Even the most studiously factual account of the past survives nothing but the future it could not predict.[1] Were this survival to give the present moment more than a nod of obedient self-justification, it might risk revealing the significance of the loss that inspires every desire to remember. This loss that animates memory and history evokes not merely a by-gone yet mentally retrievable element from the depository of time. It indicates quite on the contrary a structural and therefore causal mechanism of time itself.

Neither memory nor history persists without the images wittingly or unwittingly created to distill the indeterminate vagaries of lived experience. These vagaries however fail to foist on experience a uniform indeterminacy. The image never abides the cultivated fantasy of a wild but unified chaos proudly elevated into civil order.[2] Experience registers by image what can enter and pass through the chronicle of a life, whether individual or collective, whether by reverie or documentation, but in the same stroke expels what that chronicle cannot absorb.[3]

The incoherent element in experience therefore lives not outside, naively independent of the coherent image but operates at the center of the image’s inner logic. In this sense, any image of the past, like any image as such, is already a defense against its own beyond. That is, the image defends against its very condition of possibility.


The image produced in time produces in its wake a hole in the fabric of reality commensurate with what the image seizes on to depict.[4] This hole, which irreconcilably divides the portrait and the portrayed, opens a vacuum that liberates reality from a self-identical fate and delivers lived experience to the polysemy of the interpretable. But the liberatory freedom to interpret, despite its declared independence from the tyranny of its object, submits the shyly gloating interpreter to a master of another order.

For the meaning attributed to any image derives from the retroactively specifiable array of vantage points refused by the singularity of the image. This differential system into which the interpreter projects the image provides the archive of absent alternatives on which the image comes to depend for its identity. The archive, as system, itself forms an image that gives to an interpreter the de jure guarantee of producible meaning. It licenses the interpreter with a right of inspection, a power to select and analyze, and a pleasure to undress a meaning.

This archive, whose virtual repertory forms the reputed weight of history or burden of memory – in a word, the context – organizes the production of an active meaning but does not activate the time of that meaning’s production.[5]


In other words, every image does more than obsequiously bear out the authority of the system that certifies its interpretive license.The dynamism of the image springs from the transferential field of the archive that guarantees de facto nothing but a lapse. In its irresistible failure to reclaim the living existence of the past, the image as proxy consecrates its object as absent, as missing, as lost and thereby mobilizes the desire to recover it. This desire unfurls a time punctuated by images that fail and fail again, each of which produces a hole that calls for the production of another image. The past thus lives on in perpetual and productive absentia to the precise extent that the image does not capture it. For the trace of the living persists in the lapse where the image never imagines itself. An image gained is an image lost until the impossible condition that gives birth to it rises to the surface to reveal the obstacle to which its coherence owes an indispensable debt.

Where lived experience depends on the image, if only as an extended daydream, the routine passage of time elides the gap underlying the image that propels lived experience forward. Involuntary memory, by stark contrast, abruptly reopens the elision by intervening in a quotidian moment. Whether it is felt as a joyous or disturbing repetition, the memory interrupts the present moment with the hole that supports its guiding pedestrian image.[6] The trace of a lost existence that is irretrievably withheld in and by the image comes urgently to the fore in a reverse time lapse.[7] Memory that is otherwise encountered as a willfully retrieved experience gives way to an implosion of time itself.[8] The present moment is blown open by a second image, both familiar and uninterpretable, such that the moment of memory is encountered as the hole of this other image, that is, the image as hole.

If the optogram of a dead hare requires the tender, private explanations of a docent, it is because the image is already hors champ, out-of-frame.[9] In the Renaissance triumph of perspective, all lines converge at a vanishing point. But what vanishes is not the element receding at the horizon so much as it is an eye precisely inscribed in the scene as missing. The lines meet in the depth of field but mark the point of a void on the surface in the very opposite direction. The image therefore cannot be a mental tattoo etched in the eye for the edification of the homunculus within us all.[10] The image is primarily not even mental, neither perceptual nor internal, but a projection coming back to the onlooker from the archive’s future.


The domain of the image is a transferential field that draws out time and drives the present to anticipate the future and retroactively form the past.[11] No one measures the value of the past, or the future for that matter, except from the unbudgeable position of the present. Thanks to the image, however, the present is already absent from itself.[12] In order to distinguish the present moment from its fleeting passage and bring into focus the sensuous duration of time that one enjoys and endures as lived experience, the present must be synchronized with itself.[13] The simplest act of figure drawing aligns the time of observation with the time of pictorial production. The decisive moment in photography transforms chronos (empty time) into kairos (the fulfillment of time) by synchronizing the stance of the photographer with a picture hidden within time.[14]

When one temporality is made to trace, direct, punctuate, or otherwise complement another, the synchronized ensemble generates the very intervals across which time can develop. From this synchresis, a burgeoning empathy between subject and object can emerge that, at its most vital, yields an irreducible and variable flux of becoming within a heterogeneous time.[15] When we are told it is the secret to happiness, this flow holds out the hope of a chronic pleasure that will unify, stabilize, and domesticate the vagaries, excesses, and internal short-circuits of enjoyment and fix the sensorium in the experiential moment. In psychoanalytic parlance, the name for this regulatory mechanism, or pleasure principle, that keeps one firmly rooted in the reality at hand is the phantasm or fantasy.[16]

Inside this flow, however, the distinguishable encounter with art magnifies appearance as such and therefore its distance from reality, whether that reality is virtual or actual. The work of art overlaps with the absence in the present but endeavors to stretch open that absence in time. Time-based art poses a special problem for synchronization, if the audience can’t clap along. Beyond the time architecture of cinema, one enters an open video art gallery always at the wrong moment. Imagine the transmission of an artwork from Mars to Earth and an eager docent ready on this end to interpret and send back a statement.[17] We know the dilemma whenever the skype connection breaks. But in the case of art, we are not just waiting here, nor are they, whoever sent the artwork, over there. This hypersynchronized interval is precisely the moment of art.


The first lesson we have to learn from contemporary art is that every image is already appropriated. That is, the image is intrinsically taken out of context. Neither the factual nor the semiotic can ultimately claim eminent domain to restore its inherently lost integrity. Context is nothing more than the name for the structural hole in the image, whose very emptiness contains the living substance of its beholder.

If art is to play any radical role in mobilizing “historical memory” beyond the misleading oxymoron the phrase embodies, it must depart from even the most provocative gesture of recontextualization. For the brilliant prank of détournement quickly decays into sales talk. The recontextualization it achieves produces the very récupération that the rebel pins on his enemies. The art of appropriation is best precisely where it fails to recontextualize. The past does not need to be reinterpreted. The past needs to be blown open, or revealed as already agape, in order to give the status of reality to the specific indeterminacy and multiplicity underlying the historical and experiential present. If art is capable of resynchronizing the past with itself, it must be in the name of this flow of canceled experience.

One glimpses the breaking point of the present moment not in a summary image that captures the fulfillment of a time or the triumph of a will but when the hole within the present moment suddenly overlaps with the hole in the image of the past. If the imaginative act of the artist is to galvanize the irrevocable imagination to which the image is an unceasing testament, the act must draw out a stake from the densely textured emptiness of the hole and adorn the image that it repeats and thereby inflects with the beauty of this originary feature. The viewer is thus asked to take a walk on the backside of fantasy.[18] If art is to distinguish itself from and within the image, it will do so only by allying its project with the invisible, inaudible, and inarticulate element – in short, the senselessness – that is both the root and product of the image. Art and its reception will then pursue the paradoxical imperative of an “involuntary history.”

[Peter Freund 2017]


1  The apparently incorrect verb form in this sentence should be forgiven for forming the correct conceptual nuance.

2  Constructivist and perceptualist alike share the premise of a uniform a priori indeterminacy that is, mythology notwithstanding, retroactively unified as “nature,” “noise,” “chaos,” etc. The notion of “multiplicity” in Bergson and later in Deleuze endeavors to capture this irreducible quality of an indeterminate substrate.

3  “Perhaps the special achievement of shock defense may be seen in its function of assigning to an incident a precise point in time in consciousness at the cost of the integrity of its contents. This would be a peak achievement of the intellect; it would turn the incident into a moment that has been lived (Erlebnis)” (Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”).

4  “()Hole complex attests to the confusion between solid and void. Every activity happening on the solid part increases the degree of convolution and entanglement on the holey side of the composition...” (Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials).

5  For Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. For Henri Bergson, the leftover of what memory cannot grasp is its burden.

6  The olfactory and other sensory triggers in the Proustian moment implies that the image cannot strictly be limited to the visual.

7  The past as lost object reminds us that the so-called withdrawn or withheld character of the speculative object in contemporary philosophy (OOO) appears to have no way to account for the dynamism of its beloved remainder.

8  The Proustian mémoire involontaire stresses the expansive, erotic dimension of this implosion that in traumatic memory stresses its erasive dimension.

9  A blended reference to Wilhelm Kühne, Joseph Beuys, and Rabih Mroué.

10  When ruminating on “mental imagery,” psychologists who aspire to philosophical rigor challenge the little master running the picture show inside, the humunculus. In psychoanalytic terms, this homunculus is the ego.

11  The triangulation at the heart of the Rorschach effect should not be underestimated. The subject faces the inkblot, the archive, and the solicitous prompter.

12  To grasp this absence, we need only consult the failed ambition of killing time. Such a death wish gives but vain hope to the prospect of warding off this absence. Even the so-called “couch potato,” allegedly stabilized before the television, yields a gap that inspires the consumption of another empty substance: popcorn.

13  The Bergsonian durée conflates the irreducible with the unmediated. The synthesis requires the production of an image of time that can transcend the discrete moments that make up succession. Just as the external course of serially juxtaposed pictures cannot explain the cinematic effect of a motion picture, so too the unfolding of lived experience cannot be reduced to the concatenation of discrete images that traverse time. Nonetheless the intensity of the unfolding present moment expresses the image par excellence. Translated into its spatial or extensive constituents, lived experience synthesizes the sensible image: pictures, words, sounds, smells, tastes, and so forth that become invisible, silent, proximate, vibrant and indifferent in the coalescence of the intensive present moment.

14  Further examples abound: The listener snaps her fingers to the pulse of the music, while choreography grafts movement onto the time of music. In the so-called “mirror stage” of psychoanalytic lore, the mirroring image that launches the human subject synchronizes the mimicry of the reflective doppelgänger and the ongoing drive to overcome its difference. The horological impulse is less chronometric than imagistic: In function, the clock first and foremost presents a motion picture of the diurnal passage. In prosody, rhyme and meter fold back on themselves the linear flow of words in order to synchronize language with itself.

15  Synchresis, a neologism coined by Michel Chion that merges the ideas of synthesis and synchronism, refers to the ensemble or montage effect of coupling moving image and sound. The use of the term here suggests an inclusive but broader application.

16  Fantasy presents the very condition of possibility for the factual.

17  I thank James Denison for an inspired variation of the anecdote.

18  While a distinction between psychoanalytic and artistic practice should be rigorously upheld, a distinct resonance can be found here. In describing the “traversal of fantasy” (aka “crossing of the phantasm”), which marks the end of analysis in Lacanian practice, Jacques-Alain Miller beautifully states: “...if Lacan talks about the ‘crossing of the fantasm,’ it is in order not to talk about the ‘lifting or disappearance of the fantasm.’ In the case of the fantasm, the question is rather, mostly, to see what is behind, which is difficult, because there is nothing behind. Nonetheless, this is a nothing that can take various guises, and the crossing of the fantasm amounts to taking a walk on the side of those nothings. There is nothing better, even for one’s health, than to take a walk on the side of nothing, but I should also confess that nothing forces one to do so.” (“Two Clinical Dimensions: Symptom and Fantasm” in The Symptom 11 [Spring 2011].)

. . .

[Based on talk and dialogue from the Trauma Desire Otherness symposium, Hong Kong (2012).]

As the story goes, when Nazi officers entered Pablo Picasso's Paris studio, they discovered a photograph of the painter’s 1937 anti-war masterpiece Guernica. One turned to Picasso and demanded, "You did that?!" To which the artist purportedly replied, "No, you did." The famous anecdote gives us a glimpse into the daring, cubist wit of the maestro. But it also reveals a more radical element: a break or lapse essential to the act of looking. We never see from the position of what we are looking at. We look at an image, person, or object, and the sight returns to us what we see, but with a riddling hole in it.

In the same year as Guernica, René Magritte portrayed this lapse impeccably in his Not to Be Reproduced  (1937). The well-known painting depicts the back of a male figure who is facing a mirror in which his reflection is also, strangely, turned away from the viewer. The mirror reproduces the viewer but as an image of failure, reversal and delay in the visual circuit. The non sequitur is rendered with utter clarity, as if to say that the lapse it presents is not an error in the system but rather its central mechanism. We cannot see, and so we look. In turn, we look and therefore can not see.

Psychoanalysis traces this impossibility at the heart of looking to the structure of human subjectivity. While going their separate ways, psychoanalysis and art meet at a distinct point that I wish to sketch today: Both practices foreground the lapse and void at work in the imaginary exchanges we demand. From this intersection of psychoanalysis and art, I will conclude by screening a short film of mine, Camp, with which I hope less to illustrate and seal the point at hand than to open up a space for discussing the stakes of that point.

The Desire of an Unmet Demand

“All speech is a demand.” So goes the pivotal Lacanian dictum. Jacques Lacan concerned himself in clinical practice with the singular ways in which whatever the patient says – whether by command, statement, or even question – the speech act always expresses a demand.[1] The trouble is that this demand does not simply deliver the message of what the speaker wants. In fact, it delivers the exact opposite: The demand presents the negation of the speaker’s desire. Stated unfairly but simply, what we want is that our demand not be met. This structural failure grounds every speech act in the psychoanalytic frame.

The failure, however, comes not as pure loss. It comes, paradoxically, as the very production of desire: [S=d/D].[2] Through the demand, desire is scattered across the surface of the language. Yet it appears not in the words per se, rather in the cracks and crevices of speech, where the language doesn’t hold, where it is about to fail or go off the rails, in the gaps, pauses, and incomplete threads of utterance. The demand in speech trips over an obstacle it didn’t see. The blindspot in the demand opens the speaker to the zone of desire. In a word, the Unconscious.

As we know, the place of the Unconscious is extremely important in psychoanalysis. But the unfortunate thing is that this place is not found by looking inside the patient. As Lacan notoriously said: “The Unconscious is outside.” Where? Certainly not in collective archetypes. The Unconscious is a function of the other to whom we must inevitably address our demands. That is the cost of being born into language. This other is not simply a person on the opposite end of the communicational chain. The other is a structural position within language as such. It is a structural position that, in the moment we speak, we do not see but that, in a real sense, sees us.

The basic point is perfectly illustrated by the old philosophical quandary: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer is a resounding yes. The fallen tree in the old cliché is always heard, not by us of course, but by the Other, which is (in one sense) nothing more than the question itself. We can not hear or see the tree fall, but the question – in its exact impossible stipulation – does. The Unconscious is precisely this inescapable point of address and blindspot in the language. 

As we try to communicate, our speech always implicitly addresses the language as its guarantor of meaning, as its law, the logos, in short, its master. We assume that the other of language guarantees that our demands can communicate, can be understood, can be fulfilled, if we all just follow the rules. Our urge to answer the tree-in-the-forest quandary, however, is frustrated because, as long as we are in its embrace, the language as other fails to guarantee meaning. Its rules are here unmistakably followed to the letter and yet the flawless syntax breaks down the communication; its sincere thrust appears even disingenuous; the open and inviting gesture of the question bars any answer.

Like a zen koan, the quandary forces the listener to confront his blind subjection to language. The troubling fact is that the language we obey never delivers on its promise. From the beginning, words are other than what they describe (most importantly, the speaker). That is, speech is structured by what is always still missing from it. We mean what we say, even in a lie, and what we mean opens up a blank space that calls for something missing: an explanation, an interpretation, a response. Speech is not merely incomplete as an infinitely unfolding and perfectible nexus; rather, it is intrinsically self-truncated. When all is said and done, the blank space always remains. In fact, this void is what leads us to speak in the first place. Meaning, understanding, and communication are therefore never guaranteed. They are radically contingent. That is, they depend always on the anticipatory or retroactive power of what we haven’t said yet.

This structural void, essential to the language, constitutes the space of the Unconscious. It begins to explain why, in the “talking cure” (as Freud called psychoanalysis), speech is central. It also begins to explain why the most basic psychoanalytic intervention is not to speak at all. Rather, as the place of the Unconscious is outside, the first analytic intervention is simply to put something in the empty seat of the patient’s Unconscious. That something is the person and the ear of the psychoanalyst. Structurally speaking, the role of the analyst is to do nothing more than occupy the position of the patient’s Unconscious. Easier said than done.

To this end, as the point of address for the patient, the analyst may start out by sitting in the place of language, the logos, that is, to use a Lacanian term, the Big Other. The analyst here holds the promise of the master who can provide the very thing the patient is missing: an encouraging translation, an explanation, or worse, an analysis. The problem is that the other in whose chair the analyst sits here (namely, language) has embroidered on it the name of the little master driving the patient’s demand in the first place: that is, the ego. It is the ego that pushes ahead with demand but which at the same time generates the subject’s desire in a stuck loop at the level of the Unconscious.

To put desire in play, the analyst must then shift the point of address in listening from language to the point where language goes beyond itself. The hardest thing to do is to stay there. And so the analyst, in speaking, merely doubles back the patient’s speech, asks the patient to repeat or go again, to explain, to say more, to say what comes to mind next, to free associate. Thus the process of psychoanalysis aims not to break down, pry open, or remove the demand of speech in attempting to uncover some unconscious desire it masks. No, the analytic discourse tries to mobilize demand through a productive diversion, encourage its internal detours, so as to elicit desire from its own texture. In the gap between the said and the not-yet said – whether by pause, anticipation, or falter – the Unconscious and the unique radical incompleteness of the patient’s subjectivity become activated.

So long as his demands are not met in analysis, the patient experiences a little trauma, which reflects back his own alienated core. He knows he is not what he says but won’t admit it. In other words, he knows he is nothing without what he says but won’t admit it. In short, he must cover over the constitutive void at the core of his own subjectivity. If the little trauma occurs from the perspective of language as other, with its promise of communion, then the patient will continue his line of demand, look for completion, cover over the gaps, put words in their proper place, in short, do what he can to control and correct the speech in order to protect the honor of the language: that is, to protect the little master which is the ego.

The analyst, from a different direction, hopes to open up the little trauma but from the point at which something beyond the demand emerges from it in the patient’s speech, something that animates the patient, that makes him strangely curious about the peculiarities of his own blundering babbling, that makes him create from the unique void that impels him, that makes this void a productive space, even a home, where the relentless incompleteness, unknown, and singularity of his productions inspire him.

The Image Is a Defense Against Its Own Beyond

Traditional aesthetics speaks to a fundamental demand for pleasure in human experience. Art as an object takes up the place of the other (on a wall, on the floor, on a stage, on the screen) in order to address this demand. Of course the satisfaction from aesthetic experience is quite fluid and individual. Yet within the variations of experience, the aesthetic ideal (by symmetry, balance, harmony, variation, rhythm, and so forth) nonetheless claims to deliver on the promise of pleasure. Art in this way can be anything (from paint-by-numbers to advertising to military parades) as long as it satisfies the language of aesthetics.

The question of pleasure is inextricably woven into the fabric of psychoanalytic knowledge and truth. In the clinical context, a patient rarely seeks out analysis in order to remove his symptom. More typically, the symptom has stopped working (drinking, philandering, writing), and the patient wants the analyst to put it back.[3] In this way, the symptom is a form of enjoyment that organizes the dynamic boundary between conscious and unconscious. The goal of analysis is not to remove the symptom but to help the patient reorganize his symptom so as to work more productively with it. 

Psychoanalysis teaches that pleasure always (eventually) goes beyond itself. Freud’s text Beyond the Pleasure Principle shows this reversal of fortune. One adores an exhilarating melody, so one repeats it until it goes stale; from the transcendent ecstasy of sex one somehow falls into sadness; the perfect happy end to a film leaves one feeling void and empty. While it disappoints, the very impossibility of pleasure (in a word, entropy) is also precisely what invokes it, to begin with and in the end. This twist in pleasure is what Lacan gave the name jouissance.

Art resembles the psychoanalytic symptom. In art, there is always something about the aesthetic aspect that has stopped working, or was never working in the first place. At one level, every work of art stages the impossibility of representation. Even the painting that meticulously renders a flower expresses the very absence of what it depicts. From the stick figure to the trompe l’oeil, the image breaks the visual field in reality and offers up a flimsy substitute in the form of a smudged surface. As viewers, of course we never take the fakery of the image for the thing itself and in fact enjoy the simulation untied from any object.

The crucial point here is precisely what happens in this enjoyment. As a phony, every image mirrors back to the viewer the traumatic condition that constitutes human subjectivity: the speaker is never represented by his speech but comes into being through the speech’s negation of him. From this structural split, the core of the human subject emerges as a void, a blank space and structuring absence that impels the ongoing and variable representations that attempt to bridge this constitutive gap.

Is it not this very relationship that Ai Weiwei ultimately approaches in his “Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn” (1995)? Three photographs document the artist holding, dropping, and shattering an urn from the Han Dynasty. At one level, the piece is an aesthetic gesture of wrecking tradition, a contradictory homage to the Cultural Revolution, and yet at another level it is quite literally an image of a void resulting from a radical break. What is the artist's attitude toward his gesture? The viewer's likely displeasure in the act is neither affirmed nor renounced. In each photograph, Ai Weiwei looks directly to the camera. As the portal for identification, Ai's face however gives the viewer nothing. We find in his eyes neither glee nor regret, neither anticipation nor reaction. The artist's countenance comes across as empty as the urn he drops, as if this void were itself the artistic center of the piece. (See detail in Appendix 3.) Looking at Ai's expression, one may recall the lines from "Contre-chant," the Louis Aragon poem that Lacan often cited with such fondness:

I am that wretch comparable with mirrors
That can reflect but cannot see
Like them my eye is empty and like them inhabited
By your absence which makes it blind 

The break of the urn, like the eyes of the artist, reflect back the void at the center of the spectator.

Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning” (1953) offers anotHer quintessential expression. The artist began with a mixed media drawing made and donated by famed abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. For a month, Rauschenberg proceeded with a painstaking erasure of the charcoal, oil paint, pencil and crayon elements in the original until the final, motled white surface emerged. The mistake, as Rauschenberg has insisted, is to view the “Erased De Kooning” as a simple act of protest or vandalism against the then-reigning master of the New York art scene. If not a rebellion, then what is this piece for Rauschenberg? In the artist's words: “It’s poetry.” In the exacting annulment of the object of pleasure the artist finds self-expression, as if his inspiration were the specificity of the very gap underlying the master's work. Herein lies the problem of the image.

Like the ego, the image as such is already a defense against its own beyond. The image aims to evade the little trauma it elicits. The aesthetic experience responds to the little trauma by providing the viewer (not to mention the artist) with a solution to the problem of facing the terrible truth of his split subjectivity: the aesthetic offers a disavowal, in the precise psychoanalytic sense of the term. Disavowal defends against a trauma that the subject encounters by diverting the trauma into a substitute fascination. One here need only think of the foot fetishist. (In Freud’s account, the fetishist fixates on a woman’s feet as a disavowal of his own castration anxiety.) The substitute fascination in the space of art, its fetish so to speak, is precisely the aesthetic experience. The beauty of the work seizes us such that we can deny the void in us that the work invokes.[4]

Let us make no mistake, art is fundamentally perverse. Structurally speaking, so is psychoanalysis.[5] In fact, Lacan assigned the same matheme to analysis and perversion. [a>].[6] The object little a (a), or void in the subject, takes the position of agency, while the split or division in the subject ($) takes the position of other, the point of address. In both psychoanalysis and perversion, the agent (as analyst or masochist) reduces himself to a void for the other. By following the path of perversion, the viewer and the artist can, however, find a detour around the disavowal of perversion into desire.

The alternative route opens when the subject, while preserving the perverse structure, switches up his identifications within it. The viewer allows his failed pleasure to surface, allows it to speak as a demand, allows the language as law to register its sharp disappointment. The little trauma here initiates the usual sequence: The viewer locates the split ($) in the art (complaining “It doesn’t work!”), while on the other side he identifies himself with a void (a) (declaring “It does nothing for me!”). At this precise juncture, where the aesthetic otherwise provides a disavowal, the viewer instead inverts his identifications, thereby turning the perversion against itself. The opposite sequence follows: By reducing himself to the split ($), the viewer now must note that it is he that is “not working”; in turn, by identifying the work of art with the void (a), it becomes he who “does nothing for” the art. Put succinctly, the viewer transforms the little trauma or lapse ($) that occurs in his failed pleasure into the point of address for the image as void (a).

What does this mean? It means that the specific way in which the image does not work for the subject becomes the generative focus of his experience. The viewer perversely enjoys the work of art’s failure to deliver on the aesthetic and communicational promise. But here the perverse enjoyment coincides with the opposite effect: the negation of the aesthetic fetish. In the reversed structure, the viewer instead must turn his attention to how the specificities of this failure open his own constitutive split. From the disappointed pleasure, which after all comes out of his own divided subjectivity, the viewer produces a surface, an empty simulation (S1), from whose anti-communicative surface he is moved to generate free associations.[7] The viewer thus invites the object to look back at him as the object-cause of his desire (a). Such constitutes the perverse ethics of the little trauma or lapse that is to be found in art – but only if we look – and that might just nudge us – for however long we can make it last – to face creatively the radical contingency of our experience. May then we desire that our demands not be met!

[Peter Freund 2012]



1  The following brief account is short-hand for Lacan’s discussion of need-demand-desire.

2  The formula shows S=speech, d=demand, D=desire.

3  From a discussion with analyst Marcelo Estrada, Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis, Berkeley, California (USA).

4  After visiting the Pan Tianshou exhibition (Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2012), one may speculate that the Chinese state censors of the artist's great calligraphic scrolls demonstrate this very point. With a designer's finesse, these censors placed their stamps in precise locations on the confiscated scrolls as if to protect the work’s aesthetic integrity. Is it then not true that the aesthetic is the friend of the censor?

5  The discussion hereafter makes implicit and explicit reference to Lacan’s four discourses: The discourses of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst.

6  Slavoj Zizek draws attention to the structural overlap in “Objet a in Social Links,” Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis (Duke University Press: 2006).

7  In the topology, the master signifier (S1) emerges in the product position, the position of pleasure, which is always denied access (//) to the position of truth. This means the signifier (S1) doesn’t initiate a body of knowledge or signification (S2); it doesn’t merely fail to communicate but becomes anti-communicative.

[Before the discussion, PF's film Camp is screened.]


Diego Busiol (Respondent): I think that trauma is not so much an event itself, as there is no event outside of speech. Traumatic is the event that cannot be said differently. Traumatic is what lies in the repetition, is the recollection of the event, a memory that never changes. Traumatic is an image, something fixed, static, something that does not continue. Traumatic is the scene that fixes the telling, a scene that we always have in front of our eyes. A telling can be scary but cannot really be traumatic. Trauma is when telling ends, when it is caught in a loop. A telling can continue, we can always add a word more, and this last word can give a totally different meaning to the previous ones. The meaning can be completely subverted, and this is the mechanism of jokes, for example. So, something extremely serious, grave, worrying, with just one word more can turn into something hilarious, or ridiculous. Then, trauma is not something like a natural event. In fact it is interesting that fantasy can be traumatic. Many things can have an impact on us, if we just think of them. So trauma is not an event alone, but rather the interpretation we give it. Or, traumatic is the experience of being speechless, it is when we apparently don’t have the words to name something.

Peter Freund: Yes, this contradiction is central. Trauma hinges on what is said about it and yet the traumatic experience defies what we can say. In this way trauma always refers to another, more fundamental traumatic break: namely, that our experience must be shaped by language that is never our experience. Therefore we babble on. But the talk never overcomes this basic split. And we don’t get to the other side simply by stopping our talk. We keep talking because the other side (the real) is inside the speech itself. Curiously, this is why the traumatic brings our words to a grinding halt. What persists, insists, repeats is the break in language.

You may find that my film Camp approaches this problem. The death camp and the campy aesthetic face each other in a word that arbitrarily links them. The obscenity of the link itself proposes “a little trauma” (as I called it) in the viewing experience. Each sense of “camp” is checked with an indirect cut from the other; the word refers both to what is at hand and to its inappropriate opposite.The elaborations then put the basic opposition in doubt: The memory of the death camps can be fraught with melodrama and aesthetic enjoyment. The campy performance, on the other hand, can be seen as a dead-serious ethical position. All the while, the relentless flood of elegant speech in the film threatens to make the words ring empty and hollow, spoiling our intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction. Or, the difficulty can go the other way, if the viewer takes it as an opening to discover new associations.

Diego Busiol (Respondent): Let's consider the question of what is real and what is fantastic. The difference is not between real and fantastic. Paradoxically, fantasy is an excess of the real. Fantasy is absolutely real but at the same time on the level of the imaginary. So what is interesting for us, what psychoanalysis shows, is that we should bring this traumatic scene from this imaginary level to a more pragmatic, more symbolic level. This is what psychoanalysis can say to other disciplines. This is why psychoanalysis is not very interested in the answer. We are in a world where we always want the answer; we always complain that we can’t find the answer. But finding the answer is the easiest thing. The most difficult thing is to pose good questions. It’s hard to work on the question. But only by working on the question can we shift from this level of the trauma, from the image, from something that is always the same, to placing it in a narrative. The answer is already at the imaginary level. It takes for granted the efficacy of the question. All these issues I found in your work. I’m sure you can say something more about this.

Peter Freund: The “little trauma” starts from a point where fantasy becomes traumatic, where the real surfaces from within fantasy. The problem with art is that it poses an imaginary answer to how fantasy is real. The promise of art (like psychoanalysis) is that it doesn’t much care about the answer. The fantasmatic element in pleasure is on trial every time we look at a work of art. The “little trauma” suggests a path for creating a question from exactly the point where pleasure breaks down. But as viewer I cannot insist on being the agent in this experience; I have to intervene by acting as the addressee, which means to function from the position of the Other. The reversal is crucial. The failure of art – its displeasure and incomprehensibility – can then expose a question about the very limit of my pleasure, that this limit is a form of knowledge that otherwise outlines and generates my enjoyment, and that this specific limit raises me to the level of the real. Only from here can the little trauma begin to move from the imaginary plane to something more pragmatic and symbolic.


Linda Blake: Where does this "little trauma" exist and operate – outside of ourselves, much like the unconscious in Lacan? Also, how does this opportunity for art to expose the viewer's limit go beyond the notion that art is simply "subjective"?

Peter Freund: The little trauma shows the "inside-out" character of the Unconscious. When the aesthetic element in art stops working, the coordinates of your pleasure go off kilter. But no matter how awful you think the object is, the problem still exposes to you the limit of your own pleasure. It doesn't mean you should learn to like it. On the contrary, it has nothing to do with art appreciation, just as it has nothing to do with individual taste.

The little trauma presents subjectivity at a cross-roads. It points to the fact that you as subject are already beyond yourself. You want to see the object and you want to see what pleases you. The point is you don't want to be seen by the object. The image is a defense against its own beyond. But what is at stake is this "beyond." The beyond of the Unconscious. (And this is precisely what escapes the standard notion that art is "subjective.") What does the art object see in you? How can the specificities of its failure to please you open up a gap in you that instigates a desire, a desire to go beyond yourself and the strictures of your enjoyment? So, yes, art is subjective but not because you look at it but because it looks at you.

Shirley Wong: I can only express my feelings about your film, because the combination of text, image, and sound is very complex. So I start with feeling. The mixing of shots in the video reminds me that fantasy is not neutral but brought from culture. What is colorful and beautiful stimulates something; if the images lasted longer, they could easily stimulate some familiar pleasurable feelings. Your film repeats, “I open, I close.” When you open, you receive some stimulation. When you close, or when there is a blank, the stimulation comes from inside. But the work is too short, too complex. In the end, after the seven minutes, something is generating. At this point something from the text reminds me it is not what I think or see; instead, there is a vulnerable space I don’t even know how to protect. In that space, something will come later, not now, not immediately, not by responding, maybe a long period of time from now, but something else will come.

Peter Freund: I admit that the compactness of the film, which occurs in many things I do, makes it nearly “impossible to watch.” It’s probably too much. The piece in the moment of reception almost collapses under its own weight. But I want to follow the connection you’re making. The dominant use of the medium today assumes that the time of the moving image should be met with the time of its reception. It should be like a stream of coke running across taste buds into a swallowing throat. The compressed or compact work is not a matter of torturing audiences. (At least my film is short!) But it overflows a bit, spills on the floor, maybe makes a small mess, and something is lost. The reception is necessarily incomplete. But, just as you’ve pointed out, this is precisely what opens up belated effects. Something is yet to come. In the face of the overly compact film, it’s as if the viewer were invited to move from the completeness of watching to the incomplete, fictive aspect of memory.

Years ago I watched a film made by an artist I admire, Yvonne Rainer, a dense work with an incredible opening sequence. Years later I went to watch the film again, looking forward to that great opening. But the sequence I remembered so fondly quite simply wasn’t there. I later decided to make my own film (History Lesson) based on the segment I misremembered as hers. So, a memory lapse can open another form of belatedness. Memory in a sense is always yet-to-come. In today’s discussions, the "not-yet" – the feeling that something has not yet been said, has yet to emerge – has been identified (I think correctly) with the Unconscious.

Cyril Su: I have a question. Diego is right to talk about trauma as repetition. As your film says, “I open, I close,” what comes to mind is the repetition of a trauma. It’s like when a school- girl cuts her arms with a knife or razor. She keeps cutting herself. She cuts and her wound starts bleeding, and after several days the wound heals and then she cuts again. The whole idea is to keep coming back, is about repetition, about the trauma that keeps returning. I want you to talk more about the cut. Does it feel like jouissance, or some kind of happiness? Or does it go somewhere else? Where or what is it? How do you talk about perversion as a kind of jouissance? When the girl cuts herself, is it a perverse experience of art or jouissance itself?

Peter Freund: The refrain, “I open, I close,”is like the circuit of a drive that keeps repeating. As an artist, I cannot give any expert account of cutting. But, for purposes of conversation, let me try something. The cut, as you say, opens and closes. The one who cuts herself must repeat the act. Why? The repetition is always a corrective within jouissance itself. The cut causes the pain that opens up pleasure, and the healing closes the wound that in turn reduces the pleasure. The cut must be repeated because it doesn’t exactly work. Lacan’s primal cut, the “unary trait” (S1), jump-starts the machinery of jouissance, which circulates around the drive from its own internal entropy or reduced enjoyment.

As a perversion, cutting is like an aesthetic act. It is done intimately and on the outside surface of the body, as if for the gaze and pleasure of some “other.” The perverse enjoyment comes from disavowal. The schoolgirl’s fascination with cutting may allow her to hold at bay her own division ($). That is, it may allow her to avoid hysteria (>S1). For example, the cutting may save her (as $) from her confronting the thought of her abuser (as S1). Instead, she reduces herself to a lost object or void that needs to be opened and closed by an imagined other (a>) produces the mark (S1) of enjoyment. Such an analysis would appear to be supported by Lacan's four discourses. But, right or wrong, it doesn’t yet get to the reversal I’m interested in, where one identifies with the split ($) from the position of the other.

Cyril Su: What is the experience of identifying with the split? What does it feel like? I am not an artist. I personally have difficulty facing the split.

Peter Freund: My film tries to leverage an arbitrary split in the word “camp.” The split expresses my own rather complicated deadlock between wanting to work in the political sphere and wanting to work as an artist. It became more than that, but that’s pretty much where it started. The two senses of “camp” crystallized my question in a rather stunning way for me. The result was something quite obscene, and I rejected the concept for some time. Eventually, however, I decided to go ahead with it. The project was an attempt to make something out of this nothing, out of this void that in some sense was my own void, but by starting from and focusing on the division.

Chuck Kleinhans: I was interested in the film in the way you set up certain terms in your talk. I basically agree, and they were helpful. But then the actual experience of watching the film is one in which we’re set up to try to read it in a certain way because of what you’ve just said. I’m sure you’ve shown it without that introduction . . .

Peter Freund: Yes, every other time.

Chuck Kleinhans: . . . where audiences have then attempted to make sense out of this difficult connection you make in the film. It threw me back to what Freud says in his book on jokes (Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious). There’s always the teller (in this case, the filmmaker or artist) and the listener (which I guess is us) but there’s also an implied victim in the whole thing: the butt of the joke, or the thing that can’t be said in this indirect art of the joke, which reveals something that opens up a new sense, either a trauma or an aspect of desire that we didn’t want to look at, or in some cases a triumph over the socially-impolite thing to say. In this case the fortuitous connection between the extermination camp and the playful ironic spirit of artistic camp seems so inappropriate. Have people responded by being angry because you’ve given them the space to enact this?

Peter Freund: The piece has generally been met with sympathetic responses. But at one screening, an irate audience member blurted: “How dare [I] use all that footage from the camps, of the corpses?!” Well, the footage, it’s not there! Curiously, the reaction mirrored what the film itself wants to suggest: that fantasy is at work in traumatic memory. Somehow this viewer wanted the violation. The demanding outrage, however, seemed more about the basic conceit of the piece and how it departs from standards of narrative about the Holocaust than about any choice of materials. But these things are connected; I would claim the problem of form is already a problem of content. A tense, delicate but good discussion followed.

Camp was also presented in a museum show in Bonn, Germany. I spoke with a few of the curators who took the piece. They explained there’d been considerable controversy during the jurying. Precisely because of the history, for me it was an honor that a German institution wanted the film. Reflecting on the controversy, one curator remarked that Germans today still don’t want to acknowledge that the people were “turned on by Hitler." Pasolini's Salò – one of the films cited in Camp – makes a painfully brilliant connection between fascism (the exercise of fascist power) and the contemporary injunction to enjoy (everyone’s got to have a good time). In effect, Salò asserts that any legitimate question of politics or ethics must be posed within the framework of fantasy and pleasure. I can only hope that Camp contributes something to such questions.



The Family Portrait

We first put him in the back row
only to discover he perched
there like the crowning gable
of the family edifice.

We then moved him to the left edge
and there he established himself
like the legible starting point for
reading our group's lineage.

We moved him to the far right end
where we watched him spring up
as the conclusion or culmination of
our story, the last word.

We moved him to the front
where suddenly he stood
self-righteously erect
like the leader of our humbled pack.


. . .


What I Mean to Say

If I said

that the reason
I say something
is that I say it

that the sentence I say
is what motivates me
to say it

that the intent
of my sentence
is the sentence itself

then exactly what I mean to say
is that I could not have said it.

Poetry is this failure of language.


• • •

To rescue
in the name of
rescuing their name
the context that betrays them
betrays them twice over.

• • •

The regalia of our beatific ordure
Recumbent in a brunette basin
Burgeoning forth
Such wonderful scents

O vitiate me with your splendor
The blossoms of your cheeks
Boasting your magnificent mystery
Which I will always want.

Effluvia, exude!


• • •

Until these words
might have been
I was not merely trying
to say,

Nor did they ever
demand, request, or even suggest
that you look

• • •

Take what by instinct you discount,
and perhaps even bitterly violate,
then elicit and develop
from its incomprehensible face
the missing instructions
that you have long sought
for addressing your unsolved problems.



• • •

You can't step into
the same river
even once.

Our collaborator went on a long guilt trip
and never returned.

Sullenly he walked up to the chair and asked,
'Is this an invitation to sit down?'

Their boredom is
even theirs.


• • •



Blankets, umbrellas, and bodies spread across the green lowland.
Bread, wine, and brew beneath children’s laughter in a cloudless sky.
Wit, rhyme, and review, the readers casually read, while the breeze blew gently through the pages of magazines, newspapers, books. 

Beside the picnic, the parade dragged past the scattering throng. Out of the groups gagging, one wag nagging, four hags bragging, two nags tagging, six stags shagging, another sagging, adding four foraging for more, one more but from a flea bag came. From flash to slag, thinking of Betsy, one shagging stag of a man wigwagged long up the nearby crag until his unflabbed flesh snagged on his shagged bag tagged with a filthy dag.

Flat flad, half-mast the ill-clad lad opened his blue peter and torn free ran in a jag the acorus calamus into the soil creep beyond, knowing full well that his gesturing jack could take no flak, but plug and flack, without zig or zag, through bogue with gag, through whim, sham and flimflam, through such dire quagmire. 

Holding this sweet spear he stood wet from storm of sweat, steady slightly shaking, then spoke:

Like to a vagabond one upon the stream,    
This token serveth for a two of truce    
And death's pale three is not advanced there.    
Mummers; set up the bloody four against all    
Of their white fives display'd, they bring us peace,    
Stand for your own; unwind your bloody six,    
Who, with their drowsy, slow and seven wings,    
I must show out an eight and sign of love,
A sign of dignity, a garish nine.   

Gradually the flock slowed, lagged, and finally stood looking, now neither flogging nor flailing, all done fragging and wailing, but in unison they sang “fa la la la la fa la la la la la fala fal la la la la la” up to the stag beyond the slippery crag, glad from having raised up by twine the neckbound body flagging, but regretting the setting forth of bets and conflagrations, the flaming of infamous persiflage, the spreading of contagious and flagitious, flagrant and fictitious clack of self-flagellation, counting one to nine, two to garner time, three to retreat, four to forage, five to fiddle, six to saddle, seven to meddle, eight and nine to boot. 

At once then ten soldiers shouted up: “I ran after a stone.”

Text: Peter Freund [2012]
Farsi translation: Nasser Rahmaninejad