Archives for posts with tag: Lacan

The deliberative democracy project, in which politics can be governed by rational decision making and the process of public deliberation can be guaranteed to have reasonable outcomes, makes sense only when conditions of ideal discourse prevail. These conditions, however, imply the removal of power relations from discourse; or in other words, they assume that ideal speech situations exist in which discourse is driven communicatively, rather than strategically; a position which must be rejected. One must understand that language use itself is colonized by power. The goal of greater inclusivity through discourse fails to stand up in the face of the undermining of inclusivity by the use of language. What is at stake in the claim that politics is unnecessarily adversarial is the denial of the central role of conflict in politics and collective identity formation. This is the work the concept of hegemony does, as the point of convergence and collapse between objectivity and power. The hegemony of a depoliticized public discourse, that of ‘third way’ politics is that there are correct answers to be had, which politicians are unwilling to take for whatever reason. This is rubbish, the answers in reality become clear only in retrospect ( argues for a similar point, but without being willing to take the final step the argument entails, perhaps the government is not broken, but the point is that social conflict such as #occupywallstreet shows that the polity is not broken. Such movements are properly agonistic rather than adversarial, they still seek to include other members of the polity, unlike an adversarial movement such as the tea party which seeks to expel members from the polity.) And then only because they are now historically imperative. This concept mirrors Foucault’s description of human history:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination… Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose… [I]nterpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game. (Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews)

All language, and by extension politics, is warfare by other means.

Without the presence of the Lacanian master signifier, the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself, language has no meaning. The introduction of the master signifier to discourse distorts the symbolic field by introducing the intrinsic violence of language, which is generated by clashes over what constitutes appropriate language use, and who can use it, without which the entire symbolic field would evaporate. Similarly, the same violence is perpetrated, for example when some events are deemed worthy of public attention while others are marginalized through a refusal to acknowledge them. However, if the violent, authoritarian, master-signifier were removed from the symbolic field, then the field itself would vanish.

One must acknowledge the existence of power relations and the desire to alter how power is allocated, but perhaps more importantly one must renounce the illusion that we can ever be completely free from power. The complete dissolution of all power is a naive goal, one must instead see that power is constitutive of human relations and what is contingent is how it is used and by whom it is held. Of course protestors at #occupywallstreet will hold different goals, we already understand that every consensus is merely the temporary result of a provisional hegemony, that is, nothing more than a stabilization of power in the moment which can just as easily fracture the next. When establishment groups joined the protest after 2 weeks what effect can be expected? Will this lead to increased resolve, will the strategic rationality of large organizations give power to the movement, or will it undermine the truly radical potential? These mainstream groups joining the protest provide legitimacy but the ability to speak always already represents recourse to systems of power that give one the authority to speak, and to require the other to listen. By gaining legitimacy in this way the movement gives up part of its status as “outside” the order. To this point, many claims are made that the protestors are just children with nothing better to do, or only the unemployed; but isn’t it obvious that those are exactly the people who capitalism has most let down. The future that past generations have been able to count on is not available to today’s youth, and of course the high rate of unemployment is a symptom of the economic situation. If these are not the voices we should hear, the voices of those most affected, then who should we turn to.

The question is if such a political move is capable of building up a broad coalition of support without diluting its message too far. Will’s recent post brilliantly argues that the true meaning of the protest can be read off from its many messages, that is a disillusionment with the capitalist hegemony. One can read the endless interrogations by commenters online about how the protest is unguided and ask how can they not see the common theme, the solution which is already evident in the protest, but such a question comes about only after making the subjective determination as the one’s role. If one has already committed themselves to such a change then the question is obvious, but for one who still holds onto the ideological blinders of the prevailing hegemony how can such a solution ever appear ready-at-hand? Such a solution is already part of the counter-hegemony (that is a new hegemony, not a naive anti-hegemonic stance).

EDIT: Another interesting post by Daniel Drezner, at Foreign Policy, which moves in a similar manner to my argument, went up several hours after this post went live, for more check it out.

I’d like to suggest one particular example from the final installment of the Harry Potter saga as a clear starting point for an examination of the different subject positions represented by Voldemort and Harry.

The example is the case of the Elder Wand, and the two characters’ different relations to it. Simply put, Voldemort’s thirst for power and his manipulation of the Wand, versus Harry’s renunciation of power and his destruction of the Wand, exemplify, respectively, the positions of the master and the hysteric in Lacan’s four discourses (See Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, 129-136).

Here’s my proposal: Voldemort’s rejection of all forms of Otherness identifies him with the subject of the master’s discourse, who manipulates the Slave(s), violently imposing a new Master Signifier, i.e., a ‘New World Order.’ Harry, on the other hand, with his acceptance of virtually ever kind of Otherness, every excluded/disenfranchised Other – going so far as to face death in order to save the ones he loves – and with his persistent, even relentless, curiosity, self-examination, and pursuit of the truth, exemplifies the discourse of the hysteric: “the hysteric goes at the master and demands that he or she show his or her stuff, prove his or her mettle by producing something serious by way of knowledge” (Lacanian Subject, 135).

However, the distinction between the master’s and the hysteric’s discourses is helpful in several other ways as well.

First, the master and the hysteric each has his own object-cause of desire. It helps to remember here that there is a difference between the object of desire and the object-cause of the desire: the object is a particular piece of material reality that stands in as one instance of the ineffable object-cause, which stands ‘behind,’ as it were, the object – this is the difference between the capitalist’s desire for a particular object (say, a BMW), and his object-cause (say, status/wealth); here, the object is an actual object, whereas the object-cause is an immaterial concept.

The object of the master’s desire is the actual person of the slave, who must be subordinated by the master in order for the master to secure whatever object-cause causes his desiring – his pursuit – of the to-be-conquered slave. For Voldemort, this object-cause would be something like Evil, an ideal kingdom dominated by the dark arts.

The object of the hysteric’s desire, on the other hand, is the master himself. Of course, in Harry’s case, this would be Voldemort as the ultimate, Evil threat to all that is Good. The hysteric sees it as his duty to expose the symbolic system for exactly what it is – not True, but, rather, one possible truth of many, merely one possible way of seeing the world (of course, what better example than society’s force-feeding of capitalism as the great Truth beyond all doubt, the system that ‘we’ll always be stuck with’?).

Harry also shows this demand to examine the status quo in his every move within the symbolic space of the university – Hogwarts – where he always seems to get into trouble, always needs to know why something is the case, the meaning of things, etc., even risking expulsion through disobedience to the Master-Signifier of the everyday wizarding world.

The thing that appears to make the master’s discourse, and the Master-Signifier, so frustratingly impenetrable to the hysteric (and therefore all the more desirable, ineluctably provocative and demanding) is what is called object a in Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is the ‘Je ne sais pas’ that draws the hysteric’s attention.

The hysteric’s self-chosen duty to expose false truths is the key motivation for the hysteric’s activity. In the same way as the scientist persistently investigates the tiniest scrap of material reality in order to find the ‘Truth’ underlying it all, the hysteric pursues a Truth beyond any would-be truth suggested by the master and the institutions that support the master (note that this pursuit of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake,’ or ‘pure’ science, is clearly different from applied science).

But then, what is Truth? Precisely, it is the Real: the empty void of possibility that precedes the imposition of any totalizing symbolic system (whether Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s). Thus the Real is the object-cause of the hysteric’s desire.

However, Harry does not stay in the position of the hysteric throughout the entire series. His transition to the master (or ‘revolutionary,’ as Rob has suggested) discourse coincides with the transition in the series from adventurous fantasy chronicle to something much, much darker.

At the point when Good is under threat from all sides, when the wizarding world is up in arms about how to defend itself from Voldemort’s Evil, Harry can’t any longer function in the hysteric’s position: instead, he has to take up the fight and stand confidently against the tyranny of evil.

Non-coincidentally, Harry’s shift into the master’s position also coincides with his shift into adulthood: the frustrated, rebellious, dissatisfied youth ‘comes into his own,’ finally cuts ties with the master and realizes that he must choose to fight for one side or the other; at some point, he took the leap and made the de-cision (hyphenated to highlight the ‘cutting’ aspect) to break with an obsession with possibility, the Real, the ‘Truth’ of the master, and to stand for one Master-Signifier against all others.

That is to say, Harry decided to accept full responsibility for the limitations and sacrifices implied by his rejection of all other worldviews, in order to stand up for one particular view that ultimately gains support not in ‘Truth,’ but, rather, in the support of the symbolic community, namely, the ‘good guys,’ who will die for their Cause.

From Žižek’s Metastases of Enjoyment:

The ultimate paradox of the strict psychoanalytic notion of symbolic identification is that it is by definition a misidentification, the identification with the way the Others(s) misperceive(s) me. Let us take the most elementary example: as a father, I know I am an unprincipled weakling; but, at the same time, I do not want to disappoint my son, who sees in me what I am not: a person of dignity and strong principles, ready to take risks for a just cause – so I identify with this misperception of me, and truly ‘become myself’ when I, in effect, start to act according to this misperception (ashamed to appear to my son as I really am, I actually accomplish heroic acts). In other words, if we are to account for symbolic identification, it is not enough to refer to the opposition between the way I  appear to others and the way I really am: symbolic identification occurs when the way I appear to others becomes more important to me than the psychological reality ‘beneath my social mask’, forcing me to do things I would never be able to accomplish ‘from within myself’ (45).

Thus by identifying myself as that which I already am for others, I begin to see my capacity for negating any particular identity (i.e., my capacity to deny association with any one group and to know myself as pure “potential”) as a problem or liability to be overcome in pursuit of some greater social purpose/Cause. Here we see the paradoxical temporal loop in which I see myself as pure potential but only in relation to what I might be, not in terms of what I cannot ever be: I am always “not yet” wholly that which I already am, not yet equal to my sociosymbolic identity/status… I remain unsatisfied with any current state-of-self, since this can only go so far toward matching satisfactorily my already-expected/known sociosymbolic identity.

But this state of non-satisfaction is simply the universal condition of human existence; it is the state of desire, and as such not inherently “evil” or “coercive.” Without desire, who would we be? Here is the psychoanalytic/Hegelian answer: a non-desiring being is no being at all; it is inert matter, with no particular emotional attunement toward anything in the world, no directional motion, and thus no reactionary capability (one of the several necessary qualities of “life” as defined by biologists). Without imagination, without creative thought about what might be, what might have been, etc., we could not exist – imagination is what makes human beings distinct as a species.

The irony is that in the same formal gesture one can begin to be motivated to accomplish both heroic acts (as in Žižek’s above example), as well as atrocious acts of violence; it all depends on what symbolic space has been established in one’s own community – it depends, in other words, on what sort of superego demands are at work, whether that superego takes the form of a social pressure to end economic disparity, or a social pressure to carry out acts of violence against Muslims…

Hence why democracy is the riskiest form of government: there is no guarantee that any one course of action will take place, that any one kind of society will take shape; all that we have is the capacity to influence those societal/symbolic features collectively, through communication with one another about the ideas we want to pay attention to – ideas shared online, in books, through art and music, etc.; all of these provoke a re-imagining of the world.

Lacan defines the psychoanalytic concept of the Real as the impossible limit/end of the functioning of a symbolic system. This symbolic system – an imaginary invention of the subject – is the fictional narration of the world that functions precisely in order to prevent the encounter with the Real, the Void of pure senselessness in which (the sense of) individual and collective agency dissipates into absolute nothingness, spiraling in a vortex toward its own impossibility.

From out of this vortex of the Real, the Symbolic arises – for no other reason than that the subject couldn’t otherwise maintain a coherent sense of self – and retroactively posits/imagines the story of its founding. This story might begin with the imaginary act of an individual, or an imaginary cosmological occurence.

To extrapolate outside of the clinical situation, an example of the former might be that the Symbolic order of capitalism relies on the fictional original act of the entrepreneur’s self-determination of his destiny, ‘lifting himself up by his own bootstraps’ (which happens to rely as well on the imaginary notion of the ‘innate’ acquisitiveness of human beings in the ‘state of nature,’ their ‘innate’ desire to compete and to own property, etc.).

An example of the latter might be that the Symbolic orders of Taoism and Buddhism rely on the fictional cosmological occurance of the great rupturing of the original Perfection of the Universe by the human-introduced disturbance of ‘striving’ or ‘desire.’

Of course, the Symbolic as such would disintegrate if its imaginary (i.e., ‘fantasmatic’) support were revealed as nothing more than the subject’s own mental effort to constitute something sensible in the face of brute, material reality.

The Real is thus

the spectral fantasmatic history [that] tells the story of a traumatic event that ‘continues not to take place’ (Lacan, Seminar XX: Encore, New York: Norton, 1998, p. 59), that cannot be inscribed into the very symbolic space it brought about by its intervention….[and], precisely as such, as nonexistent, it continues to persist, that is, its spectral presence continues to haunt the living (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso, 2000, p. 58).

Thus the Real negates not simply some positive feature(s) of the Symbolic, but rather negates the positivity of the Symbolic itself and thus of the subject’s most basic sense of self (consciousness). We can compare the would-be direct confrontation with the Real to the experience – rare indeed – of an individual confronting herself, in an extreme panic attack, for example, as nothing but a mound of flesh (although this is something technically impossible, since logically nothing that is possible could ever see itself as impossible; nothing that is pure flesh could ever “see itself” as pure flesh…).

This experience is also the same as Hegel’s nightmarish ‘night of the world,’ when Spirit confronts itself as nothing more than a bone – when Spirit (human consciousness/thought/belief) recognizes that it really is (not just that it arises from) the simple inert matter of the brain.

The crucial point about this is not simply that the Spirit is nothing but dead matter, but, further, that nevertheless, it is still Spirit: Spirit is “strong enough to assert its identity with the inertia of dead matter and to ‘sublate’ it […] i.e., dead matter, even at its most extreme, cannot escape the Spirit’s power of mediation” (Ibid., from the Preface: xvi). In other words, no part of material reality is left untouched by the additional, imaginary fantasy supplement that we add to it.

So the Symbolic relies on a narrative to describe and understand its present outline, the totality of its positive aspects and its limits. And what this narrativization does is to shield the subject from the Real.

It is crucial to note that this “retroactive fictionalization engages the subject who generated this fiction much more” than the subject’s experience of an actual, traumatic event (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, 62). Although this trauma would bring the subject to the limits of her understanding – to the limits of the Symbolic – and would haunt her the rest of her life, the traumatic event as such must always be repressed (buried in the unconscious) and filtered through a renewed fundamental fantasy that operates based upon the exclusion of that trauma.

The return of repressed trauma occurs not only for the obvious reason that the trauma has always already determined the limits of the Symbolic; it also appears via repeated disturbances of the smooth functioning of the conscious ego, as the spectre that continues to haunt the subject in its unconscious as a remainder/reminder of this unacknowledged (and unacknowledgeable) ‘violence’ that was the (subject’s) founding gesture of the Symbolic out of the senselessness of the Real – that is, the gesture of creating/imagining meaning and imposing that meaning on inherently meaningless material reality.

This exclusion of the Real occurs in the founding of every Symbolic understanding, whether benevolent or evil: the ghost that haunts the unconscious, the ghost of the traumatic break from the senseless Real into the sense of the Symbolic is thus what has been called a ‘passionate attachment,’ an attachment the subject can never escape and precisely as such must repeatedly – and passionately and violently – disavow in order to continue to function within the horizon of its understanding, an understanding which, again, originates with the subject’s violent exclusion of alternative modes of understanding.

For instance, think of the bizarre phenomenon of the U.S. military’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which disclosure of one’s sexual orientation is prohibited in order to prevent others’ uncomfortable exposure to the possibility that, yes, as a matter of fact, homosexuality does exist in the military (see Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

To be clear, the subject never directly encounters the Real (this would be death, or, perhaps, Ego death). Rather, one gets a ‘little piece’ of it, an event or an object which impinges on the Symbolic. Thus, instead of entering the Real, one continuously circles around it, always narrativizing any traumatic excess (e.g., by instituting a law, such as “don’t ask don’t tell”).

The manner in which one circles around the Real is one’s particular symptom (e.g., the symptoms of the neurotic subject, for whom everything must be kept in perfect order and the “impossible” – e.g., homosexuality – must always remain impossible; or the symptoms of the hysteric, who desperately desires to be given any stable position of belonging within a community).

The narrative functions, however, not simply as a shield, but also as a demand: Enjoy! That is, the narrative, by providing an aesthetically appealing/convincing blockade against direct access to the Real, keeps the subject at peace with itself (or rather, with its symbolic identity).

Disclaimer: This posted ended up being much more technical than I had originally envisioned. If the Lacanian discouses are interesting to you I suggest Bruce Fink’s book The Lacanian Subject.

Amy Goodman opened Democracy Now!’s discussion (panel begins around the 24 minute mark) with Julian Assange and Slavoj Žižek by stating “Information is power.” And, if one is willing to grant this truism, then the media’s ability to create and disseminate knowledge in hegemonic contexts (as though there could be a non-hegemonic context) is an obvious point of interest.

So, what is Hegemony? Hegemony, as defined by Chantal Mouffe is the point at which objectivity and power collapse into one. Exactly the point where ideology is so powerful that what is true is defined by power relations. (Social) Power defines what is true, or what can be understood. Žižek, in the discussion with Goodman and Assange, asks, what did we learn from WikiLeaks’ release of collateral murder? The answer is that we learned nothing from the release, but rather that we learned a truth in context, that is, we experienced a truth in a new way. The context is what is relevant, rather than knowing intellectually that terrible things happen during war, but the video acts counter-hegemonically by insisting upon the truth in a new, visceral, way. Truth is mediated by ideology through hegemony. Truth in new contexts has the ability to make us see things differently. Facts are presented in new ways, they are re-presented to us in ways which undermine the current hegemony. Žižek illustrates the importance of the forum of information and the power of ideological hegemony by saying “We may all know that the emperor is naked, but the moment somebody publicly says the emperor is naked: everything changes.” The simple act of saying publicly that the emperor is naked is counter-hegemonic in its challenge to hegemony by insisting on its set of norms and assumptions (its own hegemony). John Cook’s analysis of a memo (A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News) written by Roger Ailes for the Nixon white house shows how a supposedly neutral arbiter of information, the media, is perhaps the tool par excellence of hegemony. The article indicates just how deeply, in this case, political power and information, or knowledge, were linked.

I would like to illustrate how the Lacanian discourses can be employed to understand various roles of counter-hegemony technically before returning to the Assange, Goodman, Žižek discussion to see their applications.. Lacan accounts for four discourses in his work: the master’s discourse, the university discourse, the analyst’s discourse and the hysteric’s discourse. The master signifier (the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself), the Barred Subject (the subject in/of language), the objet a and Knowledge rotate through 4 positions in the matheme of the discourses. The master signifier is represented by S1, the Barred Subject by $, the objet a by a and Knowledge by S2. The general form of each discourse is:


truth       product/loss

That is, the truth underwrites the agent which addresses or interrogates the other. The other produces some object as what is lost from it, that is alienated, placed outside of itself. Thus, the four discourses can be symbolized by the following mathemes:

Master’s Discourse University Discourse Analyst’s Discourse Hysteric’s Discourse


$       a


S1    $


S2   S1


a    S2

In the master’s discourse, which the revolutionary adopts, the master signifier hides the truth of its lack while interrogating the knowledge. This is the traditional understanding of the master slave dialectic in which the master forces the slave to work, which leads to the slaves generation of knowledge. The master signifier is in the driving seat of agency in the master’s discourse. The product of the slave, and that which is lost by him or her, is thus a

In the university discourse knowledge becomes the agent. Knowledge here hides the fact that it is ultimately grounded only on the master signifier and not some universal reason. The reasons exist only after the hegemonic choice signified by the master signifier. Knowledge interrogates surplus value and attempts to rationalize it. The subject-who-knows, in interrogating the surplus value creates the subject-who-does-not-know, the barred subject, $.

In the analysts’ discourse the agent, in this case the analyst, (perhaps the philosopher, or political scientist) plays the role of desire as such. Desire questions the barred subject about the split which divides him or her. The analyst presses on the subject at the points where the split between conscious and unconscious shows. In this way, the analyst makes the patient associate, or bring-into-language, and the product of that association is a new master signifier. The analyst brings the master signifier into a relationship with other signifiers and founds it in language, dialectizes it. This gives rise to a new master signifier. The breaking of one master signifier in analysis always creates another. The master signifier is the product of analysis.

Finally the hysteric’s discourse emerges, by which the barred subject demands that the new master signifier prove itself – that is – prove that it can produce something useful, that it can generate knowledge which will make the world understandable or representable. Once the master signifier has succeeded in rendering the world understandable by no basis but itself, the matheme once again rotates back to the master’s discourse

Returning to the panel, the public announcement Žižek references in which the emperor is called out for being naked is the discourse of the critic, it is the Lacanian analyst’s discourse which must precede the revolutionary’s master discourse. One must note while watching how Žižek repeatedly assigns to Assange the role of the authoritarian master. Assange represents the master discourse, setting out a new master signifier by which we must organize our understanding of the world while Žižek himself is the critical analyst’s discourse which presses the listener to make associations (the Iraq war and the war in Serbia, for example) which will distill a new master signifier. Assange discusses how members of the mainstream media, having interrogated the work of WikiLeaks “have themselves become educated and radicalized.” This is the university discourse. Knowledge, or information interrogates the surplus of the work of WikiLeaks and creates the subject-who-does-not-know, that is the barred subject. A new master signifier has already begun to work for them. Assange claims that this is an “ideological penetration of the truth into all these mainstream media organizations” but what is important to see is that this should not be made with reference to some capital ‘T’ Truth, but instead a penetration of a hegemonic truth, that is, the new master signifier.

The master’s discourse of the revolutionary thus adopts the move suggested by Žižek’s writings through which leftists must make the Leninist move to acknowledge that in their attempts to alter the social order they are using power. They must recognize the master signifier in their actions, while for reformers the master signifier must be hidden behind the facade of reason. In order to successfully affect change the revolutionary adopts the true discourse of the hegemon, that of power, while the reformer instead struggles with the form of rationality which is created by the hegemon only after the fact to justify its own will. The reformer questions from the position that rationality can solve problems, unlike the critic who questions the barred subject at the point of its division. The revolutionary adopts the master’s discourse, the reformer adopts the university discourse and the theorist or critic adopts the analyst’s discourse: put another way, the revolutionary speaks from power, the reformer from knowledge and the critic from the desiring Other, the position which we never fully understand (What does ‘It’ – the Other – want from us?). The position of the hysteric then comes to be the position of the “apolitical” citizen. The subject who just wants things to work.