Toward a Feminist Lacanian Left
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Toward a Feminist Lacanian Left

Psychoanalytic Theory and Intersectional Politics

Alicia Valdés

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Toward a Feminist Lacanian Left

Psychoanalytic Theory and Intersectional Politics

Alicia Valdés

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While traditional feminist readings on antagonism have pivoted around the sole axis of sex and/or gender, a broader and intersectional approach to antagonism is much needed; this book offers an innovative, feminist, and discursive reading on the Lacanian concept of sexual position as a way to problematize the concepts of political antagonism and political subjects.

Can Lacanian psychoanalysis offer new grounds for feminist politics? This discursive mediation of Lacan's work presents a new theoretical framework upon which to articulate proposals for intersectional political theory. The first part of this book develops the theoretical framework, and the second part applies it to the construction of woman's identity in European politics and economy. It concludes with notes for a feminist political and economic praxis through community currencies and municipalism.

The interdisciplinary approach of this book will appeal to scholars interested in the fields of psychoanalysis, feminisms, and political philosophy as well as multidisciplinary scholars interested in discourse theory, sexuality and gender studies, cultural studies, queer theory, and continental philosophy. Students at master's and PhD level will also find this a useful feminist introduction to Lacanian psychoanalysis, discourse, and gender.

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Part I
Toward a Feminist Lacanian Left

Chapter 1 Reality as a Discursive Operation

Before engaging in a feminist reading of Lacan, certain fundamental Lacanian theoretical notions need to be explained. Nevertheless, this introduction does not deepen into the different and multiple appropriations of specific Lacanian notions by the authors of the Lacanian Left. Instead, this introduction aims to clarify certain notions from Lacanian psychoanalysis applicable to the analysis of Reality. However, central concepts that are missing in this introduction are explained in the upcoming chapters.

Toward a Lacanian Discourse Analysis

One of Lacan’s most famous theoretical articulations is his study on language and discourse, which can be described as a theoretical corpus with a high potential for political philosophy. Nevertheless, and as Callum Neill affirms, “Lacan was not a discourse analyst and there is not already a clearly demarcated and established approach to analysing discourse which would claim to the name Lacanian Discourse Analysis” (2013, p. 334). However, several attempts have been made to develop such a theoretical body. While many authors of the Lacanian Left have managed to start building a theoretical body from Lacanian thought applicable to politics, the first and leading development of a potential Lacanian Discourse Analysis applicable to the field of political theory was developed by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in their book Hegemony and Social Strategy (2001). A book in which they show the importance of signifiers, in the form of nodal points, for constructing political discourse. Nevertheless, it is vital to highlight that, as well as a Lacanian Discourse Analysis does not exist as such, the idea of a Lacanian Left, as Stavrakakis points out, does not embrace a homogenous group that shares an exact and unique position or approach toward politics (2007).
In this sense, this book attempts to grasp the formulation of a theoretical corpus that will analyze how Reality is constructed through a political discursive operation departing from Ernesto Laclau’s work. However, while the book shares fundamental conceptualizations developed by Laclau in discourse analysis, it differs from other formulations of his work, such as his conceptualization of the Real and jouissance. Furthermore, the feminist approach of this book also implies a renovation of his work.

Discourse and Reality

The relation between discourse and Reality in Lacan’s work is easily observable. In his Seminar XX, Lacan affirms that “[t]here’s no such thing as pre-discursive reality. Every reality is founded and determined by a discourse” (1998, p. 32). Thus, Reality can be seen as a product of a specific discursive operation. In this sense, Lacan defines ontology as a worldview discourse, a philosophical discourse that attempts to embrace Reality as what it is. In this sense, ontology results problematic.
On the one hand, ontology defines Reality, not the Real, because Reality exists and can be deciphered by language. On the other hand, the Real has the status of ex-sistence, which impedes deciphering the Real using language. Lacan also points out the problem that ontology brings by dwelling on the verb to be: “a verb that is not even, in the complete field of the diversity of languages, employed in a way we could qualify as universal—to produce it as such is a highly risky enterprise” (1998, p. 31). As Yannis Stavrakakis puts it, “Lacan suggests that social reality is not a stable referent, a depository of identity, but a semblance created by the play of symbolization and fantasmatic coherence […] Reality is always constructed at the level of meaning and discourse” (1999, p. 54). In his Seminar XVII. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan manages to define discourse “as a necessary structure that goes beyond speech” (2007, p. 12). It is important to clarify here that, as Lacan affirms, “discourse can clearly subsist without words. It subsists in certain fundamental relations which would literally not be able to be maintained without language. Through the instrument of language, a number of stable relations are established” (2007, p. 13). The fundamental relation between signifiers thus forms language. The result of the relations between signifiers is the production of signifying chains, which are characterized by two different properties:
  • Metonymy: which is the connection of one word to another; this property gives language a sense of continuity.
  • Metaphor: which is the exchange of one word by another and gives the sense of combination.
These two properties, as Stavrakakis points out, give signification (1999). Nevertheless, the process of signification is limited; therefore, metonymy and metaphor are not infinite. As Stavrakakis notes, when analyzing the development of the point de capiton in the seminar The Psychoses, signification is stopped by the role of specific signifiers that Lacan calls points de capiton (1999). A similar description is given by Lacan in his Seminar XVII when he says that S1, the Master Signifier, “intervenes in a signifying battery […] forming a network of what is called knowledge” (2007, p. 13). Thus, from these two theorizations, points de capiton are Master Signifiers that limit signifying chains and provide meaning, forming knowledge. The role of points de capiton is to link signifiers to signifiers.
The point de capiton fixes the signifier to a signifying knot and not to an object […] the existence of points de capiton never produces an eternally stable meaning, only a relative and temporary—albeit necessary—fixation; nevertheless, this fixation, most of the time, mythically invested with the properties of a final one.
(Stavrakakis, 1999, p. 60)
Two main ideas emerge from this affirmation. First, Master Signifiers that work as points de capiton can change; they are not eternal. Second, points de capiton establish a close connection to an illusionary, fantasmatic object that provides these Master Signifiers with the image of eternity and completeness. It is in this theoretical frame that Laclau sets his work, as Yannis Stavrakakis and Jason Glynos affirm, “[c]learly, Laclau’s work aims at showing the discursive nature of social objectivity: it understands human reality as socially constructed and articulated in discourse” (2004, p. 203). Reality, as Bruce Fink also affirms while analyzing Lacan’s work, is a creation of the Symbolic as a discourse,
is that which is named by language and can thus be thought and talked about. The social construction of reality implies a world that can be designated and discussed with the words provided by a social group’s (or subgroup’s) language. What cannot be said in its language is not part of its reality; it does not exist, strictly speaking.
(1995, p. 25)
Two different ideas spring from the above extract. Firstly, that which cannot be said does not properly exist. What leads to the issue of power relations and language: Caesar dominus et supra grammaticam (the emperor is ruler over grammar as well). As this part aims to illustrate, subjectivities are also distributed by discursive mechanisms, as Lacan illustrates in his Seminar XX with the sexuation formulas (1998, p. 78). Thus, discourse operates in an ontic way by establishing what can be talked about and, in an ontological way, by establishing who may, or may not, speak. Thus, both the ontic and the ontological are results of discursive operations. However, this chapter focuses on the ontological level of discourse as political issues of unequal distribution spring from an unequal distribution of political subjectivities. Thus, it is necessary to analyze who the subjects that enter discursive operations are. As Lacan says, discourse is
a mode of functioning or a utilization of language qua link […] is a link between those who speak. You can immediately see where we are headed—it’s not just anyone who speaks, of course; it’s beings, beings we are used to qualifying as ‘living’, and it would, perhaps, be rather difficult to exclude the dimension of life from those who speak.
(1998, p. 30)
Therefore, the capacity to speak does not imply a subject’s entrance into the link of discourse. By referring to beings and life itself, an ontological differentiation between subjects determines whether a subject enters the signifying chain as a speaker. Therefore, those who speak, who enter into discourse, understood as a signifying chain, are specific beings that are qualified as living. This ontological differentiation is also present in the theoretical work developed by Judith Butler on grievable and livable lives (2004, 2009). It is necessary to note here the main ideas that can be extracted from the relation between Butler and Lacan for the analysis of reality as a discursive operation. Firstly, as Butler observed, not every life is conceptualized as livable nor living (2009). This unequal conceptualization takes back to the already mentioned idea that the production of discourse is relational and takes place within unequal power relations. Since not every subject is conceived as living, not every subject can enter the signifying chain by producing signification, in other words, as speakers. We suppose that Lacan is aware of this disparity when he affirms that
Every dimension of being is produced in the wake of the master’s discourse—the discourse of he who, proffering the signifier, expects therefrom one of its link effects that must not be neglected, which is related to the fact that the signifier commands. The signifier is, first and foremost, imperative.
(1998, p. 32)
In the quote above, Lacan refers to a specific relational structure that discourse can take, the Master’s Discourse. In this structure, there is the operation of introducing the (Master) signifier that functions fixating the signifying chain—precariously and temporarily. As a second idea from the relation between Butler and Lacan, for a subject to impose this intervening Master Signifier, the first condition is for the subject to be living. Furthermore, the Master’s Discourse structure is not a temporal stage in the construction of Reality as a discursive operation but a form of discourse that operates continuously and prohibits the entrance of certain subjects categorized as non-living. In other words, there is a constant struggle to be able to impose the Master Signifier, a struggle that is commonly known as the struggle for hegemony.
Summing up, by introducing Butler to Lacan, Lacan’s words can be radicalized through the idea that not only the establishment of points de capiton is reduced to power relations, but every relational operation in discourse responds to a struggle for power to control and govern inclusion and exclusion from the Symbolic. Thus, not only does discourse have its limits, as limits of the signifying chain itself, but they also set limits to who can produce signification and meaning. Therefore, discourse operates in two different levels, establishing the limits of what can be spoken about—ontic—and the limits of who can speak—ontological.
Discourse establishes what exists and who exists, which leads to speaking of that and those who are not part of the signifying chain as speakers, leading to the Heideggerian differentiation between existence and ex-sistence analyzed by Bruce Fink (1995). As Fink affirms, ex-sistence
was first introduced into French in translations of Heidegger (e.g., Being and Time), as a translation for the Greek ekstasis and the German Ekstase. The root meaning of the term in Greek is ‘standing outside of’ or ‘standing apart from’ something […] Lacan uses it to talk about ‘an existence which stands apart from,’ which insists as it were from the outside; something not included on the inside, something which, rather than being intimate, is ‘extimate’.
(1995, p. 122)
Thus, the translation and shifting of the Lacanian theoretical corpus toward an analysis of social reality in political terms need to embrace the discussion of subjects that enter or are excluded from processes, mechanisms, and institutions. Thus, those who are not seen as living, as speaking, only ex-sist. Ex-sistence refers to a different ontological status characterized by the fact that the subject stands outside of something. In the Lacanian analysis this book proposes, subjects stand out of Reality; in other words, it stands out of a specific relational discursive operation that founds Reality through the imposition of a Master Signifier. On the other hand, and opposing ex-sistence to existence, existence refers to the ontological status of the subject that stands inside the discursive relation proper of the Master’s Discourse. In this sense, if existence refers to the ontological status of beings that inhabit Reality, ex-sistence, as there is no pre-discursive Reality, refers to the ontological status of the beings that inhabit the Real, “[t]he real is perhaps best understood as that which has not yet been symbolized, remains to be symbolized, or even resists symbolization; and it may perfectly well exist ‘alongside’ and in spite of a speaker’s considerable linguistic capabilities” (Fink, 1995, p. 25). The political approach this book endorses is thus interested in analyzing specific questions about the Real. Does every subject...