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Towards a Transformative Politics: Power Critiques and Political Strategy in Lacan and Said.

In the conclusion to his Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton states that all “literature has a use” (181). He goes on to assert that, instead of starting “from certain theoretical or methodological problems”, any critique that is to be useful itself must start by determining what it is meant to do, what uses it seeks to make out of specific texts or discourses (183). Every critical and theoretical position—indeed, any subject position at all—is predicated on the uses necessitated by the politics and ideologies of its practitioners; every critique makes a certain use of whatever it is examining, and every use is always political.

It is evident, however, that different theoretical approaches will be best suited to achieving different strategic ends; each will have its strengths and weaknesses, and its own set of ethical and political implications. Any useful critiques must be cognizant of this. Determining what those pros, cons, and etho-political implications are thus seems a task of paramount importance for any student of literature or theory. Focussing on the works of two theorists—Jacques Lacan and Edward Said—representing different but closely related theoretical modalities, this essay will examine the specific usefulness each holds for an understanding of power discourses and for a transformative politics. Such an investigation will necessarily focus on two strategic aspects of each theory: the descriptive and the practical. First, what explanatory or critical description of existing power structures does each theory offer? How is power conceptualized, in its generation and maintenance? How is power acquiesced to? These are essential first steps towards a politics of change, as the usefulness of any theory for challenging power structures is inextricably linked to its ability to recognize them as such. Second, does the theory see any possibility of modifying those existing power economies? What positions are offered as potential sites of resistance or loci of change? This is the most important question. A theory that precludes the possibility of change is of little practical use for a transformative politics so needed in a world dominated by increasing globalization along neo-liberal economic lines.

In his essay on the mirror stage, Jacques Lacan mounts an effective attack on the Cartesian cogito esse, the subject who “thinks to be.” Basing his theory on the biological prematurity of the (proto-)subject—all newborns are completely dependent upon others for their survival—Lacan proceeds to demonstrate that this initial dependency, the child's “real specific prematurity of birth” (1288), is continued into full subjecthood, creating a fundamentally split or divided subject. The subject becomes poised between his or her illusory sense of self-mastery and I-dentity, and the subject’s acquiescence to the subjection of that ‘I’ to the constraining rigors of the symbolic order—the dual nom/non of ‘the Father’. Thus for Lacan, all knowledge (working through the generating force of language/symbolization) is “structured like paranoia, in that it projects a coherence onto the world that may not be there” (Leitch et al 1286).

If all knowledge is false or ‘paranoid,’ and if our sole means of generating and transmitting knowledge is equally flawed, then the fundamental self-certainty required by any power discourse for it to exist as such can be called into question. That is, all power structures or discourses are predicated on subjects’ acquiescence to them; the power structures in which we, as subjects, are embedded require that they be accepted as natural. This naturalization of power, and the subject’s acquiescence to that naturalized power, is its greatest strength, the very precondition of the existence of power relations, structures and discourses.

The greatest strength of Lacan’s theory of paranoid knowledge is that it questions this normalized acceptance of power structures as natural. Power is seen as always flawed, divided at the moments of both its creation and specific operations. In place of the unified and natural myth that power creates about itself, Lacan gives us a dis-unified, wholly cultural myth of power, showing how the usage of power demands an other for that power to be exerted over. It is not only knowledge which is ‘paranoid’, but also every instance of (Imaginary) identification with an other; the entry into the social dialectic, the Symbolic order in which the operations of power are played out, is predicated upon the “paranoid alienation of the subject, which dates from the deflection of the specular I into the social I” (Lacan 1289), that is, which dates from the child’s movement through the mirror stage. This deflection “tips the whole of human knowledge into mediatization through the desire of the other,” (1289) and it is this desire which becomes the basis for the workings of power; it is the desire to be the other, to have what the other has, and at the same time, the desire to destroy the other, to eliminate the very possibility of an other, a ‘not-me’: in short, desire to have power over the ‘Other.’ This desire, and the power relations which arise out of it, are “not natural: they are shaped by fictions and prohibitions” (Leitch et al 1289), and are therefore preeminently creations of culture.

Hence, in its operations, power ceases to be an amorphous, natural gestalt, and becomes nothing more (or less) than the dynamic relationships between subjects. Power is seen as discursive and dialogic, only existing through its use by specific authorities to achieve specific ends, requiring both the authorities who wield it and the subjects who acquiesce to its hold over them. In Lacan, power is implicitly equated with the construction of (fundamentally unreal) narratives—which are then acquiesced to by others. This narrative process begins before a subject is even born: “the subject’s place is already inscribed at birth, if only by virtue of his or her proper name” (Lacan 1291). The child’s submission to these narratives is continued as he or she works through the Oedipal complex, and is forced, by fear of castration, to acquiesce to the non du Pere that denies him or her the connection to the mother which the child desires. The child is denied access to the maternal Phallus and his or her desire to be the Phallus for the mother, but is at the same time ‘promised’ that someday he or she will gain access to the Phallus. This illusory completeness and power is always perpetually deferred, and forms the basis for the child’s acquiescence to the power of others—who the (now adult) subject sees as being ‘whole’, as possessing the Phallus and thus having the power to grant access to it—in later life.

Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage thus offers a compelling critique of conceptions of power; does it, however, offer the possibility of resistance or change? It would seem to, at least on a theoretical level. Power discourses, like subjects, are always split. Therefore, both those discourses and the subjects framed in them are always both supportive of, and resistant to, the workings of power. Because they are always embedded within the Symbolic order, which is constructed of unstable chains of signifiers in a constant process of glissement, the operations of power are themselves always unstable; power is itself always already transformative, always already becoming something different. At every instance of the assertion of power, the nature of that power is modified to fit the specific needs of the subject attempting to use it, in that specific situation. It follows that every subject has access to the workings of power, and that any subject can use that power to resist perceived authorities and effect social change within the Symbolic order.

There are some problems with putting this theoretical resistance into practice, however. Though all subjects can both use and be used by power, the extent of this use is hardly equal to all. The President of the United States, although just as dependent on others for his power, obviously has a greater politically and socially transformative power than an undergraduate at the University of Victoria. While power is just as illusory for the President as it is for myself, and while we both transform power simply through using it, the President’s ability to enact substantial, meaningful change on a societal level is far greater than mine. It is easier for him to get others to believe his narrative myths than it is for me, due to the nature of the social and political apparatus he has at his disposal: the educational system, the army and police, the judicial system, the media, etc—what Louis Althusser refers to as Ideological and Repressive Social Apparatuses.

Despite these problems, Lacanian theory is tremendously useful, both ethically and politically, in its ability to show how subjects are constructed through misrecognitions with, and desires of, others; what the two essays examined here seem to lack is a directly political thrust. The ideas of power that underlie these essays are implicit, requiring much extrapolation and teasing out—they await application and development, as it were. A number of later theorist—for example, Althusser, Butler, Wittig, Said, and Kristeva—have done just this, interpolating Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in the direction of socio-political construction and formulation, applying his basic theoretical constructions in overtly political ways.

The “Introduction” to Edward Said’s book Orientalism puts forward his conceptualization of power, in regard to the specific power discourses involved in the creation by the West of the 'Orient' and 'Occident' as opposing categories. Following the work of Michel Foucault as well as Lacan, Said sees power as the relation of both hegemonic power and Imaginary knowledge. For Said, as for Foucault, the two can never be divorced. Power is generated at the same time as knowledge is generated; to have power over something is to have knowledge of something, and the generation of knowledge or information about something implies a certain kind of power over it. It is to this that Said refers when he says that “Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient…as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (1992). Any formulation of power/knowledge, such as Orientalism, becomes a “created body of theory and practice in which … there has been considerable material investment” (1995). The supremacy of certain (cultural) discourses of power/knowledge is investigated by Said with respect to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, the means of “cultural leadership” that are dependent on “collective notions identifying ‘us’ … as against all of ‘them’” (1995). That is, the means whereby a small segment of society convinces society as a whole that its cultural narratives are in everyone's best interests. Power can thus be seen as something that is produced by certain groups and classes as a means of both hegemonic control and ego-protection. Said’s debt to Lacan becomes most obvious here, in his understanding of the produced nature of the (Imaginary) narrative binaries of ‘us’/‘them’, ‘Occident’/‘Orient’, and in the understanding that these constructions are Imaginary, without any real basis (aside from geo-political boundaries—but even these are merely Imaginary delineations needed to identify and differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’). By identifying an other as such, as a ‘goy’ or ‘auslander’ or ‘Oriental’, as something different and discrete from ‘us’, all those behaviors that ‘we’ see as negative or unnatural can be ascribed onto the ‘other’, allowing ‘us’ to be seen in a wholly positive and natural light. This double-sided production of power is, for Said as for Lacan, at work in any discourse of knowledge: “no production of knowledge …can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances” (Said 1999). The Imaginary, constructed, ‘other’ tells us more about the constructing subject than it does about that ‘other.’

Like Eagleton, Said sees all forms of knowledge and all discourses as being “tinged and impressed with, violated by … gross political facts”, and therefore always political, always shaped by certain hegemonic interests and strategies (Said 1999). Said is far more concerned with how hegemony and political power shape the individual than is Lacan, who focuses on the causal factors of language and the unconscious. For Said, if political facts “tinge” every subject, and every discourse, then the first action any subject or discourse should make is to identify what those political facts actually are, to situate oneself vis-à-vis both the object of investigation and the wider hegemonic factors that colour such an investigation.

It is this concept of situating oneself that is most useful for anyone seeking to resist the workings of hegemonic power/knowledge. This personalizes the workings of power in a manner antithetical to any totalizing conception of power as natural, exposing how the cultural construction of both subjects and ‘others’ leaves indelible traces of the constructing culture’s ideologies and hegemonic constraints upon them. By exposing the inherent political biases of the resisting subject’s own interests, the naturalization of power is deflated: it is shown to be fundamentally unnatural, Imaginary and dependent on the interests of a specific part of a specific socio-historical culture. Said is calling for a discourse of knowledge which situates itself within wider civil and political societies. Such a situated knowledge would, presumably, lead to a more self-aware discourse of power, one that is able to move beyond naturalizing myths and the limiting conception of the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ In practical terms, Said’s call for critics and theorists to situate themselves is a call for a remodeling of existing power/knowledge discourses, working from the productive and distributive world of knowledge into the realm of the political: a call to change political hegemonies by changing the way in which knowledge is generated and transmitted. Just as the Lacanian psychoanalytic method is based upon helping subjects understand the Imaginary nature of their mis-recognitions, Said’s political epistemology works to show us the Imaginary nature of our ontological constructions and methods—specifically, in this case, of the construction of an ‘Orient.’

Both the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and the post-colonial perspective of Edward Said present radical reconceptualizations of the workings of power discourses. Challenging the process by which power comes to be seen as natural and unassailable, both theorists offer compelling examinations of how power is created, how it is manifested, and how it may be resisted. In his essay on the mirror stage, Lacan attacks the notion of any unified knowable self or power discourse, showing how the self is culturally constructed through others, language, and the unconscious, and demonstrating that, like the divided subject, all power discourses are themselves internally ruptured, creating space for resistance and change. With his emphasis on the need for the critic to situate himself with respect to his field of study, and his examination of a specific development of Imaginary mis-recognition for strategic and historically contingent ends, Said offers a critique of power/knowledge that questions the usefulness of any knowledge that professes to be unbiased or natural; by modifying the means by which knowledge is generated, Said hopes to modify the power structures that are so deeply intertwined with any discourse of knowledge. While Said seems to produce a critique more suited for practical political changes than Lacan, he only achieves this end by using Lacanian theory and applying it to a specific strategic formulation—the construction of the Occident/Orient binary. He shows how cultures and cultural ideas of identity are constructed in much the same manner as the Lacanian subject. The theories of both are indispensable in examining the workings of power and knowledge, and in working to transform existing power structures and discourses: both point the way towards a transformative politics, Lacan implicitly, Said explicitly.

Works Cited:

Eagleton, T. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Lacan, J. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, V. et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 1285-1290..

Lacan, J. “from The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, V. et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 1290-1302.

Leitch, V. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.

Said, E. “from Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, V. et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 1991-2012.