Pot’o’goldbollocks and social partnership

by Henry Farrell on November 23, 2010

“Tyler Cowen”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/11/second-thoughts-on-ireland.html links to my post on Ireland, which is somewhat embarrassing, as I was convinced in comments that my basic argument was wrong (short version: _always_ check taxation statistics you think you have a fair idea of before you post opinions regarding their implications). While property taxes played a crucial role in Ireland’s fiscal disaster, corporate taxes were simply not a large enough part of revenue to be worth talking about (and probably would not have been under any plausible alternative regime).

Nonetheless, I still want to make a (weaker and more indirect) argument about the relationship between Ireland’s efforts to attract inward investment (which included, but were not limited to, its taxation regime) and its current state of disaster. The short version: the desires (a) to attract inward investment, and (b) to maintain peaceful industrial relations helped reinforce an unsustainable fiscal strategy. This has implications for the left as well as for the right.

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In the course of concocting a bad argument against Peter Singer, Zizek says something … well, you tell me:

Jacques-Alain Miller, the main pupil of Jacques Lacan, once described an uncanny laboratory experiment with rats. In a labyrinthine setup, a desired object (a piece of good food or a sexual partner) is first made easily accessible to a rat; then, the setup is changed in such a way that the rat sees and thereby knows where the desired object is, but cannot gain access to it. In exchange for it, as a kind of consolation prize, a series of similar objects of inferior value is made easily accessible. How does the rat react to it? For some time, it tries to find its way to the “true” object; then, upon ascertaining that this object is definitely out of reach, the rat will renounce it and put up with some of the inferior substitute objects. In short, it will act as a “rational” subject of utilitarianism. It is only now, however, that the true experiment begins: the scientists performed a surgical operation on the rat, messing about with its brain, doing things to it with laser beams about which, as Miller put it delicately, it is better to know nothing. So what happened when the altered rat was again let loose in the labyrinth, the one in which the “true” object is inaccessible? The rat insisted; it never became fully reconciled to the loss of the “true” object and resigned itself to one of the inferior substitutes, but repeatedly returned to it, attempted to reach it. In short, the rat was in a sense humanized; it assumed the tragic “human” relationship toward the unattainable absolute object that, on account of its very inaccessibility, forever captivates our desire.

Zizek provides a footnote for the rat experiment: “See Jacques-Alain Miller, Ce quifait insigne, unpublished seminar 1984-85; lecture given 3 Dec. 1984.” Unfortunately, since it is unpublished, I cannot. It doesn’t sound impossible. But the whole ‘doing things with laser beams’ aspect is suspiciously approximate. Has any rat experimenter, to your knowledge – oh, CT commentariat – devised a method of consistently laser-inducing utopianism in rats, I suppose you might call it. Rats that just won’t settle for second best, jouissance-wise? Or is Zizek peddling some Lacanian urban myth?

The Zizek passage is from “A Plea For Leninist Intolerance” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), p. 549-50.