Interrogating the American Election as a Key Site of Tension Within the Context of a Plague

A number of influential continental philosophers and psychoanalysts entered into a conversation by letter with one another shortly after the onset of the global pandemic.[1] It seems to me that a key theme to emerge from that discussion concerns possible limitations to the intellectual project once loosely referred to as ‘post-structuralism.’ A key element of the post-structuralist line of argument concerns the arbitrary nature of language’s hold on the real. Yet, this, precisely, is a limitation inasmuch as it does not tell the rest of the story. In particular, these limitations are inherent, I would claim, in the work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and their numerous followers (e.g., ‘genealogical’ and ‘deconstructionist’ orientations). Giorgio Agamben, who, by most accounts, is at the centre of the recent intellectual controversy, seems to constitute one side of the apparent antonymy, while Slavoj Zizek occupies the other.

Agamben’s proximity to the work of Foucault is nowhere more apparent than in his response to the latest plague: COVID-19 is an elusive point which, because it cannot be spoken about directly, must be bracketed, and, through this bracketing, one can form a response; indeed, power can manifest itself as a response rather than a cause. His opening sentence: “[I am not concerned] with the epidemic itself but with what we can learn from the reactions to it.” We have here a statement concerning the importance of interpretation as an urgent response to a provocation situated outside of discourse, and, therefore, outside of the structure of any social bond.

There is, however, something of tremendous value within his analysis which must be remarked upon and situated further within the context of our pandemic. We witness now most definitely the loss of structure — which is, by extensive, or, rather, necessitated by the loss of a stable social bond — concomitant with the loss of belief. Is this not the full realization of the problematic postmodern condition outlined, celebrated in fact, by the pagan Jean-Francois Lyotard? Agamben writes that “another thing to think about [is] the obvious collapse of any conviction, or common faith. One could say that men [sic] no longer believe in anything at all.” In other words, the loss of the meta-narratives. Or, put any number of ways, the loss of what Marshall McLuhan named a “point of view” in the electronic age.

Max Weber — the classical German sociologist — argued, in one of his three books on religion (whose root wrote is “to bind” or “bring together,” as in, “to construct a social bond or link”) argued, essentially, that the Protestant Christian structure gave rise to a capitalist bond, largely secular, which, as a consequence, isolates itself within a pragmatic orientation. No wonder Max Weber was a prized sociologist who was imported into the American context and within a new rubric retrospectively defined by Herbert Blumer as ‘symbolic interactionist.’ Indeed, capitalism is reducible in some sense to a structure of social bond that is more precise and developed than the one only partially discovered by Karl Marx. If Marx isolated the ‘social symptom’ then Max Weber in fact began work on its larger discursive logic.

Lacan’s ‘fifth discourse,’ namely his ‘capitalist discourse,’ seems important in this context. What can we say about the capitalist discourse? Minimally, it might be conceptualized as if it were a tenuous social bond that circumambulates around an object (e.g., consumer object, knowledge object, romantic object, and so on) only so long as it may be replaced by another one which has been fashioned in advance. It is therefore a discourse that moves quickly, and its fixations are fleeting, at best, and ultimately unsustainable since it is not necessary that each fixation endure or consist with respect to the preceding or proceeding ones. These are our ephemeral objects meant to solve a deep anxiety, a profound subjective destitution.

With any luck, after travelling along the race-circuit of the capitalist discourse, through the oscillations of mania and depression, the American subject approaches a moment of burn out: a moment of profound hope since it marks the limitation of the discourse. Lacan put it like this: “[the capitalist discourse] runs as if it were on wheels, it can’t run better, but it actually runs too fast, it runs out, it runs out such that it burns itself out.”[2] Stijn Vanheule is correct to identify the function of knowledge within the capitalist discourse as “instrumental,” and, to the extent that it is instrument, it is a knowledge conceptualized according to its consequences, or, to be more precise, according to its practical utility within a specified moment of destitution. Put another way, it is knowledge situated within the enigmatic drive, within enigmatic jouissance.

In any case, it seems clear at this point — at least according to individuals oriented by the World Association of Psychoanalysis and/or the New Lacanian School — that coronavirus has taken the form of what Lacan named the “lawless real.” The real in this conception is lawless in the sense that it cannot be subordinated or constructed by any interpretation of it: the real is what resists symbolic inscription absolutely. Or, to put it in the once terms of the ‘new realists,’ terms which are no less relevant today: COVID-19 is an object which resists or withdraws from our grasp. The pandemic functions to untangle us from our narcissistic knots, and yet, nonetheless, our most recent attempt to get an upper-hand on the real is fascinating. It occurs on the world political stage through the American national election. I have heard — indeed, I have also said — that the American election is somehow more troubling than the pandemic itself. And why? Precisely because its inability to respond adequately to the current COVID-19 enigma has drastic consequences.

The statement therefore hits on something true in that it is the enigma that forces a wild and urgent response. The pandemic is that which forces, as if by necessity, a response in the way of some data, a pharmaceutical invention, an interpretation, a political curfew, and so on. It is the enigma which gives structure to the proliferation of discourses which now constitute our Western social bond. This is its urgency and this is our wake-up call. We wake up from the dream that we have been living as the agency responsible for constructing without limit this obscure and traumatic real: but we wake up via the nightmare. Indeed, anxiety dreams, nightmares, are more prevalent under our current lawless world, and researchers have been busy documenting this very fact.[3] We are forced to respond to the new urgency, and, it would seem, we cannot do otherwise.

The American election is a litmus test of our response. We should not mistake the response as the cause, the symptom for the underlying condition. We retroactively produce the cause through interpretive machinery, through political gestures, and so on, and yet, for all of that, the American election is ultimately powerless and must construct itself a myth of its power over the lawless real. If the first American presidential debate was chaotic and incomprehensible then it was in the context of this new world of noise and obscurity. Yet, from within the noise, there is a certain function — what Lacan might have called ‘sinthomatic’ — which emerges as a response that does not take as its point of departure a regressive symbolic interpretation: the mute button. The mute button reminds us of the ‘stimulus shield’ that the individual, when confronted by the great confusions of the metropolis, develops for himself as a mode of stabilization (as in Georg Simmel’s classical sociological theory).

The mute button introduced a fitting analogy for our times. If Agamben was correct that we have lost all belief — and this means, ultimately, belief in grand political narratives, in social structures, and so on — then the appropriate choices we seem to have on the table within the context of the election are as follows: (1) to focus on the issues — and this implies that we cannot say it all, but we can pick and pull together issues that are significant enough as to be decisive in our pragmatic response to an enigmatic trauma; we have here the pragmatic option; (2) to introduce new authoritative responses in the form of conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalisms, and so on — and this implies that we construct, in place of our clear cognitive mapping, a myth that can explain it all, that is, an Other, a structure, that is missing; we have hear the regressive option that aims to return to patriarchal and Oedipal structures which are long gone; or, finally, (3) we can locate the function of the ‘mute button,’ that is, a new mode of silencing the overwhelming stimulations that now force themselves upon us through the invention of an enduring mode of silence.

Let us take care to assess the options that we now have on the table: (1) the capitalist discourse which burns itself out, (2) the temptation toward new forms of authoritarianism and fascism, and (3) the invention of a new subjective space of silence, or, to quite Alain Badiou: “Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.”

[1] I was also involved in this conversation. Some of this conversation can be seen at the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/

[2] For a wonderful overview of Lacan’s “capitalist discourse” see Stijn Vanheule’s “Capitalist Discourse, Subjectivity and Lacanian Psychoanalysis” in Frontiers in Psychology, №9. As Retrieved on November 3rd, 2020 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01948/full

[3] See https://www.livescience.com/coronavirus-pandemic-nightmares.html

Associate Professor of Sociology & Psychoanalyst