YouTube: Being, Event & Its Consequences.

Welcome to Lecture 17 of Alenka Zupancic’s What Is Sex? focused on Part 6 of Chapter 4 — Object-Disoriented Ontology with the sub-chapter heading here as Being, Event, and Its Consequences: Lacan and Badiou.  

Zupančič opens the sub-section by introducing us to a definition of Lacanian Politics.  For Lacan the Master Signifier is the S1, which not only structures all of the other significations which “normalize” certain struggles and antagonisms, but also covers over the unconscious gap in being itself.  Here Zupančič emphasizes that (1):

“Politics, in the strong sense of the term, always involves a reactivation of this gap.”

In other words, the real “political event”, we could say, is when the Master Signifier (S1) fails to function in its role of structuring significations relation to the normativization of struggle and antagonism, and also in its role of covering the gap in being.  Thus, politics in the “strong sense” involves a “reactivation” of this gap, where there will be a struggle for the political field as such.  One could here easily think about the French or American Revolutions as such events which require a new Master Signifier, politics in the strong sense.

Zupančič goes further to say that the politics of psychoanalysis itself, as embodied in the event of Freud himself, is the idea of a “return to gap”, a return to thinking the gap in being as the unconscious itself.  However, in what may appear as a surprising assertion for those unaware of Zupančič’s larger philosophical project following Lacan, she goes on to emphasize that “post-Freudian psychoanalysis”, that being “ego psychology”, engages in a type of “‘stitching’ or ‘covering’ up this gap”.  This is indeed the point of Lacan’s intervention after Freud, to reaffirm that the whole point of Freud was to notice a gap in our knowledge (i.e. the whole point of the hysterical phenomena as such) where the Master Signification fails, opening a political event in the strong sense.  Of course, the risk in any institutionalization, even the institutionalization of psychoanalysis, is that this truth gets covered over, seemingly out of necessity. 

And that brings us back around to the role of the S1.  The S1, as mentioned, functions as a new signifier in the gap, perhaps necessary for a new political organization.  So in the case of psychoanalysis itself, we may say that the Master Signifier of Freud himself, as well as his core concepts, covered over the gap of the unconscious in-itself.  For many, this covering of the gap delegitimizes Freud and psychoanalysis itself; for figures like Lacan, this required us to rethink Freud and the meaning of the unconscious.

Part of Lacan’s rethinking of Freud, involves introducing concepts such as the symbolic, imaginary and the real.  Here Zupančič is quick to point out that there is a similarity between Lacan’s concept of the Real, and Alain Badiou’s concept of the Event.  Badiou, of course, is famous for, among other things, asserting that one cannot be a philosopher today without first passing through the philosophical meaning of Lacan.  

Zupančič identifies the key similarity between Lacan and Badiou in the fact that both Lacan’s Real and Badiou’s Event are distinct from “Being” or “Ontology”.  For Lacan, the Real is an internal impossibility or contradiction (like the impossibility-contradiction of founding an institute of psychoanalysis); and for Badiou, the Event is a rupture or break of being qua being, like the destabilization of a Master Signifier and the revelation of the gap beneath, requiring the reactivation of political action in the strong sense.  

On the philosophical level, what Lacan and Badiou both share in common here, is a type of revolt against the traditional philosophy of being qua being, or the “ontology of being”, where a “real-event” is itself impossible.  In Lacanian terms, for traditional philosophy, the S1 is identified with so strongly, that a fundamental disruption of this normative order, would be inconceivable.  You can see then that both the Lacanian and Badiouian formulas for philosophy are operating underneath identification with the Master which would close the order of being.  What undermines the Master is the real-event, the impossibility and contradiction inherent to his (or her) discourse, and the rupture or break with a certain order for the possibility of a totally other order.

To re-emphasize this notion, we can say that both the Lacanian and Badiouian philosophies are operating against what Zupančič calls the “Law of the Discourse” which dominates traditional philosophy.  The “Law of the Discourse” is what closes an order of being qua being.  The reason why the “Law of the Discourse” would prohibit a real-event is because this would undermine the very Master Signifier which is holding a political organization together.  

This brings Zupančič to the key question: what is the difference between Lacan and Badiou?  If we are no longer operating within the “Law of the Discourse” with the Master Signifier closing the order of being, then how are we to think philosophy?  For Zupančič, we have to confront the status of the “wandering” excess-surplus of being, which you can think of as the inherent opposite of the gap or the lack in being.  The Master Signifier does not only cover up the gap in being, but also structures and gives meaning to the excess in being.  For example, if someone is addicted to a substance, not only are they covering over a gap, but they are also actively controlled by the pursuit of excess.  

For Badiou, excess-surplus is an uncountable multiplicity beyond discourse.  It is this multiplicity beyond discourse which allows for an event, since the Master Signifier cannot possibly organize or order a political body well-enough to prevent disturbance or rupture from this wandering multiplicity as event.  

For Lacan, in contrast, excess-surplus is inherent or inseparable to a certain discourse as its own impossibility or real.  Here we see a big difference that has philosophical consequences, since Badiou’s excess is unrelated to any signification, whereas Lacan’s excess is inherent to signification. 

This is a difference that makes a big difference.  For Badiou, the wandering excess is something “prohibited by law” as the external chaos that threatens order of a Master Signifier.  For Lacan, the wandering excess is something “unbound” within the law itself, an excess enjoyment-excitation of the law itself.    

What this means is that the one in Lacan and Badiou, that meaning the one as Master Signifier, stands for something totally other.  Whereas, for Badiou, the one is a discursive presentation of the one to cover over the multiplicity of being that could threaten and destroy it at any moment; for Lacan, the one stands for the inherent impossibility of being itself, which has to maintain itself despite the fact that there is an excess to the one itself.

To quote Zupančič (2):

“[For Lacan]: the “wandering excessis not the implication of the multiple (multiplicity), but the One-less, of the minus-one.  The elusive, uncountable, yet irreducible excess is the other side — not of One, but of the “minus one” as the ontological foundation of (any countable) one.  The excess exists, flourishes at the structural place of the minus one, and here it proliferates as its irreducible material plus.”

What she is saying here is that Lacan’s Master Signifier or “one” is occupying the place of the minus-one, as is consistent for her own thesis in this book.  Thus, any “one” in a positive sense will produce an excess due to the fact that the one is not the one, but a cover of the minus one or gap in being.  To put this in context of the example of addiction, a Master Signifier or one will not be able to actually cover over the unconscious gap in being itself, and that is the truth; consequently, those who do not feel protection from the Master Signifier, will find themselves in the excess of the not-one shaped by the historical one of the signifier.  As is obvious, every political organization will have its addicted excess, the excess that the political organization itself has to tolerate as the truth of its own impossible-real and contradiction in the “law of discourse”.    

Now we really have a clear distinction between Lacan and Badiou, and this has great relevance for thinking philosophy beyond the “Law of the Discourse” and the “Master Signifier”.  For Badiou, the wandering excess is a positive multiplicity that exists independent of the Master Signifier and the “Law of the Discourse”.  For Lacan, the wandering excess is a symptom of being itself, not something that has an existence on its own, but rather something that exists within a political order as its own impossible contradiction, a symptom of the fact that it is not the one, but occupying the place of the minus one.

Here we can see that the Real as what the Master Signifier can only know as an impossibility or contradiction of its own “one” (Law of the Discourse), we can see in-itself, is the place of the non-existent being, the place of hysteria, the place where symptoms speak in all of their chaos.

Thus, the revolutionary move for a Lacanian philosophy is to listen to that speech which cannot be covered by the Master Signifier, the speech of the gap and the excess.  Paradoxically, it is from playing with and engaging with these signifiers that a new S1, can potentially be constructed, a new being from the gap itself.    

To quote Zupančič (3):

“The Real does not present/represent itself, what it does is that — as the inherent deadlock, “minus,” of being — it dictates and directs the processes of the (re)presentation of being.  In this sense, the [“without paper”] (as the figure of the wandering excess) are not the Real of being, but, so to speak, the “casualties” of the Real of being.  They are the symptom as material embodiment of a fundamental deadlock (of a given whole), a deadlock which does not exist somewhere outside and independently of this embodiment, yet is not directly identical with it either.  This is why if, for Lacan, the identification with a symptom is possible, there is no possible identification with the Real — where there is, strictly speaking, nothing to identify with.”

There is a lot of depth here.  First, note that Zupančič brings our attention that the Real cannot be represented, it is not in-itself a signifier.  Second, note that Zupančič is emphasizing that the excess is a paradoxical part of an order of signification, or “whole” qua political organization, as a deadlock of this very organization itself, and has no existence independent of it.  To continue (3):

“This way of conceptualising things not only resists, but also efficiently blocks the possibility of (political, artistic, or love-related) romanticism of the Real, which actually lies at the very basis of what Badiou recognizes as the antiphilosophical “suture” of philosophy, its abandoning itself to one of its conditions.  There is nothing beautiful, sublime, or authentic about the Real.  Nothing gets “revealed” with the Real.  The Real is the place of the “systemic violence” that exists and repeats itself in the form of the “unbound excess”.  The emphasis on the concept of the Real, as well as the imperative that we must formalize it, are not Lacan’s ways of celebrating it, they are means of locating and formulating the problems of the (discursive) structure.”

It is easy to see how philosophy under the “Law of the Discourse” and the Master Signifier would be an enemy of even speaking the existence of the Real.  For a subject to confront the Real in the form of the systemic violence itself, the gaps in the failure of signification, makes it almost impossible to go on.  To be rid of all illusions of the beautiful, sublime, and authentic, to be rid of any illusion of a revelation of a true being.  At the same time, for Lacan, it could be said that a true philosopher would think this real, since being in touch with the real is the only way to “formulate problems” in the discursive structure that may be of some real political help.

This again has big philosophical consequences for the difference between Badiou’s and Lacan’s philosophical program beyond being qua being of the Master Signifier and the “Law of the Discourse”.  For Badiou, we are dealing with a “weak negativity” in the sense that the negativity is not internal to the one, but external, outside of it, even if as a threat to its order.  For Lacan, we are dealing with a much stronger negativity in the sense that the negativity is inherent to the inside of the order itself, the excess in the gaps/cracks of the order itself.  Thus, there is no real shelter or place to hide, so to speak, but rather the real as a gap/crack is inherent to any shelter or place to hide whatsoever.    

To quote Zupančič (4):

“The subject (of the unconscious) is […] the gap pertaining to discourse, as well as the name of the effect that takes place because there is this gap in discourse.  In this precise sense we can say that for Lacan the subject is both “identifiable within the uniform networks of experience” (that is, fairly common, presumed by the functioning of the signifier), and rare — that is, of sudden and surprising, unexpected emergences of the subject — range from slips of the tongue, dreams, jokes, to shattering love encounters.  It is important to see how the subject emerging here is not simply an effect of language, but of its breaking down, of its discontinuity.”

What Zupančič is saying here is profound for a politics inspired by psychoanalysis, since it replaces the politics of the Master Signifier, with the politics fo the subject itself.  The subject is both the gap in discourse (not its strict identification), and also the response to the gap in discourse (which cannot be predicted or anticipated).  Note that the real of the subject within any political order, is precisely that place that the order cannot predict or anticipate, precisely that place where something surprising and unexpected can occur, precisely that place where a real event can occur.  In contrast to this subject, the political order of the Master Signifier presents the illusion of a continuity in its symbolic structure, that would try to prevent the emergence of a discontinuity which could shattered the coordinates of being qua being.  

This can be connected to a politics of the subject in psychoanalysis if we think about the real function of the analyst.  Let’s think about this totally out of the context of the Freudian analytic session.  In its more general, the analyst is simply a lack-void in being, the analyst occupies the place of the lacking subject itself.  Here, in contrast to the Master Signifier of the political order, it lets whatever wants to be spoken, be spoken, the deepest desires and dreams of the subject.  In this way, far from repression or foreclosing the impossibility of the one, the analyst lets the impossibility speak.  This space is the generative space, paradoxically in the location of the deepest negativity, is where the subject may be able to construct a “new signifier”.  How different would our political body be if we, as subjects, were capable of holding such spaces? 

This is where Zupančič proposes a “Paraontology” as the place of philosophy after Lacan.  This is not a “being qua being” (or ontology), but rather a “being qua impossible” in the form of the non-being inherent to being.  Here Being is conceptualized as a continuous substance, and the Real is conceptualized a discontinuous gap in being itself.  Thought together we get the dynamics or mechanism of self-repelling negativity.

In this structure Zupančič offers us an interpretation for a proper Lacanian Event as it relates to falling in love.  This is important in connection to our discussion of Badiou and Lacan, since falling in love is perhaps the excessive event that we must contend with internal to the political order.  This is also an important moment in What Is Sex?, where Zupančič attempts to develop a theory of love in the coincidence between being (signifier) with non-being (subject).  Here she utilizes some famous if obscure Lacanian axioms like “stops not being written” and “doesn’t stop being written”.  To understand these axioms, we can understand that most of the time, the subject is struggling with the absence of love, in the sense that the subject of the signifier notices always the gap in its heart that motivates it or moves it towards love.  However, in the coincidence between being and non-being of the love-event, the love which “is not being written”, transforms into something which “stops not being written”.  We encounter the singularity of the other.  In the case that this event can be maintained, as in a “fidelity” to the event, we can say that the situation of love “stops not being written” turns into a type of ‘temporal suspension of non-relation’ in “doesn’t stop being written”.    

What is essential for Zupančič is that the love-event is a surprise, and cannot be planned or predicted in advance, it is something that the subject has to register as another order of being has erupted within itself.  In other words we have a “contingency inscribed as necessity”, something which could not have been predicted within the order of the signifier, to an eruption of non-being internal to the order of the signifier, to the inscription of a new necessity internal to the signifier: “How surprising that you are you!”  

In this eruption Zupančič makes a distinction between passionate love and real love.  Whereas passionate love attempts to control objects that it cannot really have or possess (what she beautifully refers to as a “war machine dedicated to paralyzing and forbidding”), real love involves a degree of derealization and detachment that opens the possibility for a real concrete interaction with the other beyond idealization.   

To quote Zupančič (5):

“You are you(rself), is the very condition (and form) of real love.  […] Real love demands the reality of the loved person, […] not the love that I would call sublime, the love in which we let ourselves be completely dazzled or “blinded” by an abstract dimension of the loved object, so that we no longer see, its concrete existence (and its always somewhat ridiculous, banal aspect).  This kind of “sublime love” indeed necessitates and generates a radical inaccessibility of the other (which usually takes the form of eternal preliminaries, of the inaccessible object of choice, or the form of an intermittent relationship[)].”

Here Zupančič is calling us away from romanticization and idealization of love, but not away from love, the real of love, which she claims demands the reality of the loved person over our idealization of them.  

All of this has huge consequences for her political project internal to psychoanalysis.  What she is arguing for is a politics that can think love as an event, over a politics dominated by the Master Signifier.  What replaces the Master Signifier is the production of a new signifier in the work of love itself.  First, the subject encounters the loved other contingently, where the non-relation is suspended; second, the subject maintains fidelity to the event of the loved other in forming a repressed necessity.  In order to maintain the real of love over passionate love, what Zupančič suggests is the work of the impossible sustained by a signifier with a “comic sparkle”, like a nickname.  Perhaps it is the nickname that can comically sustain the de-realization and de-idealization required for real love to sustain itself in the non-relation. 

This bring us to the end of the last chapter of What Is Sex?  Here Zupančič leaves us with some core messages that she wants us to take away from the book.  We started with the recognition of sexual impossibility, but ended with the event of love, and the work required to sustain it in the real.  She emphasizes that our capacity to engage in this work of love requires that we remain within language, but in a real way, in a way that can handle de-idealization and potential catastrophe, which would require a capacity for naming with real effects.  This is so important for Zupančič because, in the post-modern age, in the age of deconstruction of language, we are losing our capacity to name, we are losing our capacity to find words that really work.  It is in this gap that we see the reactionary return to conservative or traditional systems that, although not suited to our time, at least have the capacity to name something that humans used to relate to as real, that used to work.  However, for a real politics that can handle the consequences of psychoanalysis as an event, we will need new signifiers that can properly introduce us to our new reality.  These signifiers will not be ideal, they will not eliminate struggle, on the contrary, they will be able to adequately frame what currently cannot be spoken, they will adequately frame the structure of our contemporary existential tensions.  

We covered four major topics in this lecture.  The first is that psychoanalysis and its emergence can be understood on a political level as bringing our attention to a gap in being itself, a gap that activates politics itself in a strong sense, that is the emergence of a new Master Signifier.  From this, we discussed Lacan and Badiou as different post-psychoanalytic philosophical projects that find an overlap or similarity in the concepts of the Real and the Event, both of which attempt to disconnect from a philosophy of the Master Signifier.  Third, we discussed a difference between how Lacan and Badiou handle wandering excess of the Master Signifier, with the key difference being in the how Badiou handles wandering excess as a weak negativity external to the one of the Master Signifier, whereas Lacan handles wandering excess as a strong negativity internal to the one itself.  Finally, this has consequences for how we interpret the real-event of love, as the ultimate form of excess internal to the one of a political order.  

Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology. p. 128.

(2) ibid. p. 130-131.

(3) ibid. p 131-132.

(4) ibid. p. 132.

(5) ibid. p. 137.


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