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Explaining the Crisis through Jacques Lacan

Explaining the Crisis through Jacques Lacan


The psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan, has some surprising conceptual tools up his sleeve, some of which can bring some clarity in the oft-confusing world in which we live at present. His theoretical and philosophical oeuvre comprises a wide spectrum, most of which cannot possibly be addressed in a brief essay like this one.

Suffice to say that he took the psychoanalytic legacy of Sigmund Freud further, radicalising some of Freud’s insights in the process, and enabling one to come to grips with elusive texts such as John Fowles’s counter-Bildung novel, The Magus, in which the English literary maestro confronts one with the enigma of constantly shifting, self-subverting cognitive perspectives. Part of Lacan’s later work concerned the theory of discourse – a field to which his contemporary and fellow French luminary, Michel Foucault, also contributed substantially – and which Lacan elaborated in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis; 1969-1970 – The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 17 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007). 

There are many ways in which one could employ this complex discursive (that is, discourse-related) grid, for example to examine the power relations in distinct discourses, such as patriarchal discourse, feminist, managerial, workers’, or capitalist discourse.

My reference to ‘power relations’ already provides a clue about the conception of ‘discourse’ at play here: it concerns (usually asymmetrical) power relations as they are embedded in language; in fact, one might say that discourse is language understood as serving (certain kinds of) power. Lacan therefore conceives of discourse as a way to ‘order’ or ‘organise’ the social field; that is, society, into distinctive domains where distinguishable kinds of power hold sway. 

For example, one of my graduate students (Lisa-Marie Storm) once wrote a revealing thesis on the differences between gangster discourse and prison authorities’ discourse in a South African prison, and based her written text on thoroughgoing investigation, via interviews, with imprisoned gang members as well as wardens serving in the prison.

Employing Foucault’s version of discourse-analysis, the surprising conclusion she came to was that, contrary to expectations, the ruling discourse was not that of the authorities as represented by the wardens, but of the gangsters, which were hierarchically arranged in order of gang dominance. That these gangs had a hold over the wardens – determining what could and could not happen in the prison – was apparent from her discourse-analysis of the interviews. (One is tempted to see in this a parallel with the discourse of sado-masochism.)

So, how can Lacan’s theory help one understand the fraught present, where unscrupulous, powerful adversaries employ a variety of discursive means to wield power over ordinary people? Which does not mean, of course, that ‘ordinary people’ – some of whom are quite extraordinary – lack the discursive means to counter or resist those who would subjugate them. As Foucault once remarked, where a discourse exists, the space is created for a counter-discourse, the obvious example being patriarchy and feminism. I shall try to explain as succinctly as possible.

Lacan puts forward a typology of discourse(s) – those of the master, the university (or knowledge), the hysteric, and the analyst, each of which organises the social field along divergent parameters of power. At different historical times and under varying circumstances, specific discourses occupy the places of these four kinds of discourse.

For example, until recently – 2020, to be precise – the discourse of neoliberal capitalism occupied the place of the ‘master’s discourse,’ but has since arguably been replaced by the revolutionary, neo-fascist discourse of the (not so) ‘great reset’ (which I refuse to magnify with capitals). 

First it is important to remember that, for Lacan, these four discourses have a developmental as well as a systematic classificatory function; in other words, they mark (‘ontogenetic’) temporal, developmental stages for every human being, and they distinguish among fundamentally different kinds of discourses. So, what does the ‘master’s discourse’ entail?

Every one of us is introduced into society by way of being psychically and cognitively ‘shaped’ by some kind of master’s discourse. For some it is a religious discourse, which organises the world in specific social relations of subjugation and comparative empowerment; a novice in an ecclesiastic Catholic order has far less discursive power than an ordained priest, and the latter, in turn, is subservient to a bishop, for instance. For others it could be a secular discourse such as that which pervades the business world, or a political discourse competing with others for hegemony in a certain country. But in every case the master’s discourse ‘commands’ the social field in so far as people in the discursive field are subservient to it in different ways, although some can challenge it, as I shall show.               

The name of the discourse of the university (that is, of knowledge) gives the impression that it includes all uses of language (including scientific) which promote power through knowledge. (Remember the ‘Knowledge is power’ adage?) This is not true without qualification, for Lacan. The reason is that he knows, through Hegel, that (historically speaking) the slave has always served the master with knowledge – during the Hellenistic age, Greek slaves were the teachers of Roman families, after all.

Hence, his assessment is that the university’s discourse serves that of the master, with the corollary that it does not represent true science. This is why the most prominent (and ‘valued’) disciplines at university are those that serve and promote the interests of the master discourse – for instance, neoliberal capitalism was promoted and served best by disciplines such as physics, chemistry, computer science, pharmacology, accounting, law, and so on. Philosophy, when practiced critically (as it should be), does not serve the master, however. 

One can test whether the university’s discourse plays a developmental role in one’s life by asking when it is, or was, when one started looking at the master’s discourse that has moulded one’s behaviour with ‘new eyes,’ as it were. Usually this is when one encounters systems of knowledge which equip one with the intellectual ability to question the master’s discourse.

Growing up in South Africa under apartheid, and encountering philosophy at university, for example, enabled me and my contemporaries to question and reject apartheid as an unjust system. But philosophy is a discipline that cultivates questioning, while the ‘mainstream’ university disciplines do not participate in such questioning; instead, they vindicate the master’s discourse. 

The discourse which Lacan associates with genuine science is that of the ‘hysteric,’ which may seem a strange choice, unless one recalls that it was ‘hysterics’ – like Bertha Pappenheim – who consulted Freud in Vienna, and who enabled him to formulate his revolutionary hypothesis about the unconscious. Why?

Put succinctly, the failures of the master’s discourse of a specific period are inscribed on the bodies of ‘hysterics.’ During the Victorian era the master discourse of the repression of sexuality (supposedly for the sake of greater economic productivity) elicited various (unconscious) ‘hysterical’ responses from individuals, including sexual frigidity on the part of women. 

Hence, the hysteric’s discourse is any discourse that questions the dominant values of extant social reality. As already observed, philosophy is – that is, should be – exemplary in this regard, although in many departments it is practiced as ‘university discourse’ which merely sanctions the discourse of the master. Even in the abstruse realm of theoretical physics one encounters the hysteric’s discourse, for example in Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and in Niels Bohr’s (and others’) quantum mechanics, counter-intuitive as it may seem. In Werner Heisenberg’s well-known ‘indeterminacy (or uncertainty) principle’ this is demonstrated in paradigmatic fashion: one cannot measure the speed and the position of an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom at the same time – when one of these is measured, the other is necessarily occluded.

In this manner quantum mechanics questions classical Newtonian physics, reminding physicists that science (like philosophy) is never conclusively ‘finished.’ New insights are always bound to arise. Put differently, genuine science is characterised by the repeated challenging of every theoretical position that may be reached. Lacan shows one that it is marked by ‘structural indeterminacy,’ in this way generalising the principle of indeterminacy in quantum mechanics. 

What about the discourse of the analyst? Whereas the hysteric’s discourse instantiates questioning the university discourse as well as that of the master, the analyst’s discourse – modelled on the task of the psychoanalytic analyst – ‘mediates’ between that of the hysteric and the other two discourses, which are aimed at exercising power over the subject. Growing up one invariably learns that some people know how to mediate between those engaged in an argument; these are instances of a kind of proto-analyst’s discourse.

More strictly speaking, philosophy fulfills the role of the analyst’s discourse when it refuses to go along with some of the more extreme claims of postmodernist theories, like that of Stanley Fish, which results in complete relativism (the claim that there is no such thing as knowledge) – for example in Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? (Harvard UP, 1980). Instead, philosophy enables one to understand that knowledge is always situated between stability and change: no scientific or philosophical theory is beyond being questioned, as Thomas Kuhn has amply demonstrated in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago, 1962). 

So far I have concentrated on Lacan’s theory of discourse, but its implications for the current global crisis may already be apparent. We are witnessing the controlled transition from neoliberal capitalism (until recently the contemporary master’s discourse) to what is laying claim to being the new master’s discourse: what may variously be described as a new feudalism – with the so-called ‘elites’ occupying the role of masters, and ordinary people being relegated to ‘serfs’ – or technocratic neo-fascism, given the undisguised merging of governmental and corporate functions. 

The role of the university’s discourse has not changed in the process, except that it is increasingly serving the emerging master’s discourse, as discernible since 2020 in the servility with which universities and colleges worldwide – through official policies as well as academics’ promotion of official COVID measures, including ‘vaccine’ recommendations – have submitted themselves to a veritable tyranny of the master’s expectations. Paradigmatic in this regard has been the role of mainstream pharmaceutical science, epidemiology and virology, perhaps best exemplified in the pivotal role of Dr Christian Drosten in Germany acting as putatively authoritative ‘vaccine Czar.’ 

Fortunately, there has been a steady increase of responses to the crisis which represent the hysteric’s discourse, including some from virologists, epidemiologists, physicians, and medical researchers who embody the role of authentic, questioning science. Foremost among them are Dr Peter McCullough, Dr Pierre Kory, Dr Dolores Cahill, Dr Robert Malone, Dr Joseph Mercola, and Dr Tess Lawrie (and many others). What these people do is bring unadulterated science to bear on the pseudo-science practiced by those who insist that the ‘clot-shot’ is ‘safe and effective,’ despite abundant evidence to the contrary. 

This is not restricted to scientists such as those mentioned above, of course. Every person practising a discipline in a rigorous manner, unbeholden to the master’s discourse of neo-feudalism, or the university discourse that prostrates itself before the master, is equally practising the hysteric’s questioning discourse when they bring to light insights that can be recognised as valid repudiations of the master’s and university’s discourses.

Many of the contributions to Brownstone Institute (or to Real Left in Britain) count among these, such as Sonia Elijah’s ‘The veil of silence over excess deaths,’ where this intrepid investigative journalist mercilessly, by discussing British MP Andrew Bridgen’s speech on the topic in parliament, exposes the incongruous – but, given the power of the master’s discourse, predictable – refusal by governments and legacy media to acknowledge the elephant in the room. A more sustained example of a social-scientific response that qualifies as hysteric’s (questioning) discourse, is Kees van der Pijl’s book, States of Emergency – Keeping the Global Population in Check (Clarity Press, 2022), with its optimistic stance, that the globalist neo-fascists won’t succeed with their attempted mondial coup d’etat

The discourse of the analyst, which is just as important as that of the hysteric regarding the controlled collapse of contemporary society – from the economically disastrous ‘pandemic’ through supply chain disruption, controlled financial collapse, and the planned transition from a cash economy to a cashless CBDC-economy and engineered wars – mediates between the hysteric’s questioning discourse, on the one hand, and those of the master and the university, on the other. How is this done? 

Note that in psychoanalysis the analyst enables the patient (called the analysand) to liberate herself from the hold of a master’s discourse that has become intolerable – like that of a patriarchal, domineering husband – by enabling her, first, to question the legitimacy of this dominant force, and then, letting her discover an alternative master’s discourse to empower herself. Importantly, however, the analytical experience has enabled her at this stage to avoid regarding the new master’s discourse as absolute, having learned the ability to question. 

In the same manner, under present circumstances, there are discursive contributions which mediate between the hysteric’s questioning and the combined force of the master’s and university discourses. Putting the need for this plainly: it is not sufficient to learn to question dominant, abusive discourses – one has to find ways to find and practice alternatives to the latter, with the advantage of having learned to question.

But one cannot live on questioning alone, as Lacan clearly realised. Again we have the alternation between stability and change; a master’s discourse provides stability, the hysteric’s discourse instantiates change through justified questioning, leading to new stability in the guise of a novel master’s discourse. 

Critical contributions focusing on the nexus between the master’s, university’s, and hysteric’s discourses, and mediating among these en route to an alternative, enabling new master’s discourse, would instantiate the analyst’s discourse. What I am writing here would qualify as analyst’s discourse, in so far as such mediation is precisely what I am attempting to do.

Note, however, the fact that, like the psychoanalyst, I am not prescribing a specific master’s discourse as a substitute for the corrupt, compromised master’s discourse of the neo-fascists, put forward in the discourse of ‘building back better.’ The operative principle here is that the analysand has to discover, and choose a new master’s discourse on her own, otherwise she won’t experience the responsibility as being her’s, instead of the analyst’s. 

It is noticeable that, in the excerpt below, from Giorgio Agamben’s Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics (London: Eris, 2021) his words may be read through the lens of Lacan’s discourse theory – note particularly the second paragraph, which unmistakably hints at the need for a new master’s discourse:

What accounts for the strength of the current transformation is also, as often happens, its weakness. The dissemination of the sanitation terror needed an acquiescent and undivided media to produce a consensus, something that will prove difficult to preserve. The medical religion, like every religion, has its heretics and dissenters, and respected voices coming from many different directions have contested the actuality and gravity of the epidemic—neither of which can be sustained indefinitely through the daily diffusion of numbers that lack scientific consistency.

The first to realise this were probably the dominant powers, who would never have resorted to such extreme and inhuman apparatuses had they not been scared by the reality of their own erosion. For decades now, institutional powers have been suffering a gradual loss of legitimacy. These powers could mitigate this loss only through the constant evocation of states of emergency, and through the need for security and stability that this emergency creates. For how long, and according to which modalities, can the present state of exception be prolonged? 

What is certain is that new forms of resistance will be necessary, and those who can still envision a politics to come should be unhesitatingly committed to them. The politics to come will not have the obsolete shape of bourgeois democracy, nor the form of the technological-sanitationist despotism that is replacing it. 

This necessarily brief account of Lacan’s perspicacious, albeit complex discourse theory enables one to make sense of the discursive struggles currently occurring in global space. And once one has an intellectual grasp of one’s adversary’s ‘master moves’ in this space, one can better prepare to counter them through the hysteric’s and analyst’s discourses.

Bert Olivier

University of the Free State.   

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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