Lacanian discourse theory defines a discourse not by the content of, for example, a discipline, but in terms of a formal structure defining a relationship between an agent and an other. Here I’m following Paul Verhaeghe closely. It is not what a discourse is about that defines it, but the structure of the relation. This is part of the importance of Lacan’s use of mathemes. In his discourses– 24 in all, as I’ve argued elsewhere –Lacan deploys four mathemes: S1, S2, $, and a. It’s all quite abstract, but that’s its advantage. Just as an “x” in algebra can be any number, we can place any number of things in the place of the matheme. As a consequence, the abstraction of the matheme allows us to discern common structure behind a variety of things that initially seem quite different. Thus, for example, S1 or the master-signifier could be any number of things: the key term of a philosophy that organizes all the other concepts such as “Being” in Heidegger or “power” in Foucault, the father in the Oedipal structure, the king or queen in a monarchy, the boss in the workplace, God in theistic theologies, the leader of a gang, and so on. What the abstraction of the matheme allows us to discern is that things that initially seem quite different and unrelated can share a common structure.
As is always the case with structures, however, it is not the term alone that is important, but its relation to other terms. In a discourse, we have an agent addressing an other. In addressing the other, something is produced, an effect, and there is a truth that drives the discourse. Perhaps the agent wishes to articulate their desire to the other. The agent addresses that other and in doing so, something is produced, there is an effect. The other responds or acts in response to the agents words. In the Lacanian framework– and this is where things begin to get interesting –it’s important to note that while the truth of the discourse drives the discourse it is veiled from the discourse. This doesn’t simply mean that the other doesn’t discern the truth of the discourse, but that the agent itself is unconscious of the truth that animates her discourse. As Verhaeghe reminds us, for Lacan the truth can only ever be half-said. “Speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!” Sadly it’s impossible and it’s impossible for structural, rather than accidental reasons. The moment we enter the order of language we are condemned to the half-saying of truth for every signifier, S1, requires a second signifier, S2, in order to produce an effect of sense; and that signifier, in its turn, requires yet another. The whole truth endlessly recedes.
What makes Lacan’s discourses deeply valuable is not simply that they disclose different structures of social relation and what they produce, but also disclose fundamental deadlocks at the heart of each of these structures. Let us begin with the discourse of the master to the left. In the position of the agent we have the master-signifier, S1. In the position of the other, we have S2 which Lacan sometimes refers to as “knowledge” and at other times as the battery or set of signifiers. In the effect or product position of this discourse we have the objet a, surplus-jouissance, the remainder, that which is in excess of the discourse or subtracted from it, or the cause of desire. And finally in the position of truth we have the barred or divided subject.
Now take a simple example: The master (S1) commands his servant (S2) to fulfill his desire. Why is the servant symbolized by S2, rather than one of the other two remaining terms? Because the servant is the one who knows. He knows, or purports to know, how to fulfill his master’s desire. Just send the Lord to the kitchen and see what happens. He’s clueless, an idiot. So what happens? The master gives a command and the servant dutifully obeys. There is an effect (a) of the command. Yet the a that the master receives is never quite what he asked for. He never quite gets what we want because his truth as a divided subject ($) is that his own desire is opaque to him and he can’t quite articulate what he wants. We thus have two relationships or two failures in this discourse: along the top, in the relationship between agent and other, we have what Lacan calls “impossibility”. The relationship between agent and other is haunted by impossibility because the truth can only ever be half-said. For this reason, the effect or product of the discourse– in this case, the objet a –is a scrap that slips away. On the lower portion of the discourse we thus get a relation of “impotence” (which Verhaeghe translates as “inability”). There is an inability of the discourse to unite its truth– in this case, the divided, desiring subject ($) –and its effect (a). The master fantasizes about being a complete being ($ <> a), yet the a that is produced as an effect of this discourse is never the one that his desire sought. Impossibility and impotence. The discourse of the master is one way in which the social relation fails, and because the social relation fails the master keeps talking in the vain hope that he will finally suture the division ($) that marks his being as a being of language.
Consider a more interesting example. The world is pervaded by disjointed S2’s. Over there, there’s a lunar eclipse. Over there, there’s a tyrannical government. Over there, there’s a flower blooming, and so on. Among the S2’s alone there’s no rhyme or reason to these things. The weather changes in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who has good children and who has bad children. Moreover, everyone has opinions about why things are one way or why they’re another. As Plato says in the Allegory of the Cave, the prisoners pass their time– and they don’t know they’re prisoners –seeing which image will appear on the wall next and why that one appeared rather than another. Its a sort of chaos of facts, with disparates floating about all over the place. Now, in Seminar 17, Lacan observes that philosophy is a version of the discourse of the master. What does he mean? He means that a philosophy provides an S1, a master-signifier that organizes and structures the S2’s in a consistent universe. Plotinus, the neo-Platonist, for example, says that all beings emanate from the One or the Good (S1). Nietzsche says that all beings are symptoms of the Will to Power (S1). The masculine side of Lacan’s graph of sexuation depicts this structure in very abstract terms:
∃x~Θx → S1
∃xΘx → S2
The exception (S1) allows the set to be defined, to take on an order, to take on a consistency. That which is disparate and discordant, now takes on order in terms of the master-signifier such as the Will to Power. This is what Laruelle is getting at, I think, with his non-philosophical thesis where he argues that philosophy always posits its own conditions. However, the catch is that while the master-signifier (S1) presents itself as that which explains all, the truth is that it is another signifier suffering from the differentiality of the signifier. As a consequence, while the S1 purports to explain everything under the sun, its truth is $. Something will return that escapes the system. In the case of Plotinus and Augustine, for example, it will be things like dirt, filth, and difference that mar the beauty and order of the One (S1) or God’s (S1) creation. Dirt, filth, and difference here occupy the position of the effect of the discourse, the surplus of the discourse. Now the fantasy animating the discourse ($ <> a) will come into play. The philosophy must account for why this filth, this remainder is there and perhaps, in its more totalitarian moments (Plato wished to banish the poets) will even dream of eradicated the scrap or remainder. What we see here is that three things as different as a philosophy, a theology, and the relationship between a lord and his servant have a common structure and we can expect certain effects and deadlocks wherever a master appears.
Nonetheless, the universe of the master– and I won’t here articulate what I mean by a “universe” –is one where the chaos of existence, the chaos of S1’s, takes on a degree of consistency and order, even though it’s always haunted by its remainder or accursed share. This, now doubt, is what makes the death of God so excruciatingly painful. What the death of God signifies is not simply the death of belief in God or the end of the divine. What the death of God signifies is the end of the universe of the master where it is possible to conceived an ordered, consistent, universe even if such a thought is a delusion. In the universe of the master we get the neurotic that dreams that somewhere there is one who enjoys or that knows the secret of enjoyment or that provides a reason for his painful jouissance. With the death of God, that disappears. We now shift into the discourse of the capitalist. And if we look at the relationship between S1 and S2 in the discourse of the capitalist, what do we see? We see that there is no turning of this discourse, no revolution of this discourse, no permutation of this discourse where S1 will address S2 along the upper line of the discourse. S1 will never “address” or function as an exception for S2. As a consequence, there will be no social relation that takes on a consistency once and for all, such as we had in the age of the master or neurosis. Psychosis will instead be the order of the day, such that the members of the New Lacanian School will claim that psychosis is the truth of us all and that neurosis is just a species of psychosis. Where before it was S1 or the name-of-the-father that allowed the subject to obtain some degree of stability, it will now be the symptom (∑) that grants the subject some stability or that allows her to knot the symbolic, imaginary, and the real with varying degrees of success. However, we see that in this new universe of discourse terrifying structures emerge. For example, we will see a relation denoted S1 → $, where the master-term totalizes not knowledge, but divided subjects. Another name for this might be biopower.