Shkreli is of course notorious as the 32 year-old former CEO of the pharmaceutical company Turing, the man who overnight raised the price of Daraprim from around $13.50 to $700 a pill. This is the drug used to treat toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be fatal to H.I.V. patients. This act and the hostile social media response it generated, coupled with his use of Eminem lyrics to stick the finger up at his detractors on Twitter, has lead him to be described as ‘the most hated man in America’ (BBC), the ‘most hated man on the internet’ (The Independent), a ‘scumbag’, ‘garbage monster’ (BBC) and worse – indeed the worst example of capitalism. However, his use of the discourse of ‘Gangsta rap’ to coat his exploitative cynicism in the patina of cool ran aground when he fell out with Ghostface after having bizarrely bought the only copy of the latter’s album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for $2 million. A slanging match ensued in which the baby-faced Shkreli issued a short video of himself with three of his ‘goons’ (bodyguard-thugs) in order to threaten Ghostface into silence.2 In his own short film posted on you tube in response to Shkreli’s ‘your goons are not as tough as my goons’ taunts, Ghostface brings in his own ‘goons’ – three women including his sister and mother who seek to shame the young businessman by drawing attention to the infantile nature of his jouissance. ‘Where’s your Mom?’ ‘If you were my son, I’d whip yo’ ass, baby boy’. ‘Grow the fuck up and be a man’. Alas, the women’s efforts have not had much effect on him, nor would the added pathos they brought to the film by drawing attention to the human cost in suffering and death of his pricing policies.
Shkreli is of course a spectacular example of the shamelessness that characterizes capitalist discourse, according to Lacan in Seminar XVII. The general nature of this shamelessness was underscored by one of Shkreli’s few defenders in The New Yorker who pointed out that his company’s pricing and distribution policies ‘sounded not so much different from the rest of our medical system’3. In capitalist discourse, as Lacan formulated it as a variation of the master’s discourse, the barred subject appears above the line indicating that the subject is no longer supported by the master signifier. Despite the sterling efforts of Ma Killah and her daughter to shame Shkreli, it is unlikely they would have succeeded in reinstating the agency of the master signifier, even though ‘woman’ can be one of the names of the father.
But what is perhaps slightly unusual if not symptomatic about Shkreli as a contemporary example of Rameau’s Nephew is his apparent enthusiasm for generating online hatred, particularly with his use of Twitter to taunt and goad his detractors. Indeed hatred seems to be the most prevalent affect on Twitter generally, a medium that has degenerated into a forum for misanthropes and misogynists in particular to denounce, abuse and threaten anyone who steps out of place. In spite of being a form of writing, Twitter is a space that is dominated by an Imaginary register that is unregulated by any symbolic code of conduct characteristic of social order. Rather, it is the transitive, unstable world of child-subjects seeking, as Freud suggests in ‘Instincts and the Vicissitudes’ (1915), to preserve their ego through hatred which, as a relation to objects, is older than love. Indeed ‘at the very beginning, it seems, the external world, objects, and what is hated are identical’ (139). Further, there is something feminine in the youthful, feline features of Shkreli and it does appear that in his narcissistic cultivation of Twitter loathing, he is seeking to become the ‘behated’ (as opposed to beloved) of a multitude of bilious suitors enamored by what they imagine of his jouissance. ‘Nothing concentrates more hatred’, writes Lacan in Encore, ‘than that act of saying [ce dire] in which ex-sistence is situated’ (110). While the image of Shkreli’s wealth and arrogance places him outside of the general mill of online exchange, the mimicry of his ‘pharma bro’, Gangsta masquerade places him intimately at the heart of online stupidity. He is ‘extimate’, like the nerdy white ‘wigga’ who believes that his heart is black.
In his commentary on Seminar XVII, Jacques-Alain Miller re-iterates that ‘we are in a system that produces impudence and not shame, that is, in a system that annuls the function of shame’4. But the correlate of that shamelessness is insecurity. No longer supported by the S1 that is the master signifier, the subject is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of untrammelled affect that swarm around signifiers of infamy and fantasies concerning the jouissance of the Other that summons an authoritarian response. Miller writes, ‘the present moment of this civilization is permeated by an authoritarian and artificial return of the master signifier. Everyone must work in their place or be locked up’5.
Shkreli is currently indicted for securities-fraud ‘in what some would call an act of karma’ (Vanity Fair) for illegally commingling money, transferring funds from a biotechnology company to pay off hedge fund debts.6 The criminal case has yet to be played out, but the charges he faces carry a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted. Watch this space.7
1 Available here.www.stereogum.com
2 Available here.www.dailymail.co.uk
3 Kelefa Sanneh, ‘Everyone Hates Martin Shkreli. Everyone Is Missing the Point’. The New Yorker.05.02.16.
4 Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘on Shame’ in Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg (eds) Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis.Duke, 2006: 26.
6 Emily Jane Fox. ‘Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli Arrested on Securities-Fraud Charges’ 17.12.15.
7 A recent scan of Shkreli’s Twitter account shows the volatile, unhinged power of this hatred that has now started to lurch towards his persecutors, as he becomes perceived as a ‘victim of the liberal media’. Shkreli himself claims that only 60% of his Twitter respondents now hate him, a figure down from 99%. However, Philip Kravtsov, one of his new fans, discloses the negative logic that underscores these shifts in Twitter-affect : ‘I hate the people who hate you’. (Feb 16)