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.

And more…

How to Read Marx by Peter Osborne— and Perdue’s modules on theory.

1- Commodity: Fetish and Hieroglyph:

This book begins by looking at how commodities take on the form of a hieroglyph by becoming symbols for society in the manner a hieroglyph is a symbol.

Osborne lets us know that a commodity is, at first sight, a trivial thing, without any special properties other than its use-value. Humanity, through its activities, changes the material of the commodity in order to make it useful. The example given is a wood, which can be altered to make a chair or table (9). The table is merely wood though, until humans make a thing out of it, create it as a commodity. However, “The mysterious character of a commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value” (ibid.).

This explanation leaves me confused, so here is what Marx said:

“A 
commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far
as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful. This 
property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour
required to appropriate its useful qualities. […] Use-values 
become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute
the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of 
that wealth” (my emphasis, Marx 46). A commodity then is separate from its use-value and only acquires value through human consumption. The value is determined only when the object has entered into the system of exchange.

Osborne goes on to explain the commodity-fetishism, which is not a fixed desire on an object, as he claims the term is commonly misread, rather “Marx’s account is not about fetishism as a psychological condition of a subject, whose desrie transforms the significance of particular objects. It is about the fetish character of the commodity itself, a special kind of object: specifically, the fetish character of ‘form’, the commodity-form” (11). The fetish is not on the object but on the value placed on the object, the “value-form of the commodity.”

I must pause here to note that Osborne’s prose, I feel at times, is much more dense than Marx’s prose. The book is sloppily written, but I will try to get out of it what I can, always going back to the original. Anyway—onward…

We have to step back: commodity- all commodities have exchange-value-value of the commodity in relation to other commodities.

All commodities have use-value- a property that satisfies needs.

Marx states that labour also has two characteristics:

Concrete labor: the skills to produce an object, such as planning, hammering, sawing, etc.
And
Abstract labor: the power put into making something (the man-hours). What happens in capitalist society is that abstract labor gets transformed into concrete labor when abstract labor gets bought and sold as a commodity, which means that abstract labor then has to produce exchange value, and of course, means that the employee will want surplus value from this commodity. (See previous post on Marxism).

Another explanation of use value vs. exchange calue (thanks to Perdue’s modules)

USE-VALUE vs. EXCHANGE-VALUE: The usefulness of a commodity vs. the exchange equivalent by which the commodity is compared to other objects on the market. Marx distinguishes between the use-value and the exchange value of the commodity. Use-value is inextricably tied to “the physical properties of the commodity” (126); that is, the material uses to which the object can actually be put, the human needs it fulfills. In the exchange of goods on the capitalist market, however, exchange-value dominates: two commodities can be exchanged on the open market because they are always being compared to a third term that functions as their “universal equivalent,” a function that is eventually taken over by money. Exchange-value must always be distinguished from use-value, because “the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values” (127). In capital, money takes the form of that equivalence; however, money in fact hides the real equivalent behind the exchange: labor. The more labor it takes to produce a product, the greater its value. Marx therefore concludes that “As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” (130).

[Side note—again from Perdue: On commodity: “COMMODITY: “an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (Marx, Capital 125) and is then exchanged for something else. When Marx speaks of commodities, he is particularly concerned with the “physical properties of the commodity” (126), which he associates closely with the use-value of an object. However, use-value does not automatically lead to a commodity: “He who satisfies his own need with the product of his own labour admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values” (131). Commodities, therefore, “possess a double form, i.e. natural form and value form” (138). (See Use-Value vs. Exchange-Value.) The physical body of the commodity is made up of 1) the material provided by nature (e.g. linen, gold, etc.); and 2) the labor expended to create it (see Marx, Capital 133). Note that a commodity can refer to tangilble things as well as more ephemeral products (e.g. a lecture). What matters is that something be exchanged for the thing.” ]

Osborne explains how a commodity acquires “mysterious” or “super-sensual” qualities, becoming “Das Ding” or “Thing” (which relates to Lacan’s use of Thing for the Real, with similar qualities—qualities that cannot be put into words, that are outside of verbalization, with mysterious power). The commodity has both perceptible properties easily seen and non-perceptible properties (14). The super-sensible aspect of a commodity is expressed through price so that we believe that an objects price embodies the object—not the labor. As Osborne explains “When we encounter a car, a computer or a washing machine, we see its price as an expression of the value of the sensible object itself, rather than of the labour it embodies” (15). We fail to notice the labor put into the product and merely look at its price as a reflection of the product. This relationship reveals society: the price arises out of society’s relation between objects, like hieroglyphs, these relations and commodities need special interpretations.

Commodities become a fetish when money gets involved and so the object is imbued with “special power” in the monetary value of the object, rather than on the labor of the object. This relation reveals the exploitation of the workers, who remain mostly invisible. We encounter the objects of our purchases only in a market where we exchange money and with the corporations who sell us our products, and we never really come into contact with the workers who created the product. As the modules explain: “In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become “the direct incarnation of all human labor” (187), much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process, “Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action” (187). Although value ultimately accrues because of human labor, people in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

All of this control in capitalist society occurs because of ideology, which is where I will turn my attentions to soon—I think…

I don’t know if I will return to the How to Read Marx book–the writing makes concepts more confusing and I don’t feel I am getting much out of reading it.

On a more specific literary interpretation:

Production and materialism:

For Marx, what sets humans apart from animals is history. We are real individuals, living with real material reality (which reflects the 18th primer). Furthermore, men are distinguished from animals in consciousness—when they begin to produce substances to live for themselves. We, humans, are distinguished because we produce ourselves: 1- in way we keep ourselves alive; 2-through sex, literally reproducing ourselves.

[side note: in terms of animal studies, these views are questionable. Animals have consciousness, produce means to live for themselves, keep themselves alive, and have sex to reproduce themselves. The argument might be made that Marxism can be applied to animals by analyzing animal’s base and superstructures since animals have rituals and “ideology” in a way, especially the more sophisticated primates and mammals]

Marx starts from material history—not ideas. [For example, texts, like everything else, are produced and determined by history and context, not freely shaped by ideas of an author. Those ideas an author has are shaped by his/her material reality and history]. Even the materiality of body affects the manner in which you think. If your body is being tortured, that will shape the way you think. If you are wearing certain clothing—fashionable clothing, tight clothing, comfortable clothing—will shape the way you think].

In terms of literary criticism: Some critics will look at author as if he/she didn’t exist in a certain historical moment. The critic examines the text in an idealist manner or non-materialist manner. Idealism—a way of thinking that divorces consciousness from history; 1-in the realm of which you fall down, scrape your knee, eat dinner, all of material history; 2- in the realm in which you think about this things (in 1) or imagine these things. Idealism believes these two points are separate.

Marxist critic believes, however, that an author is a product of his time and produced in a certain historical moment. The author, furthermore, is a producer of his time. An author takes raw materials (language, old texts, form, style, etc.) and will produce a story by transforming those material, creating a text. As in any production, a surplus remains that in Marxism is Signification: the text says more than the author meant to say because the text uses all these other voices, raw materials in its creation. Also, the text carries a tension between the author’s intention/meaning and the linguistic capacity of these other voices of the text.

A bourgeois critic thinks the author is to be found in the raw materials (the cotton) of the text, but a Marxist critic would say that the tension needs examination. The text becomes fissured, decentered. The text’s historical time dictates what the text can say so that there are certain things the text cannot say or even think. For a Marxist literary critic, the questions to explore are what is impossible for the text to say? What couldn’t the author say because of ideology? How does the text perform society?

I have recently been completely fascinated by Roland Barthes. I was reading his biography during winter break before I had my gallbladder removed and spent the next few weeks in pain and trying to figure out what to eat. Though I think a hospital is a nice introduction to Barthes and Mythologies. Why do we trust a doctor in scrubs and a white lab coat? Barthes and Saussure have the answer. It is this relevancy, as well as Barthes being one of the first thinkers to make the leap from structuralism to poststructuralism (as is better illustrated, I believe in “Death of the Author” which we will read later), that fascinates me so much.

In this selection, Barthes takes political photography for his analysis. He outlines the manner in which photography captures a signification; it is through photographs that a candidate can, not show his audience his plans for office, but show the audience who he is,

“What is transmitted through the photograph of the candidate are not his plans, but his deep motives[…] all this style of life of which he is at once the product, the example and the bait” (1320).

Barthes is explaining how photography manipulates the sign system that Saussure outlines. Saussure points out how signifiers (the sound image, specifically, let’s say– the letters) are arbitrarily assigned to signifieds (the actual concept out in the world). The way that we know what a signifier means is only through society. There is no inherent value, there is nothing concrete that says the letters c.a.t. have any actual relation to the furry little domesticated animal out in the world, other than society’s agreement that it does; hence, “The relation between the signifier and the signified is “arbitrary,” not “motivated” (by natural resemblance)” then later, “the sign is a convention that has to be learned and is not subject to individual will.”

What is wonderful about Barthes is the way he explores these concepts and takes them further. Barthes, more than being a semiologist that makes the move to postmodernism, is an acute analyzer of society. In Barthes there is the beginning of the move from hermeneutics (what does something mean) to semiology (how does something mean).

The way things mean has to do with the cultural context, and photography has the ability to capture cultures attitudes (this still goes on in political campaigns today; all we have to do is remember how much press Obama got for not wearing his flag pin). Photography offers not just the cultural context that the candidate is trying to capture, photography offers this context in a “pure” way, “a photograph is a mirror, what we are asked to read is the familiar, the known; it offers to the voter his own likeness, but clarified, exalted, superbly elevated into a type” (1320). The photograph offers up a mirror of ourselves as we wish to be, and shows us the candidate to us as ourselves–how many times do we hear during an election, “He is the sort of person you can sit and have a beer with” ?

Furthermore, there is an underlying Marxist critique going on in this analysis. The audience exposed to these pictures (we can extend this today to FoxNews) relate to them in some way: “Photography constitutes here a veritable blackmail by means of moral values,” so society votes for posters that promise change, but don’t really know what the change is, and hence Marx’s definition of ideology, “They do not know, but they are doing it.” Photography also becomes a fetish object in that it holds a power that we assign it “magically.” This is why Barthes is so great; because we should all be aware of the ideology around us everyday, and the best way to be aware of it is to realize how it means by way of Barthes’s analysis. By realizing that all these things we take as natural are really just mythologies.


My first reading for the semester is Marx/Engels’s excerpt from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. M/E outline how the worker is turned into a commodity, and how political economy (political science) has failed to acknowledge nor account for this; rather, political economy ignores this aspect of capitalism.

The worker becomes alienated from what he is producing because the worker no longer has any relation to his product. The worker does not sell any material object; he sells his labor and the rich sells the worker’s product: “With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as commodity” (653). As the worker becomes alienated from the things he produces, he also becomes alienated from himself. The worker, himself, becomes a commodity (a “thing”) because he is used as thing– something that is meant to produce labour. Furthermore, the worker has no contact with his finished product (and if he does the product is alien to him–it is something that the worker does not recognize as something he has made). He is alienated from the end product. And the object is alienated from the worker.

Furthermore, the more the worker works, the more the world is made alien to him and the more the inner-world of the worker is made alien. M/E give a compelling argument that anyone who has come home from a long day of work can relate to: “He is at home when he is not at working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour” (655).

The implication here is that the industrialized world of capitalism has alienated the labour of the worker from his end product. If a farmer tills the land, he sees his end product, can eat it, can sell it, himself. With industrialization and capitalism, a worker works in a factory making objects he never sees and that he does not sell. If the worker makes a part of a pen in a factory, he is completely alienated from that product when he sees it in the world. Furthermore, without this connection to his labour, the worker no longer works at what he loves but rather works in order to feed and house himself.

The beginnings of what is about to be written can be seen here. The concern of the working class and the exploitation of the working class by the rich are beginning to be analyzed here. This reading will continue in German Ideology, which I have to read next.