In a seldom mentioned passage from his seventh seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan remarks that,

We must see right away how crude it is to accept the idea that, in the ethical order itself, everything can be reduced to social constraint, as is so often the case in the theoretical writings of certain analysts– as if the fashion in which that constraint develops doesn’t in itself raise a question for people who live within the realms of our experience. In the name of what is social constraint exercised? Of a collective tendency? Why in all this time hasn’t such social constrained managed to focus on the most appropriate paths to the satisfaction of individuals’ desires? Do I need to say anymore to an audience of analysts to make clear the distance that exists between the organization of desires and the organization of needs? (225)

It is impossible to read this passage and not think of the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. That is, Lacan here alludes to a critique of the so-called repressive hypothesis on two axes: On the one hand, we have the question of what would ever lead the individual to tolerate such repression, constraint, or law in the first place. Certainly the individual would unilaterally rebuke such a repression in a mythological state of nature. What is it that leads the individual to tolerate, accept, and even will these repudiations of basic biological needs? On the other hand, we have the question of why the social order has not yet delivered satisfaction and what function this dissatisfaction might serve. This disconcerting experience of finding in Lacan what one takes to be a critique of psychoanalysis is common throughout the seminar. For instance, in Seminar 9, L’identification, we will find Lacan developing an elaborate account of the trace and writing. This is in 1961-62. Derrida’s magnificent Speech and Phenomena and Grammatology will be released in 1967.

Passages such as this underline just why there has been so much tension between Marxist orientations of thought and psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is in the context of a discussion of Marx that Lacan makes this remark. If this tension emerges, then this is because Lacan here suggests that there’s something constitutive at the heart of human experience that produces dissatisfaction. Where a vulgar reading of Marx sees our discontent as the result of alienated social relations, Lacan here sees something ineradicable at the heart of our experience.

A little further in the same section, Lacan clarifies just what this might be:

In any case, all the absurd things that have been said about symbolism do nevertheless lead us somewhere. There is something hidden there, and it is always, we are told, that damned phallus. We are brought back to something that one might have expected would have been thought of right off, that is to say, to the relationship of the cloth to the missing hair– but it’s not missing everywhere on our body. At this point we do find a psychoanalytic writer who tells us that all the cloth we are concerned with is nothing more than the extrapolation or development of woman’s fleece, the famous fleece that hides the fact that she doesn’t have what it takes. These apparent revelations of the unconscious always have their comic side. But it’s not completely screwy; I even think that it’s a nice little fable. (227)

It is worth recalling that the phallus is not the penis and has little or nothing to do with the penis, but is rather the signifier of the lack in the Other. As such, phallus is much like the so-called “Mana signifier” in Levi-Strauss, or the empty square in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, if not identical to these structural functions. Lacan’s point in this passage is that the woman’s shaw, far from hiding her enticing hair, is instead designed to both suggest that she has the phallus (the signifier of desire), and to hide her lack, the fact that she doesn’t have it. The whole point here is that the veil or cloth creates the impression of something behind the veil or cloth, that a secret is hidden, that there is a forbidden truth.

All of this recalls an anecdote from a very close friend of mine who sadly I seldom have opportunity to talk with these days. This friend used to delight in the Girls Gone Wild commercials that would play late at night on television. For those not familiar with the phenomenon of Girls Gone Wild, these videos consist of college girls on spring break who are persuaded to lift their tops in front of the camera. Now, America being what it is, these videos when advertised, have a dancing black bar over the chests of the young women, preventing the viewer from seeing the spectacle. Frustrated by this, my friend finally broke down and rented one of the videos, only to find himself thoroughly disappointed. As it turns out, it was not the women’s breasts that enticed him, but rather the black bar veiling the breasts as an obstacle producing desire. This is the logic of phallus.

When these two passages are put together, Lacan’s suggestion thus seems to be that the function of social constraint or the law, far from being repression, is instead to 1) sustain desire by suggesting the possibility of a jouissance beyond the law and constraint, and 2) hide lack or the fact that jouissance does not exist. Consequently, it is necessary to keep the constraint in place while simultaneously striving to overcome the law. That is, the law hides the manner in which lack is not loss (i.e., something that could be recouped and surmounted), but instead creates an obstacle that is perpetually reinstated as a means of forestalling a traumatic encounter with the impossibility of jouissance. Adrian Johnston has developed this thesis with impressive rigor and clarity in his Time Driven.

It is not the law that prohibits and prevents, it is not social constraints that prohibit and prevent, but rather the law is actually a defense against the non-existence of enjoyment. Here it is difficult not to think of the rise of religious fundamentalisms in the United States. Is there not something curious in the way in which these fundamentalisms perpetually reinstate a series of repressive prohibitions (usually of a sexual nature) as a response to the sexual permissiveness of our time, all the while emphasizing how fulfilling the sexual life of the Christian is, how Christians have sex more often than non-Christians, and engage in a greater variety of sexual activities? Haggard, for instance, makes precisely this point in the HBO documentary Friends of God, and some young married men standing around him readily agree. The thesis seems to be that the prohibition itself is the condition for satisfaction. However, more importantly, what here seems to be suggested is the idea that the liberation of so-called “desiring machines” did not provide the enjoyment that it promised– a thesis explored in the character of “Jenny” in Forrest Gump and in Boogie Nights –and that we must flee back into the arms of the law in order to fend off the traumatic encounter with the non-existence of jouissance. The law sustains desire by hiding the lack of jouissance.

I’m not sure what to say about all of this. Rather, I have questions. On the one hand, to what degree is it legitimate to see lack as constitutive in this way? Could this particular form of lack be the result of a historical emergence or development? And if so, how would we go about demonstrating this, without falling into narratives of the fall? On the other hand, supposing that Lacan is right, what would a Marxist informed politics look like that takes this into account. Here, I think, Zizek falls short. He gives us all sorts of marvelous interpretive tools for identifying ideology. But I see little in the way of a genuine politics in his thought, though I do see a lot of bluster.