Discourse compositeMichael Flower was kind enough to make me graphs to depict the universe of capitalism that I’ve been developing.  I’m still playing around with names for the additional three discourses I derive from Lacan’s discourse of the capitalist.  By a “universe of discourse” I mean the form that the social link or structure takes in a given society.  These universes can be thought as somewhat akin to a Foucaultian episteme, though more formal and abstract.  Foucault’s epistemes define what is visible, thinkable, and sayable within a given historical epoch.  These universes, by contrast, define the structuration of social relations and the deadlocks that attend these social relations.

man opening curtains in the morning

man opening curtains in the morning

A few days ago I suggested that psychoanalysis poses a fundamental challenge to Epicurean and Spinozist frameworks of ethics.  Some responded by pointing out that perhaps we can establish a consistency between psychoanalysis and Spinoza on the ground of inadequate ideas.  The symptom, says Lacan, is a sort of unknown knowledge.  As he remarks in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, “…it is not certain that knowledge is known…” (30).  The symptom expresses a knowledge that is not known.  Drawing on Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, Jonathan Redmond gives a nice example of this in Ordinary Psychosis and the Body:

in…the case of Fraulein Elizabeth von R. shows how a conflict concerning the emergence of erotic ideas was pivotal in the development of conversion symptoms.  In this particular case, Freud states that Elizabeth’s conversion symptom– a localized pain to her right upper thigh –first developed when a series of ideas concerning her duty to care for her sick father conflicted with an erotic desire for another man.  Her self-reproach became a prelude for repression, which was subsequently the basis for her hysterical pain…  Localization of the hysterical conversion symptom to her right thigh correlates with the place her father would rest his foot when Elizabeth was bandaging his ankle during his convalescence; these memories provided the ‘content’ for the dissimulation of erotic wishes via the construction of the symptom.  (75)

Elizabeth’s symptom, her localized pain in her right thigh, embodied a “knowledge that was not known”.  That knowledge was knowledge of the desire or wish.  Her conscious self was unaware of the wish, but still that knowledge was there in the symptom.  As such, the symptom here is a sort of inadequate knowledge in Spinoza’s terminology.  As she engaged in the work of free association, bringing the knowledge expressed in this symptom to the fore, she gradually developed a more adequate knowledge of her desire.  This, in turn, is accompanied by a disappearance of the symptom.  The signifiers mutely expressed in the conversion symptom of the body are exchanged for signifiers in speech and as a consequence the symptom disappears.

read on!


Perhaps it could be said that with the shift to the universe of the capitalist there is a generalized collapse of trust.  All institutions become suspect.  All experts are seen as harboring a disguised motive.  Climate scientists, for example, are seen as politicized, as making the claims that they make to get grant money or become famous or because they have a hatred of big business.  Doctors are seen as being in the pocket of big pharma.  Suspicion reigns supreme.  This is embodied in the second permutation of the universe of the capitalist:

S1/a —> $/S2

On the left-hand side of this discourse we see the relation S1/a; the master-signifier over the objet a.  In the position of “truth”, beneath the position of the agent, we find the objet a beneath the master.  Every S1, every master-signifier, every term of authority or group identification (such as mass movements organized around a signifier), is seen as harboring an obscene jouissance (a), or a disguised interest.  Recognition of this hidden interest behind every agency undermines trust in these movements, institutions, experts, and authorities.  One suspects, and not without reason in many instances, that these S1’s are animated by an aim or interest quite different than the one they explicitly articulate.  And with this collapse of trust at the heart of the social relation, we see that it becomes difficult to mobilize any action because one assumes, a priori, that one is being duped by S1.  Cynicism reigns supreme and we all become paralyzed.

We thus see, in this discourse, the discourse of the obscene master, S1 addressing the divided or alienated subject.  S2, knowledge, is the product of this strange social relation where suspicion reigns everywhere.  But what sort of knowledge?  A knowledge of the obscene supplement, the obscene jouissance (a), that animates our institutions, experts, authorities, governments, etc.  Everywhere ($), the alienated subject, seeks out the hidden jouissance behind S1 as the truth behind S1’s gestures.

discourse-of-the-capitalistI should probably wait to write this post until I can develop these points more, but I just want to get these thoughts down, no matter how abbreviated they are.  Notice something about the discourse of the capitalist (right) outlined by Lacan in his Milano discourse.  There is no point at which you see a direct relation between the S1 and S2 (S1 –> S2).  In each of the permutations of the universe of the capitalist that we can imagine, there is always a term that intervenes between the S1, the master-signifier, and S2 the battery of signifiers or knowledge.  Here are the additional three discourses we can derive from the discourse of the capitalist.

S1/a —> $/S2

a/S2 —> S1/$

S2/$ —> a/S1

fig6-4At some point I’ll provide commentary on these four discourses or what I call the universe of the capitalist.  Perhaps someone would be so kind, at some point, as to make me a schema such as this for the universe of the capitalist.  Of course, I still have to come up with names for the other three, though I suggested some possibilities in the article I wrote back in 2007.  For the moment, I just want to tarry with the significance of the fact that nowhere in this universe do we find the relation (S1 —> S2).  How does Lacan derive the elementary schema for the discourse of the master (left)?  “The signifier (S1) represents the subject ($) for another signifier (S2).  In the universe of the master we have a direct relationship between S1 and S2 (S1 –> S2) and for this reason we have a social structure where not only– for that society –there is a unified world, but also defined identities.  Even though identity is a sham in the universe of the master, there is still an S1 that sustains that sham.  Even though the idea of a unified world is an illusion because “the big Other does not exist”, there is still a “world” structured by S1, the master-signifier…  So much so that in the 17th century architectural theorists still believed that there were aesthetic truths that presided over design, that there was a correct way of doing it, and that one could be mistaken about these things and that it was possible to discover these principles and write treatises on them.

read on!


I’m always suspicious of theory that doesn’t make use of a rich reservoir of examples; not because this is a mark of good writing in that examples assist readers in understanding the concepts, but because I worry that the theory is unmoored from anything in the world, that it bears no responsibility for explaining anything in the world (which might also function as a ground from which to contest the theory), and that the theory might instead just be a castle in the air.  What is an epistemology, for example(!), that gives no concrete examples of knowledge production?  We are told all about knowledge without ever being given a single example of what the author sees as an instance of knowledge.  How are we to know, in these instances, of whether or not this epistemology maps on to anything that takes place in the world of knowledge production among scientists, doctors, lawyers, craftsmen, psychoanalysts, etc?  A theory that sought to conceptualize literature without speaking of any instances of literature would be strange indeed.

An example is not a simple ornament, but is that to which the theorist bears responsibility in their theorizing.  In this regard, I think that it’s noteworthy that prior to the twentieth century, so many philosophers were not first and foremost philosophers.  Descartes, for example, was a mathematician, scientist, and soldier.  Leibniz was a mathematician, diplomat, engineer, and many other things besides.  Spinoza was a lens grinder.  Locke was a physician.  For all of these thinkers there was something else, a sort of “matter”, that introduced a little bit of the real, a little bit of alterity, and which constrained their speculation.  Would the postmodern (I hate that term) idea of a universe composed entirely of flowing signifiers that construct reality however one likes have ever been possible prior to the age of the professional theorist, the professional academic, that isn’t attached to any matter like the body as in the case of Locke or the obstinance of the matheme as in the case of Leibniz?

However, the example is also important for another reason.  The example says a great deal about just how a theorist thinks about a certain type of thing.  Deleuze repeatedly suggests that we ask not “what is it”, but rather “who?”, “which one?”, “how many?”  Speaking of mathematics, Kant continuously evokes the example of 7 + 5 = 12.  Is this a good or representative example of mathematics?  I think both Badiou and Deleuze rightfully chastise this choice for the conception of mathematics it reflects.  How about Harman?  His favorite examples are fire, cotton, and hammers.  How might these archetypal examples inform his entire conception of objects?  Would that theory be different if one chose a flower or waves or a factory?  When a theorist wishes to write about architecture and uses the home as their go to example, how does that example come to inform their entire theory of architecture?  Examples express intuitions about the nature of broader categories like “being”, “knowledge”, “truth”, “normativity”, etc.  They are not secondary, but are at the core of theoretical work.

Over the last week I’ve been intensively reading case studies on psychosis, obsession, and hysteria and it occurs to me that Freud really does change everything.  After Freud, it is no longer possible to be an Epicurean or a Spinozist because of the dimension of the unconscious, desire, and jouissance.  Epicurus and Spinoza are essentially ethicists of the pleasure principle, of need, of homeostasis for the sake of the organism continuing in its being.  Appropriate object choice as in the case of Epicurus with his “natural” desires and “adequate knowledge” are sufficient to set the person on the right path and achieve satisfaction.  With Freud, by contrast, we get jouissance which is a sort of ineradicable excess within the speaking being that it is condemned to pursue and that is often experienced as deeply painful and which also is often bad for the speaking being.

The symptom from which the subject suffers, the repetition that marks and punctuates the subject’s life, is also a form of enjoyment.  Lacan will later say in Seminar 22, there is no subject without a symptom.  It is the symptom that gives the subject ontological consistency.  To make matters worse, there is a knowledge within the subject– “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” –but it is an acephalous knowledge, an unconscious knowledge, that repeats itself like a glitch throughout the life of the subject.  All of this is right there on the surface, right there in plain view, yet the conscious subject isn’t even aware they’re doing it, that these repeated actions are an apparatus of jouissance, a repetition of that primordial fault.

To be sure, symptoms shift over the course of analysis, some of them disappear, and often the pain of jouissance is eased.  The talking cure does change something, speech has effects, and our relationship to jouissance shifts.  Yet the symptom as a function and apparatus of jouissance does not itself disappear, for it is the being of the subject in its non-being.  All of this begs the question of what the good life, what eudaemonia, might look like in a psychoanalytic universe where we are not masters in our own home.   Freud was not optimistic.  He said that psychoanalysis seeks to transform unbearable neurotic misery into ordinary human misery.

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.

hysteric2As 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.

read on!


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