The Obvious: Three Reminiscences

Angelo Restivo


At seventeen, impossibly smart and naive, I enrolled in the College of the University of Chicago, intending to study higher mathematics. I don’t know how things stand now, but at the time, the mathematics department at Chicago was world-renowned. I. N. Herstein taught the first-year honors sequence in algebra, and his book—the title of which, if memory serves me, was simply Algebra—was breathtaking in its crystalline elegance and precision. While other algebra books muddied things up by making you wallow through pages of real-world applications of the theorems—(the real world always muddies things up, doesn’t it?)—Herstein’s book magisterially took you through the theorems of groups, rings, fields, and vector spaces without a bit of fat, each theorem implacably building upon the previous one.

Among the math majors, there was an affectation that came up time and again when presenting proofs to one another: the use of the phrase, “intuitively obvious.” Usually the phrase would appear in the middle of a proof, as a way to get you from point a to point b without having to reinvent the wheel. Some bolder folks, though, might use it to make a splashy beginning to a proof—“Now: it is intuitively obvious that . . .” —or might save it for a dramatic, penultimate moment—“And since it is intuitively obvious that . . .,” and then sail to the QED. The intuitively obvious was akin to Descartes’ cogito: some bedrock that appeared—obvious, tautological—to magically save you from your fall into the abyss. But of course, everyone was intelligent enough to make certain that they said the words with the appropriate smarmy irony, as we were forced to acknowledge, however briefly, the ultimate groundlessness of Reason.

Things got more complicated in the second year: suddenly we were confronted with mathematical statements which were supposed to be “intuitively obvious,” but for which no one had ever succeeded in finding a proof. We were given a midterm—one short, unproven statement about infinite-dimensional Banach spaces (I have no idea what those are anymore)—“just for fun, to see how far you’ll get,” the professor said with a little too much relish. I did nothing else for a week but work on the problem. I turned in two pages of meandering equations, none of them seeming to lead anywhere. I got the exam back with a “B” marked in red at the end. It was not at all obvious to me what I had done, or why it deserved a “B” rather than an “F.” Shortly after that, I abandoned mathematics.


You enter psychoanalysis and, soon enough, nothing is obvious anymore. Of course your symptom is an impenetrable mystery to you: it’s what drove you to analysis in the first place, and you still want to get rid of it even as you discover that it’s only a metaphor pointing somewhere else, that it’s holding your psychic life together, that you “enjoy” it. But nothing, really, is obvious. It’s not obvious that the reason you haven’t paid last month’s bill is because you are woefully underemployed and have no money to do so: after all, you did buy that new jacket a few weeks ago. It’s not obvious that you missed yesterday’s session because you had a fever of one-hundred-one: after all, you did manage to drag yourself to the car and drive to the drugstore for aspirin. You read the theory, and of course it’s clear you wanted to kill your father, your mother, whomever, but it’s not at all obvious that in your refusal to talk, you are playing dead, or acting out a murderous rage. But change in the unconscious never comes about by way of direct revelations of the obvious. It happens more indirectly, like a knight’s move in chess: you are unexpectedly blindsided. I had just spent $15,000 on a brand new car (the first and only time I have done this). I was in the backyard, enjoying the first balmy warm day after an impossibly long and harsh Chicago winter, when I heard from the street out front the roaring acceleration, the squealing tires, the shouts of neighbors, the succession of thuds and crackling aluminum sounds. I ran out front. A large white Pontiac had “landed” on top of my new Toyota Celica. You could see the way the Pontiac had careened through the narrow side street by the zigzag of the smashed-in sides of parked cars leading up to mine. On the curb across the street, a bloody sixteen-year-old boy, blond hair and totally high, kept repeating “Don’t call the police.”

Now, I had a garage. It had an old, very heavy, solid-wood door that required a bit of heft to raise. Which was why my now-mangled car was on the street: it was late, there’s a space right in front of the house, who wants to get out of the car and lift up that damn door again? The only thing I could do with my analyst was rail against my own laziness. I couldn’t buy a garage-door opener (which cost a relatively modest $180 at Sears, and which were something of a rage at the time) because that would just ratify my fundamental, essential laziness. My father, who was yanked out of school at age ten to work in a coal mine, would have had nothing but contempt for people who wasted their money on luxuries like that. Still, most of my neighbors had them: working-class Latinos who no doubt thought—I realize now in retrospect—that after eight or more hours of heavy labor, they deserved the luxury of having their garage door open by remote control as they guided their lights toward home. But I didn’t see that then: in those days, when I guided my lights toward home, it was more likely after an intoxicated night listening to Frankie Knuckles mix at The Warehouse. My analyst said, “A hundred and eighty dollars is a pretty small premium to protect a $15,000 investment.”

Lacan said that breaking the analytic silence with an interpretation (or, more accurately, with a scansion) was the fundamental ethical act of psychoanalysis. I remember this particular intervention of my analyst so vividly because it was so unexpectedly decisive. My psychic economy would never be the same afterward: a little bit of superego had been conquered.


Coming-out stories almost always in some way invoke the obvious. As in: “When I finally admitted it to myself, suddenly a lot of things that happened in the past became obvious.” As in: “It should have been obvious to me at age sixteen, when . . . .” As in: you are dating a woman, you are really, truly in love with this woman, you have great sex (except for a couple of things you don’t really like), and she really loves you, even though all of her friends are telling her that it’s obvious you are gay, even though your mutual friends are telling her you’re gay, even though your own freaking friends are telling you you’re gay. “Symbolic mandate, my ass,” you think, managing to condense “man,” “date,” and “ass” into one neat disavowal.

There is something like a psychoanalytic temporality involved in this sudden apprehension of the obvious. Coming out involves the taking upon oneself of that signifier which then retroactively gives symbolic consistency to the membra disjecta unassimilated to our identifications. It is for this reason, perhaps more than any other, that the medicalization of homosexuality in the postwar U.S. psychiatric/analytic establishment (for here in the U.S., the two establishments were largely mixed) was such a travesty, such a betrayal of analysis itself. Because it used this very temporality against itself, never allowing the missing signifier to fully make its claim, instead locking it into an endlessly repeated metonymy while another signifier was made to do its work. The names of this other signifier were legion: normal, natural, “the self-actualizing person,” “the autonomous ego.”

Lacan, to his great credit, set himself up as the enemy of what he sneeringly referred to as ego psychology, whose only use he saw was to propagate “the American way of life,” a phrase he left in English in the Ecrits. Henry Abelove has managed to rescue Freud from this sordid project of moralizing psychoanalysis, in his essay “Freud, Male Homosexuality, and the Americans.” Freud had always had reservations about the U.S., both generally and more specifically in relation to what he thought was its deep-seated sexual puritanism. Thus, when a distraught American mother wrote to him asking that he cure her homosexual son (never using the word homosexual, of course), Freud wrote back that from all the indications in her letter, her son seemed to him quite well-adjusted and hardly in need of analysis. To the mother, it was obvious that her son needed treatment; to Freud, it was obvious that the mother needed treatment.


Pazienza! (for Richard Cante):
The obvious is the site of both leave-taking and homecoming. The voyages in between take place by the clock of “logical time,” a time fraught with anticipation, and demanding alert patience. In taking up the call of theory, we commit to living in this in-between space, where the obvious is abandoned and then reconquered, only to be abandoned once more.

Angelo Restivo is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the program in Moving Image Studies, Dept of Communication, Georgia State University.  He is the author of The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film (Duke, 2002) as well as numerous articles, the latest of which ("From Index to Figure in the European Art Film: the Case of The Conformist") will appear in the collection Global Art Cinema (Oxford 2009).