Anxiety is the only affect that is beyond all doubt, it nevers deceives. This is Jacques Lacan’s elaboration on the subject in his Seminar titled “Anxiety”. In contradisticintion for example to both Freud and Heidegger, he thus complicates the distinction between Fear and Anxiety. For both, the psychoanalyst and the existential-ontological philosopher, the two are seperated by the plus and minus of the presence or absence of an object. For Lacan, anxiety “n’est pas sans objet - is not without an object. For Heidegger, on the contrary, fear is tied to ontic objects – I fear the dog barking at me or not being able to pay the rent – while anxiety opens the space to move from the ontic involvement in a fallen inauthentic life to an authentic “Entschlossenheit” – decisiveness or disclosure. Into the empty space opened up by anxiety the call of conscience, while not specifically calling to this or that, calls towards opening up for authentic comportment or action. There have been authors who, in an attempt to show the deep involvement of Heidegger’s thinking with war-mongering attitudes and nazism have linked these discussions of “Being and Time” with the image of young students in 1914, leaving behind their studies and books and families and annui to run up the hills of Ypers, singing patriotic songs while shot down by the thousands by well intrentched machine-guns. While this is a hyperbolic reading, it does open up a potential paradox in moving from fallen involvement with the ontic to authentic – well, what?…life? For a long time Freud read anxiety as an affect containing energy – sexuall libido –that had not been properly discharged, had not found it’s object. In the 1920s, however, in fact, after studying war-neurosis and discovering through them and the play of children the death-drive as the movens of repeating unpleasent situations and dreams, his theory of anxiety seemingly changed. Now it refered to the reaction to a traumatic event, an overstimulation, as it were, through an experience that could not be made sense of. Death or seperation, for example, cannot be adequatly reacted to by means of thoughts and actions and thus produce a kind of “Hilflosigkeit”, much like the helplessness of an infantile child. Nevertheless, since it is not a specific fear – like the fear a phobic has of the object he loaths – anxiety for Freud is a generalized, non-objective affect.
Why does anxiety not deceive, according to Lacan? Because it signals the presence of the Other. Not just an other like me, my sister, for example, or my neighbour, the TV-announcer or my favorite novelist, but an Other which appears in the place of that which causes me anxiety. It is not something I can name, I cannot say what it is, or, more importantly, what it wants from me. Anxiety arises, because an object is close, yet I cannot give form to it or contain it with my knowledge or my love. If for Freud anxiety was mainly a function of seperation – the seperation from the mother, from a loved one, from my special object threatened with castration – for Lacan it is precisly the opposite: Within my neighbour, my sister, the TV-announcer or my favorite novelist appears something that somehow resists my souvereign knowledge of who each of them is, what makes them who they are and what they mean to and want from me. There is an excess in them and in this excess, approaching me through their proximity, something appears, the Other, and calls on my without me being able to say what it wants. Anxiety does not decieve, because, contrary to the illusions of likenss through which I on what Lacan calls the axis of the Imaginary recognice others – my sister, my neigbour, the TV-announcer – anxiety announces something that is real. While the imaginary produces love and aggression, it does so within the scope of my comprehension or my illusion of comprehension. And while the norms and rules by which I abide in my dealings with these others seem clear and valid for all, the two together leave a rest: between my narcissitic image of myself and others and the norms and rules that regulate our world there is something else, something real. And anxiety announces its presence. This is why it neither deceives nor is without an object. Lacan chooses this formulation, in order to show that the object of anxiety never appears fully or unproplematically; it never appears openly, so that I could form a clear and distinct idea of what it is. Rather, it is clothed in the other, it hides within my sister, my neigbor and my favorite TV-announcer and novelist. Anxiety is not with an object, but it is not without it.
“The first casualty of war is truth”. This cliché derives from the Greek tragediean Aischylous, and - with its modern source - from the US Senator Hiram Johnson of California who coined it in a 1918 speech. Incidentally, he lived until 1945 and died in bed – on the 6th of August, the day the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. But I introduce this quote in oder to construct a syllogistic sophism: if anxiety does not deceive – thus opening a register of truth – and the first casulty of war is truth, does it not follow that war eliminates anxiety? And if anxiety refers to it’s object, which it is not without, what is it that is eliminted? For the later Freud the cause of anxiety is trauma. Read with Lacan, this trauma is the fact that my knowledge, my comprehension of myself and the world, together with the norms and rules I and all others like me obey do not add up to a whole, to a complete if complex social universe. Something real, that does not have a place in this universe, insists. Something foreign, experienced as something of the order of an enemy. It does not appear as such, it comes in the costume of my neibbour or even myself – the moment when I look in the mirror and something is simply unacceptable, think, for example, of the anorexic gaze – but it insists, it makes its presence felt through anxiety. For Freud and Lacan, anxiety is a signal. It is intersubjective. Something travels with anxiety along the paths of discourse, but like a submarine, never seen, but always a threat. War, emplying real submarines, by doing away with truth, eliminates this submerged threat, this uncanny pressence in our midst. Freuds term for the social significance of this fact is “Unbehagen”, dicontent. And in “Civilization and its discontents” he spelled out, how the very advancment of “culture”, of norms and regulations that force each and everyone to forgoe the realization of drives in order to invest this libidinal energy into the realization of ideal-egos – i.e. an imaginary “ersatz-satisfaction” or into the realization of ego-ideal, i.e,. a sublimated satisfaction of sexual and aggressive energies.
But this story is not so new. “Triebverzicht” – the renounciation of drives - the hallmark of culture and its activities or achievments, never succeeds completely. There is a rest, which can and will produce break-outs from the mold, from living under rules and regulations, be it in form of acting-out, violent passages to an act or neurotic symptoms. Anxiety is the signal in each and every subject of this rest not contained by the sum total of imaginary or symbollic objects but contained in them. Love – the narcissitic recognition of the other as myself and myself as the other, the sense of completeness and wholeness this recognition gives me; And knowledge – of the norms and rules by which I live, make sense of the world, my behavior and that of others, the track I follow even if I do so in the dark; love and knowledge have its limits. At this limit anxiety arises, not because there is nothing, but rather, because there is something. Something which asks, cajolous, gives orders – but none I understand, none which I can answer with a warm embrace or the proper move in the social game. At the limits of love and knowledge a place opens up which can be occupied: by the Other, this Big Other, that one, which no one knows, who is absent, or in burning bushes or in wrtten traces. Most of the time, we simply try to contain this Other in love and knowledge and bear the little disomfort of our discontent. We ignore it, for the most part. Except when we feel anxious. Of course, there is an old name for this Other. It is God. Interestingly enough, while in the aitiology of anxiety neurosis, for example, a lacanian approach would look for an overproximity of, at least until now, mostly the mother, what appears here, in the place of the Other is God. For this reason the problem of anxiety has a long history by now, one in some sense co-extensive with modernity. One of its first instantiations was the question of justification: how do I know I am justified before the Other, who I cannot know and who is hidden and only present in traces, in the word written and spoken? Historically, this was the question of the Reformation.
But, of course, once the question is asked this way, the answer is allready given. What confronts me with its enigma, its written and spoken traces, is something that returns to me. It is the discourse that produced me, the subject, in the first place. Now returning as an excess over what I can comprehend and domesticate with the love and knowledge this dicourse provides – or allows for. It returns to me – clothed in various mantles and costumes – because, to put it simply, it belongs to me. It is my truth. This is why anxiety does not deceive, for it returns my truth to me. Yet, since it is excessive and as such obscene, violent, disturbing – I always want for it to keep its clothes on, its costumes and masks. Thus the circle continues, since it cannot stop returning and I cannot stop wanting it clothed in illusions – like the people of Isreal in the desert, who wanted a golden calf and not the traumatic word of Moses. Within the simple model here projected, of course, the level will rise. Anxiety will threaten to engulf me, only to produce even stronger attempts to deny it, to include all and everything if not in my love than in my knowledge. Or ours. Within a world of rational thought and rational organization this appears possible. To make just another effort to include more into the realm of my mastery: my nutrition, the way I organize my work day, the regime of body-forming, my political judgements and affiliations, my love-live and its quarrells. In a world of good reasons there always is a way. It seems. Within it, I justify myself, I legitimate myself – by giving good reasons or by recognizing my likeness in others. Yet, anxiety does not go away and it also does not deceive. A register of truth is situated in it that is not the basis of knowledge – or love, understood in its imaginary register. Rather, it is its opposite, completely seperated from it and other to it. From its vantage point, knowledge and love appear to serve as a means to keep this annoying insistance of the register of truth at bay.
In Freuds “Zeitgemässes über Krieg und Tod (Timely Notations on War and Death)” there is a strange ambivalence in a certain respect. First he says, war brings back death to consciousness. Then he argues, war activates our narcissitic, “heroic” denial of our own mortality. As he develops the thought that the ethical ban on killing is a result of the experience of psychic ambivalence in the face of the death of loved ones: their death deeply sadenes us but at the same time the death of the “small other” – my sister, my neigbour, my favorite TV-personality or novelist - also fullfills the aggressive, destructive desires associated with him or her . As Freud writes in the same text: “Our unconscious motives brush aside on a daily, hourly basis anyone that stand in our way, that has insulted or harmed us….. Indeed, our unconsciousness kills for even the smalles infractions….as it knows of no punishment other than death no matter what the crime. For any harm done to our allmighty and grandiose Ego is nothing but a crimen laesae majestatis” – a crime against souverign power. “ (S. 351, my translation) In order to avoid the return of the feelings of guilt associated with the death of a loved one, or better, in a retroactive punsishment and ascertation that “it wasn’t me”, the ethical commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” is errected. The commandment serves to avoid the conflicts of ambivalence that produce themselves on the stage that anxiety supports. Rather than give up my imaginary identifications which support my sense of self and the inscription of this self into the symbolic world of family, work, society, I pay the price of accepting rules that regulate my sexual and aggressive drives. But with this deal I also buy into the anxiety which is thus intensified. The more complex the social sturcture built on the monopolization of violence through agencies supposedly following rational and lawfull rules, the more I will be confronted with a return of my “truth”, unsconciously, in the encounter with the Other.
Thus, it seems, a quite conservative circle is closed: rules and norms avoid the conflicts of ambivalence with which we are confronted through death, but in doing so they produce a state where anxiety rises. And then, at some point, this signal of the return of truth: anxiety, is eliminated. Through war. By giving opportunity to let the aggressive drives find their objects freely, anxiety is relieved. I can kill the other that is the bearer of something beyond him or her, that excessive thing which produces through its proximity anxiety in me thus returning my truth to me in the process. I just kill him or her. Or others standing in for the other standing in for the Other. But the circle is not quite so smoothly closed. For, as Freud points out here: The reason war can function in this way lies in the fact that people hold on to their identifications with the bearers of the flags, whatever flags in question. It is precisely to save this imaginary unity and symbolic existence ,to save love and knowledge as we know it, that we follow the flag of the nation or rise to the defence of our supposed ideals. To put it in other words: it is our desire to save the world we construct through our love and knowledge, and to save its function as a defense against our truth – against anxiety – that makes us susceptible to be led to war by those who may have other interests in the endeavor, the “rulers”, as Freud simply calls them here. To save illusions over truth is the object of war or more precisly the reason why people who have no rational interest in it can be made to follow those who think they do. Thus, in his reflections written during the last years of World War One, Freud hints at another way to close the circle – or rather, to keep it open. It is not a path to eternal piece and happiness. As in his letter to Einstein who had written to Freud asking how it might be conceivalbe to rid mankind of the scortch of war, the psychoanalyst is quite clear about the lack of hope he has of eliminating war alltogether. He even hints that, while living conditions for people remain as disperate as they were – and are – the world over, it might not even be desirable.
The little text can in fact be read as Freud’s own paradigmatic performance of a different way to approach the circle of raising anxiety and its relief - by staying close to anxiety, by staying with one’s own truth. Clearly to him, this means staying faithful to psychoanalysis and its development, in the face of opposition – not only to the new doctrine, but also to the Jewish doctor, who is looked at suspiciously, because he does not follow the path of many fellow scientists. About them he writes: “Even science has lost its disspassionate impartiality. Its deeply embittered servants seek ot find weapons in it to do their part in the fight against the enemy. The anthropologist will declare the enemy a being of lesser value or a degenerate. The psychiatrist announces a diagnosis of his mental or spiritual disorder.” (p. 324, my translation) Against this he performes in the very act of writing this article in 1917 a science that does not serve knowledge in this same way, but opens up to something real. Rather than use knowledge as a crutch for the illusions of identifications, he opens up to “disappointment” and “death”. These are the two sections of the article. “The disillusion – or disapointment – of the war” and “Our relation to death”. The war is itself the real which confronts Freud traumatically with a choice: to act out and defend his illusions or to stay close to this real, the anxiety it produces and identify with it. Still coming on the heals of a positivist and imperialist age, his shock seems to have been great: the shock of the war in the middle of Europe and the shock of “Weltbürger” und “Kulturbürger”, “die besten Köpfe” – the best intellects- engaging in it. He diagnoses the seperation of truth and knowledge, and the anxiety that arises from its seperation, as his new doctrine had done from the beginning.
This is Freuds diagnosis for the two causes of the way in which people can be drawn into war. On the one hand, the illusions of civilication we happily engage in with our imaginary identifications and symbolic ideals; and on the other the denial of our own death by happily inflicting it on others. By upholding our imaginary identifications, we uphold the heroic self-image of the Ego, its feelings of invulnarability and mastery. Thus, the two reasons come into one or rather: together they form their own alternative. Either one defends literally to the death the imaginary and symbolic products of our love and knowledge - our illusions - or one opens up to the anxiety they cover over and accepts this register of the real, of truth. This is not a pacifist strategy. “As long as the conditions of existence among peoples and their mutual repulsion is so pronounced, war will have to exist.” The alternative formed here is of a different order. Rather than being chosen to fight the wars for others, only to uphold our illusions of ourselves, of what was summed up here as our love and our knowledge, he chooses to acknowledge the dimension that returns from the real within them. The alternative is to Accept your truth: “Would it not be better to grant death its place in reality and in our thoughts, the place which is its due – and to highlight more clearly our unconscious position vis-à-vis death, which we have so successfully denied?” (354) What this means is to live with anxiety and to accept its call. This is no longer simply the “call of conscience” of Heidegger. While the heritage of the Reformation all the way to Heidegger is not foreign to this way of thinking – for both conscience, conscientia, is almost literally the space in which the truth that is attatched and yet opposed to “science” understood as unifying knowledge makes itself known – it precisly acknowleges that within anxiety something “real” returns. Thus, with this, the starting point of these notes would have to be re-considered. Rather than add a different point of view, Lacan’s insistence that “anxiety is not without its object” is in fact validated. It is the return of the truth of the subject which is present in anxiety. Thus, rather than service the illusions of the imaginary and a symbolic world which is at their service, Freud’s path leads in a different direction: accpet the “Hilflosigkeit” of anxiety as a cause for your own truth. It might not help to extinguish war; but it may help choosing which wars to fight. Those that are for the interests of others and one’s own illusions or those that come out of the register of the real, where the subject finds its truth. In this spirit, Freud closes by rewrting the famous maxim: “Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want to keep peace, prepare for war.” Into “Sie vis vitam, para mortem” If you want to bear live, accept death. (355).