Homo Sacer as the Object of the Discourse of the University

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L'envers de la psychanalyse, Seminar XVII (1969-1970) on the four discourses, is Lacan's response to the events of 1968 - its premise is best captured as his reversal of the well-known anti-structuralist graffiti from the Paris walls of 1968 "Structures do not walk on the streets!" - if anything, this Seminar endeavors to demonstrate how structures DO walk on the streets, i.e. how structural shifts CAN account for the social outbursts like that of the 1968. Instead of the one symbolic Order with its set of a priori rules which guarantee social cohesion, we get the matrix of the passages from one to another discourse: Lacan's interest is focused on the passage from the discourse of the Master to the discourse of University as the hegemonic discourse in contemporary society. No wonder that the revolt was located at the universities: as such, it merely signaled the shift to the new forms of domination in which the scientific discourse serves legitimizes the relations of domination. Lacan's underlying premise is sceptic-conservative - Lacan's diagnosis is best captured by his famous retort to the student revolutionaries: "As hysterics, you demand a new master. You will get it!" This passage can also be conceived in more general terms, as the passage from the prerevolutionary ancien regime to the postrevolutionary new Master who does not want to admit that he is one, but proposes himself as a mere "servant" of the People — in Nietzsche's terms, it is simply the passage from Master's ethics to slave morality, and this fact, perhaps, enables us a new approach to Nietzsche: when Nietzsche scornfully dismisses "slave morality," he is not attacking lower classes as such, but, rather, the new masters who are no longer ready to assume the title of the Master - "slave" is Nietzsche's term for a fake master. — How, then, more closely, are we to read the university discourse?

The university discourse is enunciated from the position of "neutral" Knowledge; it addresses the remainder of the real (say, in the case of pedagogical knowledge, the "raw, uncultivated child"), turning it into the subject ($). The "truth" of the university discourse, hidden beneath the bar, of course, is power, i.e. the Master-Signifier: the constitutive lie of the university discourse is that it disavows its performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things. What one should avoid here is the Foucauldian misreading: the produced subject is not simply the subjectivity which arises as the result of the disciplinary application of knowledge-power, but its remainder, that which eludes the grasp of knowledge-power. "Production" (the fourth term in the matrix of discourses) does not stand simply for the result of the discursive operation, but rather for its "indivisible remainder," for the excess which resists being included in the discursive network, i.e. for what the discourse itself produces as the foreign body in its very heart. Perhaps the exemplary case of the Master's position which underlies the university discourse is the way in which medical discourse functions in our everyday lives: at the surface level, we are dealing with pure objective knowledge which desubjectivizes the subject-patient, reducing him to an object of research, of diagnosis and treatment; however, beneath it, one can easily discern a worried hystericized subject, obsessed with anxiety, addressing the doctor as his Master and asking for reassurance from him. At a more common level, suffice it to recall the market expert who advocates strong budgetary measures (cutting welfare expenses, etc.) as a necessity imposed by his neutral expertise devoid of any ideological biases: what he conceals is the series of power-relations (from the active role of state apparatuses to ideological beliefs) which sustain the "neutral" functioning of the market mechanism.

In the University discourse, is not the upper level ($ — a) that of biopolitics (in the sense deployed from Foucault to Agamben)? Of the expert knowledge dealing with its object which is a - not subjects, but individuals reduced to bare life? And does the lower not designate what Eric Santner called the "crisis of investiture," i.e., the impossibility of the subject to relate to S1, to identify with a Master-Signifier, to assume the imposed symbolic mandate?[1] The key point is here that the expert rule of "biopolitics" is grounded in and conditioned by the crisis of investiture; this crisis generated the "post-metaphysical" survivalist stance of the Last Men, which ends up in an anemic spectacle of life dragging on as its own shadow. It is within this horizon that one should appreciate today's growing rejection of death penalty: what one should be able to discern is the hidden "biopolitics" which sustains this rejection. Those who assert the "sacredness of life," defending it against the threat of transcendent powers which parasitize on it, end up in a world in which, on behalf of its very official goal — long pleasurable life — all effective pleasures are prohibited or strictly controlled (smoking, drugs, food…). Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is the latest example of this survivalist attitude towards dying, with its "demystifying" presentation of war as a meaningless slaughter which nothing can really justify - as such, it provides the best possible justification for the Colin Powell's "no-casualties-on-our-side" military doctrine.

On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight…)? Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real - in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one.

Is this not the attitude of the hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous. (This is also Last Man's revolution — "revolution without revolution.") Is this not one of the two versions of Lacan's anti-Dostoyevski motto "If God doesn't exist, everything is prohibited"? (1) God is dead, we live in a permissive universe, you should strive for pleasures and happiness — but, in order to have a life full of happiness and pleasures, you should avoid dangerous excesses, so everything is prohibited if it is not deprived of its substance; (2) If God is dead, superego enjoins you to enjoy, but every determinate enjoyment is already a betrayal of the unconditional one, so it should be prohibited. The nutritive version of this is to enjoy directly the Thing Itself: why bother with coffee? Inject caffeine directly into your blood! Why bother with sensual perceptions and excitations by external reality? Take drugs which directly affect your brain! - And if there is God, then everything is permitted — to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, as the instruments of His will; clearly, a direct link to God justifies our violation of any "merely human" constraints and considerations (as in Stalinism, where the reference to the big Other of historical Necessity justifies absolute ruthlessness).

Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint — it is no longer the old notion of the "right measure" between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine. The ultimate example of it is arguably a chocolate laxative, available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!", i.e., of the very thing which causes constipation. Do we not find here a weird version of Wagner's famous "Only the spear which caused the wound can heal it" from Parsifal? And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs, free sex, smoking…) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today's "biopolitics." Solutions are here desperately sought which would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. The main contender is "safe sex" — a term which makes one appreciative of the truth of the old saying "Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?". The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of decaf coffee, to invent "opium without opium": no wonder marijuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it — it already IS a kind of "opium without opium."

The structure of the "chocolate laxative," of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape. There are two topics which determine today's liberal tolerant attitude towards Others: the respect of Otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment — in short, the Other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the Other is not really Other… A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK IF it is counteracted with charitable activities — first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy… And the same goes for war, for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is OK insofar as it really serves to bring about peace, democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. And does the same not hold more and more even for democracy: it is OK if it is "rethought" to include torture and a permanent emergency state, if it is cleansed of its populist "excesses," and if the people are "mature" enough to live by it…

However, what we were describing what cannot but appear as two opposite ideological spaces: that of the reduction of humans to bare life, to homo sacer as the dispensable object of the expert caretaking knowledge; and that of the respect for the vulnerable Other brought to extreme, of the attitude of narcissistic subjectivity which experiences itself as vulnerable, constantly exposed to a multitude of potential "harassments." Is there a stronger contrast than the one between the respect for the Other's vulnerability and the reduction of the Other to "mere life" regulated by the administrative knowledge?

But what if these two stances nonetheless rely on the same root, what if they are the two aspects of one and the same underlying attitude, what if they coincide in what one is tempted to designate as the contemporary case of the Hegelian "infinite judgement" which asserts the identity of opposites? What the two poles share is precisely the underlying refusal of any higher Causes, the notion that the ultimate goal of our lives is life itself. Nowhere is the complicity of these two levels clearer as in the case of the opposition to death penalty — no wonder, since (violently putting another human being to) death is, quite logically, the ultimate traumatic point of biopolitics, the politics of the administration of life. To put it in Foucauldian terms, is the abolition of death penalty not part of a certain "biopolitics" which considers crime as the result of social, psychological, ideological, etc., circumstances: the notion of the morally/legally responsible subject is an ideological fiction whose function is to cover up the network of power relations, individuals are not responsible for the crimes they commit, so they should not be punished? Is, however, the obverse of this thesis not that those who control the circumstances control the people? No wonder the two strongest industrial complexes are today the military and the medical, that of destroying and that of prolonging life.

Superego is thus not directly S2; it is rather the S1 of the S2 itself, the dimension of an unconditional injunction that is inherent to knowledge itself. Recall the informations about health we are bombarded with all the time: "Smoking is dangerous! To much fat may cause a heart attack! Regular exercise leads to a longer life!" etc.etc. — it is impossible not to hear beneath it the unconditional injunction "You should enjoy a long and healthy life!"… What this means is that the discourse of the University is thoroughly mystifying, concealing its true foundation, obfuscating the unfreedom on which it relies.


  1. See Eric Santner, My Own Private Germany, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1996.