As the reports of Edward Colston’s statue being pulled down from the plinth in Bristol have started to reach us, our memories were still fresh with a similar scene occurring in Baghdad at the beginning of the Iraq war. Is it surprising that statues are pulled down? Clearly, they mean something to people who topple them. They are signs of misfortunes and of suffering, and there is a satisfaction in removing them from the view. Lacan tried to formulate structurally the link between suffering and jouissance called satisfaction. Discourse, or four variations of satisfaction, are perhaps the best place where we can locate this link.

Who was Edward Colston? He was a merchant living in XVII century England who made his fortune trading in oil, wine and slaves. He was also a philanthropist who donated money to schools and hospitals after moving with his parents back to his birthplace Bristol. Some of the charities he helped establish, like Dolphin Society, still operate today. In the assessment of the council authorities of Bristol, his charitable investments for the good of the underprivileged outweighed his crimes. No one paid then too much attention to the people of Africa transported as slaves for sale across the Atlantic. Thousands of them died in the conditions that even Dickens would find hard to describe. Overall, Colston wanted to be seen as a good doer and a modest man who did not wish to be buried with a pomp.

When we saw Hussein’s statue in Baghdad toppled by the Iraqis, there was a sense of satisfaction. The event was apparently rushed and orchestrated by the Americans who wanted swiftly to mark their triumph. The haste took nothing away from the satisfaction of removing the figure that was perceived by many as responsible for oppressions and destruction of human lives.

In both cases we are confronted with the master who through identification with the master signifiers gives a representational value to the subject. The master subject is nevertheless divided, Lacan says, because the truth of satisfaction fails to prevent the loss of jouissance. The truth of the master exposes a dividing gap between his actions and the satisfaction they serve. He is therefore, in the Lacanian sense, a castrated master. Is every master castrated? It is not so obvious given the reaction of the British government to the event. To the extent that bringing down the statue of the Baghdad’s dictator was greeted by the Iraqis, including many of his closest associates, the toppling of Colston’s met with ministers’, and some of the radio commentators (“we are not in Baghdad!”), outrage. It’s rare to see such a reaction in a democratic country. Despite no injuries or danger to life posed, the destruction of the monument provoked from government comments of “impropriety and disorder” and of destruction of history. The act was called “repulsive” and “disgusting!” as Priti Patel, the daughter of immigrants and the serving Home Secretary summed it up.

It is not difficult to speak of master’s castration when we speak about chess masters, music maestros, or even master chefs. When you make a wrong move, you lose the game. When you play a wrong note, the melody goes off tune, or if you mix up the ingredients, instead of tagine you end up with a curry. The repetitive action of the master reaches a limit of knowledge, there is a fall of jouissance that failed to be captured, and the satisfaction called laughter rebounds. We laugh it off and start all over again, so that next time there is a room for a different mistake.

Things are certainly different when we confront a political, capitalist, fascist, or totalitarian leader who declares no tolerance for “disorder” and defiance. This allows us to say that today’s master is not castrated. He is angry, furious, outraged. We can find him in the place to which Lacan did not devote much attention after Seminar IV, namely frustration. It’s a variant of three lacks in Lacan’s early teaching, situated between symbolic castration and real privation[1]. Frustration is imaginary and responds to the demand of the symbolic mother who introduces the child to language. And so, Lacan linked frustration not to the object but to the gift, a gift of love, a gift of speech. In passing this gift to the child and leading his inarticulate gurgles and sounds he emits to the pleasure of repetition she inevitably fails to translate all the child’s blah blah into symbolic order. One obstacle comes from the narcissistic image, the follow up from the mirror stage, that fails to organise the speaking body. Another hurdle comes from the refusal of the gift of speech. Frustration is therefore not only an imaginary impasse at the lack of the phallus that fails to put the totality into place. It is also a satisfaction. In the first instance, frustration aims to evoke the imaginary father who is to be blamed for this failure, as Lacan reminded us in the Ethics Seminar. In the second instance, Lacan evokes Freud’s closest term to frustration, Versagung, that translates as a refusal to speak, to say[2]. In this sense, refusal is a satisfaction produced as a result of the promise not being kept. It led Freud to explore the dyad of aggression and regression. Lacan linked it to aggressivity in relation to the specular image. Doesn’t satisfaction at the failure give us such indications?

The statue combines these threads in a curious way. It represents the image of the ego, captures the Freudian ambivalence of the ideal father masking his criminal proclivities, eternalises the phallic promise of order, and in the end looks at the viewer with the eyes of the past. History, which for Thucydides was an approximation and for Lacan a myth, is only of interest when the truth of its interpretation aims at the real. Some of these threads are running through the event I have evoked here. It is not a secret that the money Colston donated to charitable causes came from the slave trade. It’s also well-known that the wealth injected into the UK by Cecil Rhodes came from robbing other nations that even briefly bore his name. The rage of the politicians against the practice of toppling these historical figures seems not without a connection with descending from those who had fled poor and underprivileged backgrounds of their native countries. It is in relation to the foreign, the heteros dimension that we can situate those politicians’ rage at the minorities who have come together against the master. They are the reminder, and the remainder, of the inassimilable. Following the murder of George Floyd by the police, for these ethnic minorities the statue of the slave master has now acquired a new insulting meaning. It casts a shadow on the talk about the wrath of law, with the usual suspects connected to immigration such as Patel, Javid and of course Farage. This ferocity appears to be caused by an encounter with the jouissance that remains from the heteros outside the symbolic order. It is an encounter with the jouissance of the ancestral Other that looks back at us just as the Oedipus’ gaze follows us and looks at us in the way Lacan’s can of sardines looked at the fishermen. But let’s not finish on the note of guilt that is omnipresent anyway. The analysts, Lacan said, are not expected or compelled to partake in these hateful passions. They also cannot bypass the ignorance that inhabits and dupes the desire to know what Lacan called the hystorical dimension of interpretation when the claims to unambiguousness of events such these are made. That is why Lacan was interested in the reverse, envers, master side of the analyst’s discourse and not the other way round. In short, the analyst’s ignorance is only authorised, so to speak, by impossibility, not by imaginary, prohibitive limit of transgression. Frustration gives us this indication. It responds to the fall of the phallus as a mode of real castration Lacan spoke about in Seminar X, or, for women and men, to deerecticisation or detumescence. It is no longer surprising that in the face of the plinth that becomes empty, rage is a satisfaction that carries no pleasure.



[1] J. Lacan, Le séminaire: Livre IV, La relation d’objet, Seuil, Paris, 1994, p. 101.

[2] J. Lacan, Transference, Seminar VIII, 1960-61, trans. B. Fink, Polity, 2015, p. 300.

Credit Image @ Banksy who shared the sketch to his Instagram account.