Politics in the Era of the Inexistent Other

Jelica Sumic
University of Nova Gorica. institute of philosophy of the scientific research center, Slovenian academy of sciences and arts

* editing and publication by 17, instituto de estudios críticos

Volume 2, 2012

It is one of Lacan’s rather startling statements that we find the formulation that will guide us: “I do not say ‘politics is the unconscious’ but simply ‘the unconscious is politics’”[1]. What is so striking about this formulation is that, under the guise of continuity, an unexpected inversion is produced, as politics seems to be contaminating the unconscious itself. With this intrusion of politics into the unconscious, the sole domain which is within the competence of psychoanalysis, something is surreptitiously added that suspends, ruins even, the initial position of psychoanalysis vis-à-vis politics, summed up in the classic, Freudian formula: “Politics is the unconscious”. What this thesis according to which the unconscious dominates politics implies is that the social bond at stake in politics is governed by a certain logic that operates unbeknown to men thus brought together, a logic that “is already operative in the unconscious”, namely the logic of the signifier. From such a perspective, the formula: “politics is the unconscious”, the statement “Politics is the unconscious”[2], can then be viewed as a formalization of the equivalence between the master’s discourse and the discourse of the unconscious, as indeed they are both conceived as the discourse of the Other. Yet this equivalence is rendered extremely problematic from the moment that it appears that the Other itself is challenged, or does not exist at all. Taking into account the mutation of the discourse of the master resulting from the total hegemony of the capitalist discourse and thus opening a perspective lacking a quilting point, the second formula can be viewed as a formula forged by Lacan for the era of the nonexistent Other, that of the not-all, an era of a discourse without conclusion.

It is worth noting that this move from the first to the second formula, which could be seen as a direct effect of the precariousness of this very link, the agency of the Other, on which the structural equivalence between the discourse of the unconscious and the master’s discourse was founded, has direct implications for Lacan’s theory of the subject. In the first formula, the emphasis is on the alienated subject, the subject called into being by the Other, ultimately, the subject as an effect of the signifier. The second formula, by contrast, is articulated to the barren Other. It seems, however, that in opening the perspective of the not-all, i.e., laying bare the incompleteness of the space of discursivity, Lacan indicates at the same time the possibility of a fundamentally different politics, one which is not restricted to the resistance to and/or the subversion of the Other’s discourse by uncovering its radical contingency.

Choosing the Impossible

Traditionally, emancipatory politics is a question of knowing which parts of society are capable of counting for something, and which ones are not. From such a perspective, the founding act of politics consists in uncovering what Rancière termed the “conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it”[3]. Formulating the question of emancipatory politics in terms of existence means acknowledging that there is a constitutive disjunction between politics and the system of domination, a system that is usually characterised as a system of placement, identification, counting, or quite simply the State. In a certain sense, the polarity between the State and the politics of emancipation is only tenable if the State is reduced to what Lacan singled out under the name of the master’s discourse conceived as a power of positing, the power of the signifier to call something into being. As a matter of fact, for Lacan, “[E]very dimension of being is produced in the wake of the master’s discourse – the discourse of he who, proffering the signifier, expects therefrom one of its link effects […] which is related to the fact that the signifier commands. The signifier is, first and foremost, imperative.”[4] In the field of politics, the master’s discourse could essentially be viewed as a symbolic constitution of the social order according to a certain logic of predication: by establishing the relation between the elements that constitute a given situation and their attributes, the master’s discourse effects the “partition of the sensible”, to borrow Rancière’s well-known expression, by determining what counts and what is of no account, what is visible and what is not, in the final analysis, what exists and what does not.

Bearing in mind the ontological dimension inherent in the discourse of the master, as its principal task is to decide what exists, the crucial question for every emancipatory politics worthy of the name is of course: how can that come into being when, within the framework of the master’s discourse, ultimately, it does not exist. At first sight, it may appear that, to the extent that the subject’s existence can only be formulated, according to Lacan, in terms of a fundamental alienation: “either I am nothing but this mark” (this role, function, or mandate, attributed to me by the social Other), “or I am not this mark”, which means that “I am not at all”[5], there can be no choice for the subject, faced with deciding between (real) being and (symbolic) existence. Due to the fact that before the identification with his/her symbolic “mandate”, the subject does not exist at all, the choice of being over identification would prove catastrophic, in truth, an impossible choice, since it would exclude the subject from society and relegate his/her existence to the obscurity of a life outside the discursive space where all that counts is the place that one occupies. In social terms, it then appears that for obtaining a sense of existence, one cannot avoid choosing identification with the role laid out for one by the Other.

From the standpoint of emancipatory politics, however, there is a possible way out to the extent that emancipatory sets out from the irreducible gap between the subject’s being and his/her symbolic existence or, more precisely, from the excess of the subject’s being over the symbolic ‘mandate’, the remainder, the waste-product of the operation of predication by which the master discourse structures social reality. Hence, the only possibility for the subject of facing the forced choice instituted by the master’s discourse is, ultimately, to choose being amounts to choosing choice, the possibility to choose, which can only be attained by choosing what cannot be chosen: being. In order to find a new existence beyond or outside the existence that has been prescribed by the master discourse, the subject must, paradoxically, first choose not-to-be. This is because the choice of the subject “not to be” as a way of escaping the power of the Other is a choice where “the subject designates his being only by barring everything it signifies”[6].

It is therefore no surprise that Lacan discusses the possibility for the subject to disengage himself/herself from the social Other is discussed in terms of a passage to the act. A passage to the act, Lacan reminds us, constitutes a resolution when an encounter is not filtered by the symbolic, and therefore causes anxiety in the face of the uncertainty as to the subject’s place in a given symbolic order, the indeterminacy of the subject’s position as not being supported by the Other’s discourse.

Generally, the passage to the act, is a way in which the subject evacuates, withdraws himself from the place assigned to him by the socio-political Other, and rejects the identifications imposed on him by the Other. Yet the passage to the act, as has been brought to light on the occasion of the riots of May ’68, can also be the subject’s response to the silence of the Other, more exactly, to the indetermination of the subject’s position resulting from this silence. In the closing lesson of his seminar of 1967-1968[7], Lacan clearly indicates that what the students’ dissatisfaction actually sprang from was an encounter with the inconsistency of the Other, or, to be precise, with the lack in the Other of knowledge. In this respect, the students’ protest against the existing state of affairs can be viewed as a complaint that the Other does not function as it should and, at the same time, a desperate appeal to the Other as it should be.

However unexpected this may seem, it is no accident that the call for the ‘whole’ Other occurred in a country where ‘freedom of speech’ is assured. Because, Lacan claims, there is a price to pay for freedom of expression: from the moment that the Other no longer decides as to what can be said and what cannot be said, speech becomes something with no real impact, incapable of producing any effects. On this latter point, Lacan ventures a hypothesis: if we are in general unaware of the growing powerlessness of speech, this is because contrary to how the university is usually considered, Lacan tells us that in the ‘free world’, the university’s prime concern is to maintain order by ensuring that nothing that might be said within its enclosure would cause disorder in society.

May ‘68 has unmasked the role of the university in contemporary society: to neutralize the conditions of a socio-politically transformative act, in short, to make such an act impossible. Thus we can understand why in countries in which freedom of expression is ensured, any attempt to undermine a given power structure and to completely transform the existing socio-political network by means of a revolutionary act has become almost impossible, not to say unthinkable. And it is precisely for this reason that, according to Lacan, May ‘68 has put on the agenda of the day the question of the act, more exactly, the possibility of a speech act that would forever change the conjecture within which it has emerged. In view of the passifying function of the university, the student protest would indicate that the university failed in carrying out the task that is proper to it: to ‘euthanize’ speech.

As a result of this downgrading of speech, its reduction to powerlessness, violence, “the rain of cobbles” that the demonstrators were hurling at the police, as Lacan explicitly puts it, appears to be the only appropriate response to the fact that speech counts as nothing, is none other than. This sudden transition from speech to action, this precipitation into the act, especially when violence is implicated, is what Lacan refers to as the passage à l’acte. But is that to say that, due to the non-existence of the Other, violence is the only way out offered to the subject for the resolution of that impasse of the powerlessness of speech? Is it not possible that the inexistence of the Other may have other effects in politics than to provoke violent unrest? Or, yet again: is it possible to situate in this void of the socio-symbolic Other something other than sheer violence, in other words, a speech act, such that would have an effect?

No better idea of the effects that speech might produce can be given than by comparing May ’68 to the turmoil caused by another May, May ‘89: the students’ demonstrations in a country in which the university has failed to completely efface all effects of speech. In his book The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben evokes the Tiananmen demonstrations to illustrate emancipatory politics such as is possible at the present time: a politics of whatever singularities. The latter being Agamben’s name for a new, unheard-of figure of the emancipatory subject situated beyond both all identity and every condition of belonging to any community whatsoever. In this remarkably lucid analysis one also finds elements for understanding when the mere fact of speaking can count as an act:

“What was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands (democracy and freedom are notions too generic and broadly defined to constitute the real object of conflict […]). This makes the violence of the State’s reaction seem even more inexplicable. […] In the final instance, the State can recognize any claim for identity – even that of a State identity within the State […]. What the State cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable conditions of belonging.”[8]

Highlighting the resistance of whatever singularities to any form of representation, Agamben marks a subtle, yet significant change in emphasis. Indeed, what is subversive about “whatever singularities”, this powerful example of the invention of a new political subject, are neither their “ways of doing” nor their “ways of saying”, what is subversive is rather their “way of being”[9]: in peacefully demonstrating the “impotent omnivalence of whatever being”, whatever singularities bring all possible belongings radically into question. Thus, if we are to follow Agamben, the mere putting on stage of the social unbinding presents a threat to the proper function of discourse, that of establishing a social link. What is actually involved in the concept of whatever singularity is a peculiar figure of “unbinding” that announces, in the words of Lacan, “another dimension of discourse and opening up the possibility of completely subverting the function of discourse as such”.[10]

To Have or to Be

What is striking about Agamben’s example of the way in which a new political subject is formed is the divisive power of its demands, it is the manner in which whatever singularities succeed in uncovering the lack in the Other, thus provoking the Other’s passage to the act which renders visible the incapacity of the socio-political Other to respond to the protestors’ demands otherwise than with violence. One might say that a fissure in the established socio-political order is brutally exposed whenever the ruling power, incapable of deciding whether the demonstrators’ ‘No!’ addressed to it is to be taken as a spectacle put on for it, or as a serious threat to it, seeks to control the situation by means of violence. In a sense, the whole consistency of the Other, its authority, depends upon the deferral of the moment when its power is put to the test: so long as the force it is supposed to possess is kept in reserve, as it were, its authority is not brought into question. The recourse to violence, by contrast, reveals that the master has been afflicted by a certain lack or impotence.

The fact that the intolerable threat that the Chinese State recognized in the students’ demonstrations is not to be sought in some specific, concrete content of their demands but in the mere fact of uttering these demands requires that we make a rigorous distinction between two structurally different demands: a want-to-have and a want-to-be. In some radical sense, all demands of the subject are demands for being since the subject’s initial demand is motivated by the fact that the Other lacks the signifier to capture the whole of his/her being. Being nothing but the interval, the gap between two signifiers, the subject always seems to be lacking in some respect. Which is why, in order to make good the lack of his/her being, the subject desperately seeks a complement of its being that is presumably located somewhere in the Other. Thus, the elementary form of demand is situated at the level of the having since in the want-to-have, the Other is always-already there. By making the subject dependent on the Other, since in order to obtain what one is lacking it is necessary to presuppose an Other that lacks nothing, a demand for “having”, is constitutively alienating.

There is then no contradiction in the fact that there can be no demand without aiming at the lack of being that supports it, and the fact that the subject’s demand for being always appears in the guise of a demand for something, in short, a demand for having. The case of the Tiananmen demonstrations seems to be a particularly appropriate example that can account for the splitting of the demand since a disjunction is introduced at the moment at which a demand which appears to be a demand for some specific having (democracy, freedom…) suddenly turns into a demand of a quite different type, a peculiar demand since it is somewhat indifferent to its fulfillment, thereby indicating that its proper objective is the subject’s being. Indeed, there does not seem to be anything specific about the Chinese protestors’ demands for democracy and freedom, yet precisely this “relative absence of determinate contents in their demands”, as has been rightly emphasized by Agamben, reveals one of the essential features of the demand for being. Actually, it is because “democracy” and “freedom” do not have intrinsic contents of their own, i.e., it is precisely as “empty signifiers” that they can figure as a paradoxical incarnation of the subject’s lack of being, indicating in this way that the proper object of such a demand for being, just like the famous Lacanian object a, can be characterized solely negatively: “That is not it!”, a paradoxical lack of having that can only emerge through the subject’s disappointment once he/she obtains the demanded object.

It then appears that a demand for being is, as such, a paradoxical demand. It is paradoxical, first of all, because it can never be expressed as such. A demand for being is namely always “dressed up” in a demand for having, disguised, so to speak, as a wanting-to-have. As a result of this obligatory passage of the demand for being through the demand for having, something of the demand for being gets “lost in translation” and it is this ineliminable remainder of the unsatisfied demand that operates as a stand-in for the demand for being. In a certain sense, it can only assert itself as a demand for something, whatever that might be, a want-to-have which is a stand-in for the unsayable want-to-be. In other words, one of the particular demands for having, which represents, within the space of the Other, an anomaly in the order of demands, as it aims at an object that is, from the perspective of the Other, unattainable, stands in for the constitutively inexpressible demand for being.

The demand for being is a paradoxical demand for yet another reason. On one hand, a demand for “being”, as any other demand, is addressed to the Other. In demanding “being”, the subject may well appear to be demanding a complement of being that is supposed to be located somewhere in the Other. Only here, the very fact that it is a demand for being, or rather, the mere possibility of expressing such a demand indicates that one cannot find one’s place in the Other, such as it is, revealing in this way that, in demanding being one demands nothing from the Other that the latter might supply on demand, nothing that could therefore fall under the heading of “the having”. A want-to-be, a demand for “being”, is then a demand which, properly speaking, makes no claims addressed to the Other as the one who “has”. Rather, it is articulated to the Other’s lack. This is because a demand for being can only be addressed to the Other by an inexistent agency of sorts, those who are denied a place in a given social order, that part of society that is in excess of the classification, unaccounted for by the Other. In this respect, a demand for being is not a demand for something in particular, the satisfaction of which would depend on the Other’s “good will”, for it is quite clear that the satisfaction of the demand for being made by the inexistent part of society, one which is uncounted and unaccounted for in the given structure of assigned places, would have the effect of making the Other disappear, a disappearance by which the whole of its order is annihilated, too. The crucial point here is that, whereas the demand of having allows the Other to gain a tighter grip on the subject, the demand for being, by contrast, involves the subject’s separation from the Other. It is for that reason that a demand for being is intrinsically subversive, revolutionary.

This fact alone justifies us in situating the demands of the Chinese demonstrators under the heading of the demand for being rather than that of the demand for having. There where Western observers could recognize in the demand for the freedom of speech, for democracy, merely a demand for having, the Chinese State correctly placed freedom and democracy in the register of the empty signifiers as the metonymy of the protesters’ lack-of-being, a being incompatible with the established order of things, thereby correctly deciphering behind the apparent demand for having (democracy and freedom), a No! directed at the existing regime of mastery. The Chinese State, by responding with violence, thus returned to the demonstrators their own message in an inverted, which is to say, in its true form: “We understand that in demanding only more democracy and freedom,” the Other is presumed to reply to the demonstrating students, “you are in fact demanding that the actual socio-political order should exist no more”. That is to say, behind what appears to be a demand for having, it correctly recognized that nothing that it can give them would satisfy them, thereby indicating that such a demand, as such, proves to be incompatible with the existing order of power.

It is, therefore, only to the extent that being itself is at stake in the demand for being that the mere fact of proffering such a demand can bring about a radical modification of the connection between the subject and the Other. To put it bluntly: all demands call for a reply from the Other. What this immediately implies is that for a demand to be recognized by the politico-social Other in the first place, it has to be reduced, downgraded to a “lack of having”. This may be why in an era of the proliferation of demands, all these demands, inasmuch as they are made in the name of belonging to some already existing group, in the name of some communal identity, such as it is represented in the Other’s order, can, in principle, be acknowledged by the latter.

From our earlier developments, it is clear that the subject obtains some sense of its being by being identified with what the Other lacks and it is through the subject’s demand for being that the lack in the Other, its incompleteness, comes to light. Ultimately, the only “message” of the demand for being that is directed at the Other by those who occupy the position of internal exclusion within the established order, is: “You are not whole!”. In this sense, we could maintain that whenever the demand for being succeeds in forcing the socio-political Other to acknowledge it, this necessarily involves a complete reconfiguration of the existing socio-political framework, thus engendering a new Other, ultimately, it involves the creation of a new order. It would seem, however, that it is this particularity of the demand, its fundamental dependence on the Other, that a demand for being subverts by revealing that demand made by “whatever” singularities, precisely those singularities that lay no claim to identity and refuse any criteria of belonging to whatever community, cannot be recognized by the Other as a legitimate claim. The operator of the social linking, the State, and “whatever” singularities are mutually exclusive since, to ratify a demand made by “whatever” singularities would namely entail the unbinding of all social bonds, an unbinding that undermines the State whose raison d’être is exactly to assure the social bond by distributing singularities according to the established system of places in the social order.

A demand for being is therefore a paradoxical demand since it can only be issued from some unthinkable place, literally, a non-place, to be precise, since it is made by an instance which, being a waste-product of the constitution of the social order, an unsituable excess of the Other’s counting, cannot, by definition, have a place within the Other’s order and is condemned to endlessly err in the space of the Other. This place from which a demand for being is issued is, strictly speaking, an invisible, or better put, perhaps, a nonexistent place, a place that is not yet given in the Other. This is why whenever the inexistent, i.e. those who demand to be recognized in their being and who have no proper place in the discursive space of the Other, the Other, which declared that there is no loss, that everything that counts has been counted and can be accounted for, declare their being-there, they render the Other, necessarily incomplete. One can therefore argue that the subject speaks out or makes its demand for being from the point at which the Other falls silent.

However, no demand can be made if one does not exist. It is for that reason that a demand for being always manifests itself through a proclamation of existence: “nos sumus, nos existimus[11], a proclamation which signifies that something which, for the Other, does not exist at all, which was therefore mute, starts to speak out. The subject comes into being here by proclaiming “we are, we exist,” thereby ratifying the being that is only anticipated in such a proclamation. The subject speaks out as if it already existed. In truth, the declaration “we are, we exist” can be issued at the moment in which the subject who claims to exist, does not yet exist, because, in the socio-political configuration established by the Other, there is no possible place for it to be situated in. To find one’s place in a given symbolic order, if this place is not already provided by the Other itself and assigned by it to the subject, therefore requires that the subject bores its way into the Other, makes a hole into the Other and situates itself in that hole.

Thus, in order to make itself be there, the subject first has to make a place in which to inscribe its being. One might even add here that there is no demand for being that does not in some sense create the space in which it is to be inscribed. Hence, the subject can speak out only by making holes in a given order of power, or better still, by adding something which, with regard to this order, is regarded as superfluous, in excess, a disturbing surplus that should not be there in the first place, indeed, that which, from the moment that the Other acknowledged its existence, would cause the disappearance of the Other itself.

The Curse of Metonymy

This is why the subject of the demand for being has affinities with the position of the hysterical subject, namely that subject who, at the level of being, can only exist if the Other is lacking. Indeed, just like the hysteric, the subject of the demand for being occupies the place of the barred subject – the subject which experiences its lack of identity as a lack of being, a lack of its being in the Other: it is not because it cannot situate itself there. Consequently, the hysteric will concentrate her efforts towards exposing the lack in the Other, or, if necessary, by boring a hole in the Other in order to make a room for herself. Lacking being, and unable therefore to recognize herself in the role attributed to her by the Other, the hysteric is condemned to a ceaseless search for an appropriate signifier to represent her. But precisely for that reason it is also the subject who, by definition, rejects the closure, the act of saturation, this being, in Lacan’s vocabulary, a master’s “point de capiton”, the act of the “hegemon” par excellence, which succeeds rendering a given situation “legible” by drawing a line of demarcation between that which exists and that which does not. This also explains why such a subject wants to count, actually, continues to count, after the Other has declared to have counted all there is to count. Stated differently, if she wants to add, after the Other’s the last word, at least one more word, it is because she does not allow the master to have the last word. In responding to the master’s gesture of closure by adding at least one more signifier, the hysteric opens up a dimension beyond the closure, thereby revealing why the Other, whose counting is based on the sequence of natural numbers, can never catch up with the hysteric who situates herself at the level of real numbers, those numbers namely which, because there is always a real number between any two given real numbers, converge towards a negative limit that will never be reached. The hysterical gesture concerns us, not just because it challenges the master, but also because it shows us how it is possible to pass from a logic of necessity, this being eminently the logic of totalization, the logic of the “all”, to a logic of contingency, which is but another name for the logic of the “not-all”, and which can only be acceded through the hysteric’s operation of de-totalization. It is precisely this move from the logic of the all to the logic of the not-all that the hysterical subject and the emancipatory subject, as it has been theorized by J. Rancière and G. Agamben, have in common. Just as the coming into existence of the hysterical subject, the political subjectivation rests on a peculiar articulation of counting and unbinding. The subject, from such a perspective, exists only through and for the ceaselessly repeated operation of uncovering a miscount in the Other’s count. In either case, in response to the Other’s counting, the subject proposes an entirely different operation of counting, one that proceeds “one by one”.

But the problem with such a solution where the demand for being is premised on hysterical refusal lies in this very rejection of the closure. And indeed, prima facie, the closure is what we might think of as the master’s gesture par excellence, since it is a gesture by which it is decided, as Rancière remarks, “whether the subjects who count in the interlocution ‘are’ or ‘are not’”[12]. Therefore if the elementary gesture of emancipatory politics consists in de-totalizing all totalization, it becomes apparent that emancipatory politics, as Rancière sees it, precisely because it depends upon the master’s closure, is only possible in a world in which the Other exists.[13] If, however, the subversion of the master’s closure is not sufficient to account for an emancipatory politics that would be more attuned to the deadlocks of globalized capitalism, this is because the latter is articulated to the non-existence of the Other and has as its structural principle the “generalized metonymysation”, which excludes from the outset the possibility of closure capable of rendering a given situation “legible”. Our point is namely that the possibility of an emancipatory politics changes fundamentally as the master’s discourse yields to the “generalized metonymization”. Or to be more precise, the total hegemony of a discourse that is structurally metonymic, the capitalist discourse, has decisive consequences for the transformative power of politics, ultimately, for its capacity to change the transcendental regime of the present world. What characterizes the globalized capitalist discourse is precisely that there is nothing left that serves as a barrier. Indeed, in a discourse that knows no limitation and in which, as a consequence, “everything is possible”, it is the impossible that appears to be impossible. We are living in a regime of mastery which no longer proceeds by prohibition and repression and which, thus, renders transgression and, as a corollary, the idea of a revolutionary change questionable. For something has radically changed with the globalization of the capitalist discourse. Globalization, in this respect, does not mean simply that nothing is left in its place as no anchoring seems to be capable of controlling the unending movement of displacements and substitutions. Indeed, in the current space of discursivity, the notion of place itself is strangely out of place. What is more, with the category of place thus rendered inoperative, it is one of the key categories of emancipatory politics, the notion of lack, necessary to the subject for it to sustain itself in the symbolic Other, which becomes obsolete.

Contrary to the discourse of the master, the capitalist discourse, by situating itself in the agent’s place, the barred subject that is caught in an infinite quest for the missing signifier, the one which could put an end to the subject’s erring, exploits the lack it instills in the subject as a way of reproducing itself. The cunning of the capitalist discourse then consists in exploiting the structure of the desiring subject: by manipulating his desire, i.e. by reducing it to demand, the capitalist discourse creates the illusion that, thanks to scientific development and the market, it is able to provide the subject with the complement of being that he is lacking by transforming the subject’s lack of being into the lack of having. In this view, “having” is considered to be a cure for the lack of being of the subject of capitalist discourse. One could then say that the subject of the capitalist discourse, which is the embodiment of the lack of being, is completed by products thrown into the market. This is why Lacan named the subject of the capitalist discourse “the proletarian”. Indeed, it is a subject which is inseparable from that which constitutes the complement of his/her being: his/her surplus-enjoyment, the object a. As the dominant structure of social relations, the capitalist discourse provides the conditions of an obscure subjectivation which depends on the conversion of the surplus-value, that is to say, any product thrown into the market, into the cause of the subject’s desire. We would suggest that it is precisely this indistinction between the surplus-value and the surplus-enjoyment which makes it possible for the capitalist production of “whatever objects” to capture, indeed, to enslave the subject’s desire, to sustain its eternal “this is not it!”.

It could be claimed that capitalism, insofar as it promotes the “solipsism of enjoyment”, promotes at the same time a particular communal figure, that which J.-C. Milner termed a “paradoxical class”, a collective in which its members are joined or held together by that which disjoins them[14], namely, their idiosyncratic mode of enjoyment. What is thus placed in question is precisely the social bond. Or to be more precise, the social bond that exists today is one presented under the form of dispersed individuals that are but another name for the dissolution of all links or unbinding of all bonds[15]. Both of these features of the capitalist discourse could, then, be brought together in a single syntagm of the generalized proletarization. In the words of Lacan, “there is but one social symptom: every individual is in effect a proletarian, that is to say that no discourse is at the disposal of the individual by means of which a social bond could be established”[16]. Ironically, proletarization remains the symptom of contemporary society. Only, this proletarization is of a particular kind, one that, by being articulated with the intrinsically metonymic nature of the capitalist discourse, has lost all its subversive effectiveness, all its revolutionary potential[17]. Summarizing in this way Lacan’s thesis on the contemporary proletarization, is to shed some light on the impasses of the present generalized “metonymization”, operated by the capitalist discourse, in order to identify the difficulties of contemporary emancipatory politics in finding a way out of this present impasse. For the inexistence of the Other, and the resultant limitless expansion of metonymic displacements, contrary to what might be expected or hoped for, is not in and of itself a liberating factor for the subject, it is not experienced by the subject as liberation from the capture which the Other effects upon him/her. Quite the contrary: in the absence of the master signifier which would render a given situation “readable”, the subject remains a prisoner, not of the Other that exists, but of the inexistent Other, better put perhaps, of the inexistence of the Other.

It is this deadlock that the subject faces in a universe of the inexistent Other, that Lacan highlights in raising the following question: given that “S1[18] represents the subject for another signifier, but if there is no Other to furnish another signifier, what, then, becomes of S1?” Better yet: “for whom” or, rather, “for what”, then, is the subject represented? And vice versa, the placing of the master signifier, S1 – that signifier namely whose principle function is to ensure the “legibility” of the given discursive space – in parenthesis and hence making a given situation “illegible”, requires that the subject, by assuming the impossibility of a closure, nevertheless finds a way of making the situation ‘legible’. However, such a solution cannot be satisfied with the anchoring point, the metaphoric totalization, as it always brings us back inexorably towards the infinitization of metonymy. What is needed in the present conjecture of late capitalism, indeed, as the beyond of the theory of counting that is modeled on the hysterical revolt by which the emancipatory subject drills a hole in the Other, thereby creating a rupture that undermines the Other’s order, is a theory of a break or rupture capable of producing effects that forever change the discursive configuration in which it intervened. Emancipatory politics in the epoch of the nonexistent Other is therefore confronted with the task of reversing the structural impossibility of the closure of the capitalist discourse into a condition of possibility of the invention of a new socio-political structure.

Generally speaking, the exposition of the point of the real as the immanent impossibility of a given social configuration, is a constitutive prerequisite for initiating change. However, in the existing conjecture, which is itself structured through the infinitization of an interminable discourse, such as the capitalist’s, this point of the real, marking some radical heterogeneity to that which exists, is not articulated to any kind of impossibility, whether presented as defense or interdiction, rather, it is obscured by a seemingly limitless expansion of the realm of the possible. The implication here for emancipatory politics today is that, if the Other is no longer capable of the suture, this leaves the emancipatory subject the task of coming up with a solution, not, however, at the level of the signifier, as it will inevitably fuel the process of metonymization, but at the level of that which is heterogeneous, disparate with the signifier, namely the act.

The hypothesis here is that the act, no less than the master’s catachresis, has the same creative power of a groundless positing. The essential difference between the act and the master’s “point de caption” being, however, that whereas the master’s gesture of closure is only effective if it succeeds in concealing the groundlessness of this positing, the act, by contrast, is overtly situated in a zone beyond all guarantee, beyond the Other as guarantee. From such a perspective it could then be said that the act can be validated in view of its consequences. That is to say, a true act is only true by way of its consequences, or, which amounts to the same, “[I]t is only true inasmuch as it is truly followed”[19]. The crucial question here is: how can an act occur such that it would provoke a logic of consequences that would derail the transcendental regime of a given discursive universe? But how does the act constitute a resolution to the deadlock of the inexistent Other? At the centre of this examination is the question of whether violence, in the epoch of the inconsistent Other, is the only way out of the powerlessness of the subject.


Lacan’s solution to the impasses of the inexistent Other is to propose a new definition of the act: a paradoxical short circuit of saying and doing, of speech and action. The act is accomplished through a saying whose subject, as a result, emerges different, other than he was before: “The act (tout court) takes place by means of a saying, thereby changing its subject.”[21] We should not take this to mean that whenever there is a saying there is also an act. To avoid the absurd conclusion that every act of saying alters the subject, it is decisive to differentiate between two heterogeneous ways of “doing things with words”. In order to accurately locate the true agent in an act, we have to distinguish between the act in a Lacanian sense and the act such as has been elaborated by speech act theory. According to J.L. Austin, for an enunciation, for instance, “I promise”, “I declare a general mobilization”, to count as the accomplishment of an act, “there must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances”[22]. A true act in Lacan’s sense, by contrast, is an act for which no such “conventional procedure” is supplied in advance. What is more, it is only “nachträglich [retroactively] that an act takes on its value”[23]. In this regard, a Lacanian speech act is the reverse of an Austinian speech act: while an Austinian speech act, where the speaker performs an act by proffering a formula designed for that purpose, aims at the absorption of certain ways of doing into the signifier, realized through a mere act of saying, the reduction to the signifier of that which is fundamentally heterogeneous and therefore incommensurable with it, namely doing, a Lacanian speech act pushes the signifier itself beyond the limits of the symbolic. Or to be even more precise, whereas the Austinian speech act amounts simply to “doing things with words” in conformity with a pre-given convention, a genuine act in Lacan’s sense involves passing through a barrier of the signifier. One could say that such a speech act makes use of the signifier in order to bring into existence something that is of the order of the real.

It is not by chance that Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon illuminates, for Lacan, the essence of a true act. Indeed, if the signifying dimension is constitutive of the act as such, this is precisely because for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon to take on the value of an act, it must go beyond a limit, to cross a boundary that only exists in the symbolic. That is to say, it is not enough for Caesar to cross the Rubicon with his army, thereby violating the Roman law according to which the army, upon returning to Rome, must be disbanded before crossing the Rubicon, he must in addition proclaim: “alea iacta est!”. However, the crossing of a purportedly inviolable barrier is to be understood less as the hysteric’s act of defiance directed against the Other’s prohibition, than as an attempt at locating the point of the impossible of the existent social order: marking and dissolving at the same time the point of the impossible-real in the situation, the act succeeds to initiate a set of until then unheard of possibilities, to chart an uncharted zone, beyond borders, to be explored. It is in this sense that we could speak of the act as constituting a true beginning since it is only through such a forcing of the barrier of the symbolic that an act can constitute an interruption, a break, a discontinuity that forever separates a ‘before’ and an ‘after’.

But what becomes of the subject after the act? The moment of the act, strictly speaking, is the moment at which the subject appears to be “suspended” between the “old” subject that he was before the act, and a new being that is a being without essence, as he will only become who he really is through the deployment of the act’s consequences. He will become what he is, i.e., nothing other than a series of consequences that follow from “his” act. This is because the act does not include, at the moment of its realization, the presence of the subject. Indeed, according to Lacan, there is no such a thing as the subject of the act; the latter is considered to be a result of this very act of saying. It is only after the act and through its consequences that the subject will find its presence, but a renewed presence, says Lacan. It is here that the crucial aspect of the act comes to light: Intrinsically sui-referential, as it cannot find an ontological support, the act, as such, is correlative of the inexistence of the Other. However, what characterizes the act is not merely the fact that it alters the subject, it is not just the death of the old subject and the birth of a new one, but the act, also and essentially, involves a modification of that agency at which or against which it is, ultimately, always directed: the Other. Generally speaking, it is by taking into account this “address” to the Other that it was possible for Lacan to oppose acting out and passage à l’acte, passage to the act, two types of acts particularly difficult to distinguish as they both appear to involve an unexpected, violent headlong movement. Lacan defines acting out as the subject’s playing out on a stage, literally making a scene for the Other, and a passage to the act as an attempt to detach himself/herself from the Other. In the event of acting out, the subject addresses the Other through his/her act, thereby contributing to making this Other consist. Through the passage to the act, in contrast, the subject in effect escapes from the power of the Other, but at the price of a drastic separation: by evacuating himself or herself from the stage. Signaling in this way the subject’s definitive separation from the Other, the passage to the act entails at the same time the subject’s disappearance.

However, the passage to the act is not Lacan’s final word on the question. There is another angle which makes it possible to draw a far clearer distinction between a true act, on one hand, and the passage to the act, on the other, seeking in this way to elaborate more rigorously the act in relation to the Other. What a genuine act, for Lacan, has in common with the passage to act consists in the fact that both can only be accomplished in the void of the Other: at the very moment of its realization, the act appears to be without a support in the Other. This is why, for Lacan, one can never know what an act will bring about as there will always be the risk that the act will flip over into a mere mise-en-scène, a playing out for the Other, in a word, into an acting out. But precisely for this reason it then appears that a true act, as such, is paradoxically left at the mercy of the Other.

Whereas the passage to the act may well remain indifferent to what follows since the consequences of the act are precisely what the subject who precipitates himself into the act does not want to know anything about, this cannot be said of a true act. Indeed, the fact that an act has met with resistance, rejection even, from the Other, is seen by Lacan as an indicator that the status of the act is retroactively annihilated. This is why, the only answer to the question: “Is it an act?”, for Lacan, is: “It depends on its consequences”[24]. This centrality of consequences is arguably at the heart of Lacan’s revisited theory of the act. In fact, it is by focusing on the consequences that the precarious, ungrounded nature of the act is truly brought to light. If Lacan can claim that “it is in the consequences of what is said that the act of saying is judged,”[25] this is because “what one does with what is said remains open”[26]. If Lacan is concerned with the failure of the act to the point of doubting its status as an act, this is because at the moment of its accomplishment, we cannot know whether we are dealing here with an impotent posturing, ineffective gesticulation, or with a true act capable of producing certain dislocatory effects in the existing situation. By inscribing the consequences in the very status of the act, Lacan clearly indicates that the outcome of the act is uncertain as, indeed, the status of the act depends on its reception, ultimately, on the Other, i.e. the effect it has on its law. The Other, thus, unexpectedly re-appears as that instance which is supposed, retroactively, of course, after the event, to ratify the act. That is to say, the only authentication of the act as a transformative power follows from its consequences.

This brings us to what we take to be one of the most important shifts in Lacan’s theorizing of the act. What this shift implies is that, for Lacan, in order to account for the essential feature of the act, it is necessary to introduce a peculiar logic of consequences: the true in an act in Lacan’s sense has to be measured by its consequences; ultimately it has to be judged by the effects it has on the Other, by the effects it has in the situation in which it has been accomplished. How, then, is this emphasis on the consequences of the act to be reconciled with Lacan’s initial insistence that, for a genuine act, there is no “after”, no “tomorrow”. Is not, which is now thrown into question, in essence, what Lacan regarded as the exact nature of (the passage to) the act, i.e., this dimension of finality, of irrevocability, without appeal to any “tomorrow”, this refusal to take into consideration the outcome, the continuation of the act, ultimately, the effacement of that which would have issued from it, the utter indifference with respect to the “after”? These two apparently contradictory aspects of the act are nonetheless bound together. To make the status of the act dependent upon what follows, to take this uncertainty into account, so to speak, as an integral part of the act, (i.e. the impossibility of predicting its consequences), in short, the dependence of the act on the Other that is supposed to ratify it, announces an unheard of heresy with respect to the Lacanian canonical definition of the act that has been modeled on the passage to the act. As is well-known, the latter constitutes, for Lacan, a paradigm of every (successful) act as it is through such a passage to the act that the subject can divorce himself from the Other, definitely wrench himself from of its power. This also explains why suicide, a moment of the subject’s definitive separation from the Other, is regarded by Lacan as “the only act that can succeed without misfiring”.[27]

The impression now is that the emphasis has shifted: what distinguishes the act is not simply the subject’s separation from the Other, but also, or even more so, the reconfiguration that the act causes in the Other’s world, the reconfiguration that may go so far as to the emergence of a new figure of the Other. The act, then, is less a matter of a break, a discontinuity, than one of inaugurating a new beginning. How are we to understand this paradoxical structure of the act? Being utterly contingent, i.e. underived, emerging, as it were, ex nihilo, the act, at the moment of its accomplishment, assures nothing. In effect, the act cannot guarantee that anything at all will follow. Which is why it is only through its consequences, that it can be decided after the fact, that is to say, retroactively, whether we are truly presented here with an act or not.

On the one hand, in all genuine acts, there is a dimension of “auto”: it is by “authorizing” oneself that one can accomplish an act, which is to say that one has to take upon oneself the fact that one finds no support, no guarantee, in the Other, the symbolic order. The act, in this regard, is a causa sui, a cause of itself. This is because the cause that is at work in the act, cannot be attributed to the subject, as the latter, strictly speaking, does not as yet exist. Rather, the act’s cause must be located in the object, and more specifically, it must be identified as the cause of desire, i.e. as that which, while operating unbeknown to the subject, i.e. going beyond what he/she knows, nevertheless makes it possible for him/her, to paraphrase Lacan, to be “sure in his/her action”. On the other hand, however, the act is equally inscribed in the dimension of the retroactivity, as it is only on the basis of its consequences that it can be decided whether an act was accomplished or not. To state with Lacan that the destiny, even the validity, of the act, is dependent on its consequences, is thus to state that the “status of the act is retroactive”[28]. In effect, in a universe in which the Other does not exist, the subject accedes to certitude solely by virtue of an act, on the condition, however, that he or she assumes the groundlessness of the act itself. In this respect, we can claim that every act worthy of the name is accomplished in the perspective of the last judgement, since to “accomplish an act […] means to be responsible for the act and its consequences”.[29]

There is perhaps no better illustration of this paradoxical aspect of the act than the famous dialogue (whether it actually happened or not) between Lenin and Trotsky, on the brink of the October Revolution: “What if we fail?” asks Lenin anxiously. “What if we succeed?”, no less anxiously replies Trotsky. Despite the fact that this divergence in questions quite obviously indicates two distinct conceptions of revolution and politics in general, the subject here has to answer for his/its own course of action. Signaling a moment of anxiety preceding every act – for there is no answer in the Other to tell him or her what she or he should do – both of these questions indicate that, regardless to the outcome of the impending revolutionary act, the subject has already situated what is about to be carried out in the perspective of the “last judgement”, thereby demonstrating his willingness to assume the unforeseeable consequences that proceed from this act, consequences that, ultimately, remain at the mercy of the Other. But what “Other” is the act aiming at in a universe in which the Other, precisely, does not exist? That is the quandary proper to the act by which the question of the act becomes a quandary for both psychoanalysis and politics. There seems to be no other way out of this impasse but to assert that the act itself creates a new Other to which it is addressed. One might just as well say that the Other at which the act is directed is in essence an effect of the act. At once anticipatory and retroactive, the act always presents itself in its paradoxical aspect: it is both ungrounded (at the moment of its occurrence) and foundational (from the viewpoint of its consequences), foundational inasmuch as it calls into existence both the subject as that instance that will assume the consequences that follow from the act, and the Other that will retroactively ratify it as an act. The Other, which is, strictly speaking, the after-effect of the act itself.


01. Jacques Lacan, unpublished seminar “La logique du fantasme” (1966–67), the lesson of 10 May 1967.

02. Jacques Lacan, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, in Écrits. A Selection, trans. by Bruce Fink, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, p. 673.

03. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. by Julie Rose, Minneapolis, University Press of Minnesota, 1999, pp. 26-27.

04. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, trans. by Bruce Fink, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, p. 32.

05. Jacques Lacan, unpublished seminar “L’acte psychanalytique” (1967 –1968), the lesson of 10 January 1968.

06. Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus”, in Ecrits. A Selection, op. cit., 2006, p. 581.

07. We are drawing here on Lacan’s unpublished seminar “L’acte psychanalytique” (1967–68).

08. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. by Michael Hardt, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. 85–86. Ibid.., p. 10.

09. Jacques Lacan, Encore, op. cit., p. 30. 

10. This formulation is borrowed from Jacques Rancière’s, Disagreement, op. cit., p. 36.

11. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, op. cit., p. 50.

12. It is not by chance that key examples used by Rancière to illustrate the working of emancipatory politics, the Athenian demos and the proletariat, are precisely two models of the political subject from an epoch in which the operation of conclusion was still possible, i.e. an epoch in which the Other still existed. 

13. Jean-Claude Milner, Les noms indistincs, Paris, Seuil, 1983, pp. 116-123.

14. Capitalism, in a sense, could be seen as an aberration among social bonds, since it realizes what in all the other bonds seems to be impossible: its Compatibility with enjoyment. The capitalist discourse is a social bond which does not demand that the subject sacrifice his or her enjoyment. On the contrary, the capitalist social bond is a bond that adapts itself to the “trifle”, the private enjoyment of everybody. So, from this perspective, it could be argued that not only does enjoyment not threaten the capitalist social bond, but, on the contrary, capitalism presents itself as a discourse in which the solipsistic “democracy of jouissance” whose sole principle is primum vivere, to live for enjoyment, reigns.

15. Compatibility with enjoyment. The capitalist discourse is a social bond which does not demand that the subject sacrifice his or her enjoyment. On the contrary, the capitalist social bond is a bond that adapts itself to the “trifle”, the private enjoyment of everybody. So, from this perspective, it could be argued that not only does enjoyment not threaten the capitalist social bond, but, on the contrary, capitalism presents itself as a discourse in which the solipsistic “democracy of jouissance” whose sole principle is primum vivere, to live for enjoyment, reigns. 

16. Jacques Lacan, “La troisième”, in Lettres de l’Ecole freudeinne de Paris, n° 16, 1975, p. 187.

17. Despite the fact that the value of the symptom in politics and psychoanalysis differ, nevertheless they are not without convergence in some respect insofar as the symptom is conceived by Lacan as that which disrupts the smooth working of the social order, betraying in this way the subject’s resistance to total alienation in that order. However, the affinities between Lacan’s notion of symptom and Marx’s proletariat as a symptom of bourgeois society can only appear on the basis of Lacan’s claim that the symptom can generate its subversive effects precisely to the extent that it operates like a metaphor, that is to say, as a quilting point which, by reconfiguring relations between elements of a given situation in a different way, momentarily reveals the possibility of a new, entirely unprecedented type of the socio-discursive arrangement.

18. Jacques Lacan, “III-L’impossible à saisir,” Le séminaire. Livre XXIV, L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile à mourre, Ornicar?, n° 17/18, 1979, p. 18.

19. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre XVIII, D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, Paris, Seuil, 2006, p. 13.

20. This neologism, which we borrow from Colette Soler, by condensing “act” and “atheism” into one word, points to that dimension of the act which could best be designated as the “atheistic transcendence”, an immanent transcendence beyond all figure of the Other. See Colette Soler, “Les fins propres de l’acte analytique”, in Actes de l’Ecole de la Cause freudienne, n° 12, E.C.F. Paris 1987, p. 18. 

21. Jacques Lacan, “Comptes-rendus d’enseignements”, in Ornicar?, n°. 29, 1984, p. 18. 

22. J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1962, p. 14.

23. Jacques Lacan, Jacques Lacan, unpublished seminar “L’acte psychanalytique” (1967 –1968), the lesson of 16 May 1968.

24. Jacques Lacan, Autres écrits, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 262.

25. Jacques Lacan, Encore, op. cit., p.16.

26. Idem.

27. Jacques Lacan, Television, trans. by Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 1990, p. 43.

28. Here we draw on Jacques-Allain Miller’s elaboration of the act in his seminar “Politique lacanienne”, 27 May 1998.

29. Jacques-Aallain Miller, “Politique lacanienne”, 27 May 1998.

Works Cited

  • Agamben, Girgio, The Coming Community, trans. by Michael Hardt, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Austin, J. L., How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • Jacques Lacan, “La troisième”, in Lettres de l’Ecole freudeinne de Paris, n° 16, 1975.
  • Lacan, Jacques, unpublished seminar “La logique du fantasme” (1966–67), the lesson of 10 May 1967.
  • __________, “III-L’impossible à saisir,” Le séminaire. Livre XXIV, L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile à mourre, Ornicar?, n° 17/18, 1979.
  • __________, “Comptes-rendus d’enseignements”, in Ornicar?, n°. 29, 1984.
  • __________, Television, trans. by Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
  • __________, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, trans. by Bruce Fink, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • __________, Autres écrits, Paris, Seuil, 2001.
  • __________, Le Séminaire, livre XVIII, D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, Paris, Seuil, 2006.
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  • __________, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, in Écrits. A Selection, trans. by Bruce Fink, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
  • Miller, Jacques-Allain, seminar “Politique lacanienne”, 27 May 1998.
  • Milner, Jean-Claude, Les noms indistincs, Paris, Seuil, 1983.
  • Rancière, Jacques, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. by Julie Rose, Minneapolis, University Press of Minnesota, 1999.
  • Soler, Colette, “Les fins propres de l’acte analytique”, in Actes de l’Ecole de la Cause freudienne, n° 12, E.C.F. Paris 1987.