On Saturday 1 December 2018 Paris was burning, according to headlines around the world. Because what comes first today is the unlimited circulation of words that lay claim to an ephemeral truth. The more pathetic it is, the more resonance it has. But it is clear that no version of this truth sticks. It wanders from one signifier to another. It raises questions: fake news, alternative facts, conspiracy, disinformation, toxicity … The suitors fall over themselves to get into its bed.
The Suspension of Truth
Let us re-read Seminar 17, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, where Lacan introduces the formalisation of the four discourses which he calls radical. There is a new reading of the myth of Oedipus, centred on the link between truth and jouissance which allows us, if it is parred down, reduced, to grasp what happens at certain chaotic moments in human history.
Here we find the enigma of the Sphinx, the question that wreaks havoc on the city of Thebes by devouring its youth. This question, to which an answer must be found so as to restore order, manifests “the suspense that the question of truth thus introduces among the people.” Such a suspension occurs during the fall of a doxa, a crisis of the master signifiers in discourse, a black hole. Whenever such a suspension occurs, whenever “the truth has strayed”, a crisis opens up. Listen here to the truth linked to a signifier that governs the mode of enjoyment that no longer imposes itself on everyone as common measure. In solving the enigma, without taking the measure of what his answer implies, Oedipus becomes king and shuts the truth’s vociferating mouth. The discourse of the master then begins to function again, and a new version of the truth circulates anew in the form of a belief. Of course, the question does not fail to reappear. In the case of Thebes, it will be the plague. There were many plagues throughout the centuries.
Let us posit that we have, at the global level, been plunged into an opening of this kind. There is no longer a discourse that imposes itself as The Truth, neither in the East nor in the West – and besides, there is no more East and West. Delocalisation is global. The movement of goods and people is uncontrollable. All attempts at traceability, and the ideology of transparency, fail – in spite of the labels, procedures, walls, borders, seas, mountains – in front of this global movement. We are therefore at a historical moment of suspension of truth within the different master discourses, which clash and panic. Everyone seeks to impose the miracle signifier that will control the modes of enjoyment. We are looking for a master, a real one, like Palpatine in Star Wars, a great political myth of our time: the Empire and its ultimate weapon, the Death Star – aptly named – against democracies. Palpatine is a version of the darkness of the universality of a signifier which would have succeeded in saturating the truth. Moreover, this is what Lacan says to the protesting revolutionary students of 1968: “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.”
The Rise of the Hybrids
But something has changed since 1968. There are no more revolutionaries, nor are there any more “progressives”. It is increasingly difficult to make political choices. The left is dead, as Jacques-Alain Miller demonstrated exactly 16 years ago, in his article “Tomb of the Man of the Left”. He showed there that the man of the left, having reconciled himself with consumption, was going to be buried under the torrent of objects dumped by mass production, for which Lacan had invented a name, “lathouses”, a celebration of the marriage of the capitalist discourse with the sciences. It also showed that ideals had ceased to be the cause of desire. The first of these ideals – emerging from the Enlightenment – universalism, is currently being abused by the development and valorisation of self-segregations.
But since 2002, the surprise came from the right: the tomb of the man of the right was the lesson of the last presidential elections. The right-wing parties can only survive by sheltering within the extreme right, as evidenced by the orientation of the Republican Party in the USA and the current Vice-President.
No more master signifiers, so no more limits. We are at the epoch of extremes, extreme right and extreme left, two so-called populisms and a marsh of troubled waters. Italy is once again showing its talent for combinazione, since the Five Star Movement is in power alongside the far right.
In the article cited, Jacques-Alain Miller foresaw the rise of hybrids. This also happens at the level of the political discourses. A billionaire is the elected by the poor, a far-right Brazilian is chosen by a large part of the Jewish electorate and, despite his misogynist remarks, has garnered many women’s votes. Thus, the hybridisation of politics.
Full Speed Astern!
These successful seizures of political power do have something in common, however. Economic power remains both stable and mobile, more so than ever in the hands of the capitalism whose structure allows, until today, the absorption of everything thanks to the standardised objects it offers to the masses. Multinationals manage to escape the laws of states and spread their own corporate cultures which consist in making their employees ephemeral members of their families. They too have, thus, an idea of the signifiers of enjoying life and living together. In addition, we sell to employees the model of the ‘auto-entrepreneur’, which has everything to seduce the ones-all-alone. The masses have ceased to be citizens in order to become consumers: surplus value, surplus jouissance, as Lacan has shown.
The common point of the masters who take the lead today is that they have ceased to be “progressive”. The epoch is no longer about progress because the future is dark: decline, planetary devastation. It is no longer the end of a world but the end of the world. The blue planet turns brown, the most optimistic already see themselves colonising other planets.
The rising masters are resolutely focused on the past. The future is their “I do not want to know anything about it”, on which Lacan insists at the beginning of Seminar 20. We can see in each “I do not want to know anything about it” a manifestation of the symptom. The past is the symptom of the masters who are in the ascent today. They are reactionaries. But this past which they claim, in the economy through protectionism for example, in customs through the patriarchal tradition, in meaning through religion, and in the environment through a rejection, is obviously a fiction, mere storytelling, or a waking dream, to ward off anxiety by returning to signifiers that once held sway.
This return to an invented past runs up against time, which is of another order. It is one of the disguises of the real, and it will thus be the impossible that they will hit head-on. There is no safety in waiting for a return to the past that never was, and especially since, as Jacques-Alain Miller showed in the same article, the hallmark of our times is loss of memory. The Left tended to fetishise it, the Right to ignore it in favour of nature and biology. In elementary schools in France, the word “history” has disappeared from the curriculum, to be replaced by the expression “situate yourself in time” and the bundling together of events with no reference to chronology. It is the tomb of Lavisse and the way given to the mourners of guilt. Paradoxically, however, history returns where we did not expect it: in the event, real.
Vests Inside Out
Let’s go back to the news. In France, it’s the gilet jaune [yellow vest]. The colour has various historical connotations, none of them too exciting. This vest, borrowed from road safety, becomes uniform and unifying. Faced with a movement characterised by diversity of interests, the vest has built a One linked to operations of traffic control that are the responsibility of law enforcement, turning order into disorder. What triggered it was a common item of consumption – fuel. Consumers have found themselves caught up in a lathouse of prices, a phallic fetish of modernity: the car and what it makes possible, getting around. But soon this spark ignited other demands, those of poor people, since this signifier has come back and replaced the earlier signifiers, like proletarian, worker, peasant… The yellow vests thus belong to this new logic of the hybrid, the resolute consumer therefore becoming poorer and poorer. On 3 December, two days after the violence and destruction of Saturday 1 December, the daily Le Monde ran the following headline: “Political world stunned in the face of an unprecedented crisis.” This crisis puts objects, not ideals, and passages to the act, not negotiations or discussions, at the forefront of politics.
As early as 2004, during the 4th Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis, Jacques-Alain Miller started from the observation that contemporary subjects were disorientated, compass-less, and very quickly demonstrated that they only appeared as such from three analytical positions that were obsolete in view of the mutation brought about by the discourse of hypermodern civilisation. He then showed that this new master discourse had adopted the structure of the analytic discourse, putting in the position of agent manufactured objects whatever their price or use. The object acts as a truth that is no longer repressed. Faced with earlier versions of the dominant discourse that aimed to submit modes of jouissance to repression by a signifier, thus nourishing the solution through fantasy, Jacques-Alain Miller showed that we had passed to an open dictatorship of the surplus-jouissance and evoked a split between meaning and the real. We are there. The riots are aimed at objects, such as the looted stalls in La Réunion, the banks and vehicles burned in different cities testify to this. Saturday, 1 December 2018, we witnessed a collective binge of destruction and arson, which were tantamount to savage assertions that the object “does not work.” And the Master? The place remains vacant for one to come –there is no shortage of candidates – but it leaves us a little surprised to find that neither their ideals nor the laws have any effect. We expect a dictator, we call for one. The triumph of the object marks the end of liberalism, it is the cul-de-sac of progressivism as well.
And Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Alliance of Liberalism and Progressivism
Yet psychoanalysis of the Lacanian Orientation, recognising itself in the picture of a world that puts the object at the centre of subjective drifting, does not address itself to the citizen or the consumer. If it puts the object in the position of agent, it is not to establish thereby a domination, because, as Lacan says, the analytic discourse does not take itself for the truth and excludes domination from structure. Psychoanalysis knows that nothing universal can be expected from the object, which is fundamentally contingent. It puts the subject’s division to work: the more I speak, the less I am unified. To the parlêtre that comes to analysis, driven by the pain of existing in a body, psychoanalysis does not promise the solution via the object; on the contrary it highlights the object’s failure, which is structural. No object will ever fill the gap between meaning and the real. What to do with the object once it is extracted from the equivocations in which it appears? A know-how with the drift of the enjoying body.
Lacan, in 1969, said: “I am, like everybody is, liberal only to the extent that I am anti-progressive.” Admittedly, the orientation given by psychoanalysis since Freud is anti-progressive in the sense that, as an analyst, neither Freud nor Lacan believed in human progress or a brighter future, no more in their religious than in their revolutionary versions, since the parlêtre is someone “ravaged by the Word,” a body sick from language. The repetition of the mark which founds speaking beings is contrary to progress.
But he added: “With the caveat that I am caught up in a movement that deserves to be called progressive, because it is progressive to see the analytic discourse founded…” In what respect is the movement of an analysis progressive?
If the object is impossible to achieve in the master’s discourse, it is that the latter “excludes fantasy. And that’s what makes him, fundamentally, completely blind.” The analytic discourse, in so far as it completes the circle of the three other discourses, allows for the turning around of the master’s discourse. The clinic of contemporary subjects shows that they are currently constructed through a logic of hybridisation between the signifier and the object. What goes out the window is the castration function. The subject of the unconscious is contaminated by the objectified subject of science.
The Really Contemporary Object
Is there an object that stands out in the period that we are living in?
What comes to the fore in the subjectivity of our time is trash – the necessary destiny of our gadgets, our machines, our bodies, of the signifier itself, of the planet, and of all the lathouses that polarise desire.
It is a cumbersome object and burning some of them is not a sufficient sacrifice to the goddess of consumption. But it is an object that psychoanalysis knows what to do with. It makes of it a loss of which one can take advantage, and puts it, this remainder, in a place at the centre of the knotting of the symptom. It can also take other values and operate as the wellspring of desire. In short, we stop wanting to possess it and in doing without it we can make use of it.
Translated by Janet Haney and John Haney
 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 17, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, London/New York, Norton, 2007, p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 120.
 Ibid., p. 207.
 Jacques-Alain Miller, “Tombeau pour l’homme de gauche”, Lacan Quotidien, 4.12.2002.
 Jacques-Alain Miller, “A Fantasy”, Lacanian Praxis, No. 1, May 2005, available online.
 Jacques Lacan, “Lacan, Pour Vincennes”, Ornicar?, No. 17/18, p. 278, Navarin Editeur.
 Jacques Lacan, Seminar 17, op. cit., Appendix A, p. 208.
 Jacques Lacan, The Triumph of Religion, Cambridge, Polity, 2013, p.74.
 Jacques Lacan, Seminar 17, op. cit. p. 208.
 Ibid., p. 108.