Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Georgios Papadopoulos
I can’t bring myself to write something on psychoanalysis. It would be useless to attack frontally its ideology or proclaim its demise. You have to allow desire to catch itself in its own trap (Baudrillard, 1987: 75).
Jean Baudrillard is considered as a central figure of ‘post-modern’ philosophy, but this direct association with post-modernism is not always meant as compliment. For the mainstream analytic philosophy, Baudrillard (and the post-modern project as a whole) are not considered as ‘philosophy proper’. The scorn of mainstream academic philosophers is probably to be expected, but the fact that Baudrillard is treated as a fringe figure in the continental tradition, even in contemporary French philosophy which provided the habitat for his development, seems puzzling.
The relative neglect of Baudrillard’s work is often explained through the style, or for some, the lack of argumentation. It is true that Baudrillard has alienated many with his aphoristic writing, especially in his latter works, but the same argument could apply also for many of the works of many of his contemporaries, in the continental and post-Marxist tradition. I feel that the unpopularity of Baudrillard should be rather explained in terms of his political attitude, in particular what can be conceived his adamant contempt for left wing politics. The fact that Baudrillard scorned traditional Marxists in the Mirror of Production has created a lot of enmity, especially in the rank and file of (post) Marxist theory of his time. The early seventies were extremely politicized and tense, so political allegiances tended to trump the importance of honest and harsh criticism. Many in the left considered Baudrillard as irrelevant for political praxis, and saw his ideas as a distraction in the struggle for liberation. More importantly the direct attack against the most influential philosopher of his time, with the publication of Forget Foucault and the attack on the political implications of Foucauldian analysis, that provided the foundations of the project of emancipation, as it is perceived by the left, was neither to be forgotten nor forgiven.
The aim of this paper is to suggest the relevance of Baudrillard’s workfor political theory and praxis. I think that Baudrillard contribution to politics can be enhanced if it is read in conjunction with Lacanian psychoanalysis. It is true that Baudrillard did not use psychoanalytic concepts extensively and made few references to the work of Lacan. His attitude towards traditional psychoanalysis is for sure very critical, even though this is truer for Freud, rather than for Lacan. In the preface of Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Baudrillard launches his attack against simulacra and simulation by addressing both Marx and Freud, juxtaposing them with Mauss and Saussure:
In this light, other theoretical events, such as Saussure’s anagrams and Mauss’ gift-exchange, assume cardinal importance. In the long run, these hypotheses are more radical than Marx’s or Freud’s, whose interpretations are censored by precisely their imperialism. The anagrams or gift-exchanges are not merely transitory phases within the disciplines of linguistics and anthropology, nor are they inferior forms compared to the machinations of the unconscious and the revolution. Here one predominant form emerges, from which Marxism and psychoanalysis, though may not be aware of it, derive. This form is equally dismissive of political and libidinal economy, outlining instead a beyond value, a beyond the law, a beyond repression and a beyond of the unconscious. This is taking place here and now (Baudrillard, 1976: 1).
Harsh criticism should nonetheless be considered as a compliment. I believe, and I will try to suggest that despite the polemics Baudrillard is one of the most interesting readers of both traditions and that his adamant iconoclasm is a sign of deep appreciation both towards Marxism and psychoanalysis. In the remainder of the paper I will try to provide some evidence of the relation and the complementarities between Lacanian psychoanalysis and the work of Baudrillard, in relation to politics, focusing on what can be described as the Lacanian Left. More to this, I will try to argue that in many respects Baudrillard’s early work anticipated much of the psychoanalytic ideology critique against capitalism and he used, at least in the early stages of his intellectual development, the same theoretical tools (psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism) in his attacks against capitalist ideology, or the code as he likes to describe it. His political thought shares a similar anti-utopianism and the radical rejection of the political orthodoxy with Lacan and its political epigones. Finally, I think there is a certain eclectic kinship between Lacan and Baudrillard on the issue dis-identification, a dis-identification so radical that flirts with the complete dissolution, even the death of the subject (both the symbolic and the Real death). Politics for Baudrillard as for Lacan presuppose such an attitude; an attitude that can be described as “dis-identification unto death”.
II. The Problem of Ideology in Baudrillard and in the Lacanian Left
The employment of Lacanian analysis on social issues, shares a lot with the work of Baudrillard, both in terms of the overall attitude towards the project of emancipation, and in the main targets and means for this transformation, so much that Baudrillard could be integrated in the Lacanian Left [by “Lacanian Left I refer mainly to the work of Žižek, Laclau and Stavrakakis. They may be the most prominent, but are not the only Left Lacanians. I should also mention among others Andrian Johnston, Marc de Kessel, Chantal Mouffe, and Alenka Zupančič, whose work I have found to be very inspiring and helpful]. Both projects are subversive of the established orthodoxies, while remaining skeptical of utopian fantasies, and maintaining a truly radical attitude by refusing to accept a finality for political praxis. At the same time both projects seem to put the emphasis in debunking the ideological construction of reality and the constitution of subjectivity as an effect of ideology (Stavrakakis, 2007: 2). The management of desire lies in the centre of the process of subjectivation, and its liberation, even though impossible, provides the utopia towards which the emancipation of the subject and the radical transformation of the society should strive. Baudrillard and Lacan, through his many intellectual epigones, are at the forefront of the ideological critique of the capitalist symbolic order. The former is unmasking the structures that produce the meaning and constitute the social reality, the latter explain how the subject gets invested in the capitalist symbolic order through the articulation of subjective desire. Baudrillard is very suspicious of the use of desire as a foundation for critique by psychoanalysis. At the same time he recognizes the function of what he describes as a ‘psychological tautology’ in the legitimization of signification. In his analysis he turns to Benveniste and his notion of ‘motivation’ in order to describe this psychological tautology that underlies the operation of signification:
1) The sign derives its necessity from a psychological consensus that inseparably binds a given Sr [signifier] to a give Sd [signified] some fraction of the real of thought).
2) But: the objectivity of this “denoted” fraction of the real is evidently the perceptive consensus of (speaking) subjects.
3) And this is supported no less evidently by the psychological consensus that links any given Sr to a given Sd.
The circle that legitimizes the sign by the real and which founds the real by the sign is strictly vicious; but this circularity is the very secret of all metaphysical (ideological) operationality (Baudrillard, 1981: 155).
In that sense reading Baudrillard with Lacanian psychoanalysis (or vice versa) is an important step in animating the process of the affective disengagement from the dominant social link.
Before proceeding further to the analysis of ideology I need to stress a terminological difference between Baudrillard and Lacan that can be a cause of confusion. In Lacan we encounter the distinction between three registers, the symbolic, the imaginary and the Real. The symbolic is the register of every day experience that is regulated by language and other social conventions. The second register is the imaginary, the intimate and subjective realm of image and imagination, the order of observable phenomena, of surface appearances which obscure and hide the underlying structure, creating a false sense of wholeness, synthesis, and autonomy (Evans, 1996: 84). The Real (always capitalized) is the realm of un-alienated and genuine existence, a register that resists symbolization completely providing the utopia from where Lacanian critique is waged. Baudrillard, also uses the term symbolic, but in order to refer to symbolic exchange, a primitive state of affairs where social relations, objects and subjects are not mediated by language and culture, but rather remain entangled in an organic whole. Symbolic exchange has some similarities with the Lacanian Real as we will see later. At the same what Baudrillard defines as “reality” or as code is equivalent with the Lacanian symbolic; for both thinkers this reality is mediated and to a large extend alienated by language and cultural forms.
Ideology integrates the particular instances of social interaction in a coherent meta-narrative of social order and identity. It provides a rationalisation of social facts and a justification of social reality; a system of dominant ideas playing their dominating role, a viewpoint that integrates all individual viewpoints. The ultimate goal is not just to induce individuals to accept the status quo, but to actively participate and wilfully contribute to its reproduction. Still, ideology should not be confused with reality itself or with the symbolic order; it is rather the overarching narrative that aligns the imaginary identification of the ego to the symbolic, which invests the symbolic with tractable but at the same time coherent meaning and safeguards its consistency. If I were to offer a definition I would be inclined to describe ideology as a set of discursive strategies that aim at rationalizing the dominant social order, by investing with a specific meaning and power, and to socialise individuals into active participation in this social order (Williams, 1977).
Both Lacan and Baudrillard start from Marx in their analysis of Ideology. Lacan, by praising Marx for the invention of the symptom (Žižek, 1989: 3), and Baudrillard in his discussion of fetishism. Both thinkers see ideology as a structural form, rather than a misguided content, and both are explicit about the importance of an investment in ideological form, which goes beyond rational argument. The ideological construction of reality becomes a function of the representational systems (predominantly language) that the subjects share and use in their effort to communicate and symbolize their environment. The representation of reality sets the stage of the fundamental problems of civilization; the symbolic castration of the subject, the alienation of her desire, the impossibility of sexual relation, and the tyranny of the Law. For Baudrillard the emergence of language is equally disturbing; it destroys symbolic exchange, the primordial state of affairs of unmediated experience of the world and social interaction. “Once the symbolic function has been liquidated there is a passage to the semiological … This semiological reduction of the symbolic properly constitutes the ideological process.” (Baudrillard, 1972: 96) Both thinkers seem to share a certain kind of attachment to a state of affairs before, or maybe beyond, language. The Real for the Lacanians, as well Symbolic Exchange for Baudrillard, provide the possibility of a utopia that is necessary for ideology critique and more importantly is necessary as point of rupture that can facilitate the possibility of radical liberation.
III. The Discursive Constitution of Social Reality
The analysis of social reality, via ideology critique, is not just an attempt to clear the ground for political struggle, but it is a political practice that challenges the very the foundations of social constitution. The claim that social reality is discursively constituted in a process involving social antagonism, where different subjectivities converse and compete to impose their own representation of reality, anticipates the possibilities of social antagonism (Laclau and Mouffe 2000: 97-99). Social reality should not be treated as a given; it is better to conceive social environment as an effect of discourse and struggle and as result the ontological status of the social is different from the objective reality of natural facts.
Much is at stake in the relations between the social, the economic and the material. When Marx reflected on the status of the discursive formations mediated by classical political economy he spoke of fetishism, “which metamorphoses the social, economic character impressed on things in the process of social production into a natural character stemming from the material nature of those things” (Marx, 1975: 227). Fetishism enfolds commodities and economic relations with a mantle of natural-ness, professing a matter of fact validity (Nancy, 2001: 6). Production and distribution are presented as consequences of the essence of subjective relations and of objects. The conflation of the social and the natural, the material and the discursive, enhanced by a fetishistic attachment to appearances and to objects as the carriers of power and meaning, can be understood as the implication of a monolithic, materialist understanding of being.1
The distinct types of existence that define the symbolic and the Real (or of the code and of the symbolic exchange) and the consequent impossibility of domesticating existence in the Symbolic animates and maintains social antagonism. As long as discursive formations are not objective and can not fully represent reality in its totality, the negotiation of social constitutions cannot be conclusive. The unrepresented elements eventually manifest themselves, creating frictions in social interaction, and ruptures in the layer of meaning that is superimposed on the world. Crises of representation emerge, creating rifts in social ‘reality’, and opening up space for new possibilities for social constitution. The limits of the established universalization are eventually manifested and their legitimacy is contested. In the face of unrepresented aspects of life, constitutive declarations lose their appeal and social facts no longer enjoy the support of collective intentionality, making necessary new representations and a new discursive constitution of social reality. The impossibility of objectivity maintains social reality in flux and imposes social antagonism as the only universal characteristic of social existence (Laclau and Mouffe, 2000: 100-101).
The ontology that I propose builds upon a fundamental distinction in the type of existence that characterizes the social reality and the natural world. My main assumption is that social facts are dependent on human consciousness and representation, while the natural world is ontologically objective. Discursive formations create a veil of meaning that is superimposed on the physical world and gives rise to human interaction and social reality. Meaning is the constitutive element of sociality, while the representations that we share about the world bring social facts into existence (Searle, 2010). The existence of natural facts goes beyond our representations of them. Natural facts exist independently of human beings and their attitudes about reality, while things like money, governments and firms cease to exist when human beings disappear. The two-tiered ontology of the natural and the social allows for a non-deterministic analysis of social reality and opens up the space for antagonism, discourse and universality in the framework of social ontology. The distinction between the social and the natural can be illuminated further, if we revert to Lacanian psychoanalysis and articulate the proposed ontology in connection to the orders of the Symbolic and the Real. Social existence is supported by representations and it is mediated by language and meaning in equivalence to the Symbolic, which is constituted by signifiers. Natural facts, on the other hand, belong to the order of the Lacanian Real, of the absolute, unmediated and non-symbolized existence.
The construction of social reality is explained in terms of a basic and simple principle; social facts and social reality in general are constituted through their representation as existing. Shared representations fix the meaning and communicate the existence of social facts. Social constitution is made through speech acts following the general logical form: We (or I) make it the case by constitutive declaration that the X counts as Y in a specific context (Searle, 2010: 93). X refers to a fact or a state of affairs, while Y denotes the new social significance of X. Constitutive declarations establish different representations to a pre-existing order of things, effectively imposing a new meaning and new deontology. Social facts are defined by such shared representations of what is the case. Social constitution is expanded through the imposition of excess social meaning, inventing concepts and ideas that find their position in the social environment and create new instances of meaning and new possibilities of action:
The linguistic designation abstracts the experience from individual biographical occurrences. It becomes objective possibility for everyone, or at any rate everyone within a certain type; that is it becomes anonymous in principle even if it still associated with the feats of specific individuals…. The objectification of experience in language (that is its transformation into a generally available object of knowledge) then allows its incorporation into a larger body of tradition…” (Berger and Luckmann, 1969: 68- 69).
The power to enforce constitutive declarations and secure the collective acceptance of the community translates to the power to enforce reality. The stake of social antagonism is to constitute partisan viewpoints as the universal truths of social reality, through argument or force.
In this light the insistence of the Lacanian Left, and of Baudrillard himself, in ideology critique and the attempts to encourage the disinvestment of the subject from the symbolic order assume a distinct political significance. Power and authority are constituted in a process of social constitution, which defines reality and truth. Emancipation presupposes the renegotiation of the relationship of the subject to its social environment and the constitution of this reality and in consequence of its subjectivity in different, personal terms. Resistance is primarily envisioned as a denial of interpellation and subjectivation, as an attempt to defy the universality of the dominant ideology and its discursive formations on the social environment.
IV. Subjectivation, alienation, and the constitution of desire
Need is the cause that brings together the subject and its environment, enforcing social constitution through the necessary mediation of language, the order of the signifier. Survival presupposes the expression of needs in a fashion that is comprehensible to the environment, be it the family or society. The demand has always a double meaning; it is both directed towards the fulfillment of a need, towards the counter-valance of an excitation, but at the same time it is a demand for love by the Other, the family, the social environment that has the means to provide satisfaction.
The assimilation of the norms of linguistic communication and interaction lead to the alienation of need and to the constitution of desire. The language brings with it rules, exceptions, expressions and identities; the subject is often unable to think and express something expect in some very specific way offered by language. Demand is shaped in the process of communication, but the words and the gestures are not the subject’s own and cannot express faithfully its needs. Language disrupts the immediacy of the relation to enjoyment by imposing a pre-determined conceptual framework for the articulation of needs and wants. The need is replaced by the sign that expresses it, by the relation between the signifier and the signified of satisfaction. There is a gap in linguistic articulation and, thus, individual needs cannot be fully expressed; a remainder, a trace of the failure to put needs into words, lives on in language as an ever-elusive lack/ promise of enjoyment.
Desire begins to take shape in the margin in which demand becomes separated from need: this margin being that which is opened up by demand, the appeal of which can be unconditional only in regard to the Other, under the form of the possible defeat, which need may introduce into it, of having no universal satisfaction (what is called ‘anxiety’). A margin which, linear as it may be, reveals its vertigo, even if it is not trampled by the elephantine feet of the Other’s whim (Lacan, 2001: 237).
Desire is founded on the lack produced by the articulation of the need in a demand, the gap between the signifier and the signified of enjoyment, the Real that cannot be domesticated by the symbolic. Unlike need, which can be fulfilled and then ceases to agitate the subject, desire can not be satisfied, but remains in constant tension, keeping the subjective economy of desire in disequilibrium; it is not defined in being “fulfilled” but in the propagation of desire as such.
Subjectivation follows the dynamics of desire and lack through the fantasmatic management of enjoyment within the symbolic order. The description of the process of subjectivation builds upon the fundamental distinction between the subject and the ego, between the imaginary self-perception and the pre-determined place in the symbolic order. Neither the subject nor the ego are given but are assembled through a series of identifications. Language represents the subject for the Other and creates the places that the subject is expected to assume in language. The subject has to affirm its identity by taking a stance vis-à-vis the possibilities offered by the symbolic order so as to exist; in the same fashion that the needs have to be linguistically articulated before they can be communicated, the subject has to assume a place in the symbolic in order to be recognized. Actually, the subject is a position in language,2 in the signifying chain, a signifier that represents the person for all other signifiers. The submission under the law of the symbolic order, the law of the signifier, is not only a pre-requisite for existence and survival; it is animated also by a different type of desire, by the desire to live up to the maxis of society, the desire of the Other combined with the desire of the subject.
The institution of the symbolic order and the assignation of a place for the subject are instances of alienation at the same time as they provide the site of subjectivation. The proper name of the subject-to-be, often decided before its birth, and definitely having no relation to the subject, inscribes the subject in the symbolic order. Through its name, the subject assumes its place in the symbolic order. It “hides” behind the signifier, completely submerged by language (Fink 1995, 52). The signifier destroys the autonomy of the ego as it becomes intricately connected with its subjectivity; the name / signifier stands in as the subject for other subjects and masks the fact that the subject does not exist for the symbolic order outside of its relationship to the signifier. The proper name is the first but not the only signifier that represents the subject; a series of interpellations, a series of signifiers will be assumed by the subject as constitutive of its identity creating a signifying chain that purports to capture the subject in its totality. Subjectivation will unfold in production, as it will develop in consumption, in education and in marriage, in the family and in the social network, causing an interplay of signifiers that will refer back to the subject, its desire, and to the desire of the Other.
V. Baudrillard and the ideological genesis of needs
In Baudrillard’s critique of the political economy of the sign, subjectivity and its alienation are considered as myths that are consumed along with the other commodities. If needs are just a symptom of the system, then the alienation of these needs or of the subject that is defined by these needs by the market makes no sense. Individuals are socialized into constructing themselves as having a specific set of needs, in order to support the system of production. Actually, the constitution of needs is the most efficient form of regulation of the productive machine at the subjective level, where consumption and production are mirroring one another [“Even the vital functions are immediately ‘functions’ of the system” (Baudrillard, 1981: 86). Without production and commodities there will be no needs; the two exist in mutually constitutive relation. The problematization of needs and of alienation, suggest also a different reading of the traditional notion of fetishism. Fetishism is not the internalization of the generalized system of exchange value, but also of the system of signs that represent commodities and needs. Fetishism is ontological (Hegarty, 2003: 25) it presupposes the existence of a reality that is external and underlies the political economy of the sign; a fetishism of the signified, of the possibility that what the sign signifies is true. Fetishism, is like alienation, another mystification of the system which tries to legitimize itself by hinting at an external reference (at the world, reality, society etc) and cannot escape universalization, since there is nothing other or nothing behind the sign, everything is illusion, simulation, hyperreality. The important question to ask in this context is not that of alienation or fetishism and how to overcome them, but to interrogate the strategies of desire that employed to safeguard that the subjects invest libidinally in the system of needs that they are socialized into. How are the dynamics of desire and lack to crystallize in a predetermined fashion by the production system of commodities and needs, how is the ideological form integrated in the individual psyche?
Baudrillard, already in 1970, had suggested the importance of enforced enjoyment as a strategy of the reproduction of the system of needs and commodities. In the same fashion that the eve of capitalist accumulation dictated an ascetic work ethic, contemporary consumerism markets enjoyment as an obligation, and happiness as a duty. It is more difficult today to avoid the enforced happiness of production than the slow death of labor. Not participating in this feast of endless consumption is considered anti-social behavior. The subject is constantly reminded, by advertising, by its peers or by the specific social etiquette that has to be followed, to consume more, to enjoy more, to create new needs, hobbies, eccentricities and to invent new and more refined consumer practices to satisfy them. The system of enforced enjoyment is in operation to induce the multiplication of needs, creating a sense of unease. Baudrillard is in accordance with Lacan and Žižek, who portray the super-ego as the agent of forced enjoyment, of the injunction to enjoy. The injunction of the super-ego is consumption; the multiplication of the system of needs as the justification of the system of production.
Consumerism is constituted and maintained by the dynamics of desire and lack that interpellate the subject and constitute the symbolic order. The lack in the individual is fueling the compulsion to consume endlessly. Paraphrasing Freud, we could argue that there is no ‘natural’ or pre-established place of desire, that the latter is constitutively out-of-its place, fragmented and dispersed, that it only exists in deviations from ‘itself’ or its supposed natural object, and that desire is nothing other than this ‘out-of-placeness’ of its constitutive satisfaction. Lacan would add to this observation that desire is a demand without a need, without an articulated object; an empty space. In that sense desire can never be completely fulfilled, but is always postponed to the enjoyment of the next object. What supports and constitutes the human desire economy is exactly this open point, de-centering the imaginary consistency upon which subjectivity is constituted (De Kessel, 2008). Ideology is also lacking, it is just a system of signs that is incapable of answering to the subjective demand for satisfaction. In their ideality the sign-objects need to multiply indefinitely in order to make up for a reality that is absent:
This procedure thus implies a certain logic of exception: every ideological Universal – for example freedom, equality – is ‘false’ in so far as it necessarily includes a specific case which breaks its unity, lays open its falsity. Freedom, for example: a universal notion comprising a number of species (freedom of speech and press, freedom of consciousness, freedom of commerce, political freedom, and so on) but also, by means of a structural necessity, a specific freedom (that of the worker to sell freely his own labour on the market) which subverts this universal notion (Žižek, 1989: 16).
Baudrillard in his structural analysis of ideological form goes further than the Lacanian critique, by integrating the commodity form and the structure of signification in what he calls the political economy of the sign. What Baudrillard is trying to do is to illuminate the form of ideology by combing both the logic of signification and the logic of the commodity. The motivation is to break the artificial distinction between the economic and the ideological, between the object, the commodity and the sign, between value and meaning, in an effort to complete the critique of the political economy, by combining it with a critique of the logic of signification:
The critique of the political economy of the sign proposes to develop the analysis of the sign form, just as the critique of political economy once set out to analyze the commodity form. Since the commodity comprises simultaneously exchange value and use value, its total analysis must encompass the two sides of the system. Similarly, the sign is at once signifier and signifies; and so the analysis of the sign form must be established on two levels. Concurrently, of course the logical and strategic analysis of the relationship between the two terms is pressed upon us … (Baudrillard, 1981: 143).
The logic of political economy is at the very heart of the sign, in the abstract equation of signifier and signified, in the differential combination of signs. The logic of the sign supports the commodity form as the system of communication that regulates the system of exchange. Simply put the commodity is a sign and the sign is a commodity.
The analysis of ideology is anticipated in the definition of consumption as a practice of manipulation of signs and reproduction of the cultural system, which was proposed by Baudrillard in the System of Objects, where consumption is analyzed as the organization of objects into a signifying fabric. Consumption then includes all commodities and relations in a more or less coherent narrative, and for these objects and relations to be merged in an overarching signifying system, they need first to become signs, i.e. carriers of a specific cultural meaning that supersedes their function, effectively integrating them in the chain of equivalences and differences. Consumption progressively replaces all other types of relation to the world, and the world becomes a system of commodities, experienced as signs (Baudrillard, 1996: 219- 221). Social relations, experiences, needs and desires are consumed and consummated in a series of commodities that represent them. Here lies the important difference with the more traditional criticisms of capitalism. Baudrillard insists both on complete commodification of all relations to the external world and total representation of the world by a self-constituting and consistent system of signs. It is neither the signifier nor the commodity, but both collapsed into one another. The two logics combined and synthesized in the political economy of the sign (Baudrillard, 1981: 148- 151). Such an approach does not have to face the artificial distinctions between production and consumption, base and superstructure, commodity and object, reality and ideology, that haunt Marxian ideological critique. More so this analysis does not fall for the various essentialism of use-value, labour, reference, or even desire that suggest that ideology is a problem of false consciousness and content and that it is merely sufficient to unmask the hidden content under the alienating form. In that sense Baudrillard’s analysis is more penetrating in his criticism of the capitalist ideology than Marx’s or even Žižek’s and Laclau’s.
For Baudrillard, the world of objects and needs should be seen as a world of generalized hysteria. In this context desire, forever unquenched, signifies itself locally in successive objects of desire, for the enjoyment only to be postponed in the next object, and the next and the next. In this realm freedom becomes absurd, and notions like commodification, alienation or fetishism become mystifications of the system of the political economy of the sign. The problem with assuming a genuine reality (whatever that may me mean) as some Marxists often do with their reference to the forces of production, labour-power and the working class, is that we create a double illusion. On the one hand we assume the epistemological prerogative of a specific class, or subjectivity, but even worse we create an alibi of reality to capitalism by suggesting that beyond the veil of ideology, there is a solid foundation that regulates our existence, despite the possible distortions that the capitalist symbolic order may cause. The Baudrillardian analysis offers no condolence of a genuine enjoyment or genuine existence and in that respect is quite close to psychoanalytic existentialism that accepts civilization as necessary source of unhappiness. Both Baudrillard and Lacan accept that subjectivation is an outcome of mediation via the ideological constitution of reality, which leads to the necessary alienation of the subject.
VI. The dissolution of subjectivity as political praxis
Baudrillard’s attitude towards political praxis travels from the traditional revolutionary action (during the late 1960’s), to absolute quietism, withdrawal, disappearance and sacrificial suicide (from the mid 1970’s with the publication of Symbolic Exchange and Death). The possibility of liberation relies on the existence of an outside ideology, a basis from which resistance will be waged against the political economy of the sign, and a utopia that will be aimed at by political praxis. Since in Baudrillard’s and in Lacan’s dystopian universe such a standpoint is lacking, and the utopia is considered to be just another illusion encouraged by the dominant ideology, then resistance seems futile. For both Baudrillard and Lacan political struggles are not, and actually can not be more, than a consumption of the idea of a revolution that animate the reproductive mechanism of the system.
In his effort to find a way out of this deadlock Baudrillard tries to fall back to the system of symbolic exchange that seems to represent a possibility not of liberation but of a type of existence that is not yet alienated by the code. The realization of a subjectivity in the utopia of full enjoyment that lies outside the code, suggests a conceivable intersection between Baudrillardian politics and the Lacanian Left. This impossible possibility of an outside of ‘reality’, where community and subjectivity are defined by an unmediated, and thus genuine relation to enjoyment, where we can truly do what we really want, is as tempting as it is desperate.
The precondition for even an ephemeral realization of a genuine existence outside the mandates of symbolic order is the discursive as well as the affective disengagement. The rupture is only possible if it leads to the renegotiation of the subject’s identification with the symbolic order. Capitalism will be challenged only if the individual abandons consumption and employment as constitutive instances of subjectivity; if the subject abandons consumption and work in a process to find other forms of identification with its environment; other possibilities of constitution of subjectivity; other channels for the management of its fantasmatic enjoyment. The full embracement of anxiety caused by the eternal recurrence of crises of representation can lead into a process of disengagement that might shed light on fantasies of total collapse of ideological constructions and release the jouissance3 linked to the spectacle of an unfolding crisis. When the lack in the code becomes apparent the individual can observe, impotently but joyfully, the unmasking initiated by economic collapse. The transformation of this joy into abandonment opens the door to a fuller realization of desire; the key to this door is the understanding of the dynamics of jouissance. Only unmediated, unarticulated and therefore impossible desire can transcenddominant discourse of social existence and the socio-symbolic system that supports its reproduction.
Sociality can only be conceived in the confines of the symbolic order, and in that sense a truly political act need not only disrupt the code, but also to destroy the subject at the same instance. Acts of revolt are accompanied by a symbolic death, where the agent is not recognizable anymore, and actually can not recognize him or herself. The precondition of such acts is the violent destruction of the symbolic fabric, which subjugates the subjects and defines the meaning of their actions. Emancipation goes hand in hand with self-dissolution, at least on the symbolic level.
Nonetheless, the black holes in the symbolic order can only be defended temporarily. All acts are destined to be re-interpreted and re-integrated in the code, or to be aborted from social reality into oblivion. The symbolic death of the subject leads either to a new structure of interpellation and alienation, or will be followed by a Real death. The trajectory from resistance, to the symbolic and possibly to the Real death of the subject seems more as path of personal emancipation than a recipe for social transformation and refers ultimately to the politics of the body and the attainment of an ever elusive jouissance. Since the alienation and the interpellation of the subject is enforced through the socialization of the needs in the symbolic order, a possibility of fully, or at least fuller enjoyment, is only attainable through the overcoming if the symbolic. The dissolution of subjectivity is a necessary step both for revolutionary politics and for an affirmative bio-politics of jouissance: a negation of the self, a loss of oneself in pleasure.
The current crisis of western capitalism and the struggles against it have showed that resistance is not enough. Politics have been unable to touch the kernel of the crisis, and political praxis is either used to give an alibi of reality to the capitalist symbolic order, or it has been rendered invisible by the code. What has been proven in recurrent instances of political struggle is that the question (im)posed by innumerable subjectivities is not that of resistance against the attacks, neither the construction of evading alternatives; it is simply and purely an unformulated, speechless, hence ungraspable, unpredictable and meaningless recalcitrance. The anonymous, unformed and unformable part of this non-representable resistance can provide a successful if ephemeral tactic for resisting the ideological control of the system and the market. Still, such politics is impossible exactly because it has to jump over its own symbolic shadow, because it has to go beyond the symbolic order and to aim for different articulations of enjoyment and subjectivity that go beyond the constitutive ideology of the social reality and that transcend even language; revolt is an embrace of the Real of jouissance. The radical transformation of society should aim for a system of symbolic exchange outside the ideological order through the affective reinvestment into a revolutionary potential that defies all pre-existing representations; an absolute de-territorialization of theoretical and practical critique may resist momentarily the fate of re-territorialization by the system of semiotic reproduction. Psychoanalysis should be used against psychoanalysis, Marxism against Marxism, structuralism against structuralism (Baudrillard, 1990: 1).
For Baudrillard revolutionary analysis cannot be dialectic; dialectics is just another principle of abstraction that reproduces the system. There is only one possibility, and this should be the destruction of the code not from within, but rather through the reinsertion of the logic of symbolic exchange into the system. The only available option is to offer an impossible gift to the system, a gift that the system can not be reciprocated and thus can not be domesticate through a symbolic re-inscription in the code:
We must therefore displace everything into the sphere of the symbolic, where challenge, reversal and overbidding are the law, so that we can respond to death by an equal and superior death. There is no question here of real violence or force, the only question concerns the challenge and the logic of the symbolic. If domination comes from the system’s retention of the exclusivity of the gift without counter-gift … then the only solution is to turn the principle of its power back against the system itself: the impossibility of responding or retorting. To defy the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death. Nothing, not even the system, can avoid its symbolic obligation, and is in this trap that the only chance of a catastrophe for capital remains. The system turns on itself, as a scorpion does when encircled by the challenge of death (Baudrillard, 1990: 36- 37).
To the offer of the gifts of labour and consumption, the gift of slow death, the only revolt is to offer the counter-gift of violent and spectacular death, the only possible liberation from the system of objects, the only symbolic disorder that can bring about an implosion of the code. “That we have dreamed of the attacks of the 9/11, that everybody without exception must have dreamt of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree – this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it” wrote Baudrillard on his essay on the aftermath of attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Symbolic exchange seems to have survived at least in the realm of dreams, a morbid fascination of violence and terror against the violence, the terror, the boredom and the slow death of our existence mediated by the code.
About the Author
Georgios Papadopoulos works as an economist and as a philosopher. He holds a Master in Philosophy of the Social Sciences from the London School of Economics and is pursuing a Ph. D. at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam. He is a member the Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique and is affiliated to the International Network for Economic Methodology. In 2012 he was won the Vilém Flusser Award for Artistic Research for his research on the Drachma. His second book, Grexit, is just published in collaboration with the transmediale festival and the Universität der Künste, Berlin.
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1 – Barthes made a similar observation, when he was describing the function of mythologies in contemporary culture. “We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth-consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive but as a reason.” Barthes (1972, 128).
2 – According to Fink (1995: xi-xii): “Lacan defines the subject as a position adopted with respect to the Other as language or law; in other words, the subject is a relationship to the symbolic order. The ego is defined by the imaginary register, whereas the subject as such is essentially a positioning in relation to the Other. As Lacan’s notion evolves, the subject is re-conceptualized as a stance adopted with respect to the Other’s desire (the mother’s, or the parents’ desire), insofar as that desire arouses the subject’s desire, that is functions as object a”.
3 – As Goux (1990:189) has it: “Interiority without an objet: totally empty self. And yet: jouissance … no longer directed at the egocentric Cartesian subject; no longer produces objects of the self for reflection; it is as if it transcended the relation between the subject and the objectsof its drives, as if it referred to something like the experience of relation to a drive without object, beyond phantasy, beyond the realm of specular identification”.