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Wrestling with the Angel: Experiments in Symbolic Life

Wrestling with the Angel: Experiments in Symbolic Life

by Tracy McNulty

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Wrestling with the Angel is a meditation on contemporary political, legal, and social theory from a psychoanalytic perspective. It argues for the enabling function of formal and symbolic constraints in sustaining desire as a source of creativity, innovation, and social change.

The book begins by calling for a richer understanding of the psychoanalytic concept


Wrestling with the Angel is a meditation on contemporary political, legal, and social theory from a psychoanalytic perspective. It argues for the enabling function of formal and symbolic constraints in sustaining desire as a source of creativity, innovation, and social change.

The book begins by calling for a richer understanding of the psychoanalytic concept of the symbolic and the resources it might offer for an examination of the social link and the political sphere. The symbolic is a crucial dimension of social coexistence but cannot be reduced to the social norms, rules, and practices with which it is so often collapsed. As a dimension of human life that is introduced by language—and thus inescapably “other” with respect to the laws of nature—the symbolic is an undeniable fact of human existence. Yet the same cannot be said of the forms and practices that represent and sustain it. In designating these laws, structures, and practices as “fictions,” Jacques Lacan makes clear that the symbolic is a dimension of social life that has to be created and maintained and that can also be displaced, eradicated, or rendered dysfunctional. The symbolic fictions that structure and support the social tie are therefore historicizable, emerging at specific times and in particular contexts and losing their efficacy when circumstances change. They are also fragile and ephemeral, needing to be renewed and reinvented if they are not to become outmoded or ridiculous. Therefore the aim of this study is not to call for a return to traditional symbolic laws but to reflect on the relationship between the symbolic in its most elementary or structural form and the function of constraints and limits.

McNulty analyzes examples of “experimental” (as opposed to “normative”) articulations of the symbolic and their creative use of formal limits and constraints not as mere prohibitions or rules but as “enabling constraints” that favor the exercise of freedom. The first part examines practices that conceive of subjective freedom as enabled by the struggle with constraints or limits, from the transference that structures the “minimal social link” of psychoanalysis to constrained relationships between two or more people in the context of political and social movements. Examples discussed range from the spiritual practices and social legacies of Moses, Jesus, and Teresa of Avila to the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière. The second part is devoted to legal and political debates surrounding the function of the written law. It isolates the law’s function as a symbolic limit or constraint as distinct from its content and representational character. The analysis draws on Mosaic law traditions, the political theology of Paul, and twentieth-century treatments of written law in the work of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Pierre Legendre, and Alain Badiou. In conclusion, the study considers the relationship between will and constraint in Kant’s aesthetic philosophy and in the experimental literary works of the collective Oulipo.

Editorial Reviews

Jean-Michel Rabaté
In Wrestling with the Angel, Tracy McNulty examines the political theologies of the 'exception,' ranging from Carl Schmitt to Walter Benjamin, from Alain Badiou to Giorgio Agamben. She shows how they contradict themselves if they avoid grappling with the Symbolic order. Arguing that the force of the Symbolic must be experienced concretely via positive constraints, McNulty pushes Lacanian theory to an unprecedented sophistication and highlights its relevance for ethical activism. Wrestling with the Angel is a major book that redefines the foundations of contemporary political theory.

Julia Reinhard Lupton
This provocative and original defense of law and the symbolic order in psychoanalysis is distinguished by McNulty's attention to clinical work, her supple readings of both Freudian and literary texts, and the trenchant case she makes for the ongoing relevance of psychoanalysis to the practice of human freedom, action, and creativity today. McNulty's command of the notoriously complex and difficult Lacanian corpus is matched by the fluency of her engagement with adjoining and competing discourses, including political theology; experimental poetics and aesthetics; political theory and critical legal studies; and religious studies and the legacy of Judaism. Arguing that novelty, invention, and renewal occur not despite but because of processes of symbolization, Wrestling with the Angel recalls us to our limits to remind us of our capacities.

Jonathan Strauss
In Wrestling with the Angel, McNulty shows how the traditional reduction of Lacan's symbolic register to the Oedipus complex falsifies the complexity and disturbing incompleteness inherent to this crucial aspect of his theory. Her insight opens the way for a fundamental reassessment and reunderstanding of Lacan's work, and is, by itself, worth the price of admission. But she goes much farther, tracing out the implications of her rereading on a series of social thinkers, notably the influential conservative German political theorist Carl Schmitt, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the French Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou. With the exception of Carl Schmitt, these analyses revolve around two principal collections of seminal legal texts: the Hebrew Decalogue and Saint Paul's discussions of the "new law" of Christianity. Essentially, she argues that in each case an imaginary version of the law is juxtaposed to a more complex and "liberatory" symbolic version of it. Rich, densely thought, and provocative, this book will reorient studies on Lacan and will excercise an enduring influence on how his writings are used in other fields and disciplines.

As a reading of the French psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan, the book makes an invaluable contribution to the rich discussion of the symbolic register and its relation to the real.

Adrian Johnston
A stellar piece of scholarship whose timely intervention into controversies at the very heart of today's theoretical humanities undoubtedly will draw the admiring attention of large audiences in multiple fields.

Elizabeth Weed
A very exciting book, stunningly intelligent and beautifully written. It makes strong, original interventions in a number of current debates and engages with theoretical arguments in a way that is always rigorous and wonderfully lucid and accessible.

Product Details

Columbia University Press
Publication date:
Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Tracy McNulty is professor of French and comparative literature at Cornell University and the author of The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity.

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