Neoliberal Horizons in Subjectivity
An excerpt from Jorge Alemán's latest book
What follows is a translated excerpt of Jorge Aleman’s 2016 book “Neoliberal Horizons in Subjectivity,” published with Gramma Ediciones in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The excerpt consists of selections from Chapter 1. Translation is by Lucas Ballestín.
After Gramsci, power cannot be thought — within the emancipatory field — solely as coercive and localized. There is a line that, starting with Gramsci and flowing through Althusser, Foucault, and others, shows us that power not only oppresses. Rather, it builds consensuses, establishes subjective orientations, and produces a symbolic plot that works “invisibly,” naturalizing dominant ideas, and which always — and this accounts for its definitive success — hides its imposition. The procedure of the media, oriented by the dominant corporate powers, is defined as an act of enunciation that always tries to hide its historical character, and also the interests that it promotes, through its supposedly universal ways. In this respect, the symbolic order that traverses neoliberalism behaves like a rational mechanism that feigns the promoting of diverse forms of subjectivities, while the repetition of the same in the unlimited circuit of commodities continues its incessant and circular march. However, insofar as the media are sustained (beyond their various modes of transmission) in and through language, it’s necessary, in our judgment, to clear up a confusion that’s very common among the social sciences and contemporary philosophies concerned with this issue.
It’s definitive to admit that when it comes to the symbolic order of language, in its distinct variants and modes of appearance, we must always distinguish two different dimensions. Firstly, we must indicate the “dependence and subordination” of the speaking being, with respect to the structural and ontological order of language, and with regard to the constitution of the subject. The living being is captured by language in order to be turned into a subject. This capture is established before the subject’s birth and continues after her death. Such dependence of the subject, who can only constitute herself in this way, always being an effect of that language that precedes it, must be distinguished from that domination that is socio-historically constructed. These are two aspects of the symbolic that, though they may appear mixed in our phenomenological reality, obey radically diverse and distinct logics. The first symbolic dependence is ineradicable and constitutive of the subject. The second, insofar as it is a socio-historical construction, is susceptible to differing periodic transformations.
What gives neoliberalism its defining specificity is that it is the first historic regime that tries by all means to reach the first symbolic dependence of bodies, the linguistic capture of the living being in its structural dependence. We note that this constitutive dependence is the same that serves as the condition of possibility for historical legacies and common inheritances, where memory can still collect the pain of those who were excluded in the past, and while no mode is a guarantee of it, it is condition of possibility. In this aspect, neoliberalism needs to produce a “new man” made from its own present, unclaimed by any cause or symbolic and precarious legacy, “liquid,” fluid, and volatile like the commodity itself. If any indication of what I call the “Lacanian left” has decisive relevance, it is that which shows that politics, now more than ever, must oppose the “perfect crime” of neoliberalism, which seeks, in its contemporary unfolding, in its socio-historical space, to touch and severely alter the place of the becoming of the subject in the field of language; just as, in different ways, Lacan was able to demonstrate.
Presently, neoliberalism is struggling for the field of meaning making, of representation, and of the biopolitical production of subjectivity. There will always be essayists who will, like the South Korean Byung-Chul Han — a clear minor successor to Baudrillard — insist that the perfect crime of neoliberal capitalism has been definitively carried out. But politics, insofar as it is grounded by speaking beings and cannot be reduced to a mere professional management, is the thing that can, in the present time, irrupt and protect the failed character of every representation. By definition, the subject is that which cannot be exhaustively represented, because its structural dependence upon language impedes it. The speaking, sexed, mortal being, made subject by language, never encounters within herself a signifying representation that can totalize her. In the end, this is the reason why neoliberalism, in its eagerness to represent the totality exhaustively, is not the end of history. Thus, we must insist on the enormous political value that exists, for an emancipatory project, in the key distinction between the dependence of the subject on its becoming through language, and socio-historical dominations, which never exhaust the subject in its openness to the possibilities of a transformation to come.
Whatever the possible characterization of capitalism, in its neoliberal mutation, there is a fact that insists: neoliberalism’s unlimited character. Capitalism behaves as an acephalic force, which expands without limit until the last limits of life. This is precisely the novelty of neoliberalism: the capacity to produce new subjectivities that configure themselves within a corporate, managerial, and competitive paradigm for existence itself. This is the “systemic violence” of the neoliberal regimen of domination: not needing an external form of coercion, save for crucial moments of organic crises, and that, instead, the subjects themselves are captured by a series of imperatives wherein they are confronted in their own lives, in their very way of being, with the demands of the “limitless.”
From very early on, lives must pass the test of whether or not they will be accepted, if they will have a place or not, within the new symbolic order of the Market. The Market functions as a mechanism that feeds from a permanent pressure impacting upon those lives, marking them with the duty to build a happy and self-realized life. The growing expansion of the self-help phenomenon is testimony to this, an impossible construction given that the unlimited demands of capital are made to thwart the full realization that it demands. It’s a systematic exploitation of the feeling of guilt that Freud formalized in Civilization and its Discontents.
In this way, the epidemics of depression, the addictive consumption of pharmaceuticals, the depressive hedonism of teenagers, the pathologies of an excessive sense of responsibility, the irredeemable feeling of being found “lacking,” the “not measuring up,” is the emergence as a “personal problem” of that which is a structural fact of the system of domination. These are nothing but signals that contemporary capitalism is born, as North American culture confirms, with the primacy of the ego and the different narratives of “self-realization” that are formulated to sustain it.
The exigencies of capital’s limitlessness cannot be without the propagation of self-help, the inflation of self-esteem, whose obscene reverse obscures the worst verdict of existence. Even to the extreme of provoking in subjects a feeling of guilt for the very fact of their finitude. The domination of the limitless requires guilty collaborators, and debtors of something that’s impossible to allay.
This is no longer about the classic alienation: that lost part of oneself. Neoliberalism now aims to fabricate a “new man,” lacking any symbolic legacy, without a history to decipher, whom has no questions about the singular and incurable that resides in each of us. That whole dimension of human experience is to be abolished in the service of a certain productivity that goes beyond the symbolic possibilities with which men and women enter into the social bond. In this sense, we must remember that the experience of love, of the political, of poetic and scientific invention, always demands a reference to the limited. This makes us think that the limitless character of the will of capital to perpetuate, expand, and disseminate itself everywhere introduces an inevitable dearth of experience. What does it mean to think, to do politics, to desire to transform the real, operations that are always limited, when they confront the limitless power of capital? This condition, without limits, and therefore without escape, is neither the old panopticon nor the Leviathan: it’s a combination of Matrix with Alien. It is a will that “desires itself” in a limitless reproduction that presents itself as a catastrophic end to history.
It’s worth asking oneself what sort of lay “sanctity” must open itself before us, in order to be able to escape the guilt circuit of neoliberal “mental health” and not to give into the designs of the “consumed consumer,” who delights herself in this historic time that we must live through. Though we may only do so metaphorically, let us speak here of a new kind of militancy.
Analyzing the work of Han, the successful essayist en vogue, we can show that his descriptions of contemporary capitalism are pertinent, although they efficiently summarize what other contemporary thinkers have already said. Nonetheless, the issue is that what he describes, the potential of contemporary neoliberal capitalism to produce a subjectivity that exploits itself all the while feeling free, is only the beginning of the problem.
Deep down, Han is happy to show how capitalism works in its contemporary structure. And we never find in him even a sketch, problematic though it might be, of a proposal for an emancipatory logic. For instance, in his latest, Topology of Violence, he dives into Freud only to end up affirming that Freud’s theoretical construct is only valid for “disciplinary societies,” and that it has become obsolete in the societies of “neoliberal productivity.” Logically, we cannot agree with this. Though it may be true that Freud elaborated his theory in the age of disciplinary societies, the unconscious that emerges there is not reducible to a historical time period, and less so the superego with which Han is especially concerned.
The production of a neoliberal subjectivity within the productivity mechanism that situates it, always in an unlimited beyond the pleasure principle, is only explainable by the coercion of the superego, with its incitement of guilt and need for punishment, which neoliberalism colonizes for its devices. To claim, as Han does, that within neoliberalism there is no longer an unconscious, is to confuse the ontico-empirical plane of the production of subjectivities, with the breach, the ontological break, implied by the split subject of the unconscious. Once again, not everything is appropriable by capital, at least if we wish to continue thinking about the political.
From my point of view, the first confusion follows from not distinguishing between historicism and “historicity.” When it comes to speaking, sexuated, mortal existence, we must speak of historicity. In other words, in Greece, in Rome, in Byzantium, in modernity or postmodernity, in Asia and in Africa, there are four drives, the sexual relation is impossible, the real is excluded from meaning, etc. A separate issue, however, is the manner in which History tries to and colonizes these structural or ontological conditions.
I have no doubt that psychoanalytic practice is indeed historically specific and in no way has a guaranteed existence. That will depend on its politics. The neoliberal technologies described by Han can only be effective if subjects obey the superego’s injunction that they imply. Without that libidinal spring, we could not account for them. It is true that Freud, when he established a homology between the categorical imperative and the superego, uses metaphors that refer to obedience and prohibition that are characteristic of “disciplinary societies.” But, definitively, as Lacan was able to see, the superego is an agency that orders an enjoyment that is always beyond any kind of subjective equilibrium.
All the subjective figures of neoliberalism that refer to “productivity, competition with oneself, the factory of permanent indebtedness,” don’t constitute a new kind of alienation in the Marxist sense, because they aim to reach beyond that: to efface the unconscious in favor of a technology of the death drive consummated as depression. What Han cannot account for is why subjects surrender their unconscious in favor of this death drive technology, and this is because he wants to sidestep the superego and find in depression the only pathology that exhaustively represents our time.
Of course, it is not the only one, but this already leads us in a different direction. Han also needs to disavow “conflict” in order to submerge everything within a neoliberal consensus. On this point he performs a definitive historicism. We should keep in mind that that “freedom” which the subject enjoys by exploiting herself is accompanied by a new state of intimidation, threats, and different and increasingly violent forms of segregation. But Han wants to insist that domination has become systemic and invisible because it was able to extend managerial productivity to the whole world. Neoliberalism has reached so far that it has erased the unconscious, conflict, antagonism, and has appropriated even the field of dreams.
In this landscape, whether Han says so or not, all that remains is for us to contemplate the “end of History.” For Han, getting psychoanalyzed no longer makes sense because we are already “last men.” Why think the political if everything is going to be integrated into the rhizomic Alien of capital? I don’t think this conception would displease those who know that capitalism is indefensible but has no alternative. Is this not, once more, another kind of lucid skepticism, so present in contemporary essay writing?
Consequently, it’s preferable to be unguarded with respect to the always-contingent real, and to be on guard towards enjoyment. They can tell us as many times as they like about the enormous capacity of capitalism, capacity even to manufacture a new man, but the wager of thought, though it may fail time and again, is to attempt to say something about what can be subtracted from that power.
Nothing in Lacan’s teaching authorizes us to be “of the left.” Like every great thinker, there exists, in his theoretical and clinical possibilities, something that exceeds political categories as they arise in history. One can be a Lacanian on the right, liberal, on the left, etc. The same goes for Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, among others. Indeed, thanks to Lacan, it’s possible to be a leftist opposed to the received opinions of the left, at least in their more orthodox and canonical aspects.
In our case, the texts about the Lacanian left, Common:Solitude: Politics in Lacan (2012), On the Frontier: Subject and Capitalism (2014), etc., are not ‘legitimated’ by Lacan, nor do they claim any other sort of authority. They constitute an appropriation and reading of Lacan, which given our symbolic inheritance and our judgment on the political that this inheritance mobilizes, cannot be surrendered to the neoliberal procedures of producing contemporary subjectivities in the service of capital. In this sense we must insist that, even if in our experience as analysts we reclaim subjectivities “one by one,” it is also the capitalist discourse itself which aims at what is most particular in everybody’s enjoyment at the same time that it achieves, through a variety of procedures, a leveling and homogenization of every particularity. That is why one must differentiate the irreducible singularity of each, of the “particular and private,” and, for the same reason, the “produced subjectivity” of the subject of the unconscious, which, for structural reasons, can never be produced but is rather caused by language.
Those Lacanians who vote for the neoliberal right are not wrong about Lacan. In any case, they understand that psychoanalysis can only live in the liberal dream of a degree zero of the political, or, they are wrong, or desire to be, with respect to their own nation and the fate of their people; and, in the long run, in a more discerning reading, with the future existence of psychoanalysis.
It is evident that neoliberalism expects from speaking beings something other than the truth of the unconscious. The proliferation of managers of the soul of every sort barely constitutes the first advance of a corporate management, which is readying to reconfigure the symbolic from the logic of the commodity. In other words, to accomplish with each turn of the capitalist discourse a “desymbolization” that erases the relation between the subject and the truth of her desire. How far should psychoanalysts collaborate with what Lacan called, in his day, “growing impasses of civilization”? Our insistence in proposing that the analytic experience and Lacan’s teaching constitute an extraordinary tool are substantiated in the following: attempting to think a political logic of an emancipatory character that is able to subtract itself from the totalitarian and sacrificial detours is our way of living in that tension that Lacan’s question about the impasses raises.
Jorge Alemán is an Argentine psychoanalyst and philosopher living in Madrid, Spain. He is Honorary Professor at the University of Buenos Aires, and a member of the World Association of Psychoanalysis, the Escuela Lacaniana de Psicoanalisis (Madrid), and the Escuela de la Orientacion Lacaniana (Buenos Aires.) His many books include Lacan and Antiphilosophy (2003), Philosophy of the Unconscious (with Sergio Larriera, 2004), and Lacan: Politics at Issue, (2010).