The Scene of Politics in an Atonal World: Hegemony, Contagion, Spectrality

Laura Bazzicalupo
Università di Salerno

Volume 9, 2016

Introduction: The Displacement of the Political

A powerful injection of Lacanian theory in the study of political thought has paved the way for new perspectives in the analysis of today’s world and new tools for thinking political subjectivation. The outcome has been the formulation of a more complex, dynamic and relational ontology that re-opens the field of the political. This is precisely what is needed in an immanentist scene, made fully present through the convergence of neoliberal governmental technique and Deleuzian naturalism. Through Lacan’s theories we gain an improved perspective of the productivity of negativity, of the not-All, of contingency, in opposition to a dominant imaginary that, in the neoliberal as well as in the neo-Spinozian version, is pure affirmativeness, expressiveness without ‘judgment’ and without representative duplicity. Lacan’s thought might redirect political theory toward processes of subjectivation. In such a way, the centrality of the latter might emerge precisely into the biopolitical turn of neoliberal governmentality, shifting the scene of politics into individual lives; within their internal structuring. The ‘desired’ consequence is that the scene of politics becomes non-visible, ob-scene, and the split that runs through it invisible. The displacement of the scene of politics within the process of subjectivation itself makes it difficult, if not impossible, to bring it into focus. What is seen of the political is irrelevant, gaping, irritating.

It is therefore essential to re-enact the political on scene, in full visibility, opening the governed subject, politically and yet not representatively constructed, in order to highlight the power relations that operate within his bios and his living existence. Subjectivation processes, then. But it is also essential that due consideration be given to how these processes have changed, to how governmentality produces subjectivities that are different from those – neurotic and highly identitarian – to which political theory and even psychoanalysis have grown accustomed. Indeed, it is essential that due consideration be given to how even governmentality’s modus of influence—government—shifts towards modal relations rather than subjects, doing so with the effect of rendering them ever more blurred. This is the aim of the present essay.

Hegemony, Populism and Lacanian Conceptual Tools

The displacement of politics into the subject’s own scene – a displacement that makes politics appear to be absent precisely when it is most effective – finds in Lacan’s theories some useful tools even though they might be misused. Here, obviously, I am not claiming to go beyond the use of these conceptual tools. The most obvious use of Lacanian theory is clearly the recovery of the transcendent representative, which has long coincided with the institution of the scene of politics. This is not a foundational representability, transparent to itself, but a relational and non-essentialist version of the subjects’ own position within the scene.

In fact, thanks to the notion of the empty signifier a representation both contingent and decisional is proposed once again – as a result of the decisive contribution of Lacanian psychoanalysis – by the theory of hegemony. In this convincing model of hegemony Laclau and Mouffe, alongside several other authors, transcribe Gramscian hegemony into a postmodern and deconstructive field of undecidability (Laclau & Mouffe 1985). It is a model that was shaped to deal with the eruption of identitarian differences in the 1980s. As a result, by assuming Lacanian categories this hegemony model empties the signifier destined to hegemonic synthesis, which was still ‘objective’ in the Marxian-Gramscian theory, and re-launches politics as an ‘action’ of construction of the (barred, failed, split) political subject (Laclau 1994). If on one hand the paradigm retains the modern artificiality of the decision, on the other it works on the articulation of differences. Moreover, if on one hand this articulation is juxtaposed with the postulate of the constitutive failure of representation (and projected as such, as in Lefort’s hypothesis, into an endless neurotic succession of subjects-people [Marchart 2007]), on the other—and this contrary to the Gramscian model—hegemony is abandoned to its own contingency, and no predetermined agent is identifiable. As a consequence, a nihilist background is accentuated.

I would like to emphasize the challenge of identity pluralism since, as is typical of every identitarian subject, antagonism emerges easily therein. The purpose of this post-deconstructionist and post-foundational re-presentation of the modern—of the artificial decision of the political entity, barred and doomed to failure yet subject nonetheless—is merely to activate the negativity of antagonism implicit within the social. This is an antagonism that is typical of the modern understanding of the political subject. Antagonism, exclusion, and the transcendence of the cohesive political subject (Mouffe 1992) are traces that are all there, but also present are absolute contingency and an emphasis on the emptiness of the signifier. Therefore, hegemonic representation is plausible and efficacious.

But governmental processes have gone further, smoothing out identitarian drives and bending identitarian, multicultural, and differentialist logics ever more towards the great channel of economic modal logic. It becomes more difficult to make the representation of current neoliberal reality, in which the lines of demarcation between various positions are blurred, politically visible and contrastive.

It is clear, in fact, that political discourse today—and I say this preliminarily—presents an aesthetic character. We are not facing an aestheticization of politics or a politicization of aesthetics. We are facing a theory of politics that is capable of emphasizing that the pluralization of singularities and the dis-identification of roles and institutions can only be aesthetic. The scene of politics is perceived aesthetically, which does not mean ‘spectacularized’ (though this, too, bears much weight). Aesthetic perception requires contrast, brightness and darkness, but this is precisely what is lacking in the contemporary governmental framework. I would suggest a resemblance with Malevich’s paintings in which the absence of contrast reigns, or we might think of an atonality of the whole (a term borrowed from Badiou 2006, 442-445), as result of a world without conflict and, therefore, lacking in tonal perception.

What is certain is that the focus of hegemony theory shifts ever more towards the post-deconstructive and voluntarist emphasis of ‘tone’, contrast, and antagonism at the very moment in which the latter tends to disappear. The purpose, then, is to identify or trace, albeit artificially and rhetorically, blurred lines of contrast in such a way as to render the scene perceptible and political once again.

Consistent with this shift in the challenge of governmentality, Laclau impresses a turn towards the logic of populism. Populism is protected from banal liberal condemnation and is said to be the technique of every political formation in the era of the seeming absence of politics (2005). I agree with him. Populism is wholly appropriate to an atonal world, and we will see why. If we understand hegemony in terms of the absolute contingency of the empty universal signifier, we will also be led toward the complete ambiguity of the political, which is typical of populist logic, as well as to the impossibility of identifying emancipation even a posteriori (Villacanas 2010).

In the Lacanian dispositif of subjectivation the evanescence of the Other is present throughout. However, the mechanism assumed and activated by populist theory is taken from Lacan’s earlier writings (Lacan 2006, 21). Representation herein is possible only if the function of the One, of the exception, is present. Only if the signifying system is incomplete, that is, characterized by the exception and therefore by lack and by lack’s signifier, can it act as a Whole (Lacan 1981; Zizek 1989; Copjec 2002). Agamben (among others) has stressed the function of the exception in the constitution of a system, as the extime statute of the sovereign exception without and within the system it institutes (2003), in which inherent to the system is an excess, a hole that marks what is irreducible to the system.

Populism emphasizes the emptiness of the signifier and transfers it to the status of a rhetorical game—played by whom? who ‘makes’ politics?—that builds equivalence in terms of antagonism via empty, interchangeable and absolutely contingent words. Antagonism itself—the aesthetic effect of contrast that renders lines of opposition and contrast perceptible—is deliberately solicited, brought to the centre of attention, and this means that the ghost, the fantasy that supports the imaginary, is also called into play. The effectiveness of the hegemonic, populist operation passes through the political use of fantasy. To this we shall return shortly.

Subjectivations via Contagion

Let us now ask ourselves why this model is perfectly consistent with the governmental modus? In what sense is the governmental modus atonal? First of all, we should say that the neoliberal governmentality grasped by Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian studies cannot simply be equated with post-Fordist and financial capitalism. Though the latter is the truth regime that structures it neither can neoliberal governamentality be dismissed as pure de-politicization. In fact, it is a political rationality capable of governing by producing subjectivations that govern themselves. The latter generate, in turn, a paradoxical heteronomy of the system through the combination and headless interdependence—for they lack a sovereign political entity—of their individual vectors of power, choice and therefore desire.

The logic of governmentality is not identitarian but economic, and as such is modal and strategic. Thus it does not produce subjectivations through struggle, repression, and rejection but through association, minimal differential changes, and contagion. Such a thing can be assimilated to the Leibinizian and Deleuzian figure of the baroque fold (Deleuze 1988, 5). The metonymic mode clearly prevails over the metaphorical one, thereby depending logically on the limitlessness of a process that includes selectively through evaluation rather than excluding through judgment (as is typical of political and legal identification). It has no problem with “finir avec le jugement de dieu”, with “having done with the judgment of God” (to quote Artaud [1948, 1971] and Deleuze [1980 197], who make of this a subversive banner!). Influence and government are transmitted horizontally and do not affect subjects dialectically, that is, from ‘deep’ within. This renders both the nature of antagonism and the metaphorical perspective extremely problematic, for within Lacanian subjectivity and hegemonic construction the metaphorical perspective stabilizes, channels, and supports metonymic dispersion by aggregating ‘the People’. Rather than the term ‘People’, here it would be better to use “the public” (in the plural), aggregated via proximity, association and variation, though variation is different from opposition, for this in fact holds a problematic place in an unlimited, selectively inclusive and non-exclusive, and therefore atonal, process of flux.

In Lacan’s writings we can find an interpretive key for dissecting even this kind of political, governmental, metonymic, limitless and inclusive rationality, just as we find in the Lacanian capitalist’s discourse interesting tools to highlight the paradoxical imperative of the obscene Super-ego: Enjoy! Be free! In Encore, Lacan highlights the inconsistency of the symbolic order with even greater force.

If the structure of the symbolic order was based previously on the exception (on the One of exception), and therefore on a principle that granted internal coherence from the outside, what happens when the character of the support—that is, when the contingency of the signifier that embodies the fiction of exception necessary to construct the Other—is highlighted? In such an instance “there is no Other than the Other” (1975 81). No longer finding its rule in the All-exception, the signifying system becomes purely dispersive and dissipative, yielding thereby to the Real of the non-All, which is something akin to a fold in the previous paradigm. Without the metaphoric structure determining the positive production of meaning, meaning itself slips. The inside and outside of the subject—through which, we should recall, we should find the scene of politics—are indistinguishable, and the subject itself dissolves into a sequence of fictions and figures. Moreover, for Lacan it is woman who bears this figure without subjectivity—infinite and indeterminate—through a special relationship to jouissance that is irreducible to the symbolic and the law of exclusion. Unfortunately I cannot discuss this further here.

non-finite system is producible not thanks to “denial”, contrast, or stumbling but rather on account of an open indeterminacy that grows upon itself, via contiguity and association, in a continuum that unites what is nearby, weakening the ‘determined’ subjectivity in presentia, in touch, through contagion, in a horizontal and contingent mode: “The dynamics of the near and not of the proper … therefore not the identitarian appropriation of the quasi contact between two unities hardly definable as such” (Irigaray 1977, 71; Righi 2013). Each singularity remains unto its own indeterminacy, lived as a variable exposed in its own actualization. This actualization in the name of optimization does not proceed from denial, but repeats the fixed vital matrix: that capitalism merely ‘valorizes’.

What Political Subject is Possible?

Here is the governmental modus: in and of itself it is incredibly un-antagonistic (notwithstanding the enormous accentuation of social inequalities). Inclusiveness and indeterminacy indicate the decline of the ‘barring’ of the transcendent, the emptying of representation, and the problematic nature of the politics of subjectivation. What, then, can happen?

Hypothesis 1. As we have seen, the hegemonic answer restores conflict and antagonism via populist, voluntarist form. It does so through the rhetorical construction of a ‘public’ emerging from imitation and contagion, rather than from a ‘People’. Deep changes are not required; superficial ones are enough. On the other hand hegemony, which is now torn from its Marxian economistic basis, operates on the symbolic—that is, on the over-determined—character of social relations. This implies that the latter lack a final literality: that is, a formal, constructivist, rhetorical process measured by its effectiveness, but that remain labile insofar as, with the collapse of the symbolic into the simulacrum, words, images, and empty or metonymic signifiers no longer refer to anything. The fold (which is oscillation without synthesis), or the coexistence and compatibility of heterogeneities, correspond to the rootless action of populist rhetoric. The antagonist is external, turned outwards from the subject’s internal scene. Antagonism is therefore built ‘on the surface’ in the generic form of resentment. The populist call to antagonism that is structural in every society is built—rather than by working on the symptom of the Real; rather than by exposing the subject’s internal fissure, all of which would render manifest the scene of the political government of subjectivation—by appealing to social hardship and the fantasy of the rhetorical unification of the subject-people. Populism does not aim at the infra-biological and infra-existential scene structuring the subject, since it does not question the fantasy. On the contrary, it works to strengthen the fantasy. Here it appears that we are caught in a double bind. If politics requires contrast in order to be perceptible, then the absence of contrast entices artificial populist reactivation but does so at the cost of reinforcing the ghost. As such, the political project relies on empty, simplifying, and indeterminate words.

Hypothesis 2. Decisive here are the exteriority and visibility of the relations that render them independent from the trigger-subjects that execute them. Each subject can have pragmatically different, fluctuating, variable relationships without reference to an underlying essence, unless one were to consider it, to use Deleuze’s words, an “essence opératoire” (Deleuze 1988). Only radical empiricism and pragmatism are adequate to this, which, more than an ontology, constitutes a practice. The universal of neoliberal governmentality is a contingent, fragmented and pragmatic construction. It replaces totalizing principles through a proliferation of dispositifs that constitute compositions, systems of consistency, and degrees of unity that are always contingent. Political subjectivations are pragmatic, partial, negotiated and infra-governmental. Even though antagonistic, they might buttress the existing social imaginary, providing it with a good conscience.

Hypothesis 3. What is next? There remains yet another key register for reading, which is that of spectrality, an old and ambiguous metaphor found in very different contexts. We could say that spectrality is a constellation of meanings that might even be in conflict, ranging from Marx’s criticism of ideology to Derrida’s hauntology and thence to psychoanalytic discourse. In the latter it oscillates between ghost, fantasy, spectrality, symptom, and fetish; a removed object that returns, maybe even the Real, the death drive and its being neither life nor death. But it is also simply a word that, in the face of a total self-presenting of lived reality, marks the imaginary-ideological and ghostly nature of the scene of politics. It turns politics itself into a ghostly, fragile, vanishing practice, and thereby marks the decentralization and dislocation of the subject that is the scene of politics itself. It is a word that, in a time of anti-representative presencing and extreme exteriority, hints at duplicity and the opacity of appearances. This is a duplicity that goes beyond the traditional distance between signifier and signified and beyond the constitutive failure of representation. It is the most immanent dragging of the flesh into the spirit, of the ghost into the visible, and of trauma into the heart of the phantasmatic imaginary that envelops it. It is a doubling that is re-written in a field devoid of the perspectival frontality of the Other.

Every totality, every scene, even the governmental scene of the absolute immanence of the political, involves a symptomal pivotal point that, while a part of the system, does not occupy its own place therein. Marxian ideological critique appeals precisely to this. The scene of politics is activated by this symptomal element. To identify with this non-‘represented’, foreclosed symptom (and here I am thinking of Rancière) is already to embody a ghost.

But governmental political rationality presents itself as if it did not exclude anything. It does not exclude excess. Indeed, it posits it as its driving force, constantly revolutionizing its own limits. Otherness itself is not recognizable as such. Singularities are diluted in a diffused, continuous global identity, which Lacan evoked in Encore. Yet there is no reality that is not also a political scene. Even when the multitude appears to be left to self-government, it is actually left to its own imaginary, and therefore to its own ancipital, fantasy. On one hand this disarms the multitude, making it possible for it to take on the ferocious heteronomy of the headless and destinal capitalist system, while remaining always dependent on the self-governing choices of the singularities themselves. On the other hand, the ghost disturbs and disrupts it continuously. This is the element that eludes symbolization and that denies and disorganizes. It is a pre-ontological and anti-ontological spectrality that cannot be assimilated to reality. It is unheimlich, and as such a-cosmic, made of fragments that are neither dead nor alive. The fantasy, as it is known, is on the side of reality. It sustains it. We could not do without it. But it is also the destructive, living and wild imagination that never dies.

Let us consider how much of this has been captured already by the Baroque. Its transcendence is earthiness, absolute immanence without referral, and yet heteronomous and destinal as Benjamin acknowledged, and as Deleuze chose to ignore in Benjamin. This is an earthiness traversed by ghosts such as that of Hamlet’s father, of Caesar visiting Brutus . . . ghosts of the Real and of the Todestrieb. Ghosts disrupting and indicating a different scene, denouncing injustice, trauma, the wrong on the stage of reality, of the present . . . As such, in an atonal world—without a world—it will be necessary to look for the symptomal turn, or for the ghost, by cutting open the scene of immanence, just as in Bacon’s paintings, in which the body is eviscerated and the interior is the exterior.

In developing with Marx the ghostly nature of politics and observing ‘in Marx’ the fight against spectrality that haunts him, Derrida (1994) defines spectrality as the ‘embodied’ duplicity of capitalist reality. But, we might add, it is so in its subjectivations, Rather than just building a new representation on it, we want the terminology of spectrality to place at the centre of attention the enigmatic (not logical, but bodily-spiritual) invisibility of the living dead. The spectre breaks and de-synchronizes the specular identification that is generated by spectralizing disorder. It is there, but it cannot be seen. It appears, but is not in representation. The latter does not appear to be such, yet it remains a fantasy and on that a ghost is sustained. As Laclau himself recognizes the theory of hegemony is compatible with spectrality (Laclau 1996, 66). But while the ghost moves in an undecidable space between flesh and spirit, an embodied but vanishing dimension of the living and desiring body, Laclau’s notion of hegemony is oriented towards a logical and rhetorical construction that is intimately super-structural, contingent, and ideological. Operating necessarily within a popular common sense that supports identifications, options, and ghosts, Laclau’s hegemony relies on them to build the political, and, in so doing, stabilizes them. The hegemonic operation, that is, leverages the effects of spectralization that move on the surface, in the already visible.

The spectrality that traverses living bodies and their subjectivations is capable, on the other hand, of uncovering the current scene. Contrary to Marx, the aim is not to dissolve them forever in a scene that remains transparent. Moving beyond Derrida’s deconstructive intentions, the aim is to render perceptible the subject’s very gap, together with the opacity of the scene, in order to render perceptible the power dynamics that generate it by acting on fantasy. This is to open the subject (even if it is unstable and dissolves into the continuum), illuminating the embodied uneasiness and the ghost that supports its acceptance (even though every small change can replicate its mechanism).

The final question: What ghost animates the process? Any one? No. It might be the ghost that limitless inclusion cannot tolerate precisely because negotiation and inclusive enlargement would be insufficient; the scene would implode. It might be the ghost that re-enacts the political on the scene; that notion of the political that passes silently through the lives of subjects. It might be a fragile, conditional return of the revenant that is capable of interrupting governmental atonality, of triggering the evenemential onset of democracy. This is not a space of public sharing, but a stretch of the visible: another scene that adds to the closed, opaque, out of focus scene of neoliberal governmentality.


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