Consciousness is a funny thing. Late modern and postmodern theories have attempted to establish, variously, that consciousness is an insignificant epiphenomenon of biochemical events in the nervous system, a technology of oppression and control through ideology, a grotesque product of the imaginary, a relatively self-aware if not entirely self-transparent absolute, or just the difference between what it’s like to be you versus what it’s like to be a goat.
As I start to gird the loins of my consciousness* in preparation for the Spring semester, Althusser’s theory of ideology and what I understand of Lacan’s account of the imaginary keep coming up. (In some ways, Althusser + Lacan = Baudrillard, but that’s another story.) Althusser says that ideology is how we represent to ourselves our imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence. Lacan says something that to me suggests that the imaginary is how the subject of desire is constructed, so that we are able to live despite the occasional upsurge of the real. In both cases, ordinary everyday consciousness is at closest a couple removes from the real.
This bothers a lot of students. It has bothered me, but mainly because I didn’t get it. Recently I’ve realized that any time we encounter the real, our apparatus of imaginary relations, desires and fantasies, that is, “reality” as we live it, crashes down around us. The real is unbearable.
In fact, the real is unlivable for a sane person. The real is a huge pile of shit, mouldering garbage, the doom of civilization, your own personal doom, all the lies you’ve told, everyone you’ve ignored, everyone you’ve fallen in love with, and everyone you’ve hated. And they’re all having an orgy of sex and violence.
Even that isn’t real enough to be the real, because I’ve imagined it (and I hope you have too, fair reader).
What the hell am I doing writing this? Well, it’s like this…
I write always to someone. The someone changes, depending on the time or the writing. I believe I’m at my best when I have someone I write to for a while. (And yes, it’s you. You know who you are.) So this is a secret message to that someone, while also masquerading as a public message about how I am thinking about consciousness.
Now, you don’t want to know all that, or be thinking about it when you read this, probably. I certainly don’t. When I do think about it, the imaginary relation I have to the one I write to, and to writing, and to myself, starts to come undone, and the real situation begins to appear, and it is not pretty at all.
This writing is an orgy of sex and violence. Read it again from the start if you don’t believe me.
Where was I? Ah yes, consciousness, ideology, and the imaginary.
I’ll give you another example, one that is more embarrassing to me personally, but less to you. Whenever I play the guitar, a part of my consciousness becomes a rock star. It is essential for me to have this imaginary relation to the guitar to be able to play. (And of course, I play to someone.) Ideology is the set of beliefs through which I interpret this imaginary relation: what I mean by “rock star,” and how I theorize the cultural position of “rock star.”
Without the imaginary, I’m just a doofus with imprecise and weak fingers, plunking along. That’s hardly tolerable, let alone an engaging way to spend a couple hours.
We need the real, and ultimately cannot avoid it. But we can’t bear it. Consciousness is where this gets worked out, and that’s why we’re always so goddamn tired.
* Does consciousness have loins?↩