“Hopefully we can keep that desire alive”. So concludes a text published by Judith Butler a few days ago,[1] in the midst of what the North American philosopher rightly calls “a new pandemic time and space”.

It is not strange that Butler appeals to the subjective authority of desire in order to oppose the “immoral and criminal self-aggrandising” that she explicitly lays at the door of Donald Trump. On a second reading, this accusation applies to an apparent majority of her co-citizens, in the same way in which a non-superficial reading of Butler indicates her Hegelian roots and her transference towards psychoanalysis.

Confronted by the Lacanian vel,[2] which we can paraphrase as “economy or life”, it is not only Trump who has opted, at least in a first moment, for the former. Different governments have followed him in this gesture, mobilising in each case the master signifiers they thought adequate according to their cultural tradition (Trump invoked the “miracle” that saves the strongest, Boris Johnson the very Darwinian herd immunity, Bolsonaro referred to the “little flu” and bathed himself in the masses in the middle of the quarantine, the Chilean health minister hopes that the virus will become a “good person”, and the de facto president of Bolivia called for prayer and repentance).

Given this situation, Butler’s text can perhaps be understood as a treatise concerning the antinomy between desire and jouissance. It precisely describes the jouissance of “radical inequality” and the quintessence of the mechanism of segregation, perfectly exemplified by the private administration of health in North America (as portrayed in Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary). And it puts forward as an antidote the “socialist” tradition of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, even as it rehearses a Kantian rectification: instead of considering medical cover as a human right, “why not understand it as a social obligation, one that derives from living with each other in society?” Radical equality, as opposed to the jouissance of inequality.

In effect, it would be desirable if the suspension brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic were to force a rethinking of the parameters of life in common. Butler doesn’t deceive herself about this, and neither can we, warned as we are about the paradoxes of jouissance.

The crux of the sentence resides perhaps not so much in desire, which is frequently impotent before the voracity of jouissance, but in the “aliveness” that is to be preserved. This is what the efforts of the philosopher of the performativity of gender have been pointing to for a long time: “why do we keep opposing ourselves to the treatment of all lives as if they had the same value?” This question does not achieve, however, subjective rectification, reintroducing as it does through the back door what it throws out through the front, that is, the notion of “value”. The signifier is slippery, from value to price there is a single step. A possible intervention would consist, then, in the introduction of a cut between the S1, life, and the S2, value. Uncoupled from the chain, life is an S1 as senseless as any other. Just as much as the virus that, as Butler says, does not discriminate. Or like life itself, this senseless accident.

Whilst I watch my small son playing in the limbo-like enclosure of this Great Confinement, I ask myself what notion must be mobilised, and about what analytic practice teaches us with respect to this. Do we have the conceptual resources do deal with this conjuncture? Or will we have to invent them? How do we intervene without ingenuousness, without reintroducing either accounting or the demands of the superego? There is nothing very different here from what we do every day – even in these exceptional days – when we listen to those who continue to sustain themselves through the link of transference, via the available technical media.

In the absence of answers, the only thing I extract from this experience is a lapsus calami. I wrote “insensanto” (“insensato” in Spanish is “senseless”, “santo” is “saint”). I saw this before correcting it, but only later could I read it. To make a semblant of the senseless or “nonsensical object”,[3] and the saint according to Gracián,[4] is what Lacan proposed to us as the function of the analyst. This is the desire that we must sustain and make exist, even in this extraordinary situation, in an uncertain temporal horizon. This is the challenge that summons us today, and here I am, writing for the Zadig network, keeping alive this desire.



Originally published in ZADIG-ESPANA on March 24th 2020. Available here.

[1] Butler, J. “Capitalism has its Limits”. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits

[2]Your money or your life! If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without the money, namely, a life deprived of something. I think I have made myself clear.” Lacan, J. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London, Norton, 1981, p. 212.

[3] Lacan, J. “The Third”. The Lacanian Review, Issue 7. New Lacanian School, 2019, p. 87.

[4] Lacan, J. “Television”. Television. A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment. London, Norton, 1990, pp. 15-6.