Neoliberalism and the Symbolic Serfdom of Man

In 1936, Lacan attended the Berlin Olympics and was on the cusp of his most important theoretical contribution to the field of psychoanalysis. The 36 Olympics were hosted by Hitler and put to filmic propaganda by none other than Leni Riefenstahl, the aesthete par excellence of the Third Reich. The theoretical invention that Lacan would unveil soon after the Olympics is the mirror stage. What impact did the Third Reich’s presentation of the biologically perfected body have on the development of the mirror stage?

The Third Reich’s ascension to power, from a psychoanalytic perspective, can be understood as a hysterical reaction to the emergence and the failure of nationalism, i.e. of too many sovereign nations, or symbolic big Other fathers vying for control of the symbolic. As we know from the case of Schreber, the failure of the father function causes a foreclosure that brings the subject up close to a psychotic break with authority as such. Hitler arises as the One, the Führer able to restore the subject to normalcy.

We find in Lacan’s mirror stage references to Hegel, Darwin, and of course to Freud. But it also includes references to theology. As Boehme used to say, God determined his perfection by looking into a mirror. The “I am what I am” of the Old Testament indicates that God was self referentially constituted. The subject of the mirror stage is formed in this same self-referential fashion, but through language. The mirror stage gives the subject -for the first time- self-referential rights. One can use the “I” without referring to any third entity (God, King, etc.).

Dany-Robert Dufour’s The Art of Shrinking Heads is an excellent book about the way that neoliberalism is changing our relation to the big Other. Master signifiers such as the nation, religion, the family, patriarchy, the proletariat, and the leader have exited stage right. This painful, albeit reluctant salutation to our old masters reappears in the cries of revolutionary terror in Syria, or the nostalgia of the sheltered religious leader, in democracy movements that unearth the most brutal dictatorial rule. Today’s world is ultra-transcendental meaning that it functions without any reliance on an Other for the subject. The emergence of a new subject of neoliberalism has been identified in a number of different names. The subject of democratic materialism (Badiou), hysterological (Dufour), the schizo (Deleuze), whatever being (Agamben) – they each have in common certain features. The first, and most important change to this subject is that it is formed in a self-referential fashion, in a symbolic where, for the first time in history, the subject can constitute itself, and is forced to found itself without referring to any third entity (the Others of old, as seen above).

The ahistoricity of the big Other is a matter of debate amongst Lacanian’s, Zizek included. Some argue that the big Other is not an historical agent, and is thus invulnerable to the changes that capitalism brings about. In a famous conference in Milan, 1972, Lacan had put forth a position that capitalism may be bringing Freud’s neurotic subject on the verge of perversion, and perversion is that last defense of psychosis. We see now, with neoliberalism’s expansion a return to the question of whether the psychotic subject is making an entry onto a scene where we had fought for decades to fend him off. The Donald Draper’s, and the Dr. House’s of this world inspire us. Sociopaths have accepted what we refuse to accept: that our symbolic has reached a dead end. They persist without the Other, seemingly without regard for the inconsistency that this failure of the superego ushers in. What is ushered in is precisely the creation of a new man. Not the Nietzschean Last man, but a subject that is rooted in an inescapable nihilism, and who, “is neither subject to guilt nor able to rely upon a critical free will” (Dufour, 167).

The argument that Dany-Robert Dufour, a French Lacanian makes in his wonderful text, The Art of Shrinking Heads is that the subject of Kant’s critical turn, which really founded modernity, and Freud’s neurotic subject must both be abandoned. In its place becomes what Dufour calls the hysterological subject. The hysterological subject faces an even more onerous demand compared to the critical and neurotic subjects of old. It must submit to oneself before it submits to the Other, particularly in an era when capitalism has rid us of any third Other that might give us access to the symbolic (70). For Freud, when we submit to the Other, we form neurosis because the other grants access to the symbolic, though what Lacan called, the name of the father. The hysterological subject is founded on a formula, “what is after comes before.” The subject is caught in a situation where they are posited without any support in the symbolic, and must suffer from an extension into the self that is forced to found herself, but given no support in doing so.

The postmodern, or hysterological subject is never born but is always a becoming, which is why Deleuze sought to bring the schizophrenic subject to the status of a revolutionary subject. One that cold de-territorialized the free flow of commodities and outdo capitalism. This form of political activism has become codified in what Badiou refers to as the third generation Foucauldians, mainly Hardt and Negri’s multitude resistance to capitalism. These efforts fail for Badiou because they end up refining to capitalism what capitalism already knows. Deleuze’s schizo subject doesn’t win against the market for Dufour.

The power of this creative capacity of neoliberalism is that it’s able to create a subject that is not reliant on the two realities of the previous subject, generational differences and sexual differences. In an excellent section of the text, “The Denial of Sexion”, Dufour unearths the abandoning of sexual differences. For the Freudian “neurotic subject”, the individual can only become a subject once they have experienced a repetition of history, and in so doing; the subject becomes a part of civilization. The primal scene is not only within individuals; it is also in the collective memory of humanity, which is transmitted via the individual psyche.

While contemporary Lacanian’s have sought to re-symbolize the desymbolized symbolic on things such as the juridical, Dufour argues that the answer for re-symbolization must be continually discussed and thought about. Legendre’s thesis is that the subject of canon law consists of a succession based on the father, and that this subject is is still the subject that speaks today. He thus seeks to tie the juridical together with the symbolic in such a way where the father becomes the locus of the Law.

Dufour’s argues that we must construct a symbolic that is free of ideologies and working completely in the realm of terms. Ethically, the procedure of re-symbolization poses a number of interesting challenges because the traditional understandings that we should demote the father and put our self into that position. The problem is that this process leads to psychosis. The other problem is that it leads to a series of positing’s of false self’s and assumed autonomy based on rational choice theory and invisible modes of domination.

The postmodernist subject must break ties with Freud’s generational differences and sexual differences because of intra-theoretical debates as well. There is a tendency in contemporary Lacanian circles to escape generational and sexual differences.

“Deleuze and Foucault must perform a surgical operation on Lacan by saying something he never said. They must show that the name of the father has nothing to do with the differences between the sexes or between the generations. In a word they are attempting to turn the phallus into a singular function, not a function expressed by two formula. There are thus taking Lacan’s famous statement, “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship to mean that there are no differences between the sexes” (Dufour, 139 – 140).

Lacan claims that in the real, the two sexes are formed and differentiated. In order to pass through death, the individual must accept that there are two sexes. This is the only way to escape our mortal condition. For Lacan, we cannot escape our sex. This is according to Aristotle’s logic of the excluded third. If a proposition is true, its negation is false by extension and there is no third possibility. Lacan’s famous statement, “there is no sexual relationship” means that the two formula of male as universal and female as particular has no logical relation (Dufour, 142).

The crux of Dufour’s argument is based on the idea that when the ego ideals break down then the collapse of the symbolic side of the superego occurs. We have gone from twilight of the idols to a pure night of the idols. This is a type of nihilism of the worst kind, which as Nietzsche was aware, is that type wherein the subject is unable to speak of nihilism. Today’s subject is in a borderline psychotic neurotic state. Caught as we are in this trap between a latent melancholy and a drive to adopt a false self, we suffer from an impossibility of speaking in the first person.

What’s unique about neoliberalism is that unlike other forms of domination, it is not dependent upon institutions. It in fact destroys all institutional life. Its real target is the subject’s symbolic dependency. The new conception of domination under this regime is no longer the Foucauldian biopower model, but at the level level of human nature. Dufour has thus taken two radical positions: that neoliberalism is creating an ontological change to the subject’s nature, and that the big Other has shifted for this subject no longer tethered to the superego in the same way. Neoliberalism knows that in order to compensate for the erasure they have ensued upon man that they will facilitate the next step: the desire to develop his ontological incompleteness, they will usher in a period where the perfection of man takes place without any reference to an outside third Other.