The silent master

Let’s start with the master. There has been a proliferation of masters during the plague. The master, in the Lacanian sense, corresponds to the common man of power who counts among politicians and leaders. His first sign on the social arena amounts to loud reassertion of primary identifications: “I have decided”. Secondly, and not by accident, this is followed by a demand for recognition and respect. As the man of power, Health Secretary M. Hancock reminded us on 10 April that the NHS staff should the protective equipment based on the government guidelines and as a “precious resource”. He was strongly criticised for this remark. He is also not aware of any connection between deaths of doctors and nurses and the shortage of such equipment he had been chased to deliver for weeks. He wants us to be safe. This makes him a master, in the Lacanian sense, i.e. as the one who has no interest in causes but only in making things work.

The Lacanian real without law limits the ways in which we can respond to it. One way to respond to it is at the level of the singular, corporeal, traumatic jouissance. Another way comes down to repeated attempt to inscribe the virus into the system of existing expertise. The second way can be called making things work. In the first case, we encounter moments of silence, discontinuity, disruption. In the second approach, silence becomes the sole modus operandi of execution of power. What is the master in the Lacanian sense, then? Above all he is the agent of the Other and in this sense the master of jouissance. The master all at the service of the Other which is the way in which to make all part of the symbolic machine that works. The master thus upholds two signifiers as mutually complementary. Only in this way putting himself at the service of all-knowing Other will he be able to implement instructions that come from the Other. These instructions do not just arrive by post one day, taking the master by surprise. They are the daily feed, the everyday political agenda he is well prepared for. It is therefore inconceivable to the master in this sense, that there could be an order, a society, a people or a group functioning without him. To this extent, he is indispensable, and he is right, which is part of his function. Nothing would and nothing could work without him. To presuppose any variant of symbolic order is first of all to make it contingent upon the signifiers of which the master is an agent. That’s what was stressed by Lacan. The master has no interest in knowledge or in a desire to know. All he is after is to make things work[1]. Having thus established himself as inseparable from any social, communal project, he’s made himself by the same stroke the enemy of the real. For this reason we must distinguish the master’s silence from other modes of silence. Speaking, but not saying anything, is how the master can be found at his work, alone like Sisyphus, with the “Herculean effort” on his shoulders, with no one paying enough respect, every time the stone after failing to reach the top comes rolling down the hill again.

The silent real

Among different functions of silence, there is a use the analyst makes of it in the analytic session. It may serve to transmit subject’s powerlessness in relation to knowledge that is supposed from the Other. The analyst does not have the signifier the analysand demands, and silence is one of the ways in which to disrupt the jouissance of expectation. The analysand does not have answers either how to respond to the traumatic jouissance when it takes his breath away. Both analyst and analysand make use of ignorance in different ways. On the other hand, silence used outside the analytic session serves a different point of satisfaction. We will find among those who pursue them not only politicians but also leaders, directors, executives in so far as each one is subject to the Lacanian master function. They may be elected, unelected, nominated or offering themselves for a power position by way of sacrifice as no one is interested. To this extent, Freud made the superego an integral part of the group formation he dealt with in the “Group Psychology”. Lacan changed this orientation when he defined the sine qua non of the social bond and paid particular attention to the analytic community. In the face of the unprecedented disruption to our lives and work, we hesitate whether to continue on course of activities and seminars as before or whether to find another way. After all psychoanalysis does not sleep. The life of speech, the work of dreams and of interpretation do not succumb to hibernation the government instructs us to live by having proscribed distance between bodies. I think this poses a problem which is also a reminder. In the time of disruption, an attempt to return to where we used to be, carries a degree of futility with it, even if it’s also a coordinate of analytic ethics. It exposes us to a failure of placing the past in the hands of the Other’s agent according to whom things can be made work again. At the other pole, which is where we are, analysts make use of speech by situating and enlivening the past in the present. It is only as present that the real resonates with the corporeal jouissance.

The (anal) politics of treatment

As analysts we thus find ourselves one by one faced with a paradoxical task of psychoanalysis defending the real as real, i.e. as without law that reduces it to the law of science and to the automaton of the popular paternal discourse according to which we are dealing with just another flu (Trump) or with another hiccup in the system. From this perspective we could say that an analyst in the times of crisis, which is at every point at which the real is disruptive, operates and acts in accordance with the non-imperative of sense. To each their own crisis.

The silent master whose sacrifices on the political arena only preserve the Other of instruction will give excuses, make up stories, and hyperventilate stressing the importance of his mission to save lives that goes without saying. It could be worse. Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarian leader led her to distinguish him from an ordinary despot. The former is not a free agent of power but “the executioner of laws higher than himself”[2].

We must therefore seek the sources of master’s belief in metalanguage elsewhere. And this brings me to my second connection. In so far as the master’s silence about the singular real carries the indignant power, it is connected from the start to the anal object that must, at any price, be refused. As the Lacanian master does not pay, the hole in the symbolic order remains a theoretical issue.

Foucault didn’t doubt that what men of power – there are of course women of power, too, the phallic women, with postiche and without, the cutting, castrating women nevertheless –ultimately aim at is to control, to limit, to discipline, and for this reason to immobilise the body[3]. The body is the aim and the object. The demand that the agent of this exercise be treated with respect goes in hand with the specific economy of jouissance at stake in the efforts and acts of sacrifice involved in substituting one disciplined routine for another. We could say that this is a new socioeconomic distribution of jouissance that now organises the social bond. Its main attraction and the cause of having embarked on the itinerary of power derives from making a shit object the cause of the desire to speak and to say nothing.

The current policy of constraint Foucault speaks about (“discipline requires enclosure”), has extended from the policy of immobilisation, motionlessness, stopping of movement. It’s allowed politicians like Hancock to continue with the practice of false promises and of getting away with difficult questions as it was done during Brexit before someone turned it into a delusion of all. The anal politics remains underestimated today. We remember where this crisis started. With the disappearance of toilet paper. Was it to accommodate the moment of turmoil stirring diarrhoea as I initially proposed or is toilet paper also emblematic of the anal politics as it endows us with an invaluable instrument to wipe off excess that builds up on top of what was refused in the first place?

Lacan marked the anal object as the birth of the subject in the field of the Other[4]. To hold back or to give out, to substitute or not to substitute. With the anal politics before our eyes, the herd immunity is back on the agenda[5]. This time it’s about immunity by stealth. How quickly can we have the old model of capitalism restored and do without thinking of new economic solutions, new ways of distribution of jouissance? With the financial disaster looming the octogenarians slipping silently away will have saved a lot of money. By then, the young ones will be immune.


Lacan’s analysis of the anal desire led him, for the first time in his Seminar on Anxiety, to the corporeal event distinct from the anal event, and marked by the trauma of breath. How is the body awakened? It is awakened traumatically through breath. Life starts with the cut: breath, first sign of solitude at the cut from placenta, then the cry. What makes the oral event traumatic is that it is not part of the same economy of jouissance as in the case of the anal object. It is not organised by the law of language from the start. The anal politics appears as an effective defence against the respiratory event that opens the door to the life of speech. After Rank who made birth trauma the paradigm of all traumas, Lacan focused not on the cut with the familiar prenatal environment, but on an encounter with the unknown we step into. Let’s note: the virus as lawless real strikes at the point of life: the respiratory tracks, breath, between moments of inhaling and exhaling. One breath less. The idea of a lockdown of the oral real through the discipline of stopping movement has thus produced a new politics of treatment. It consists in all-immobilisation supervised by the silent master who wants to make things work again. If as speaking beings, we are not born free, we can make use of the life of speech in psychoanalysis, inventing the next step, the next breath marked by the cut. We work with cuts, we live at the time of the cut. We are also born into the world of the Other for whom, if it existed, as Arendt warned us, we would be all a silent, breathless one.



[1] J. Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, The Seminar, Book XVII, trans. R. Grigg, Norton, NYC, 2007, p. 24.

[2] H. Arendt, On the Nature of Totalitarianism in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954, Schocken Books, NYC, p. 346.

[3] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan, 1977, Penguin Books, pp. 135-141.

[4] J. Lacan, Anxiety: The Seminar, Book X, trans. A. Price, Polity, 2014, p. 302.

[5] At least two examples of this revival can be found in the recent week. The first one (thank you Scott) appeared in The Times on 4 April: The second one discusses the use of data and the idea of “herd immunity” in the Guardian on 12 April: