Monsters, Demons and Partial Objects


I came across this fascinating post about Japanese Yōkai (demon, or monster) and how they were depicted in the Edo period.

Of particular interest is the story of Uwan, pictured above. From the above-mentioned post:

In ancient Aomori prefecture legends, Uwan is a disembodied voice that inhabits old, abandoned temples and homes. When a person enters a haunted building, the formless spirit belts out an ear-piercing “Uwan!” (hence the name). The voice is only audible to people inside the building — those standing outside hear nothing. Uwan consists only of sound and poses no physical danger.

Ancient Japanese legends are rife with examples of formless yokai like Uwan, which consist of nothing but sound, light or other natural phenomena. In the Edo period, however, these yokai assumed physical bodies as artists incorporated them into their work.

Now, I’m interested in stories of monsters and demons anyway, but this cuts right to an important idea in Lacanian thought. In Freud as Philosopher, Boothby discusses this phenomenon in terms of the Oedipus complex and the “testing” of the integrity of the body. To quote Boothby:

Lacan recognizes the upsurge of Oedipal libido as precipitating a conflict internal to the subject itself: it challenges the structure of the imaginary ego. The Oedipus complex corresponds not only to tensions between the child and parent but also to a fundamental shift in the child’s psychical economy: the transition from a predominantly imaginary mode of functioning to a predominantly symbolic one […] [T]he Oedipal child is predisposed to phantasies of dismemberment even without the prompting of a parental threat of punishment […] Because the coherence of the infantile ego coalesced around the image of the body’s wholeness, the emergence of new drive energies quite naturally issues in a tendency toward imagining the partitioning of the body (164).

Thus the child undergoes symbolic castration, finding the lack in the self of the Real. This lack in the subjects creates a surplus in the world (objet petit a), that which cannot be assimilated into the image of wholeness within the individual, and which Zizek relates to the experience (or fantasy) of disembodied entities, most notably, a voice without source. These instances of “partial objects” are, according to Zizek, instances of drive in the world. He will say:

Drive […] involves a kind of inert satisfaction which always finds its way. Drive is non-subjectivized (“acephalic”); perhaps its paradigmatic expressions are the repulsive private rituals (sniffing one’s own sweat, sticking one’s finger into one’s nose, etc.) that bring us intense satisfaction without our being aware of it-or, insofar as we are aware of it, without our being able to do anything to prevent it.

In Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes, an impoverished young woman puts on a pair of magical shoes and almost dies when her feet won’t stop dancing. She is only saved when an executioner cuts off her feet with his axe. Her still-shod feet dance on, whereas she is given wooden feet and finds peace in religion. These shoes stand for drive at its purest: an ‘undead’ partial object that functions as a kind of impersonal willing: ‘it wants’, it persists in its repetitive movement (of dancing), it follows its path and exacts its satisfaction at any price, irrespective of the subject’s well-being. This drive is that which is ‘in the subject more than herself’: although the subject cannot ever ‘subjectivize’ it, assume it as ‘her own’ by way of saying ‘It is I who want to do this!’ it nonetheless operates in her very kernel.

This surplus is the “organ-without-body,” that which for all intents and purposes should not be, yet is, and as such appears horrific, demonic. The voice from nowhere frightens because it is impossible to correlate with our image of wholeness (perhaps this is why the demon which is defined as formless, nothing-but-voice, is painted, to make sense of it), for the same reason that vampires, zombies, and monsters of myth terrify us: they are more alive than we are.



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11 responses to “Monsters, Demons and Partial Objects

  1. How curious: last year I wrote a post about Zizek`s organs without a body where I criticized his intention of re-hegelianize /-relacanianize the deleuzian operation by cutting Guattari`s collaboration. The post is titled “El monstruo Zizek-deleuziano”, The zizek-deleuzian monster.

  2. My suspicion is that underlying the Lacano-Zizekian rejection (really a recoil) of vitalism lies the possibility of a superior vitalism, one that takes death seriously. I’m hoping to work this out soon.

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  4. Well, should be interesting, of course, but i don`t really know. So far I`ve always considered vitalism through a very flat ontology. Maybe it is the case that such rejection is like to use a bit of zizekian lacanian hegelian own poison, so to get cured of being zizekian, lacanian or hegelian. Makes sense, but I cannot tell for sure 😛

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