On the Question of Mastery: Is a Lacanian / Anarchist Intervention Possible?

I would like to offer two stories from my personal life.

First, while attending the European Graduate School in Switzerland I was honored to have met some of the other students of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou. I quickly came to realize that these individuals took Lacan seriously. They established reading cartels that operated according to very precise principles and met regularly to engage thoroughly with the written word. I met two of these students for coffee. They asked me to articulate the relationship, as I saw it, between anarchist political philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is a fair question. However, it occurs to me that this question was derived from an insistence that Lacan was – if anything at all – at heart a bit of a communist. Well, that’s how students of Zizek and Badiou would put it. It is simply a matter for them of demonstrating that this is the case. (To be fair, one doesn’t get the sense that Lacan is a communist in clinical circles.) The obscure relation between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxian theory has already been settled by students of Zizek and Badiou. It is the answer. The problem is simply to discover the proper question.

I struggled to find the connection between anarchism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. I always have struggled to find the connection. Anarchism in some way led me to Lacan’s work. However, this precisely is the value of Lacanian psychoanalysis for anarchist political philosophy: the question is not yet settled, there are no answers – there are only possibilities and impossibilities. In other words, there are still plenty of points of intervention and points of discovery. The field has not yet been overcoded. In any case, all of the valuable insights that Badiou has provided for political analyses seemed to me to be already present in a less articulated form within anarchist political philosophy – if only anarchists would see these seeds beneath their snow instead of harping on about their own moral autonomy.

Second: while attending Trent University, I was briefly under the supervision of an anarchist. In one way or another, I was also surrounded by anarchists. What passed for conversation in the class-room (some days) was: “Why is ‘X’ not included within ‘X’ theory? (where ‘X’ was a placeholder for any number of social, cultural, and political identifications). The supervisor, in front of this crowd, asked me: “How is Lacan an anarchist?” As is often the case, the question had its own answer: he wasn’t … but surely he needed to be! There is an imperative not only that Lacan be easily understandable but that his moral considerations should be worn on his sleeve.

I learned very quick that it was better to leave the question unsettled. There is no need to respond to the demand to be understood and to be a moral agent. For his part, Saul Newman (in From Bakunin to Lacan) attempted to provide an answer: he insisted that Lacan, unlike Bakunin and other anarchists, provided a privileged point of departure for political intervention through his notion of subjectivity. Without an ‘uncontaminated’ point of departure outside of power (or, if you like, outside of the symbolic chain of signifiers) politics is pointless. Of course, Newman’s reading of Lacan was not deep and faithful to Lacan. For example, the subject is not an uncontaminated point of departure – quite the reverse! The subject is absolutely contaminated; so much so that it is split between one signifier and another… the signifier is what represents a subject for another signifier. It seemed to me that Newman wanted so much a place of subjective mastery over the political field that he discovered it in the most master-less place: a place where the subject is nothing but an empty place within the system of signifiers. Newman discovered an ‘outside’ to political power that was paradoxically inherent to political power itself.

The matter was not settled. Zizek noted the problem of the desire for an uncontaminated point of departure for politics: it is as if before the political subject is capable of acting he needs some security that he is acting from the right agency, from the correct place and at the correct time. Who could secure this agency for him but the big Other, that is, a master? This is why it is important to demonstrate, as I have in my recent book, that there are all kinds of places from which one is capable of acting – and the real is not privileged here.

So, I held onto Lacan. There was more to be said. It became increasingly clear that Lacan’s value was precisely to create this disjuncture between politics and theory. Lacan never fails to interrupt interpretive or diagnostical political interventions. Lacan will not respond to the demand to be understood and to be put to political purposes. To paraphrase the punchline to a joke told to me recently from a psychoanalyst: Lacan fell asleep during our political theorization of the place of pure political agency and then woke up and said “Please . . . continue . . . ”

We must continue. With or without Lacan. For many anarchists, this will always mean without Lacan. In fact, most anarchists will fail to read an article on Lacan and anarchism except to confirm or develop an already established critical response. The anarchist needs this opposition to what they detect as a master – all the more to establish their own passive mastery. Lacan teaches us that passive mastery is an all the more cruel form of mastery. Recall the analogy of the ‘postmodern father’ developed by Zizek: the traditional father will tell you ‘go to see your grandmother!’ and if you don’t like it, you can transfer all your anger onto your father: ‘He is MAKING me go!’ The postmodern father says: ‘do you want to see your grandmother?’ Here, the ruthless authoritarian father is forcing you to be responsible for your failure to want to see your grandmother. You have failed in your moral obligation to be a good grandson.

Anarchists are the postmodern fathers of theory and practice.

There is one avenue through which we can approach the question of anarchism and Lacanian psychoanalysis — through the question of ‘mastery.’ Not so long ago the anarchist journal I manage (ADCS) started receiving articles that dealt with the question of ‘voluntary in-servitude.’ The idea put forward was that the political task was to voluntarily withdraw from oppressive and exploitative relations. Recall Gustav Landaeur’s famous suggestion that the state is a relationship and that the best way to destroy the state is therefore to change our close social relationships, to reroute them, etc. Many anarchists in Canada took this to mean that they had to disengage from the militant confrontational political work of revolution and partake in autonomous community-based organizing. The key principles were ‘groundless solidarity’ and ‘mutual aid.’ I call this the ‘long revolution’ to invoke the spirit of Raymond Williams.

By the time we’ve constructed our revolutionary communities, the master won’t even know that we cut his balls off! Ironically, this principle was first put forward by the Lacanian anarchist Richard J.F. Day in his book Gramsci is Dead. The idea was that it broke the loop-back circuit of demand. (But did it replace the loop-back circuit of the drive?)

What we soon discover is that we can only run away from the problem of mastery precisely by returning to it as a question. What anarchist studies rightfully convinces Lacanians about is that the desire to live without a master is itself an important desire. It is important because it highlights the essential question through which some knowledge might be had. Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches us that the effort to run away from the master is itself a form of passive mastery. Recall, for example, Freud’s discussion of “Little Hans” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Was it not the case that this little boy mastered his mother’s absence precisely by making his own little toy disappear from view? The problem of mastery is here much more pronounced because it has entered into the symbolic apparatus – one controls through the symbolic what one couldn’t control in the real.

We must become aware of the fact that mastery is not always exercised actively. More often, and this is especially the case for anarchists, mastery is exercised passively. Who reading this who calls himself an anarchist has not witnessed the attempt by other anarchists to control a situation by acting passively? We see it in consensus decision making, through calm and quiet speech, and so on. For example, I once co-owned an anarchist cafe. There was a proposal to add non-vegan muffins to the stock. It was blocked by a person during consensus decision making. At the next meeting, the proposition was raised as a negative proposal: “can we NOT include non-vegan muffins?” The proposer’s friend blocked the motion and the non-vegan muffins were added to the stock.

This attitude toward passive mastery is particularly prominent among inexperienced therapists who, like many Yoga instructors in this country, believe to be rid of the problem of mastery simply by lowering the tone and cadence of the voice. This is nothing but a pretense at liberation. During my own personal analysis I blurted out, unexpectedly: “I could be the master by pretending not to be!” Is this not my life story as an anarchist? It was a condition made particularly noticeable by an American Lacanian named Bruce Fink, who wrote: “[O]ne might have to watch out for a tendency to present oneself as a master at non-mastery like that found in certain spiritual practices, and akin to the tendency to promote oneself as the most humble of the humble in certain religious groups.” Anarchists are among the best in the political world of presenting themselves in this way.

How to avoid the problem of mastery? Confront it! Anarchists have at least this correct: they must raise the question of mastery overtly. For those who suffer from involuntary servitude it is not even a question: the difficulty is always to make these slaves aware that they are voluntarily serving a master. What, then, about the possibility of voluntary servitude? This is certainly what many Lacanians present themselves as, voluntary slaves: they choose to be ‘unfree’ and to follow the master, Lacan.

We are not yet rid of the question of mastery. In some sense, we have only avoided it by retreating into passive mastery. We must think through the end of the question of mastery, and of our implication in the situation of slavery. In addition to active and passive slavery, we must also be attentive to: (1) the mastery of death as a real intervention which can not be imagined but from which we derive some excitement, (2) the mastery of ‘figures’ and ‘bodies’ which are often incarnated in the figure of the state, in political masters, in corporations — these are the fake masters which are given more power than they in fact have, and; (3) the mastery which must be present in order for thinking and political action to occur at all (without which there is no possibility for the question of mastery to occur).

Newman was wrong, then. It is not that we need an uncontaminated point of departure for politics – the subject – for there to be any political intervention worthwhile. Rather, it is precisely the opposite: without a master, that is, without the third type of master, there is no possibility for subjectivity.

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2 thoughts on “On the Question of Mastery: Is a Lacanian / Anarchist Intervention Possible?

  1. the issues here parallel it seems to me ones i was discussing with a mathematical logigian about ‘nothing’. he was asking me about physics (since while its not my field i took some since it overlaps with my fresearch at the time in biology—all the fields are the same these days actually in terms of the math) . Can one come from a place of uncontminated ‘notjhing’. Is there a blank slate (as is duiscussed in psyhcology, cogbnitive scienes, etc.) ? The logician i think has some sort of ‘deist view—the universe could not be created from nothing. (Many physicists disagrewe, but it depends how you define nothing). Stirner likely had parents, genetic dispositions (eg to be male, which also had a social component), edcation. I gave the logician some references in physics, he pointed me to Husserl.

    looked at husserl, like i looked at lacan, etc. I guess there is ‘lacanian therapy’. (nowDAYS MOST SEEMS TO BE COGNITIVE/BIOCHEMICAL BASED). i have to look at these discussions as ‘mythology’. i do think alot of myths in a sense restate scienctific theories, one thing i find interesting is why people prefer different sorts of mythologies—or musics (or even friends, sex partners, other entertainments like sports…)

    oh yeah—the da idea that richard day created the idea of destroying the state by ignoring it and becoming autonomous i dought he would agree with. his book is partyl a historical discussion of all these sorts of movements—from thoreau, to brooks farm to indigenous communities, to intentiaonakl communitires, squats, autonomous zones, people who get opff the grid…. one thing i dont like about alot of the anarchists i have met is they sort of try to apprpriate movements—they see some indigenous tribe (maybe in a struggle), and decide to switch from hanging out at the mall and mcdonald’s to go there and join, as well as advise the people there that they are ‘anarchists’ (even if they were too stupid and infoerior to know it), so we are all one, and should show mutual aid (eg buy my magazine, give me food and a place to stay). Sortuh like carpetbaggers too often.

  2. Have you read Arendt? If so, I’m curious to learn your thoughts. One way of reading her attempts to think politically — especially in The Human Condition, Between Past and Future, and On Revolution — is that mastery belongs to the private realm of meeting (biological) necessity, whereas non-mastery, or freedom, belongs to the public, political world. For her, political freedom is radically non-sovereign: its exercise requires open, durable spaces (or institutions) in which humans may appear in their sheer plurality, and thus widely discuss opinions, debate among one another, form careful judgments, initiate action. Persuasion, and neither sovereign force/violence nor compulsion, characterizes political interaction, as only “human beings” are political actors — never “humanity”.

    In my judgment, she convincingly demonstrates that the Western tradition of political philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle onward, has essentially conceived politics as a fabrication/production process, and thus seen it as a means to achieve any number of ends. Hence the danger of political actors effectively treating other humans as raw material to sculpt, like St. Paul’s God, who views humans as clay to mold as He pleases, according to His higher purposes. This God is a master, a sovereign, and the danger holds whether or not actors wield the force of the State.

    Arendt’s distinction between the public and private owes far more to a reinterpretation of the Greek polis than modern liberalism, but is still fraught with difficulties. Even if the men of the polis “neither ruled nor were ruled”, they were able to take up the bios politikos only on the firm basis of slavery and patriarchal rule. One doesn’t have to long for a “return” to hunting and gathering bands to notice that cities, throughout recorded history, all seem to have based themselves on schemes of coercive labor, e.g., slavery or servitude. Or to laugh along with Anacharsis (in Plutarch’s Life of Solon), who scoffed at the great lawgiver for “thinking that he could check the injustice and rapacity of the citizens by written laws, which were just like spiders’ webs; they would hold the weak and delicate who might be caught in their meshes, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.” To turn Arendt’s distinction against her, it seems a prevailing condition of private servitude deforms the public, political world, even forecloses upon it in advance.

    In closing, I’ve begun to find the very word autonomy suspicious: it seems to signify the repressed longing for mastery/sovereignty and resentment of plurality, finitude. If the word gains currency and approval among anarchists …

    I gather these thoughts are somewhat at odds with yours (and implicitly “deconstructionist”?), so I would like to hear more concerning this “third type of master” you’ve evoked.

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