by Peter Rollins
September 2, 2012
I am currently reading Slavjo Zizek’s latest book Less Than Nothing. It is a profound and systematic work (though I must warn that if you don’t have a background in continental philosophy it is difficult). Anyway, the following reflections are directly inspired by his writing on Malebranche, Occasionalism and the Big Other found there.
Descartes famously theorised that the human being was made up of two different substances: a body and spirit/soul/mind. In order to understand how these interacted he postulated the existence of what he called the Pineal Gland. This was, for Descartes, the physical location where the two substances united.
The problem however was that these two substances were so different that the idea of a gland uniting the two made no sense. It simply acted as a type of black box solution. Somehow, something happened in the gland that meant our thoughts could impact our body and visa versa.
As a result of the problems raised by the idea of the Pineal Gland the philosopher Nicolas Malebranche argued that, for the mediation to occur between mind and body, a third (true) substance was required to intervene. For him this was God. The argument was that, at every moment, God was at work ensuring that whenever we went to pick up a glass, scratch our nose or smile the intention would correspond with the act. Without God intervening at every moment in this way our intentions would be revealed as ultimately impotent. Like experiencing anastasia awareness we would find ourselves locked inside an inert body, unable to do anything at all.
This philosophical idea was called “Occasionalism” and worked with the idea that what we take as immediate (the interaction between our intentions and acts) is really mediated by God, who listens tirelessly to what we want and manipulates our body seamlessly so that it would appear the two (intention and act) are one.
Bizarre and outdated as this philosophical idea might seem it can actually help us to make sense of a very human experience. Take the example of things that we might enjoy such as travelling, fine dinning, time with friends or certain sports. The enjoyment of these things is experienced as direct. Biting into a chocolate, for instance, and experiencing the pleasure of the taste is analogous to the connection we feel between intending toward a glass of water and the act of lifting it up. They are not felt to be two separate things, they are experienced as one.
However, if we lose the people we love, we discover the truth that the relationship between the act and its meaning were really coupled via a mediator: the presence of the beloved. Without them we experience a strange uncoupling of what previously seemed whole.
This can be a deeply traumatic event because of the way that we experience our hobbies as pleasurable in an immediate way. However, after the loss of someone who bestows our life with meaning things change. We might still go to a fine restaurant and eat some delicious food like before. But now the act is devoid of the seemingly innate pleasure it once possessed.
No matter how special the food, it has now been reduced to inert matter with no function other than a basic biological one. To experience the uncoupling of our acts from the seemingly implicit meaning they have is not unlike the experience of sleep paralysis, in which a person wakes up to find that their body no longer acts in conformity to their intentionality. The psychological impact of experiencing the uncoupling of such a whole is traumatic.
Is this not what we witness in films such as Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers? Here we are presented with Don Johnston (Bill Murray) a man who undergoes this radial uncoupling in his own life after his girlfriend ends their relationship unexpectedly.
It is for this reason that many end up in psychoanalysis. Not because of some desire to change, but because the individual no longer really desires anything at all. They have entered into a surreal, Daliesque world in which things have become disconnected from themselves. It is as if we have just discovered that we inhabit a virtual reality world that, all of a sudden, is indifferent to our movements.
In Broken Flowers Johnston’s neighbour embodies the role of the analyst by helping Johnston try to find meaning once again (through the attempt to track down a son who he never knew he had).
It is in the loss of our mediators that we learn that what is worse tha[n] losing something that we desire is losing those who enabled us to desire.