......• The Liberal Utopia •
AGAINST THE POLITICS OF JOUISSANCE
Yannis Stavrakakis' The Lacanian Left, 1 an attempt to supplement Laclau's and Mouffe's project of "radical democracy" with Lacanian theory, develops a harsh critique of my work - no wonder that, in a blurb on the cover, Dany Nobus wrote: "Zizek is dead!" The basic reproach to my work is that (not me personally, but) my writing displays a perverse structure: I practice the fetishist disavowal, clinging to a religious notion of act as the miraculous positivity of pure Real, ignoring negativity and the symbolic contextualization of every act... i.e., ignoring all the things that I know very well:
I have no intention to teach Zizek Lacanian commonplaces. I take it for granted that he knows them very well, better than I do. But this is exactly why it causes me great concern when Zizek himself seems to forget or abandon them. It is not by coincidence that I have used the psychoanalytic term 'disavowal' to describe this attitude. As is well known, disavowal, as the fundamental operation of perversion, involves the simultaneous recognition and denial of something - in the clinic, of castration. In fact, Zizek's response seems to come under this description. (130)
The sleigh of hand is here truly breathtaking: every counter-argument of mine is in advance devalued. I am accused of claiming A; I quote proofs that I am NOT claiming A, and the answer is that I merely disavow my sticking to A, that my reasoning is: "I know very well that A does not hold, but, nonetheless, I continue to act as if A holds..." So when Stavrakakis writes "Why does /Zizek/ bypass the whole Lacanian theorization of another (feminine) jouissance?"(144), there is no sense in defending myself by referring to dozens of pages in which I deal precisely with jouissance feminine - such defence would have been in advance devalued as a perverse "recital of absurdity"(133)...
This brings us to the political wager of Stavrakakis' book: to "combine an ethical attitude that reinvigorates modern democracy with a real passion for transformation, capable of stimulating the body politic without reoccupying the obsolete utopianism of the traditional Left"(16). Such a combination has to enact a "delicate balancing act"(18), avoiding both extremes of passionless egalitarian democracy a la Habermas and of passionate totalitarian engagements. The balance is the one between lack and excess: the lack is articulated in the discourse theory, while the excess points towards enjoyment as a political factor. For example, in the recent debates about European identity, "the neglect of the affective side of identification leads to a displacement of cathectic energy which is now invested in anti-European political and ideological discourses"(222).
Modern society is defined by the lack of ultimate transcendent guarantee, or, in libidinal terms, of total jouissance. There are three main ways to cope with this negativity: utopian, democratic, and post-democratic. The first one (totalitarianisms, fundamentalisms) tries to reoccupy the ground of absolute jouissance by attaining a utopian society of harmonious society which eliminates negativity. The second, democratic, one enacts a political equivalent of "traversing the fantasy": it institutionalizes the lack itself by creating the space for political antagonisms. The third one, consumerist post-democracy, tries to neutralize negativity by transforming politics into apolitical administration: individuals pursue their consumerist fantasies in the space regulated by expert social administration. Today, when democracy is gradually evolving into consumerist post-democracy, one should insist that democratic potentials are not exhausted - "democracy as an unfinished project" could have been Stavrakakis' motto here. The key to the resuscitation of this democratic potential is to re-mobilize enjoyment: "What is needed, in other words, is an enjoyable democratic ethics of the political."(269) The key question here is, of course, WHAT KIND OF enjoyment:
Libidinal investment and the mobilization of jouissance are the necessary prerequisite for any sustainable identification (from nationalism to consumerism). This also applies to the radical democratic ethics of the political. But the type of investment involved has still to be decided. (282)
Stavrakakis' solution is: neither the phallic enjoyment of Power nor the utopia of the incestuous full enjoyment, but a non-phallic (non-all) partial enjoyment. In the last pages of his book, trying to demonstrate how "democratic subjectivity is capable of inspiring high passions"(278), Stavrakakis refers to the Lacanian other jouissance, "a jouissance beyond accumulation, domination and fantasy, an enjoyment of the not-all or not-whole"(279). How do we achieve this jouissance? By way of accomplishing "the sacrifice of the fantasmatic objet petit a" which can only "make this other jouissance attainable" (279):
The central task in psychoanalysis - and politics - is to detach the objet petit a from the signifier of the lack in the Other /.../, to detach (anti-democratic and post-democratic) fantasy from the democratic institutionalization of lack, making possible the access to a partial enjoyment beyond fantasy. /.../ Only thus shall we be able to really enjoy our partial enjoyment, without subordinating it to the cataclysmic desire of fantasy. Beyond its dialectics of disavowal, this is the concrete challenge the Lacanian Left addresses to us. (280-282)
The underlying idea is breathtakingly simplistic: in total contradiction to Lacan, Stavrakakis reduces objet petit a to its role in fantasy - objet a is that excessive X which magically transforms the partial objects which occupy the place of the lack in the Other into the utopian promise of the impossible fullness of jouissance. What Stavrakakis proposes is thus the vision of a society in which desire functions without objet a, without the destabilizing excess which transforms it into a "cataclysmic desire of fantasy" - as Stavrakakis puts it in a symptomatically tautological way, we should learn to "really enjoy our partial enjoyment."
For Lacan, on the contrary, objet a is a(nother) name for the Freudian "partial object," which is why it cannot be reduced to its role in fantasy which sustains desire; it is for this reason that, as Lacan emphasizes, one should distinguish its role in desire and in drive. Following Jacques-Alain Miller, a distinction has to be introduced here between two types of lack, the lack proper and hole: lack is spatial, designating a void WITHIN a space, while hole is more radical, it designates the point at which this spatial order itself breaks down (as in the "black hole" in physics). 2 Therein resides the difference between desire and drive: desire is grounded in its constitutive lack, while drive circulates around a hole, a gap in the order of being. In other words, the circular movement of drive obeys the weird logic of the curved space in which the shortest distance between the two points is not a straight line, but a curve: drive "knows" that the shortest way to attain its aim is to circulate around its goal-object. (One should bear in mind here Lacan's well-known distinction between the aim and the goal of drive: while the goal is the object around which drive circulates, its (true) aim is the endless continuation of this circulation as such.)
Miller also proposed a Benjaminian distinction between "constituted anxiety" and "constituent anxiety," which is crucial with regard to the shift from desire to drive: while the first one designates the standard notion of the terrifying and fascinating abyss of anxiety which haunts us, its infernal circle which threatens to draws us in, the second one stands for the "pure" confrontation with objet petit a as constituted in its very loss. 3 Miller is right to emphasize here two features: the difference which separates constituted from constituent anxiety concerns the status of the object with regard to fantasy. In a case of constituted anxiety, the object dwells within the confines of a fantasy, while we only get the constituent anxiety when the subject "traverses the fantasy" and confronts the void, the gap, filled up by the fantasmatic object. However, clear and convincing as it is, this Miller's formula misses the true paradox or, rather, ambiguity of objet a: when he defines objet a as the object which overlaps with its loss, which emerges at the very moment of its loss (so that all its fantasmatic incarnations, from breasts to voice and gaze, are metonymic figurations of the void, of nothing), he remains within the horizon of desire - the true object-cause of desire is the void filled in by its fantasmatic incarnations. While, as Lacan emphasizes, objet a is also the object of drive, the relationship is here thoroughly different: although, in both cases, the link between object and loss is crucial, in the case of objet a as the object-cause of desire, we have an object which is originally lost, which coincides with its own loss, which emerges as lost, while, in the case of objet a as the object of drive, the "object" IS DIRECTLY THE LOSS ITSELF - in the shift from desire to drive, we pass from the lost object to loss itself as an object. That is to say, the weird movement called "drive" is not driven by the "impossible" quest for the lost object; it is a push to directly enact the "loss" - the gap, cut, distance - itself. There is thus a DOUBLE distinction to be drawn here: not only between objet a in its fantasmatic and post-fantasmatic status, but also, within this post-fantasmatic domain itself, between the lost object-cause of desire and the object-loss of drive.
The weird thing is that Stavrakakis' idea of sustaining desire without objet a contradicts not only Lacan, but also Laclau, his notion of hegemony: Laclau is on the right track when he emphasizes the necessary role of objet a in rendering an ideological edifice operative. In hegemony, a particular empirical object is "elevated to the dignity of the Thing," it start to function as the stand-in for, the embodiment of, the impossible fullness of Society. Referring to Joan Copjec, Laclau compares hegemony to the "breast-value" attached to partial objects which stand-in for the incestuous maternal Thing (breast). Laclau should effectively be criticized here for confounding desire (sustained by fantasy) which drive (one of whose definitions is also "that what remains of desire after its subject traverses the fantasy"): for him, we are condemned to searching for the impossible Fullness. Drive - in which we directly enjoy lack itself - simply does not enter his horizon. However, this in no way entails that, in drive, we "really enjoy our partial enjoyment," without the disturbing excess: for Lacan, lack and excess are strictly correlative, the two sides of the same coin. Precisely insofar as it circulates around a hole, drive is the name of the excess that pertains to human being, it is the "too-much-ness" of striving which insists beyond life and death (this is why Lacan sometimes even directly identifies drive with objet a as surplus-jouissance.)
Because he ignores this excess of drive, Stavrakakis also operates with a simplified notion of "traversing the fantasy" - as if fantasy is a kind of illusory screen blurring our relation to partial objects. This notion may seem to fit perfectly the commonsense idea of what psychoanalysis should do: of course it should liberate us from the hold of idiosyncratic fantasies and enable us to confront reality the way it effectively is... this, precisely, is what Lacan does NOT have in mind - what he aims at is almost the exact opposite. In our daily existence, we are immersed into "reality" (structured-supported by the fantasy), and this immersion is disturbed by symptoms which bear witness to the fact that another repressed level of our psyche resists this immersion. To "traverse the fantasy" therefore paradoxically means fully identifying oneself with the fantasy - namely with the fantasy which structures the excess resisting our immersion into daily reality, or, to quote a succinct formulation by Richard Boothby:
Traversing the fantasy' thus does not mean that the subject somehow abandons its involvement with fanciful caprices and accommodates itself to a pragmatic 'reality,' but precisely the opposite: the subject is submitted to that effect of the symbolic lack that reveals the limit of everyday reality. To traverse the fantasy in the Lacanian sense is to be more profoundly claimed by the fantasy than ever, in the sense of being brought into an ever more intimate relation with that real core of the fantasy that transcends imaging. 4
Boothby is right to emphasize the Janus-like structure of a fantasy: a fantasy is simultaneously pacifying, disarming (providing an imaginary scenario which enables us to endure the abyss of the Other's desire) AND shattering, disturbing, inassimilable into our reality. The ideologico-political dimension of this notion of "traversing the fantasy" was rendered clear by the unique role the rock group Top lista nadrealista (The Top List of the Surrealists) played during the Bosnian war in the besieged Sarajevo: their ironic performances which, in the midst of the war and hunger, satiricized the predicament of the Sarajevo population, acquired a cult status not only in the counterculture, but also among the citizens of Sarajevo in general (the group's weekly TV show went on throughout the war and was extremely popular). Instead of bemoaning the tragic fate of the Bosnians, they daringly mobilized all the clichés about the "stupid Bosnians" which were a commonplace in Yugoslavia, fully identifying with them - the point thus made was that the path of true solidarity leads through direct confrontation with the obscene racist fantasies which circulated in the symbolic space of Bosnia, through the playful identification with them, not through the denial of this obscenities on behalf of "what people really are."
No wonder, then, that, when Stavrakakis tries to provide some concrete examples of this new politics of partial jouissance, things go really "bizarre." He starts with Marshal Sahlins' thesis that the Paleolithic communities followed "a Zen road to affluence": although deeply marked by divisions, exchange, sexual difference, violence and war, they lack the "shrine of the Unattainable," of "infinite Needs," and thus the "desire for accumulation". In them,
enjoyment (jouissance) seems to be had without the mediation of fantasies of accumulation, fullness and excess. /.../ they do show that another world may, in principle, be possible insofar as a detachment of (partial) enjoyment from dreams of completeness and fantasmatic desire is enacted. /.../ Doesn't something similar happen in the psychoanalytic clinic? And isn't this also the challenge for radical democratic ethics? (281)
The way the Paleolithic tribesmen avoided accumulation was to cancel the lack itself - it is the idea of such a society without the excess of "infinite Needs" which is properly utopian, the ultimate fantasy, the fantasy of a society before the Fall. What then follows is a series of cases of how "political theorists and analysts, economists, and active citizens - some of them directly inspired by Lacanian theory - are currently trying to put this radical democratic orientation to work in a multitude of empirical contexts."(281) For example: "A group of cooperative workers /Byrne and Healy/ have examined tried to restructure their enjoyment in a non-fantasmatic way"(281) - it would be certainly interesting to hear in detail how this "restructuring" was structured! Then come Robin Blackburn's proposal for the democratization of Pension Funds, Roberto Unger's proposal to pass from a family to a social inheritance system, Toni Negri's proposal of a minimum citizenship income, the projects of participatory budgeting in Brazil...(282) - what all this has to do with jouissance feminine remains a mystery. The vague underlying idea is that, in all these cases, we are dealing with modest pragmatic proposals, with partial solutions which avoid the excess of radical utopian re-foundation - definitely not enough to qualify them as cases of jouissance feminine which is precisely Lacan's name for an absolute excess.
Stavrakakis's attempt to relate Lacanian concepts like feminine jouissance, signifier of the lack in the Other, etc., to concrete socio-political examples is thus thoroughly unconvincing. When he quotes Joan Copjec's precise thesis on how suppléance "allows us to speak well of our desire not by translating jouissance into language, but by formalizing it in a signifier that does not mean it but is, rather, directly enjoyed"(279), he reads it as a "way to think of enjoyment and the production of a signifier of lack in a democratic perspective"(279) - but does Copjec's description not fit perfectly also nationalism? Is the name of our Nation not such a suppléance? When a passionate patriot exclaims "America!", does he thereby not produce a signifier which "does not translate jouissance into language, but formalizes it in a signifier that does not mean it but is, rather, directly enjoyed" - when "America!" is passionately exclaimed, it is the signifier itself which is enjoyed?
Stavrakakis' political vision is vacuous: it is not that his call for more passion in politics is in itself meaningless (of course today's Left needs more passion), the problem is rather that it resembles all too much the joke quoted by Lacan about a doctor asked by a friend for a free medical advice - reticent to render his service without payment, the doctor examines the friend and then calmly states: "You need a medical advice!" Paradoxically, with all his (justified) critique of Freudo-Marxism, Stavrakakis' position can be designated as "Freudo-radicaldemocracy": he remains within Freudo-Marxism, expecting from psychoanalysis to supplement the theory of radical democracy in the same way Wilhelm Reich, among others, expected psychoanalysis to supplement Marxism. In both cases, the problem is exactly the same: we have the appropriate social theory, but what is missing is the "subjective factor" - how are we to mobilize people so that they will engage in passionate political struggle? Here psychoanalysis enters, explaining what libidinal mechanisms the enemy is using (Reich tried to do this for Fascism, Stavrakakis for consumerism and nationalism), and how can the Left practice its own "politics of jouissance." The problem is that such an approach is an ersatz for the proper political analysis: the lack of passion in political praxis and theory should be explained in its own terms, i.e., in the terms of political analysis itself. The true question is: what is there to be passionate about? Which political choices people experience as "realistic" and feasible?
1 Yannis Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2007. The numbers in brackets refer to pages in this book.
2 See Jacques-Alain Miller, "Le nom-du-père, s'en passer, s'en servir," available on http://www.lacan.com.
3 See Jacques-Alain Miller, op.cit.
4 Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher, New York: Routledge 2001, p. 275-276.
© lacan.com 1997/2007
Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that this material in LACAN.COM is copyright. Available only through EBSCO Publishing, Inc.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.