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.

Roman Logic

The Roman tradition of Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (“Proof is incumbent upon him who asserts, not on him who denies”) must be deconstructed. We’ve relied on this model since at least the 6th century. It has been the basis for the “presumption of innocence” or “innocent until proven guilty” model that is currently in question by the mainstream.

I think it is proper that we question it.

However, it is not enough to simply question it. If all we do is question it then we leave it to somebody else to provide the answer. So, lets deconstruct it a little bit. The first clause states that it is the one who affirms something who bears the responsibility of defending that proposition, and the second clause states that it is not him who denies the allegation.

Thus, it is improper to begin with the assumption that those who are charged with something are guilty. It is much rather proper to assert that those who are making a claim against somebody hold the burden of proof. No doubt, this produces all kinds of injustices in the world. Yet, it has been our model for centuries.

I was once in an anarchist collective that relied on consensus decision making. We explicitly did not make use of Roman logic. As a consequence, we found collective decision-making quite arbitrary – or, at least, some of us noticed that there were some people in the collective who discovered how to abuse the system. The following occurred regularly:

Meeting #1:

Proposal: George proposes that we add non-vegan muffins to stock.
Rejections: 7 collective members.
Decision: We do not serve non-vegan muffins. Decision was blocked.

This decision is based on the logic that if just one person negates, then the decision is blocked. All is well at this point, and justice seems to be served. However:

Meeting #2:

Proposal: George proposes that we DO NOT add non-vegan muffins to our product list.
Rejections: 1 collective member rejects, the proposer.
Decision: We DO serve non-vegan muffins.

You can see the logical problem. In both cases, a proposal can be made to pass if constructed either negatively or positively. As the size of the group grows, the probability of situation #2 happening increases.

However, if our collective had made a decision to not allow NEGATIVE proposals then we would have constructed a logic that could defend itself against this sort of abuse. The same happens when we favor an inverted version of Roman logic: “Proof is NOT incumbent upon him who asserts, but on him who denies.”)

This leaves open the question of what constitutes a proof. Certainly, I am of the opinion that a proof does not need to be sanctioned by the state, police, or judicial system for it to be a proof. Many things can count as proofs. The debate about what constitutes a proof is an important one. But before we can have the more important discussion we need to be sure we are not defenders of a logic which places the burden of proof on those against whom a charge has been brought.

Anarchism: Real Politics or Politics of the Act?

This is a bit of a response to a post made earlier this evening on Levi Bryant’s blog about anarchism. Apologies for the scattered ideas and the poor writing.

I’ve been an anarchist for more than half of my life. While I am often charged with being an “armchair anarchist,” the truth is that I spent the greater part of my life on the front lines tossing bricks, building autonomous spaces, and experimenting with different anarchist practices. I’ve been arrested, I’ve hiked the country, I’ve grown gardens, I’ve had dinner parties, I’ve worn black masks, I’ve fought with police officers, I’ve disrupted the meetings of members of the power elite, and I’ve participated in conspiracies against the government, and so on. I write this knowing very well that it marks me as a target. However, I also say it knowing very well that these are no longer practices that I find compelling as an anarchist. I suggest that these are reified forms of political activity which are every bit as recuperated as voting. As it happens, I’ve also spent a significant part of my life reading through the works of the great anarchists of our tradition. I write this so that it can be known that I am fully aware that many people will not recognize the anarchist tradition that I offer for them here. The point is that I recognize it, and, moreover, I am capable of defending it. Anarchism is a tradition, and a tradition which is well worth defending. Moreover, the point is that I see great value in thinking about our tradition, and in thinking itself as a form of direct action.

In a book I wrote many years ago now, namely After Post-Anarchism, I argued that most of anarchist thinking has centred around an influential text by Peter Kropotkin (his “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”). Kropotkin went on to write an unfinished volumes on Ethics. The importance of Kropotkin’s work can not be overstated. He is at the centred of the popular tradition, and unavoidable for thinking anarchists. Moreover, his point of departure, that is, ethics, has defined a trajectory of thought. As a result, many anarchists in this continent, including Uri Gordon, Andrej Grubacic, Simon Critcley, Richard J. F. Day, etc, have argued, in each their own way, that anarchism has been to ethics what Marxism has been to strategy. The point that I am trying to make is that Levi Bryant is correct to suggest that ethics has been central to the anarchist tradition. And so as anarchists we can make a choice: we can accept the tradition as it has been popularly read through Kropotkin, we can reject that tradition (and, perhaps, build our own), or we can reread that tradition to discover entirely new ethical orientations. In After Post-Anarchism, I attempted to do all of the above. I rejected the anarchist tradition and found that at its base it was really a nihilist ethical tradition. But I also offered new readings of the tradition, through Kropotkin and Stirner.

I have argued that anarchism is not itself an ideal form of society, and that it does not necessarily teach us how to act in the world. It does not make prescriptions about action in the world. It does not suggest that building a commune or connecting the syndicates is the way to an ideal society. Anarchists have always tried to distance themselves from lofty ideals and normative abstractions. And so I attempt to demonstrate that anarchism does not necessarily signify “without law” or even “without masters.” Both of these conceptions share a similar utopian presumption about the anarchist tradition. Some of the most interesting and ignored contemporary texts in our continent have reread Kropotkin’s work to discover something similar to what I am outlining here. For example, Brian Morris and Allan Antliff have discovered that Kropotkin was, like Stirner, against these ideals. Allan Antliff has written that Kropotkin’s ethics offer a “refusal to model individuals according to an abstract idea.” This certainly sounds like something Stirner could have written. At base, then, the abstract ideal of freedom, of life without a master, would also be subject to intense anarchist scrutiny.

Some thinkers, notably Larry Gambone, have demonstrated that Proudhon and Kropotkin were against utopia because it was restrictive of personal liberty. Utopia was something that was too violent for the individual, and even for the collective. I think that a more interesting reading would argue that Kropotkin, being against abstract normative ideals, was against utopia precisely because it wasn’t violent enough. In this understanding, the problem is not that anarchism has been understood as an ethics of living without a master but that it suffers from ignoring the properly violent and traumatic dimension of the real. And this is what a politics of the real also suffers from – the real is traumatic, and we do not want to live within it. Moreover, there are times when the symbolic dimension of life collapses into the real, hides out there, and reemerges as the zone of freedom. I recall a painting by Ad Reinhardt named Abstract Painting which presents to us what immediate appears to be pure black. I maintain that this is the space of the real, of freedom, of thinking. I also note that if one remains in front of the appearance for long enough, one might discern the various shades of black that separate and give structure to the painting (see here). Reinhardt explained: “[In this painting,] there is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.” Well, this is precisely what happens in the real. Sometimes when the distribution of the sensible gives rise to the real, the uncounted, there emerges, deep in the shadows, the hegemony of the straight line. We discover that nothing has really changed. And this is what I find so disconcerting about an anarchism which begins with the assumption that life without a master is possible.

On the contrary, we negotiate with the real. We want to work something out from it, to work through the anxiety that it produces. And we want to do so with courage and conviction. We must be prepared to do the long a difficult work of thinking, of staring at the real and discovering what within it has the structure of the old world. Finally, we must seek a new justice. We must recognize that utopian interpretations of the anarchist tradition go against a deeper and more interesting reading which argues that anarchism is about seeking out and uncovering the masters concealed from the world but which nonetheless subject us to their laws (even and especially when we believe ourselves to be free of them). But anarchism, if it is to be a political doctrine, must also forever find a way to renew a sense of the subject. As Saul Newman argued so many years ago, there is no genuine political philosophy without a point of departure, uncontaminated by power, outside. This outside could be something rather paradoxical: an outside that exists deeply on the inside. We can not lose this sense of the nothing which resists suture, which forces itself inside of the world.

Finally, Levi’s conception of anarchism is that it is always at odds with the vanguard party. On this point, I am in agreement. However, when he employs a particular reading of the Lacanian plus-one as the empty place, he seems to reintroduce the possibility for the reemergence of the vanguard party. As it happens, Jodi Dean and others have already described the vanguard party as the empty place or plus-one of politics. This is why we can not model anarchist politics on the plus-one in practice. We must instead rethink the plus-one from the standpoint of the Lacanian tradition. The first thing we notice is that the plus-one has the power of achieving a sort of direct action at the level of thought: it compels us to think of the master, of all masters, as castrated. But it does not compel us toward utopian presumptions that the master does not or can not in fact exist. The master is the minimal possibility of freedom. Without the master, nothing is permitted. Anarchists know this more than any other – they get off on interrogating the master, without whom they would have no proper existence, or identity. They require the master at the level of thought. The task of anarchism is, then, to castrate the master, and then, moreover, to discover new masters. Who are the masters today? Are they the same as yesterday? Anarchism is the process of thinking and castrating the master and not, as it were, the development of a fantasy about a world without masters.

Stirner’s Subject

For many decades the words “egoism,” “individualism,” and “nihilism,” have been used as synonyms by anarchists. This permits a fixing of the concept governing Max Stirner’s book „Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum“. These fixations determine in advance our reading of the text by accenting those words which have carried unfortunate connotations for so many decades, thus leading us to believe that there may be some unitary and transparent self at the foundation of Stirner’s Egoist thinking. This misreading is no different from the one which has cursed Cartesian philosophy for so many years, and which has permitted, quite paradoxically, a thinking which has nothing to say about existence. I state this without waiting another moment: these scholars do not think, and ought therefore not exist.

We must emphasize the nihilist moment in Stirner’s work so as to provide a counter-point to the Cartesian boogeyman erected by enemies of thought. Stirner’s self is not really the ego misleadingly translated from Freud’s work. Rather, it is the subject as we understand it in the Lacanian tradition. Stirner’s subject, his creative nothing, is grounded on something absent or missing from the normative abstractions governing daily life. It is a subject which forces its way into the appearances of the world – it makes room for itself in the world, by forcing itself as truth. It is a subject based on nothing which, at its creative moment, forces itself in opposition to the deceptive process of suturing. Stirner reminds us that we must not avoid acknowledging the subject as this creative element missing from symbolic life. Put differently, at the heart of all appearances, spooks, normative abstractions, and so on, there stands something which can not be contained or captured, something which exceeds all attempts to suture it, and something which is, from the standpoint of the world of comforting appearances, properly traumatic.

Stirner concludes his book with the radical forcing of the subject:

They say of God, “Names name thee not.” That holds good of me: no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names. […] In the unique one the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, of which he is born. Every higher essence above me, be it God, be it man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness, and pales only before the sun of this consciousness. If I set my affair on myself, the unique one, then my concern rests on its transitory, mortal creator, who consumes himself, and I may say: All things are nothing to me.

Thinking Anarchism

I have lived more than half of my life as an anarchist. The majority of that time was spent learning about anarchism as a type of activism. As a result, for many years of my life I believed quite strongly that anarchism was nothing more than a particular subset of activism. You can understand this as a statement about the orientation of anarchism toward practice. Activism, for me, was something that one did in the world, it was act-based and not, as it were, thought-based. It took me at least a decade to begin to disrupt this prevailing orientation. Now I believe that it is quite the opposite: activism is something like a subset of anarchism, or, to be more precise, something which can be partially united with anarchism. But it is explicitly not something that can be entirely reduced to it. Rather, thinking, it seems to me, already has within it the possibility of acting, of, to borrow a phrase from Alejandro de Acosta, “direct action at the level of thought.”
At this point I am willing to maintain that anarchism is *not* a practice. I realize that this goes against much of the tradition that we know and love, and that, more than that, it goes against the prevailing orientation of the pro-anarchist milieu. In fact, it goes against my own previous understanding. But the point must be made, and it must be made well: anarchism is primarily a type of thinking. Already I have two concepts which deserve to be interrogated by all anarchists: act and thinking. We shall find, I have no doubt, that in order to act, and to act authentically in the world such that our results are meaningful from the perspective of revolutionary strategy, one must begin to think what it means to act. To these two concepts I would like to add another: tradition. 


At the very beginning of this blog I used the word tradition in a fairly casual way. Tradition is something we take for granted. Naive anarchists often claim that if anarchists had a tradition it would be necessary that we destroy it. In this understanding, tradition is something which is an authority, and, moreover, which coerces us, and perhaps robs us of our freedom. However, tradition also authorizes our freedom. To Dostoevsky’s point that “if God is dead, everything is permitted,” Lacan reformulated: “If God is dead, then nothing is permitted.” Well, it is the same with tradition: if tradition is dead, if it has no authority, then freedom is not permitted. This means that we have no way to transmit our experiences as anarchists to future generations. As a result, anarchism dies at fairly young age, as it always has. And so we must locate within our tradition points which make anarchism relevant for the experiences of our time, and, moreover, to the people who make use of the tradition.

The question arises: how can we locate within tradition these points? Most of us tend to believe that traditions are hard knowledges, things which do not change, as if they are hard-coded into history. The task of thinking consists of disrupting this understanding of tradition. Previously, many anarchists have been content with this understanding of tradition as hard knowledge, and this is why on the one hand, we have dogmatists whose reading of the tradition is so fixed that it no longer speaks to our experience, or, on the other hand, we have nihilists (the bad kind) who reject tradition entirely. The latter group of people do not realize that by rejecting tradition for being authoritarian one also inadvertently presumes that tradition has more power than it actual does. And so we must think. Thinking is always a practice of reading tradition for new points of departure. And through this process we find the ability to act.

To act is never to repeat, unless that repetition disrupts the prevailing orientation of the world. Tradition, in some sense, is precisely a form of repetition. And so to act is to produce a new form of repetition into the world. We produce something that can be repeated through a language that can be understood. An act is not a repetition of an old tactic that has never worked within this world. It is the construction of a new tradition within and against the coordinates of the prevailing order. An act finds what from the very beginning disrupts the present and opens up a hole in the future. As an anarchist, this has been my experience. From the very beginning I have been thinking about the possibility for acting.

And so this leads me to a plea. If, on the one hand, there are more anarchists within the university than ever before, and if, on the other hand, anarchism, as a body of thought, no longer seems to have anything holding it together in the form of a tradition – or, dare I say it, in the form of a serious journal, then the only hope we have for the future is to renew the tradition. I once described this as fortifying the troops, but that is an unfortunate idiom – the point is that we need to act now to save our tradition precisely so that an authentic act – and make no mistake about it, anarchism is *the* thinking of authentic acts, what anarchism offers politics as a form of thinking – can remain possible. There may very well be other avenues for thinking the political act, I have no doubt about it. However, I believe, as I hope many of you do, that anarchism still offers the most fertile conceptual toolkit. Our tradition has always been a thinking of the act.

Anarchism, Logic, Revolution

We can learn a lot about the relationship between logic and revolution by engaging with the mainstream. Take for example Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video at the 2009 MTV music video awards. Taylor begins her speech and then Kanye West grabs the microphone and says: “Yo, Taylor Imma Let you finish but Beyonce had the best video of all time!”

Is this not the logic that anarchists have adopted in the contemporary period? It often seems that the best we can hope for is a temporary interruption of capitalist rituals, a quick shout out to communism, all the while intending to let capitalism continue functioning as it always has been.

In effect, we are saying: “Yo, capitalism, imma let you finish, but communism is the best political system of all time.”

We need to stop being the Kanye Wests of the revolution.

See: “The Three Logics of Negation”