Psychoanalysis and Justice
A reply to Sergio Benvenuto’s essay
Benvenuto’s essay invites us to consider the effects of the “lethal power of the signifier” to the extent that we may be able to acknowledge its unconscious moments. This, as he demonstrates, is an immensely difficult task. Underlying the difficulty of such a consideration is a question that further obscures the problem. The question is simply, as Benvenuto poses it: “why do we ultimately hate the destitute?”. This question admits of no easy answer. I make no pretense to answer it fully or sufficiently here.
Psychoanalytic experience teaches us that any serious consideration of how we get ahold of the lethal function of the signifier cannot avoid encountering difficulties that constitute the fixed points of our dreams. This implies another difficulty: the power of the fantasy. Let us admit that we do not know very well what it means, but that this strange formulation nonetheless has a sense. In other words, if we think about it enough, we can start to make sense of the power of the fantasy by considering what forms it can and does take, and how it may come to shape our thinking in turn. Though speculative, such an activity of trying to figure out the possible or implied meanings of a formulation is sufficient for our purposes here.
Why start with this? Because part of the difficulty of the lethal power of the signifier is that it situates us squarely within the effects of the logos, where the rules of thinking are assimilated to the rules of natural geometry. Here we come an open problematic which involves a question of from what position does one speak in the place of what is heard in the word. This point, which it seems none of us can renounce except with extreme difficulty, has very precisely to do with a rule that one is obliged to obey: no one must come to disturb the rules of the signifier. If the rules of the social are to be respected, and if there is respected this law of the signifier which commits seriously to its principle of arbitrariness, well then, the signifier encounters a support when these rules are respected. It finds it in the real dimension.
Let me pause here to return to something that Benvenuto gets ahold of. Beyond the resistances constituted by the real, which establishes itself as a fixed point the moment that no hubris comes to disturb it, we find that the couples of opposites he highlights are in no way symmetrical. Benvenuto gets ahold of the fact that racial and ethnic conflicts are not said from the same place. The assumption that they are somehow articulated with one another—that is, that they are relevant only from what he calls their “solid bases”—is a serious error. Because taking a stand on this ground is itself a prejudice of the intellect. In pursuance of our habits of thought, it consists precisely in clinging tightly to the object of our passions: aporophobia. Once more, if the rules of society are to be respected, then what must not come to disturb our very thinking of what is right, just, and equitable is the necessity of never ceasing to introduce an intolerable situation to despise: a deprived figure, destitute in its poverty, an abject form of social exclusion that brings me relief. Yet, I believe I have found the cause, the thing that allows me to be good, to be a better, fuller member of society who knows how to act ethically. Indeed an attribute of the power of a fantasy is that it gains its coherency in giving a certain status to our realities.
I am aware that what I say here may raise immediate critique on the ground that I am reducing poverty to mere fantasy, and thus failing to see that the sufferings and torments experienced by persons and communities who have to endure in conditions of poverty are inseparable from the economic, social, cultural, and political systems that create those conditions in the first place. But psychoanalysis does not curry itself on trying to convince its audience, and this no doubt, is a difficulty that any psychoanalytic explanation must accept. It is not easy to take account of the real in the ways a fantasy functions for the subject.
Let us continue since what is also at issue here is that the demand to be vigilant in our thinking affirms us in our belief. Once we believe we have found the cause, we know what has to be struck out in order for things to be working properly. Psychoanalytic experience compels us to admit that thinking is perfectly well supported by equivocation and a play of signifiers. We know a signifier is founded on a fundamental equivocation and that we cannot know the ultimate meaning. This is why a signifier has the curious property that one can come to establish the relation between the points of its representations of space with the function(s) that one wishes. This is also why we encounter countless obstacles on our way to acknowledging the power of the signifier. Any effort to do so satisfies an assumption of intellect: that we can represent to ourselves spontaneous thinking.
With regard to the signifier, involved in this assumption is that we can get at the meaning of a signifier from the point of view of an arbitrariness it conveys to us. This coincides with what we naturally experience. Here another problem comes into view. Such an effort realizes itself by means of establishing our body as a point through which this thinking first passes in order to ensure that we are operating properly at the level of knowledge—because there is always some sort of truth in this thing which I am trying to represent.
When Benvenuto asks why it remains so difficult to acknowledge unconscious moments of the lethal power of the signifier especially when our explanations respect the law of the signifier, he comes close to something which is extremely difficult to show. This concerns the ways our method of thinking expresses the meaning of its forms by supposing the boundary between what is inside and what is outside (the circle) to be absolute. With regard to the question of aporophobia, what conclusions can we draw? What is outside me is to be considered threatening. This in a strange way, introduces something significant: I am affirmed in my belief that I have found the cause. Now, starting from this ideal point, I am in either an exceptional position to recognize that the threat is a public threat or I am in a position of exteriority that privatizes the threat and justifies my refusals. I thereby behave accordingly.
It is not the purpose of this brief reply to Benvenuto’s questions to elaborate some of the clinical realities of how we experience signifiers. It is sufficient to say that clinical experience teaches us that there are complications with signifiers. One such complication has to do with when the signifier loses its equivocation. This concerns paranoia. When everything speaks about the cause such that a signifier represents a cause, the point is very precise. It is a point when the signifier is transformed into a sign that represents a thing or a cause for someone. In paranoia, there is always a dimension of sacrifice and generosity. This is not easy to admit or accept.
Clinical experience compels us to admit that paranoia is close to the constitution of our subjectivity and is well integrated into the fabric of our societies. We psychoanalysts are always trying to grasp how the neighboring of the neuroses and the social field functions. This is why there is risk of every explanation and acknowledgment of the unconscious, and especially when it is successful. This is where Lacan’s formulation of the signifier of barred big Other (S(Ø)) introduces something new. Helping a subject take serious account of their fundamental fantasy helps one get ahold of the elements which produces an effect but which does not have signification. Once more, psychoanalytic experience teaches us that there is a space which does not belong to our subjective constitution but which has an effect of creating a subjective body. Not all language is signification and meaning. It is possible to lose some quantity of being and to get ahold of what, for each one, is a way to listen differently. Starting from there, putting in place new arrangements that have an effect of realizing a justice which is not prejudicial is possible.
Psychoanalysis and Justice
Taking into account the sayings of the Black Lives Matter movement, this essay interprets how the word “justice” functions as a signifier of the real of human experience. It starts from the hypothesis that the call to racial justice compels us to ask: are we in a new epoch which might be called a postmodernity? Within this frame, the author advances the hypothesis that justice is a concept that resonates with what the psychoanalytical experience implies. To help develop this hypothesis, the author interprets how the modalities of speaking “justice” do not point to the intentionality of an individual or a group. More precisely, they metaphorize differentiations of voice in the structure of the unconscious. This compels us, as the essay also attempts to show, to take deeper account of the lack in the social link. In a fundamentally different way than modernity, psychoanalysis defines and transforms the concept of justice. It thus attempts to develop a psychoanalytical concept of justice as inseparable from a psychoanalytical praxis.
Keywords: Black Lives Matter Movement, Justice, Modernity, Postmodernity, Praxis
We find ourselves caught up in a current state of affairs in which the dark shroud of a pandemic is spread across every element of life. No part of our world is untouched by this time of extreme suffering. We are brought close to notions of a future being shaped by persons in high political positions who plainly exhibit extreme forms of hatred, disgust, and disregard for the individuals and communities that constitute the very nations whose livelihoods they purport to uphold. We cannot but know and feel that the handling of the pandemic by some men in power has utterly destroyed every element of what is of true value in life, has set asunder the mental life of each individual person, and has made the already enormously stressed circumstances of so many persons who live under the burdens of widely differing and disadvantaged conditions crumble under the weight of this moment. It has been done to the gain of a desire that is endlessly fueled by a love whose agent of relief is an economic dynamic that reduces the subject to an object in order to give pleasure to the one who, in believing in the ideals set upon a collective of men, refuses to renounce the material wealth afforded to them by such a position. That the materiality of wealth extends far beyond money and feelings of virility, and reaches the deepest parts of an individual’s most intimate aspects brings no great surprise as to why some individuals refuse to give up their locus of power.
In the midst of the sufferings, a movement which started long before the outbreak of the pandemic, has gained a momentum. I refer to the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement offers many strong reasons to restore one’s faith in the possibility of bringing about long lasting, durable changes in the very character of our societies. I cannot avoid a certain fear that the kinds of changes which are necessary will fail to realize themselves in the deepest areas of the structures that organize how we are expected to act in relation to others and to ourselves. Indeed, these areas are made of the aspects of social links which induce the idealisms that hold resolutely to satisfy human life as a pleasurable economy wanting of sufferings.
Whatever interpretations of skepticism may be attributed to my comments will assuredly find their affirmations, especially if what I say is interpreted by logical means alone. I cannot pretend to speculate on what a better future may actually consist of by proposing to resolve or reconcile the difficulties endured by the masses and the individuals who are trapped within vicious and destructive circles.
Common talk among analysts, as well as among those who extend psychoanalytical researches to applications outside its field, expresses a desire to put psychoanalysis in a more serviceable condition for our contemporary moment. This is not a new impulse. We must not forget that this impulse is linked to the development of psychoanalysis. I admit that, for me, it is necessary to separate myself from this trend in order to deepen the consistency and coherency of psychoanalysis.
As it concerns the severity of our current state of affairs, psychoanalysis is compelled to ask: are we in a new epoch which we might call a postmodernity? This question is of psychoanalytic importance because it leads to a much deeper question concerning the essence of analytic praxis. This, for me, is a moment to put forward a serious consideration of a psychoanalytical conception of justice which is extremely difficult to explain. I cannot profess to offer a full explanation of the vast epistemological and philosophical questions raised by the topic of justice. What I will attempt to do by means of psychoanalysis is to say something about how justice functions as an element of psychoanalytical knowledge. This implies something about my method. The method of each psychoanalyst is linked to the irreducibility of her or his research which concerns her or him in their unsubstitutable singularity. So the subjective character of what I say goes without saying. I propose to develop the hypothesis that justice is a concept that resonates with what psychoanalytical experience implies. This is also to take seriously that the experience of psychoanalysis involves access to instances which do not appertain to time and which never cease to be differentiated from the present of repetition. Indeed this is what Freud grasped towards the end of his work in Analysis Terminable and Interminable (1937).
I start from a point which I extract from the sayings of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is first of all necessary to grasp that this movement treats the political and social organization of the people of the United States. It is no doubt an essential point of the movement. This is to grasp that as a political and social movement, Black Lives Matter stretches far and deep, implying the subjective dimension of each member of the collective people. There is a demand to hear and to see which gives a global coherence to the movement that involves going beyond comments about its local contexts. Everyone must feel this call to justice.
To hear this call for justice, it is necessary grasp the fact that the Black Lives Movement is addressed to a people—not only to local organizations of power—by words mobilizing the subjectivity of each one in the form of listening and of vision. The movement is tightly linked to saying “I can’t breath.” Spoken now across the names and distributed across its borders, it’s an injunction that commands each one to justice. In this way, “I can’t breath” is an intimate knowledge being realized in the form of a metaphor. It’s a way of insisting and accepting to say what cannot be said otherwise. This metaphor helps us catch a glimpse of what is articulated to it in the movement’s saying “Now We Transform.” There is something which appears in the same instance: an acceptance of loss and a substitute in desire.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, justice is a metaphor designating an ideal. This ideal is the access of all (which is quite apart from for all) to desire. This brings into focus what does not go without saying a demand that consists in a want of better: a want which is in itself a braiding of a just relation to others; a relation to oneself; and justice in the form of new policies. The difficulty is to take account of justice as a word spoken across the people in its three dimensions, which imply three modalities of voice: a word to hear; a word to listen to; a word heard without being listened to. A striking point to be noted of the Black Lives Matter movement is the emphasis on a necessity of a practice and an appeal to the subjectivity of each one that urges the subject to accomplish it in an active responsibility.
What makes itself felt in this emphasis on the necessity of a practice through an appeal to each one is something which insists to appease the subject despite the suffering and anguish it causes. What is it that insists? It is not easy to get ahold of, but it involves the fact that the word spoken across the people implies the extreme difficulty of the word heard without being listened to. Here is situated the voice of a suffering silence, the effects of which evoke historical truth. Justice is a word which speaks, which is to say, it names the lack saturated in its severity.
Here is where we meet something which admits of no easy explanation. The severity of our current state of affairs makes felt the necessity of psychoanalysis—as a science of the singular subject—to take deeper account of the existence of the group or a collective, and to reformulate how the symbolic authority functions in an epoch where it is not possible to alienate ourselves from a name that has the effect of being a symbolic authority for all. For all is to say, as much for the diversity of individual persons as for all groups. I am not decided on the appropriateness of the term group or collective to help explain it. I prefer the term mass, which is closer to meaning the space where the subject finds the signifying density necessary to support desire and to extract from the psychoanalytic experience new signifiers that support a stability, after accepting to get out of the fundamental fantasy that keeps one trapped in suffering. This helps us grasp that the mass only exists for the subject as an appeal inherent in subjectivity to make a set.
I am proposing to develop the hypothesis that psychoanalysis is a praxis with justice. So I am trying explain a psychoanalytic concept of justice. Justice is a signifier situated in the real of human experience. It is impossible to grasp as such; it can only be realized in the form of metaphors where it helps to inscribe the dimensions of its spaces. A psychoanalytical concept of justice has no correspondence to a political or social concept of justice. The latter cannot do without the systems of belief that look to objects of a common, universal truth in order to condition the horizons of all subjective life. As it regards the existence of justice as an unconscious element of the practice of the analyst, saying something about the core of the truth inherent to each one involves accepting to lose the image of psychoanalysis as a practice with value.
I want to emphasize something which Lacan got ahold of with his discovery of the Borromean knot structure of the unconscious. The absence of a psychoanalytic concept of science does not mean that it does not exist. It’s what helps him demonstrate that psychoanalytic practice does not need theory to operate (Lacan, 1974). I place the emphasis on the point that the praxis of psychoanalysis consists in its interlacings between a theoretical, practical, and clinical approach to the unconscious.
As praxis, psychoanalysis induces a particular science which, accepting to face the radical incompleteness inherent to its theory, is articulated through the knowledge of the psychoanalyst. This knowledge—both unconscious and conscious—is acquired through the experience of the cure when it leads to enough finality. It implies that psychoanalytic science does not rely upon theory as a high standard for knowledge and it is always a science to be differentiated from other sciences. Indeed psychoanalysis does not consist to make interrogations upon a universe of ideas in order to discover the real of our world. In this way, the analytic praxis compels us not to resign ourselves to considerations of its practice solely in terms of a discourse or a liberal art. We cannot avoid the fact that recourse to the norm is always there tempting us towards more comfortable concepts or more suitable definitions. In a certain way, the knowledge of the psychoanalyst involves an acceptance to face the difficulty of the ever-present risk of losing psychoanalytical truth if we cling tightly to objects that belong to our world in order to derive one’s sense of having a value.
An especially obdurate obstacle placed in the way of any attempt to define a psychoanalytic concept of justice involves an attitude to ethics held in common. People cannot set too high a value upon ethics as introducing the promises of a better life, as helping to reduce the suffering of others, and as the way to effect real change in all forms of human relations. Behind the justified motives of ethics, there exists a real that must be accepted—a real which cannot be obtained through an imagination of it or by means of deducing it from theory. We cannot avoid the fact that what insists, automatically in the existence of the social dimensions of human life, is ethics. An ethical practice, however, presupposes a raising of a notion of ethics to the status of an intention with a good object that makes use of the concept of purpose to justify its aims.
Experience in the psychoanalytic clinic teaches us that what may hold good in theory does not always mean the same in the practice. In any case, we cannot evade that what insists to go a certain way in the pursuits of a better life—a life free from the pains of existence—is repeated by continuing to focus on contingent events and thus never ceases to emerge as a point of interminable suffering. Not unlike the intoxicating relief that beauty affords us, ethics is a potent distraction to a person’s access to a stability of character of desire; that is, to an unconscious choice in jouissance that supports itself in its stability.
What cannot be conveyed but which can only be felt in the psychoanalytic experience of the cure is that the unconscious has no status of reality in itself. Psychoanalysis thus makes it possible to conceive and define symbolic authority as relevant only from the symbolic law of the unconscious, representative of the social big Other. The difficulty of the concept of the big Other involves the fact that it is not an entity; it has only to do with the fact of holding tightly with a network of signifiers in the dynamic of a subject’s network. An incompleteness inherent to it. It’s rather to do with a space where one finds the incessant iteration of signifiers constituting the unconscious of each one as a speaking being. This is why one must go beyond the imaginary of being (accepting not to perceive it as a being) in order to reduce the idea of the big Other as a strong presence that the subject believes demands him to sacrifice and annul completely the subject that one is.
Accepting to go beyond the imaginary of being, one gets ahold of the fact that the symbolic authority does not exist except by the inscriptions in and by social discourses. This implies that the function of symbolic authority is linked to the act of nomination—nomination of the subject by the word that designates the appeal inherent to the subject to a doing it together. It’s an appeal that surpasses each one. The social link is thus to be understood in the same instant as an ideal and as a metaphor in the reality of the holey spaces situating the lack. It is necessary to note that nomination takes account of the fact the structure exists. The subjective structure is realized on condition that the real, symbolic, imaginary (R, S, I) metaphorize dimensions of space and spaces of jouissance that are produced in a space of representation (Lacan, 1974-1975). The subjective knot never ceases to be realized in the holes of the subjective fault of each one. Getting ahold of the consistency and coherence that Lacan brought to psychoanalysis with his subjective topology, it is possible to understand how the subjective space is in the same instant objective and subjective. Said spaces of representation are objective, in the sense that they are spaces which finalize in an incomplete way the existence of the subject’s structure of the unconscious, and are subjective because they are spaces that express forms of interpretation by the subject in the structure. It is the latter which makes an assembly with the real that does not appertain to time, but which borrows from time in order to think how the functions of the unconscious are relevant from the referent of the psychoanalytic experience.
On this point, I emphasize that there are no resemblances between what is written in the topology of knots and what is felt as psychoanalytical truth in experience. It’s rather to do with what resonates in displacing the call to a missing fusion towards symbolic identifications that help the subject to subtract the imaginary object from what is believed to be lacking in body. Indeed, here one finds that the experience of the psychoanalytic cure involves losing the image of oneself as coloring the threads of R, S, I erotically across the organ that one believes one has to be in order to appear desirable.
We are now prepared to say that the felt demand of justice pushes the subject to realize his or her place as the putting into place of the social link. It is immediately clear the current state of affairs is causing great suffering and distress. In our modernity, we must take up once more the systems and institutions that put a people into their place by inscribing justice in its social link. Today, the new point in relation to modernity has to do with catching a glimpse of “justice” as metaphorizing an irreducible differential movement of what cannot be said otherwise and what is refused to be listened to. Let us go over again a link which has given a basis in modernity and a basis to the reasons that insist upon thinking the individual as an indissoluble part of common ethics.
Many researches have shown that modernity is characterized by a separation of politics from religion with respect to behavioral norms and conducts of reality. In a fundamental way, such a separation introduces the object of change to the concept of continency. Henceforth, modern politics is never without the possibility to convert political power into a form of religion and transform the State into tyranny. In modernity, we observe the following: in man’s attitude towards ideas of a civilized life and in the practices of the ideals of a group in an individual’s manners, there is a particular impossibility to think this separation as an absence of symbolic authority. The impossibility to think it becomes an impossibility to conceive—and impossibility which never ceases to introduce to the subject the object of a mental fusion as a possibility supposed to it. Indeed it becomes a certain refusal to think it. The individual clings to this new object, which makes itself the sign of what is necessary for the incorporeal as working to restore to being its essential character. This character is no other than what says it is living and has a future. The object of change incarnates the separation from what cannot be thought into a strong presence of a symbolic authority that expresses its formulation for answering to the demand for life. Two, congruent modalities are offered as the way to accomplish a reply: a want to know and a want to have a value. The two wants appear as two points in space that coordinate one’s efforts. Each point becomes fixed in its function as furnishing the point of view that allows the subject to express their changing positions. Henceforth, the individual must satisfy a look to the symbolic authority as the way to gain an assurance that says yes, your difficult experiences contain the promise of a more fruitful and pleasant future. This look is never a benevolent gaze.
Psychoanalysis teaches us that this symbolic authority is the one that founds and causes the social link to function as the authority. This is because it is the bearer of concrete ideals that never ceases to inscribe “progress” as an effect of difference between generations while indicating the prohibitions against incestuous choice in objects. Having already picked up on the sexual metaphor of life into which all other needs have entered, the signifying network evoked by the word “ethics” induces a fantasy of emptiness which is linked to what the subject perceives to be both taken away from a part of the self and as essentially missing. Having extracted said lack from the fabric of the social order, the subject is forced to equate being a subject with having a body. What passes by the subject without notice is that “ethics” is a speaking to one’s self. It’s what never stops to reproduce the question of life in producing the question of the individual. It speaks its “discontents of civilization” (Freud, 1930). In the face of the ever-present difficulty of the impossible of the human condition, man is forced to find a solution on the basis of an accounting for the relations between culture, politics, and the symbolic law. These relations take on an objective function which aims to tighten the subject’s place by teaching each one and the group to accept a want-to-be in a narcissistic value. Each one is left alone to care for its objects to uphold this enormous responsibility.
Under the banner of ethics, the individual is forced to follow the path of a demand that insists on the idea that if one is to hold a special place (characterized by offering assurances of life), one must realize that the path of desire goes through our perception of what gives real value to life. If one is to quiet and satisfy the fears that express one’s life is not all for naught or that it can be quickly extinguished, then saying “I” is forced to adhere to the route that appears as having meaning, significance, and purpose. The demand to have a value in terms of life thereby opens two paths to the subject. To be the abject object to be destroyed or to be the loved object to be coveted. It is by merging the assumption of a subject supposed to die into the necessity to find objects that support one in their singularity relative to the group, that modernity instantiates the very fabric of the social order as regulating all techniques of life anywhere and at every point. In modernity, it is a matter of putting in place a Me, in the place of the object, to make good the lack by virtue of acceding to the lived time of reality. That way, it’s always a matter of life to accomplish what is set upon us: to change over time.
Advances in modern thinking have understood the nature of the relation between race and ideologies of progress with great difficulty by conceptualizing it in terms of a grammatical cut out of time. Modernity has never been able to do without requirement of a concept of race as justifying a part of people that have to be put to death or to be made to work in service of their own annihilation. These routes help ensure that a mission of ideals applied to a practice can always emerge from what is seen to be a distasteful impurity that stands before one’s eyes. One can hear in the word “race,” the paths a subject takes to restore to its view a gaze upon everything. The gaze makes use of the concept of “progress” in order to say, “the future.” Experiences of the concept of race never cease to induce a command to have a value for any subject in the form of an object. Race, as it were, is written in the name of the law of progress. The future is said to say the past, in the present. For reason of the function of the limit, saying it this way realizes that one cannot say “I am” because the “I” is not present as such. The “I” is incessantly splintered in being a fixed point. Here the fixed point expresses something of what it has been in its convergence with what is perceived as repugnant to the mind. The “I” insists to carry on accomplishing an unfulfilled future.
The liaison between ethics and the good never ceases to induce the materiality of objects—objects that give a certain status to reality and which allow for the construction of a reality which lays claim to a right to life. This is no doubt what gives modernity the stuff of its matter: the treatment of the individual as an attribute of the care for and equality for all. It is highly unfavorable and discomforting to admit that under the heading of “ethics,” equality makes a sign of the good object by representing its operations in the form of a rejection of what is repugnant to the mind. It designates a particular thought about things that has an effect of brining into sharper focus the suffering of others as special occasions. Special in the sense that one can insert the missing experiences or perspectives assumed to the subject, and which we feel has the potential to bring about relief and happiness. In this way, ethics aims at a universal adhesion of everyone that is held in common as a public good in which everyone is obliged to participate. Ethics is a signifier for everyone. Felt in all of its severity, under the ideal of a collective, it forces each one to manage the poverty and loneliness of their place in society and culture by fleshing out what is missing in the image of proper care.
I am reminded of the extreme difficulties having to do with the signifier “ethics” that Frantz Fanon confronted in his work. He grasped how the body called “black man” is, by means of the woman’s gaze, rendered an imaginary object linked to a feminine element which is supposed to be destroyed (Fanon, 1986). Fanon gets ahold of how the annulment of the body so called implies an unconscious sense of “feminized.” Here, such a sense involves a subject being annulled completely in its metaphoric function, which precisely requires that the subject pass through a fixed point: for her, he must be also a form of unrestrained virility. In Fanon’s explanation, the fact of being feminized for the black man metaphorizes that he is castrated in an imaginary, non-symbolic sense that forces him to speak in society as a feminized subject. It is this that confers upon his body of speech the feeling of a strangeness in speaking with a tongue which is not entirely one’s own (Fanon, 1986).
There is nothing that prevents the fact that some persons will refuse to listen and will only hear with a particular deafness. From this position, what is heard in “I can’t breathe” is the voice of an anguishing suffering as a well-kept silence, a voice which is not to be listened to. The refusal is exceptional in the sense that it allows an individual to maintain a special place in society, which they believe themselves as naturally occupying. For some, the impulses of cruelty find no difficulty in their path to satisfying their want to destroy, for they are so moved by a vanity which clings to the arrogance of the human being.
Taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement, one can hear a different resonance in the expression “I can’t breathe.” One can hear a voice to listen to, a voice that realizes a knowledge—known and unknown—which supports the subject’s desire to give up the belief that the social big Other demands that he or she is to annul themselves in order realize the ideals supposed to the social link.
The Black Lives Matter movement helps us get ahold of how the metaphor of the symbolic law of the unconscious also functions to oblige each one to exist in his or her singularity and not merely as a particular individual, member of society. Justice conceived as a universal good has no sense except to be founded by the existence of a requirement: a justice for each one. The difficulties here have to do with helping each one discover how to do with this element of justice that subjectively obliges each one to account for his or her presence as a signifier of the lack to be in the social link. Modernity has no possible way to access this lack, this no sense of justice. The duty founding desire relevant from justice helps the subject to extract, with courage and with all its heart, from the jouissances which tolerate destitutions of the subject. This is why it is necessary to separate in a deeper way the question of ethics from the symbolic law of the unconscious. The specificity of “racial justice” in the movement’s speaking ek-sists to all the social realities, cohering to what in it
ek-sists as mass. It has to do with how what is felt in psychoanalytic experience resonates with the signifier “justice.” Postmodernity, we can say, accounts for how justice is always neighboring what Freud called after-pressure (1915, p. 148).
The severity of our current state of affairs makes felt the necessity of psychoanalysis to take deeper account of the existence of the mass as a lack, which is no other than a continuous braiding of both the nothing of an unconscious image and the non-being (a space, emptied of jouissance). Lacan’s matheme for this is S(Ø), signifier of the barred big Other (1977-78). In the psychoanalytical experience, the realization of the inconsistency of the big Other does not go without inducing the fantasy of emptiness created in accepting to give up the fundamental fantasy. There is an enormous difficulty involved in accepting to lose the imaginary component of an unconscious narcissistic image.
Race will never cease dividing people; many persons will never give up their impulse to cruelty. In meeting with the impossible of human existence as a life problem, there is a real to be accepted. Starting from this, it becomes possible to understand that a solution is always extremely difficult, always serving for the time being, always contingent, and always to be reformulated. It’s a question of emphasizing stability and of what makes a stable bodily seat of our real of the social link.
Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks. tr. by Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto Press.
– (1915) Repression, SE, 14, pp. 146-158.
– (1930) Civilization and its Discontents, SE, 21, pp. 64-145.
– (1937) Analysis Terminable and Interminable, SE, 23, pp. 216-253.
– (1974) Télévision. Paris: Seuil.
– (1974-75) Le Séminaire, Livre XXII: R. S. I. unpublished.
– (1977-78) Le Séminaire, Livre XXV: Le moment de conclure. unpublished.
Jennifer Yusin, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst in private practice. She is also Associate Professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at Drexel University. She is the author of the book, The Future Life of Trauma: Partitions, Borders, Repetition (Fordham UP 2017).