I am Voting for the Mute Button

When the global coronavirus pandemic began, I was working as a professor in Mumbai, India — chair of psychology and sociology specialization areas within a Liberal Arts school. I frequently looked at the Indian government’s contact tracing app Setu to discover that there were approximately 2500 cases within 500 meters of the densely packed Bollywood production space. I was locked into the home but needed water, food, socialization. In any case, our work immediately shifted online and I was responsible for organizing that transition. The first class allowed us to discuss a ‘new real for the twenty-first century’ within the context of the pandemic. We discussed it in terms of nightmares, pragmatism, the new conflation of capitalism and science, and, finally, jouissance, that is, the overwhelming stimulations that pervade our contemporary environment.

The first Lacanian response — as far as I know it was my own — was to claim that the pandemic helped to orient us conceptually within the ‘lawless real.’ The pandemic was a wake-up call. It did not introduce social distancing measures but rather demonstrated that social distance — what Lacanians refer to as the ‘lack of a relationship’ — was already missing, or, put another way, lack was lacking. It wasn’t therefore that we were suddenly suffering from loneliness but rather that the pandemic forced us to be even more social than we had been before: now, at all hours of the day and night, I was on the telephone, on zoom calls, responding to emails. The overwhelming sociability that had now occurred was almost too much to bear and I needed to invent for myself a new sense of quiet, a new sense of tranquility.

It was only two weeks into the pandemic that I discovered the centrality of the ‘mute’ button. I joked with my students that we should prepare t-shirts with the slogan for 2020: “You’re on mute.” The mute button consists of a function of tranquilization, a function of quiet, of self-censorship and self-control, in a time of total stimulation. If, before, the environment provided us with some consistency of regulation and management for the stimulation — there was some semblance of an external symbolic apparatus — then today that consistency is missing. We are living in the time of what Slavoj Zizek and others have referred to as the ‘decline in symbolic efficiency.’ That symbolic efficiency must today be produced by the subject him or herself. And this is the function of the mute button.

Fredric Jameson and followers of his work on the ideology of postmodernism — but we see a similar argument in the psychoanalytic thoughts of Jacques-Alain Miller with respect to his discussions of ‘structure’ — have contended that the problem with contemporary ideology is that we cannot make heads or tails of it: is it structure? Is there still a structure? When the world feels enigmatic and chaotic there is as a consequence a jouissance of the subject. This was the finding of one Lacanian who found that jouissance is a response to enigma (a fascinating reading of Lacan). It is because there is chaos and an unknown that jouissance — the overwhelming sensation — surges forth. The ‘antidote to chaos,’ to quote an unfortunate figure (namely Jordan Peterson) is not simply to stand up straight and clean one’s own house — since this position neglects entirely the function of ideology and of the unconscious — but is rather to recognize the importance of what Jameson names ‘cognitive mapping.’

Conspiracy theories are popular today, and are increasing in political significance since they are obviously being used by those in power (e.g., Donald Trump with QAnon), because they provide a fleeting cognitive map of an inherently chaotic world. Yet, a more lasting cognitive map would find what within the world might reduce the jouissance, exchange it, so that the subject can separate from it and endure. Against the cognitive mapping of conspiracy theories today we have the response: mute. And this, precisely, is why the current electoral debate in the United States is not about Donald Trump and Joe Biden as figures of political discourse but rather it is about coronavirus and cognitive mapping, that is, of capitalist-science and subjective transformation, of pragmatism and sinthomatic invention.

Let us watch as we witness whether the conspiracy theories will map the future political landscape, or whether we shall return to the fast paced world of capitalist discourse, or, finally, if the mute button will emerge triumphant against all of that. Tomorrow evening the mute button will be in a debate against science and conspiracy. My vote is for the mute button.

Associate Professor of Sociology & Psychoanalyst