Under any social structure of accumulation, there exists a Master Signifier, which serves as the structuring principle of discursive operations. These historically contingent operations operate at two levels: the ontic and the ontological. The ontic refers to the ideological delimitation of what can be talked about, establishing the contours for the struggle of hegemony within a specific accumulation regime. Hence, it is the domain of politics, of Reality. As Alicia Valdes notes, “[t]he ontic level of politics establishes which elements, issues, demands, or interests are worth entering politics. It is the level concerned with beings, their needs, and desires. The ontic level of politics is responsible for limiting the signifying chain of political discourses”. The ontological refers to the inclusion and exclusion of people that a discourse orchestrates, setting limits to who can speak in the discourse, and intervene in politics and Reality. This can be clarified through the distinction between subjection and subjectification. While the former denotes the way in which each individuals’ interaction with society is necessarily mediated through a discourse, the latter denotes a form of discursive emplacement through which the individual comes to completely identify with the signifying chain. As such, the ontological pertains to the Real, the Political. In the words of Valdes: “The ontological level of politics establishes who can intervene in politics…At the ontological level…a framing operation establishes limits between the space for existence and the space for ex-sistence. Those who produce and reproduce the signifying chain of political discourse inhabit the place for existence…The place of ex-sistence is where the Real, as the Political, inhabits. In other words, the ontological level of politics sets limits to the being of beings that accede to the ontic.” The status of the ontological as the machine that excludes certain people means that it is home to the explosiveness of the Political, the element that can leap out of the zone of non-being to disrupt the very division of the ontic and the ontological.
The dualities of ontic and ontological, Reality and Real, politics and Political, subjection and subjectification, existence and ex-sistence, emerge from the constitutive lack at the heart of human subjectivity. The emergence of the signifying order directly coincides the formation of a constitutive lack at the heart of human subjectivity. In the language system developed by humans, significatory connotation confers an additional or excess meaning on objects that is not reducible to their empirical existence. This translates into the construction of a division between the signifier and signified, between the name and the idea of the object, with no amount of linguistic effort ever being able to close this gap. We keep moving from one signifier to another along the signifying chain, as one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning. This separation of the signifier and the signified – labeled “symbolic castration” – also denotes the separation of the subject from the satisfying object (“objet a”). All of the subject’s diverse activities within the system of signification come to revolve around the attempt to rediscover this object that it never possessed. Since absence animates the subject, repetitious attachment to failure – attributable to the loss of the object that signification entails – becomes a defining characteristic of human subjectivity. We unconsciously satisfy ourselves and gain enjoyment/jouissance through successive efforts to attain a missing satisfaction. In the arrangement created by a Master Signifier, the aforementioned dualities serve as the Symbolic framework – the network of language and order, norms, customs, habits, rules, laws, etc. – through which our constitutive lack can be dealt with.
The mechanisms of the Symbolic allow for the subjectification of certain groups through a form of political identification that enables an affective attachment toward the objet a offered by a particular discourse. This affective attachment allows the subject to cope with symbolic castration by pushing it to locate its identity in the ideal images constructed by a hegemonic narrative. Once this process of identitarian location is completed, the subject successfully enters the signifying chain. However, as Valdes reminds, “success of symbolic identification does not imply the achievement of a complete identity, as the lack of the subject makes it an impossible campaign. Instead, it only assures the entrance in the continuous process of identification that can occur once the subject enters the Symbolic register. Success is the affective attachment that certain subjects can develop toward the ideal subject that emerges from a specific discursive operation.” Apart from the subjectified agents of the Master Signifier, there are those who fail to engage in symbolic identification. This failure is “the rejection certain subjects receive when attempting an identification, whether it is a result of their rejection of the Symbolic order or a result of their imposed incompatibility with the subject offered in the Symbolic register.” Taking into account the presence of these subjects, Valdes distinguishes between “subjects with existence” and “subjects with ex-sistence”. The former indicates subjects whose constitutive lack, and thus inability to form a full identity, is temporarily sutured through a successful symbolic identification with the objet a posited by the discursive engine of a Master Signifier. These subjects inhabit the space of Reality. The latter indicates subjects who, on top of the constitutive lack instituted by the language system, have a constituted lack. This second constituted lack “results from their resistance or prohibited entrance toward the ideal or the normativity that offers the Symbolic order. These subjects inhabit the Real.”
The Master Signifier that represents capitalism is the commodity form. In the economic domain, capitalism works through the homogenizing logic of money and market, wherein the former equates commodities on the basis of abstract socially necessary labor and the latter equates individuals as interchangeable market actors. This market actor is empty in terms of identity because it is simply supposed to pursue its own self-interest. To fill this isolated particularity of the market actor, the capitalist Master Signifier discursively posits the promissory gesture of accumulation and commodities as the objet a. Through this discursive operation, the future is said to embody a type of satisfaction unavailable in the present and attached to one’s investment in the capitalist system. However, this objet a, this symbolic identification with the commodity form, is only fully available to the capitalists and not to the workers. In the words of Todd McGowan:
“Capitalists themselves at least can fill the emptiness of their particularity with money and other commodities. Capitalists have their particular accumulation to give themselves a content. Even if this accumulation offers them nothing but dissatisfaction after dissatisfaction, they can at least hope that some future level of accumulation will provide what they’ve been missing. This hope is what keeps them invested in the capitalist system, despite its broken promises. Workers don’t have that option. In Marx’s account, they are pure form without content and thus the engine for revolutionary subjectivity…Without the possibility of the accumulation that gives the capitalist a content, the working class lacks the identity that the capitalist class has. Because its particularity is empty, it can assume the mantel of the revolution without sacrificing anything but its chains. The working class has everything to gain and nothing to lose with the turn toward revolution.”
Pure form without content. This formulation, in addition to conveying the economic status of workers, can also be explained in a logical way through certain psychoanalytic tools. For this, we need to take a conceptual detour through the notion of the “hysteric”, which is defined as the subject that, being subjected to the Symbolic, is not accepted by the signifying chain of the Master Signifier, by the Other. The lack of acceptance leads to the rejection of the Other by the subject and the decision to embrace constitutive lack as the main principle of ex-sistence. In the discourse of the capitalist Master Signifier, bourgeois subjectivity believes that it has gained jouissance through commodities and accumulation. However, having this illusory commodified jouissance leaves one constantly threatened by the idea of its loss and incessantly striving for more authentic possession. The capitalist subject has established fantasmatic coherence within the Master Signifier of commodity, but this coherence remains fragile because bourgeois subjectivity constitutes itself in reference to the threat of castration. Thus, the problem with the commodity form, with the capitalist objet a, stems not simply from the constant threat of loss but also from the impossibility of ever really having it. Bourgeois subjectivity exists in relation to an ideal of perfect having, a non-castration that is structurally unattainable. In contrast, the proletarian hysteric, the subject of ex-sistence, does not depend upon the ideal of non-castration since its economic position seals it from the illusion of endless accumulation, turning it into the placeholder of the Real. Giving up on the dream of having commodities, the proletarian hysteric constitutes itself through not having the commodity, and symbolic castration therefore functions as the foundation of proletarian subjectivity. Proletarian subjectivity does not require the threat of symbolic castration because it embodies the threat itself, the constitutive lack. In other words, the proletarian hysteric derives jouissance from the complete embrace of the Real, adopting the standpoint of lack to fight against the illusion of commodified plenitude.
Now, to return to the dialectic of form and content, the proletarian hysteric is pure form because, in the discursive universe of the capitalist Master Signifier, it is ontologically excluded and not supposed to speak; consequently, it is unintelligible to the Reality of bourgeois politics. Insofar that the proletarian Political is unintelligible to the ontic narrative of the commodity, its content can’t be prioritized. The mere fact of speaking by the proletarian hysteric dislocates the syntax of the capitalist Master Signifier and allows for the Real to make itself felt in the Symbolic. Thus, the proletarian Real – the pure negativity of capitalism that lingers as unassimilable into the Symbolic order and manifests itself within the periodic turbulences of the capitalist system – emerges at the limits of the capitalist Symbolic, when the Symbolic loses its transparency and clearly fails to disambiguate itself. The failure of disambiguation means that the commodity-as-objet a ceases to trouble subjectivity as a promised but necessarily impossible plenitude. This disruption of the capitalist Master Signifier is completed through the inscription of the Real within the Symbolic, which crafts a new Communist Master Signifier whose discursive operation is based upon the fundamentality of the non-traumatic signifier of the lack in the Other. This signifier of the lack in the Other functions in the following way. For bourgeois subjectivity, proletarian subjectivity is its Other, the hysteric who is defined by the lack of commodified jouissance. For proletarian subjectivity, however, there is no negative Other in relation to which it can construct its positive identity and fantasies regarding the objet a. Hence, the proletariat is a subject in which, to borrow Alenka Zupancic’s words, “[t]he nonexistence of the Other is itself inscribed into the Other.” Insofar that the proletariat is the “Other the inconsistency of which is inscribed in it,” the Communist Master Signifier comes to center around the signifier of the lack in Other. This allows for a politics which emphasizes the internally divided nature of the human subject, the aspect of the Real which is always concealed by capital’s uncritical fantasies of wholeness. The only way to fully come to terms with the constitutive lack that inheres in the being of humanity is to orient politics toward its conscious and controlled materializations in the form of democratically crafted fantasies.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.