Social Theory: Jacques Lacan

15th Jul 2022 by Emanuelle Degli Esposito

Social Theory: Jacques Lacan

As a region defined through its historical relationship with colonialism, where national and state borders represent nothing more than lines in the sand – both literally and figuratively – political life in the Middle East has been characterised by scholars as precarious, unstable, and subject to the variable fluctuations of political and social upheavals. Questions of identity, in particular – whether that be attempts to differentiate individuals along tribal, ethnic, religious, or political lines, the (re)emergence of ethno-religious and sectarian conflict, or the manipulation of regional and local identity by political elites – underpin the fabric of social life in the region. For this reason, bringing a critical conceptual apparatus to bear on the creation, sustenance, and politicisation of identity is crucial in order to develop a thoughtful understanding of political life in the Middle East. While traditional scholarship on identity in the region has tended to fall within three broad schools of thought – primordialist, rationalist, and constructivist – none of the theories parse a distinction between identities and the self, as borrowed from the literature on psychology. As a result, there has been a proliferation of studies on identity politics in the Middle East that fall into the trap of equating individuals and/or states with the identities they profess, therefore flattening the terms of the debate. Here, I introduce the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and map out the ways in which the Lacanian distinction between the individual and the subject can provide a useful toolkit to theorising the dynamics of identity in the Middle East. 

Identity and the subject of discourse: An overview of Lacanian theory

For Lacan, the world is structured according to three realms: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic (Lacan, 1958, 2004, 2006; Frosh, 2012; Laclau, 1990; Stavrakakis, 1999; Žižek, 1999, 2006). On a psychic level, the self exists in a pre-social state as raw, unmediated desire, unbounded by the logic of social order – this is the realm of the Real, the excess that escapes the constraints of the other two orders and defies explanation or understanding. However, since the Real is always in a position of excess and can never be fully expressed (because expression itself requires language, which is socially constructed), it is in the Imaginary and Symbolic orders that the desire of the individual comes to be articulated. In this way, Lacanian theory is predicated on a conceptual distinction between the pre-social, unmediated self (or individual) and the (socially-constructed) subject as expressed through the projection of certain images of subjective identity within the Imaginary realm on the one hand, and through the discursive articulation of social and political identity within the Symbolic realm on the other (Lacan, 2002, 2006)(Lacan, 2006). In Lacanian theory, then, the Symbolic order is the ensemble of signs and practices that make up the social order, and is structured according to the logic of language – in other words, the Symbolic is akin to the concept of the discursive discussed above. In order to become recognised as a social being, the self must submit their pre-social desires and drives to the social logic of Symbolic order via the medium of language (Lacan, 2002). Only by aligning themselves with particular discursive subject positions can individuals gain meaning as social subjects.  In this way, language and discourse come to determine both what individuals can say and the potential ways they have of speaking about the social world and their place within it. (Soler, 2014)

This brief outline of Lacanian theory helps to illuminate the way in which the cohesive pre-social self posited by both realist and constructivist theories of identity is marked as problematic from the start. Indeed, “psychoanalysis is founded on the rejection of traditional individualist conceptualisations of the subject” (Stavrakakis, 2008: 1037–8). According to Lacan, there is simply no recognisable self that exists prior to or outside of the Symbolic realm; rather, what exists is an ensemble of unmediated desires that are given form and substance through submission to the discursive logic of the Symbolic order through identification with the subject. In this sense, “the ego, the reflexive ‘I’ (the Cartesian subject) is a fantasy. It does not exist as a cohesive entity” (Ewing, 1997: 27).  Rather, the self can only gain meaningful existence through identification with the subject by articulating itself as an “I” or a “me” within the discursive Symbolic order (Epstein, 2010; Laclau, 1994). This framework takes seriously the discursive construction of social reality while refusing to fall into the poststructuralist trap of reducing individuals to mere products of discourse – instead, there is an active and agential process of identification that is required in order for the individual to enter the Symbolic realm that is nonetheless constrained by the discursive contours operating within the particular context in which that identification is made. Within a Lacanian framework, therefore, we move from an essentialist to a processual understanding of identity (Guillaume, 2007; Lloyd, 2005) where “identity” does not refer to some property or facet of the self but rather to an active practice of identification with the subject of discourse. 

However, because this Symbolic order is socially constructed and never of the individual’s own making – and thus “other” – the individual is necessarily alienated in entering it since it can never fully encompass the entirety of their interior psychic life (Frosh, 2010; Glynos and Stavrakakis, 2008; Hook and Neill, 2008; Lacan, 2004, 2006; Laclau, 1994). This is the key to the Lacanian notion of the “lacking subject”. Since every discursive realm is defined and constrained by what lies outside it – its constitutive other – and is thus never complete in and of itself, all discursive systems (including that of the Symbolic order) are necessarily incomplete and lacking (Fink, 1995; Lacan, 2004; Laclau, 1990; Laclau and Mouffe, 2000; Žižek, 1999). What this means is that the discursive subject that forms the core of social identity is itself lacking. As Verhaeghe (1998: 175) lucidly puts it in relation to the notion of personal identity: “the very kernel of our personality is an empty space: peeling off layer after layer of identification in search of one’s personality, one ends up with a void, with the original lack.” For this reason, any attempt by the individual to identify with an identity category (understood as the subject of discourse) is therefore equally incomplete and lacking; and thus precipitates a constant re-articulation and re-iteration in a vain attempt to seek the impossible fullness of identity: “What we have then… is not identities but identifications, a series of failed identifications” (Stavrakakis, 2002: 29).

In a Lacanian reading of subjectivity, then, the individual is trapped in an incorrigible bind; on the one hand, “one has to identify with something” (Laclau, 1994: 3; emphasis added), while on the other hand the subject with which the individual seeks to identify is exposed as hollow and lacking (Campbell, 1998; Doty, 2000; Epstein, 2008; Hansen, 2006; Smith, 2000; Zehfuss, 2001). For this reason, the process of identification is never complete and constantly in flux; perpetually shifting and reiterating itself in a doomed attempt to paper over the silences and cracks inherent in every discursive construction. Such an active and (re)iterative understanding of identity also takes seriously the differential and contingent nature of various discursive power structures across various times and contexts. Within this framework, then, the notion of any kind of coherent or stable identity emerges as a fantasy; in the words of Stuart Hall: identity “is, then, a process of articulation, a suturing, an over-determination… There is always ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ – an over-determination or a lack, but never a proper fit, a totality” (Hall, 2000: 17). This is where the Lacanian critique of ideology comes into force.

Lacan and the critique of ideology

(Althusser, 1976)

Lacanian theory builds on the materialist concept of ideology developed by scholars such as Marx (Marx, 2010; Marx and Engels, 1972), Mannheim (Mannheim, 2013), and Althusser (Althusser, 1976, 2006) in which the consciousness of individuals is determined by the workings of the social world. Under such readings, ideology functions primarily as a “mental fiction” (Mannheim, 2013) produced by the ensemble of material practices and that works to maintain “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser, 1976: 152–159). Lacan, and Lacanian-inspired theorists such as Laclau and Žižek, take this move one step further, exposing the way in which ideology functions not only to obscure the material workings of the social world but also to paper over the discursive instability inherent in any form of identity construction by binding individuals to specific iterations of the subject through the workings of fantasy.

For Lacan, ideology cannot simply be reduced to a rationalist preoccupation with “conscious, well-articulated systems of belief” (Eagleton, 2014: 221); rather, ideological formations involve attempts to “fix” the instability of the Symbolic order by papering over the lack inherent in any discursive articulation. In other words, ideology can be understood to represent “the point where power impacts upon certain utterances and inscribes itself tacitly within them” (Eagleton, 2014: 223). The way in which ideology performs this function is through the inscription of particular words and phrases that work to structure the meaning of a particular discourse (what Lacan calls points de capiton). These points de capiton often take the form of what Laclau and Mouffe call “empty signifiers”: terms such as “justice”, “equality”, “order”, etc. whose function it is to paper over the lack of social closure within any given discourse (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001). Of course, the way in which such empty signifiers function are contextual and contingent – and are themselves dependent on the socially-constructed meanings of the discursive Symbolic order – and thus expose the way in which discursive power alignments shift and rearrange themselves over time and across contexts. 

Žižek, in his application of Lacanian theory, takes this deconstruction of ideology one step further. For Žižek, the empty signifiers that work to “fix” or “quilt” discourse are themselves complicit in the Symbolic order, and take the form of particular norms that help to maintain the socio-political status quo (Žižek, 1989). These “master signifiers” do more than simply “fix” the meaning of particular discourses; they also work to structure the desire of the pre-social self by managing its entry into the socio-symbolic order. For Žižek, it is ideological fantasy that works to smooth over the inherent gaps in the system of signification by shaping the articulation of desire:

Fantasy thus animates and manages desire; it teaches us how to desire. But just as fantasy can never live up to its promises (because no fullness exists), so desire is never satiated; it is condemned to repetition and failure in search of the missing object. (Kapoor, 2014: 1134)

In this sense, while the pre-social self desires the fullness of identity promised through identification with the subject of discourse, this desire can never be entirely fulfilled since the subject itself is lacking (as discussed above). It is this fundamental failure that lies at the heart of the power of ideology; ideology works to bind the self to (various iterations of) the subject by promoting the fantasy that its desires can and will be fulfilled – but the very impossibility of this fulfilment is what leads to a sense of dissatisfaction and thus requires a perpetual process of (re)identification with the subject in the first place. The pre-social self is thus trapped in a never-ending cycle of desire and alienation, in which it is “sold” the lie of the fullness of identity – a fullness it desperately desires. Ideology thus works to paper over the fundamental lack at the heart of subjective identity by promoting the fantasy of “identity”. 

Reading Lacan in the Middle East: Applications and potential pitfalls

The above is a necessarily brief overview of some of the key elements of Lacanian theory. I have shown that one of the key contributions of Lacanian discourse analysis is to allow for a conceptual distinction to be made between individuals (the self) and identities (the subject of discourse), without reducing the former to the latter. In practice, this means that claims can be made about political and social subjects in the Middle East without requiring that these claims also apply to diverse individuals under study. For example, it would be possible to interrogate the forms of sectarian subjectivities engendered by political regimes in countries such as Syria or Iraq, without suggesting that Syrians or Iraqis themselves are necessarily sectarian(Degli Esposti, 2018). Similarly, the Lacanian foregrounding of antagonism and alienation produced by the lacking subject throws into sharp relief the contingent nature of individual and collective practices of identification and calls into question the discursive underpinnings and ideological fantasies that underpin subjectivity. (Eastwood, 2017, 2018)A Lacanian lens thus allows us primarily to view all social identities as products of contingent and antagonistic discursive power (and therefore political by definition) and therefore to study the workings of such identities through a methodological focus on the articulatory practices of identification. Methodologically, this means that we are able to study the political life of the Middle East through a focus on different identity discourses, whether they be expressed by states, groups, elites, or individuals.(Epstein, 2008)(Stavrakakis, 2005)(Stavrakakis, 2003)(Wilson, 2014)

Finally, adopting a Lacanian-inspired approach to ideological fantasy exposes the extent to which the attempt to constuct cohesive or coherent social and political identities in the Middle East are fundamentally lacking, and predicated on a desire for the (impossible) fullness of identification. In this sense, the focus of analysis becomes the ways in which socio-symbolic discourses structure the forms of subjectivity available to individuals, and avoids investing too much analytical weight in any given identity discourse. This allows us, on the one hand, to maintain conceptual distance from individuals and the identities they may (or may not) identify with, as well as taking these identities seriously as socio-symbolic products in and of themselves. Further, by emphasising the role ideology in the formation of political identity it is possible to foreground the role of fantasy and desire, thus providing a theoretical framework for understanding what makes these identities ‘stick’. 

While adopting a Lacanian lens can thus prove a useful analytical tool when it comes to understanding political and social identities in the Middle East, there nevertheless remain some potential pitfalls when it comes to applying Lacanian theory to the study of identity politics. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that Lacan’s writings themselves are often dense, obscure, and difficult to penetrate. As a result, much of the academic literature that draws on Lacanian theory relies on secondary readings or applications of his thought; most notably, Slavoj Žižek and Ernesto Laclau(Laclau and Mouffe, 2001; Žižek, 1989, 2000). While this is not a problem in and of itself, it does mean that studies using Lacanian theory are often several levels removed from Lacan’s thought itself, and constitute more of a reimagining or reinterpretation of Lacanian psychoanalysis, rather than a pure application. A related pitfall is that since Lacan continued to write, speak, and conduct clinical observations for the best part of four decades, his oeuvre can seem somewhat incoherent and sometimes even self-contradictory. Coupled with the fact that many Lacanian-inspired scholars sought to imitate Lacan’s own writing style, resulting in what Yannis Stavrakakis has called “an obscurantist antisystematic tradition in Lacanian literature” (Stavrakakis, 2002: 6). While this may leave Lacanian theory open to the criticism that it is imprecise or impenetrable, it also allows scholars the conceptual room to bring their own experiences and imaginations to bear on the insights offered by Lacan. In this sense, Lacanian theory is best used as a point of inspiration or departure, rather than a perfect model for studying human behaviour. 

Finally, as a psychoanalyst interested in the interiority of human experience, Lacan himself never explicitly offered any kind of analytical framework for the study of political life or political identity. In this sense, any application of Lacan to the identity politics of the Middle East necessarily represents a point of departure from strict adherence to Lacanian thought. Nevertheless, as I hope I have shown above, the Lacanian understanding of the distinction between the individual and the subject, and the workings of ideological fantasy, offer productive starting places for understanding the significance, power, and machinations of political identity in the Middle East and beyond.

Key readings:

Epstein C (2010) Who speaks? Discourse, the subject and the study of identity in international politics. European Journal of International Relations XX(X): 1–24. 

Eastwood J (2018) ‘Rethinking militarism as ideology: The critique of violence after security.’ Security Dialogue 49(1-2): 44-56.

Lacan J (2002) Ecrits: A selection. Fink B (ed.), WW Norton & Company.

Lacan J (2006) The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.

Stavrakakis Y (2002) Lacan and the Political. Routledge.

Žižek S (2006) How to read Lacan. London: Granta books.

References

Althusser L (1976) Essays on ideology.

Degli Esposti E (2018) Sectarianising the Shi’a Subject: Identity, Ideology, and Unconscious in the Iraqi Shi’a Diaspora. Available from: https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/30268/.

Eastwood J (2017) Ethics as a Weapon of War: Militarism and Morality in Israel. Cambridge University Press.

Eastwood J (2018) Rethinking militarism as ideology: The critique of violence after security. Security Dialogue 49(1–2): 44–56.

Epstein C (2008) The power of words in international relations: Birth of an anti-whaling discourse. Mit Press.

Lacan J (2002) Ecrits: A selection. Fink B (ed.), WW Norton & Company.

Lacan J (2006) The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.

Laclau E (1994) Introduction: The making of political identities. In: Laclau E (ed.), The making of political identities, London: Verso, pp. 1–8.

Laclau E and Mouffe C (2001) Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. Verso.

Mannheim K (2013) Ideology and utopia. Routledge.

Soler C (2014) Lacan - The Unconscious Reinvented. London, UNKNOWN: Karnac Books. Available from: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/soas-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1684460.

Stavrakakis Y (2002) Lacan and the Political. Routledge.

Stavrakakis Y (2003) Politics and Religion: On the " Politicization " of Greek Church Discourse. Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21. Available from: http://users.clas.ufl.edu/ckos... (accessed 28 April 2017).

Stavrakakis Y (2005) Passions of identification: discourse, enjoyment, and European identity. In: Discourse Theory in European Politics, Springer, pp. 68–92.

Wilson J (2014) Fantasy machine: philanthrocapitalism as an ideological formation. Third World Quarterly 35(7): 1144–1161.

Žižek S (1989) The sublime object of ideology. Verso.

Žižek S (2000) The ticklish subject: The absent centre of political ontology. Verso.