Here are some sloppy ideas on Lacan’s influence on subjectivity. Comps are right around the corner, and I’m starting to freak out a little. Today will be spent on literature and fiction though. I’ll get back to the theory this weekend!

Freud and Lacan contributed to a radically new understanding of the subject as decentered, without a fully-present center that the subject controls. Freud took the idea that we are in control of our minds away with his introduction of the unconscious that subject are unaware of, and Lacan further complicated the subject by explaining how even “consciousness is structured like a language.” A result of Lacan’s structuralism, he posits that since language structures consciousness, the subject’s understanding of itself gets dispersed over sliding signifiers, never really knowing or understanding itself. This idea of the subject as constructed by language heavily influenced neo-marxist’s, such as Althusser and Zizek, ideas of ideology, as well as gender theorist, such as Irigaray. Lacan’s influence manifest most poignantly in the manner ideology affects the subject, who is constructed by language. These thinkers all use Lacan’s contributions to subject formation to reconfigure ways of thinking about the subject caught in ideology.

Althusser examines capitalism and the ideology at work within the system to explain how ideology (and capitalism) reproduces itself perpetually through Ideological State apparatuses (ISA). While this examination of ideology’s control over a population springs from Marxism, Althusser applies Lacan to Marxism in order to explain how subjects consent to ideology unconsciously. Maintaining the Marxist stress on economic causes, Althusser furthers this analysis to explain how ISAs function with autonomy. Althusser begins with Lacan’s concept of the Imaginary stage, the preverbal stage babies inhabit; at this point, consciousness is not Marx’s “false consciousness” but primordial. For Lacan, the subject then moves into language and the symbolic stages, also the place where the subject identifies with itself in the mirror, at the mirror stage. Althusser uses Lacan’s subject formation to explain how the subject is born into ideology, which, much like the Freudian unconscious, dictates how the subject behaves in society. Althusser posits that a subject’s individuality gets generated through social forces, and he uses Lacan’s mirror stage to explain how the subject identities itself in society.

Althusser states that ideology works on the idea of a Sign, where, in ideology, the sign is always (mis)recognized. While a subject might think that its actions are freely chosen, ideology sees to it that (unconsciously) its acts are pre-chosen. The subject, following Lacan’s subjectivity, sees an idealized version of itself, taught through ISAs and enforced by RSAs, in capitalism, but as it is in the mirror stage, this self is misrecognized; the subject puts itself in an idealized position in the capitalist system without realizing that it has no control over the system.

This analysis leaves a very bleak view of subjectivity, for how can a subject escape society’s trap when, as Marx put it “They do not know it, but they are doing it”? Althusser offers no solutions for the subject to escape. In Reading Capital, Althusser posits that more than answers, the questions posed need rethinking because the questions were based on the ideological answers already in misrecognition with the capitalist system. Furthermore, Althusser leaves very little room for critique since any critique arises out of the very ideology that has subjects tapped. More traditional Marxists critique Althusser’s lack of discussing class struggle, but if subjects are born into ideology, then the very idea of class and the structures of society arise out of ideology; therefore, by analyzing ideology, Althusser does—even if not directly—examine social structures. Lacan, through Althusser, contributes to rethinking Marxism, generally, and to thinking of ideology on the subject, specifically. Another problem to contemplate is who deploys this ideology? If subjects are all born into language, then the people in charge of ideology are also part of ideology and the analysis becomes a never-ending Russian doll or mirrors reflecting each other. Although, keeping Althusser’s idea about asking the correct questions in mind, Zizek examines ideology and the way it works in society as well, acknowledging that philosophy’s job is not to give answers but to ask the right questions.

Zizek strives to ask the correct questions, examining ideology and furthering what Althusser begins: ideology as the “thing” we participate in without knowing it. The subject’s belief in ideology establishes belief before the belief in ISAs. Again, just as in Althusser’s analysis of Lacan, the subject comes into ideology in the symbolic when the subject comes into language. Language, then, encompasses the subject—the space in which the subject lives (in a Heideggerian way, language is where the subject (Being) dwells). Zizek’s interest lies in the Lacanian Real and in the many manifestations of ideology, and how the Real accounts for language’s failure. The Real lies both within and outside of the subject, resisting the Symbolic’s attempts to describe it but also revealing the Real’s existence. Zizek views fantasy—object a—as a space that conceals the gap, which only proves the existence of the Real. The gap becomes what the subject most desires, imagining the other as possessing the thing that is desired. This “thing,” the gap, the desire of the subject that the other has, gets filled by ideology. Ideology tells the subject what to desire; much in the same manner that Althusser claims subjects follow ideology without awareness, Zizek claims that ideology tells the subject what to desire. Additionally, Zizek conceives of the Big Other as purely symbolic, yet having the power to order the subject’s actions. The Big Other is the institutions (ISAs for Althusser) that order reality, and the Real gets disavowed in favor of the symbolic. The Real, however, is “radically ambiguous…it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance” (Zizek, Looking Awry 29). The Real then manifest itself both in ordering the symbloci universe of the subject as well as intruding and collapsing that universe.

Zizek posits that postmodernism claims that we live in an era of post-ideology; while he claims that we are actually more in ideology than ever, only a cynical ideology. Therefore, Zizek explains that the Real causes conflicts that arise because of social reality, the symbolic order. The conflicts that arise from the Real fall outside of language, but the conflicts are seen in the manner ideology works on subjects. Ideology conceals the lacuna opened up by attempts to thematize the Real, which falls outside of language, and leads Zizek to purport that objective truth remains impossible but that ideology must exist since this antagonism exist, which is what Zizek analyzes.

Zizek views subject formation in much the same way as Althusser in that the subject is born into language and language is ideology. For Zizek, ideology hides the real problems and causes the wrong questioning, a notion Althusser already analyzed. For Zizek the way to ask the right questions is to step back and explore the moments of the Real that erupt into reality. Lacan’s influence on Zizek is pervasive; as Zizek explains, he uses Lacan as his theoretical base to analyze everything from Marx, Hegel, and Kant to Hitchcock, film nior, and popular culture. Lacan’s biggest contribution to Zizek is in the former’s later conception of Real and the barrier between the Real and reality. Zizek can be said to contribute to Lacan’s work by continuing this analysis that Lacan start later in his career. Both Altheusser and Zizek build on Lacan’s ideas of the Law of the father to explore ideology. In Lacan’s theory, the child meets the Law of the father to realize its place in a network where its choices in that network are already determined, established by the society it was born into. Just as the subject in ideology is born into ideology and must follow the law of the society it is born into.

The problem of being born into the regulations of society manifest in the manner society determines sexuality, which Irigaray critiques. Lacan’s contribution to Irigaray, again, lies in his theory of subject formation. For Irigaray, however, Lacan excludes women. In the mirror stage, the infant projects an imaginary body that is misrecognized; then in the symbolic stage—entrance to language—the infant further begins to create an ego. Irigaray agrees with Lacan on these points, and with the cultural influence on how the subject sees its body biologically. The problem for Irigaray, emerges in Lacan’s master-signifier being the phallus, thus privileging the male. The imaginary construction of the body holds the male body in higher esteem throughout Western discourses of science, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, leaving women out. The subject, for Lacan, must have a relationship to the phallus to attain social existence.

For Lacan, the infant wants to usurp the Master Signifier and have all of the mother’s attention. When the baby realizes the law of the father prohibits the infant from taking over, the baby begins to realize its place in society, acquiring its own relationship to the phallus. Sexual difference arises out of having or being the phallus. These processes happen through language, which Irigaray explores, especially how gender arises out of cultural constructs bound up with language. Therefore, Lacan’s contributes to Irigaray by establishing her departure point, the gendering of the subject through language (ideology for Althusser and Zizek). She takes a radical step back from Lacan, refusing to categorize or explain female subjectivity, caliming that doing so would interfere with women redefining themselves; she then posits the inability to describe the feminine outside of male hegemony. Her project becomes problematic, in much the same manner as Derrida’s: how can anyone redefine women (even women) if everyone is caught in male vocabulary that has excluded women. Lacan, himself, failed to realize how immersed within ideology he was when he privileged males over females, leaving females out. Nonetheless, Lacan gave Irigaray the vocabulary to begin discussing the exclusion of females from Western thought.

Lacan helps all of these thinkers examine the subject caught up in ideology because of language. Society establishes a language and forgets the power of that language to control culture and thought. Lacan helps Althusser, Zizek, and Irigaray formulate subjects and subjects place within society, and that place is a precarious one since the subject is so radically fragmented form the mirror stage on, and these thinkers focus on that fragmentation and how hegemonic powers take advantage of that fragmentation to control it populous.