Symbolic fiction elected Trump!

For Marx the abstract liberal subject was correlated with the commodity form:

In what conditions do individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights..? in a society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals themselves, in their daily lives, relate to themselves, as well as to the objects they encounter, as to contingent embodiments of abstract-universal notions. 

The classical Marxist gesture is to ‘uncover’ the gap between the two, universal rights are unmasked as Trump (universal rights masks the privilege of white rich men), the value of a commodities appears to be a function of the interaction of supply and demand (“I will make a new trade deal with China/Mexico) when really it is class relations (Trump is a millionaire who is going to give unprecedented tax cuts to the rich) etc…

Zizek’s departure is to suggest that this fiction – “universal rights” – has a certain efficiency independent of that which it conceals:

the “appearance” of egaliberte, precisely, is NOT a “mere appearance,” but evinces an effectivity of its own, which allows it to set in motion the process of the rearticulation of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive “politicization” (Why shouldn’t women also vote? Why shouldn’t conditions at the working place also be of public political concern? etc.)

Which renders his recent intervention on the Presidential Election more perplexing when he seemed to suggest that second order effects of the election of Trump, may have progressive potential. Adam Kotsko highlights Zizek’s folly best here.

But whatever one can accuse liberal multiculturalism of, one should at least admit that it is profoundly anti-“essentialist”: it is its barbarian Other which is perceived as “essentialist” and thereby “false,” i.e., fundamentalism “naturalizes” or “essentializes” historically conditioned contingent traits

Trumps election victory seems to be the victory of this ‘barbarian Other’ at the expense of liberal multiculturalism. Here, using a form of argument familiar to any readers of Zizek, is it not that the universal ‘symbolic fiction’ is not really all that independent from the particular content? The symbolic fiction, elected Trump as a staging of our collective cynicism?



Early Lacan: ego psychology as méconnaissance

Early Lacan: ego psychology as méconnaissance

Freud posted the ego as a kind of mediator between the external world and the instincts of the individual. Ego psychology which began with Adler (but got second wind in postwar United States) posited an area in the ego free from conflict of the drives. The ego ceases to be a piggy in the middle between competing demands from the reality and the pleasure principle, between the external demands and the internal demands of the drives. 

Normality is achieved when this conflict between inner and outer is defanged, and there is good nature, harmony between the two. The unconscious is kept in its box, under wraps, and pathology occurs when it break free and invades the sovereign reign of the ego. The Marxist critique of this revisionism, is that the Analysist’s couch as the accident and emergency department of capitalism, pathology is individualised. The failure of keeping the unconscious underwraps stems from the patients weak ego, not due to the intolerable effects of capitalistic society (one should have in mind the importance of family in the reproduction of labour in capitalism).Ego psychology,  understanding of the ego as being relatively independent of the unconscious, saw it fit to introduce a new concept of the ‘self’, so as to account for the relative independence of the ego.

It is in this context that one should situate Lacan’s early contribution. Ego psychology, along with it’s notion of the relative independence of the ego, is put under the guillotine. Lacan’s cutting edge is Hegal’s dialectics. The touchstone attributed to early Lacan is his take on narcissism, the mirror stage, and for good reason as it is a tour de force of Hegelian dialectics. 

One critique of Freud’s conception of childhood development, made by those from the object relations camp, is that the infant is initially considered to be a monad, with object relations coming at a later stage of development. The object relation camp believes that object relationships start earlier in the timeline. Freud would counter argue that object relations depend on a minimum level of ego development that isn’t achieved until later stage of development. Lacan intervenes in this debate by agreeing with the critique, object relations do start at the beginning, but he also agrees with Freud in thinking that the ego is  something which is developed over time.

He squares the circle by positing that object relationships are not secondary – agreeing with Klein, but argues that object relations errs by assuming a level of ego development that goes unexplained. He therefore maintains along with Freud, the importance of primary narcissism. He marries the two positions through recourse to Hegel.

Lacan buys into primary narcissism, but dodges the critique of monadism by arguing that the unity of the infant, which is conferred by primary narcissism, is found outside of the infant in pre-Opedipal object relations. The unity of self is first discovered in an external mirror, but more broadly construed, in the care and recognition provided by the mother. Only then is this external source of unity is introjected. Primary narcissism is founded on a primary identification, in the form of an alienation (self as other).

This alienation of primary identity structures an aggression and rivalry with others, due to the form of primary identification being structured by an external dependency. Paranoia at this stage is ‘normal’, as the external dependency creates the conditions necessary for the confusion of self and other. Another consequence of this external dependency is that the relationship between self and other is not one of equivalence. The other, insofar as she founds primary narcissism, is privileged. The ego’s hidden history of external dependency means that we continue to find more perfect examples of ourselves, outside of ourself. Freud calls the examples of perfection that we find outside of ourselves as the the ideal-ego. Our failed attempts to introject this outer perfection lead to sedimentary layers of failed identifications. Lacan calls the form of these layers, ego-ideal, a concept he picks up from Freud but reworks according to dialectical geometry he inherent from Hegel. The desire to close this gap between ego-ideal and ideal- ego is what drives aggression, and Lacan, referring to it as a correlate of narcissism, calls it aggressivity.

This poor state of affairs lasts until a third point of reference intervenes, the transition to this third point of reference is underdeveloped in early Lacan. Initially this third point of reference must appear to the child as a rival, this is the Opedipus complex, and what previously was the source of primary identification, mother,  becomes the object to be competed over. This jealous confrontation is the final end of aggressivity, and is resolved when the infant comes to identify with the father. What is lacking in early Lacan is an explanation as to what necessitates this concluding confrontation. 

In terms of Lacan’s response to ego psychology, who posited the relative independence of the ego, Lacan uses Hegel to rework primary narcissism in order to highlight the relative dependency of the ego on an unconcious processes. Whereas for ego psychology pathology is a atavistic throwback, for Lacan, the succession of developmental stages retains the mark of conflict from previous stages. This is where Lacan’s Hegelian import is most evident, and his reliance on a philosophical understanding of sublimation comes at the cost of a psychoanalytical insight of the Opedipal complex. We will have to wait until middle Lacan in order to flesh out his reworking of the Opedipal complex. 

What Lacan has achieved though his recourse to Hegel is a critique of ego psychology that mistakes process for result. This is what Lacan calls méssonnaissance, the strong ego whose independence from the unconscious actually testifies to its status as an unattainable ideal-ego. 

Zizek: Don Draper as a socially mandated lobster claw



Lacan freed Freud from ego psychology, but in doing so he failed to see how his captives had managed to identify a type of subjectivity spawned by late capitalism. The field of play was once defined by neurosis – perversion – psychosis, each representing a particular stance towards castration. But soon new types of subjectivity appeared at the beginnings of post-industrial capitalism which no longer needed castrated subjects for reproduction.

In this dystopia,  Daddy is dead and the Left has had a hand in his murder.  Two new subjectivities begin to appear on the analysts couch, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Pathological Narcissists (PN). In this dystopian vision, the old Oedipal pact is replaced by new, patriarchy substituted with a new regressive matriarchy.

Failing to undergo castration these subjects have an inner emptiness where the symbolic phallus should be. For the PN at least he is compensated through possessing a  grandiose ego, fed by the conflation of ego/ideal ego/ego ideal and external narcissistic  supplies. Don Draper is a pathological narcissist , a master who is a slave to the recognition of others due to the failure of secondary identification.

There is much to absorb in Zizek’s article, but I can also see the beginnings of a line of critique which focuses on phallocentricism and the problematic notion of regression in Zizek’s  new line of argument, which is baggage left over from using Kernberg as his initial starting point.


On the threat of action

In a previous post I sketched a scene from Mad Men where Joan criticized Peggy for firing Joey.  Peggy’s official reason was due to Joey’s excessive levels of misogamy towards Joan, but Joan picked up up that this was a smokescreen concealing her own personal grandstanding.

I claim that Joan is right in her analysis of Peggy’s action, not only because Peggy’s actions were coached by Don, but also because she fails to grasp the true nature of power. Authority stems from the credibility of a threat of a consequence, not from the exercise of power.

Joey, once believing in Peggy’s threat to sack him, tries to backtrack and states that he is going to apologize to Joan after initially refusing to do so. The fact that his back peddling is undermined through his reference to Peggy’s flared nostrils is a symptom of his personal relationship issues of his mother and not that of general pervasivness of societal misogamy. Peggy should have taken the hit, and recognized the apology as a concession by Joey, which would have been closer to act of solidarity within the confines of the system in which they were operating in.

Perhaps in the mode of Roger who implanted the idea in Pete’s head that it was Don who saved Peter from the sack in the episode New Amsterdam, Peggy could have somehow planted the idea that it was Joan who saved Joey from the sack.

Another example of failing to grasp the nature of authority can be found in the critics who see failure in Obama failing to carry out his threat on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  They overlook the fact that the threat coerced Russia/Syria into efforts to remove chemical weapons without the use of military force (whilst also solidifying Russian/Syrian grip over the crisis through removing the only thing which directly threatened the United States).

Where Joan is wrong is in failing to see the new development that women can begin to wield power like a (white) man. This line of argument is a rehash of Kotsko’s argument that Mad Men demonstrates the failure of Fordist mode of production, and in someway, this failure points to the rise of neoliberalism. Where Kosko elaborates the argument by dint of the function of home and public life of work for the characters,  I choose to emphasize the way in which worked in terms of gender relations and how this foreshadows neoliberal incorporation of other minorities which were barred under Fordism. At bottom the promise of neoliberalism is of…

  …some kind of purely personal and individual redemption – there may be hope for me but there is no hope for us.

To repeat: after the death of communism is an act of solidarity possible?

Is a gesture of solidarity possible?

One of the main and interesting themes in Mad Men is the exploration of the position of women in society.  The episode “The Summer Man” (Season four, episode eight), I think is an excellent exposition of gender and the possibility of solidarity.

Joey, a freelancer, clashes with the indispensable office operator Joan. Like Peggy, Don’s ‘understudy’, she aspires to go beyond the role allotted to women in 60’s patriarchal society. However Joan’s means of doing so differ with that of Peggy. Peggy seems to mirror the masculine stratagem of indirectly having, but once obtained, directly exercising power. Joan on the other hand is power i.e. directly, but is only able to exercise it indirectly through the sexual manipulation of men who have power.

Joey, belonging to the brotherhood of men, acts as if he is immune with his disrespectful ‘high jinks’ directed at Joan. What is notable is that Joey’s misogyny is particularly pointed and directed at Joan. We learn that Joan looks and acts like his mother. I posit that whilst in general his attitude is a reflection of societal misogyny, his particular intensity is a result of a displacement of his mother issues on to Joan. In this way Joey’s obscene misogamy excessive even for the dark age of the 60’s.

Peggy, acustomed to certain level of misogyny but Joey’s antics prove too much even for her. When her appeals to Joey fall flat she approaches Don to do something about it who responds “I would’t tolerate it if I was you”, Joey’s transgression being in refusing an order from Peggy not the act of misogyny against Joan. Don suggests that Peggy should fire Joey herself, and in so doing obtain individual respect. Here respect functions as a proxy of power.

Peggy tells Joey to come to her office and demands that he apologies to Joan. Peggy in so doing appears to him, like Joan before, as an incarnation of his mother. He can’t help but act to Peggy like he did with Joan. Peggy sacks him, and he tries to back peddle in vain.

At the end of the day, Joan joins Peggy in the lift to go home. Peggy shares with Joan that she had fired Joey in defence  of her. Joan pours scorn on her action, suggesting that she only defended herself. In so doing she fell for a facade of wanting to obtain power like a man. If Joan wanted him fired she could of used her dark feminine arts and contrived  a dinner date with Joey’s client to get him fired. Peggy’s decision did not break new ground, she simply repeated the cliche of being a humourless bitch and casting Joan in the role of a weak secretary.

So we can say that Peggy’s gesture of solidarity failed on several levels for Joan:

  • She undertook the action under the suggestion of Don.
  • Her intervention failed to be transgressive due to being motivated by the excessiveness of misogyny and not misogyny  itself
  • She erred in equating the individual act of firing Joey as a direct act of solidarity. Peggy cannot act for Joan, without undermining her due to falling short of the reigning ideal of individualism which they have both internalized.

So is it possible to act in the place of the other, in solidarity? Is there not in Peggy feeling hurt, not just a personal affront but a feeling hurt for Joan as other?