Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
OLIVIER, Bert. Lacan and the discourse of capitalism. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.2, pp.220-236. ISSN 2224-7912.
This article is aimed at explicating Lacan's theory of the four discourses, within which his account of the discourse of the capitalist is situated. Lacan's theory is outlined against the backdrop of Marx's as well as Eagleton's characterization of capital(-ism), both of which stress its capacity to "revolutionize" production and subject the entire economic and social field to forces of simultaneous creation and dissolution. Lacan's formal distinction among four types of discourse (those of the master, the university, the hysteric, and the analyst) is discussed, with due attention to the meaning of their (sometimes confusing) schematic representation as indication of their ineluctable imbrication with power relations. This enables one to grasp the "cleverness" of the capitalist's discourse, which consists in a "tiny inversion" of signifiers at the level of the "master's discourse", producing the anomalous position of the so-called "hysterical capitalist master" -which turns out, on closer inspection, to be a mere pretence, however, strategically promoting economic (and indirectly, political) interests while masquerading as a relentless critic of those in power. Initially, in his seminar on the four discourses, Lacan appeared to group capitalism under the heading of the "discourse of the university", where knowledge is seen as organizing the social field. A few years later, in the Milan lecture, however, he apparently changed his mind and characterized the capitalist's discourse as "hysterical" instead, with the signifier of the "split subject" organizing the social field - that is, addressing the signifier for knowledge, and repressing the master signifier, which is what, according to Lacan's schema, really orchestrates the ostensible "split subject". In this way a powerful "methodological" conceptual configuration is provided for the analysis of capitalist practices, and ultimately, intellectual strategies for their subversion (although some have raised doubts about this). One may wonder why Lacan changed his mind about the structure of the capitalist's subject. Here it is argued that the change from the schematic representation of capitalist discourse along the lines of the discourse of the university, which has traditionally been in the service of the master, to a schema which highlights the agency of the capitalist in the guise of the "split subject" (the hysteric's signifier), must be understood as reflecting a different strategy on the part of the capitalist, and not a fundamental change regarding the pursuit of economic and political power. It is still the master that orchestrates the pseudo-hysterical postures and behaviour of the capitalist. The fact that, as Pauwels argues, the capitalist defuses potential criticism in advance with an ostensibly hysterical posture, poses difficulties as far as possible resistance or unmasking of this pretence is concerned. This difficult question concerning possible avenues of resistance to or subversion of the ostensibly unassailable capitalist's discourse are subsequently explored via the work of Matthias Pauwels, Naomi Klein, Joel Bakan, Joel Kovel and Benda Hofmeyr. All of these authors uncover, in various ways, the character of capitalism as an inhuman economic practice which operates relentlessly, driven solely by the profit motive, at the cost of other people as well as the environment. For example, Naomi Klein's recent book, The Shock Doctrine, which outlines her assessment of the phase (in the history of capitalism) known as "disaster capitalism", provides just the kind of information and insight to alert one to signs that strategies of resistance are not beyond one's reach, and that there are ways of debunking the hysterical behaviour of the capitalist as mere pretence in the service of power. Lacan's theory therefore proves invaluable in the setting to work of various modes of resistance and subversion of the capitalist position. This paper is an attempt to understand how this could happen (and is perhaps already happening).
Keywords : Lacan; Naomi Klein; Marx; discourse; capitalism; master; hysteric; university; criticism; unmasking.