Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What Lacan can teach us about capitalism

Jacques Lacan’s theory of discourse is every bit as heuristically powerful as Michel Foucault’s, and in some respects more sophisticated and subtle, although the two theories are compatible. Broadly speaking, Foucault thinks of discourse as language in so far as it bears the imprint of (conflicting) interests – which means that discourse is inseparable from power and power relations.

Lacan’s conception of discourse is more difficult to grasp, but articulates the same fundamental insight in somewhat different terms. To begin with, Lacan gives us a typology of discourses, with the implication that the variety of discourses that exist – that of management, of patriarchy, feminist discourses, ecological discourses and so on – would all resort under one of these “types” or varieties of discourse.

He distinguishes among the discourses of the master, the university, the hysteric and the analyst, and indicates that each of these articulates power relations differently. The discourse of the master (for instance patriarchy) is unapologetically hierarchical, subjugating all other subject positions mercilessly to the rule of the “master” (whether this is the king, or the father), while the discourse of the university (or of knowledge), far from being autonomous (as one might expect), serves that of the master – as universities have historically done, and as the case is at present regarding the dominant economic order.

The discourse of the hysteric, by contrast, questions the power of the master, which means that – whether this takes the shape of the subversive statements of the revolutionary, or the symptoms on the bodies of “hysterics” – in each instance the hysteric’s discourse is a symptom of the fact that the master’s discourse (the dominant order) is not “total” or encompassing, but encounters many centres of resistance. Because of its questioning stance, Lacan associates the hysteric’s discourse, and not that of the university, with genuine science.

The analyst’s discourse is that type of discourse which mediates between the hysteric’s discourse, on the one hand, and that of the master (as well as its servant-discourse, that of the university) on the other. In the course of such mediation, the hysteric discovers that questioning or criticism of the master yields, surprisingly, a “relativized” master’s position of its own, which is not allowed to become totalising as an encompassing master’s discourse, but succumbs, again, to “hysterical” questioning which produces another (temporarily empowering) “master signifier”. This is the backdrop against which Lacan’s remarks about the discourse of the capitalist have to be understood.

All of this, which I have here summarised in fairly easily accessible language, can be formulated more densely in the language of Lacanian theory. In the so-called Milan lecture Lacan makes the following remark about discourse (Lacan, J 1978. On Psychoanalytic Discourse. pp. 1-15. Trans. Stone, JW Available online, p 12):

“What is a discourse? It is what … in the ordering of what can be produced by the existence of language, makes some social link function … there must be at least two signifiers. This means, the signifier insofar as it functions as an element … the signifier insofar as it is the mode by which the world is structured, the world of the speaking being, which is to say, all knowledge.”

From this it follows that discourse determines how the social field will be structured, given its definition as the productive ordering of this field through the relations between (at least two) signifiers. (This always assumes the form of a sentence in language, for example “The president has expressed the wish that universities do everything in their power to make the nation internationally competitive” – another example of the “master’s discourse”.)

Lacan distinguishes four signifiers (words that mean or signify something specific), the mutable relations among which yield four different discourses (of the master, the university, the hysteric and the analyst). The four signifiers are the master signifier (S1), the signifier for knowledge (S2), the divided subject ($) and surplus pleasure (a). In the case of the master’s discourse, the master signifier addresses or “commands” (that is, organises the social field by establishing a relation of dominance with) the signifier for knowledge, and hides the “truth”, that the master is also just another “divided subject” (divided between reason and the unconscious, which subverts rational integrity and control), while producing “surplus pleasure”.

The knowledge signifier (in the university discourse), in turn, addresses the signifier of surplus pleasure (called the object a) – for example the “partial object” — field of psychology (humans as psychically functioning beings), or of physics (reality as the field constituted by impersonal physical forces such as electromagnetism) – and produces the “divided (or split) subject” in the process, while hiding the truth, that it is orchestrated, behind the scenes, by the master signifier.

As already intimated, in the analyst’s discourse the signifier for surplus pleasure (the partial object, object a) addresses that of the split subject, producing a master signifier in the process, while in the hysteric’s discourse the signifier for the split subject addresses the master signifier, simultaneously generating a knowledge-signifier. All of this very “technical” stuff really only amounts to a very precise articulation of the shift in power relations from one discourse to the next.

Regarding the discourse of the capitalist, Lacan seems to conflate it in the 17th seminar of 1969-1970 (The Other Side of Psychoanalysis; 2007, p 31-32) with the university discourse, except that he appears, at the same time, to position the capitalist discourse in conjunction with that of the master (which seems plausible, insofar as what Foucault calls “power-knowledge” is essential for the capitalist discourse).

However, in the Milan lecture – referred to earlier – Lacan comes up with a different, and for the present era of unbridled neoliberal capitalism (I believe) more appropriate discursive formula. Instead of identifying it here with a kind of amalgam of the university and the master’s discourses (as before), he calls it the “cleverest discourse” ever devised by humans (“wildly clever, but headed for a blowout … it runs too fast, it consumes, it consumes so well that it consumes itself … ”; p 11).

When one looks at his formalisation of this discourse it becomes apparent what he means – it has a structure closely resembling that of the hysteric’s discourse (which is a questioning of, or rebelling against the master), but on closer inspection one notices that this resemblance is spurious: instead of the split-subject signifier addressing (questioning) the master signifier (as in the hysteric’s discourse), in the capitalist’s discourse it questions the knowledge-signifier, generating surplus pleasure and hiding the truth, that it is orchestrated or “ruled” by the master signifier. Which makes of the capitalist discourse a pseudo-hysteric’s discourse, but one by which most people are taken in.

One example will have to suffice. In The Corporation (2004, p 32; also made into an award-winning film) Joel Bakan draws attention to a Shell oil company television advertisement, showing a “romantic” woman environmentalist (who also happens to be a Shell-employed geologist) flying by helicopter in an area with beautiful mountains and lakes, talking to indigenous people in their huts, and looking disapprovingly at heavy trucks trundling across an unspoilt landscape. As Bakan observes, the point of the advertisement is to let the audience suspect that the woman is an ecological activist, only to be informed, in a charming Scottish-accented voice-over, that “she’s not at war with the oil company; she is the oil company”.

Viewers should therefore (supposedly) be reassured that Shell is leading the field in its “concern” for the environment. This is an exemplary instance of the discourse of the capitalist as “hysterical master” (to put it oxymoronically): it has the pretence of questioning and criticising the dominant order, but in truth it is firmly in cahoots with it, because its only (non-negotiable) goal is maximum profit, at whatever cost.

This theme is treated at greater length in a chapter of my book, Intersecting Philosophical Planes, London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishers, 2012. It first appeared in the journal Phronimon in 2009.

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