understanding oflaw. Almost invariably, it is reduced to the imaginary function of representing the “situation” or “world” where the event intervenes.² Indeed, Badiou’s work might even be read as an attempt to rehabilitate the concept of the symbolic precisely by purging it of law. It tends to reinforce an understanding of the...

    • 6 THE COMMANDMENT AGAINST THE LAW: Writing and Divine Justice in Walter Benjamin′s ″Critique of Violence″ and Immanuel Kant′s Critique of Judgment
      (pp. 205-236)

      Walter benjamin′s early writings on law from the Weimar period model another, more productive way of thinking about the written law. They cast a critical eye on any account of the political sphere that upholds the unwriteability of the act as its chief virtue, or attempts to reduce the function of law to the status of a secondary representation. Benjamin, who was at once a harsh critic of the failures of parliamentary democracy, a committed proponent of revolutionary class struggle, and a grudging admirer of “the fascist public law theorist” Carl Schmitt,¹ might seem an unlikely source to appeal to...


    • 7 FREEDOM THROUGH CONSTRAINTS: On the Question of Will
      (pp. 239-266)

      In a series of recent essays on the will of the people, Peter Hallward finds that the question of will is at best disregarded by contemporary philosophy, at worst feared or rejected by it. In particular, he takes issue with a long genealogy of political philosophy that opposes the negativity of law and limits—or the finitude of lack—to a will understood as an irrational agency that must be circumscribed by laws and constitutional limits or diluted by mediating forms of representation. This is generally read by Hallward as a debasing of the subject, a suspicion concerning its political...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 267-292)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 293-300)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-304)