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.


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”

The Anarchist’s Passion

Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. […] All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root -Emma Goldman.

Within the last few decades there has been a growing awareness of the import of anarchist political philosophy. This suggests that anarchist political philosophy is not really a political philosophy at all – it is something else. At the very least, it is considerably flexible, interdisciplinary, and open to multiple (often divergent) procedures for accessing truth. Anarchist political philosophy, it has been recently claimed, was always a form of “Cultural Studies.” I accept this thesis with some minor reservations. Increasingly, I’m moved to consider anarchism as a poetry of the political. Anarchism fabricates, from the political situation, an ethical poetry which is, in the final analysis, poetry as such. What does this mean? It means that the real foundation of anarchist political philosophy has always been its contribution to meta-ethics (as well as normative ethics). However, the general form in which this contribution has been transmitted has always been in the manner of a poet – the anarchist struggles to say something new and so is forced, more often than not, toward posturing and pretension.

Let me make my point in as direct a way as I’m capable: today anarchism has been better capable of expressing its original struggle; namely, that anarchism is always a struggle with language. American scholars have noted this with exceptional clarity (from Roger Farr to Sandra Jeppesen) but the point has always been this: anarchism, in the final analysis, views language as its prison-house. And so anarchists resort to rhetoric and impassioned judgement, to staunch irrationality and to tautological precepts; the point, in every case, is to seduce the other into accepting or rejecting the moral axioms which are, in the final analysis, nevertheless entirely ungrounded. Those who have read and understood my book from 2007 (After Post-Anarchism) will understand the source of this claim. Anarchism, as a meta-ethical position, essentially grounds itself on nothing. And it is from nothing that anarchism stammers, stutters, works at beginning, .. only ever a beginning …, and attempts to not only speak but to finally say something new. And yet this is precisely what anarchism is incapable of doing. Why, one might ask, is anarchism incapable of saying something new? It is because if anarchism said something new (1) nobody would accept it, and (2) the anarchist wouldn’t know it to be new. In both cases we are dealing with a temporal matter: the anarchist acts too soon, with too much passion, and without time enough to sustain the moment of the initial eruption of novelty.

I hope that readers will forgive me for my critique of the tradition which has housed me for the greater part of my life. My point for now is rather to sort out what anarchism still offers the revolutionary milieu and, moreover, what we should always remember about it. We should never turn our backs on anarchism precisely because of its faults. Anarchism ignites a fire – anarchism ignites passion, entices the cultural libido, and encourages the heart to beat a little faster. Such passion is worthy of stimulating thought and action. We could have a billion committed revolutionaries, but they may not yet be ignited with the passion required to act. Yet, of course, passion is also counter-revolutionary. Anybody who has been in love knows this – some people kill you with their love. They love you too much. Great wars and mass slaughters are the result of passion and love. And so we must always have passience, and this, precisely, is what the anarchist is incapable of having. Passience requires the passionate revolutionary to be patient – to posture at something else. Perhaps, to posture at the white picket fence, the church leader, and so on. Power corrupts, always. And so only those who have revolutionary passience are capable of repelling the juggernaut of conformity that comes with power.

Of course, I am not urging anarchists to obtain positions of power within the system they find morally deplorable. Those who find such a system morally deplorable would do better to remain outside of it; this is the posturing of which anarchism finds itself to be at fault. Those who are most incapable of ruling rule with relative ease precisely because they have shed themselves of the posturing which holds them back. Similarly, those whose rule has become a joke – and we are increasingly in the presence of such rulers – use the joke as the rule. And why shouldn’t we? Isn’t it the case that those most unfit to rule are often best exchanged for those who are best fit to rule but refuse to do so on moral principles?

Notes on the Problem of Change in the Classroom

I delivered these notes at a seminar at Trent University two years ago.

The question posed to us concerns the possibility of drawing lines of connection from our own research toward other points within the academic world. There is the point in space occupied by my research and there is another point in space occupied by the current state of the academic world; and so, two unities in space. The exercise consists of merely drawing the straight line and producing the map. The academic order, or public, is structured by the measure of relationship between our own research and other bodies of research within the market place of ideas. If the measure of identity between these two points is strong then there is a strong and coherent image, and that is good for the repetition of the order. If the measure between these two points is weak then the research is, to some extent, absent from the world. The paradox is that if the measure of identity between these two points turns out to be a measure of difference, as it is in the latter case, then the opportunity exists for the research to harbor the possibility for an encounter with singular change.

I believe that part of the problem is that our commitment today is necessitated in loco parentis. In other words, we have before us the complicated problem of the relationship between desire and knowledge. On this topic, Renata Salecl has written the following: “In the discourse of the university […] the teacher is bound to the knowledge [that exists] outside of himself; the teacher is in the role of an intermediary who transfers this outer order to the pupils through his teaching […] The teacher’s speech is obligatory for the pupils insofar as it is bound to the teacher’s position as an authority mediating knowledge.” As student researchers, we are initially on the outside of this topology of the academic order, and we find that our teachers are somewhere in between the order and our own research. And so there is a relationship of transference between all of us as colleagues and this relationship hinders our ability to make a singular change in our own research.

My supposition is that all of this occurs as a consequence of the emergence of the sujet suppose savoir; a supposed subject of knowledge in and around us in the classroom. The problem of the supposed subject of knowledge is that it is a subject constructed by students and projected onto their teachers and colleagues as inter-mediators of knowledge; but it is also a subject that is embraced and assumed by our teachers and colleagues. For example, as students, we seek validation for our research from our teachers, and our teachers seek to be validated by the advice that they give to their students. But it is possible that the validation that we receive traps all of us into believing that the results of our research are singular when they are really quite regular for the academic order. If we allow ourselves to be duped by the sujet suppose savoir then we by necessity do not allow ourselves the possibility to produce a singular change within – and through the transmission of – our research. In fact, the imperative of university discourse is to reduce this knowledge into the regular change of the academic world through the function of rationalization and legitimation that are granted to us by the market place of ideas or by the telos of academic life. With a little bit of help from the sujet suppose savoir, university discourse compels students to reduce any possibility for singular change into the mere possibility of regular change.

There are looming questions at hand. Within a program which is itself a novelty within the academic world, amidst the anxiety of its future, is there not an imperative to rationalize and legitimize its own position in relation to the market place of ideas within the order of the academic world? Perhaps what students are here experiencing is the translocation of university discourse – there may be something like a passing of responsibility from the program onto the student. It is not the program which must prove itself as a player in the overall market place of ideas, it is the student who must prove himself on behalf of the program. In other words, the student must do the program’s work. The student must rationalize and legitimize his research to the benefit of the program inasmuch as the program itself remains singular within the order of the academic world. The image of the good research project – mapped as it is by the line connecting it to the regular change of the academic order – demands that the student know his research without thinking or understanding his research. The student works to keep up appearances rather than to disrupt the appearances. Under such conditions, the student’s only recourse is to have the revolutionary content of his research domesticated or gentrified by the savage desires of the academic order in which the student is localized.

Inasmuch as the research project does not stand on its own, does not restrict itself to an evaluation of its own intrinsic worth, or does not stand as a means to its own ends, then the knowledge of this project stands as the justification of the scholars very existence vis-a-vis the market. The student’s only recourse for justifying his research project is to appeal to its contribution to a field of knowledge. The image we are invited to draw for ourselves is an image of exploitation in its most basic sense. The burden is on the student to not only prove himself and his research worthy within the market place of ideas, but it is also to prove himself capable of reproducing the discourse through which his exploitation has been made manifest. And to reproduce this exploitation, it is first necessary to produce an image or a blueprint. The aspiring professional must clearly draw the lines of connection within the academic world and demonstrate that these are strong rather than weak connections, that the image is coherent rather than fuzzy. The student must demonstrate, through an evaluation of the measure of his research, that he himself is capable of transmitting regular change within the context of a professional career.

My belief is that this is precisely the ideological super-structure of the neo-liberal university. Against this trend, we have the opportunity to defend and to be proud of our colleagues’ research. We do not have to flee from the anxiety of a program that struggles to legitimize itself, nor do we need to fall back onto banal forms of legitimacy within the order of the academic market place. We ought to defend the absolute autonomy and singularity of our colleagues’ work. We have the opportunity to transform the sujet suppose savoir of the university into an analytical subject. It is only with a basic protection for the autonomy of our research that singular change can not only remain a possibility – but it can also remain transmittable within the academic order, if only for the shortest period of time.

There are possibilities to produce new orders within the academic world. We can produce new publications, and fundamentally new research projects. With that possibility comes the anxiety of producing meaningless or non-productive research. What we have here – no matter how weak the lines or how fuzzy the image of the research project – is an opportunity to defend the notion of pantry. With the notion of pantry, we ought not begin with the expectation that a use for the research might arise. That is, the anxiety of pantry is precisely the anxiety of not having any guarantees. And so it is a risk, and with this risk there are real anxieties.

I know this in my personal experience. I’ve already published … And yet all of these publications were on topics traditionally excluded from, and resistant to, university discourse. I have consistently refused to map my research in relation to the world around me. Instead, I have participated in the production of new orders within the academic world. My claim is perhaps even a bit naïve: if we do good research, and if we have colleagues with whom we can regularly discuss the nuances of our research, and if we can make our research compelling by demonstrating conviction – it will be published and it will find its audience. Singular change is not a marketing exercise, it is an exercise in conviction and truth. And so to be a good student requires that we focus on our work, and on our conviction, and less on the images and blueprints that reduce our work to another product within the market place of ideas.

Let us suppose that our education here today is not strictly teleological. Perhaps we came to the university to finance, protect, and encourage research of singular quality. In this case, the university offers a haven of sorts, and we should thus hope to widen the freedoms offered to us by this haven. The university is also a place wherein we build character, virtues, precisely through our research practices, and then we are released into other worlds to make changes in those worlds. However, perhaps there really is a goal to obtain a position within the academic world or to get published; I am not convinced that this goal should come before the consequences of good research. To confuse the order of these operations is to encourage the sort of superficiality that is a standard for the neo-liberal order surrounding and penetrating into our haven.

I do not know where I position my current research in relation to all of this. I have never known. Moreover, I do not believe that there is a sujet suppose savoir capable of knowing on my behalf. Rather, I remain committed to the possibility for truth, for singular change, and insofar as I remain committed to these projects I also, as a consequence, remain committed to my research first and foremost and not to the superficial measurements of the academic order.

Against the New Communists: I maintain that singular change is fundamentally different than the regular change of the vanguard party. The subject of singular change can be an individual person in a battle against himself, it can be a student in an argument with his teacher, an analysand with his analyst, or a social movement in a battle with the state. The subject has various scales, and so does the change. Against the position of Traditional Anarchists, I maintain that there is an outside to power, that the state is not the center of power, and that power does not operate uni-directionally to repress an otherwise creative human nature. This is the political conception of the line which constitutes the image and it can only operate within the image of regular change, via the naïve blueprint of revolution (i.e., if we remove the state then the naturally benign human nature will be free to flourish and create). Against the post-anarchists and the psychoanalysts, I maintain that the outside to power is an ontological outside. It is a rupture in a world but from the provocation of objects and things. The outside is not reducible to the residue of the real within the symbolic. In other words, I offer an ontological point of departure rather than an epistemological point of departure. I maintain the primacy of the inanimate thing rather than the recuperable object of desire. I maintain that there are two orders of the real and that we must shift our focus to the first order of the real and dislodge the subject from its place of privilege. Finally, against the readings of Einstein within humanities scholarship, I maintain that the theories of relativity are not theories of epistemological relativism or subjectivism. They are theories of truth.

All of that constitutes my field, and I proudly call my field Cultural Studies [note: I no longer proudly call my field Cultural Studies]. It also has many sub-fields: continental philosophy, post-continental philosophy, Lacanian psychoanalysis, political philosophy, the philosophy of physics and science, anarchist studies, and meta-ethics. It also opens up the possibility to be its own area of specialization. It is not uncommon. In the 2000s, I helped to pioneer an entirely new area of specialization within the academy called post-anarchism. I did this by publishing some books, establishing some research networks, writing some articles, and beginning the world’s first post-anarchist scholarly journal. If I would have begun by calling my area of specialization Lacanian studies, anarchist studies, social movement studies, or anything similar, I would not have been able to envision the singularity of my work. If I would have begun by mapping my research rather than understanding my research, I would not have been able to envision the singularity of my work. My journal, my books, my articles would have never made an impact on the academic world. Finally, I have contributed to the establishment of a new order of academic publishing – para-academic publishing. We have a large network of publishers involved, many journals and book publishers, and we encourage and promote real innovations in research.

All of this leads me to my claim: against the drawing of maps, I advocate the discovery of ever new territories. I advocate the possibility for the establishment of new publics, new orders, within and against the academic order. And I advocate that this is the first step for the possibility of an encounter with singular change in our own research and within the academic world in which we find ourselves. This first step begins with the quiet space of thinking and not with the public presentation and mapping of research. If we confuse the order of operations then we are destined to map territories that have already been discovered.

What is a Change?

What follows is a presentation that I gave two years ago at Trent University. It provoked some incredible hostility in the audience – notably among older professors – and I was forced to abandon the project. 

I want to begin by posing five crucial questions to you; crucial, because they are pertinent to our situation here today.

First, what is an Audience?

Key: A for Audience


We take this for granted in our experience here today, that there is an audience, but what are you as an audience? Can you be collectively defined by any precise property that will indicate, for me, a shared point of reference? Of course, if there is a shared point of reference then it will be easier for me to transmit something meaningful to all of you because we will have a foundation upon which we can rely. In this case, are you all, collectively, something like a unified object, uniquely situated in space and defined by some precise property of your being here together?

Key: A for Audience, (a) for the audience as a unified object

(a) ——- A

This is the first group of questions.

Second, what is a Presentation? I presume that it is something that I give to you. Is the presentation then something that comes from me and moves toward you?

Key: A for Audience, (a) for the audience as a unified object, (a’) for myself as a unified object, // for diagonal line connecting (a) and (a’)



(a) ——- A

Is it a relation, emanating as if from another uniquely situated object in space; an object which for the moment goes by the name “Duane”? If a presentation is a relation then can I draw a line from my mouth to all of your ears; a line, such that, if we can visualize it, an image is produced?  

Third, what is a Speaker?

Key: A for Audience, (a) for the audience as a unified object, (a’) for myself as a unified object, // for diagonal line connecting (a) and (a’), S for Speaker

S  ——-  (a’)


(a) ——- A


 In other words, what am I in all of this besides the point that begins the line segment from mouth to ears? Am I also a unified object, uniquely situated in space, armed with particular knowledge acquired through careful study? Am I a supposed subject of knowledge? A subject supposed to demonstrate certain competencies for the university and for all of you here today?

Fourth, what is a Place? Is it the room within which we sit? Or is it the University, conditioned as it is by the rules that govern our original contribution to knowledge? We know that a Speaker always Presents something toward an Audience from within a particular Place. Is a Place the sum total of tacit symbolic rules that furnish the materials that make a presentation possible?

S  ——-  (a’)

        \\  //

(a) ——- A

Finally, what is the Effect of a Presentation? In other words, what sort of Encounter is there when these words hit those ears of yours? Will you feel moved by what I have to say? Will you fall in love with what I have to say? Will your prior research be affirmed by what I have to say such that you will achieve a more perfect consistency in your own thinking. Will you feel provoked by an Encounter of change?

In fact, these five groups of questions are not entirely divorced from my research. I do not address them in this particular way, but it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to argue that I’ve constructed, in my paper, the following formula for analyzing a change: I am here as a Speaker, giving a Presentation, to an Audience, in a Place, with the intention of provoking an Encounter.

So, I will admit something to you. I came here today with four different presentations. I wasn’t at all certain which one I would give. I was interested in understanding what kind of Relation would provoke the possibility for a change in the Audience. At one point I simply resolved that I would entertain you. I jotted down several obscene jokes and hoped for the best. If I couldn’t change you then I would at least entertain you. You should know that the sort of entertainment I had in mind was perfectly within the Relation that I originally asked you about – the presentation. To entertain is to keep up appearances, to maintain consistency in thought. Moreover, if we hyphenate the word we find that it is the tain, stretched across the hard surface of the wood, that produces a mirror. I would have entered the tain and perhaps I would have felt quite satisfied with myself. And maybe you would have been satisfied too.

When our goal is to enter the tain we are really partaking in a simple exercise. You can imagine yourselves as objects uniquely situated in space. We can call these objects, collectively, point B. And then there is the other object, me, situated uniquely in space. We can all this object, point A. So now we have the tain – but we must enter it. How do you do this? You take out your favorite colored crayon and draw a line from point A to point B. [At this point I connected (a) to (a’) using a colored marker.] And then you give your image to your mother for her approval. She’ll tell you that you’ve painted the picture that you were supposed to paint and you will feel like the pink panther for having painted the world in your colors. It sounds geometrical, and it is – it is what I’ve called the geometrical relation. [I wrote the word tain and image across the colored line.]

Step outside of our world here tonight and you’ll find this sort of geometry everywhere. In conversations with friends and fellow students, in conversations between activists and governments, in discussions between you and your supervisor or professors, you and your partner, you and your parents, and, most importantly, between you and yourself. When we believe ourselves to be pink panthers of the change, that is, when we believe ourselves to be the masters of change, we begin to notice that change happens. Certainly, change happens but not for a moment will a change of the form of change happen. One hopes that we will stop playing the pink panther and begin to think more like black panthers. Revolutionaries. But we are not masters of the revolution. Too much blood has been spilled pretending that we have been. Yet this geometrical world is the only one that we know, it maintains the consistency of our thinking. It is who we believe ourselves to be: we are Lacanians, Spinozians, Nietzscheans, Marxists, Deleuzians, etc – nobody can break us, we’ll bend our theories to overcome their gaps, lapses, limitations, etc! A philosopher named Laurelle has even gone so far as to claim that Philosophy begins with this sort of primordial decision. To be sure, we are absolutely blind to this decision insofar as it maintains the consistency of our thought.

We have an Object in a Place that shines a Relation to Provoke an Encounter. We know that the transmission or relation that maintains consistency of thinking is the one that shines a relation from one object in space toward another object in space – in other words, it is the one that draws an image and produces a mirror. There are changes that are made within the geometry of our thinking that nonetheless validate our prior decisional structures. This is a transmission that changes the audience, but only to the extent that the audience is changed into a more rigorous validation of the deeper consistency of their thinking. It is always a validation of the primordial decisional structure that hides in our blindspot.

There is a change of the question of change itself – a change of the very consistency of thinking about change. My claim is that Things have a power for the change of the consistency of thinking change. Things can provoke a Revolutionary Encounter. Moreover, my claim is that there are more masters than we have been capable of dreaming about in our philosophies. Certainly, there is the father of the primal horde, there is god, and so on. These are the masters whom set into motion the contradiction of non-castration, which, in turn, gave us our castration. Lacan had a great way of formalizing this. He wrote: there exists an x which is not submitted to castration. On account of this non-castrated master, every x is submitted to castration. So, to summarize, it was because the master was not castrated that the rest of us were castrated. This was Lacan’s description of masculine sexuation.

There are also those who, according to Lacan’s reading of Freud, are not entirely castrated. These people are not entirely castrated because there are not those who are not submitted to castration. It is because not everybody is not submitted to castration that not every x is submitted to castration. This was Lacan’s description of feminine sexuation.

So here we have our basic understanding of the phallic function in the Lacanian field. It is important because it precisely outlines the basic way in which the objet petit a, the object cause of our desire, is situated in relation to human animals. It is only after passing through the phallic function, being castrated, that we can have language. It is a language that is always cut by a shadow, or a trace, that we call objet petit a. The most difficult question you can ask right now is: what is objet petit a? I can’t answer that question today – it is something you can jot down and research yourself later if you are at all interested. The objet petit a undergoes several mutations in Lacan’s work. Yet, I maintain that its place never changes and that is what truly matters. For our purposes what matters is the place that the objet petit a occupies in Lacan’s formulae of the phallic function. To summarize: it is only after passing through the phallic function that the human animal has language; but this language is always cut by objet petit a.

So, some of you are probably beginning to scratch your heads a bit right about now – asking yourself, what does the phallic function have to do with an audience, a presentation, and so on. It has everything to do with it! – without castration, without objet petit a, there could be no transmission of anything from me to you. Moreover, without castration, none of you could be fantasizing about the sex you are or are not going to have after these presentations are finished. This is the point – the phallic function produces the possibility of fantasy. And it is, strictly speaking, the fantasy that there is a geometrical relation from me onto you in the form of this presentation.

Under the phallic function, one of the more promising and yet also more troublesome fantasies always comes from hysterics (promising for the purposes of change). Hysterics are those who ask their Symbolic master [S1] to account for himself in the way of his knowledge. You can imagine a young activist on the street with a sign on hand that reads: “Why so much money for bombs and so little money for education?” Here, his question begs a response. And a response will certainly come from his master. Whether or not that response does come matters very little because in the end it is the relationship that the hysteric paints toward his master that matters – it is his truthful expectation of a knowledgeable response from his master, incarnated in the state, for example. Lacan claims that the hysteric’s real question is: “What am I for the Other?” This is because the hysteric actually desires to be the answer for the enigma of the master’s desire.

In relation to the formulae of the phallic function, the hysteric wants to know: “Am I entirely submitted to castration or am I not entirely submitted to castration?” Traditionally, this has been read as: “Am I a man or am I a woman [other]?” The hysteric is so caught up with trying to satisfy the master, the man, and so on, that he finds himself identifying with him. However, he identifies with the master only because he wants to be desired as his other, as his woman. He identifies with him, as a man, only so that he can remain the object of his desire, his woman.

These traditional hysterical questions are important. The whole point of analysis is to hystericize the analysand into asking, or recognizing that he asks, these types of questions.

Now – I will need to jump ahead to my real argument, which I can not develop at all for you today.

I want to return to my original group of questions. Today I don’t want to assume the position of a point or an object in the game of connect the dots. I want to be more like the analyst who hystericizes the audience into asking the fundamental questions. This is the properly Lacanian position. Rather than shining a geometrical relation I could shine an obscure relation. And I have done thus with my cohort in the seminar room. Numerous times. I’ve learned that this alone doesn’t guarantee a change of the consistency of change. Sometimes you just sound like a psychotic. The problem is that the real analyst doesn’t usually speak that much – he is not a Speaker, not an S. He occupies the place of objet petit a and lets the analysand speak – his biggest challenge is to get the analyst to work. The analyst is the A.

I will put all my cards on the table now.

The new hysterical question, which is not original by any means, but is nonetheless a new question that has been opened up by the revolutionary philosophers of our day, is: “What am I for the Thing?” Again, it is not: “What am I for the [Symbolic] Other?” but “What am I for the [Real] Thing?” This strikes me as being implicated in a mastery that has nothing at all to do with the phallic function or the father of the primal horde, god, etc. Moreover, it is a mastery that is actually quite strange because it is involves the mastery that a Thing has over itself rather than a mastery that we have over objet petit a.

Certainly, the phallic function pulls us into its spell – even those of us whom are not entirely submitted to it. It is on this condition that we can speak – that we can string a few words together and transmit them meaningfully to an audience. The problem is that once the phallic function is set into motion it can not be entirely refused. By foreclosing the pull of the phallic function we also lose the possibility of any meaningful transmission or relation. We become rambling psychotics. People don’t understand us – even if we sound awfully smart! I pass no judgment: a schizophrenic out for a walk is better than one sitting on the analyst’s couch.

But what about a Thing? A Thing is its own master – it withdraws from our mastery. A Thing doesn’t pull, like the object of our phallic function, it withdraws. The Thing is not psychotic because it has not yet been pulled into the phallic function. The Thing withdraws from the phallic function, leaves a trace in our language as objet petit a.

Now I will shine an obscure relation for you: There exists a Thing which is not submitted to the phallic function and yet every x is submitted to the phallic function. It is on this condition that we can speak of Things and Subjects. The Conjunction. Or, rather, Subjects as Things.

I’ll give you a childish example. We know that chairs are for sitting on. This is what they are for us. But what are we for the chair? This is a very different question than what the chair is for us. Moreover, what is a chair for the floor below it? You can imagine a chair, quite like the one I use in my seminar room, which forces me to arch my back and place my arms on the table (or else let them dangle beside me). The chairs in this room force us to sit at a certain distance from one another, and so on. So there are relationships that emanate from the Thing, to us, from the Thing to another Thing, and from the Thing to us as another Thing.

Finally, instead of “Am I a Man or a Woman [Other]?,” we ask: “Am I a Subject or a Thing?” “Am I a Subject with my own little objet petit a, or, am I a Thing with my own little Subject?”

The new hysterical question changes the priority of the phallic function, pushing it to a secondary operation. Do we live in a world where there is a subject whom is the master, who has objects that are like little holes in his being, like objet petit a‘s, that allow him to put language to productive use? Or, do we live in reality where subjects are just particular types of Things among other Things?

Then we must ask how a change is possible between Things and also from a Thing toward a Subject. What is their Encounter with one another?

Can revolutions be built this way?

I heard a rumor that the French Revolution began because there was a diamond necklace, worth several million dollars, that seduced Marie Antoinette so much that she had to have it (even while the people of France had to save up for a month just to afford a loaf of bread). Apparently, the American revolution started over a bunch of tea. A revolution in northeastern Italy began in 49BC because of a river named the Rubicon. According to some research, the path of the 1917 Oklahoma rebellion was entirely dictated by the geographical availability of green corn. Imagine that – the availability of green corn dictating the fate of your uprising? It was salt that provoked a change in Gandhi and the people of colonized India.

Without a doubt, all of these are examples of man’s valuation of Things – for example, we have turned salt, bread, and tea into lost object’s of desire through taxation – however, the Things themselves, outside of taxation, outside of their status as objet petit a, certainly must have moved us as well. They moved us without at all being a product of the phallic function of taxation.

Are we prepared to write the history of Thing Revolutions? Moreover, are we prepared to begin to answer the question about whether Things in the world exist independent of us? This is about more than just chairs, salt, bread, and rivers. It is about the possibility of Things provoking an obscure relation in an effort to produce the encounter of change that answers to no human master.

These are among the many new hysterical questions.

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