discourse-of-the-capitalistIn late March I’ll be giving a talk before the Lacanian psychoanalysts in Toronto where I discuss what Lacan called “the discourse of the capitalist” and what analysts have been calling “the new symptom”.  As usual, I’m a nervous wreck about this because I think the analysts– real practicing analysts –know a thing or two and am always frightened of making a mess of things.  Nonetheless, I plod on.

The “new symptom” refers to symptoms such as addiction, anorexia, bulimia, cutting, depression, anxiety disorders, and so on.  We might even be able to add things such as hoarding and compulsive shopping.  While many of these symptoms existed in earlier eras, they are appearing in the clinic with greater and greater frequency.  My suggestion, is that these symptoms indicate a fundamental mutation in how the symbolic order is structured.  What is unique about these symptoms compared to those that dominated the clinic in Freud and Lacan’s time (hysteria, obsession, phobia) is that 1) these symptoms do not seem to signify, 2) that they are therefore not a veiled demand addressed to the Other, and 3) that they are a sort of immediate jouissance that doesn’t pass through the battery of signifiers (S2).  This comes out most clearly, I think, in the case of addiction.  Where the traditional neurotic symptom is one that is addressed to the Other and requires the support of the Other for the jouissance it attains, addiction seems to be a symptom in which the subject attempts to cut the Other as mediator of jouissance out of the picture.  The addict attempts to refuse passing through the Other as a detour to jouissance, instead relating to an object or activity (alcohol, internet porn) as a way of attaining jouissance.  Where the neurotic symptom signifies or is a sort of cypher, the new symptom is a direct jouissance without signification.  Indeed, there’s a sense in which it attempts to repress signification altogether.

read on!

mathemeWhy, then, we should wonder, have symptoms increasingly come to take this form?  My thesis is these symptoms are appearing with greater frequency because the social relation has taken a new form.  As I have argued elsewhere (“Zizek’s New Universe of Discourse“, .pdf), we are no longer living in the “universe of the master” (depicted to the left, above), but have entered a new universe that I refer to as the “universe of the capitalist”.  As I argue, a “universe” is not any particular discourse taken in isolation, but rather is the total possible permutations of the mathemes arranged in a particular order.  There are six possible universes, allowing for a total of 24 possible discourses.  However, in any particular universe there will only be four interrelated discourses.

9750134.0001.001-00000012The universe of mastery begins with what Lacan called “the discourse of the master” (right).  I won’t get into all the intricacies of these discourses, but one way of interpreting Lacan’s discourse of the master is in terms of his definition of the subject:  “the signifier (S1) represents the subject ($) for another signifier (S2).”  Insofar as no signifier ever manages to name the subject because the signifier can’t signify itself (Seminar 14), a remainder is always produced, something always slips away (objet a).  This is what gives rise to the repetitive nature of the symptom in the universe of mastery.  The subject’s unconscious produces a number of signifying coagulations in an attempt to fill the lack (objet a) that can never be filled within the symbolic order.  These signifying coagulations are the hysteric’s and obsessional’s symptoms.
discourse-of-the-capitalistThe key thing to notice in the universe of mastery is that we have relations where the master-signifier (S1) and the battery of signifiers (S2) are unified.  In the universe of capitalism (whose initial cell is represented to the left, above), we get something very different.  Here we will notice that it is structurally impossible for there to ever be a direct relation between S1 and S2 (S1—>S2).  The two are always separated by a third term.

unidisBefore proceeding to talk about this, it’s first important to note that I’ m not conjuring this discourse out of thin air.  In Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan associated capitalism with the discourse of the university (right) belonging to the universe of mastery.  However, the very next year in Seminar XVIII and the “Milan Discourse”, Lacan changes his mind and specifically introduces the discourse of the capitalist which doesn’t correspond to any of the four discourses he had explored the year before in Seminar XVII.  In my article “Zizek’s New Universe of Discourse”, I argue that the moment Lacan introduces the discourse of the capitalist, he also calls forth three other discourses, though he never names them or formalizes them.  The universe of capitalism would thus be as follows (apologies for the notation):

Discourse of the Capitalist:

$/S1 —>S2/a




In other words, we get an entirely different set of permutations where we no longer have the discourse of the master, hysteric, analyst, or university.  This suggests that the social relations– which Lacanian discourse theory formalizes –is fundamentally different under capitalism.  Is there any evidence that Lacan himself thinks the universe of mastery where we get the discourse of the master, hysteric, analyst, and university is disappearing?  Yes.  In Seminar XVII, when discussing the discourse of the master, Lacan says that increasingly we hardly ever see masters anymore.  This is also equivalent to saying that the universe of Oedipus is disappearing, insofar as the discourse of the master is just a formalization of Oedipal structure.  If this is true, then it would follow that the symptom takes on a new form within the universe of capitalism.

Sadly, Lacan tells us precious little about just how we are to understand the discourse of the capitalist, but based on how we interpreted the discourse of the master above, I think we can hazard a well educated guess.  The discourse of the capitalist says something like “the maternal superego (S1) commands the subject ($) to enjoy in the form of commodities (S2).”  I won’t here go into detail as to why I associate the superego of capitalism with the maternal superego, beyond saying that where the superego in the universe of mastery functions as a prohibition, in the universe of capitalism the superego now seems to command enjoyment.  “You must find ever more exotic and different forms of enjoyment!”  However, we’ll note that in the position of the product of this discourse we now see objet a or the remainder.  In the “Milan Discourse” Lacan claims that the discourse of the capitalist is the most ingenious discourse to date in that it creates something like an “eternal motion machine”.  For each commodity (S2) the divided subject ($) consumes, he experiences a disappointment (“this is not it!”).  He is thus compelled to pursue yet another commodity to fulfill the superegoic imperative.  And so it goes continuously:  nothing is ever enough because no commodity is ever “it”.  Moreover, insofar as we are obeying the superegoic imperative to enjoy, and insofar as the more we obey the superego, the more guilt we feel, this consumption is accompanied by profound guilt and anxiety.

I think the first thing to note with this initial discourse is that we’ve now discovered where to situate compulsive symptoms such as hoarding and compulsive buying.  If there’s a truth to capitalism, if there’s a “capitalist type”, this is perhaps best exemplified by the hoarder and the compulsive buyer.  Both suggest a subject that consumes not for the sake of any use-value, but simply for the sake of consuming and accumulating.  I would also suggest that it also makes sense to place the bulimic and anorexic here.  Unlike the hoarder, the bulimic and anorexic are subjects that refuse the command of the maternal superego to enjoy.  They consume nothing in a desperate attempt to maintain a place of desire.

This morning, much to my surprise, I encountered one of my four discourses arising from the universe of capitalism in Rik Loose’s brilliant Subject of Addiction (Karnac 2002).  Although Loose makes no connection between addiction and the discourse of the capitalist, he there proposes that the “discourse of the capitalist” is structured as follows:


He proposes to read this discourse as “lack or the object-cause of desire (a) installing a substance or activity– alcohol, heroine, internet porn, gambling(?) –in the place of the master-signifier (S1)”.  In the universe of mastery, the discourse of the hysteric is organized around an identification with a master-signifier (S1) in the form of a leader, the name of a movement or nation, God, a doctor, etc ($—>S1).  All of these identifications are symbolic in nature and pass through the intermediary of the Other.  The addict in capitalism, by contrast, attempts to place a substance in the place of the master-signifier so as to overcome constitutive lack (a).  It’s not difficult to see that the subject of addiction is a kind of attempt to form a perfect capitalist subject ($ <> S1); a subject that is a pure master of himself, that has no need to pass through the mediation of the Other for his enjoyment.  The subject of addiction is a subject awash in jouissance that attempts to escape the castrating effects of the signifier (S2) in and through his relation to a particular substance or activity.

All of my remarks here are sketchy as I’m still working through all of this.  There are, however, a couple points worth making.  First, where the universe of mastery is characterized by the predominance of desire or deferral as a defense against jouissance, the universe of capitalism is a universe awash in individualistic jouissance.  I suspect this is part of why we’ve seen such a dramatic rise in anxiety and depressive disorders.  As Lacan and Freud argued, the closer the proximity of the jouissance of the Other, the greater the anxiety.  Similarly, depression, melancholia, seems to arise where desire is erased and the subject has faded in the jouissance of the Other.  Second, where the universe of mastery is characterized by a relation between subject and Other ($—>S1 or S1–>S2), this relation is increasingly absent in the universe of the capitalist.  The Other as that through which enjoyment must be mediated increasingly disappears, such that a direct relationship to the object replaces it.  Paraphrasing Marx, “under commodity fetishism, relationships between people are confused with relationships between things.”  If I’m right about the symptomal structure of the universe of capitalism, this structure of “social” relations actively functions to foreclose relations to others.  Finally, third, because there is never a direct relation between the master-signifier and the battery of signifiers (S1–>S2), it follows that symptoms are no longer signifying constellations, e.g., symptoms such as the agoraphobic woman who’s terrified of going out in public because she might “fall down” (i.e., she’s  a “fallen woman” and her symptom is telling the Other this), increasingly disappear.  Instead we get subjects submerged in jouissance that no longer really signify (here it would also be appropriate to talk about Zizek’s “id violence”).  In this connection, I’m particularly interested in asignifying trends that seem to be becoming increasingly common such as tatoos and body art (think of Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of the savage socius in Anti-Oedipus), tumbler blogs that have picture after picture without any text and that also seem to revolve around light BDSM, and cutting.  These things all seem to suggest the emergence of a new structure of subjectivity organized around jouissance rather than signification.

Increasingly you hear analysts express dismay that traditional forms of the analytic act (interpretation) no longer produce any subjective effects.  If I’m right, we here have an explanation as to why this is taking place.  First, unlike the subject in the universe of mastery, the relation of the subject is no longer a relation to an Other to which the symptom is addressed in the form of a veiled demand.  Rather, the subject’s symptom is now organized around solipsistic jouissance that resembles masturbation in a number of respects.  Second, this jouissance doesn’t have a signifying structure in the universe of capitalism, but actively functions– as in the case of addiction –to foreclose the Other.  If this is the case, then one question of treatment would be that of how to establish a relation to the Other where a demand (rather than the forgetfulness of jouissance) might begin to be articulated.