Matrixial Compassions

Simone A. Medina Polo
15 min readNov 30, 2021

Screen and Artwork in Transsubjective Ethical Dynamics

Bracha L. Ettinger’s Matrix — Family Album Series n.7

“The enigmatic powers of art do not compete with that screen, but with what is beyond it.”

Bracha L. Ettinger, “The Matrixial Gaze,” 54

With the hyperconnective acceleration that is characterized by the advent of contemporary technology, psychoanalysis is confronted with a fundamental crisis of the structural fundamentals and supports of its practice such as the interweavings of desire as well as its interventions at the level of the drives. Though it has been well-noted by Jacques Lacan that “​​There can be no crisis of psychoanalysis,” Lacan elaborates that this particularly because “​​Psychoanalysis has not come close to finding its own limits, yet” (Lacan, 2014). We can nevertheless suppose that this is the case because psychoanalysis takes place in the conflicting site of sex and sexuality — in other words, that psychoanalysis takes place at a tension in the very structuring of being as such, internally split in such a way that sex is an excessive symptom of this ontological incompleteness lived out in the parallaxes of sexuated positions from whence attempts at accounting for this circumstance often devolve into missed encounters (Zupančič, 2017, 24; Zupančič, 2008, 6–11).

These missed encounters have been characteristic of how psychoanalysis contends with its practice at the levels of demand, desire, and drive as they are mobilized by this internal torsion in being — an analysand might try to place themselves as an object in relation to the Other’s demand; or perhaps they speculate over the very desire of the Other after having realized the object of demand is not as clear-cut as initially supposed; or further, that the analysand’s desire itself remains perpetually anchored around the Other’s desire, much like in neurosis where enjoyment only allows itself to enjoy as far as it does so in accordance with the book of law scrutinizing the constitutive deviancy of the drives. Lacanian psychoanalysis, for one, can proceed through these moments of alienation (from the Other’s demand), separation (from the Other’s desire), and traversing the fantasy (from the analysand’s fundamental fantasy and desire uncompromisingly handed over to the drives) in order to navigate various instances of psychosis, perversion, and neurosis (Fink, 1998, 193–195). In this sense, there is no crisis in psychoanalysis insofar as psychoanalysis’ own praxis is mobilized through crises in demand, desire, drive, enjoyment and satisfaction.

Nevertheless, the contemporary techno-economic landscape has skewed these analytic operations to some extent. In Bracha L. Ettinger’s lecture, “Digital PTSD. The Practice of Art and Its Impact on Digital Trauma,” Ettinger elaborates on her own interventions in psychoanalysis through the formulations of the matrixial borderspace as well as the contemporary crisis in psychoanalysis at stake here. It is quite significant that the lecture starts up with a discussion of narcissism prior to psychoanalysis through Carvaggio’s Narcissus as well as psychoanalytic accounts of narcissism through Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan — all of this converging in the dynamic between the screen and fantasy.

In her discussion, Ettinger elaborates that:

This internal screen of fantasy can up to a certain extent be compared to an exterior screen — to the video, to the digital screen, to the film. Right now, we are talking about the digital screens as the major phenomena taken as metaphors for the relations between passion and desire. The passionate eye and the gaze we desire to have can never meet except on a phantasmatical screen. If they meet in the Real, this will happen through a psychotic undifferentiation in the form of hallucination, symbiotic fusion, where the self disappears… In the phenomenon of digital stupor, such a fusion is offered and actualized — stupor, as a result of inundation and accumulative instant of inundation in endless plasticity. The screen gaze — that is the symbiosis already — its phantasmatic mental object is hiding inside the virtual real gaze screen and subdues us through it. So, we are subdued to the screen gaze (Ettinger, 2020, 8:57–10:58).

Let’s remind ourselves that when Lacan stresses that there cannot be a crisis of psychoanalysis, it is precisely because psychoanalysis is premised on such a crisis — unless psychoanalysis is liberalized or desexualized — and because psychoanalysis has not yet found a limit to its fuzzy dynamic field. However, the crisis in psychoanalysis itself can be compromised in such a manner that the dynamics and structures facilitate psychoanalysis collapse — by this I refer to what Ettinger refers to in the crisis of temporality. The very capacity to cultivate desire collapses in the flattening of experience to the digital screen. And this is no superficial dislocation of the coordinates of psychoanalysis, for the subject of desire is the motor for the psychoanalysis in its clinical practice and theoretical concerns:

What is at stake here is psychic and mental time… and how time enters painting. Stupor and trauma have very different relations to time. Addiction and trauma testify to different motifs for repetition: addiction implies immediate enjoyment without desire; trauma implies the possibility of desire and time for mental elaboration. The phenomenological experience of social digital media is that of accelerating addiction. The subject repeatedly and endlessly looks for the enjoyment achieved by immediate satisfaction of needs in terms of phantasmatic symbiotic fusion, leaving no timespace for desire to appear; no timespace for wandering douleur and lamenting witnessing for carrying the other / for caring for the other; no time to develop love, care, and effective responsibility; and no possible passage from elementary empathy to ethical compassion; no possibility for imagination. Subjective time — that negotiates past and future in the present, and gives depth to psychic time — collapses, engulfed by inundation and reactivity. The human subject becomes the object of the screen gaze — a fused screen gaze in symbiosis with the psychic eye and voids empty’s desire. The screen fused with the gaze becomes thus a subjectivizing agency against a screen that controls the subject who becomes its object (Ettinger, 2020, 12:20–14:36).

The digital era remains short at the immediacy of demand due to the inability to linger in the temporal mediations that cultivate the speculations of desire, since the analysand is not able to problematize the object of the Other’s demand into an enigmatic object of the Other’s desire — our contemporary technological age is able to meet the immediacy of demand with an immediacy of supply, which accelerate a state of catatonic positive feedback while cancelling out any negative, reflective feedback before it even chance to occur. Indeed, such phenomenological formulations of this crisis of temporality have come up in contemporary works of philosophy. For example, we can consider the work by Byung-Chul Han (The Scent of Time, in specific), where he formulates the notion of “dyschronicity” — a crisis time experienced as forms of acceleration, as a loss of centers of gravity for social and ethical bonds as burn-out, as well as the dissolution of any prospective future. In short, nothing lasts and contemplative lingering in philosophy offers a way of being which works against the tendencies of these contemporary forces in so far as lingering lets things take time and space, duration and vastness.

On the other end, we can contrast Han’s perspective to the speculative fictions and cybernetic philosophy of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit — in particular, the work of Nick Land — where the Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of deterritorialization is set to work towards the conceptions and actualization of inhuman futures through the notion of “hyperstition.” As opposed to the belief-dependent phenomenon of superstition, hyperstition entails an element of becoming-real through “a positive feedback circuit including culture as a component. It can be defined as the experimental (techno-)science of self-fulfilling prophecies” (Delphi Carstens, “Hyperstition”). To give a tangible example of this, the early Mark Fisher would note in a CCRU blog post that economics are an example of hyperstition insofar as they self-perpetuate their own tendency, as in the stances of virtual financial capital has further made apparent where “beliefs, fears, hopes, anticipations and potentials are immediately effective” (Mark Fisher [aka. mark k-p], “Hyperstition/Superstition”). Or as Nick Land has himself elaborated: “capitalism incarnates hyperstitional dynamics at an unprecedented and unsurpassable level of intensity, turning mundane economic ‘speculation’ into an effective world-historical force” (Delphi Carstens, “Hyperstition”).

Much like Ettinger’s description of the eye and the gaze meeting in the Real in the form of a psychotic undifferentiation, the schizogenic process of deterritorialization is the positive immanence whereby capitalist systems and processes smoothen themselves out by suppressing any negative resistance to them — in short, they become integrated into an undifferentiated body, without an differentiating organs to process and mediate any of the constant positive feedback capital stimulates. Or as Nick Land describes in his essay, “Meltdown”:

Philosophy has an affinity with despotism, due to its predilection for Platonic-fascist top-down solutions that always screw up viciously. Schizoanalysis works differently. It avoids Ideas, and sticks to diagrams: networking software for accessing bodies without organs. BWOs, machinic singularities, or tractor fields emerge through the combination of parts with (rather than into) their whole; arranging composite individuations in a virtual/ actual circuit. They are additive rather than substitutive, and immanent rather than transcendent: executed by functional complexes of currents, switches, and loops, caught in scaling reverberations, and fleeing through intercommunications, from the level of the integrated planetary system to that of atomic assemblages. Multiplicities captured by singularities interconnect as desiring-machines; dissipating entropy by dissociating flows, and recycling their machinism as self-assembling chronogenic circuitry (Land, “Meltdown”).

The main contrast to be drawn between Bracha L. Ettinger and Byung-Chul Han’s standpoint as opposed to that of the CCRU as represented by Nick Land is the difference between an inhumanized future and human futurity. As it is in no way ambiguous that Land’s capitalist acceleration understands that “Nothing human makes it out of the near-future” (Land, “Meltdown”).

Despite this immediate inclination for acceleration, Ettinger attempts to offer a mode of resistance to acceleration as well as a rehabilitation of psychoanalysis’ capacity to cultivate desire and humanize the drive beyond their inhumanistic conceptions (which are as ranging as the Lacanian notion of the inhuman drive or the Deleuzo-Guattarian-Landian notion of the desiring-machine). This is particularly achieved through her monumental notion of the matrixial borderspace and feminine sexual difference despite the Phallic Oedipal anchoring latch for Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis. As she notes in her lecture on “Digital PTSD”:

…I will talk about the feminine and maternal matrixial relations between gaze and eye, where the screen can offer the possibility of an encounter without fusion. This demands awareness to the ways that the digital gaze — which numbs us as a gaze-screen — captures our phallic narcissistic urges and lusts and uses its archaic ancient mechanism, where empathy is just reflexive, automatic, empty empathy. So, the patterns of narcissism that are behind the painting of Caravaggio are relevant to the patterns that the internet and the digital screen captures us human beings… (Ettinger, 2020, 11:11–12:04)

This highlights the crucial intertwining between Ettinger’s psychoanalytic practice as well as her artistic practice. We can breach this intertwining between psychoanalysis and art by considering the place of the object-cause of desire (objet petit a) in works of art through Jacques Lacan discussion of anamorphosis and The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan explores the notion of anamorphosis as he elaborates on the gaze, and he draws on Holbein’s painting to elucidate the notion that anamorphosis is the perceptual detour concerning corrective imagery and distortion playing on the logic of concealment and revealing as a means of trapping the object by making it cross the field of vision indirectly. Holbein’s painting is particularly famous for its visual composition where the main figures of the painting (the two men as well as their various displays of human knowledge and arts) are dislocated by the stain of the Real in the painting as figured by a skull which can only be perceived when looking at the painting from the sides.

In the anamorphic play, one can encounter a symptomatic torsion in perception, the symptom being the point of cross-section between the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real (Lacan, 1998, 71–73). Like Holbein’s skull, we can say of the object-cause of desire / objet petit a that it is marked by the symptomatic trans-structure in being “painted over each other” on the different registers. (Lacan, 1992, 139). Object a is always already part of the narcissistic structure as “I” (a), thus also tied up with the Symbolic Other (A) that enables the possibility of a phallic jouissance. Nevertheless, the Real of the object a, as das Ding, disturbs the object as the stain of the Real, when it does not perform up to speed to the imagination, produces something where nothing was expected — therefore, in the anamorphic instance of the skull in The Ambassadors, the painter draws the viewer’s eye through visual allures and situates the spectator’s gaze as coinciding with the picture’s stain of the Real as the gaze is stripped down to captivating itself as objet a insofar as something of the gaze is always contained in the picture (in fact, this is the exact point that Ettinger draws to our attention when she analyses Caravaggio’s Narcissus).

The encounter with das Ding in which something is produced where nothing was expected is also a significant aspect of yet another set of aesthetic experiences that psychoanalysis is concerned with — comedy and the Uncanny. For the sake of arriving at Ettinger’s formulation of the matrixial borderspace, I will focus on the Uncanny. In her essay “The Matrixial Gaze,” Ettinger does a reading of Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” in order to arrive at an alternative notion of object a from the side of the feminine without falling back to any referential anchoring in the Phallus for its formulation. In the encounter with the Uncanny, we are contending with the horizons and borders of experience in a strangeness which is simultaneously tied up in the familiar (the German for “Uncanny” written down as unheimlich, which was heimlich/heimisch, familiar, and where the prefix “un-’’ stands for the primal, overarching repression that inaugurates the psychoanalytic subject that contends with the Phallus). The Uncanny is met as a lack that shakes up an ambivalent anxiety in us — the crux of the matter for Ettinger rests in the ambivalence of uncanny anxiety which splits into the well-known castration complex as well as the matrixial intrauterine complex that Ettingers seeks to postulate. On the one hand, the castration anxiety around uncanny anxiety is frightening at the point of the emergence of the original experience before its repression — in this sense, castration repression brings about a double anxiety, at the origin of experience and when the traces of that originary experience are repressed (Ettinger, 2006, 47 and 63). On the other hand, the matrixial anxiety is not frightening at the point of its original experience, but becomes so upon repression — the anxiety that concerns repression at the originary experience and its leaving transsubjective borderlinks at the borders of experience as inaugurated by primordial repression (Ettinger, 2006, 47 and 63). It is crucial that Freud’s approach to the Uncanny leaves room for the notion of intrauterine womb fantasies that run parallel to the castration fantasies that are characteristic of the subjectivies anchored around the Phallus.

It is on these bases of aesthetic experiences at the threshold of experience and appearances that Ettinger reformulates the Lacanian notion of objet a to distinguish between phallic objet a and the matrixial objet a. We can consider this in light of Ettinger’s discussion digital PTSD and contending with hyperconnectivity flattening human experience to the screen, and this focus on aesthetics also highlights why the artwork is a crucial site of resistance and creation through a feminine radical difference. While the screen and fantasy reinstate the Phallic framing of appearance as such, the artwork contends with the traces of the archaic space beyond-the-phallus as the articulation of the almost-impossible encounter which characterizes the missed encounters of Phallic sexuation and sexual difference — and this encounter can only be done at the borderlines of experience and appearance, through a matrixial transsubjective borderspace that facilitates transssubjective transmissions such as relations-without-relating, distances-in-proximity, and differentiation-in-co-emergence (Ettinger, 2006, 65). As Ettinger notes, “A matrixial encounter engenders shared traces, traumas, pictograms, fantasies in several partners conjointly but differently, accompanied and partially created by diffuse matrixial affects; it engenders nonconscious readjustments of their connectivity and reattunements of transsubjectivity” (Ettinger, 2006, 65). It is in this sense that in the articulations of this almost-impossible encounters (often experienced as missed encounters), Ettinger contrasts the phallic objet a to a matrixial objet a — “via the artwork, to acquire an image for the first time, stands for a link and not for an object. Link a is a trace of borderlinking” (Ettinger, 2006, 56). Therefore, when we consider the artwork, Ettinger writes:

The painting touches us in a dimension which is beyond appearance. If beyond appearance we can conceive of traces of the archaic mental object in its alliance with unconscious desire both as phallic objet a and as a matrixial objet a, if we can describe a beyond-the-phallus objet a and, in the scopic field, a matrixial gaze, then the possibility of a non-Oedipal beyond-the-phallus matrixial sublimation arises, revealing the relevance of the process of painting in contemporary art and the necessity for its study from a ‘ladies’ side (Ettinger, 2006, 50).

When we are considering the artwork, the painter draws and directs the eyes to meet with the gaze insofar as it captivates itself in the painting — but as Ettinger would stress, “The gaze, like any objet a, may be phallic at times, and at other times matrixial” (Ettinger, 2006, 68). When the gaze is anchored in phallic terms, it orchestrates the entirety of mental space in an on/off basis: between weaning and castration; passivity and activity; absence and presence; as well as with or without an armed gaze — in this sense, the way the gaze meets with artwork as if it were still in the field of Other and still in another missed encounter. However, the matrixial borderspace offers a support for the subject in developing a matrixial link a as a transsubjective lifeline of transmissions beyond phallically inaugurated subjectivity — or as Ettinger notes in her essay “Wit(h)nessing Trauma and the Matrixial Gaze’’ that:

The phallic gaze excites us while threatening to annihilate us in its emergence on the screen, giving us the illusion that we participate in its mastery. The matrixial gaze thrills us while fragmenting, multiplying, scattering, and assembling together the fragments. It turns us into what we may call participatory witnesses to traumatic events, at the price of diffracting us. It threatens us with disintegration while linking us and allowing our participation in a drama wider than that of our individual selves (Ettinger, 2006, 154).

This is to say that in the matrixial, as opposed to the Phallic, das Ding is never completely lost, off/on, excluded, or fused for all of the different partners of the matrix who are relations-without-relating, distancing-in-proximity, and differentiating-in-co-emergence with one another — this is the crucial intervention that Bracha L. Ettinger has had in psychoanalysis, that we can articulate all of these things while giving a means by which transgenerational and transsubjective trauma can be given a support for expression, if not a Name-of-the-Father. Rather than a missed encounter, matrixial alliances occurs at the edges of experience, perception, and subjectivity as framed by the Phallus; and the artwork operates as one such matrixial borderspacing support for these weavings of compassions and wit(h)nessing bringing aesthetics, ethics, and psychoanalysis together (Ettinger, 2006, 145 and 146). In short: “The act of painting perforates a borderspace that is not conscious, but does not correspond to the structure of the unconscious, as defined by the chain of repressed signifiers” (Ettinger, 2006, 154).

To wrap up, in defining subjectivity-as-encounter, Bracha L. Ettinger bypasses the Oedipal and the Phallic in a unique fashion that is able to develop a parallel space to that which comprises individualized subjectivity as anchored in the Phallus — this is not to negate the phallic side of psychoanalysis, but instead, to flesh out the feminine side that has remained widely unaddressed or addressed only in terms that refer back to the Phallus. This development of the matrixial borderspace remains Bracha L. Ettinger’s significant contribution to psychoanalysis, ethics, and aesthetics in a way that we can envision these intersecting concerns at work in the act of painting. And in the contemporary crisis of psychoanalysis dealing with hyperconnectivity through isolated screens, Ettinger is able to remind us of the ambivalent nature of the screen through the form of artwork — that while we are able to fester oneself in the drama of our individual self through “doomscrolling” social media and the web of webs that composes the internet, the artwork can offer matrixial transgressions of those self-composed gazes lost at the screen and its accelerated integrations of drives into indifferent undifferentiation. And it is in this sense that Ettinger reflects on the importance of museums as the facilitation of an affective borderspace and the transmission between co-emerging subjects when she asks the following question in her lecture on Digital PTSD:

What is the role of a museum? It enables borderlinking and borderspacing in webs of few of severality that are affected, that is embodied being — we are embodied-being even in a world of hyperconnectivity in the web of webs (Ettinger, 2020, 27:41–28:02).

References and Citations

Carstens, Delphi. “Hyperstition.” Online:

http://xenopraxis.net/readings/carstens_hyperstition.pdf

Ettinger, Bracha L.: “Digital PTSD. The Practice of Art and Its Impact on Digital Trauma.” YouTube, 18 December 2020:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nzgimnrFhE

— — — “The Matrixial Gaze” in The Matrixial Borderspace, Ed. Brian Massumi. U.S.A: The University of Minnesota Press, 2006, Print.

Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.

Fisher, Mark [a.k.a. mark k-p]. “HYPERSTITION/ SUPERSTITION.” Online, 6 July 2004:

http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003532.html

Han, Byung-Chul. The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on The Art of Lingering. Trans. Daniel Steuer. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Dennis Porter. U.S.A.: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1992. Print.

— — — The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. U.S.A.: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1998. Print.

Lacan, Jacques and Emilio Granzotto. “‘There can be no crisis of psychoanalysis’ Jacques Lacan interviewed in 1974” Trans. David Broder. Verso, 22 July 2014:

https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1668-there-can-be-no-crisis-of-psychoanalysis-jacques-lacan-interviewed-in-1974

Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Online:

http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_melt.htm

Zupančič, Alenka. What Is Sex? Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2017. Print.

— — — Why Psychoanalysis? Three Interventions. Uppsala: NSU Press, 2008. Print.

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Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.