“The more universal our ethics are, the more brutal our ethical exclusion is.”
The University Discourse and the Biopolitical Split
“The story we are telling about ourselves is a fundamental lie.” This elusive and deceiving Lacanian truth can be summed up in Lacanese as, “the signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier.” Since the subject is something that always falls outside of the story’s scope, the subject is pure virtuality, “a virtual absentee in a virtual world” (De Kesel, 302). In Lacan’s understanding of the university discourse – the power discourse, or master’s discourse has shifted to a new domain that is structured purely by “neutral knowledge.” The shift from master to university discourse is a narrativist shift and is thus central to understanding the way in which narrative structures the social field, or the Lacanian symbolic realm. In the university discourse, any revisionist psychoanalytic retelling of one’s story can be modified with a more positive memory; a rewriting the past experience is central to the discursive construction of identity.
Lacan’s Seminar on the Four Discourses identifies university discourse as a mode of scientific discourse that always legitimizes relations of power. “The signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier” – to understand this representation of language, the range of symbolic meanings we present are presented for the field of signifiers, not for a single absolute master, (as occurred in the master’s discourse) hence the university discourse expands the field of master signifiers into an excess of symbolic meaning. The neutrality of the university discourse – it is disengaged, and the agent posits itself as the self-erasing observer and executor of objective laws accessible to neutral knowledge. Each of the four discourses contain a political link – in the university discourse, the post-political expert is the primary figure.
In the master discourse, the master fills in the place of the signifier. A master always already hystericizes himself by starting to question what makes him a master. This “inassimilable excess” of symbolic meaning causes the subject to normalize his relationship towards the excess through creating fantasy formations. Yet in the master discourse contains no fantasmatic withdrawal, rather, the situation renders the subject in a determinate position of: “I am what I say I am” – it is here that fantasy arises, at the moment when the subject responds to “you are telling me this, but why?” When fantasy pops up, it indicates the failure of the master’s discourse. What is a master-signifier then? It is that which is repressed by the binary signifier – what the symbolic order represses and what returns as a missing signifier in the couple – i.e. the “return of the repressed.”
The real in the symbolic core of the subject’s rewriting of their story always involves a traumatic encounter with a real that can never be symbolized. Zizek notes the two predominant ways (New Age and Judeo-Christian) in which the call to love our neighbor in university discourse presents itself. The new age call to love your neighbor is to love the semblance/imaginary other, (as in Jung, where others are disavowed aspects of my projected personality) whereas the Judeo-Christian injunction to love your neighbor is to love the traumatic other as thing.
To the Judeo-Christian tradition, the neighbor remains an inert traumatic impenetrable other that hystericizes me, i.e. the other remains in the master’s discourse. This discursive shift grows out of the Jewish mosaic Decalogue, and is part and parcel of modern human rights law. This binary logic colors the master’s discourse, and it also structures the university discourse.
In the university discourse, the expert rule of biopolitics is grounded and conditioned by the crisis of investiture – this crisis culminates in what Lacan refers to as a a from of nihilism, of “life dragging on as its own shadow.” The object of the discourse of the university has two aspects – that of the reduction of human to bare life, hyper bureaucratized and administered life or homo sacer, and that of hyper-sensitive to the other’s proximity – requiring a whole new set of procedures that mandate respect for the vulnerable other, constantly prone to an infinite number of harassment, PC culture, multiculturalism, etc.
In structuring the cross-cultural exchange, the very constitution is founded on a negativity of what Lacan refers to as “subject suppose to know.” The basis of subject suppose to know is a desire to eliminate all negativity and replace it with a positivity, most often in political discourse, the subject suppose to know is rendered in utopian terms. In the foreground of any multicultural exchange is a macro displacement of negativity. The displacing of negativity functions in two primary modes, as either a “clash of enjoyments,” where private morality jouissance is brought to the level of “threat to the other,” or to the basis of societal relations. The second mode of displaced negativity is through the administration of particular “consumption acts” which function in the case of multiculturalism as the multiculturalism discourse itself (Lacanian Left, 266).
Symbolic castration can only happen through sacrificing a pre-symbolic enjoyment. This is the basis of how the subject develops desire. This also includes ones identification with particular political projects, ideologies, and to tolerate (Lacan and the Political, 196). The excising of enjoyment is built into all social activities. Thus jouissance has a momentary character and a founding character as it shapes desire itself. This founding of desire results in a split desire system, a Janus face bent between a beatific and an obscene dimension. The balancing of the two is dependent on an exclusion of an out-group. All references to one’s sentiment, identity, cultural or religious identity will always entail an analysis of things related to the body. In late capitalist discourse it is too difficult to express our cultural identities without attaching those identities to what we enjoy, thus identity in university discourse is brought to the level of Intersubjective desire based on enjoyment.
In university discourse, all symbolic authority structures reality sanctioned by knowledge. Thus, the content of symbolic power is less important than the source from which it emanates (Lacanian Left, 172). So it is not the substance of the command but the source in authority that structures legitimacy in the university discourse (173). This entry of symbolic power into the realm of social relations is the imposition of what Lacan refers to as the Name of the Father. The biopoitical split is built around a gap between the janus face of the university discourse, between S1 and S2, which if obliterated causes a fall into totalitarianism.
The origin from which the content emanates from is more important than the content itself as it is enunciated (Lacanian Left, 172). Put a little differently, it is not the substance of the command but the source in authority; this is the process of Name of the Father par excellence. The most appropriate example of the Name of the Father and empty symbolic power comes from King Lear who succumbed to the “empty signifier” of his own position in the symbolic order as King under the “empty crown” of symbolic authority. Only commands that are deployed with a fantasy value at the level of enjoyment will be obeyed in the university discourse – only that which has a positive investment with desire, an attachment to desire will be obeyed (Lacanian Left, 175). Thus we see in the Yes Men the example of their offering totally ludicrous presentations to corporate power holders who listen attentively and take their statements for total fact without question and often agree with their radical findings as they are under the guise of equal or even superior knowledge position to them. Herein with the example of the Yes Men, the empty gesture of symbolic power and the fantasmatic supplement unite (Lacanian Left, 176).
Incorporating the Lacanian system of thought into normative assumptions about the role of the body into and the structure of political discourse problematizes the rational self-interest model as a mode for dealing with the “I – Other” relationship. If every concrete engagement with an other induces a to libidinal jouissance dialectic, cognitivist-linguistic approaches this complex problem of the management of desire are rendered obsolete. As Yannis Stavrakakis comments, “liberal concepts such as Rawls’ ideal speech situation and Habermas’ constitutional patriotism are problematized by the bodily trigger of all cultural identity exchanges” (Lacanian Left, 207).