As I return to Martin Hägglund’s book Radical Atheism, I find myself inevitably returning to Lacan. This is something I commonly experience with Derrida. When I read claims made by Derrida I find myself thinking, “isn’t this just Lacan?” For example, Lacan already develops a logic of writing and the trace in seminar 9, L’identification. In Radical Atheism, Hägglund calls for an atheism so thorough, that it does not simply refute the existence of God, but rather undermines the very place of God altogether. Within the framework of Hägglund’s argument, this amounts to thoroughly undermining any metaphysics of presence and developing an ontology of radical finitude.

When I hear this, it’s very difficult for me to not immediately think of the masculine side of Lacan’s graph of sexuation.

On the masculine side of the graph of sexuation, depicted on the left, we encounter two propositions. The upper proposition states that “there exists a being such that this being is not subject to castration (limitation).” The lower proposition reads “all beings are subject to castration (limitation).” In chapter six of The Democracy of Objects, I argue that Lacan’s masculine side of the graph of sexuation is the schema for any and all metaphysics of presence or ontotheologies. What’s interesting here is that Lacan inverts the standard discourse on masculinity and femininity. Where there is a long tradition of treating femininity as masquerade and semblance, Lacan’s point is that masculinity is in fact a semblance, a sham purporting to attain presence, a sort of illusion. This can be discerned in the lower portion of the graph of sexuation, where we encounter the barred subject ($) pointing to the remainder (objet a). In other words, the feminine side of the graph of sexuation (representing finitude) is the truth of being.

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Here I hasten to add that Lacan’s graphs should not be read as accounts of biological sex or gender. Subjects that are biologically male (if such a thing can even be said unproblematically) can occupy the feminine side of Lacan’s graph, while subjects that are biologically female can occupy the masculine side. Lacan gives us little indication as to just why we should associate these two logics of incompleteness with masculinity and femininity. These best I’ve been able to figure is that the masculine side is basically the structure of the Oedipus Complex and the myth of the Primal Father in Totem and Taboo, which are overwhelmingly masculine in their perspectival orientation. However, having read the published and unpublished seminars during the period where Lacan developed his graphs, I’ve been unable to find any account of why he associates these two logics with sex.

An important point here is that from his earliest work to his final work, Lacan repeatedly targets any logic of presence within his work. This is clear in his treatment of the Oedipus Complex which, in many respects, is diametrically opposed to Freud’s suggestion that “the father is the solution” (cf. especially Civilization and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion) and his critique of phallus (the phallus is always a semblance or imposter for Lacan, something that one only has in not having it and which functions as a fourth term in the dialectic of subjectivity rather than something that one sexed subject possesses). Phallus, for Lacan, is a sort of transcendental illusion yearning for full presence. In this regard, I’ve always been perplexed by critiques of Lacan that suggest he’s phallocentric. These critiques seem to conflate Lacan’s analysis of a certain fantasy structure that yearns for completeness and full presence with the idea that Lacan advocates the possibility of full presence and completeness. Everywhere Lacan undermines this sort of patriarchal and phallocentric logic, while taking very seriously that this fantasy haunts and torments the psychic life of many subjects.

What Lacan suggests is an ontology of radical finitude. This is what comes out in his treatment of the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation where there is no longer the belief in a transcendent term that enjoys full presence. Indeed, the feminine side of the graph of sexuation is another way of formalizing the discourse of the hysteric. And what is the special knowledge of the hysteric? The hysteric knows the truth of every master: that mastery is a sham, that there is no self-identical and fully self-present term, and that every master is riven and divided. This is what the hysteric perpetually reveals in his encounter with every masquerade of the master. He reveals precisely the manner in which the master is a masquerade.

This emphasis on radical finitude is why, in The Democracy of Objects, I see Lacan’s graphs of sexuation as a possible ally for the flat ontology of my onticology. Here, I suspect that Graham and I differ a bit. Graham holds, I believe, that universals are one species of objects. Although I still waver back and forth on this issue, my inclination is to reject the existence of universals and hold that all objects are finite. The existence of a universal would require, it seems to me, an object that is fully self-present to itself, that is complete in itself. However, insofar as objects are withdrawn from both themselves and from other objects, such a presence cannot exist.

However, this does not entail that the concept of universality is to be rejected altogether. Here, I think, Bogost and Badiou provide a possible alternative to how we think universality. Rather than seeing universality as an object, entity, or as an intensional content that inhabits the universal, we should instead see the universal as an operation and practice. As Ian observes,

The universalization that underlies the critical theory and information technology of the twentieth century uproots the notion that meaning-making serves a universalizing purpose. In its place, however, these fields posit another kind of universalism: that of an iterable, strategic process of praxis. This praxis, while applicable to a set of highly contingent circumstances, creates fields of relations reliant on structure and method rather than on content to generate meaning. (27)

If I’ve understood Ian correctly, the universal is not a thing that’s already there, but is an activity that agents engage in with respect to other finite beings. As such, no universals are ever complete or fully present, because the universal is always yet to come. As a consequence, the universal would be a material practice in the world. Here are a few examples to illustrate how I’m interpreting Ian’s proposal:

1) Speciation within a Darwinistic Framework: For Darwin, only individuals exist. Indeed, if Stephen J. Gould and DeLanda are to be followed, these individuals exist at a variety of different scales and levels (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is, as my colleague Adam Miller has put it, an embarrassment of ontological riches). Within this framework, species are not universal forms that precede individuals. Rather, species are produced through individuals out of iterative processes of sexed reproduction, heratibility, natural selection, sexual selection, geographical isolation, and a host of other processes. Note that within these processes, universality is never attained but only approximated or approached. There are always free-floating, mobile, and nomadic differences among individuals which are possible candidates for new sequences of speciation where new candidates for universality emerge.

2) Latour’s Trials of Strength in Irreductions: In Irreductions Latour argues that nothing is reducible or irreducible to anything else. Often the second part of this proposition is overlooked. While nothing is reducible to anything else actants, Latour claims, can try. To say that they can try is to say that they can attempt to impose form (the universal) on other actants through processes of persuasion, moulding, etc., etc., etc. Latour’s trials sound suspiciously like Badiousian truth-procedures. Latour’s point is that equivalence is something that must be built, through hard work and labor, in the world.

3) The Growth of Capitalism from the 14th Century to the Present: This is not a happy sequence of universalizing praxis, but is an instantiation of universality nonetheless. Marx argued that capitalism is the concrete universal of our time. By this he meant that it had become the dominant mode of production such that every other mode of production is bound up with it in some way or another. However, the claim that capitalism is the concrete universal of our time is not equivalent to the claim that everything is capitalistic. Like Darwin’s speciations, there are always mobile and free floating differences that push away from the hegemony of this mode of production and offer the possibility of alternative sequences of universality. One of the aims of good social and political theory is to identify these emerging differences and strategize ways to intensify them.

4) Badiou’s Truth-Procedures: For Badiou universals like “justice” are not existing and self-identical forms but are operations. These are operations that take place in relation to a field of individuals where there is no pre-existing rule for determining how they should be counted within an existing situation. The operation of universality consists in the counting of these strange strangers and the consequent reconfiguration of the social field in response to these aleatory points.

These thoughts are all still vague and underdetermined, but strike me as a promising way of thinking the universal in an onticological framework.