Jacques Lacan

Towards a Lacanian political theory: Politics v. the political - Yannis Stavrakakis


Naturally, what we said about reality in general is also applicable to political reality. But what is this political reality for which Lacan is relevant? In fact what exactly is political reality in general? We know that in mainstream political science, politics and political reality are associated with citizenship, elections, the particular forms of political representation and the various ideological families.

Politics is conceived as constituting a separate system, the political system, and is expected to stay within the boundaries of this system: people, that is to say, politicians, social scientists and citizens, expect to find politics in the arenas prescribed for it in the hegemonic discourse of liberal democracies (these arenas being parliament, parties, trade unions, etc.), and also expect it to be performed by the accordingly sanctioned agents (Beck, 1997:98). Although this well-ordered picture is lately starting to show signs of disintegration, with the politicisation of areas previously located outside the political system (as Beck has put it 'if the clocks of politics stop there [within the official arenas of the political system], then it seems that politics as a whole has stopped ticking' - Beck, 1997: 98), politics can only be represented in spatial terms, as a set of practices and institutions, as a system, albeit an expanding one. Politics is identical to political reality and political reality, as all reality, is, first, constituted at the symbolic level, and, second, supported by fantasy.

But if reality in general can only make sense in its relation to a real which is always exceeding it, what can that real associated with political reality be? If reality cannot exhaust the real it must be also the case that politics cannot exhaust the political. Not surprisingly then, it is one of the most exciting developments in contemporary political theory, and one promoted by theorists such as Laclau, Mouffe, Beck and Lefort, that the political is not reducible to political reality as we have been describing it:

The political cannot be restricted to a certain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific sphere or level of society. It must be conceived as a dimension that is inherent to every human society and that determines our very ontological condition.
(Mouffe, 1993: 3)

In order to illustrate this 'emancipation' of the moment of the political let us examine very briefly the relevant argument put forward by Claude Lefort. Lefort's project entails the reinterpretation of the political. He considers both the Marxist and the strictly scientific definitions of the political inadequate. Marxism regards the political as a mere superstructure determined by a base consisting of the supposedly real level of relations of production, and thus is unable to recognise any substantial specificity to the political. Political sociology and political science, on the other hand, attempt to delineate political facts in their particularity, as distinct from other social facts which are considered as belonging to other separate levels of social reality: the economic, the aesthetic, the juridical, the scientific, the social itself. Such an approach claims to provide an objective reconstruction of reality as consisting of all these strict differentiations and thus does not realise that its own constructs derive from social life and are, consequently, historically and politically conditioned - our discussion on constructionism becomes relevant again. In the definition of politics (as the space of political institutions, such as parties, etc.) what is lost is the political itself, meaning the moment in which the definition of politics, the organisation of social reality, takes place:

The political is thus revealed, not in what we call political activity, but in the double movement whereby the mode of institution of society appears and is obscured. It appears in the sense that the process whereby society is ordered and unified across its divisions becomes visible. It is obscured in the sense that the locus of politics (the locus in which parties compete and in which a general agency of power takes shape and is reproduced) becomes defined as particular, while the principle which generates the overall configuration is concealed.
(Lefort, 1988:11)

The point here is that the institution of political reality presupposes a certain repression of the constitutivity of the political. It entails an impossible attempt to erase the political ontology of the social. In Lefort's view, for example, and here he draws from traditional political philosophy in which what distinguishes one society from another is its regime, its shaping of human existence, the political is related to what generates society, the different forms of society. It is precisely because the very idea of society contains a reference to its political definition that it becomes impossible to localise the political within society. The political is thus revealed as the ontological level of the institution of every particular shaping of the social (this expression denoting both giving meaning to social relations and staging them) (Lefort, 1988: 217-19). When we limit our scope within political reality we are attempting a certain domestication/spatialisation of the political, we move our attention from the political per se (as the moment of the disruption and undecidability governing the reconstruction of social objectivity including political reality) to the social (as the result of this construction and reconstruction, as the sedimented forms of objectivity) (Laclau, 1990: 35). This sedimentation of political reality (as a part or a subsystem of the social) requires a forgetting of origins, a forgetting of the contingent force of dislocation which stands at its foundation; it requires the symbolic and fantas-matic reduction of the political. Yet, 'to negate the political does not make it disappear, it only leads to bewilderment in the face of its manifestations and to impotence in dealing with them' (Mouffe, 1993: 140). What constantly emerges in these currents of contemporary political theory is that the political seems to acquire a position parallel to that of the Lacanian real; one cannot but be struck by the fact that the political is revealed as a particular modality of the real. The political becomes one of the forms in which one encounters the real.

The field of social construction and political reality is the field in which the symbolisation of this real is attempted. Chaitin is correct when asserting that symbolisation 'has the creative power to produce cultural identities, but at a price, the cost of covering over the fundamental nothingness that forms its foundation ... it is culture, not nature, that abhors a vacuum, above all that of its own contingency' (Chaitin, 1996: 4-5), of its ultimate inability to master and symbolise the impossible real: 'there is a structural lack in the symbolic, which means that certain points of the real can't be symbolised in a definite manner.... The unmitigated real provokes anxiety, and this in turn gives rise to never-ending, defensive, imaginary constructs' (Verhaeghe, 1994: 60). Following from this, 'all human productions [Society itself, culture, religion, science]... can be understood in the light of that structural failure of the symbolic in relationship to the real' (ibid.: 61). It is the moment of this failure, the moment of our encounter with the real, that is revealed as the moment of the political par excellence in our reading of Lacan. It is the constitutivity of this moment in Lacanian psychoanalysis that proves our

fantasmatic conception of the socio-political institution of society as a harmonious totality to be no more than a mirage. It is this traumatic moment of the political qua encounter with the real that initiates again and again a process of symbolisation, and initiates the ever-present hegemonic play between different symbolisations of this real. This play leads to the emergence of politics, to the political institution of a new social fantasy (or of many antagonistic fantasies engaged in a struggle for hegemony) in the place of the dislocated one, and so on and so forth. In this light, Lacan's insistence on the centrality of the real, especially in the latter part of his teaching, acquires major political importance. Lacan himself, in his seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis uses noise and accident as metaphors or examples of our encounter with the real. It might be possible to add the political to this chain of equivalences. Lacan's schema of socio-political life is that of a play, an unending circular play between possibility and impossibility, between construction and destruction, representation and failure, articulation and dislocation, reality and the real, politics and the political.

It is this constitutive play which can help illuminate a series of political questions and lead to a novel approach to political analysis. As an illustration let us examine a concrete problem of political analysis. How are we, for example, to account for the emergence and the hegemonic force of apartheid discourse in South Africa? Is this emergence due to a positively defined cause (class struggle, etc.)? What becomes apparent now, in light of the structural causality of the political, is that the reasons for the resurgence of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s are not to be found in some sort of 'objective' conditions (Norval, 1996: 51). Apartheid can be traced back to the dislocations that conditioned the emergence of this Afrikaner nationalist discourse (associated, among others, with the increasing capitalisation of agriculture, the rate of urbanisation and events such as the Great War). The articulation of a new political discourse can only make sense against the background of the dislocation of the preceding socio-political order or ideological space. It is the lack created by dislocation that causes the desire for a new discursive articulation. It is this lack created by a dislocation of the social which forms the kernel of the political as an encounter with the Lacanian real. Every dislocatory event leads to the antagonistic articulation of different discourses that attempt to symbolise its traumatic nature, to suture the lack it creates. In that sense the political stands at the root of politics, dislocation at the root of the articulation of a new socio-political order, an encounter with the real moment of the political at the root of our symbolisation of political reality.

Underlying Lacan's importance for political theory and political analysis is his insistence on the split, lacking nature of the symbolic, of the sociopolitical world per se. Our societies are never harmonious ensembles. This is only the fantasy through which they attempt to constitute and reconstitute
themselves. Experience shows that this fantasy can never be fully realised. No social fantasy can fill the lack around which society is always structured. This lack is re-emerging with every resurfacing of the political, with every encounter with the real. We can speak about the political exactly because there is subversion and dislocation of the social. The level of social construction, of human creativity, of the emergence and development of sociopolitical institutions, is the level in which the possibility of mastering the real makes itself visible but only to be revealed as a chimera unable to foreclose a moment of impossibility that always returns to its place. Given this context, the moment of the political should be understood as emerging at the intersection of our symbolic reality with this real, the real being the ontological horizon of every play between political articulation and dislocation, order and disorder, politics and the political.

Let us summarise our Lacanian commentary on the concept of the political. The political is not the real per se but one of the modalities in which we experience an encounter with the real; it is the dominant shape this encounter takes within the socio-objective level of experience. The moment of the political is the moment made possible by the structural causality of this real, a moment linked to the surfacmg of a constitutive lack within our fantasmatic representations of society. It amounts to the cut of dislocation threatening all symbolisations of the social, to the ultimate subversion of any sedimentation of political reality. It is the moment in which the ontological impossibility of the real affects socio-political reality. It is also a moment located prior to all attempts and promises to cover over this lack, to reconstitute the fantasmatic coherence of the dislocated reality. Although it is internal to the development of such a desire, although it constitutes its condition of possibility, it evaporates as soon as the play of construction begins: it is what makes possible the articulation of new political projects and new social fantasies but is not compatible with them; their constitution demands the repression of the political. The political is associated thus with the moment of contingency and undecidability marking the gap between the dislocation of one socio-political identification and the creation of the desire for a new one.

Source: Yannis Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political. London: Routledge (2000), pp. 71-98.

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