Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Political Theory of Constitutive Lack (prepublication version)

Note: This is an early pre-publication version of a paper forthcoming in Theory and Event. Keep an eye on the journal for the full version.

The Political Theory of
Constitutive Lack: 
A Critique.
Andrew Robinson

Amongst a plethora of radical theoretical perspectives, a new paradigm is slowly becoming hegemonic. Inspired by the work of Jacques Lacan, theorists are increasingly turning to the concept of “constitutive lack” to find a way out of the impasses of classical Marxist, speculative and analytical approaches to political theory. Beneath the debates between rivals such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, there is a unity of purpose about the parameters of political theory. Across the work of authors such as Žižek, Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Jean Baudrillard, Yannis Stavrakakis, David Howarth, Renata Salecl, Jason Glynos, Aletta Norval, Alain Badiou and Saul Newman, there is a central set of motifs and claims which mark out a distinct tradition within contemporary political thought. The idea of “constitutive lack”, constructed as an ontological claim, operates also in these theories as a normative concept, and it is used to found normative claims. The title of Alenka Zupančič’s most famous book - Ethics of the Real - summarises the outlook of all these authors.

The challenge posed by this influential perspective is too important to ignore. Its paradigmatic structure - the shared, often unconscious and unreflexive, assumptions which unite its various proponents in a single way of thinking and arguing - is becoming the dominant trend in (ostensibly) radical theory. It is accounting for a growing number of submitted and published articles and is gaining a growing support among researchers and graduates. It has almost invisibly gained a foothold in theoretical literature significant enough to raise its influence to a level second only, perhaps, to the analytical/Rawlsian tradition. This is at least partly due to its radical pretensions. It is, however, crucial to challenge it, because its political effects are to paralyse “radical” theory. It provides a very weak basis for any kind of politics, and certainly no basis for a radical or transformative agenda. It is, in short, a surrogate radicalism, a theoretical placebo which does not live up to the promises it makes.

This article examines this paradigm through a critique of its founding concept. In contrast to the claims of authors such as Laclau to have escaped the “essentialism” of classical political theory, I shall demonstrate that the idea of “constitutive lack” involves the reintroduction of myth and essentialism into political theory. I shall demonstrate that Lacanian political theory cannot meet its claims to be “radical” and “anti-essentialist”, and its central arguments are analytically flawed. First of all, however, I shall outline the parameters of this new theoretical paradigm.

A new paradigm: the concept of lack in political theory

The concept of “constitutive lack” arises across a number of theories and under a number of labels (e.g. the Real, the Thing, antagonism and the political). It emerged initially as an ontological concept in the work of Jacques Lacan, the focus of much adulation among the authors discussed here. Badiou goes as far as to say that ‘a philosophy is possible today, only if it is compatible with Lacan’ (1999, 84). There is already in Lacan (and Althusser) an imperative to embrace or accept the lack at the root of the social. He explicitly states that the question of ethics ‘is to be articulated from the point of view of the location of man in relation to the Real’ (1988, 11). It is this imperative which provides the starting-point for the kind of politicized Lacanianism with which this paper is concerned.

The basic claim of Lacanian theory is that identity - whether individual or social - is founded on a lack. Therefore, social relations are always irreducibly concerned with antagonism, conflict, strife and exclusion. Chantal Mouffe, for instance, writes of ‘the primary reality of strife in social life’ (1993, 113), while Slavoj Žižek seeks an ‘ethics grounded in reference to the traumatic Real which resists symbolization’ (1997a, 213). ‘[L]ack (“castration”) is original; enjoyment constitutes itself as “stolen”’ (1990, 54). According to Stavrakakis, the Real is ‘inherent in human experience’ and ‘doesn’t stop not being written’ (1999, 87). Hence, the primary element of social life is a negativity which prevents the emergence of any social “whole”. In Mouffe’s words, ‘[s]ociety is the illusion… that hides the struggle and antagonism behind the scenes’, putting the ‘harsh reality’ of antagonism behind a ‘protective veil’ (1993, 51, 53). For Newman, ‘[w]ar is the reality’, whereas ‘[s]ociety is the illusion… that hides the struggle and antagonism behind the scenes’ (2001, 51). For Stavrakakis, ‘personal trauma, social crisis and political rupture are constant characteristics of human experience’ (2003, 56). Such claims have political consequences, because they rule out the possibility of achieving substantial improvements (whether “reformist” or “revolutionary”) in any area on which this fundamental negativity bears. The dimension of antagonism is, after all, ‘ineradicable’ (Mouffe, 2000, 21).

Instead of the imperative to overcome antagonism which one finds in forms as diverse as Marxian revolution and deliberative democracy, Lacanian political theory posits as the central political imperative a demand that one “accept” the underlying lack and the constitutive character of antagonism. While the various authors disagree about the means of achieving this, they agree on its desirability. Lacanian theory thus entails an ethical commitment to create conflict and antagonism. This ethics mostly expresses itself via a detour into ontology: the ethical imperative is to ‘accept’ or ‘grasp’ the truth of the primacy of lack, and the accusation against opponents is that they fall into some kind of fallacy (illusion, delusion, blindness, failure to accept, and so on). At other times, however, one finds a direct ethical advocacy of exclusion and conflict as almost goods in themselves.

To take an example, Chantal Mouffe criticises deconstructive ethics for being ‘unable to come to terms with “the political” in its antagonistic dimension’; ‘what is missing’ from a politics of dialogue with others is ‘a proper reflection on the moment of “decision” which characterises the field of politics’ and which ‘entail[s] an element of force and violence’ (2000, 129-30). To this ostensibly incomplete politics, Mouffe adds an imperative about ‘coming to terms’ with the ‘nature’ of the social. One should seek a politics which ‘acknowledges the real nature of [the] frontiers [of the social] and the forms of exclusion that they entail, instead of trying to disguise them under the veil of rationality or morality’ (2000, 105). A failure to accept antagonism is a ‘dangerous liberal illusion’ and an ‘aversion to reality’ (1993, 127, 149). Mouffe therefore accepts social exclusion as a necessity, and opposes any attempt to resolve (rather than institutionalize or domesticate) conflict. Friend/enemy frontiers are necessary, and hostility, which is ontological and ineradicable, can be contained but never eliminated (1993, 3-4). In practice, this means directly favouring the existence of conflict and antagonism. In other passages, Mouffe expresses the ethics of antagonism more directly, labelling it as a value in its own right. Hence, equality and liberty ‘can never be… reconciled, but this is precisely what constitutes for [Mouffe] the value of liberal democracy’ (1993, 110). She also refers to division as an ‘ideal’ and an ‘urgent need’ (1993, 114, 118). In other words, negativity and conflict are given a positive value of their own, because they express what is taken to be the essence of social life: constitutive lack. One finds the same view expressed in works by other authors who use the Lacanian paradigm. Ernesto Laclau, for instance, claims that a ‘world in which reform takes place without violence is not a world in which I would like to live’ (1996, 114). He also calls for ‘a symbolisation of impossibility as such as a positive value’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 199). Badiou, meanwhile, insists that ethics remain confined by the Real. ‘At least one real element must exist… that the truth cannot force’ (2001, 85).

Žižek’s anti-capitalism has won him friends in leftist circles, but the capitalism to which he objects is not the capitalism of classical Marxist critique. One could, indeed, question whether Žižek is attacking capitalism (as opposed to liberalism) at all. His “capitalism” is a stultifying world of suffocating Good which is unbearable precisely because it lacks the dimension of violence and antagonism. It is, he says, ‘boring’, ‘repetitive’ and ‘perverse’ because it lacks the ‘properly political’ attitude of ‘Us against Them’ (2001a, 237-8). It therefore eliminates the element of unconditional attachment to an unattainable Thing or Real, an element which is the core of humanity (2001c, 8-9; Žižek and Salecl, 1996, 41-2). It delivers what Žižek fears most: a ‘pallid and anaemic, self-satisfied, tolerant peaceful daily life’. To rectify this situation, there is a need for suffocating Good to be destroyed by diabolical Evil (2000a, 122). ‘Why not violence?’ he rhetorically asks. ‘Horrible as it may sound, I think it’s a useful antidote to all the aseptic, frustrating, politically correct pacifism’ (2002c, 80). There must always be social exclusion, and ‘enemies of the people’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 92). The resulting politics involves an ‘ethical duty’ to accomplish an Act which shatters the social edifice by undermining the fantasies which sustain it (1997a, 74). As with Mouffe, this is both a duty and an acceptance of necessity. ‘By traversing the fantasy the subject accepts the void of his nonexistence’ (1999, 281). Baudrillard takes a position similar to Žižek’s, denouncing an empty world in which ‘[e]ven the military has lost the privilege of use-value, the privilege of real war’ (1995, 28). His critique of the Gulf
(non-)War has an overtone of distaste for the sanitization of war and the resultant loss of the dimension of antagonism: if this were a real war, it would be more acceptable. Elsewhere, he denounces simulation for the absence of violence and death. ‘Completely expunged from the political dimension, it is dependent… on production and mass consumption. Its spark has disappeared; only the fiction of a political universe is saved’ (1988, 181).

On a political level, this kind of stance leads to an acceptance of social exclusion which negates compassion for its victims. The resultant inhumanity finds its most extreme expression in Žižek’s work, where ‘today’s “mad dance”, the dynamic proliferation of multiple shifting identities… awaits its resolution in a new form of Terror’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 326), Badiou’s, in which the ethics of truth is ‘always more or less combative’ and requires ‘the singular operation of naming enemies’ (2001, 75), and Baudrillard’s, where the spirit of terrorism is accredited with the ultimate ethical status as ‘the absolute, irrevocable event’ (2002, 17) which can make the system collapse under an excess of reality (1983, 120). It is also present, however, in the toned-down exclusionism of authors such as Mouffe. Hence, democracy depends on ‘the possibility of drawing a frontier between “us” and “them”’, and ‘always entails relations of inclusion-exclusion’ (2000, 43). ‘No state or political order… can exist without some form of exclusion’ experienced by its victims as coercion and violence (1993, 145), and, since Mouffe assumes a state to be necessary, this means that one must endorse exclusion and violence. (The supposed necessity of the state is derived from the supposed need for a master-signifier or nodal point to stabilize identity and avoid psychosis, either for individuals or for societies). What is at stake in the division between these two trends in Lacanian political theory is akin to the distinction Vaneigem draws between “active” and “passive” nihilism (1994, 178-9). The Laclauian trend involves an implied ironic distance from any specific project, which maintain awareness of its contingency; overall, however, it reinforces conformity by insisting on an institutional mediation which overcodes all the “articulations”. The Žižekian version is committed to a more violent and passionate affirmation of negativity, but one which ultimately changes very little. The function of the Žižekian “Act” is to dissolve the self, producing a historical event. “After the revolution”, however, everything stays much the same. For all its radical pretensions, Žižek’s politics can be summed up in his attitude to neo-liberalism: ‘If it works, why not try a dose of it?’(Žižek and Salecl, 1996, 32). The same can be said of Badiou, whose ostensibly radical commitments do not prevent him from making a virtue of moderation (2001, 91) and insisting that ‘the Good is Good only to the extent that it does not aspire to render the world good’. Thus, ‘the power of a truth is also a kind of powerlessness’ (2001, 85). ‘There is no History other than our own; there is no true world to come. The world as world is, and will remain, beneath the true and false… [and] beneath Good and Evil’ (2001, 85). The phenomena which are denounced in Lacanian theory are invariably readmitted in its “small print”, and this leads to a theory which renounces both effectiveness and political radicalism.

It is in this pragmatism that the ambiguity of Lacanian political theory resides, for, while on a theoretical level it is based on an almost sectarian “radicalism”, denouncing everything that exists for its complicity in illusions and guilt for the present, its “alternative” is little different from what it condemns. Just like in the process of psychoanalytic cure, nothing actually changes on the level of specific characteristics. The only change is in how one relates to the characteristics, a process Žižek terms ‘dotting the “i’s”’ in reality, recognizing and thereby installing necessity (1994, 57, 61). All that changes, in other words, is the interpretation: as long as they are reconceived as expressions of constitutive lack, the old politics are acceptable. Thus, Žižek claims that de Gaulle’s “Act” succeeded by allowing him ‘effectively to realize the necessary pragmatic measures’ which others pursued unsuccessfully (1997b, 72-3). More recent examples of Žižek’s pragmatism include that his alternative to the U.S. war in Afghanistan is only that ‘the punishment of those responsible’ should be done in a spirit of ‘sad duty’, not ‘exhilarating retaliation’ (2002b, 244), and his “solution” to the Palestine-Israel crisis is NATO control of the occupied territories (2002a 129). If this is the case for Žižek, the ultra-“radical” “Marxist-Leninist” Lacanian, it is so much the more so for his more moderate adversaries. Jason Glynos, for instance, offers an uncompromizing critique of the construction of guilt and innocence in anti-“crime” rhetoric, demanding that demonization of deviants be abandoned, only to insist as an afterthought that, ‘[o]f course, this… does not mean that their offences should go unpunished’ (2001, 98, 109). Similarly, Mouffe’s goal is to improve the efficiency of liberal-democratic politics by removing the effects of occultation resulting from the refusal to accept antagonism (1993, 140, 146). Badiou, meanwhile, expends a good deal of space attacking the inanities of idle, phatic discourse (in his language, “opinion”), only to identify it with sociality in general and thereby declare it a necessity (2001, 50-1, 79). Lacanian theory tends, therefore, to produce an “anything goes” attitude to state action: because everything else is contingent, nothing is to limit the practical consideration of tactics by dominant elites. The only change is a change in interpretation, as Žižek admits (1997a, 90-1). After all, the subject can change nothing: the role of the Act is merely to add oneself to reality by claiming responsibility for the given (1989, 221).

 The myth of lack: a Barthesian critique of Lacanian political theory 

The theoretical underpinnings of political Lacanianism typically rely on a “postmodern” disdain for essentialism, grounds and teleology, and articulate wider belief in contingency (for instance, by emphasizing contemporaneity). Doesn’t a belief in contingency necessitate some conception of “constitutive lack”? The point to emphasize here is that “constitutive lack” is not an endorsement of contingency: it is a new conception of an essence, which is used as a positive foundation for claims. It may be posited as negativity, but it operates within the syntax of theoretical discourse as if it were a noun referring to a specific object.

More precisely, I would maintain that “constitutive lack” is an instance of a Barthesian myth. It is, after all, the function of myth to do exactly what this concept does: to assert the empty facticity of a particular ideological schema while rejecting any need to argue for its assumptions. ‘Myth does not deny things; on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it is a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact’ (2000, 143, my emphasis). This is precisely the status of “constitutive lack”: a supposed fact which is supposed to operate above and beyond explanation, on an ontological level instantly accessible to those with the courage to accept it. Myths operate to construct euphoric enjoyment for those who use them, but their operation is in conflict with the social context with which they interact. This is because their operation is connotative: they are “received” rather than “read” (1984, 232), and open only to a “readerly” and not a “writerly” interpretation. A myth is a second-order signification attached to an already-constructed denotative sign, and the ideological message projected into this sign is constructed outside the context of the signified. A myth is therefore, in Alfred Korzybski’s sense, intensional: its meaning derives from a prior linguistic schema, not from interaction with the world in its complexity. Furthermore, myths have a repressive social function, carrying in Barthes’s words an ‘order not to think’ (1997, 59). They are necessarily projected onto or imposed on actual people and events, under the cover of this order. The “triumph of literature” in the Dominici trial (2000, 43-6) consists precisely in this projection of an externally-constructed mythical schema as a way of avoiding engagement with something one does not understand.

Lacanian theory, like Barthesian myths, involves a prior idea of a structural matrix which is not open to change in the light of the instances to which it is applied. (This is one of the reasons why the strong ontology founding Lacanian theory is rarely accompanied by a systematic epistemology). Žižek’s writes of a ‘pre-ontological dimension which precedes and eludes the construction of reality’ (1997a, 208), while Laclau suggests there is a formal structure of any chain of equivalences which necessitates the logic of hegemony (1996, 57). Specific analyses are referred back to this underlying structure as its necessary expressions, without apparently being able to alter it; for instance, ‘those who triggered the process of democratization [in eastern Europe]… are not those who today enjoy its fruits, not because of a simple usurpation… but because of a deeper structural logic’ (Žižek, 1992a, 27). In most instances, the mythical operation of the idea of “constitutive lack” is implicit, revealed only by a rhetoric of denunciation. For instance, Mouffe accuses liberalism of an ‘incapacity… to grasp… the irreducible character of antagonism’ (1993, 1-2), while Žižek claims that a ‘dimension’ is ‘lost’ in Butler’s work because of her failure to conceive of “trouble” as constitutive of “gender” (1994, 71). This language of “denial” which is invoked to silence critics is a clear example of Barthes’s “order not to think”: one is not to think about the idea of “constitutive lack”, one is simply to “accept” it, under pain of invalidation. If someone else disagrees, s/he can simply be told that there is something crucial missing from her/his theory. Indeed, critics are as likely to be accused of being “dangerous” as to be accused of being wrong.

One of the functions of myth is to cut out what Trevor Pateman terms the “middle level” of analytical concepts, establishing a short-circuit between high-level generalizations and ultra-specific (pseudo-)concrete instances. In Barthes’s classic case of an image of a black soldier saluting the French flag, this individual action is implicitly connected to highly abstract concepts such as nationalism, without the mediation of the particularities of his situation. (These particularities, if revealed, could undermine the myth. Perhaps he enlisted for financial reasons, or due to threats of violence). Thus, while myths provide an analysis of sorts, their basic operation is anti-analytical: the analytical schema is fixed in advance, and the relationship between this schema and the instances it organizes is hierarchically ordered to the exclusive advantage of the former. This is precisely what happens in Lacanian analyses of specific political and cultural phenomena. Žižek specifically advocates ‘sweeping generalisations’ and short-cuts between specific instances and high-level abstractions, evading the “middle level”. ‘The correct dialectical procedure… can be best described as a direct jump from the singular to the universal, bypassing the mid-level of particularity’. He wants a ‘direct jump from the singular to the universal’, without reference to particular contexts (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 239-40). He also has a concept of a ‘notion’ which has a reality above and beyond any referent, so that, if reality does not fit it, ‘so much the worse for reality’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 244). The failure to see what is really going on means that one sees more, not less, because libidinal perception is not impeded by annoying facts (see Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 248). Žižek insists on the necessity of the gesture of externally projecting a conception of an essence onto phenomena (1994, 62-3), even affirming its necessity in the same case (anti-Semitism) in which Reich denounces its absurdity (Žižek, 1994, 74; Reich, 1974, 30-1). This amounts to an endorsement of myths in the Barthesian sense, as well as demonstrating the “dialectical” genius of the likes of Kelvin McKenzie.

Lacanian analysis consists mainly of an exercise in projection. As a result, Lacanian “explanations” often look more propagandistic or pedagogical than explanatory. A particular case is dealt with only in order to, and to the extent that it can, confirm the already-formulated structural theory. Judith Butler criticizes Žižek’s method on the grounds that ‘theory is applied to its examples’, as if ‘already true, prior to its exemplification’. ‘The theory is articulated on its self-sufficiency, and then shifts register only for the pedagogical purpose of illustrating an already accomplished truth’. It is therefore ‘a theoretical fetish that disavows the conditions of its own emergence’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 26-7). She accuses Laclau of developing a model of explanation which reduces social movements to a single logic of claim-making. Using this method, ‘[w]e become meta-commentators on the conditions of possibility of political life without then bothering to see whether the dilemmas we assume to pertain universally are, in fact, at work in the subject we purport to judge’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 169). The moment at which, for instance, a specific law is taken to express the Law as a prior concept, Lacanians adopt ‘a credo of faith’; this is ‘the moment in which a theory of psychoanalysis becomes a theological project’. Such simplification is ‘a way to avoid the rather messy psychic and social entanglement’ involved in studying specific cases (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 155-6). Similarly, Dominick LaCapra objects to the idea of constitutive lack because specific ‘losses cannot be adequately addressed when they are enveloped in an overly generalised discourse of absence… Conversely, absence at a “foundational” level cannot simply be derived from particular historical losses’ (1999, 698). Attacking ‘the long story of conflating absence with loss that becomes constitutive instead of historical’ (1999, 719), he accuses several theorists of eliding the difference between absence and loss, with ‘confusing and dubious results’, including a ‘tendency to avoid addressing historical problems, including losses, in sufficiently specific terms’, and a tendency to ‘enshroud, perhaps even to etherealise, them in a generalised discourse of absence’ (1999, 700). Unlike structural absences, traumatic historical events are always determined by specific circumstances (1999, 725). For instance, referring to Žižek’s remark that explanations of the Holocaust and the Gulag are ‘so many attempts to elude the fact that we are dealing with the “real”… which returns as the same traumatic kernel in all civilisations’ (1989, 50), LaCapra remarks that Žižek performs ‘an extreme and extremely dubious theoretical gesture’ of reducing specific events to mere manifestations of an underlying structure (1999, 727). (LaCapra, however, revives the idea of constitutive lack in his concept of general or structural absence - ‘absence as absence’ or ‘untranscendable structural trauma’ [1999, 722] - which simply displaces the problem of “surplus lack” into one of how one tells whether a phenomenon is a contingent “lack” or a structural “absence”). Daniel Bensaïd draws out the political consequences of the projection of absolutes into politics. ‘The fetishism of the absolute event involves… a suppression of historical intelligibility, necessary to its depoliticization’. The space from which politics is evacuated ‘becomes… a suitable place for abstractions, delusions and hypostases’. Instead of actual social forces, there are ‘shadows and spectres’ (2002, 7).

The operation of the logic of projection is predictable. According to Lacanians, there is a basic structure (sometimes called a ‘ground’ or ‘matrix’) from which all social phenomena arise, and this structure, which remains unchanged in all eventualities, is the reference-point from which particular cases are viewed. For instance, Žižek, replying to criticisms of Lacanian film theory that its concept of “the gaze” never expresses anything which arises concretely in a film, states that the gaze, which is a structural/essential category, is prior to instances of eyes and sight (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 260). The “fit” between theory and evidence is constructed monologically by the reduction of the latter to the former, or by selectivity in inclusion and reading of examples. At its simplest, the Lacanian myth functions by a short-circuit between a particular instance and statements containing words such as “all”, “always”, “never”, “necessity” and so on. A contingent example or a generic reference to “experience” is used, misleadingly, to found a claim with supposed universal validity. For instance, Stavrakakis uses the fact that existing belief-systems are based on exclusions as a basis to claim that all belief-systems are necessarily based on exclusions (1999, 63-4), and claims that particular traumas express an ‘ultimate impossibility’ (1999, 84-5). Similarly, Laclau and Mouffe use the fact that a particular antagonism can disrupt a particular fixed identity to claim that the social as such is penetrated and constituted by antagonism as such (1985, 125-9). Phenomena are often analysed as outgrowths of something exterior to the situation in question. For instance, Žižek’s concept of the “social symptom” depends on a reduction of the acts of one particular series of people (the “socially excluded”, “fundamentalists”, Serbian paramilitaries, etc.) to a psychological function in the psyche of a different group (westerners). The “real” is a supposedly self-identical principle which is used to reduce any and all qualitative differences between situations to a relation of formal equivalence. This shows how mythical characteristics can be projected from the outside, although it also raises a different problem: the under-conceptualization of the relationship between individual psyches and collective phenomena in Lacanian theory. Too often, the denial of a dividing-line between the two is used as an excuse for simply flitting between them, as if there is no difference between analysing a single individual and a social conflict. Lacanians frequently avoid questions of agency (Žižek has more to say about “class struggle” than classes, for instance), and a related tendency for psychological concepts to acquire an ersatz agency similar to that of a Marxian fetish. “The Real” or “antagonism” occurs in phrases which have it doing or causing something.

As Barthes shows, myth offers the psychological benefits of empiricism without the epistemological costs. Tautology, for instance, is ‘a minor ethical salvation, the satisfaction of having militated in favour of a truth… without having to assume the risks which any somewhat positive search for truth inevitably involves’ (1997, 61). It dispenses with the need to have ideas, while treating this release as a stern morality. Tautology is a rationality which simultaneously denies itself, in which ‘the accidental failure of language is magically identified with what one decides is a natural resistance of the object’ (1997, 152-3).

This passage could almost have been written with the “Lacanian Real” in mind. The characteristic of the Real is precisely that one can invoke it without defining it (since it is “beyond symbolization”), and that the accidental failure of language, or indeed a contingent failure in social praxis, is identified with an ontological resistance to symbolization projected into Being itself. For instance, Žižek’s classification of the Nation as a Thing rests on the claim that ‘the only way we can determine it is by… empty tautology’, and that it is a ‘semantic void’ (1990, 53). Similarly, he claims that ‘the tautological gesture of the Master-Signifier’, an empty performative which retroactively turns presuppositions into conclusions, is necessary, and also that tautology is the only way historical change can occur (1994, 43, 59). He even declares constitutive lack (in this case, termed the “death drive”) to be a tautology (1994, 50). Lacanian references to “the Real” or “antagonism” as the cause of a contingent failure are reminiscent of Robert Teflon’s definition of God: ‘[a]n explanation which means “I have no explanation”’ (cited Bufe ed., 1995,188). An “ethics of the Real” is a minor ethical salvation which says very little in positive terms, but which can pose in macho terms as a “hard” acceptance of terrifying realities. It authorizes truth-claims - in Laclau’s language, a ‘reality’ which is ‘before our eyes’ (1990, 97), or in Newman’s, a ‘harsh reality’ hidden beneath a protective veil (2001, 53) - without the attendant risks. Some Lacanian theorists also show indications of a commitment based on the particular kind of “euphoric” enjoyment Barthes associates with myths. Laclau in particular emphasizes his belief in the ‘exhilarating’ significance of the present (1990, 98), hinting that he is committed to euphoric investments generated through the repetition of the same.

Constitutive lack as “anti-essentialism”?

But isn’t there a problem here? Barthesian myths are claims to express social fullness or an avowed essence, whereas the Lacanian “constitutive lack” is introduced precisely so as to attack such illusions of fullness, and is (Žižek apart) articulated to poststructuralist anti-essentialism. It is widely accepted amongst poststructuralists that if one endorses contingency and openness, one must oppose the reduction of the world to a fixed system of essences. To gain support in this milieu, Lacanians must make a show of opposing essentialism, a show they are more than happy to perform. For instance, Stavrakakis states that ‘a certain indeterminacy… has to be retained as a trace of the real within representation’ (1999, 12), Newman claims that Lacan’s theory of lack is ‘not… essentialist or foundational’ (2001, 10), Laclau denies that he believes in a ground (1990, 27) and Mouffe claims to be ‘anti-essentialist’ (1993, vii). Isn’t this hostility to essentialism a decisive criticism of my analysis? It is indeed the case that much of Lacanian theory makes itself acceptable in a critical theory/cultural studies context by appealing to “anti-essentialism”, contingency and indeterminacy, but such verbal commitments do not fundamentally alter its mythical structure. It is revealing that Lacanians rarely define concepts such as “essentialism”, because any possible distinction between (say) an “essence” and a “constitutive element”, or between a “ground” and a “primordial character”, would have to be extremely precise and technical, and since there is a recurrent suggestion, overwhelming in some passages (e.g. Laclau, 1990, 186), that the Lacanian concept of “essentialism” simply means “not Lacanianism”. Lacanians assume that the idea of a founding negativity is not essentialist, whereas any idea of an autonomous positive or affirmative force, even if constructed as active, undefinable, changing and/or incomplete, is essentialist (e.g. Newman 2001, 77, 149).

The reason Lacanians can claim to be “anti-essentialist” is that there is a radical rupture between the form and content of Lacanian theory. The “acceptance of contingency” constructed around the idea of “constitutive lack” is a closing, not an opening, gesture, and is itself “essentialist” and non-contingent. Many Lacanian claims are not at all contingent, but are posited as ahistorical absolutes. To take an instance from Mouffe’s work, ‘power and antagonism’ are supposed to have an ‘ineradicable character’ so that ‘any social objectivity is constituted through acts of power’ and will show traces of exclusions (2000, 21). One could hardly find a clearer example anywhere of a claim about a fixed basic structure of Being. One could also note again the frequency of words such as “all” and “always” in the Lacanian vocabulary, as well as instances of contradiction and anomaly. For instance, Laclau and Mouffe accuse Norman Geras of essentialism because he uses the phrase ‘what it is’, yet they use the same phrase only two pages earlier (1990, 129, 131). The dislocation between form and content involves “playing with words”, rather than constructing a language game. Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that ‘if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions - namely the disjunction of all their common properties” - I should reply: Now you are only playing with words’ (1967, part 1 sect. 67, 32e). Lacanian theory seems, indeed, to be treating disjunction as a basis for similarity.

The “contingency” embraced in Lacanian theory is not an openness which exceeds specifiable positivities, but a positivity posing as negativity. The relationship between contingency and “constitutive lack” is like the relationship between Germans and “Germanness”, or tables and “tableness”, in the work of Barthes. One could speak, therefore, of a “lack-ness” or a “contingency-ness” or an “antagonism-ness” in Lacanian political theory, and of this theory as a claim to fullness with this reified “lack-ness” as one of the positive elements within the fullness. One sometimes finds direct instances of such mythical vocabulary, as for instance when Stavrakakis demands acknowledgement of ‘event-ness and negativity’ (2003, 69). Indeed, it is an especially closed variety of fullness, with core ideas posited as unquestionable dogmas and the entire structure virtually immune to falsification. As Butler claims, the Real ‘is never subject to the same logic of contingency that it secures’ (1993, 196). It is indicative that Lacanians do not allow their own edifice to be haunted by any kind of outside: it is for Žižek a defining feature of both psychoanalysis and Marxism that they are able to interpret resistances to their arguments (i.e. an outside) as the result of the object they are studying (i.e. as an inside) (2001c, 174). The fixed structure of Lacanian theory is strongly operative in resultant arguments, although it is concealed to some extent by an apparent reluctance on the part of Lacanian theorists to engage in metacommunicative dialogue about their theoretical claims. This allows a smoothly-flowing rhetoric within which they can subsume contemporary events and specific subjects of analysis. However, beneath this rhetoric, the essentialist basic structure and the myth of “constitutive lack” call the shots.

One even finds at times an open reference to lack as an essence. For instance, Laclau and Mouffe refer to negativity and antagonism as foundational and grounding (1985, 145, 193; c.f. Newman, 2001, 153), Newman refers to ‘the emptiness at the heart of place’ and comes close to admitting his own essentialism (2001, 50-1), Stavrakakis refers to the Real as ‘inherent in human experience’ (1999, 87) and Laclau admits ‘privileging the moment of negativity’ (1990, 17). Žižek at times embraces “essentialism” and his entire analysis is unashamedly ontological. Sometimes, Lacanians imply the existence of an element in human nature which necessitates conflict. Mouffe refers to ‘an element of hostility among human beings’ and denounces others for rejecting the idea that violence is inherent in human nature, and Newman cites Lacan’s view that constitutive lack is ‘almost natural’ (Mouffe, 2000, 130-2; Newman, 2001, 144). Most often, one finds the essentialism of “constitutive lack” concealed beneath a simple change of words. Instead of “essential”, one might say “radical”, “constitutive”, “primordial”, “fundamental”, “basic” or “indivisible”, and this allows an essentialism at the level of form to be combined with an anti-essentialism at the level of content. For instance, Žižek takes the term ‘constitutive’ to mean ‘the story of everyone’ (1992c, 74), i.e. more-or-less the same as a universal essence.

One way in which Lacanian theorists differentiate themselves from “essentialism” is by reference to the idea of “constitutive lack” as negativity. For instance, Laclau claims that he does not pose his theory as a full awareness of objectivity because ‘antagonism is the limit of all objectvity’ and has no objective meaning of its own (1990, 17). Therefore, in Stavrakakis’s terms, Lacanian theory is supposedly breaking down the limits between thought and non-thought, encircling rather than symbolizing lack (1999, 82-3), and creating a space within thought for an awareness of its own limits. Such claims are misleading. They may apply to the arguments of (say) Derrida or Korzybski, but the syntax and grammar of Lacanian theory is not such as to permit such an opening. Constitutive lack appears in Lacanian rhetoric as an entity with a positive name, such as ‘the Real’, and instances of lacking are frequently nominalized or “explained” by reference to it. As Butler asks, assuming sociality and conceptualization to have a limit, ‘why are we compelled to give a technical name to this limit, “the Real”, and to make the further claim that the subject is constituted by this foreclosure? The use of technical nomenclature opens up more problems than it solves’. Indeed, it could even be a gesture of discursive control in its own right. ‘Are we using the categories to understand the phenomena, or marshalling the phenomena to shore up the categories “in the name of the father”?’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 152). Perhaps it involves social significations reified as prediscursive (1993, 195). In any case, to say that the real resists symbolization is already to symbolize it (1993, 207).

The technical term operates in much the same way as in positivistic theories, where the use of a noun turns a set of observed “facts” into a “law”. Lack (in the sense of the verb “to lack”) is explained by means of a nominalized lack (for instance, the failure of society by the fact of antagonism), and the various versions of nominalized lack are arranged in sentences involving the verb “to be”. It is not simply a relation of dislocation but a theoretical entity in its own right. For instance, ‘”class struggle” is that on account of which every direct reference to universality… is… “biased”, dislocated with regard to its literal meaning. “Class struggle” is the Marxist name for this basic “operator of dislocation”’ (Žižek, 1997a, 217). One might compare this formula to the statement, “I don’t know what causes dislocation”. Žižek also refers to ‘the universal traumatic kernel which returns as the Same throughout all historical epochs’, epochs which should be conceived ‘as a series of ultimately failed attempts to deal with the same “unhistorical”, traumatic kernel’ (1992c, 81). Dallmayr similarly writes of Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of antagonism that ‘negativity designates not simply a lack but a “nihilating” potency’, ‘a nihilating ferment with real effects’ (1987, 287, 292-3). Stavrakakis differentiates negativity, an ontological concept of ‘that which… shows the limits of the constitution of objectivity’, from contingent instances of negativities (2003, 56) and Newman writes of a ‘creative and constitutive absence’ (2001,142). Badiou’s Real - more situated than the rest, yet still an ontological necessity - has the same positive role. Hence, ‘at the heart of every situation, at the foundation of its being, there is a “situated” void, around which is organised the plenitude… of the situation’ (2001, 68). This void is a specific element, so that ‘the event names the void insofar as it names the not-known of the situation’ (2001, 69), and it must name the one true central void of the situation (2001, 72). This notion of the void as positivity - as something already present in the situation which motivates change - is the only substantial difference between Badiou’s truth-events and Kuhn’s paradigm-shifts. (It would seem to mean taking, for instance, the “lack” of factories before the industrial revolution to be an active, positive element which the revolution named, a “real” void rather than something constructed retrospectively out of a situation open to many different developments; this is certainly how Badiou reads the rise of quantum physics) . Butler notes that ‘the “real” that is a “rock” or a “kernel” or sometimes a “substance” is also, and sometimes within the same sentence, “a loss”, a “negativity”’ (1993, 198). Constitutive lack is a positivity - an “operator of dislocation”, a “nihilating” element - in the Lacanian vocabulary. It is this process of mythical construction which allows lack to be defined precisely, and which therefore meets (for instance) Newman’s criterion that it be less ‘radically underdefined’ than Derrida’s concept of lack (2001, 132). One can only avoid an “I-don’t-know” being underdefined if one misrepresents it mythically. The idea of “constitutive lack” is equivalent to a concept of a positive element in human nature which necessitates conflict with others. For instance, the claim that ‘the political is a dimension… inherent to… society and which determine[s] our [i.e. humans’] very ontological condition’ (1993, 3) could be rephrased as a claim that it is natural to hate or fight. Many of the conservative authors who intermittently litter the references of Lacanian political theory (e.g. Schmitt and Hobbes) are explicitly committed to a negative conception of human nature.

Lacanians also use imagery which identifies “the Real” with a positivity. For instance, the monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien is for Žižek “real” in the Lacanian sense (1997a, 199), and so is the serial killer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1992b, e.g. 248-9). Clearly such Hollywood “monsters” express a positivized negativity in the sense of a personalized or individuated essence of evil. This is not an instance of radical contingency, but a figure similar to the Devil in some versions of Christianity. Indeed, Lacanians sometimes associate themselves with the idea of a ‘supreme being’ who is either evil or arbitrary, the idea which attracts Žižek to Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Malebranche (1992b, 212-13; 1997a, 78-80). It is interesting to note in this regard that Wilhelm Reich regards the figure of the Devil as a reified expression of the illusory representation of repressed desire as evil. ‘When the perception is split off from the bio-energetic excitation, the bodily sensations are experienced as “foreign”, as “evil”, “devilish” influences by “supernatural powers” (“supernatural” in the sense of “beyond” one’s own self). In this harrowing confusion, the bio-system develops destructive impulses to protect itself against the Devil’. The resultant split, often experienced directly by schizophrenics, is also ‘lived clandestinely or laughed at’ by neurotics, but involves the same general figure of ‘the “Devil” as the representation of perverted nature in man. This figure results from repression. ‘The instincts become “low” because of the split in the structure. The originally “high”, the “godlike”, became unattainable and returns only as the “Devil”’. The split relies on the continuation of its psychological basis, and the ‘painful dilemma between God and the Devil dissolves without pain or terror when one sees it from beyond the framework of mechanistic-mystical thinking’ (1948, 459, 461, 398, 427). This would suggest the operation of a similar logic of repression and misrepresentation in the structure of the “desire of the analyst” in Lacanian theory.

The difference between contingency and “constitutive lack” becomes clear if one imagines other ways in which the former could be expressed. One important expression of an awareness of contingency is a preparedness to say “I don’t know”. This phrase - sadly anathematized in contemporary western societies which identify “knowledge” with quick-fire answers, but expressing a noble tradition stretching back to Socrates - expresses a “contingent” awareness that a particular aspect of the world has escaped one’s own symbolic schema, and that (in Lacanian terms) the Symbolic itself is incomplete. As Postman and Weingartner put it, ‘good learners do not need to have an absolute, final, irrevocable resolution to every problem. The sentence “I don’t know”, does not depress them, and they certainly prefer it to the various forms of semantic nonsense that pass for answers to questions that do not as yet have any solution - or may never have one’ (1969, 42). They even advocate that teachers use “I don’t know” as a pedagogical tactic to inspire investigation (1969, 103). Trevor Pateman adds that ‘[I]t is significant when people give an answer when really they don’t know, because they create an illusion of knowledge, which at the collective level may function as a real obstacle to understanding’ (1975, 14). Pointing to a gap in one’s knowledge by the metacommunicative statement “I don’t know” is far more direct than the more immediately communicative and apparently affirmative use of phrases involving words such as “the” and “is”. Is the idea of a “constitutive lack” equivalent to the gesture of saying “I don’t know”? Although (as noted above) it is an explanation which means “I don’t know”, it nevertheless poses as an explanation, and so is part of the problem Pateman outlines. One could, of course, refer to the instance where one says “I don’t know” as a “gap in one’s knowledge”, and subsequently refer to this as “the gap”, generating a use of language superficially similar to Lacanian theory. This is possible due to what Korzybski terms the multiordinality of language: although one cannot make a statement about what one does not know, one can nevertheless make a statement about one’s incapacity to make a statement, because it is always possible to make a statement about a statement (or its absence). A “second-order” nominalization of this kind could indeed express an impossibility without attempting to symbolize it (i.e. without asserting one way or another the nature of that which one does not know). However, one could not incorporate such a “second-order” concept in some of the phrases which arise in Lacanian theory. There is a particular problem as regards phrases involving words such as “constitutive”, “primordial” and “irreducible”. The idea of a constitutive “I-don’t-know” is virtually meaningless. If it could be rendered meaningful, it would seem to mean something along the lines of the idea that inquiry and creation are motivated by gaps in knowledge. It would not preclude (for instance) learning something one does not know, and therefore, it does not have the reductive and limiting effects of the idea of “constitutive lack” (for instance, that all social organization is reducible to antagonism). This suggests that, in Lacanian theory, the “I-don’t-know” gesture is reified into something else: it has a silent “-ity” on the end, and relates to instances of “I don’t know” in much the same way that “Germanness” relates to individual Germans.

It should be added that the idea of “constitutive lack” is radically incompatible with the idea that specific conflicts result from specific, contextual causes. Mouffe distances her view explicitly from any idea that conflicts have a contingent and empirical basis (2000, 19, 48). She insists that ‘far from being merely empirical or epistemological, the obstacles to rationalist devices… are ontological’ (2000, 98). This does, not, however, stop her from claiming to have provided an analysis which explains how specific antagonisms arise (1993 2; c.f. Laclau, 1996, 17). Even more clearly, Žižek constructs his idea that lack is a feature of desire as such in opposition to the idea that alienation results from present, contingent capitalist conditions (1990, 56) and denounces the idea of contingency as an incapacity of concepts to grasp a complex reality as incompatible with the idea of the Real (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 216). Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis makes clear the myths which underlie it. ‘Psychoanalysis transforms and deforms the unconscious by forcing it to pass through the grid of its system of inscription and representation. For psychoanalysis, the unconscious is always already there, genetically programmed, structured, and finalized on objectives of conformity to social norms’ (1996, 206).

Reich has already exposed a predecessor of the idea of “constitutive lack” - the Freudian “death instinct” - as a denial that “I don’t know”. It is, he says, a metaphysical attempt to explain as yet inexplicable phenomena, an attempt which gets in the way of fact-finding about these phenomena (1948, 336). He provides a detailed clinical rebuttal of the idea of the “death instinct” which is equally apt as an attack on Lacanians (who seem unaware of Reich’s intervention). In Reich’s view, the masochistic tendencies Freud associates with the “death instinct” are secondary drives arising from anxiety, and are attributable to ‘the disastrous effect of social conditions on the biopsychic apparatus. This entailed the necessity of criticizing the social conditions which created the neuroses - a necessity which the hypothesis of a biological will to suffer had circumvented’ (1948, 209). The idea of the “death instinct” leads to a cultural philosophy in which suffering is assumed to be inevitable, whereas Reich’s alternative - to attribute neurosis to frustrations with origins in the social system - leads to a critical sociological stance (1948, 214).

The relevance of Reich’s critique to the political theory of constitutive lack is striking. The “death instinct” is connected to an idea of primordial masochism which, in the form of “aphanisis” or “subjective destitution”, recurs throughout Lacanian political theory. Žižek in particular advocates masochism, in the guise of “shooting at” or “beating” oneself, as a radical gesture which reveals the essence of the self and breaks the constraints of an oppressive reality (e.g. 2002b, 253; 2000a, 149-50), although the masochistic gesture is present in all Lacanian theorists. The death instinct is typified by Žižek as a pathological (in the Kantian sense), contingent attitude which finds satisfaction in the process of self-blockage (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 224). It is identical with the Lacanian concept of jouissance or enjoyment. For him, ‘enjoyment (jouissance) is not to be equated with pleasure: enjoyment is precisely “pleasure in unpleasure”; it designates the paradoxical satisfaction procured by a painful encounter with a Thing that perturbs the equilibrium of the pleasure principle. In other words, enjoyment is located “beyond the pleasure principle”’ (1990, 51-2). It is also the core of the self, since enjoyment is ‘the only “substance” acknowledged by psychoanalysis’, and ‘the subject fully “exists” only through enjoyment’ (1990, 53). Primordial masochism is therefore central to the Lacanian concept of the Real, which depends on there being a universal moment at which active desire - sometimes given the slightly misleading name of the “pleasure principle” - is suspended, not for a greater or delayed pleasure, but out of a direct desire for unpleasure (i.e. a primary reactive desire). Furthermore, this reactive desire is supposed to be ontologically prior to active desire. (Dominick LaCapra offers a similar but distinct critique, claiming that Lacanian and similar theories induce a post-traumatic compulsion repetition or an ‘endless, quasi-transcendental grieving that may be indistinguishable from interminable melancholy’ - 1999, 699, 721).

Reich has already provided a rebuttal of “primordial masochism”, which, paradoxically given Žižek’s claims to radicalism, was denounced by orthodox Freudians as communist propaganda. In Reich’s view, masochism operates as a relief at a lesser pain which operates as armouring against anxiety about an underlying trauma (1948, 221-2). Physical and psychological inhibitions operate to turn pleasure into unpleasure, because of the internalization of fear of punishment; ‘the desired pleasure comes to be perceived as the anticipated danger’, so the masochist is not in fact striving for unpleasure (1948, 240-1). To alleviate the threat of the ultimate punishment, masochists pursue lesser punishments which allow the forbidden release, because the responsibility for this release is transferred to the punishing agent (1948, 243). ‘Anxiety or pain, under certain conditions, becomes the only possibility of experiencing relaxation which otherwise is feared’ (1948, 244). Masochism is also a ‘disguised aggression’, directed against the agent who is driven to punish the masochist (1948, 247). ‘Such hypotheses as are criticised here are often only a sign of therapeutic failure. For if one explains masochism by a death instinct, one confirms to the patient his [sic] alleged will to suffer’ (1948, 246-7). Thus, Lacanian metaphysics conceal Lacanians’ encouragement of a variety of neurosis complicit with oppressive social realities. Politically, the thesis of primordial masochism provides a mystifying cover for the social forces which cause and benefit from the contingent emergence of masochistic attachments (i.e. sadistic power apparatuses). One could compare this remark to Butler’s claim that Žižek ‘defends the trauma of the real… over and against a different kind of threat’ (1993, 206).

More evidence for the mythical character of the idea of “constitutive lack” comes from the assertion that it is irreducible and unavoidable (an “indivisible remainder”, in one of Žižek’s favourite catchphrases). If it is repressed or even foreclosed, it necessarily returns (in symptoms, “social symptoms”, delusions, hallucinations and so on). This claim rests on a repressed element within Lacanian theory itself: psychosis. When Lacan defines psychosis as the foreclosure of the name-of-the-father, he performs a gesture similar to that seen in a classic episode of Blackadder, when Baldrick proposes that the word “cat” be defined as “not a dog”. Because of the mythical operation of the core account of neurosis in Lacanian theory, it can only refer to psychosis by defining it as “not neurosis”. The absence of a positive discussion of psychosis - its reduction to a failure of the construction of neurotic subjectivity - is evidence of the all-pervasive operation of the mythical model of a core structure. It also allows psychosis to return as the repressed element in Lacanian theory itself, the element it must deny to survive as a theoretical edifice. For Badiou, for instance, one must avoid challenging the reign of opinion (phatic discourse), as this leads to madness (2001, 84). The Deleuzian “schizo” contrasts favourably with the Lacanian masochist as the psychological basis for a radical “line of flight”.

The gap between the two kinds of contingency is also suggested by the Lacanian insistence on the “need” for a master-signifier (or “nodal point”), i.e. a particular signifier which fills the position of universality, a ‘symbolic injunction which relies only on its own act of enunciation’ (Žižek, 2001d, 6). It is through such a gesture that one establishes a logic of sameness, and such a logic seems to be desired by Lacanians. Butler remarks that Žižek’s text is a ‘project of mastery’ and a discourse of the law in which ‘the “contingency” of language [is] mastered in and by a textual practice which speaks as the law’ (1993, 198). He demands a ‘”New Harmony”, sustained by a newly emerged Master-Signifier’ (Žižek 1999, 154). This insistence on a master-signifier is an anti-contingent gesture, especially in its rejection of the multiordinality of language. It is, after all, this multiordinality (the possibility of making a statement about any other statement) which renders language an open rather than a closed system. The “need” for a master-signifier seems to be a “need” to restore an illusion of closure, the “need” for metacommunication to operate in a repressive rather than an open way. This “need” arises because the mythical concept of “constitutive lack” is located in an entire mythical narrative in which it relates to other abstractions. In the work of Laclau and Mouffe, this expresses itself in the demand for a “hegemonic” agent who contingently expresses the idea of social order “as such”.

One should recall that such an order is impossible, since antagonism is constitutive of social relations, and that the hegemonic gesture therefore requires an exclusion. Thus, the establishment of a hegemonic master-signifier is merely a useful illusion. The alternative to demanding a master-signifier - an illusion of order where there is none - would be to reject the pursuit of the ordering function itself, and to embrace a “rhizomatic” politics which goes beyond this pursuit. In Laclau and Mouffe’s work, however, the “need” for a social order, and a state to embody it, is never questioned, and, even in Zizek’s texts, the “Act” which smashes the social order is to be followed by a necessary restoration of order (e.g. 1989, 211-12). This necessity is derived ontologically: people are, says Žižek, ‘in need of firm roots’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 250). The tautological gesture of establishing a master-signifier by restrospectively positing conditions of an object as its components, thereby ‘block[ing] any further inquiry into the social meaning’ of what it quilts (i.e. repressive metacommunication), is a structural necessity (1993, 49). This is because ‘discourse itself is in its fundamental structure “authoritarian”’. A distortion introducing non-founded violence into language is necessary, and ‘with Lacan, the master is an impostor, yet the place occupied by him… cannot be abolished, since the very finitude of every discursive field imposes its structural necessity’. The role of the analyst is not to challenge the place of the master, but to occupy it in such a way as to expose its underlying contingency (1992c, 103). The master-signifier, also termed the One, demonstrates the centrality of a logic of place in Lacanian theory. Badiou accomplishes the ultimate gesture of obedience to King Abacus in specifying mathematics - the core of many logics of place - as the root of being-as-being (i.e. in itself). When all particularity is stripped away, ‘what remains is mathematics’ (2001, 130). His position on revolutionary change is similar to Žižek’s. It is inevitable, even ‘destiny’, that every “truth” or revolutionary break should return to the logic of normalization (2001, 70). The truth-event is fated to ‘disappear’ (2001, 72), and truth can only change the content of opinion (i.e. everyday symbolic discourse), not destroy it (2001, 80). Lacanians assume that constitutive lack necessitates the construction of a positive space which a particular agent can fill (albeit contingently). The “empty” place of power in liberal-democratic Lacanian texts such as those of Laclau, Mouffe, Stavrakakis and Newman is not empty at all, since it involves a particular (though changing) positivity. An “empty” place of power would involve, not an agent who adopts the “empty” position, but a simple absence of the position, or in other words, the destruction of the state and the free emergence of rhizomatic networks with no determinate centre. Therefore, the commitment to master-signifiers and the state involves a continuation of an essentialist image of positivity, with “lack” operating structurally as the master-signifier of Lacanian theory itself (not as a subversion of positivity, but as a particular positive element).

The idea of “constitutive lack” is supposed to entail a rejection of neutral and universal standpoints, and it is this rejection which constructs it as an “anti-essentialist” position. In practice, however, Lacanians restore the idea of a universal framework through the backdoor: the universality of a statement such as that “there is no neutral universality” is constructed so as to privilege whichever side in a conflict accepts the statement more completely. “Acceptance” or “awareness” of the fundamental ontological level becomes the very neutral standpoint of objectivity it claims to obliterate, reasserting essentialism in the very act of denying it. Take, for instance, Žižek’s claim that ‘a true Leninist is not afraid… to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project… [A] Leninist, like a conservative, is authentic [because]… fully aware of what it means to take power and to exert it’ (2001b, 4). Can one find a clearer example of a claim to a status of authenticity due to a position of ontological privilege, in this case a privilege conferred by “awareness” of the underlying lack? It should be added that this is by no means the only reference to “authenticity” in Žižek’s work. The Act, his primary ethical concept, is constructed around a reference to authenticity, defined in exclusion of the various instances of ‘false’ acts and ‘shirking of the Act’. Beneath the idea that “there is no neutral universality” lurks a claim to know precisely such a “neutral universality” and to claim a privileged position on this basis. A consistent belief in contingency and “anti-essentialism” entails scepticism about the idea of constitutive lack. After all, how does one know that the appearance that ‘experience’ shows lack to be constitutive reflects an underlying universality, as opposed to the contingent or even simulated effects of a particular discourse or episteme? Alongside its opponents, shouldn’t Lacanian theory also be haunted by its own fallibility and incompletion? There is a paradox in the idea of radical choice, for it is unclear whether Lacanians believe this should be applied reflexively. Is the choice of Lacanian theory itself an ungrounded Decision? If so, the theory loses the universalist status it implicitly claims. If not, it would seem to be the kind of structural theory it attacks. A complete structural theory would seem to assume an extra-contingent standpoint, even if the structure includes a reference to constitutive lack. Such a theory would seem to be a radical negation of the incompletion of “I don’t know”.

The myth of constitutive lack, like all myths, has a closing role: it limits what can be said through an “order not to think”. On the other hand, the idea that creativity is motivated by a stance that “I-don’t-know” has an opening effect. As Callinicos puts it, ‘[w]hat Badiou calls the “void” in a situation is rather the set of determinate possibilities it contains, including that of transformation’ (2001, 394). If there is no irreducible “Real” beneath each blockage or lack, these can be overcome by creative action, as with the creative role of anomalies in paradigm-change in the sciences, and the creative role of “psychotic” philosophies such as those of Deleuze and Nietzsche. The imperative in Lacanian theory is to “accept” lack, whereas the logic of a non-mythical idea of contingency is to use opportunities for openness as a basis for creativity. The difference between mythical and non-mythical versions leads politically to the difference between acceptance of blockages and attempts to overcome them. Psychologically, it involves the difference between reactive and active character-structures. Lacanian theories involve a strong commitment to slave morality, as exemplified by Laclau’s insistence that every chain of equivalence involve a unity against an external threat (1996, 57), Norval’s advocacy of the use of “apartheid” as a bogeyman in South African politics (in Laclau 1990, 157) and Mouffe’s demand for submission to rules (1993, 66-9), but also in Žižek’s “revolutionary” insistence on the need for masochistic self-degradation, ‘subjective destitution’ and identification with a Master and a Cause (e.g. 2002b, 253-4; 2001a, 77-8; 1999, 212, 375-8), not to mention his directly reactive insistence that self-awareness amounts to awareness of the negative, of death and trauma, prior to any active identification or articulation (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 256-7). This is a reterritorializing “contingency” which fits closely with the operation of capitalist ideology, where ‘under conditions we recognize as desperate, we are told to alter ourselves’, not the conditions, because the self is conceived as a decisionist founder (Nielsen, 1978, 168-70). The alternative is a difference which is not reified into a “positive” negativity. According to Deleuze, there are two models of contingency: the creative power of the poet, and the politician’s denial of difference so as to prolong an established order. It is for the latter that negation (lack) is primary, ‘as if it were necessary to pass through the misfortunes of rift and division in order to be able to say yes’. For the poet, on the other hand, difference is ‘light, aerial and affirmative’. ‘There is a false profundity in conflict, but underneath conflict, the play of differences’, differences which should be affirmed as positive and not overcoded by negativity (1994, 50-4). Deleuze and Guattari radically oppose the Lacanian model of desire. ‘Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject which is lacking in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject… Desire and its object are a unity… Desire is a machine, the object of desire also a connected machine’ (1977, 26). ‘Ours is no art of mutilation, but of excess, superabundance, amazement’, declares Hakim Bey. Though ‘truly fearful things’ exist in the world, they can perhaps be overcome - ‘on the condition that we build an aesthetic on the overcoming rather than the fear’ (1991, 37, 78). A constitutive “I-don’t-know”, if such a concept is thinkable, would involve precisely such a free play of differences, and not, to use Žižek’s term, the ‘good terror’ which ensures that this free play is brought to a halt (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000, 326; Žižek, 2002b, 311). It is through the mythical construction of “constitutive lack” that Lacanian theory is able to derive a drive for “order” from a starting-point of contingency.

Conclusion: The constitutive lack of radicalism in Lacanian politics

There is more than an accidental relationship between the mythical operation of the concept of “constitutive lack” and Lacanians’ conservative and pragmatist politics. Myth is a way of reducing thought to the present: the isolated signs which are included in the mythical gesture are thereby attached to extra-historical abstractions. On an analytical level, Lacanian theory can be very “radical”, unscrupulously exposing the underlying relations and assumptions concealed beneath officially-sanctioned discourse. This radicalism, however, never translates into political conclusions: as shown above, a radical rejection of anti-“crime” rhetoric turns into an endorsement of punishment, and a radical critique of neo-liberalism turns into a pragmatist endorsement of structural adjustment. It is as if there is a magical barrier between theory and politics which insulates the latter from the former. One should recall a remark once made by Wilhelm Reich: ‘You plead for happiness in life, but security means more to you’ (1974, 27). Lacanians have a “radical” theory oriented towards happiness, but politically, their primary concern is security. As long as they are engaged in politically ineffectual critique, Lacanians will denounce and criticize the social system, but once it comes to practical problems, the “order not to think” becomes operative.

This “magic” barrier is the alibi function of myth. The short-circuit between specific instances and high-level abstractions is politically consequential. A present evil can be denounced and overthrown if located in an analysis with a “middle level”. The Lacanian gesture, however, is instead to present the evil and then add a word such as “always” to it. In this way, a present problem becomes eternal and social change becomes impossible. At the very most, such change cannot affect the basic matrix posited by Lacanian theory, because this is assumed to operate above history. In this way, Lacanian theory operates as an alibi: it offers a little bit of theoretical radicalism to inoculate the system against the threat posed by a lot of politicized radicalism (cf. Barthes, 2000, 41-2). In Laclau and Mouffe’s version, this takes the classic Barthesian form: “yes, liberal democracy involves violent exclusions, but what is this compared to the desert of the real outside it?” The Žižekian version is more complex: “yes, there can be a revolution, but after the revolution, one must return to the pragmatic tasks of the present”. A good example is provided in one of Žižek’s texts. The author presents an excellent analysis of a Kafkaesque incident in the former Yugoslavia where the state gives a soldier a direct, compulsory order to take a voluntary oath - in other words, attempts to compel consent. He then ruins the impact of this example by insisting that there is always such a moment of “forced choice”, and that one should not attempt to escape it lest one end up in psychosis or totalitarianism (1989, 165-6). The political function of Lacanian theory is to preclude critique by encoding the present as myth.

There is a danger of a stultifying conservatism arising from within Lacanian political theory. echoing the ‘terrifying conservatism’ Deleuze suggests is active in any reduction of history to negativity (1994, 53). The addition of an “always” to contemporary evils amounts to a “pessimism of the will”, or a “repressive reduction of thought to the present”. Stavrakakis, for instance, claims that attempts to find causes and thereby to solve problems are always fantasmatic (1999, 87), while Žižek states that an object which is perceived as blocking something does nothing but materialize the already-operative constitutive lack (1992c, 89). It is not clear whether such hostility applies to all instances of solution, or whether there is a difference between “constitutive lack” and some kind of surplus lack arising from contingent conditions. Certainly, Lacanians often revert to contingent, empirical explanations, even when these seem contrary to their own theoretical assumptions (e.g. Laclau and Mouffe, 1985, 131). In any case, a Lacanian approach to an instance of lack, such as environmental crisis, famine or political repression, carries a large danger that a contingent phenomenon will be labelled as constitutive and thereby placed beyond criticism. For instance, the argument that, since existing food production is sufficient for the world’s population, the existence of famine is an intolerable indictment of the world trade system and global power relations would be severely damaged by a Lacanian claim that an inclusive distribution system is an impossible totalitarian fantasy. Contingent explanations - for instance, that the current famine in southern Africa is a result of IMF demands that governments sell food stocks - are in competition with the Lacanian mythical gesture of explaining shortages and conflicts by reference to a constitutive impossibility of completion.

Even if Lacanians believe in surplus/contingent as well as constitutive lack, there are no standards for distinguishing the two. How does one tell an expression of “constitutive lack” from an effect of a particular regime of power, or for that matter from an imagined, nonexistent bogeyman? Perhaps all instances fall into the former category anyway: if it is not possible to know whether any specific impasse is an instance of constitutive lack or not, it is not possible to know that any of them are, and there is therefore no basis for claiming with any certainty that constitutive lack exists. (Žižek effectively admits that no element in the world is Real per se, reducing his affirmation of the idea to a suggestion that its rejection would lead to liberal conclusions [Žižek and Salecl, 1996, 41-2]. This suggests that he is prepared to affirm whatever he must affirm to avoid a conclusion he has decided in advance to view as unacceptable - a far flight from his official image as a daredevil revealing repressed truths). Even if constitutive lack exists, Lacanian theory runs a risk of “misdiagnoses” which have a neophobe or even reactionary effect. To take an imagined example, a Lacanian living in France in 1788 would probably conclude that democracy is a utopian fantasmatic ideal and would settle for a pragmatic reinterpretation of the ancién regime. Laclau and Mouffe’s hostility to workers’ councils and Žižek’s insistence on the need for a state and a Party (e.g. Laclau and Mouffe, 1985, 178; Žižek, 2002b, 296-7; 1997a, 157) exemplify this neophobe tendency. The construction of (for instance) the relation between colonizer and colonized in terms of “constitutive antagonism” (see Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 129) turns colonialism into an expression of an unchangeable ontology and impedes the possibility of anti-colonial rebellion. It is also interesting that Newman begins his book with an intention to destroy the place of power, but concludes with the view that this is impossible. Instead of ‘the anarchic desire to destroy hierarchy’, he demands that power merely be reinterpreted and displaced (2001, 37, 118-19). The pervasive negativity and cynicism of Lacanian theory offers little basis for constructive activity. Instead of radical transformation, one is left with a pragmatics of “containment” which involves a conservative de-problematization of the worst aspects of the status quo. The inactivity it counsels would make its claims a self-fulfilling prophecy by acting as a barrier to transformative activity.

To conclude, the political theory of “constitutive lack” does not hold together as an analytical project and falls short of its radical claims as a theoretical and political one. It relies on central concepts which are constructed through the operation of a mythical discourse in the Barthesian sense, with the result that it is unable to offer sufficient openness to engage with complex issues. If political theory is to make use of poststructuralist conceptions of contingency, it would do better to look to the examples provided by Deleuze and Guattari, whose conception of contingency is active and affirmative. In contrast, the idea of “constitutive lack” turns Lacanian theory into something its most vocal proponent, Žižek, claims to attack: a “plague of fantasies”.


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Word-count: 12, 893. Manuscript dated 20-07-03.
The increasingly influential paradigm which reduces political relations to a constitutive lack or antagonism (e.g. the work of Žižek, Laclau and Mouffe) is based on an illegitimate discursive manoeuvre. Rather than being anti-essentialist, this paradigm constructs lack as a positivity. Lack functions as an entity, rather than expressing a position that “I don’t know”. As a result, the Lacanian version of contingency is constructed as a closing rather than an opening gesture. The idea of constitutive lack is a myth in the Barthesian sense, and the imposed schema in which it arises is also mythical. This kind of theory involves a misrepresentation of contingent instances of conflict and absence as expressions of an ontological concept. The application of the idea of constitutive lack to concrete issues occurs via projection and the resulting politics is conservative and ineffectual. Instead of resisting exclusion, this perspective openly embraces it, and it also tends to lack political direction, instead embracing ad hoc pragmatic positions. Instead, one should endorse a Deleuzian politics of radical openness.
KEYWORDS: constitutive lack, Laclau, Žižek, Barthesian myth, Real, antagonism


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