Four Figures of Subtext (2017)

Note: Liminal Publications editor and cofounder Alex Fry conducted an interview about this essay, which you can listen to on the Internet Archive (2 hours).

Four Figures of Subtext

Let us start with a simple enough distinction between text and subtext. Let us consider the text to mean the explicit message of the language used. The text of our language yields an official story, even a cover story which participants of a conversation may agree upon. The subtext, then, is the communication which occurs beneath, around, in the peripheries of the text — in the phrasing, in the way things are said, in the lived duration of the experience of relating.

What pleasure there is in language! Not only the intellectual stimulation of wordplay, of double entendres, nor the erotic thrill of a sexual provocation, but even the glee of complicity itself: the complicity with the official narrative, and the complicity among those who pretend to agree to such a narrative.

Alejandro García Restrepo, The History of Pain, graphite on paper.

Consider subtext in the context of what is termed emotional cheating. Imagine a married man who befriends a single woman, and maintains, for as long as possible, the official text of the relationship, whatever that might be. Perhaps they are writing partners. Perhaps they are coworkers. The hypocrisy mounts as the subtext goes on, repressed. The whole thing becomes an erotic game, a heightening of erotic excitement through prolonged deferral of satisfaction. The man may tell his wife that any erotic undertones between him and the other woman is purely her imagination. Not only does he take pleasure in continuing the game with the other woman — psychoanalysis tells us that he takes immense pleasure, perhaps without even realizing it, in his own torturous behavior to his own wife! The pleasure is not merely in heightening the erotic enjoyment of the barred other (woman): it is first and foremost the pleasure of playing a game with his own wife’s sanity, a game which may even turn deadly, as the tragic results of so many love affairs have shown us.

We don’t get to choose what we mean. That’s an inflammatory statement.Or, at least, it is inflammatory for those not versed in psychoanalysis. What do you mean I don’t get to choose what I mean? I’m telling you — the gift I gave her did not mean anything — the expression, the way I said it, and so on… This is empty speech. Denying the subtext, pretending that language is like code where one word means one thing, where words have strict correspondences to meanings, or, in any case, that I get to truly say what I mean. I don’t. None of us do.

Psychoanalysis, too, teaches us that the speaker is ultimately powerless. It would seem that the one speaking has all the power, but we are misled if we believe such a narrative. Rather, in the last instance, the listener gets to decide what the speaker really means.

The impotence of the speaker when it comes to deciding their meaning is what is called in psychoanalysis symbolic castration. It is not merely that such a castration is symbolic, in the sense of metaphorical. It is the case that we are castrated by the symbolic order itself. The entire order of symbols, the entire discursive field of our society, our social milieu, the way language is used by other people — this is what castrates us. If I do not get to choose what I mean, it also means I don’t get to choose who I am or what I am. Such a fact is a terrible blow to the ego.

Moreover, such a truth is not limited to the field of psychoanalysis. Much of the work of so-called postmodernism has been to understand what we might call discursive signification, and how certain sanctioned groups get to decide the legitimacy of the usage of various words — you call yourself an artist, but are you really an artist? What is an artist? An artist is someone who other artists say is an artist. And what makes these other artists legitimate? The fact that other, already-legitimate artists before them sanctioned them as legitimate artists. Legitimacy is conferred.

Power, then, is an effect of discourse. And vice versa. Certain kinds of discourse, certain manners of speaking and uses of language — we might say, certain subtexts — underlie the exertion of power and signal in-group and out-group politics. This is Foucault’s thesis.

I claim here that conversation begins when we refuse to discuss what words really mean. How could we have a conversation without agreeing on the meanings of words? Shouldn’t we argue over whether a word really means this, or that? No, we shouldn’t. A bold statement, perhaps, but a necessary stance to combat the power games of signalling of all sorts: virtue signalling; in-group out-group signalling… And how can we communicate without agreeing on what words mean? In this regard I am a pragmatist. Conversation (as distinct from argument, or discussion) begins when we no longer argue over whether the word freedom really means freedom from market exploitation, as it would for a capitalist, or if it instead means freedom from exploitation, as it would for a Marxist. Instead, we must each describe, to the best of our abilities and using whatever words are at hand, what freedom means to us. And so it is with all words, to greater or lesser extents — greater, the more abstract they are. Abstractions explain nothing and must themselves be explained, as Deleuze reminds us.

Venkatesh Rao proffers the name powertalk for a certain manner of speaking that is heavily laden in subtext. Indeed, one’s proficiency in powertalk could be judged on a gradient where the more information that is successfully conveyed, the more the user of powertalk realizes that their conversation partner is also proficient in powertalk. Otherwise, the one using powertalk quickly realizes that it doesn’t work, and they have to revert to another manner of speaking, for instance, what Rao calls babytalk.

Rao uses a conversation from the US television show THE OFFICE (2005) to illustrate powertalk, reproduced here:

At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, [Wallace asks Jim,] “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?”
Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)

David Wallace laughs in return.

As Rao tells us, in his wonderful essay THE GERVAIS PRINCIPLE (2009), such a short interaction is pregnant with meaning. We can tease out all kinds of subtext here. Rao offers us a list of some of the messages delivered in this brief interaction:

Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).

Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.

Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.

Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.

Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.

Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.

Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.

Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?

Is subtext, then, all about power? No. It’s also about sex. I’m reminded of Henry Kissinger’s famous quip that everything in life is about sex except sex, which is about power. Perhaps even powertalk has a sexual undertone to it. I would go as far as to claim that all subtext is sexual in nature. What leads me to make such a claim? The simple fact that psychoanalysis teaches us, that language gives us pleasure. And language, by definition, as distinct from code, has subtext. There is no subtext to code. Animals signal each other in code, without subtext. Language, proper, is never without its subtext — I would even say that subtext is the defining characteristic of language that distinguishes it from code. Language is sublimated libido — libido which escapes as subtext.

“For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it [sublimation] means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.”
Jacques Lacan, The Deconstruction of the Drive from The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, translation by Alan Sheridan

Does language satisfy our desire, then? Sadly not. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek reminds us, language does not give us what we desire. Instead, language teaches us what and how to desire. Through our use of language we exchange desires — I can learn to desire certain things by how I observe others using language; I can pass along my acquired desires to others, who, in turn, acquire them.

“The common wisdom tells us that, according to psychoanalysis, whatever we are doing, we are secretly ‘thinking about THAT’ — sexuality is the universal hidden reference of every activity. However, the true Freudian question is: what are we thinking when we ARE ‘doing that’? It is the real sex itself which, in order to be palatable, has to be sustained by some fantasy. […]

“The ultimate properly Freudian lesson is thus that the explosion of human symbolic capacities does not merely expand the metaphoric scope of sexuality: activities that are in themselves thoroughly asexual can get ‘sexualized,’ everything can be ‘eroticized’ and start to ‘mean that’… Much more importantly, this explosion sexualizes sexuality itself: the specific quality of human sexuality has nothing to do with the immediate, rather stupid, reality of copulation, inclusive the preparatory mating rituals; it is only when animal coupling gets caught in a fantasmatic frame that we get what we call sexuality, i.e., that sexual activity itself gets sexualized.”
Slavoj Žižek, Antinomies of Pure Sexuation

It is here we find the strange fact, which psychoanalysts have known for years, that it is all too frequent the case that one may enjoy telling of a sexual act more than performing it. The spurned wife may cheat on her husband not because she wants the satisfaction of the other man, but simply to get back at him, taking immense pleasure in — perhaps not even telling him — making him wonder, making him know she has cheated but never confirming or denying it… such is the complexity of the human psyche when it comes to desire. What pleasure to be found in torturing the other in such a way! All at the level of subtext, of course. If the pleasure were to rise to the level of the official narrative, the text, it would vanish in an instant.

The original title of this essay was No Subtext: Psychoanalysis, Desire, and the Desexualization of Reality. What, then, is the desexualization of reality that the original title of this short essay refers to?

It is precisely the loss of subtext. When we lose subtext, we lose the dimension of the erotic, of pleasure, of desire — namely, of fantasy. But how is the loss of subtext possible? It is only ever possible temporarily, in any case. Are we not speaking beings, for whom subtext is irrevocably tied to our use of language? Yes, this is true. There is, however, one thing which kills the buzz, so to speak, and that is to elevate the subtext to the level of text — to make it explicit. It is when a thing is stated explicitly that it loses all potency.

There’s a great fear among those who have not yet developed a psychological perspective. That fear is that by talking about something, they will make it come true. The unpsychological viewpoint believes that by speaking of things, we give them power. This is precisely the opposite of what, in truth, occurs. Fantasy can only be sustained when unspoken. The stark light of explicit discourse leaves the implicit nowhere to hide. When we speak of things, we depotentiate them. It is perhaps for this reason that an Indian saying goes, our tongue is made of fire — it burns what it speaks — thus we should only speak of what ill we have done, never our good deeds. When we refuse to play the game of language by insisting on explicit agreement, we lose the fantasmatic dimension of language, and thus sour the pot of shared pleasures.

There is a more profound sense in which our contemporary reality is becoming ever-more-desexualized, which is to say, ever-more-perverse (because it is the perverse for whom even sex itself is desexualized) — and that is in the loss of the mythopoeic worldview. It is the mystic and the poet who carry the erotic through the ages. With insistence on the worthlessness of sexual difference, we lose, too, the mythopoeic.

“Traditional ontologies and traditional cosmologies were strongly reliant on sexual difference, taking it as their very founding, or structuring, principle. Ying-yang, water-fire, earth-sun, matter-form, active-passive — this kind of (often explicitly sexualized) opposition was used as the organizing principle of these ontologies and/or cosmologies, as well as of the sciences — astronomy, for example — based on them. And this is how Lacan could say, ‘primitive science is a sort of sexual technique.’ At some point in history, one generally associated with the Galilean revolution in science and its aftermath, both science and philosophy broke with this tradition. And if there is a simple and most general way of saying what characterizes modern science and modern philosophy, it could be phrased precisely in terms of the ‘desexualisation’ of reality, of abandoning sexual difference, in more or less explicit form, as the organizing principle of reality, providing the latter’s coherence and intelligibility.”
Alenka Zupančič, Sexual Difference and Ontology

Certainly such a loss is historically necessary insofar as we evolved out of a superstitious, magical thinking. I would never claim that we should go back in time to a pre-critical mode of thought. Rather, I proffer a third term, here, in the manner of how Jung distinguished his thought from that of Freud’s (sex) and Adler’s (power) — Jung proffered the value of the numinous (spirit). We could even add a fourth term with Hillman: eros, that feeling-toned mode of relating as distinct from its biological parallel, sex.

Subtext, then, is not just about sex and power. Subtext is also about the numinous and the erotic. With subtext and its unspoken implication, we have the problems of sexuality — harassment, confusion, frustrated desires — along with the problems of power: in-group/out-group signaling, competition, domination-submission. Yet, we find in the unspoken, too, the spiritual and the erotic dimensions of life as well.

Each of us must bear the cross of language in our own way. We all carry a tremendous burden. Language burdens us from the moment we enter into it as speaking beings. Before language, we are not that different from other animals. With language, we get interiority, culpability, guilt. Language frustrates our desires with endless deferral — we never know what something really means, because the only answer to that question could ever be more words, which themselves defer meaning. When we discover how to speak as infants, it seems as though language is the great savior from anxiety. Tragically, we are at that moment the closest we will ever get to being free from anxiety, once and for all. The moment we discover good intentions in language — how to use subtext to convey our intentions — we experience temporary relief from anxiety. We assume that by continuing to attest to the validity of our good intentions, we’ll get more relief from anxiety, but it goes in the other direction. The effect wears off. We are tricked into language with the promise that it frees us from our anxiety, when it in fact traps us in anxiety forever.

Lacan tells us that anxiety is the only emotion which doesn’t lie. We should thus be thankful for its honesty. But such gratitude is not easily found. Each of us must put up with the fact that language is equivocal, that subtext is ever-present, that the spoken is always accompanied by the unspoken — in short, that all of our attempts to raise the subtext to the text (and thus to depotentiate it) are only temporary stopgaps before we once again fall under the crashing waves of language, waves that drown us a thousand times over in the painful pleasure of jouissance. This is our lot in life. All we can do is learn to love it. And that requires a willingness to withstand the aporia of not-knowing, of never really knowing for sure if the subtext we noticed was real or not. I’m not advocating radical skepticism. It’s more the opposite — radical faith, the faith that comes with the knowledge that it is only through the uncertainty of language itself that we become truly human.


Originally published as excerpt in “Four Figures of Subtext.” Liminal. Seattle: Liminal Publications, May 2017. 8–9. Print.