Enjoyment and the Other

Years ago I opened for a blues band featuring a red-hot guitarist with a great voice and good looks. His trio was tight and powerful, he had stage presence, and the locals came out in droves every time this cat came to town. This guy had it all together! You just knew he was going to be famous and that he’d be on Austin City Limits before long. And, in fact, just days before our show I heard he signed a deal with a respectable label.

A few weeks after our show Mr. Got It All Together died of a heroin overdose in a cheap, motel room. None of this would be remarkable except for the fact that so many people I knew believed that Mr. Together had the world in the palm of his hand; that he, unlike the rest of us, was a subject of success and enjoyment beyond what normal people had access to. How many times did I hear things like “I wish I could be like that; that’s what I want to be like; why can’t I get my shit together like he has...!”?

In reality, though, Mr. Together was a junkie with a death sentence. He had nothing, was going nowhere, and his surplus of enjoyment was an illusion. On stage he probably believed and felt that he had it together – that he was, in some way, what people imagined. But that feeling was temporary and when the show was over he was undoubtedly like every other junkie: a blob of carbon being sucked down a toilet wishing that he could get his shit together.

So, what does this illustrate? That nobody really has their act together? That nobody really enjoys the way we think they do? Those questions are irrelevant for us because they are pseudo questions – they only appear to be the decisive questions worth asking. We can’t really know if somebody truthfully has their act together, or if they really enjoy or not, because the other’s enjoyment is always constructed within a field of fantasy – our own fantasies about what we want and desire. And isn’t a lot of TV programming devoted to exposing the rotten core and perdition of celebrities that, from all external indications, are living it up to the hilt?

To question the truth of the other’s enjoyment is to delude ourselves and reproduce the fantasy that drives TV ratings. What we’re really getting at here is the propensity for people to think and feel that enjoyment is elsewhere, that enjoyment is in some other object (“Man, if I just had that amp!”), that enjoyment is bound up with the life of some other(s), that they have more of it (like a monopoly of sorts), and that our claim to enjoyment lies in moving toward the other, becoming more like the other, endlessly orbiting the other as an object of desire, or, in the worst case, abandoning ourselves to participate (vicariously?) in the other’s life at the expense of our selves – literally getting sucked into the lure of the other to the point of self-obliteration. There are two (pseudo) sides to this: you might call it the positive and negative poles of the fantasy of the other’s enjoyment.

On the ‘positive’ side: you believe that some other person (your idol, hero, et al) enjoys success in a way that you don’t, that they’ve “made it” somehow and you haven’t, that you want to be like them, etc. This is the commonplace dynamic of the role model and hero worship. There’s nothing all that healthy about hero worship (really, you’re just a sycophant at that point) but there is a chance that the other’s inspirational effect drives you to bigger and better things. That’s the common place understanding anyway. The only thing this “positive” side offers is the ability to desire and to continue to desire. But it doesn’t sound all that positive to me since these kinds of fantasies range from the mild (I want to be like Mike) to the wild (I identify so strongly with Britney the Vampire Princess Warrior that I want to be cosmetically altered to appear as her clone). So, here, your fantasy of the other’s enjoyment enabled you to desire and to continue to desire and you gain enjoyment in this fantasy but at great expense to your self (and probably your money and dignity too).

On the ‘negative’ side: In your fantasy you believe that X has it all together, that X, due to extraordinary talents and fame, enjoys in a way that you don’t or can’t (they’ve got an excess of enjoyment, if only you could obtain some of it for yourself!), and, as a result, you end up wasting your energies spinning your wheels trying to get to the place that the other occupies in your fantasy life. Literally, you end up throwing part of your life away on a fantasy, on illusion. Your enjoyment constitutes a loop that ensures that you never actually attain what you’re after. And how does this preoccupation with the supposed other’s enjoyment manifest itself? What shape does this loop take? The B-rate clone, the trend follower, the fawning sycophant, the conformist, etc. But, still, you preserve the dimension of desire. Lucky you!

Escape the Loop? Are you as a person going to liberate yourself from fantasy and desire? Probably not. Without desire and fantasy you wouldn’t even be human because humanity is, at the bottom, the perverse excess of nature (nature sick unto death according to Hegel). How can you have fantasy, the precondition for desire, enjoy, and not squander your time, energy, money, and life away? There are a few ideas we can throw around:

First of all one has to embrace the apparently absurd concept that there really is no other out there – let alone an other that has seized a surplus of enjoyment that we are excluded from. I’m not saying that other people don’t exist or that there is no concrete reality or anything silly like that. And I’m certainly not saying that there aren’t people who enjoy more than their fair share at our expense; quite the contrary. But what we are saying is that there is no consistent symbolic order “out there” or “over and against us” that has self-organized the distribution of enjoyment along the lines of rational rules or that make any sense. Far from it: the other that serves as your object of devotion (the object of desire) that appears to enjoy more than you is really a symptom evoked by an inconsistent and fractured symbolic order.

I know that’s a bit vague so think about it this way: have you ever watched a famous guitar player take a solo and wonder how on earth such a klutz could have gotten famous? There’s what we mean by an inconsistent symbolic order – our common sense tells us that people are famous because they have talent. And then you see some famous dude who blows and the moment of critical epiphany should be upon you such that you come to the realization that what really transpires in the world of fame is that it is usually sheer luck and happenstance that elevates a person to their fame position and that, after the fact, (retroactively) their social status converts their playing (in)ability into “talent” – i.e., the incompetent klutz who muddles through a solo and the fan who pronounces that it is “bluesy”, “experimental”, “emotional” and what ever else – and just think about how many totally incompetent clods who have no business making music hide behind labels like “experimental” in an attempt to deflect the obvious assertion that they just plain suck and ought to go back to school.

This logic is identical to how the authority of a museum can transform a piece of junk into “great art.” Literally, the “sacralizing effect” of museums can make art out of shit – hence the often-heard utterance in museums: “well, it must be good.” In other words, it looks like shit to me but what do I know? If it weren’t good it wouldn’t be in the museum! Ah, but it was being placed in the museum or gallery that turns shit into art. Believe me, there’s plenty of shit in museums and galleries and a lot of it gets in not on the basis of its merits but because of random connections and favor trading (not excluding sexual favors).

So, shit in art museums is like Mick Mars as a famous guitar player. There’s a huge discontinuity or discrepancy between their particular talents and the amount of public recognition and wealth (enjoyment) they receive. And, just like shit in museums, Mick Mars and all the other incompetent (undeserving) musicians with fame and money serve, when you get behind things, to mark the inconsistency of the social order. But the idea of the other that enjoys and that occupies a central place in your mind as an object of desire is less “real” than it is a little blob of inconsistency that juts out of the symbolic order revealing that “we have a problem here.”

The “problem here” is the fatal lure that the other has on us: it lures us into the idiotic belief that if we follow their lead, as role models, then we can occupy a place of enjoyment as they do – i.e., be famous and rich or “successful” in some analogous way. It’s true that all famous people appear to have it all together but it is not true that they achieved their fame by having it all together. Rather, it was the inverse. It’s as if the system of fame randomly elects some entity (not human is okay too – witness cartoon characters, animals, etc.) and then provides them with the requisite image to go along with it – i.e., corporate product.

But, when you look at the situation from the perspective of the fans it appears, just the opposite, that the famous person, the other, became famous due to their preexisting talents and image, etc., (“fetishistic inversion”).

Truthfully, though, there is no other in the way that we imagine. In other words, the surplus-lack relationship between you and your object of desire/devotion is constituted by you casting off your own surplus and donating it to the other – that is, the other is really you, yourself in a transfigured and hypostatized form that comes back to haunt you -- when you gaze at your hero say "That is me."  It’s essentially no different in the economic sphere where excess work reappears as goods, services, and surplus enjoyment for the other who controls the production process. The other assumes a point of dominance because you assume a position of responsibility and subordination toward it. You have your own self to blame. When your boss drives away in his or her Mercedes say "That is me."

The world of celebrity and enjoyment is an autonomous reality that weighs upon us like the proverbial ten thousand pound shit hammer – it makes us miserable (a weird kind of enjoyment in its own right) because we believe that we didn’t “make it” because we never could “get it together.” But your misery is that emotional investment that you make toward the inconsistent symbolic order of celebrity and fame that renders it “consistent” in which the lie of “having it together” is the road to your fair share of enjoyment. Ah, what a viscous and maddening loop. It’s enough to make a person into an obsessive- compulsive.

So, again, how to enjoy outside the fantasy of the other? Or, to put it another way, how to be a person who enjoys without the intrusion of an alien will (the other)? It’s not easy I’m afraid. But, it amounts to accepting the truth that the whole social logic of success and artistic recognition is arbitrary and not predicated on the bases of talent, skill, or ability and that “making it” amounts to a kind of perverted lottery logic. Though we have to allow for the right people making it to the right place sometimes (lending the appearance of legitimacy to the whole thing). Coming to this conclusion requires a person to abandon their common sense understandings about the rewards of hard work, dedication, and meritocracy. But, it is an empirically verifiable truth that often the stupid and the mediocre rise to the top while the “genius” sinks into obscurity for one reason or another.

To will and embrace that truth is to will the abyss. And it is that abyss, the abyss of desublimation, where the subject can enjoy without being dominated by the insane logic of the supposed other’s sublime status. So, armed with all this, you can: (a) enjoy your fantasy symptom, live in the shadow of the other, and probably go nowhere except further in debt, or, (b) embrace the horror and enjoy nonsense, live for yourself, enjoy the ride (the way, the path, the means to the end) and still probably go nowhere.

Aim high, go nowhere. The first one to nowhere wins!