Instituting Lack and Traversing Fantasy in the New Discourse on Tolerance

Daniel Avatar

Tolerating the other from a Lacanian view brings up a number of normative implications for the “act” of the cross cultural exchange, to how we institutionalize projects of dialogue that aim at understanding the other. Through applying key Lacanian concepts: point de caption, Name of the Father, and signification, I will propose a Lacanain intervention into the ethics of psychoanalysis to enable the “I-other” relation to be re-actualized – a step towards freeing the other of their virtuality and one towards the integration of lack into the impossible real of the social field. It is only through traversing the “fantasy of the fantasm”, which structures the relation to the other, that desire surplus can be restored to an ethical position freed from the symptom of fantasy.

The Lacanain truth that transitive recognition of the other is impossible, serisouly problematizes core liberal assumptions about narrative retelling of one’s story, or even of the very possibility of understanding the other in an authentic and intersubjective way. Yet there are rich Lacanian terms and strategies form the field of psychoanalysis, especially the ethics of psychoanalysis that are available to re-actualize the other out of their virtuality and resurrect a new intervention with the impossible real.

In structuring the cross-cultural exchange, the very constitution of identity 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 onto an excluded identity group. This exclusion operates as embedded to the very operation of Lacanian ethics.

The displacing of negativity functions through two primary modes, as either a “clash of enjoyments,” where private morality jouissance is brought to the level of an inherent “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.

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. 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. Thus the content of symbolic power is mediated in social life by the State is less important than the source from which it emanates. So it is not the substance of the command but the source in authority that structures legitimacy in the university discourse. 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 imposition of Name of the Father onto the symbolic is essential to understanding the way that symbolic identity is ascribed in the social field. As Yannis Stavrakakis points out, the university discourse that foregrounds the late capitalist symbolic space, it isn’t so much the substance of the command but the source in authority; this is the process of Name of the Father par excellence. One of the most classic literary examples of the imposition of Name of the Father and empty symbolic power comes from Shakespeare’s eternal character, King Lear. King Lear succumbed to the “empty signifier” of his own position in the symbolic order as King under the “empty crown” of symbolic authority. The King Lear example, similar to Yes Men indicate that it is commands of identity that are deployed from the level of fantasy, posited at the level of enjoyment that are the sorts that will be obeyed in the university discourse. In essence, it is only that which has a positive investment with one’s desire, or that pertains an attachment to one’s desire that will be obeyed.

Thus we see in the popular Yes Men a nice example of Name of the Father. By their offering totally ludicrous presentations to corporate power holders who end up listening attentively and more importantly taking their statements for total fact without question and most often end up agreeing with their radical findings (The Yes Men are a group of culture jamming activists who practice what they call “identity correction” by pretending to be powerful people and spokespersons for prominent organizations, What this indicates more than anything is that symbolic identity construction functions as an empty gesture of symbolic power supported by a fantasmatic supplement, and both empty symbolic power and fantasy unite to form reality.

By incorporating the Lacanian system of thought and the dialectic of desire, as we will develop below, a new set of normative assumptions about the role of the body, and the structure of political discourse end up problematizing the liberal version of tolerance and the rational self-interest model as a theoretical device for dealing with the “Other.” What we will find is that the very concept of tolerance emerges as an ideological category, where its public symbolic meaning can literally be taken for its opposite. If every concrete engagement with the other induces the subject to dialectic of desire structured by jouissance, many of the cognitivist and linguistic approaches to understanding identity and difference in a late capitalist society are also rendered obsolete. As Yannis Stavrakakis comments in The Lacanian Left, “liberal concepts such as Rawls’ ideal speech situation and Habermas’ constitutional patriotism are problematized by the bodily trigger of all cultural identity exchanges” with the advent of the Lacanian desire system.

Constituting the Other-as-Object in the Symbolic: A Real that Always Resists Symbolization

Because the primary point of symbolic space is not mediated through the order of the sign, but through the order of the signified, the signifier produces all meaning. As Lacan develops in the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, the subject is always in a secondary position to the signifier. The very constitution of subjectivity and identity in Lacanian thought is always tied to a set of master signifier power relations.

The logic of the signifier as the locus of power results in a binary split within the subject, similar to the social biopolitical Janus face as will be explored later. In the structuring of identity, the subject emerges in realm of what Lacan deemed the imaginary , and constructs their identity based through the other that functions as a master and a guarantor. Since the signifier manifests differences and nothing else and is rooted in pure negativity, the signified functions as an affect of transference. Even the transference of “the signified is only possible only by the structure of the signified.”

The starting point in this system is that every real signifier is a signifier of nothing, inhabited by an inherent negativity. Identity and meaning making out of negativity implies that the signifier is always a vanishing and disappearing point. As Yannis Stavrakakis points out, Lacan’s theory of identity was formulated to avoid any idea of positive representationalism in the realm of the symbolic, a process destined to creating “the illusion of attaining signification” for the subject. Thus, the Lacanian subject is a linguistic subject “supposed to know,” or we might refer to the subject as an object supposed to know what a signifier signifies for a subject (Yannis, 27). The signified subject always belongs to the dimension of the real – a real that resists symbolization. The absence of the signified in the real causes it to emerge in the imaginary. What then ends up standing at the origin of the subject in the realm of the Lacanian imaginary is that the nothing but a signifying spaltung – or thing (what Freud referred to as das ding).

This thing-ness of the other consists of an excess materiality that always resists symbolization in the impossible real. As we have developed up to this point, any attempt to positively symbolize one’s identity in the real is impossible. Attempts to constitute identity in the symbolic or in the imaginary remain rooted in an inherent “lack.” Lack ends up becoming extended to the social field and the intersubjective relationship, and structures the subject’s inevitable failure to symbolize itself. The Lacanian failure of identity portends a wide array of normative implications for deriving meaning in the realm of the symbolic. Since the other consists of a pure semblance (in the realm of the imaginary) because the subject is equivalent with the social totality, this split structures both the intersubjective relationship and the split psyche of the individual.

What is of essential ethical importance at this point is how to manage the other in the context of the desire dialectic. Since the other represents an inherent lack caused from a split in the objective side of subjective experience. Attempts to identify with the other are always rooted in a lack of infinite attempts to identify with the lost oneness of the totality of the other. As Lacan has pointed out, the desire that structures the signifier relationship leans towards identifying “with the other as a totality” – a desire to see the objective other as full. The lack found in the other, via the dialectic of desire is ultimately a lack rooted in jouissance, or desire excess, whereby in a complex interplay, the subject is deprived of the most intimate part of himself – the lacking jouissance. This process of lacking jouissance occurs in the realm of the symbolic.

In Lacan’s famous seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the mediating force for the entire system is that of desire. In the late Lacan, desire is posited as universally, “all desire is desire of the other.” Since all desire is structured around a missing jouissance, around a lack, it is important to understand the way that this lack of the other structures symbolic identities. Lack is introduced at the intersection of the real and the symbolic, and lack emerges through the symbolization of the real. Lack then introduces the idea of fullness and integration with the lost object, and most important for ethics, lack is always introduced through an act of exclusion, the other can never be symbolized.

In Lacan’s dialectic of desire, the imposition of fantasy arises precisely when the desire for filling in, or covering over lack arises. It is in this domain of the desire for the promise of fulfilling one’s desire that fantasy emerges. Structurally, fantasy stimulates and promises to cover over the lack in the other created by the loss of jouissance. Since fantasy is also an effect of symbolic castration, it is also a defense mechanism against the fear of symbolic castration.

Fantasy is crucial to understanding the role of the other relationship and to determining the social field of tolerance as it serves as a support that fills in the void for the lack in the other, in the realm of the symbolic. The illusory nature of fantasy serves as the central support for the desire to identify, which is inherently impossible in the real, as discussed above. The other takes on the role of an object that sustains desire itself, and since the other-as-object appears as a remainder of mythological status, as the other promises to provide what the other lacks and thus unify us as subjects. The other takes on the role of potentially unifying both the split psyche (of the subject) and of unifying the split social field itself. The other-as-object thus causes the subject, by the interlocutor of the other.

At this point, we have developed nothing short of a mythological subject, which importantly, is constituted before the imposition of social enjoyment. Since all identification with the other in the Lacanian dialectic has to be made with identification towards the object of desire, “fantasy makes bearable the lack in the other”. By promising an active fullness, fantasy is able to positivize the formerly negative lack in the other. As Lacan points out in his second Seminar, “fantasy introduces an imaginary promise as an answer to the anomaly emerging at the intersection of the symbolic and the persisting real”.

Before we examine the impact of the other-as-object to tolerance, we must develop the role that fantasy plays in the construction of the other-as-object. Fantasy has a twofold status: it is the object that is lacking in the subject, and it is the object that fills in the lack of the other. In terms of tolerance, it is important to understand that fantasy is first and foremost politically relevant, i.e. it plays itself out in the symbolic realm. Initially, fantasy is deployed as an attempt to cover over the lack of the other, and as such, it functions in the social world. Even in Freud’s understanding of fantasy, the subjective act of fantasy registers a wide range of normative symbolic structures.

At what point does fantasy fill in the liberal idea of tolerance? Fantasy belongs, according to Zizek to the “objectively subjective,” i.e. fantasy is related to our very sense of reality – fantasy contains a political promise of the fantasmatic. According to Zizek, fantasy is structured around a utopian desire projected onto the social, which structures inter-group identification in the totality of their social group: ethnic, religious, etc. Because there is no plausible embodiment of a pre-symbolic real, fantasy creeps in to our subjective reality, which is constituted on the other-as-object to fulfill this lost pre-symbolic real. Fantasy is an inherently a utopian endeavor as it will persist in its failed attempts to symbolize reality because every attempt is articulated around a fantasy frame based on a promise of encountering jouissance. Fantasy creates this illusion by offering what Lacan refers to as the objet petit a to embody the lost fullness.

Even though Lacan claims that fantasy can never fulfill desire, but can rather merely sustain it, all human experience, from a Lacanian perspective, is to be assessed from the “dialectics of impossibility.” As Stavrakakis has questioned: if every attempt to create the loss and missing object out of fantasy, is Lacanian psychoanalysis another attempt to build a form of social constructivism? In the social constructionist view, reality is always the result of discourse and that is where meaning is generated. Since the subjective desire is always towards a reality constructed as a harmonious whole, the Lacanian view of the social could be considered social constructivist.

Yet there consists of another polarity in the fantasy and desire of a harmonious whole. On one side there is the beatific social reality, whereby reality remains dependent upon a fantasy/symptom axis that functions desire functions in dialectic. Throughout this process, the system is propelled by a symptom that seeks a return to jouissance, or the real kernel of enjoyment. The symptom never stops imposing itself on the subject, and in this pressure of constant imposition, fantasy functions as the support that structures subjective reality. Fantasy gives discourse its consistency because it opposes the symptom that propels the dialectic of desire. Fantasy institutes a harmony into the system that depends on a negation of the generalized lack that crosses the field of the social.

A recent text that seeks to develop a broader understanding of the Lacanian social identity with others is Terry Eagleton’s Trouble with Strangers. In it, Eagleton discusses the Lacanian passage from the realm of the imaginary to the symbolic: the subject becomes identical with a set of social relations, as they were pre-imagined through the frame of fantasy in the imaginary realm, which is most frequently equated with the mirror stage. Yet the subject is unable to maintain the mirror symmetry they found in the imaginary.

The symbolic turns into a sort of political space, a space that confronts the ego ideal with the other. The subject in the symbolic field is split as they are in Kant’s concept of the social, always looking desperately to embody one totality to the other. There is no signifier that can adequately represent the subject in the symbolic realm. The entry of the subject onto the symbolic order means that the subject must look for its identity not in the mirror but in the symbolic order of social life, through an infinite “play of difference.” Since the other is never wholly accessible to the subject, one’s identity is also never disclosed to the subject.

The Interstice of Tolerance: Point De Caption

Political and social reality is first constituted at the symbolic level and is supported by fantasy. The political contains the form of the real, and as such, all culture, religion, science, should all be considered in relationship of the failure of the symbolic to the real. “We can never speak of the political precisely because there is subversion and dislocation of the social”. Tolerance of the other is understood as a form of social performativity, and should be viewed at the interstice of the symbolic, positioned between one socio-political identification and the creation or desire for a new one.

This interstice is what Lacan refers to as “point de caption,” whereby a specific signifier incarnates a function beyond its concreteness, emptied from its particular signification in order to represent fullness in general. The example that best suits the symbolic exchange of tolerance is what Lacan refers to as the point de caption, or central symbolic concepts that anchor a particular identity to the symbolic, including national, religious, political or ethnic signifiers such as “the nation” or “communism” or even religious identity groupings such as “Christian” or “Muslim.” The point de caption functions as a pure negativity, as it represents what has to be excluded or negated. In the case of the war on terror, the point de caption is the “axis of evil” – a rhetorical characterization that functions only within a fantasmatic frame. “Axis of evil” functions similar to object petit a, or empty signifier, which similar to the “Evil Empire” designation fills in the empty signifier of biopolitical discourse with a pure negativity structured by fantasy.

To provide an example of how the fantasy of the other in symbolic space is structured, we learn from Zizek that the symbolic core of the subject’s rewriting of their narrative 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 we enact this form of subjectification with the other-as object, both rooted in the superego paradox “to love your neighbor.” The new age call to love your neighbor is a demand towards loving the semblance/imaginary other, (as in Jung, where others are merely disavowed aspects of my projected personality) whereas the Judeo-Christian injunction to love your neighbor is to love the traumatic other as thing.

In the prevailing Judeo-Christian tradition and discourse, 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 in discourse historically out of the Jewish Mosaic Decalogue, and is part and parcel of modern human rights law, and it structures the symbolic field of managing the other in the new discourse on tolerance.

Combating the Real: Identification and Sublimation – The Inscription of Lack

At the core of what Zizek refers to as an “ideological matrix,” the Lacanian symbolic contains the “fantasy of fantasm” – a fantasy rooted in a utopian desire that depends on eliminating all of the “persisting disorders that can be attributed to an alien intruder”.

The “fantasy of fantasm” is what structures the social relationship to others, and it’s what mandates that otherwise clichéd popular idea that “we need enemies to keep our idealized selves intact.” As Yannis Stavrakakis develops in Lacan and the Political and The Lacanian Left, an “ethics of combating the real” can take two forms: a fantasmatic one that seeks to repress the real and eliminate its structural causality (the theoretical-political strategy of Zizek, Badiou and Laclau) or the more traditional psychoanalytic position that seeks to recognize the real limits of the symbolic and attempts to symbolically institutionalize lack. An ethical response to the problem of symbolizing the real occurs because the very impossibility of constituting the real introduces an ethical principle. Since the impossibility of symbolizing the real is posited as a universal precondition to all social relations, the ethical question hinges on how humankind is to symbolize meaning across whole cultures. Zizek’s provocative statement that “the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves is a lie” is theoretically caused from this pre-symbolic inscription of the desire dialectic and the biopolitical structuring of fantasy and lack, then understanding these narrativist ethical responses to tolerance also present new ethical problems.

If one claims that a community or individual is seeking to develop a narrative that depicts the suffering of a group of people for instance, that narrative retelling of suffering can only fit within the confines of a fantasmatic system that depends on an ethical exclusion capable of alleviating the uncanny character of experience. This ethical exclusion functions as a fetishist disavowal.

In traditional psychoanalytic social theory, there are two primary concepts that are deployed to combat the Lacanian real. Through sublimation, the other-as-object is raised to the dignity of the thing and made in a direct confrontation with the real. In sublimation, a public space is created for a unifying social field to emerge; yet sublimation recognizes lack as it is, and involves mediation between the common and the good. Sublimation is an imaginary function that incorporates the fantasm symbolization that is dependent on the subject’s desire into the Intersubjective relation of the other-as-object. Sublimation, in the multicultural tolerance process would seek to render the objectivity of the other-as-object into the public space of the symbolic cross-cultural exchange.

The second axis of combating the real is through identification, whereby the subject identifies directly with the place where the symptom already was. Through identification with the symptom that promotes disharmony, the excluded truth of the social field is elevated to the level of social consciousness. Through identification, we raise the excluded fetishist disavowed truth to the level of universality. Prior to the procedure of identification, we recognize that our common identification was sustained by exclusion. Identification consists of a “suspension of the real,” that is equivalent to the traversing of the fantasy, and through traversal of the fantasy, the individual is able to locate the source of alienation in the other, and thereby give his or her own subjectivity more breathing space. On a subjective level, identification enables the suppressed real to be brought to the level of social and intersubjective awareness.

In the realm of applied ethics, the strategies of sublimation and identification enable a point of enacting the mutual alienation and excluded truth that sustains the fantasy relationship towards the other-as-object. Instituting an ethics of lack requires that we constitute our ethics based on a radical lack in the other, through inscribing lack back into social relations. If by presupposing that tolerance is a confrontation with the Lacanian positive and negative signifiers sustained by a repressed fantasy, the biopolitical predicament can be transformed or “dialectized” into new social relations through negation of the false positive construction of tolerance.

By inscribing lack into the multicultural exchange, the cross-cultural exchange is able to replace the suppressed traumatic object with a new negativity. Since lack possesses a “thing-like” substance, it functions as the externalized core of our jouissance that we inscribe into our pre-social relations. In Zizek’s ethical schema, it is only through the ethics of psychoanalysis that we are able to suppress the impossible real. There is a lingering ethical question that remains: how do we preserve, within our symbolizations a space for the recognition of the impossibility of their closure? The ethical implications for instituting Lacanian lack results in “failure becoming a sort of universal phenomenon” that predetermines the intersubjective relation.

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