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.

‘And’ versus ‘Or’ – The Politics of Enjoyment

Two thoughts concerning recent events:

1. Today’s radical thinking seems to encourage us to have our cake and eat it too. « Qu’ils mangent de la brioche » exclaim the educated classes, most of whom seem to believe that authentic change occurs only after one has wished away political contradiction and overcome one’s own binarisms. But real political change requires one to take the difficult path, avoid temptation, avoid the pragmatism which soothes our immediate afflictions at the expense of a more global shift toward equality, liberty, and fraternity. As Badiou has put it: if you want the victory, you can have it in the end. This is the principle of perseverance.

2. In this continent today we seem to bring ourselves to the point of anxiety so that we can enjoy, and so that we can be seen enjoying. This has become a basic principle of life in America, a major political factor of recent times. If yesterday we were killed over Bread then today we are killed over skittles, coca-cola, popcorn, and so on. Today’s anxiety is whether or not we can have two cans of Coca-Cola while being black, or while being poor, or while being a woman, etc.

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”


Lacan is working through at least two things concurrently: the relations between the sexes, and the role of the voice in coming to understand the function of both the object a and the Other. Lacan cites the ambiguity of the biblical passage, from Genesis 1:27, which reads:

27. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Lacan does not go on to explain the other account – at least not in this class, he has referred to it in previous classes from this seminar – found in Gensis 2:21-23, which reads:

21. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

22. And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

23. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of Man.

So, in the first account Adam and Eve were created at the same time. In the second account, Adam was created first. Perhaps there is no contradiction here. Perhaps it is the case that it is only in the second moment that we can think of something which happens concurrently as in fact happening across multiple moments. For example, I listened to the new Arcade Fire album. Rather, I listened to the first disc of the New Arcade Fire album, and then I listened to the second.

In previous classes Lacan seemed to be opposed to Euler’s diagrams. He claimed that these diagrams made it impossible to represent lack. He wanted to add the third dimension, the dimension of the cross-cap and the mobius strip, to bring into play the place of lack. Where Lacan once seemed to believe that the Euler model was only capable of representing the relations between sets of concrete elements, now he seems to be open to using the model to describe the place of lack in the relations between the sexes. The diagram consists of two circles, intersecting, with “M” on one side and “W” on the other, and, where they converge, there is the minus-phi.

We can see that at this point Man and Woman are represented as circles of relatively the same size, and in somewhat of an opposition to one another. Of course, Lacan eventually demonstrates that things are much more complicated than all of this – much more asymmetrical, for example. It is not as simple as thinking in terms of washroom doors: Man’s washroom and Woman’s washroom, where what stands between them is a wall, and for no good reason. Yet that is precisely what we are up against with this diagram. So, with all of its problems, let’s move on. We see that minus-phi, the imaginary phallus, or, put another way, lack, is what relates Man to Woman. So – Lacan does not come out and say this – there is no relation between the sexes.

There is no relation between the sexes except through the phallus and the phallus, because one doesn’t have it – because it is lacking – is what alienates the sexes. This is a fundamental point, I’ll quote Lacan: “The phallus is what, for everybody [my emphasis], when it is reached, precisely alienates one from the other.” At this point we can see that Lacan clearly suggests that the phallus is there somewhere for everybody. The function of the phallus is not only man’s business – and neither is it only woman’s – it is there as a condition of relating at all, even if that relation is alienation.

Woman’s fantasy has to do with what she imagines of the Other’s jouissance such that she strays away from her own jouissance. Woman is in some real relation to the Other, in a way that Man does not seem to be. She enjoys minus-phi only because she doesn’t have to deal with it – it is in another place, in the place where her jouissance is, that is, in the place of the fantasy of the Other’s jouissance. It is precisely by finding minus-phi there where the Man is that she can avoid dealing with anxiety. The imaginary phallus thus stands in place of anxiety even while that phallus is already minus, already castrated. It can only ever appear as castrated, as lack in the field of the Other, in Man’s place in her fantasy, and in its link with avoiding anxiety.

What about homosexuality? This question, it seems to me, deserves much more than a passing discussion. It is actually somewhat odd that Lacan passed over it so quickly without pointing to its real significance in terms of the diagram above. Nonetheless, he claims, and I’m going to write this as a formula:

homosexuality is man’s privilege

This is striking. What could it mean? A conjecture: man is only ever in love with himself, with the object a as his own business – a person who would like to be known as a “real man”, an alpha male perhaps, in my university department, for example, frequently torments himself by trying to figure out who among all of the lesser males dares to pry into his business. Men are homosexuals, not because they like men, but rather because their love of women is subject to what they bring out in his own search for his object a. I won’t spend a lot of time on this for now, but it is of great interest to me; why is it that the stereotypical male holds his supermodel girlfriend beside him like an accessory – in front of his car, or his big house, as if all his work has paid off for him?


I discussed in some of my previous notes the fact that Don Juan is woman’s fantasy. He is a guy with the phallus, but which can only ever be presented to her as a fantasy figure who in reality is castrated. This is because the phallus can only ever be obtained as minus-phi, there is no other way to have it than to not have it at all. Idealistic love, then, is essentially this minus-phi standing as phi.

We return to the Eulerian diagram above. Minus-phi appears there where the one set, whether it be Man or Woman, intersects with the other opposite set. Minus-phi then is intimately linked up with lack, with castration, and with anxiety, precisely because it stands at the intersection of the subject with the Other. This is the point, and this is why Lacan argues that desire’s support is not cut out for sexual union. He goes on to argue that the two sexes – man or woman – have nothing to do with what is really at stake: one and the Other. What is really at stake in the sexes is that one either connect with the Other – in what is missing in the Other – or else one put something in its place, namely the phallus as minus-phi.

There is thus no way to achieve harmony between the sexes. Really, harmony, in Man’s domain, is something like homosexuality. It is just as much of an illusion of harmony as any other sexual position. Lacan is using his own discourse here to respond to questions about Hegel. He seems to think that Hegel’s work, the work of dialectics, has something to do with the movement toward synthesis. But Lacan claims that there is always antinomy, unless the synthesis conceals this.

So we are returning again to the discussion of the relation between the Subject, S, and the Other, A, principally as represented in the table of long division from previous classes. In my notes for the class on December 19th, 1962, I noted that the unheimliche had something to do with the subject’s seeing himself outside of himself. I wrote the following:

In Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Enemy, Adam, played by Jake Gyllenhall, breaks out of his humdrum life through his chance encounter with a B-list actor. Adam spots an actor who looks just like himself, a character who he later finds out gets his kicks from crushing animals and having brutal sex with women. Could we not suggest that this is the level of the unheimliche, the uncanny, in its cinematic form? Anxiety occurs when there is a sudden appearance of the heimliche within the frame – and this is why it is incorect to claim that anxiety is without an object. Object’s do provoke anxiety. In this case, it is Anthony, a sex addicted B-list actor – Adam’s double – who provokes anxiety. But even this is merely a stand-in object. It is an ‘object whose perception is prepared and structured.’ We can point at it, we can see it, we can identify it – even if we can not put our finger on what precisely makes it so uncanny.

In the film, there is something of the Other outside of himself and this is uncanny. But there is another movement we missed. How, Adam must have wondered to himself, does Anthony also see Adam as Anthony? You can understand the point then: one can see oneself, one’s own double, outside of oneself but one can also see oneself reflected back at oneself through the other. This is how we can approach the concept of the gaze. Lacan describes it as an all seeing eye. It looks at us from everywhere – we are seen from every direction. Incidentally, you know that seeing something from every direction was precisely what the cubists had in mind with their artwork. It is this being seen from every direction that also constitutes the unheimliche. Lacan gives us what he calls a formula to describe this version of the unheimliche:

what could be more unheimliche than to witness the most divine statue come to life

When we see a statue, a desirable statue – one that we are drawn to, come to life, we see it shift from being desirable to being a desirer. This is what is at stake in the gaze, in this version of the unheimliche. The Other looks at us and we feel its judgment on us, we feel its desires suddenly come to life before us. Adam suddenly witnesses that Anthony, who is himself, also has desires which Adam himself couldn’t stomach.

The gaze is there before we arrive on the scene. If we think about it in terms of communication then we can see that we are born in the world without words. The words have to come to us, and they come to us from the Other. It is from the Other that the subject receives the tools of communication. This is how we can claim that the subject receives his own message from the Other. We can see this at work very early in the formation of the unconscious. Toddlers – I know this – often talk to themselves before they fall asleep. Lacan likens this to the dream-state, and we all know that the dream-state is the state of the unconscious. So here we can situate the Other at the place of the unconscious and we can see also that the toddler’s unconscious is already quite well formed.


There are two major topics that Lacan concerns himself with during this short class: (1) teaching, and (2) drive.

With respect to the first topic: he notes that teaching certain systems of thought – such as the Copernican system or Einstein’s system – can be accomplished with minimal effort and exceptional clarity. It can be relatively easy to transmit a teaching in the field of Physics and Mathematics – depending on the audience – because the foundations of the field have already been established, certain thresholds for understanding have been passed, and so one is already prepared for the teaching, already opened up to it. Thus, much of Einstein’s teaching has already been opened up by Newton, Galileo, and Copernicus. Despite what we’ve been told – it is a seductive narrative for those who desire to know – there is no real revolution here.

Today, at the cafe, I discussed with a new-found friend, my admiration for Cornel West’s style of teaching, and also for Zizek’s performances. I called Zizek’s work a performance as a lure – if one calls it a performance than one opens up the possibility for the audience to state up front their reservations. I quickly retracted my statement because I’m not sure it was admiration that I had for them per say, rather it concerned the strategic effectiveness of their technique. Afterall, it is easy to dismiss West or Zizek on the grounds that seduction is not the proper way to transmit a teaching, as if passion alone establishes truth or validity. Those who care about such things are surely repelled from the discourse. Yet, if psychoanalysis teaches us anything at all it is quite simply that passion is the port of access through which truth passes into the field.

We often hear from Zizekians – there are fewer of them than we are led to believe – that Zizek introduced Lacan to the world. It is as if he was our gateway drug. He was the port of access. And for many, this port permitted us the possibility to move onto more serious pursuits. At least, this is how many of us have phrased it. More serious pursuits means that we are above all that hysterical bullshit, the performances, the passionate rhetoric, and so on and so on. We can at least admit that there is something to this, but surely it is not enough to claim that the teaching allows us to return home again.

Does Zizek bring us back home? That is the question. Zizek’s presented absence – the popular judgment of his work before reading – certainly seems to operate as a tactical rallying-point, around which we can situate our more serious and perhaps even moral teaching. And even former Zizek scholars – those who have moved onto more serious pursuits – seem to return back home – after a layover in France – to Lacan or Hegel. Todd McGowen tells us to spend more time doing philosophy in the bedroom, to look under our bed for monsters: he named this serious theory. I could continue on this track but I fear that I am digressing too much.

Psychoanalysis as a field is similar to the field of Physics and Mathematics. It makes its break without necessarily abandoning that which came before. Revolutions, we are told by Lacan (in a future seminar, namely seminar 17), occur by turning everything at 90 degree angles. Near the very beginning, we know that Pythagoras did this with the hypotenuse (a word which means to stretch out underneath) and revolutionized Geometry. It seems to me that Lacan does something similar to the Freudian tradition. He did not abandon it and move onto to better things, neither did he embrace it as the tradition already stood – he went at it across the hypotenuse, turning everything at 90 degree angles. He stretched out his discourse beneath Freud’s own discourse. The revolutionary break, Lacan’s revolutionary break, is with the object a. It was already there within Freud’s work, but we are pursuing it along a new angle. An angle has two meanings here, the latter has to do with catching a few fish. With Neitzsche, I wonder if there are any fish left in the water. The break, however, the break of the revolution, where it hits the breaks, is in castration anxiety.

In castration anxiety we reach the end-point of our understanding within the field of psychoanalysis. Lacan attempts to overcome this limit, to advance further, and by working at the limits of understanding itself. What is the relationship between understanding a teaching and castration anxiety? This is a question which is not yet raised, but it has been hinted at. It is in the air. In any case, Lacan needs to adopt a certain pedagogy. This indicates – it is certain – that Lacan’s teaching is strategic. He is conscious of it. Chomsky once found that it was not enough to name Lacan a charlatan, he had to be called a “perfectly conscious” charlatan. At the very least, we know that Lacan was aware – whether it was consciousness or not which fuelled his discourse remains to be seen.

We begin with what Lacan’s pedagogy is not. It is not the pedagogy of William Stern. I know nothing of William Stern so I am solely basing this discussion on what Lacan has to say, which is that for Stern everything is determined by the maturation of the intellect. Thus, when the intellect is mature, it is open to certain things, to certain discoveries, to certain advancements in knowledge, and so on and so on. For Jean Paiget, there is a movement toward scientific knowledge – and a gap between the capabilities of the child’s intellect and the capabilities of the scientific intellect. But in both cases, teaching opens up to nobody – there is no and so on and so on because the teaching is reduced to zero, it can have no effect on its audience.

Lacan is more hopeful than all of that. He claims that something like a teaching does exist. Teaching, as a way of opening up an audience to knowledge and so and so on exists. What sort of theatrical performances are involved in teaching, then? We see, for example, in Cornel West and Slavoj Zizek’s work – a teaching which evokes something, which opens up its audience to something. It may not open the audience up to the profound truth of 1+1=2 – a hard proof – but it nonetheless opens them up to a brief encounter with the operation which sustains the equation: what is the operation of the count? What is it to succeed from the first one to the second 1, which is a 2 (ie., a number with the name of the previous number, one, with something new – the name of two). Put differently, at this level we become aware of something. We become aware of the monster under the bed – some people use passion to make a point, but me, I do something much more serious. It won’t be long until we return back home.

The point is that scientific teaching – mathematical teaching – occurs to those who have already been admitted without any real obstacle. Unless, of course, an obstacle becomes the bases for revolution. But teaching in psychoanalysis has to chart a different path because the obstacle for its field can also be the obstacle for its teaching. With mathematics, Lacan claims, “[c]oncepts that might have once seemed extremely complicated at a previous stage […] are now immediately accessible to very young minds.” But within psychoanalysis, the very concepts which are now accepted become the basis for complications, and the ensuing tracing of the contours of what the teaching itself offers. All of this is simply to bring us back to Lacan’s rebuttal to Paiget and Stern: we can help children, we can open them up to something. At least, I think that this is what Lacan is going on about.

We inevitably reach a limit. For Freud, we have seen, the limit was what Lacan designates as minus-phi, namely, castration anxiety. Maybe, Lacan thinks, if we can not move beyond castration anxiety, if we can not understand any further, the best approach is to move around it, in a “roundabout way.” I can’t help but focus on this phrasing – I have to appeal to those who speak the language better than I again – it can not be a mistake that Lacan described approaching what exists beyond castration anxiety as something that must be approached in a roundabout way. After all, we have seen that what we are dealing with is something which is round like a rim, which is round like the eyes, lips, and ass-hole. We move around castration anxiety because we do not want to jump off of the stage.

The minus-phi is castration anxiety but only at first; forever after, so it seems, it is the imaginary phallus. The imaginary phallus thus finds itself everywhere and at all levels. For example, we see it in the Wolf Man’s image. I’ll return to this in a moment, after a brief detour. The primal scene happens in the visual field – it is a scene, and things are present and absent from this scene. We can think of it in less particular terms and just imagine it as a painting of black and white. The primal scene is a painting of black and white, of absence and presence, and of the whiteness or presence of the phallus. There is something traumatic about the presence of the phallus in the primal scene. It evokes anxiety – perhaps more than anxiety. For the Wolf Man, after the primal scene, the phallus was everywhere. At this point Lacan gets quite abstract, but we should be able to follow it: the phallus is everywhere in his diagram, it is in the trees, it is everywhere.

The Wolf Man’s Diagram

How can the phallus be everywhere? It is everywhere because it is constituted by the gaze. The wolves, for example, are looking at us. Everything in the image looks back at us, gazes at us, and yet from an invisible place. In this way we can say that the phallus is invisible and yet everywhere, and the gaze is here equivalent to the phallus, but in the visual field. However, this is where I get somewhat lost. Lacan claims that jouissance is presented within the image in an erect form – the subject himself is his erection, this phallus – and this is what freezes the subject from head to toe. Thus, jouissance is linked here to the phallus, linked to his own gaze, and this immobilizes. What could this mean? It seems that it has something to do with the connection between the Other and the Subject, between jouissance and phallus, to such an extent that the subject is the Other. After all, this is the hallmark of psychosis.

The primal scene triggers defecation. Here we are dealing with the excremental object, what Freud described as the gift. More to the point, Freud described the excremental object as a gift to God, to what Lacan names the big Other. It is also linked to sacrifice, and sacrifice is thereby linked to psychosis – even if it has an obsessional flare to it. Or so it seems.

On the other side there is orgasm. We’ve seen that orgasm is related to anxiety. Lacan is now most sure about this, he claims that “orgasm [is] in its equivalence to anxiety.” Orgasm, then, like anxiety, does not deceive. The question we are pursuing is how this all relates to jouissance. I feel that we are approaching this point, we are moving toward an examination of jouissance and drive. Indeed, in the next seminar, seminar 11, Lacan turns to an even closer examination of the “mysteries of drive.” Lacan does not want to suggest that the satisfaction of orgasm is to be linked with jouissance. That would be too simple, something else is going on here. For example, to complete the orgasm is sometimes not enough. Much of jouissance also comes from prolongation. At the extreme, for example, we’ve heard of men who do horrible things to women who they’ve never even said so much as “hello” to – without ever so much as obtaining an erection. Jouissance can not be reduced to the satisfaction of orgasm – that is not what is at stake in much of sexual life.

What is the relationship between desire and demand, $<>D. If we return to the graph of desire, below, we can see where it is situated. At the top left, after desire slips away from need, after an address has been made to the Other, at A. It is that extra, that remainder, that object a. This is one path. A path that is very near to castration, as we can see, but remains on the line of jouissance nonetheless.

Completed Graph of Desire

Recall that $ is in the bottom level of the table of long division, the position from which desire situates itself. At this point we are at death drive. Desire poses itself to demand at the point of castration, of the little death. Drive, Lacan claims, is “tightly entwined with the demand of lovemaking – to do it until death, or to die laughing.” This perhaps is the other face of Don Juan, whose name has all the letters of Duane, without the e. On Duan. To take the Gaelic, in full darkness. When desire poses itself in the face of Demand we enter into the satisfaction that death obtains within life – a satisfaction that comes from little death, a death we can tolerate – and a death we desire to tolerate for who knows how long. This is a form of death that helps us get off the hook for real death, for the big death. Or, at least, that is my initial interpretation. This also happens at the level of coitus interruptus, withdrawal from orgasm – or prolongation of foreplay. All the pleasure, none of the risk. It is a form of jouissance which ignores the Other and what it asks.

This is why Lacan names it little death: because there is really no risk. In fact, there seems to be a beneficial aspect to this for the Subject, death as the renewal of life. Or, perhaps put differently, a renewal of the I, the ego. The point is that something stops, or slows down, prematurely at this level. One sacrifices before the time is right – repetitively, I would presume – so that when the real sacrifice has to be made, he does not have to deal with the risk.

Lacan implies that this is largely a possible part of man’s domain. Woman, on the other hand, has a different relation to orgasm. She can finish the sexual act without orgasm and be pleased with her understanding of the relationship between her and her partner. Lacan puts this rather well: “she can now be quite easy in her mind as to her partner’s intentions.” Lacan quotes T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to get to the root of what is at stake in Woman’s relation to anxiety and orgasm:

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

and puts a record on the gramophone.

So here we can see that Woman’s desire is determined by a certain jouissance which is not ultimately linked to the orgasm. Lacan makes an explicit link between feminine jouissance and hysteria. What woman, unlike man, asks for at the limit of analysis – at the limit of understanding – is the phallus. The only way to get it is to offer it, as masquerade, to man as that which can sustain his desire so as to make her feminine masquerade the basis for man’s almightiness. What can we make of this?

Scribbles, about Alenka Zupancic’s Newest Work

Alenka Zupancic’s newest work aims to pursue something like a “philosophy” or “ontology” of sexuality within Lacanian/Freudian psychoanalysis. Some things:

(1) A brilliant/clear response to those who claim that Freudian sexuality reduces all problems to the answer of sexuality. On the contrary, Zupancic notes that Freud’s position is not that sexuality is the answer to all problems but that sexuality is itself the problem for all answers. Freud did not normalize sexuality but rather posed it as the question.

(2) Zupancic notes the primordial negativity of sexuality (in other words, she claims that sexuality is itself the primordial negation). This is a negation which is without substance but not, for that matter, is it “nothing”. She tells the following joke (who told this one first, Zizek or Zupancic?): a man goes into a cafe and asks the waiter for a cup of coffee, without cream. The waiter goes away, but returns again: “I’m sorry sir, we don’t have any cream. We have milk though. Would you like your coffee without milk instead?” The joke makes a serious point, the negativity is not nothing – it really matters.

(3) Zupancic made a point about the stage through which the onset of sexuality is typically first made apparent in infantile psychical development: when the question is asked: “where did I [where do children/babies] come from?” The child is then confronted with a number of answers, all of which are unsatisfactory. So, rather than positive knowledge, the child’s sexuality, as a negation, is introduced.

(4) I note the phrase “unsatisfactory” in the previous paragraph. It is hysterics whose desire remains unsatisfied. For this reason, I can not help but wonder why, in an hour-long presentation on sexuality, she did not once describe the differences that occur across the clinical structures (and thus, as it were, between the two central neuroses: feminine and masculine). For this reason, it seems to me, she reduces sexuality to the feminine type.

(5) Sexuality was often described as a ‘stumbling block’. I like this phrase, I heard it first from Bruce Fink. But for Bruce Fink it is the Master Signifier, S1, which is the stumbling block. In any case, it seemed to me that Zupancic often conflated the Real with Sexuality, as if the two were synonyms.

(6) This phrase – “stumbling block” – was picked up again by a theologian in the audience who informed us that the word in Hebrew, from the old testament (Psalms), means the same thing as “corner stone” or “foundation stone”. He noted that it was the “stumbling block” which allowed the builders to construct pieces of great architecture. What a profound point.

(7) Zupancic claims that her ontology discusses being and non-being (housed in the unconscious). At one point she intimated that her philosophy is not necessarily reduced to humans. Yet, this is precisely one of the problems with her work. It no doubt explains why she was critical of a negative theology (describing it as a theology of the death of god, improperly, which ensures that religion lives through other more permanent means). The problem is that this world of ‘constitutive lack’ exists only for special types of beings, and not even all human-beings (it is even more particular than this): neurotic beings.

Great talk, it was definitely worth the trip.

Everything You Want to Know About Kierkegaard, Badiou, and Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Arcade Fire)

Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light; Alone in the darkness, darkness of white

Unfortunately, there is a profound truth to Jodi Dean’s argument about contemporary politics. She claimed that “democracy organizes enjoyment via a multiplicity of stagings, of making oneself visible in one’s lack.” Isn’t it the case, then, that contemporary democratic politics engages in a politics of being seen. Dean continued, “Contemporary protests in the United States, whether as marches, vigils, Facebook pages, or internet petitions aim at visibility, awareness, being seen. It’s as if instead of looking at our opponents and working out ways to defeat them, we get off on imagining them looking at us.” This is an example of what, long before Dean, Kierkegaard referred to as the main characteristic of the present, reflective, age. Kierkegaard wrote that, within the present age, we all act within the public – that is, we all act within view:

Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age, a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. […] a political virtuoso might […] write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home — having spent a very pleasant evening.

This is the point – everything today which is an action appears within public view. And it is the publicity and advertisement which matters before the action, and so, by all standards, it is not an action at all. One can state this another way: the image of rebellion is what matters – and not the rebellion itself. In fact, as long as the image of rebellion lives there is, within the present age, no need for authentic rebellion. Why? Because the image is something which provides a certain degree of satisfaction, or, if we like, the image is what provides a certain type of enjoyment for us under democratic capitalism. If we are trapped in an image, it is a dark image – an image which is illuminated, that is, which is there for us to see and view, but which is nonetheless dark inasmuch as it is devoid of anything authentic or real. There is lightness in the present age, but it is not an enlightenment – it is not an illumination, it is just empty light.

It is publicity, then, which largely defines the time in which we live. So here is the darkness of the time: every time that we think we’ve found a way out of the spectacle of the present age, we seem to be recuperated ever more. Today’s most rebellious models seem to operate purely within the world of empty light. Indeed, those models which bring us the most profound hope for the future – models of alternative higher education, models of alternative distribution, models of alternative economic exchange, etc – always seem to begin from the image. Will we ever see what is on the other side of the image?

I’d Lose My Heart, If I’d Turn Away From You

I want to ask readers to pause for a moment to think about the question I just asked: will we ever see what is on the other side of the image? This is an important question. If it is true that we live during a reflective age, and if it is true that we are constantly putting the image before the act – i.e., the cart before the horse – then how is it possible to act in such a way that our actions make it through to the other side? Put differently: is it possible to have an authentic rebellion? Perhaps we need to get our bearings from something obscure, something outside of the image. And yet, once again, we are met with the problem that there is nothing outside of the image. So, we can say that that which does not live within the image does not exist within the world. There are no authentic acts within the world because there is nothing that exists outside of the world of the image.

But Alain Badiou has taught us that this is precisely where we can locate our hope. An authentic rebellion occurs when a being which does not exist within the world makes itself exist within the world. In other words, by all accounts the world in which we live denies the existence of something which is outside of it. When existence is denied by the world then it is the task of that which does not exist to make itself exist. Thus, Badiou claims that “[a]n event, a political event, a revolution, can be defined by the transformation of ‘no existence’ into ‘real existence’ in a world.” This is what Arcade Fire explains, in their own way. There is something authentic about the affirmation of the existence of something within the world which was previously thought to not exist. In other words, if an element of an object inexists in a world, then it is only minimally identical to another element of the same object. What does this mean? It means that the world in which we find ourselves measures the relationship that occurs between elements of the world. If some element is not very similar to some other element then it inexists. A revolution occurs when some element within the world which once had a minimal value – which once was not entirely similar/identical to some other element in the world – attempts to obtain a maximal value.

All of this is to state: the revolutionary subject is the one who decides not to turn his back on the affirmation of this existence. Revolutionaries – don’t lose heart!

What if the Camera Really Do Take Your Soul?

We are absolutely terrified by the camera. And yet we seem to be ever more driven toward the products of the camera. We do not like being watched, but we enjoy being watched at the same time. How do we account for this which at first appears to be a paradox? The point is that we enjoy pretending that we do not know that we are being watched. If somebody points out that we are being watched we will act shocked! “Oh no!, How can they be watching me? How dare they!?” This is all a part of the game that we play with ourselves under democratic capitalism: watch me but please don’t tell me that you are watching me. Doesn’t this explain, in part, why it is that we only seem to get angry at Facebook (as a company) when they explicitly point out that they have the right sell our photographs, demographics, etc., to companies? Moreover, does this not explain why it is that we all hate facebook and yet we are all on facebook? This is the point: we want to be hit with the flashbulb eyes, we want to be watched, and yet we do not want to be told that we are being watched.

How do we overcome all of this? It seems to me that part of the solution is to paradoxically assert the spirit of the time: “go ahead, watch me!” Arcade Fire asserts this principle so as to affirm the inexistent dimension of the photograph: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Isn’t this the most dangerous part of the photograph, the part which affirms itself as ‘nothing’? This was the victory of modern painting – the black background behind the brutal foreground. Slavoj Zizek describes this affirmation of the nothing of modern art as the “space for thinking.”

When Love is Gone, Where Does it Go?

All of this makes up a nice equation for thinking about revolutionary philosophy. We began with a question about the image and moved on to ask if an authentic act is even possible today. Is it possible to see something other than the image? We then asked if, within the inexistent darkness of the image we can begin to see a new light, a new love, a new heart. Finally, we ask a question about love and fidelity. If I ask you, as a revolutionary, not to lose heart, what I really mean is: did you turn away from the event which provoked you? Surely, there is a lot of pain involved when we remain on the path of the affirmation of the inexistent. It could even imply the loss of love. Many revolutionaries are forced to give up lasting relationships with their friends and families. The point is that we are forced to finally ask a question about love, about fidelity to the revolutionary event.

Traditionally, within Lacanian psychoanalysis, we conflate love with the transference. In other words, love is typically thought of as love for the image. It is a false type of love. Arcade Fire asks if it is possible that there is life after love-transference. In the clinical situation it is very often after much screaming and shouting, after much hatred – which is itself a form of love, that the analysand can finally ask the question: “when love is gone, where does it go?” This is the question we must now ask ourselves: is it possible to reinvent the concept of love? Is it possible that there are many versions of love, of which the love of the image is only one. Along the way, we must always be wary of the love of the image – we must always recognize that there are different modalities of love.

I Know Your Living in my Mind

There is a profound novelty in coming to understand the truth of one’s love. We should ask ourselves if we are really in love with the revolutionary situation, our sexual partners, our families, and so on, or if we are in love with the image of the revolutionary situation, and so on. Arcade Fire urges us to find the limit of the old modality of love, to awaken the desire for a new season of love. If we can finally come to grasp the love we have for the image then we can also finally prepare ourselves for the spring.