In a previous post I suggested that psychoanalysis became a pre-occupation for Marxist thought due to a certain impasse at the heart of Marxist theory. Here, in response to Nate’s excellent remark, my aim was not to suggest that psychoanalysis became a pre-occupation of a Marxist praxis, but rather to account for a certain strain of French Marxist theory characterized by figures like Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lyotard. What was at issue was a two-fold question: First, why did the Soviet situation lead to such dire results? Indeed, why did the French communist party take on such a repressive structure despite its explicit egalitarian ideals and ideals of liberty? And second, why, despite changing conditions at the level of production did certain social formations remain the same. The conclusion of these thinkers, while varied, was that accounts of political economy were not enough, but that a theory of desire, micro-power, etc., was necessary to account for our attachment to certain forms of power. As Deleuze and Guattari so beautifully put it in providing one possible answer to this question (Foucault gives a very different answer in terms of micropower),

The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors, any more than for libido to go by way of metamorphoses. Hitler got the fascists sexually aroused. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused. A revolutionary is nothing if it does not acquire at least as much force as these coercive machines have for producing breaks and mobilizing flows. (Anti-Oedipus, pg. 293)

In other words, revolution at the level of production is not enough, there must also be a revolutionary desire as well, an analysis of desire, and all of these micro-attachments that bind us to a particular world. In a lovely aside about love, Deleuze and Guattari will say that we do not fall in love with persons, but with the worlds another person envelops. And likewise in our attachment to certain institutions, forms of social organizations, and all the rest. If Deleuze and Guattari treat Kafka as a privileged political theorist in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, then this is because Kafka was the cartographer of this universe of desiring-machines or the eroticism that lies beneath our attachment to certain social formations. Indeed, in one incarnation Joseph K even is a cartographer… And, of course, the books of law contain pornographic pictures in The Trial. However, my aim here is not to discuss how Deleuze and Guattari solve this problem– in the first part of this essay I begin with the remark “Take the example of Deleuze and Guattari” –but to show how Deleuze and Guattari’s solution to this problem leads to a certain impasse at the level of political theory. What I ultimately hope to argue is that Lacan’s account of the sinthome provides the means for responding to these difficulties without falling back into models of Oedipally structured social formations or sovereignity as the only possible way in which the social can be organized. In other words, the sinthome provides the means of knotting the three orders of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic in a way that 1) is cognizant that the big Other does not exist (in contrast to Oedipal totalization and obfuscation of the lack in the Other), and 2) that need not resort to the structuring function of the name-of-the-father as the only way of avoiding a fall into paralyzing psychosis that negates the social relation. In short, the work of the late Lacan with the borromean knots leads to a “psychotic solution”, where psychosis is no longer the absence of the social relation (psychoanalysts refer to this form of psychosis as “Ordinary Psychosis”), and where psychosis now becomes a generalized state (universal psychosis common to all subjects), such that neurosis and perversion are not other than psychosis but rather specific ways in which the knot of the three orders are tied together. I set this issue aside for the moment.

Read on

One of Lacan’s most important and enduring contributions to psychoanalytic thought is to be located in his invention of the mathemes which allow the psychoanalyst and the psychoanalytic theorist to depart from accounts of psychic causality in terms of the primacy of the imaginary and discern formal structures grouping diverse phenomena that might not readily resemble one another at the level of their content. Thus, for example, under the classical Freudian account of the Oedipus, we’re to imagine that the child harbored sexual thoughts towards its mother and that at some point it was threatened by castration by the father, leading to a repression of this wish, an institution of the law, the formation of subjectivity, and a separation from the mother through an identification with the father as either the object of the father’s affection (women) or as seeking to embody the father’s characteristics (men).

There are a number of problems with this account. First, Freud’s account relied on empirical experiences or events in the child’s life such as seeing the penis or the absence of a penis that may or may not have taken place, and in the occurrence of certain events (castration threats) that may or may not have taken place. The first event sidesteps all sorts of questions about the topology of the body and differences between the body as a lived experience from the inside versus a surface viewed from the outside (here Lacan makes an important contribution with his account of specular identification with bodily imagoes), presuming that the infant experiences its body as a specular surface as seen from a third-person point of view and thereby likening its body to the bodies of other figures it encounters in its visual field. Second, Freud was increasingly forced into convoluted reasoning, arguing that these events (castration threats) need not have actually taken place, but are retroactively produced in fantasy. Third, Freud had tremendous difficulties accounting for sexual difference based on this model insofar as the initial love object of both boys and girls is the mother, yet raising the question of how girls come to identify with feminine sexed being rather than masculine sexed being (incidentally, I think Lacan has difficulties accounting for sexual difference as well, despite his graphs of sexuation). Finally fourth, Freud’s account of the Oedipus presumed the universality of the nuclear family, ignoring entirely what ethnography was demonstrating in terms of radically different kinship structures where fathers do not play the same pivotal role in the life of children and where maternity is structured differently as well. This pointed to a broader problem with Freudian thought, where the family structure tended to be treated as a private personal space, independent of the broader social and political world governing social relations.


A number of these problems were ameliorated by Lacan’s distinction between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real and his introduction of the mathemes. On the one hand, the distinction between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real (RSI) allowed Lacan to account for the findings of ethnography coming from figures like Levi-Strauss by distinguishing between the symbolic function of the father in the name-of-the-father, the imaginary father as a specular point of identification, and the real father as the biological father. Here Lacan provided far more refined tools allowing him to sidestep a number of aporia that had emerged in Freudian psychoanalysis. Thus, for example, Lacan could explain how a child in a single parent family could nonetheless navigate the Oedipus despite the absence of the father by arguing that the name-of-the-father (a symbolic function or signifier) was operative despite the absence of the real and imaginary father. Likewise, he could account for very different processes of subject formation in cultures with different kinship structures where the nuclear family is absent, by showing how the name-of-the-father is embodied in, for example, the totem of the tribe, while the function of the imaginary father is filled by the maternal uncle, and where the real father largely falls outside the picture altogether. In early works like the Family Complexes, this theorization led to surprising and important results, for on this basis Lacan was there able to maintain that neurosis as we know it in the case of children individuated within nuclear families is largely absent in kinship structures organized in totemic kinship structures as there’s a separation between the ego ideal (the name-of-the-father embodied in the totem) and the ideal ego (arrived at through a specular identification with the maternal uncle) preventing the sort of schizmatic conflict that arises when the ideal the subject is supposed to live up to (the totem) is also identical to the agent of prohibition (the maternal uncle).

Lacan, in short, argued that neurosis is a specifically contemporary malady that emerges from the ideal ego and the ego ideal being located in one and the same figure (which isn’t to say that totemic cultures wouldn’t have their own deadlocks of subjectivity, just very different ones). This insight thus instructed analysts to be particularly attentive to the laws and norms governing different cultures within which patients are individuated (e.g., Lacan’s famous example of the Arab patient that is unable to use his left hand because of a crime of theft committed by his father, i.e., a violation of a law in the symbolic that the son comes to embody in the imaginary cartography of his body through a specular identification with the father as his ego ideal… Freud would have explained this conversion symptom in terms of a repressed desire to masturbate).


Likewise, Lacan’s invention of the mathemes taught psychoanalytic theorists and analysts to look not at empirical objects, but rather at structural relationships. Where Freud directs our attention to the figure of the mother, the father, siblings, etc., Lacan instead directs our attention to relationships. Thus, for example, Lacan’s graphs of sexuation– which I believe have little to do with the sexes and a lot to do with different strategies for forming totalities and their failure –direct us not to biologically sexed bodies (breasts, vaginas, penises, etc), but rather to certain formal structures pertaining to two ways of forming totalities or complete sets, the deadlocks of both of these strategies, and the jouissance that haunts both of these structures:


The left side of the graph above represents the masculine structure of sexuation, while the right side represents the feminine structure of sexuation. I confess that I have been unable to discern why Lacan refers to these two sides as masculine and feminine despite close reading and rereading of the three seminars where he develops these graphs and numerous secondary sources discussing Lacan’s account of sexuation. It simply is unclear how Lacan relates these formal structures back to the biological body, and is also logically impossible for him to make such appeals due to the claims he makes about the nature of the symbolic (i.e., we have no access to the real as it is in-itself independent of language which produces the world: “The universe is the flower of rhetoric”).

For my part I treat the graph as referring not to sexuation but to attempts to totalize the symbolic or different ontological structures. The left side of the graph is thus one way in which totalization is attempted and fails (let us call it the ontotheological way), while the right side refers to another way in which totalization fails (let us call it the immanent way). The upper portion of the graphs articulates this deadlock in terms of a sort of symbolic logic. Both the upper and lower portions of the graph are to be read together on each side as articulating antinomies or an irreducible contradiction that emerges between the two propositions (this is not entirely accurate, but more on that later). The two sides of the graph can also be read as irreducible topologies of jouissance, signification, and desire almost like enantiomorphs, or mirror images that nonetheless cannot be superimposed upon one another.


Thus, between the upper proposition and the lower proposition there is an irreducible antinomy, while between the left and right portion of the graph there are entirely different topologies of desire and signification that are neither complementary, nor capable of co-existing in the same universe together. Like Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit or a Necker Cube one can only occupy and encounter the world from one or the other pole and never both simultaneously.


The lower portion of the graph refers to the sort of jouissance or compulsive repetition produced as a result of this failure of symbolization. In other words, the arrows pointing to the other side of the graph of desire on both the left and right side refer to the jouissance each type of subject pursues in an attempt to surmount the deadlock or antinomy of the upper portion of the graph of desire. It also explains, according to Lacan, why the sexual relation is impossible (“there is no sexual relation”) insofar as occupants of both side of the graph never relate to occupants of the other side as such (their universes are structured in entirely different ways, after all), but only as phallus or objet a. More on this later. In Seminar 20 Lacan represents these different forms of jouissance with the following graph:


What we have here is a different form of jouissance (phallic jouissance, “feminine” jouissance, and surplus-jouissance, responding to the different ways in which totalization fails. More on this later.

In Part 3 I will show how the graphs of sexuation capture the deadlocks of certain social formations targeted by Deleuze and Guattari and also why Deleuze and Guattari’s attempt to move beyond these social structures encounters its own impasse. In Part 4 I will attempt to show how the borromean knot and the sinthome provides a sketch of how we might surmount this impasse without having to return to masculine structures of sovereignity advocated by political theorists such as Badiou and Žižek. Enough for now.