I've updated this post with the audio of my LACK presentation. Download here: The Populist's Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse
This is the script for a talk I'll deliver this weekend in Colorado Springs. For the first time, I'll be introducing the algorithm on which I base my dissertation. You will have to forgive the writing style—it's tailored to my speaking style, not my writing style. And there’s a lot of jokes hidden throughout that won’t make any sense if you aren’t immersed in the psychoanalytic literature, but that’s probably the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever typed!
The Populist’s Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse
In his 1972 Milan lecture where he described a fifth discourse—not University, nor Master, nor Hysteric, nor Analyst, but instead a uniquely Capitalist discourse—Lacan’s humor shined through in one of his eminently quotable quips that makes me wish the advent of Twitter had come a bit sooner. The question posed to him was about political revolution—there’s finally a question of political revolution among the youth today, yes? Well when Lacan was asked about the possibility of mobilizing the drive, he had this to say about the political sphere (I quote): “You would like for it to go differently. Obviously it could go better. What would be needed, would be for the master’s discourse to be…not so fucking stupid.”
What is needed is to be not so fucking stupid? Well it might’ve helped if we knew a bit more about that Capitalist discourse. You Lacan scholars already know that while he gave a whole year’s seminar to the four discourses, he devoted only a single paragraph exploring the fifth. I’m writing my dissertation on these discourses, but I’m also a part of that generation they call the Millennials; I spend hours each day within the “hive mind” of social media. We think in groups—my colleagues from all over the world bounce questions off each other, we criticize, we build our research in collaboration, but then we also say things that are stupid, inane, worthless. And that’s just in our academic world, up in the University discourse. Most of social media—so far as I can see—is nothing but populist narcissism. A most effective political tweeter—a notable semi-fascist and overtly white supremacist candidate that shall not be named—gives us a perfect picture of what it means to be, as Lacan put it, “so fucking stupid.” And just as Freud told us that “where id was, ego will be,” so the impulses, misinformation, and rage tweeted out 140 characters at a time will soon become, overnight, a part of a national conversation. So I thought I might make a presentation of it. I call this “The Populist’s Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse,” but if I weren’t concerned with the CV line, I might have called it, “Stupidity has to be nourished”—we’ll come back to that. I’m arguing that as social media continues its affective drift, we might be served best by analysis of objet a in the social media age of narcissism, specifically with a configuration of a Populist discourse. Social media is language and speech, but it works regardless of whether that speech has any knowledge caught up in it.
The Capitalist Discourse
Well I won’t rehash the four names of Seminar XVII—you already know them—but how can we frame a Capitalist discourse, the one that breaks with the clockwise logic of the other four? Just to refresh, the four positions of each discourse are 1) Subject, 2) the Other, who does the work, 3) the Product of that work, and 4) the Truth, the remainder, which has little direct relation to the product but which sustains the Subject. In the Master’s discourse, the Subject position is S1, the Master Signifier, which speaks to the Other, who puts S2 (or knowledge) to work and yields the Product of objet a, which Lacan calls surplus jouissance and Marx calls surplus value. A Lacan quote: “Freud doesn’t bullshit... What is characteristic of the two of them, Freud and Marx, is that they don’t bullshit.” The barred-subject ($) exists in the position of Truth below the line of identification, below the Master Signifier. In short, when the Master Signifier of the employer says “Jump!”, the Other (the workers) jump and produce the Product. What is left over as the Truth of this relationship is that the Master is really nothing more than than a barred-subject. The factory only works so long as we all agree to never recognize the humanity of the employer and employee alike. Of course, as Lacan observed (I quote), “Does [the master] have the desire to know? A real master…doesn’t desire to know anything at all—he desires that things work. And why would he want to know?”
Well that’s the clockwise turn of the Master, so what’s different in Capitalism? Well, if you don’t know the algorithm, Lacan took the Master’s discourse and simply inverted the left-hand positions so that the barred-subject is now the Agent and the Master Signifier is the Truth. But Capitalism also breaks the clockwise turn: the subject no longer speaks to the Other as a person but instead relates to the Other only indirectly, via Master signifier. In other words, Capitalism means that there is no intersubjective relation—not even transference?—that is without the mediation of the Master Signifier. If this is confusing, you know you are on the right track; again, whereas Lacan spent a whole year on the four discourses, he spent barely a paragraph explaining the fifth.
So what’s the relation between Capitalism and populism, especially when populist speech is transmitted through the vehicle of social media? As much as Lacan wished to see his orthodoxy transmitted intact, he also had this to say about orthodoxies of all kinds (I quote): “One remains true to propriety because one has nothing to say about the doctrine itself.” And he actually did free students to rearrange the algorithms—while holding that we won’t be able to make them work any other way—but then in the Milan talk he does indeed postulate a new mode precisely by breaking his clockwise logic. Instead of the Agent proceeding left-to-right, the Agent instead proceeds down. So my dissertation’s question has been how to frame populism within a Capitalist algorithm. My starting assumption is that we cannot allow knowledge (S2) any place in within a Populist discourse, because populism—particularly the rightwing variety—is the domain where knowledge is proscribed and speech is “fucking stupid.” So I resolved to come up with my own algorithm—on which I would welcome your critiques—where we frame populism as a self-contained discourse within the Capitalist Production. My Populist sub-algorithm also intentionally proscribes the S2 (knowledge), and it flows via the same directional vectors guiding Capitalism. Perhaps it makes sense if you’re fluent in Lacanese, but just as Lacan spent too little time on the capitalism, I won’t spend any more time on my algorithm.
I’ll simply say that the Populist cannot relate to the Other except through the big Other, which is assumed whole and never barred, and that relationship produces the barred-subject that in turn re-generates the lost objet a; it should not be lost on you that I place objet a in the same position we find it in the Analyst’s discourse. In other words, the Populist wants liberation from the status quo; she simply doesn’t yet know how to articulate her desire. What happens when human begins desire, but don’t know how to articulate their desire? Well one solution is to let our epistemically-closed social networks mediate our knowledge—even if that knowledge might be counterfactual, paranoid, and narcissistic, as it often is for the rightwing social media landscape.
Now, in Enjoying What We Don’t Have, Todd McGowan makes a very important theme out of the observation that we are not Subjects who desire to know. It would be far more accurate to truncate that sentence. We are not Subjects who desire to know but instead Subjects who desire. We don’t know what to desire, or who to trust, and we definitely don’t understand the desires of other subjects with other big Others. That’s a lot of “others,” so perhaps an example helps. I hope I don’t butcher his argument, but McGowan takes on our hysterical scattershot of explanation emerging after 9/11. For those who know about Anna O.’s “Chimney-sweeping treatment,” we might say the West’s reactions to 9/11 were sweeping out that chimney in the most hysterical way possible. We imagined the Islamist martyr must be hoping for 72 virgins, or we might say—without any hint of irony—that the terrorist “hates freedom.” What couldn’t be acknowledged, says McGowan, is that the extremist might genuinely enjoy their faith. That couldn’t be acknowledged, because no such commitment is found in American Evangelicalism, wherein, at an unconscious level, hypocrisy actually is a primary value.
This works perfectly for the Era of Narcissism. The type of person who believes in “common sense” and fears the “indoctrination of the university” might turn to whatever source purports to be “fair and balanced” to be reassured daily not only that they are right but that everyone with whom they disagree is a treasonous saboteur. The narcissist enjoys what she doesn’t have, feels nostalgic for imaginary pasts, and feels paranoid of enemies that don’t exist (which is seen every few months with these anti-sharia ordinances or anti-trans bathroom laws). Again, knowledge is not part of the conversation, and every attempt to combat populism with a counteractive “gotcha!” list of facts will merely strengthen the Populist’s Truth, which is the big Other you have betrayed with your treasonous facts.
The popular satire site The Onion delivers a stream of perfect examples for how this works. For politics, The Onion essentially takes whatever Fox News is propagating and cranks it up just the slightest notch. Outrage recently erupted when they debuted an article called “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex,” wherein Planned Parenthood’s new slogan “No Life Is Sacred” naturally lead them to build a facility with 2,000 abortion-dedicated surgical rooms. A secondary website called “Literally Unbelievable” sprung up to document those poor, outraged, pro-life souls who posted the story to social media without recognizing it as satire. Counted among the fooled victims was a Louisiana family-values congressman, who posted the story to his Facebook page with a lament of our culture’s “abortion by the wholesale.” I’ve seen a few outraged Facebook friends post these Onion articles, but when informed it’s only satire, the most common retort is not a retraction but instead, “Well alright, but my point still stands: this is exactly the kind of thing we’d expect in Obama’s America!” And that’s no joke, for what we see when knowledge has no algorithmic function is a sphere where belief itself is taken as circular evidence. Can knowledge counter a discourse with no place for knowledge? Well as the Analyst’s discourse suggests: a direct test of strength will not overcome a defense—indeed, a direct test of strength will only result in further repression. We never wake up until we are ready to awake.
Social Media, Stupidity Incarnate
Well as Deleuze and Guattari wrote—I don’t know if we like them or hate them here—but they wrote of encoding. (Perhaps its no coincidence they were writing Anti-Oedipus at the same time Lacan was developing a similar critique in Seminar XVII). But the point is that we are always in the process of encoding our identities, constructing them from the milieu of available materials (which is unfortunate when the available materials are half-formed thoughts in 140 characters). Again, it is entirely disjointed from Freud’s “Where id was, ego will be” or the critical observation of the fort-da game played by his grandson: we are our repression, our symptoms and synthome we had best enjoy. Likewise, social media is an omnipresent demand that we display a filtered symptom. I say filtered because when I post an image to Instagram, I have the option of adding color filter pre-programed into the app that make my image more pleasing. Of course, nobody gives a shit about my filters; I merely want to look more interesting for people who won’t notice, which means the filter was really just for me. As the master said, the letter always reaches its destination. And though we are narcissists, God was, of course, the first narcissist. As Lacan put it (I quote), “It is when the Word is incarnated that things really start going badly. Man is no longer at all happy, he no longer resembles at all a little dog who wags his tail or a nice monkey who masturbates. He no longer resembles anything. He is ravaged by the Word.”
I like that phrase, “ravaged by the Word,” because social media is where a letter reaches its destination. Perhaps most importantly, it collapses the distance between the unknown user and the public celebrity, who’s no longer a purely imaginary figure existing far off. If I tag a name, there’s s a chance the owner might take notice. The political candidate who shall not be named gives us the perfect example, because the majority of his tweets are actually retweets of his followers. This gives him the aura of a constant stream of popularity, but it also gives his followers a sense he’s reading and genuinely cares about their every tweet. In this moment, social media has changed conversation from two egos to a conversation between the id and superego; the crowd’s rage-filled id is now directly organized and promoted by the superego evidenced by the public figure engaging them. It is not so different from how the religious person imagines she prays to a God (a conversation between two egos) when she is really seeking her superego’s authorization of her id.
There isn’t much of a Master anymore, except for a faceless machine demanding we yield our surplus value. And it’s in this perverse “transference” of surplus (from Product to Agent) that we are configured as uniquely capitalist subjects. Lacan is clear that the University discourse will not be sufficient to counteract the machine. The only avenues for liberation are (perhaps) the Analyst’s knowledge and (definitely) the Hysteric’s/Masses’ demand. What I’m arguing in my dissertation is that we, here in a 21st century American context—and perhaps it works elsewhere—need to understand that fields such as religion or social media exist without concern for authorization by knowledge; knowledge is entirely outside this field that I am calling the Populist’s discourse. Therefore if psychoanalysis wants to avoid becoming what Lacan called a PEST—“truly pestilent, wholly devoted, finally, to the service of capitalist discourse”—it’s going to have to think through algorithms wherein an Analyst’s discourse does utilize desire but doesn’t utilize knowledge, which is impotent. How else will the subject realize the big Other does not exist?
To conclude, what might Lacan say of all this? Well in Seminar XX, he did tell us something about stupidity. Populism looks an awful lot like paranoia (Yes?), but it isn’t really paranoia. Or at least the individuals involved are not themselves psychotic. They are instead a normally-adjusted, broadly neurotic cohort that must be employed for the Capitalist machine, which means they must to serve as the objet a. It simply turns out that social media provides a constant stream of self-reinforced identity-construction, which seems to work by using the ego’s narcissistic cathexis against itself. Online, we are not barred-subjects but instead we are whatever preferred ideation we so desire. The Populist is not the Agent but merely the Product of Capitalist discourse. Once more, the Master does not care how things work but only that they do work—it’s up to us to select our repression, fixation, paranoia, denial, or whatever else—the Master doesn’t much care. We are truly encouraged to choose whatever serves our narcissism best today. I mentioned that Lacan says something to this effect in Seminar XX, and I’ll close with the brief quote: “Stupidity nevertheless has to be nourished. Is everything we nourish thereby stupid? No. But it has been demonstrated that to nourish oneself is part and parcel of stupidity.”