Identification and emancipation: unary trait or unary trace?

Political philosophy has considered its project of thinking to be ‘emancipatory’ since the enlightenment. Emancipation is a term that refers to the idea of a total freedom from ignorance, from animality, or from a state of ‘self-imposed tutelage’ – as Kant would say in What is Enlightenment. Today, the question of emancipation has taken new prescience. But that is not to say it doesn’t come with a deep suspicion of the very act of making oneself free, as breaking with or emancipating from a dominant mode of subjectivity or discourse often implies a new capture, a new mode of subjection to the very apparatus one was seeking to break free from. As we know from Foucault, this is the elementary position of resistance as such. In a different way for Lacan, at the end of the psychoanalysis, the analysand can have both benevolent as well as malevolent modes of ego loss and depersonalization.

Ego emancipation is, you could say, a fascination of our culture writ large, and this fetishization of ego emancipation represents a new social reality. The psychoanalytic response to this turn is to point out that we have lost the capacity to think emancipation at the level of superego. This distinction between ego emancipation and superego emancipation brings us directly into the consideration of political emancipation and the question of identity politics.

But before we invoke the way that identity plays into this question, we have to recognize that for psychoanalysis, the difficulty in which we have today in thinking emancipation at the level of superego is tied to a larger shift at the level of paternal authority that situates the ego. This shift in authority represents an opportunity as much as it forecloses a space for darker social symptoms to emerge.

By way of a review of Raul Moncayo’s text, The Emptiness of Oedipus: Identification and Non-Identification in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, I want to examine this question of emancipation as it introduces the function of identification as a possible strategy for thinking through political emancipation.

“Just as early modernity and the Protestant ethic suffered from neurotic forms of inhibition and avowals of the law of the imaginary father, and rejections of the feminine and homosexuality, the postmodern condition of the consumer society of late capitalism suffers from the disavowal of the symbolic father and avowals of the desires of the imaginary mother” (11).

Whether you accept this historical turn or not, or whether you are hesitant to make this hard distinction between modern and postmodern, which I myself am a bit ambivalent about, let us follow the argument. The modern culture experienced a situation where the id creeped up into the super-ego despite repression, whereas in the postmodern culture, the super-ego creeps up into the ego and repression is thus caught up within the ego. Thus, the postmodern culture suffers from a super-ego that has re-positioned itself relative to the ego – but that re-positioning is one in which, if you wish to think it topographically, is in fact much more proximate to the ego itself. This internalization of the superego is what leads to a problem with being able to recognize lack, limits, and boundaries. Thus, when we think ego loss today, it is ambiguous whether we are able to think superego loss – or simply ego loss as the blurring between them often seems as if they are conflated at worst. We will return to this question momentarily, but before we do, I want to look at the way that identification functions.

Freud describes the phenomenon of identification as a process by which a subject assimilates an aspect or a trait of another subject. In the process, the subject becomes transformed in the likeness of the other. The subject also becomes differentiated from the other they identify with by the partial nature of every mode of identification.

Building on this, Lacan remarks on two types of identification: ego ideal identification, whereby the ego is represented by identification as if the identity provided by the identification was of his/her own making – i.e. ego ideal identification takes place at the level of the imaginary and at the level of the body and not at the level of the signifier or the symbolic. Once the ego ideal is consolidated Moncayo says, and the child takes place in a shared unary trait, “the ambivalence is transferred from the super-ego to the id, and from the parents to the social Other (represented by minority groups). The social Other becomes the target of the anger that the child had towards the parents. When you have angry and cruel discipline on the part of the parents, what happens is that “instead of the super-ego yoking the anger and turning it against itself, the anger will be turned against the content of the super-ego itself, the id will become the standard of the super-ego instead of the ego-ideal being the standard of the drives” (147).

“Identity politics becomes a form of ego identity if it is used to cancel the self-cancellation necessary for a symbolic identity. If identity politics fails to theorize a necessary negative moment in relationship to culture, because all negativity is reduced to oppression, then the view of ethnic, racial, or gender identity in relationship to the dominant culture turns out to be purely imaginary or idealized” (148 – 149).

To think this moment of negativity one requires a process or a strategy that is missing in Moncayo’s work, one that I would refer to as irony. How might one develop this negative moment in relation to one’s own identity without falling back into a sort of mockery of injustice and not fall into cynicism, or the idea that there is a relative equality of suffering and thus de-privilege a particular identity? The way one goes about this is through creating the social conditions for a new mode of identification to function at the level of political identities.

To extend Moncayo’s work on the second mode of identification, which is basically symbolic identification, or what Lacan called the unary trace, which has to do with the relationship between subject and signifier, wherein the subject becomes replaced by the agency of the letter and the signifier rather than by the figure of the ego of a social master – is the basis for this mode of thinking beyond identity politics, but still maintaining a great deal of respect to the necessary identity basis of political action. Although in speech, words may be those of the subject or the Other, the subject does not own the signifier any more than the signifier owns the subject qua nothing. Symbolic identification, according to Moncayo presents a democratic and rhetorical positive potential as it seeks identification with the other qua signifier and not qua ego ideal. Moncayo states:

“Emptiness at the level of the subject ($ or 8), rather than the Other (O), is what causes the subject to be civil qua signifying subject within a democratic system of signifiers.”[1]

Civil means three things: equanimity, reasonableness in the sense of the recognition of the rules of the order (each signifier is different yet related to other signifiers), and the capability for love on the basis of the emptiness that all subjects and signifiers share (similitude rather than similarity) (143). This mode of identification represents subjective destitution at the political and social level, while the unary trait is the name of identification that represents ego-ideal identification as it remains caught within the insignia of the ego-Ideal and the medals of honor of the Other (27). What identity politics represents is ego-Ideal identification, whereas a more emancipatory mode of politics represents unary trace on the side of the emptiness of the Other at the level of the signifier.

What unary trace enables us to think is a mode of identification located at the level of the emptiness of non-being, and it opens the space for a radical type of identificatory potential. Moncayo argues that subjective emptiness at the level of the subject enables a greater capacity for democratic identification and a newfound source of equality that the absence of the Name-of-the-Father as unary trace makes possible. Labeling this positive potential as a ‘civil’ capacity amongst diverse subjects is however difficult to envision. How could a situation of non-identification enable more harmonious living in diverse cultural and political situations, when political identities are fraught with built in violence?

As we know from Lacan, the unary trace is the little empty part (the not-All) that contains the All that incorporates the sinthome to re-knot the core dimensions of symptoms. As Moncayo states, “for the sinthome to stop being a symptom or erase itself as a semblance, and take the step that crosses over from being to unbeing, the name has to be used to unlock the mysteries of jouissance. The semblant or the face no longer masks anything: the knot, the no, and the name (nom), are in fact the luminous face of the void (naught).”[2]

Moncayo reads Lacan’s late work on the sinthome as presenting a way out of the problem of this postmodern inverted superego problem and its resultant pre-Oedipal subjectivity. In the sinthome, the symptom now appears in the place where the desire of the mother or the function of the father fails: instead of a father, there is a symptom that reveals/conceals the jouissance of the Other.

Moncayo’s work in developing the unary trace as a form of identity politics gone terribly wrong and posing an alternative symbolic or unary trace alternative is valuable. It encourages me to return once again the dialectic of emancipation from Badiou’s Theory of the Subject, specifically the Antigone-Athena dialectic as it poses the question of emancipation beyond the subject of language and rhetorical civilness at the level of democratic relations. It might be that thinking emancipation at the level of superego concerns how we go about making a symptom of the old social totality that we negated. Lacan said that the superego is ‘speech deprived of all its meaning’ and this empty speech is what gives us access to the root of the law itself. It used to be that the subject of the bourgeoisie, and its invention from the apparatus of psychoanalysis, the neurotic subject, was that figure by which we might usurp and re-position relative to the superego – however, in its absence, we face a more daunting and ambiguous task regarding how thus usurpation is to take place.

[1] Moncayo, Raul 143

[2] Ibid, 71

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