Monday, January 22, 2007

On the first part of Lacan’s Seminar on the Purloined Letter,

Lacan’s reconception of Edgar Allen Poe’s text around the question of repetitive automatism (simply put, the unconscious repetition of an action deemed consciously undesirable) begins with the necessary groundwork for determining Lacan’s definitional contours of the unconscious. If we take seriously Lacan’s formulation of the unconscious as the discourse of the Other, we certainly have to understand how this works even on the abstract level of Poe’s fiction. This formulation works as an intersubjective complex, which I hope to explain in this piece.

In the story, Lacan identifies three ‘glances’ that are based on the perspective of characters in the story. This is complicated by the fact that in the story itself there are also implied characters which actually are only hinted at (but must exist in order for the story to function), but are not actually represented in the story proper. So, the implied character who is described as the “personage of most exalted station” is called the Queen by Lacan, and the person whom the letter is being hidden away from is the King. The first ‘glance’ is shared by the King and the entirety of the Parisian Police i.e. they are the ones who cannot ‘see’ what is happening around them in plain sight. The second glance, that of the Minister and the Queen, are the ones that ‘see’ the apparent inability of the King and Police to see. The third glance is Dupin’s, who not only sees the King/Police’s inability to see, but also sees the Minister’s and Queen’s manipulation of the situation. This is the intersubjective complex, which in Lacan’s analysis finds its displacement onto the object of the letter.

In simple Freudian terms the anxiety that results from the letter is focused on the Queen’s tendentious position. If the letter embodies her feminine sexual knowledge (inferred from the Police commissioner’s diction of honor and shame), then the revelation of that knowledge to the King would simply be the recognition of his status as a cuckold. However, the story is brilliant, in a sense, because of Dupin’s explanation of how he was able to obtain his third perspective or ‘glance’; it was based on his analytic ability not only to read the situation, but to also read the second order characters (Queen, Minister).

In this respect, I see this as another example taking Freud to the next level, another example of which can be found in Stanley Cavell’s chapter on Freud in Cities of Words: “[Freud] likes to insist that his insights into the human mind have been anticipated by the creative writers of our civilization. His claim for himself can be said to be that he has systematized the culture’s power of insight into a new science.” (p.287) This systematization of cultural insight into a new science is where I find the intersubjective complex. It is an example of a system within the definitional pattern of Luhmannian systems theory—i.e. a system that is operative within the closed narrative of Poe, and yet functions as an example of how the unconscious is the discourse of the Other. Within the King’s unconscious is perhaps the horror of the possibility of being a cuckold, within the Minister it is the knowledge of being able to reveal that fact at the detriment of the Queen, for the Police commissioner it is the recognition of the potential volatility of the letter but not of the simple location of the letter itself, and finally for the Queen who is only effected if the physical evidence of the letter is ever shown to the King himself. Yet, what about Dupin? Is he part of the intersubjective complex? The question of both recognizing the system and of being within the system is an interesting one primarily because if this is true that actor would be in a privileged position of knowledge, and therefore of power. In effect, this person is worse than the character of the Minister (who apparently is merely pursuing personal gain) because of the fact that he is the only free agent. The Minister has no reason to hire his services (since he already has the letter), and as such can be only of use to the Queen.