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Daniel Bristow reviews Tomšič and Zevnik’s collection which shows the desperate need for psychoanalysis in politics today. A truly Lacanian review of a truly Lacanian book.

Jacques Lacan: Between Psychoanalysis and Politics, ed. by Samo Tomšič and Andreja Zevnik (Routledge, 2015) 332pp.

‘I can say until I am blue in the face that the notion of discourse should be taken as a social link […] and yet nothing seems to change.’ — Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX

Discourse conceived as ‘social link’ is somewhat the founding act of the recent volume Jacques Lacan: Between Psychoanalysis and Politics – edited by Samo Tomšič and Andreja Zevnik – in Routledge’s Interventions series. Comprising nineteen essays, including the introduction, on the theme of the political in Jacques Lacan’s thinking and in modern Lacanianism, most focus on the period between Seminars XVI/XVII and XX (give or take a few exceptions) as constituting the time of Lacan’s most sustained political interventions, in which he theorised discourse, conceived of the four discourses (the Master’s, Hysteric’s, University and Analyst’s) and brought all this to bear on the social, that plane on which the political plays out, even when ‘nothing seems to change’, in the words he used in Seminar XX.

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Having discussed theology between politics and psychoanalysis, Slavoj Žižek ends his essay ‘Divine Ex-sistence’ with the words: ‘thus, what God doubts about is that the bond of human engagement, which makes him ex-sist, will be broken’ (266). In effect, his essay stands as the preparatory work (carried out in the quasi-originary fields of mythology, theology and philosophy) that gives grounding for this fundamentally political idea of social bond, or link. Here firmly rooted in the notion of the big Other Žižek highlights how, should the discursive relation of the social tie break down, the coordinates by which lived experience is constituted (political at base) and enacted, in accordance with the presupposition of the ‘big Other’, would evaporate; that is, God – the big Other of the socio-political unconscious – would cease to exist (or ‘ex-sist’, as Lacan reformulated it, implying constitution from without; in this case from the social). As Lacan had pointed out in 1950, the resulting reigning chaos would not be that of Dostoyevsky’s pronouncement, ‘if God does not exist, then everything is permitted’, but in fact its inversion: ‘God is dead, nothing is permitted anymore’, everything is prohibited. Without some notion of an Other, a guarantor of meaning, from which there is an imagined validation, however illusory (Lacan warns that not to be duped by the structure of fiction is an error), there would thus be a (socio-political) stasis quo.

Jelica Šumič in her essay ‘Politics and Psychoanalysis in the Times of the Inexistent Other’ draws out the precise consequences of this for the individual (just as Žižek does for the notion of God itself in ‘the wonderful image of a God in anxiety, dreading for his own status as if it depends on the logical exercises of a philosopher, as if the philosopher’s reasoning has consequences in the Real, so that, if the proof fails, God’s existence itself is threatened’ (263)):

The inexistence of the Other, contrary to what might be expected or hoped for, is not in and of itself a liberating factor for the subject, it is not experienced by the subject as liberation from the capture which the Other effects upon him/her. Quite the contrary: in the absence of the master signifier which would render a given situation ‘readable’, the subject remains a prisoner, not of the Other that exists, but of the inexistent Other, better put perhaps, of the inexistence of the Other (34).

It is perhaps a premonitory fear of this floundering imprisonment in the inexistence of the Other that goes some way in barring access to change, or more specifically in politics to genuinely revolutionary desire. As is made much of in the book, Lacan – not long after the events of May 1968 – during his seventeenth Seminar, intoned to a group of its proponents assembled round him: ‘what you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.’ (Jean-Michel Rabaté’s essay ‘Lacan’s ‘année érotique’ (1968/1969)’ is a fascinating, in-depth and close-at-hand study of the French situation of this time.) Neoliberalism would today seem to be the name of that new Master’s discourse to which we – at least repeatedly assert – are inescapably in thrall (Frederic Jameson’s recent incitement to new utopianisms is perhaps beginning to try to break this capitalist realist hegemony, as essential as it has been). It is Juliet Brough Rogers who brilliantly analyses change and resistance in relation to psychoanalysis and politics in her essay (which diagnoses in its title what psychoanaltico-politcal conceptualisations must work towards) ‘A Stranger Politics: Toward a Theory of Resistance in Psychoanalytic Thought and Practice’:

In psychoanalysis we can understand attempts to enact change as often attempts, in reality, to reinforce identity. Examples which highlight such seeming contradictions are seen in individuals who enter analysis with the stated aim of stopping the pattern of entering domineering relationships. These people may then be frustrated by the analyst who does not tell them how to change their patterns and they may find analysis intolerable because it is not instructive (read: domineering) enough. Thus the very effort toward change was in fact an effort to reinforce the same. The condition which plagues such efforts toward change is what Lacan (2006: 80) is referencing when he speaks of the ‘knot’ of ‘imaginary servitude’ in which the subject’s identity is at-service to the signifiers that produce and provoke its desire. Sometimes this service, no matter how much the conscious desire for it to be otherwise, may result in a repetition of the same rather than a changing of the ‘rules of inclusion’, both in the analysand and in the activist (186).

These resistances were eminently recognisable to Freud, who encounters them at every turn in his writings. In today’s political and psychoanalytic conjuncture, as Brough Rogers attests, ‘in some way, any acts of resistance always become modes of, in Lacan’s terms, the desire for (another) Master’ (187). On the other side to that of the political subject as activist of resistance or member of the public, Zevnik identifies how those agents of the political, on an international scale, rely on the Imaginary (the Lacanian order shown in its lynchpin ideologico-political position by Juliet Flower MacCannell in her contribution to this volume) – often of divine ex-sistence – to ‘justify’ (i.e., shirk ultimate responsibility for) their acts: ‘there are numerous political cases where responsibility has been deferred to some higher ethical instance: just think of the Holocaust, genocide, or killings of civilians in war. In these cases responsibility can often be traced to some external non-existent third person. George Bush Jr. and Tony Blair, for example, both at least implicitly invoked God in justification for the 2003 intervention in Iraq. […] Aren’t these clear cases of responsibility being deferred onto some third non-existing person? The Kantian duty thus allows the person to hide behind the law and avoid an encounter with an ethical demand’ (226). (This ethical demand is offset against the superegoic injunction to enjoyment, discussed so well by Tomšič in his essay, which is an extension of the work of unifying Marx and Lacan in his timely and rigorous book The Capitalist Unconscious.)

What is clear here so far is how usefully Lacanian techniques can be deployed for ferretting out the reasons for political inaction, apathy and avoidance, but we are also clearly pointed to what is on the other side of this: the unknown, even the impossible, and the ethical demand towards this in political theory and practice. As Alenka Zupančič indeed puts it: ‘[this] is not to say that true politics – as different from socio-economic management – always strives for the impossible, for example for the impossible ideal of full justice and equality, but rather that true politics as such is the impossible at work, or the working of the impossible’ (99, note 1). To demand the impossible, then, is to demand true politics. It is an ethical demand, and as such pulls towards the Lacanian order of the Real, as that which is impossible and unsymbolisable (we could say that morality thus resides in the Symbolic, as that which has rigidified before the Real; or, that morality is an ethics that’s stopped); a demand, that is, that this collective work is an ethical call to make.

This outline of the book, plotted across these scant few select points, perhaps elucidates somewhat its trajectory, which, in its own words, moves from the ‘political significance of psychoanalysis’, through ‘Lacanian psychoanalysis and the political’ (in relation to Oedipus and the theory of discourses), to ‘psychoanalysis and political encounters’. It covers a great deal of themes important to psychoanalysis, politics and Lacanianism (in, for example, Mladen Dolar’s extraordinary disquisition on the Oedipal failure ‘not to be’; Colin Wright’s bruising takedown of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; Paul Minkkinen’s important study of Lacan and Georges Bataille’s relations; and Kirsten Campbell’s comprehensive overview of Lacanianism and feminism, and their conjunction’s political consequences) and often, and at its best, the interrelation of all of these. The collection talks until it’s blue in the face of politics and psychoanalysis, edging forward towards the impossible’s demand, and in doing so brings closer the possibility of change.


Daniel Bristow is a scholar of psychoanalysis from the UK. Among other things he is the author of Joyce and Lacan: Reading, Writing, and Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016) and the series editor of the Everyday Analysis book series.

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