Lacan and political theory

The other night I was discussing Lacan with a friend who practices psychotherapy, and he suggested that Lacan’s work ‘only makes sense in the clinic.’ We agreed that when philosophers and critical theorists try to invoke Lacan, they inevitably bungle the job. Today, I discovered Andrew Robinson’s nice little takedown of Zizek, Laclau, and Mouffe’s Lacanian inflected political theory, which proves the point.

Robinson’s essay focuses on the notion of ‘constitutive lack’ that has come to define political theory inf(l)ected by psychoanalysis. This notion is also sometimes referred to as ‘the Real’ and appears to function as a reified and metaphysical version of the Freudian Unconscious, since it often invokes repression, denial, compulsion repetition, and the death drive, but Robinson argues, partly following Judith Butler’s objections in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, that ‘constitutive lack’ functions as a mythologizing, obfuscating myth. Lacanian theorists see ‘lack’ as the source of continual novelty in psychic life, driving the polymorphous manifestations of perversity, for instance, or the inevitable transgression of norms. ‘Lack’ functions by supplying aleatory resistances that makes all treatment uncertain and ultimately futile, so in political theory it tends to undermine the normative force of claims regarding justice, fairness, and reform, in favor of an explanation for why the revolution has not yet occurred or is continually being coopted or corrupted. This cynicism and rejection of incremental reform often gets called anti-essentialism without any real justification, considering that it is a pretty obvious brand of structuralism.

Following Roland Barthes, Robinson performs a kind of anti-Lacanian diagnosis, while critically reviewing a number of instances when Laclau, Mouffe, and especially Zizek have invoked this myth precisely where evidence, arguments, and attention to detail were necessary to back normative claims. He describes this as an ‘order not to think,’ an authoritarian concept that irrationally takes every exception and objection as proof of the rule and protects itself from reasonable criticism through esoteric jargon, rhetorical flourishes, and ad hominem attacks on the psyche of the critic.

All of this strikes me as pretty consistent with Lacan’s own feelings about the necessity of a master in the struggle to give up on an impossible project of self-mastery. Since psychoanalysis gets invoked in political theory most often in order to justify the conflation of self-mastery with autonomy, and then to indirectly undermine autonomy through a reference to the Unconscious, I can’t help but suspect that we ought to have long ago jettisoned good old “You need a Master, I will be your Master” Jacques Lacan. There’s no obvious reason why my failure to repress every Freudian slip and irrational impulse entails that I should put myself in the hands of another human being who is, by nature, equally unmastered and flawed. Frankly, this sort of fallibilism strikes me as the best proof for autonomy: if I can’t rule myself, than certainly no one else is up to the task!

Robinson combines this basic criticism with a sort of ‘greatest hits’ of the worst excesses of the provocative attempts of Zizek et al to remain relevant by backing Stalin, anti-Semitism, mass violence, and other stupidity, while denigrating capitalism in order to preserve some sense of solidarity with progressives and level-headed leftists. Here I think he unjustly maligns Mouffe and Laclau by combining their work on antagonism and solidarity with Zizek’s ravings about show trials. Zizek may be a charlatan, but Laclau and Mouffe only came to psychoanalysis through Marxism, and I believe that Mouffe especially has substantive insights to offer to contemporary political theory. Her reification of antagonism is nothing like Zizek’s reification of the Real, because while she often uses locutions in which antagonism is a subject engaged in activities, this is a shorthand that she can and does cash out in attention to particular situations and contexts, while ‘the Real’ operates as an unsymbolizable and ineffable actor, the ‘invisible hand’ of embodied existence or somesuch mystical nonsense.

Robinson apparently believes that Deleuze and Guattari offer the best resources for providing an “active and affirmative” conception of contingency. Insofar as some political theorists will always want to invoke psychoanalytic concepts like repression, projection, aggression, and fetishization to explain racism, sexism, and capitalism, I believe that contemporary scholars like Shannon Sullivan and Kelly Oliver (both teachers of mine) offer a better model for the interaction of psychic life with public life than their Lacanian kin.

Oh, and check it out Robinson has a blog!

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