Jacques Lacan (1901-81) is one of the most tantalizing thinkers of the 20th century. Even though he was a practicing psychoanalyst, many use his thought, as he did himself, in analyzing social and cultural phenomena. This summary is intended for similar use, not as a guide to clinical psychoanalysis. Lacan’s thought is mainly available through the writings of other people, not himself. He enjoyed the luxury of being able to deliver his thoughts mainly in oral form, and if he wrote them down for publication, for the most part he did not have to undergo the severe revision that most of us do whenever we write and publish (though he did suffer several major dismissals by other leaders in his field). His writings and seminars are opaque texts that can be read only if the reader already knows what they mean. They contain occasional statements of clarity, but these are often pronouncements (e.g., the Woman does not exist) that need careful explanation and can’t be taken at face value. Most recently, the interpretations of a Slovenian philosopher named Slavoj Žižek give one of the fullest and most concrete explanations of Lacan, and thus my heavy reliance on him. Žižek is useful because he takes Lacanian ideas into the discussion of popular culture (especially cinema), nationalism and ethnic conflict, the politics of capitalism and multiculturalism, and in general the phenomenon of modernity and postmodernity. Many others also contribute to the body of psychoanalytic thought in the Freudian tradition as furthered by Lacan, including Bruce Fink, Joan Copjec, Alexandre Leupin, Mark Bracher, Elisabeth Roudinesco and others noted below.
Lacan leaps from topic to topic with little apparent transition and assumes a background in a wide range of art, literature, and philosophy, not to mention Freudian and later psychoanalytic theory. He seems to imitate the language of the unconscious in its open structure and free-flow. In addition, the transcription and editing of his work has been an irregular process complicated by the divisiveness between those who claim to represent his thought. Jacques-Alain Miller has ended up being the one whom Lacan most personally trusted as a summarizer of his thought and editor of his seminars and notes. That is a complicated story in itself (see Elisabeth Roudinesco). In general, people like Žižek and Roudinesco take a historical approach, looking for broad themes from Kant and Hegel on to Sartre, Deleuze, and Lacan, and noting the historical phases of Lacan’s thought itself, while others like Bruce Fink, Alexandre Leupin, and Jacques-Alain Miller, take Lacan’s thought as a relatively consistent synchronic whole. My summary favors the latter.
Psychoanalysis is interested in the irrational, the paradoxical, the contradictory, the arbitrary nature of signification, and in general the unconscious effects in daily life that it says frame every conscious moment. As Lacan says, psychoanalysis aims to “reduc[e] the privileges of the consciousness,” which it “regards ... as irremediably limited” (Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 82). But it is important to note that Lacanian thought aims to be considered an equivalent to science (Leupin). This point emerges in his claim that all human activities --science, religion, literature, philosophy, politics, and so forth --can be subjected to psychoanalysis, and for that reason alone, no field can be considered autonomous and self-enclosed. “The psychoanalytic experience demonstrates nothing other than that none of our acts are out of the unconscious’ purview” (Écrits, 1966, p. 514). In general, the basic idea is that you are who you are through the language of others. The language you speak speaks through you. You always say both more and less than you mean; you always mean something else besides what you think or try to mean. To add Žižek to the Lacanian mix yields the further observation that revolution and
Politically speaking, Lacan and Žižek articulate a theory of revolutionary subjectivity, which can also be called revolutionary democracy. But the romance and fervor of revolutionary politics is absent, thus the frequent dismissal of Lacan for what he sometimes perhaps deserves as the tendency to imply that revolutionary hysteria is always at base still enthralled by the discourse of the Master. Any concrete version of revolutionary democracy is always in danger of turning into a new hegemony. The only revolutionary moment is precisely that, a moment, something that will give way. It is the moment in the transition between paradigms and regimes, when all seems possible and all conditions of possibility are seen in their true light as inherently arbitrary.
There are those who are terribly smart, like Lacan. Then there are those who find the terribly smart hard to understand. What I am doing is as much as possible putting their ideas into localese, that is, language easier to understand, because otherwise what they say can hardly be put to use. If I reduce it too much, misunderstand it, or leave out important subtleties, then let’s hope to try again.
I. Terms: subject, unconscious, gaze, imaginary, symbolic, real. The subject as citizen of democracy. The unconscious The gaze The imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.
II. The psychoanalytic and the political The notion of the unconscious and the notion of karma Symptom Fantasy and ideology Nation and nationalism Capitalism, global capitalism
III. Lacan’s four discourses, four subjects Master, university, hysteric, analyst Sexual difference An explanation of the theory of sexual difference in terms of late imperial China
This summary is organized around a minimal number of special terms that define the central features of Lacanian thought, starting with “split subject.” Roughly defined, split means divided, that is, the subject divided between the range of what we know consciously and the latent, hidden unconscious truth.
The subject as citizen of democracy.
I start with the notion of equality between all citizens of democracy. This is by way of explaining the basic notion of the empty or split subject, and by way of emphasizing the combination of psychoanalysis and politics that is critical if we want to make best use of Lacanian theory, the best use being one that combines psychoanalysis and the political. The question is, in what way can we say all citizen subjects are equal given the obvious disparities between individuals and groups across the whole of society?
First let us define the word subject. Subject connotes the idea of being subjected to something external, in particular, the rules of the social-symbolic order. Subject contrasts with individual, which implies self-determination and uniqueness. The subject is inherently split between the range of conscious knowledge and the unconscious. Symbolic order is the term for designating the social world in which the subject lives and functions. I will define this further below, but for now will say that the symbolic order consists of language and its rules of sound and grammar, laws, and social structures having to do with the family, schools, religion, and government institutions. In general it consists of all the rules that govern social and subjective existence. The subject has no choice but to be born into the symbolic order. We occupy the subjective roles that are made available to us by the social order in which we live. Hence the idea of the subject-self being subjected to that order.
The subject is a speaker of language. Language is the key link between all subjects; it is the core network of social existence. The subject is only a subject in language. Reality only exists through language. We can never escape the process of expression through language and what can be called subjectivization through language. No pure self-consciousness exists outside of language, even if the subject is simply sitting still and not speaking. Consciousness is only possible through the mediation of other consciousnesses. This is the central meaning of Lacan’s statement that the unconscious is structured like a language.
The subject in this sense of a speaker of language is fundamentally split. This is simply a way of referring to the impossibility of full and present self-consciousness or self-understanding. There will always be a gap between what one thinks one knows of oneself and what is hidden from view. The split or divided subject “is operative in all of the various ways in which we fail to identify ourselves, grasp ourselves, or coincide with ourselves” (Bracher, 113). This is also understood in terms of the split between the “I” who speaks and the contents of the statement
This may be one of the hardest notions to accept by anyone first studying Lacanian theory, but it is important in terms of undermining the sense of the human being possessing ultimate self-knowledge or possessing an essence which bestows innate authority over self or others. In short, all master figures are emperor’s without clothes. I will explain the notion of the split subject as follows again using the concept of democracy.
Let us start with the idea that at first seems counter-intuitive. Democracy is not composed of individual people with all their concrete needs, interests, beliefs, characteristics, and other particularities. Take away all those concrete attributes and what you have left is the true subject of democracy, that is, the form of subjective consciousness as opposed to the concrete contents of that form. The subject of democracy is this abstract featureless individual, belonging to no ethnic group, no family, no gender, and no religion. No color, no preferences, no loves or hates. Or we could say: multiple colors, preferences, and identities. We are criss-crossed by many different identities.
At this level of the empty subject all subjects are equal. The subject emptied of all attributes is equal to any other such subject. Democratic equality can only work if each subject is willing to see itself and others at this level of bare abstraction. At the extreme, this implies that subjects must ultimately sacrifice what they feel is their most personal identifying trait. Equality is defined as the abstract equality of all such empty subjects.
What is the use of the notion of the empty, split subject? There is a moral to this story, already indicated by the idea that in the extreme situations subjects must sacrifice things what is dearest to their self-definition. The idea of the split subject has to do with a common post-structuralist view (Derrida, Foucault) of the subject at the most basic level of being, which is that the subject is to begin with “decentered.” That is, it is not in charge of itself; it can never be a fully autonomous being. It exists always and only as part of a collective structure of being. Any feeling of confidence and fullness of self-determination is inherently false not because that is a bad way to be from a moral point of view but because it is so ontologically. “I am what I say I am” is thus an impossible statement. That is, as a statement it is only possible as a fantasy; you
Being decentered, the subject is understood to be an effect of language, ideology, of history, of the inherited customs and linguistic usages of the community into which it is born. The subject is spoken by language. At the extreme, the subject is determined by social forces, unconscious processes, and political and economic conditions. In this extreme sense, the subject is objectified by external realities. The question then is: Is it that objective, external reality so influences the subject that there is no free subject left? Lacan does not go so far, though some say that Foucault does. According to Foucault, resistance to power is always already co-opted or pre-determined by power.
Lacan/ Žižek, however, emphasize that the inherently split or divided nature of the subject in itself provides a place that allows escape from the grips of external reality. But escape is not a romantic notion in this case. The point is that the impossibility of a subject who is fully self-conscious, who fully knows himself, means that there is always part of the self that will be unknown and unattainable by the reach not only of the conscious ego but also of the symbolic order. As Freud already theorized, this part is referred to as the unconscious. One will always be an effect of outside, external, and unknowable elements. Language will traverse the subject in ways it will never fully grasp. But the subject retains an ultimate ability to resist that which traverses it. Resistance and self-invention and re-invention, however, involve acts of sacrifice and self-negation that most of us in our desire for stability can hardly endure.
Another way to phrase the function of language in the definition of the subject is to say that language is all we have to express ourselves (music and other forms of art should also be regarded as forms of language even if they are non-verbal). But we never feel that we completely succeed in expressing ourselves. Language seems never enough. This “never enough” is a left-over or a remainder that amounts to the void I was speaking about in the definition of the split subject. It is that void and lack that supplies us with our so-called escape from the oppression of the symbolic order. But again it is a void that has no insurance, no safety exits, nothing but insecurity although at the same time it offers possible liberation. Liberation comes in the form of revolutionary attempts, many of which fill will blissful energy and many of which end in failure.
It is now time to define the word unconscious by way of further clarifying the meaning of the split subject.
The word unconscious has been used for so long now that it has assumed meanings that are too general and inaccurate for use in psychoanalytic criticism. So first of all, here is what the unconscious is not: It is not that which is natural or instinctual, as if it were opposed to the artificial or civilized self. It is not collective, as in Jung’s collective unconscious. It has no
The favorite notion of Lacan is that the unconscious is structured like a language. This means that we can get at the unconscious only through language, only via words and signs, but that we never get at it completely or predictably. The unconscious is Real, and it is impossible, by which Lacan means that it is impenetrable and it escapes formulation. We can only get at it indirectly through things like words, signs, and symbols. That is, words, dreams, and other symbolic configurations are its only manifestations to us. Otherwise it is an impenetrable abyss. It perfectly easily disregards the requirements and needs of normal, common sense reality. It is that in us which resists full inclusion in the social-symbolic order. In other words, although we are necessarily born into the symbolic order and are bound to it, there is always part of us that never entirely fits. The unconscious is one term for designating this lack of complete fit. It refers to a kind of “knowledge that speaks all by itself,” independently and often in defiance of the ego (Lacan Seminar 17, 80). When it appears, it tends to throw us off balance and act against the conscious will.
Thus the unconscious is what the conscious refuses to admit. It only appears intermittently. Every time it appears, it seems to want to disappear (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 43). It is only knowable in the mode of doubt. The unconscious subverts the subject, it subverts consciousness (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 48).
The unconscious is also intersubjective or transindividual, that is, shared between all subjects in a collective way but without consciously and explicitly collective agreement. Collective does not mean that it constitutes a shared, self-contained set, as in a set of archetypes or myths. Archetypes and myths belong to the symbolic order, not the unconscious, although they are good for providing evidence of the unconscious. Again, the unconscious is not some true interior or true self (or collective self) waiting to be found, exposed, and released. Instead it works on and through the subject. It is not personal; it does not belong to any particular subject, although we each have our own singular ways of relating to it. It typically comes out in enigmatic ways and forms such as dreams, physical and psychological symptoms, jokes, slips of the tongue, and other accidental or unintentional effects.
Let us join the concept of unconscious with the split between the I who speaks and the statement that is spoken. The I that speaks can only ever speak in the context of other speakers. Do they hear the subject in exactly the way the subject wants to be heard? This question has to do with the fact that the very act of speech in itself conveys not just the contents of what is spoken but a desire to be recognized by others. That is, at the most basic level, I don’t just say
The unconscious consists of the meanings we are not in control of, the cracks in between what we think we mean and how others hear us, or the split between what we mean to say and what we end up saying. It is apparent when our conscious defense mechanisms are at their weakest.
Another special term is gaze, which is defined by one of Lacan’s most often quoted formulations: “You never look at me from the place at which I see you.” That is, others never see me in the way I want or expect to be seen. I am not in control of the way in which I am seen.
The gaze comes from the position of the unconscious, which is also called the Other. But this position is not a concrete, objective one. It does not represent a second or alternate consciousness; nor is it a formal or abstract condition of knowledge (Copjec, Imagine, p. 212). That is, it represents the condition of there being no final and ultimate viewpoint that supposedly sees me “correctly.”
The split here is between the eye and the gaze. The subjective eye looks at an object but never knows how that object is looking back at him. We are visible in the world, but we never know entirely how or from where we are viewed.
These ideas are based on the assumption that there is no transcendental position of ultimate neutrality. The otherness of the symbolic order is split as well. As Sartre would say, the Other exists “probably.” However, the Other’s existence is not necessarily so. Thus, two things are true of the gaze: The gaze cannot be scientifically or concretely quantified or measured; nor can it be arrived at as a neutral or abstract condition of knowledge (Copjec, Imagine, p. 211). The common saying used to express this sense is that there is no Other of the Other. That is, there is no absolute godlike figure who is behind the scene of the unconscious controlling the symbolic order.
The gaze thus stands for the absence of the transcendental position. It is a disturbance in our vision like a barely felt intruder, like a rustle in the curtains behind us which indicates that someone is looking at us, but when we go to look, we never find anyone there, yet we know someone is looking (Copjec, Imagine, pp. 210-12).
A story about a haunted house is like an attempt to reduce the gaze to a concrete presence called a ghost, for which the storyteller gives a causal explanation and often a method of extermination. But the gaze is the ghost that never goes away and that can never be completely
Implied in all this is the empty point of space of the subject, of the I, which is devoid of all content. The subject on this level is thus a void. It is a void into which the concrete self is formed or filled. Lacan and Žižek insist that there is always a minimal distance between the void and the concrete contents of the subject, and that because of this split, the subject is always capable of reforming itself and of being reborn. In other words, it is impossible for the subject to be completely determined by external reality. There is always at least a minimum of subjective uncertainty, which is another way of referring to this void. There is an inherent madness, in fact, a permanent state of being unhooked from the social order. In order to be a normal subject of civil society, the subject must pass through the madness of this void. Any choice it makes by way of defining itself concretely is a result of madness. Madness only, however, is precisely that, insanity, or in psychoanalytic terms, psychosis.
Another implication is that in order to be a subject, which means in order to “subjectivize,” we must externalize ourselves. We must speak and act concretely, in other words. An analogy is: in order to see your eyeball, you must look in a mirror. You must see it outside yourself in the mirror. Extending this example, you can see and know yourself only in the mirror of reality, only through definition by other people and social contexts. Similarly, to use the linguistic analogy, a word can never be self-sufficiently meaningful. It always finds its meaning through other words. Hot can only be understood in relation to cold.
Subjectivization is this process of becoming a subject through language, of becoming a subject in the symbolic order, through one’s entry into a family, an ethnic group, a nation, and so forth. One becomes part of a personal narrative, a family story, a national narrative, a cultural mythology --it is through all such things that one subjectivizes.
These three terms are useful in classifying mental acts and experience. They can be thought of as three orders according to which psychic behavior can be analyzed.
The imaginary has to do with the fiction according to which one characterizes oneself by way of arriving at a stable picture of the self’s relation to fellow members of family, society, nation, etc. It has to do with how the self arrives at an identity. It names the process of creating or striving after a coherent sense of self, the implication being that one is to begin with split, not whole, incoherent, fragmented --especially in the earliest stages of consciousness as a baby.
Of particular importance is the idea that the ego is formed at its earliest stages by means of external visual images that it constructs of itself based on images of wholeness it sees outside itself. It sees these images in other people and even in pictures, including the mirror image of itself --hence the famous Lacanian theory of the “mirror stage.” This refers to the stage in the infant’s experience in which he or she arrives at an image of wholeness of the self based on the external image of the whole self in the mirror, which contrasts with the internal fragmented sense
Narcissism or self-love is characteristic of the imaginary. Self-love tends to be insistent and thus aggressive. Illusion is central, especially the illusion of wholeness. Deception is also inherent to the imaginary, since the goal is to hide underlying irregularities or lack of wholeness and autonomy.
The imaginary is rooted in the subject’s relation to the image of the body. Images have captivating powers. They are alluring. This is especially obvious in sexual and romantic relationships.
The imaginary is the element of the subject most closely related to animal behavior. However, although at the imaginary level humans are closest to animals, the imaginary order is in the end structured by the symbolic. The imaginary exists in response to the inscrutable symbolic.
The worst tendency of the imaginary order is exemplified in the subject’s tendency to uncompromising or crippling fixations on certain image structures, such as the belief that wearing a certain type of clothing will lead to social acceptance, or that eliminating a certain group of people will lead to social harmony.
In general, the imaginary strives for homeostasis.
The symbolic, as said above, includes language, law, and various social structures such as family and religion. It is the arena in which we take our place as members of the social community. The word symbolic is used as a noun. It comes from the field of anthropology in the sense Levi-Strauss used to refer to the way in which the social world is structured according to laws which regulate kinship relations and the exchange of gifts. The fundamental notion of gift has to do with the social circuit of exchange, from the exchange of language to the exchanges regulated by law and custom, including the exchange of marriage partners.
We could say that we are imprisoned by the symbolic the moment we are born into a particular gender, family, socio-economic group, race, or nation. We live in a “prison house of language” (Fredric Jameson, 1972). But it is also the case that we are subjects insofar as we do not fit fully into the symbolic order.
What binds this order together is the signifying chain, or the law of the signifier. The word chain is used to refer to the fact that, as I said above, each and every signifier --whether a word, a sound, or an image --only has meaning in relation to and in distinction from other signifiers. No signifier is complete in itself. No word is the end of the story. There is no end of the story. Another signifier can always be added. (The endlessness of signification is also used, by the way, to define the nature of desire.)
The symbolic order is a “blind automaton” (Žižek, SOI, p. 132) which is always bothering the imaginary which always strives for homeostasis.
We can only know the world through the symbolic, through the law of the signifier, which is never entirely stable. It is inherently arbitrary. That is, why something is called X and
A key idea in contrasting the imaginary and the symbolic is that the imaginary is based on the relation between the self and others, that is, on a duality of relations. Harmony and wholeness are the ideal states, always sought after.
The symbolic is triadic. There is self, other, and the independent, autonomous, utterly impersonal Other of the symbolic order which mediates between all subjects. The unconscious is the discourse of this other, the symbolic order.
The imaginary is naive and self-enclosed in comparison to the symbolic, which structures the imaginary. The imaginary is a kind of fictional escape from the harsh symbolic. The symbolic is a kind of universe, a totality, that appears at any given moment to be finite and absolute, though it never actually is.
The real is that which resists the symbolic. Strictly speaking, the real is “unsymbolizable.” It is presymbolic in that it represents the world before language carves the world up. But it is also beyond the symbolic in that it endures as the excess that remains after the symbolic does its work. It is impossible to integrate the real entirely into the symbolic order. In the most fundamental sense, it represents the impossible, as in the case of the child whose harmonious life is disrupted by the birth of a sibling. That birth represents the arrival of a real that is impossible to incorporate or make sense of completely. No matter how the subject tries to make sense of the event, there is always something left over that cannot be made sense of. Thus there is a traumatic quality to its presence which is usually hidden but which intrudes traumatically at periodic intervals. Another example, very relevant at present, is global warming.
Also included are things like an earthquake or a giant meteor striking and destroying the earth. The stark feeling of the senselessness of existence also gets at the sense of the real. The real takes the form of any terrifying phenomenon that cannot be integrated into the symbolic order, or that can be integrated only in a very tenuous way. Its presence forces itself upon us sometimes in the form of hallucinations and nightmares, which disturb us with their absolute intractability.
Psychoanalysis is only useful if it can be linked to the analysis of social and political conditions. This is where Lacan ties in with a Marxian approach. In simplest terms, the fundamental point that links Marx and Lacan (and Freud) is their analysis of the ways in which social antagonisms are displaced and erased by the dominant social system. Social antagonism takes shape in the class struggle and in sexual difference. Such antagonisms can never be permanently resolved. There is no point at which we arrive at an absolute knowledge or a final social state whereby we can overcome all antagonisms and achieve pure social or sexual harmony. Contradiction is an inherent element of all relations and identities.
Another way of expressing the intersection between Marx and Lacan is the concept of “political unconscious” (a term derived from Fredric Jameson’s 1981 book of the same name). Individuals such as Napoleon or Mao Zedong are chief figures in the making of history. But Marx likes to say that it is not individuals who make history just as Lacan likes to say that no subject enjoys full self-consciousness. There is always a political and sexual unconscious at work that denies any individual/subject the complete possession of its self. The function of underlying, unconscious, structures is as important if not more so than the apparent quantities and qualities of information that we have at the conscious level.
Another point that Marxian and Lacanian thought share is the constant effort to question one’s own position of enunciation. The goal is to always question the place from which you speak.
There is, by the way, a similarity between the notion of the unconscious and the notion of karma or karmic causality, which likewise works in unknowable ways. Karma is commonly cast in a more deterministic way than the unconscious by being given a more objective reality. You have a shrewish wife because you mistreated your mother in a former life, as Ming and Qing fiction sometimes likes to say. You became a prostitute because you committed some crime in a former lifetime. The assumption is that one can ultimately be liberated if one makes the right kind of effort. Karma is supposedly more containable in that you can ultimately jump out of it. It is ultimately knowable from some transcendental perspective. Lacanian psychoanalysis likes to say that there is no transcendental perspective. The unconscious is knowable ever only partially and does not belong to a grand cosmic structure. Liberation from unconscious debt is possible, but is always only temporary. Liberation must always be fought for; there is no outside to the struggle (whether the class struggle or the sexual struggle). The way to liberation --that is, the path to psychoanalytic cure --is to realize the emptiness of the fantasy that has caused your psychic illness. You realize that your recurrent depression is due to your inability to forget or forgive some past trauma, for example. Then you realize that you have constructed for yourself a convenient fantasy of self-victimization, for example. On a broader social level, a society declares all citizens equal before the law. But it still enslaves people it does not consider to be as equal.
Psychoanalysis is of course secular, thus its disbelief in grand cosmic structure. It believes that any reliance on an omnipotent savior or an eternal state of release deprives the self of its ability and will to struggle against social and political oppression. Nevertheless, I prefer to emphasize the overlap between karma and unconscious. Both karma and the unconscious are apparent interstitially, that is, through cracks and fissures in normal reality, at points of transition, through accidents, ruptures, and mistakes. Cracks and fissures include dreams, slips of the tongue, and recurrent but seemingly unrelated events or configurations. It is in these in-between zones, by means of these barely apparent signals, that we find potential liberation. Whatever we live in is solid, stable, and oppressive, especially when we are trapped in some disabling mode of being such as addictive capitalism or fixation on junk food and overuse of natural resources (addictive capitalism is precisely manifest in these fixations, best summed up as the addiction to using sources faster then they can replace themselves). Liberation is liberation from such oppression which we don’t even think of as oppression. We don’t know how addicted to junk food we are, even though we say we know. We don’t know until we do something about it, which apparently involves sacrifice at a level that we currently can’t tolerate.
Symptom is the psychoanalytic term for an underlying disorder --an antagonism --that the dominant ideology or dominant social system erases by treating it as a minor problem, a mere side effect, a contingency, something accidental and not of ultimate consequence. Symptom refers to something that doesn’t quite fit into the smooth social plan of the dominant ideology. Obesity in America is such a symptom. We should exercise and not drink so much soda. But the normative order constantly showers us with ads and massive availability. Symptoms can also represent the remnants of past, failed revolutionary attempts that have been forgotten, repressed, or defused, but that are still always there in an underlying sense. These include powerful movements that later transform into harmless configurations that are co-opted by the dominant order. Unions, for example, which used to be one of the most effective means for workers to gain rights against owners, have now entered a mode in which they are not only looked down upon but are outmaneuvered by legal means which allow owners and managers to employ non-union workers on whom owners and managers exert renewed powers to impose lower wages and worse benefits. Unions are now viewed as harming the economic well being of the corporation and the populace at large.
These are the best terms for explaining how the function of erasure works, that is, the way in which dominant systems erase, forget, or suppress inconvenient realities. They also explain how groups and individuals ensconce themselves in comfortable realities in denial of truths that could bring about either their downfall or their liberation. But --and this is the sign of the paradoxical logic that is at the center of Marxian and Lacanian thought --no one can live without fantasy and ideology, without which life is meaningless and without bearings.
Fantasy is the basic word for all narratives. It includes the personal, individual level and also the culturally and politically collective level of society at large. It includes early myth as well as the contemporary ideologies of nationalism. It functions on both the imaginary and symbolic levels.
Fantasy is that which supplies frame and consistency to whatever the subject takes to be reality. It is that which fills out the void of the split subject. The unconscious is that which in unpredictable ways subverts the fantasy. Fantasy is thus an attempt to repress the unconscious.
Fantasy frames and constructs desire, that is, how and why we want what we want. A simple example is the individual who must have a certain kind of clothing because it is popular with other teenagers or image idols. You want something because a friend of yours has it. You don’t want just food but a certain type and brand of food, otherwise you don’t feel satisfied. It is intersubjective in that desire has to do with what others desire and what they desire from us. The intersubjective nature of desire is a fundamental notion in psychoanalysis.
Desire is a word that is used in a special way in psychoanalytic thought. Desire to begin with is for something missing. No concrete thing can actually fulfill desire. Temporary fulfillment is all that is possible. The search for fulfillment takes many forms, but the search never ends. Whatever fulfills us for a while merely performs the function of hiding the void or lack that is permanent. Fantasy deals with the impossible relationship with the object of desire by resolving and dismissing this lack. (Žižek, PF).
Personal fantasy, social fantasy, ideological fantasy --all have in common the function of concealing the fact that the symbolic order is inherently inconsistent. It does not present a neatly sequential and logical story. Fantasy resolves inconsistencies by putting things in neat sequence.
An example of the workings of fantasy is the sexual relationship. The main premise of the Lacanian psychoanalytic approach is that, as in the class struggle, there is no ultimate harmonious resolution to the sexual relationship. Sexual difference is a given. But fantasy acts to cover this fact up by constructing scenarios in which harmony is achieved, thus the happy ending to the love story.
Fantasy is not just a realization of personal desire in a straightforward sense. It also involves the desire of others, including the depersonalized force of the big Other --parents, society, leaders, friends, ultimately the symbolic order. The desire of the Other is never completely clear, but fantasy is an effort to make it clear. Any effort to reduce reality to simple answers is a prime example of successful fantasy.
An axiom of fantasy is that it stains (Žižek) any specific point of view. Our look at the world is stained by our personal/social/national/and cultural histories. History is a form of fantasy narrative. Even though we think that history records actual facts and events, which it does do, the way those facts and events are narrated always has to do with a particular form or
Fantasy always assumes a perspective that is inherently impossible. The best example is a story that takes the point of view of one who is present in a way that is impossible in normal reality. One is present at one’s conception or after one’s death (Žižek). One tells the story of how people react after one’s death. Fantasy easily disregards the fact that we cannot be present at our own funerals or that we cannot be present before our birth. Another example: I fantasize that others adore me, but ignore conditions that make them in fact hate me. But fantasy can’t be too explicit in order to work successfully. This is especially so in the case of ideological fantasy.
It must work cleverly so that it can fool people without being obvious.
Again, however, fantasy is necessary to survive. It is our support without which we fall into meaningless existence. But the problem is the intersection of fantasies, the battles between yours and mine. Here is where we should switch to an explicitly political context and discuss two forms of social fantasy, ideology and modern nationalism. This is where the most dangerous of battles tend to occur.
Ideology is a fantasy construction of a particular social or political group. It is a symbolic field. It is a harmonizing narrative with beginning, middle, and end, and no unsolved mysteries or unresolved threats. It structures our social reality such that we feel a sense of belonging. We feel supported; we feel useful. It is a totality which convinces us that everything is resolvable according to its standards.
It is most successful when it achieves the result of rendering inconsequential something that we might otherwise think is of critical importance. It succeeds when something that seems to us to contradict it instead is made to seem normal and acceptable. It can only work when people are made to believe that they are freely choosing to accept the order of things. They do not attempt to focus on the unwritten rules which would expose the true story of erasure and suppression. Ideology succeeds in making the unwritten rules appear legitimate, natural, and inconsequential. The fact that money in the hands of a few controls the media, the state, commercial production, and so forth, is made to appear secondary to the explicitly written rules contained in laws and constitutions, which supposedly guarantee protection from dominant interests.
Ideology wants us to “continue to walk as straight as we can in one direction” (Žižek, SOI, p. 83). Moreover, and this is a dangerous and subtle point, ideology in this way conceals a perverse enjoyment in succeeding in compelling us to do so (Žižek).
Nation and nationalism
There is a contradictory element in the idea of the modern nation. It is a community that has left behind its traditional ways, especially what have been considered the benighted ones such as bound feet and polygamy. The traditional realm has been replaced by the nation-state, whose members are called citizens. Those people are ideally conceived of as abstract individuals with inalienable rights in a nation that is one among equals in a global community.
Nevertheless, nation is at the same time defined by the idea of the common roots people share, their languages, and the blood and soil of the father or motherland. In order to retain identity as a particular nation and not blend into the mass of nations, a nation must appeal to concrete, self-enclosed essences which define its unique qualities. Thus the rise of nationalism.
A key way of defining nation is via the notion of enjoyment (Žižek; called jouissance in French; sometimes called xiyue喜悦 in Chinese). Defining what is unique to us has to do with what we in particular enjoy --our foods, smells, music, landscape, architecture, and clothing. Other peoples supposedly cannot understand our particular forms of enjoyment. At worst, they attempt either to steal our enjoyment or to suppress it. In this view, the Nation embodies an essence that only “we” can enjoy and understand. It is our way of life, our way of organizing pleasure. It is a collective fantasy, in other words.
At its best, nationalism acts to promote and preserve that which might be lost or taken over in an unfair way. At its worst, nationalism pretends to speak on behalf of a whole society for which it claims a vision of ultimate harmony. But that harmony is based on the violent suppression of a group within that society or outside of it. Nazi ideology is a good example. The killing of Jews was the result of a belief that true social harmony could be attained except for the fact that Jews prevented it. In such an ideology, the core group defines itself by articulating a fundamental essence of which it is in possession and by which it excludes all others in bluntly and sometimes violently reductive fashion.
The only resolution to the problem of reductive nationalism is to establish what we can call an “alienated” state that embodies no particular group’s needs and desires. Thus the separation of church and state, the notion of the abstract equality of everyone before the law, or the democratic replacement of leadership at regular intervals. Who will be the next candidate is a mystery. Whoever is elected is there temporarily and not because of the possession of an innate essence which grants automatic leadership. Elections represent the periodic dissolution of political authority. The place of leadership must be viewed as an empty position devoid of permanent content (Chantal/Mouffe; Žižek).
Psychoanalysis began to exist because of the need to focus on the unexpected consequences of the disintegration of traditional life because of the effects of global capitalism beginning around the early 19th century. The bourgeois individual is the new historical subject who is the patient in need of psychoanalysis. That subject is now independent of the traditional
Multiculturalism is the cultural ideology of capitalism (Žižek). It is indifferent to national interests in that a multinational corporation treats a population of one place the same as anywhere else. It seeks profit regardless of the disruption it causes to people of its own country or any other. Corporations do the colonizing now, not nations. Global capitalism wants to depoliticize economics and politics by pretending that it functions in a smooth, neutral fashion, as if everyone had equal access to its mechanisms. It gains even more power now because of the failure of Stalinist socialism, which acted as a sort of guilty conscience to capitalists.
Capitalism favors the subject who is willing and able to shift identities whenever fashion and economics dictate that it is necessary to do so. The possession of multiple identities and the ability to pass easily between them is the new supreme virtue (Žižek uses the term “multiple shifting identifications,” TS, 226). The other central virtue is the belief that one should sacrifice for the sake of the boss, who knows best how to insure our economic security. One is expected to sacrifice in order to be happy, where sacrifice means accepting a work wage that is better than nothing but still keeps one hovering around the poverty line, or no health benefits because health benefits cost the company too much, or meager worker’s rights because rights drive down profit. Those who don’t or can’t obey get left out and excluded from social and material well being.
Lacan characterizes the dominant function of language in society by describing four key discourses --Master, University, Hysteric, Analyst --that correspond to four key social phenomena: governing, educating, questioning, and analyzing. These four could also be worded as: leading, administrating, resisting, and revolutionizing (Žižek, “Four Discourses,” Bracher, “On the Psychological and Social Functions of Language,” 107-137; Lacan, Seminar 17). These four can be said to condition all speech acts, behavior, and actions. They are part of Lacan’s attempt to categorize the ways in which “language exercises both formative and transformative power in human affairs” (Bracher, 107). Discourse is thus another key term, referring to the way language functions in a systematic way to represent a particular viewpoint, to practice a discipline or a persuasion. Examples are: legal discourse, medical discourse, the discourse of gender and sexuality, corporate culture, political parties, academics, leisure, and so forth. Discourse captures the subject both as speaking being and as object of the desire of others. The best example of the subject as object of the desire of the Other is that of the child, who from birth is the object of the desire of parents and larger family, then society at large, including law, religion, and political force. The position the subject occupies in relation to the desire of the Other determines the way we experience ourselves and the surrounding world.
Various shorthand ways can be used to capture these four discourses:
The master names an ideal, the university teaches conformity to the ideal, the hysteric questions the naming of the ideal, and the analyst focuses on the gap between the naming and the questioning (Žižek, TS, 165). The task of theory, and of the psychoanalyst in particular, is to show how every master identity is contingent and ideological. The theorist in this sense is like the analyst.
The master is the figure who leads and conducts. He is decisive and sure of himself in his role as master. In theoretical terms, he generates master signifiers, which consist of terms and slogans that represent his particular discipline. He is the model of autonomy and mastery in general. His signifiers guide the main agendas of society or groups within society at any given time. In the most obvious sense, the master is the leader who declares the war. He is the one who by definition says what he means he says, does what he says he will do; and what he does, as his followers believe, is immediately and perfectly efficient.
The individual subject finds self-identity in the form of these signifiers, which serve as ideological rallying positions. At the extreme, the master is the one you will die for. Words like “God,” “country,” “freedom,” “free market,” “pro-choice,” and so forth are examples of such master signifiers. Lacan indicates that the function of the master has weakened in modern society, especially in the sense that it functions less in the form of single human figures than in a collective way. Anything that the subject invests his or her identity in --that anything is a master signifier or a network of closely-knit master signifiers. Your rationale for any major act has to do with your identity with master signifiers.
The discourse of the university promotes knowledge and values on behalf of the master. The word university in this special sense includes far more than the actual university in the sense of college. Though acting on behalf of the master, the university pretends to be completely neutral and impersonal, as if merely carrying out its mission according to the basic facts and conditions of any given situation. Bureaucracy is one of the purest forms of the university discourse. Scientific knowledge is another example since it likewise promotes specific forms of autonomy and self-identity. Its law is the continuous quest for knowledge, which it often carries out regardless of the effect on social reality.
When we do as we are told as children, we are acting as the objects of the university discourse represented by our parents. We may not understand why, we may not entirely fit into the mold of the discourse, but we can only be members of society by adopting the positions and identities it provides us with.
The hysteric asks a fundamental question: why do you, the master, say that I must act in this way (Žižek)? The master says that I am the leader who is qualified to give you orders. The hysteric asks why are you qualified to do so? The university replies that the master leads because social necessity dictates that it must be so; objective factors justify what the master does.
The hysteric is engaged in radical doubt and questioning of his or her subjective position as dictated by the master. The hysteric is the alienated subject. She is divided and conflicted within herself between what she feels she is supposed to do and her resistance or failure to live up to what the order dictates. According to the discourses of the master and the university, the true subject should not be alienated and divided. One is supposed to conform easily and freely to the master discourse. Hysteria takes the form of resistance and protest, jealousy and rage, but also shame and sense of meaninglessness at one’s failure to live up to the ideals of the dominant discourse. In spite of her resistance, however, the hysteric is still in thrall to the demands of the master and university (Bracher, 123).
In Lacanian terms, all subjects are ultimately hysterics. The hysteric is the ultimate model of subjectivity. This gets back to the idea of split subject: no one escapes the condition of being split. The master is oblivious to this fact but is nevertheless just as “split” as anyone else. If anyone, the hystericized subject is the most aware that the emperor wears no clothes, that is, that the master is equally split. Still, the hysteric has not made the final step to act on that awareness, but remains subjected to the discourse of the master.
The analyst observes that the hysteric experiences subjection to the master only because she treats the master as a master. The analyst says that the master is such because people believe he is such. They grant him his authority. Equally, they can withdraw it. In purest form, the analyst represents a position that denies all acts of mastery, especially self-mastery. The analyst elicits hysteria from the subject in order to expose the subject’s state of subjection to the dominant order. The end of therapy arrives when the subject sees through the fantasy of subjection and discovers new possibilities. In this summary, however, I am not interested in the
The analyst represents a different kind of knowledge than the master or university. The analyst’s knowledge is dialectical, which in simplest terms means that truth is dynamic and paradoxical. It is a knowledge which knows how to examine the surface of a master discourse and through its splits and fissures discover its unconscious. The analyst is a Daoist in the sense described by figures like Zhuangzi. The analyst occupies the position of the void that lies in all signifiers and at the back of all systems. The analyst as human being, of course, is no different from anyone else in being equally caught up in his or her own pathology of subjectivization.
Sexual difference is one of the more controversial areas of Lacanian theory, but one that is fascinating and useful to research. We can start by saying that any concrete symbolization of sexual difference --such as the normative heterosexual binary of male and female --is contingent and arbitrary. Further, there is no neutral, symmetrical sexual relationship that is undistorted by power (Žižek, PF, 72). All binary descriptions --rational versus emotional, active versus passive, yin versus yang --ultimately fail to describe sexual difference, which is not reducible to such normatively heterosexual terms.
Lacan ties the theory of sexual difference to the four discourses named above through his “formulae of sexuation.” He uses what look like mathematical/logical formulas to diagram the four discourses along the axis of masculine and feminine. Master and university are masculine; hysteric and analyst are feminine. Instead of explaining these formulas, I will describe them in terms of male and female subject positions in late imperial Chinese literature. The basic concept of sexual difference is that the sexual relation can only be experienced in symbolic terms. Two people form a relationship and have sex because they both agree to a similar set of signifiers that define the story of their conjunction. Lacan likes to say that there is no sexual relationship. By this he means that there is no such thing as sexual harmony, no perfect balance of sexual partners. He uses a special term to name the female side, “not-all” or “pas tout.” Not all can
There is a logical sense to the relation between the masculine and feminine positions. If one, the masculine, insists on specifying the attributes of the perfect woman, then there must be a position, the feminine one, which denies that such specification is possible. Nevertheless, the woman cannot claim thereby that she occupies a place of true enjoyment. Such a claim would return us to the master’s discourse of full self presence, but a self presence couched in even more abstract terms, as if that were possible. Still, the main advantage of the feminine position --and Lacan definitely favors the feminine over the masculine at least in this logical sense --is that the concept of not-all resonates with the idea of the void at the center of the signifier, the split in the subject, the inherent impossibility of self-mastery and fixed definition.
Another way of summarizing sexual difference is to say that the masculine side seeks to totalize from the perspective of a single exception, the master. The position of the exceptional male implies that all other subjects must work in order to be part of the totality or universal order, which is ruled by the master who, unlike the rest, is exempted from having to work for his inclusion in the totality. He is the exception because he is what he is by nature and special privilege, because it is so. The feminine side, however, comprises the infinity of subjects with no exceptions. That is, there are no exceptional people who alone enjoy special privilege. There is no one who is not a split subject. There is no neutral zero point from which to conceive of or rule over the whole.
Man’s relation to woman is like the subject’s relation to the body. There is a real body, but we are only in it as linguistic subjects, that is, we experience it only through language. Its realness is something we experience as external and impenetrable. We run into this realness when we accidentally hurt ourselves, for example. This is when we see our bodies as being like a foreign organism, independent of the idea or fantasy we have of it that allows us to live in bodily homeostasis. The subject and body occupy radically different dimensions (Serge Andrei, “Otherness of the Body,” 95).
I will now translate this theoretical language about sexual difference into a narrative context. Below is an aggregate summation of Ming and Qing fiction about sexual difference, beginning with the discourse of the master, which is played by the role of the master polygynist. The story goes as follows:
The master polygynist says that he is the master of all women, but one of his women is always having an affair with another man. Hence the example of Ximen Qing in the late Ming
The occupation of a position of universality only succeeds by an arbitrary act of exclusion and demarcation. It is of course prohibited to refer too openly to the arbitrariness of the privilege of the master under whom restraint and deprivation prevail for the rest of men who lack his special quality. The woman like Pan Jinlian, on the other hand, stands for the defiance of that prohibition. She is as if to say that if there is one exception, that is, the polygynist, then his exceptionality should extend to her as well. She is as if to say that there is no one who is not exceptional. In other words, the man is a polygynist only because he is an accidentally successful impostor. But since she can’t effect a change in the social order by abolishing polygyny (though some female characters in Ming and Qing fiction do imagine doing so), she can take the approach of appropriating the man’s exceptionality to herself. She does so, for example, by affirming his exceptionality as if she were the one who granted it to him. She chooses his concubines for him. Or, like Pan Jinlian, after discovering Ximen Qing’s secret affair with Li Ping’er, will “allow” it if Ximen Qing promises to tell her the times of his visits with Li Ping’er and the nature of what he does with her, especially sexually.
The man, however, may also occupy a feminine position whereby he subjects himself to a superior woman. I call this female figure in Ming and Qing literature the remarkable woman. Her superiority does not translate into social and political reality in terms of the abolition of polygyny or what in modern times are called equal rights, but it nevertheless has real effects. When the man consorts with the remarkable woman, he especially identifies with her sense of the impossibility of fitting into the social whole. He shares her experience of being badly placed in the social whole, especially the patriarchal, polygynous family. The term hysteria can be used to characterize the mode of this feminine position.
On the other hand, the man may also twist the fantasy of the remarkable woman such that
PF: The Plague of Fantasies
SOI: Subject of Ideology
TN: Tarrying with the Negative
TS: The Ticklish Subject (all four by Slavoj Ž i ž ek)