The Crux of the Matter: Lacan’s Dialectical Materialism of the Signifier
Is the signifier real? Is it ontologically different from matter? How does one affect the other? This article examines the particular materialism developed by Lacan via his references to machines and apparatuses, flows and power plants, cars and signifier highways. By situating Lacan’s materialism in a broader historical context and philosophical debate, this article argues for the distinctly dialectical character of Lacan’s conception. As such, Lacan’s notion of the signifier as twisted matter resonates with the conception of the subject articulated by proponents of German idealism (such as Hegel and Hölderlin) and—more importantly—serves to illuminate and extend both Marx’s understanding of capital as an “automatic subject” and Sohn-Rethel’s notion of “real abstraction.”
Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
In Seminar IV, titled The Object Relation, Lacan (1994/2020) introduces the image of a hydroelectric power station, transforming and producing energy using the natural stream on whose riverbanks it is located, to illustrate a set of specific notions to which the experience of psychoanalysis gave rise: libido, energy, matter, and—one of Lacan most notorious concepts—the real.
Lacan introduces the analogy of the power station in the context of his discussion of object relations theory (associated with the names Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott), where he interrogates how the psyche has access to the real and, by extension, if and how this access constitutes the terminal point of analysis. Lacan asks whether we can simply identify the real with the object: “Is the object the real, or not? Is the object what is found in the real?” (Lacan, 1994/2020, p. 23). We learn that the real is rather, by definition, a much more elusive concept when Lacan states that “the real is something that lies on the fringes of our experience” (p. 24), hence the need to contrast what is at stake in the concept of the real with what we might call “reality,” which Lacan connects to the German term Wirklichkeit, designating “the whole of what effectively occurs” (p. 24). That which has the possibility of an effect, Wirkung, is what is essential in such a conception. Lacan links the latter notion to the tradition of classical philosophical materialism of the 18th century, in which “everything that happens at the level of mental life should require that we relate it to something that is posited as matter” (p. 25). Matter, as the primitive substance (Stoff), is what supposedly lies beneath what is affected by the former in a deterministic, mechanodynamic way—the psychic apparatus (Lacan alludes to La Mettrie’s infamous Man a Machine [1747/1996]). However, for Lacan it is precisely the unique insight of psychoanalysis which is at odds with such a “mythical notion of reality” (p. 35), even if many of psychoanalysis’ proponents remain captivated by the former idea, be it just for the need for reassurance, or “like touching wood” (p. 25).
It is at this point of the discussion that Lacan (1994/2020) introduces the comparison with the hydroelectric power station, “on a wide river like the Rhine” (p. 25), to illustrate the important shift instantiated by Freud, and by extension psychoanalysis, from a “vulgar materialism” to the adaptation of something akin to “energetics.” Here the positions of what comes first, of cause and effect, of what “underlies” what, become complicated if not inverted. Intuitively, one might think that the “energy” is already there, ready to be harvested, so to speak, in the untouched river, flowing freely through the landscape before the machine (i.e., the power plant) is installed. But Lacan (1994/2020) states:
What is accumulated bears the strictest relation to the machine, above all else. Saying that the energy was already there in a virtual state in the flow of the river doesn’t get us anywhere. Strictly speaking, it means nothing, because energy only starts to concern us in this instance from the moment it begins to accumulate, and it only accumulates from the moment the machines are set running in a certain way. Yes, they are kept going by permanent propulsion that comes from the river’s flow, but referring to this flow as though it were the primal organisation of this energy is an idea that can only occur to someone who is utterly foolish. (p. 26)
Presupposing a fullness of an energy “already there” is akin to the ominous and magical concept of mana, which for Lacan is quite different from how energy or force ought to be conceptualized in psychoanalysis.
Hoover Dam, Source: Bettman Archive / Getty Images
What constitutes the essential mistake of such presuppositions of primal matter (or flow, or tendency) is a “misrecognition of symbolic Wirklichkeit” (Lacan, 1994/2020, p. 26) that is ultimately a misunderstanding of the dialectical relationship between the real and the symbolic in the psychical system as a whole. Lacan’s concept of the real negotiates this entanglement with the symbolic in the varieties of meanings that the term evokes in the course of Lacan’s theoretical work: at first, the real is simply opposed to the realm of images and seems to designate that which lies beyond appearances. When later elevated to the status of a more fundamental category, it is no longer simply opposed to the imaginary but also refers to what is located beyond the symbolic as “what is there prior to when a certain symbolic function is brought to bear” (Lacan, 1994/2020, p. 36). Whereas the symbolic is a set of differentiated, discrete elements called signifiers, constituted in terms of oppositions such as presence and absence, the real is undifferentiated, “absolute without fissure” (Lacan, 1978/1991, p. 313), without any absence, and “always…in its place” (Lacan 1957/2002, p. 17). It is the symbolic that introduces a “cut in the real” in the process of signification (Evans, 1996, p. 159). However, even if Lacan maintains these aspects throughout his teaching, the comparison with the power station introduces and highlights an ambivalence, or better, a certain dialectic. For the sake of clarification, one can, following Adrian Johnston, distinguish between the “Real-as-presupposed”/présupposé and the “real-as-posed”/posé (Johnston, 2008, p. 146). The real-as-presupposed would be a substantial fullness preceding the symbolic-imaginary reality: an ultimately inaccessible dimension (the Kantian noumena) which is a more or less mysterious state of existence before the acquisition of language. The real-as-posed would be a non-assimilable, empty gap internal to the symbolic-imaginary reality, appearing as a retroactive reconstruction founded in the symbolic-imaginary reality itself: a structural effect rather than its precondition. Both registers are essential in the comparison of the power plant with the psychic system. Lacan (1994/2020) makes the argument that it would be a misunderstanding to simply equate the flow of the river with some organic, substantial force, or a biological “instinct” in the register of the psyche, that is “already there” in its substantial fullness, like “a genie in the current” (p. 38), only to be harnessed and redirected by either the machine (in the case of the power plant) or by the ego (in the case of the psychic system). For psychoanalysis, there is simply no need to substantialize libido through something like a sex hormone: “Nothing is less anchored in a material underpinning than the notion of libido in analysis” (p. 37). Psychoanalysis is interested in energetics, for which differentials are essential—differentials that allow for different positions (such as active or passive) to be taken. In this sense, what is accumulated bears the strictest relation to the machine, “because energy only begins to be taken into account once you start measuring it. And you only dream of measuring it once these power stations are up and running” (p. 36). And further: “To spell it right out, there has to be something in nature that presents the different materials that will come into play in the running of the machine, which are in a certain fashion privileged and, quite frankly, signifying” (p. 36). It is the signifiers that introduce a differential, a cut, which in turn allows for the production and exploitation of energy. Like an actual power station, which presupposes the whole apparatus of “a civilization of production that seeks to balance to books” (p. 36), so is the psychic system entangled in a pre-existing condition: “there is something of the signifier already installed and already structured. A power station is already up and running. You are not the one who has made this power station. It is language” (p. 42). The important point is therefore that energy (hydroelectric, libidinal) and the structure that introduces a split (the power station, the symbolic) are co-constitutive. One simply cannot locate one before the other since they are in a dialectical relationship. “The Es is not a physical reality, nor is it merely what was there before. The Es is organized and articulated as the signifier is organized and articulated” (p. 38).
Following the stream of Lacan’s (1994/2020) argument, we come to see that besides the problematization and critique of a “mythical notion of reality” and the substantialist misunderstanding of libido, his example of the power station does an even more significant amount of philosophical work. It also points to a rearticulation of an essential and longstanding problem of materialism, namely the question of the materialism of the signifier: Is the signifier real? Is it ontologically different from matter? How does one affect the other?
Samo Tomšič points to the double rejection contained in Lacan, directed against our everyday understanding of matter (as sensuous ground of reality) and language (as merely an intellectual tool of communication). The comparison of the power plant allows us to illustrate how Lacan, in a unique way, “associates matter with the signifier, thereby detaching matter from sensuality and the signifier from abstraction” (Tomšič, 2018). In this sense, Lacan’s materialism is clearly distinct from the vulgar kind à la La Mettier, as Lacan recalls that materialism involves “a double effort of thinking the material character of abstractions and the abstract character of matter” (Tomšič, 2018). Indeed, we must rather speak of a “sensuous-supersensuous” or “ghostly objectivity” that Marx discusses (vis-à-vis commodity fetishism)—something akin to “real abstractions”: abstractions that are real, both produced and productive in the world. For Lacan, the signifier, the linguistic sign, is “matter transcending itself in language” (Lacan, 1974/1990, p. 112). Language, which is spoken by the subject as much as the subject is spoken by language, can therefore be understood as an “ontological scandal” (Tomšic, 2018) that is structurally related to the impasse of Being. Language is scandalous in the sense that it “does not exist” while nevertheless having material consequences. On the one hand, language is a structure defined by dictionaries and the well-established grammatical rules detected by linguistic science. On the other hand, this structure is always a virtual, supra-temporal construction and should be differentiated as such from concrete speech, which stumbles along in a messy and continuously changing manner. Language as such does not exist. It is not a pre-existing tool or a pre-written program. Rather, it is a dynamic process of symbolization in living bodies: neither a bodiless, transcendental set of rules nor chaotic, purely biological chatter, but a “structure in becoming or structure as becoming, an unstable and processual structure” (Tomšič, 2018). Hence, language is not the radically alien that disrupts a harmonious and uncorrupted originality, but a becoming structure that organizes an imbalance that is always already existing. Mute nature and speaking culture “are not simply separated by an unbridgeable abyss but are instead linked by the negativity in the order of being, which is, as such, not fully being” (Tomšič, 2018).
It is by taking recourse to the image of the power plant that Lacan inserts himself into a much larger philosophical debate than the specificity of his discussion might suggest. In fact, it was Heidegger (who remains unquoted by Lacan) who uses the example of a hydroelectric dam on the Rhine to show how technology transforms our orientation to the world (Heidegger, 1954/2000, p. 16). In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger contrasts “the Rhine,” a potent symbol in German national culture, viewed as a source of hydroelectric power, with “the Rhine” as it appears in the work of the poet Friedrich Höderlin, in which the river comes into view as the source of philosophical inspiration and cultural pride. While the poet reveals the river as a “bringing-forth,” modern technology rather consists of a “challenging-forth,” which transforms the natural world into raw materials, a source of profit (Heidegger, 1954/2000).
By way of metonymically following this chain of intertextual references, we should also remember the intellectual line of dialectical thinkers of which the above mentioned poet is a part (along with his “roommate” Hegel and Marx, who followed later). In Judgment and Being [Urteil und Sein], Hölderlin (1961) describes in the most emblematic way the source code of what is at stake in Lacan’s image of the power station: the dialectic of thinking and being. There Hölderlin elaborates upon a certain tragic dimension of consciousness, which necessarily relates to the world in a judgmental manner—judgments [Urteile] that are also always a repetition of the primordial division [Ur-teilung] between subject and object even though the subject is itself part of the world.
The longue durée of this thought resonates in Lacan’s materialism of the signifier, which speaks both to the rupture, the fissure, the non-identity emerging between (linguistic, conceptual) abstractions and the real and, on the other hand, the uncanny ontological status and productive character of this gap. As with nuclear fission, this fission releases a surplus of energy that drives out, drives on, and keeps disturbing. The power station of language effects a “palpable difference, not only in the landscape, but in the real” (Lacan, 1994/2020, p. 38). Indeed, we come to realize that the peculiar landscape explored by psychoanalysis is one pertaining to a counterintuitive topology inhabited by strange creatures when we grasp the material character of abstractions and the abstract character of matter explored in Lacan’s specific dialectical materialism. Lacan (1974/1990) not only hints at but claims to argue within the very logic elaborated by Marx: “Only for my theory of language as structure of the unconscious can be said that it is implied by Marxism […]. The signifier is matter transcending itself in language” (p. 111). The oddity of the real abstractions at stake here, to borrow a Marxian term elaborated by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, disrupts the classical understanding that defines abstraction as a purely intellectual activity of the mind (Sohn-Rethel, 1970/2020). The difficulty lies precisely in grasping the seemingly paradoxical “immanent transcendence” the latter entails.
Moebius Strip, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Such a dynamic structure is probably best illustrated by the paradoxical topology of the moebius strip that Lacan holds so dearly and through which he elaborates the various binaries problematized by psychoanalysis: inside/outside, signifier/signified, essence/appearance. This peculiar geometrical shape has the strange characteristic that if an ant, to stay with Lacan’s example, would walk on its surface, it would eventually find itself at the opposite side of its initial starting point, without ever needing to go over the strip’s edge (Lacan, 2004/2016, p. 96). Even if every specific point the animal traverses has its other side, the surface of the strip nevertheless consists of only one continuous face. What we are dealing with here is precisely an immanent transcendence—a singularly existing surface becomes different (or alien) to itself while remaining the same.
Marx (1867/1976) finds his own striking image of the walking “animal” that ends up in an unexpected place when he discusses the peculiarities of the commodity form and money as the concrete “incarnation of value” in the first German edition of Capital:
It is as if alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed also in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom (p. 27).
Here, two distinct spheres are intermingled: the one of general concepts and the one of material objects. One appears in the world of the other, and we find the distinction between nominalism and realism—the classical responses to the question of whether universals exist or not—reshuffled. Rather, as Tomšič puts it with regard to Lacan’s materials theory of language:
The signifier, and consequently language as such, appears as transcendence within immanence, torsion within materiality. The causality of the signifier then does not consist in the simple scenario, where the signifier intervenes from some presupposed Outside but in the act of self-transcending, through which an autonomous system of differences emerges from materiality. (2015, p. 52)
One is justified in sensing a Hegelian spirit in Lacan’s approach and is reminded of the famous line in Hegel’s preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, according to which one needs to grasp “substance equally as subject” (Hegel, 1807/1977, p.10), where everything hinges on not simply conflating the two terms into one, but to understand them in their dialectal relationship—as an “the identity of identity and non-identity” (Hegel, 1801/1977, p. 156). In Hegel, the dialectal movement of subjectification is one of self-becoming through becoming different—self-becoming through a constitutive alienation. Hence, the subject is to be understood (1) as a perpetual process rather than a rigid entity, (2) as fundamentally relational, since self-relation is mediated through a relation with an other, and (3) as marked by a circular return to itself via the sublation of an internal split [Aufhebung as “abolishing,” “preserving,” and “transcending”].
A similar, structurally Hegelian notion of the subject is at play in Marx’s conceptualization of capital as an “automatic subject” (Marx, 1867/1990, p. 255). For Marx, value as capital is a “self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms” (p. 255). In the capital form (M-C-M’), money is turned into commodities, which are sold for money, which is again used to produce commodities—all while, seemingly endowed with its own life and agency, magically creating profit.
This circular character of subjectivity is pointedly articulated by one of Lacan’s contemporaries, Derrida, who describes the wheel as an extraordinary invention and a dramatic mutation in the history of mankind, much as the mutation that Marx delineates as the historical emergence of capital. The wheel “describes circular return upon itself around an immobile axis” (Derrida, 2011, p. 75). The wheel as a metaphor carries
the dream of being oneself, in displacement, of displacing oneself while remaining oneself, of being one’s own rotation around oneself, of pulling the body and the incorporated relation to oneself, in the world, toward the return to self around a relatively immobile axis of identity—not absolutely immobile, for the axis, the axel, the hub moves too, but immobile with respect to the circle of the wheel itself which turns around it. (p. 75)
Cronenburg, D. (1996). Crash [Film], 1:25:10.
The subject as wheel? Does this not betray the very qualitative difference through which we hope to distinguish the free human agent from the automatic machine determined by turning gears? Here it is psychoanalysis that helps us to grasp the functional and dynamic structure of subjectivity: a peculiar object which is constitutively “on the move” while nevertheless remaining the same via its internal split. What is at stake at this junction is both the subjective character of the automaton and the automatic character of the subject.
Lacan, who had a special love affair with automobiles, the wheels of which he preferred spinning fast, as many anecdotes attest (Webster, 2019), refers to highways as a “particularly tangible example […] of the function of the signifier insofar as it polarizes meanings, hooks in to them, groups them in bundles” (Lacan, 1981/1997, p. 293). So much so that a roadmap “best expresses the role of the signifier in man’s relationship to the land” (p.293) precisely because it has the advantage over the physical map in that it gives an account of the material dimension of the signifier. It is not that the signifier only functions as a means of communication between two entities—as the highway connects two places—but it is the signifier that polarizes a field as much as it is the condition for accumulation. In philosophical terms, the relation, in a way, comes before the relata. The connection comes before that which is connected:
Don’t act like the person who marveled at the fact that water courses pass precisely through towns. It would be proof of analogous foolishness not to see that towns have formed, crystallized, been established at road junctions. It’s where they cross, with a bit of fluctuation moreover, that what becomes the center of meanings, a human agglomeration, a town, comes about historically, with all that is imposed upon it by this dominance of the signifier. (Lacan, 1981/1997, p. 292)
Inasmuch as the highway is an “original reality” and marks a “stage of history” comparable to the building of Roman roads, it leaves traces that are “practically irremovable.” Both the emergence of the signifier and extension of language left a palpable difference in the landscape.
Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange [Photogaph], Source: Nearmap
Capital, as a specific configuration of this structure—the peculiar materiality of the signifier—undoubtedly escalates this dynamic. The wager would be to take Marx’s (1867/1990) phrase of “capital as automatic subject” (p. 255) seriously instead of treating it as a mere metaphor. Rather, the task consists of treating capital as a “real metaphor”: a metaphor in reality. Capitalism, as such, is essentially metaphoric—metaphora in Greek means “vehicle,” even “automobile” or “autobus.” It rolls through the landscape, which it relentlessly transforms and exploits. Capital is both of a perpetual metamorphosis, a diachronic displacement, jumping metonymically from one form to the other (M – C – M’ – C …), and at the same time a condensation that links the chain of forms together while allowing for a surplus (M – C – M’)—all this, however, on the back of an unconscious dimension that is labor power.
Rather than just simply treating psychoanalysis as an auxiliary discipline to explain mental effects or personality formations of individuals enmeshed in a specific mode of production, as various Freudo-Marxisms or the Frankfurt School attempted, the task consists instead of pointing to the structural homologies (to borrow from Samo Tomšič’s project) between the “automatic subject” of capital and the psychic apparatus as such. The danger in this attempt, of course, lies in the temptation to anthropomorphize capital and to project intentionalities, mental states, or other crude psychologisms onto a social formation that is obviously distinct from an individual mind. However, such missteps would be premised on a misunderstanding of psychoanalysis’ major import that has been further emphasized and developed in the discipline’s (post)structuralist development introduced by Lacan—namely, the constitutive decentered character of the subject and its entanglement with a symbolic order that predates the individual. Psychoanalysis sharpens our awareness of the symbolic machinery that is the most external and at the same time the most intimate of the individual (“ex-timate” [see Lacan 1986/1997, p. 139]), as we have seen elaborated along Lacan’s example of the power plant.
What psychoanalysis coins “the drive,” is situated precisely on the border between language and biology. The drive is what insists and propels in the subject. It haunts the subject as a dynamic that cannot be reduced to either the symbolic/abstract or to the concrete organic realm: it springs from this very fissure. Something “drives” the subject, constitutively, beyond any “natural homeostasis” or simple fulfillment of needs. In this sense, the drive becomes apparent as a surplus, a sur-real (above or below) dimension, that derails and diverts final satisfaction.
It was Alfred Hitchcock, among others, who encountered this surreal structure of the drive vis-à-vis the “automatic subject” of capitalism and its surplus production. In a conversation with fellow filmmaker François Truffaut, he recalled the idea of an unfortunately never realized scene, not portraying a river running through a hydroelectric power plant but of humans traversing a factory:
A.H.: I thought up a scene for North by Northwest, but we never actually made it. It occurred to me that we were moving in a northwesterly direction from New York, and one of the stops on the way was Detroit, where they make Ford automobiles. Have you ever seen an assembly line?
F.T.: No, I never have.
A.H. They’re absolutely fantastic. Anyway, I wanted to have a long dialogue scene between Cary Grant and one of the factory workers as they walk along the assembly line. They might, for instance, be talking about one of the foremen. Behind them, a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they’ve seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the line. The two men look at it and say, “Isn’t it wonderful!” Then they open the door to the car and out drops a corpse!
F.T.: That’s a great idea!
A.H.: Where has the body come from? Not from the car, obviously, since they’ve seen it start at zero! The corpse falls out of nowhere, you see! And the body might be that of the foreman the two fellows had been discussing.
F.T.: That’s a perfect example of absolute nothingness! […]
(Truffaut, 1985, p. 257)
With Marx (and Lacan), we could say contra Truffaut, that what drops out of the car is not nothing even though what is at stake here is not something in the empirical sense either. We have been following the assembly line step by step, without there being any hidden ground or illusionary trick. Nevertheless, something strange is added in the process and drops out of the finished product in the form of a corpse—in Marxian terms: dead labor or value, that is, abstract labor employed and valorized in the commodity, dead abstract labor as the substance of value.
At this point, I think it is justified to make the jump, by way of a homology, from the double character of the sign in language (signifier and signified) to the double character of commodity (use- and exchange value) in economic exchange. The commodity is, constitutively, both equally the most concrete use-value and a carrier of an exchange value and as such always also entangled and mediated with the whole system of values—a symbolic order in its own right.
Pushing this further, we could say Marx’s understanding of capitalism relies on a certain psychoanalytic reading avant la lettre. Following Alenka Zupančič’s Lacanian reading of Marx, what distinguishes capitalism from other forms of exploitation is that it “discovers” and exploits the very negativity of the social system: a negativity that is related to the symbolic dimension that constitutes subjects as such. Labor power, as a commodity that in its very consumption produces value, is situated at the very gap/glitch/slip of this system—a gap constituted by its very nature as a symbolic system (Zupančič, 2017, p. 30). And this symbolic order is adequately grasped, not as a detached superstructure on top of an ostensibly underlying substrate that is “just there,” but only when one understands the distinct but twisted material—that is dialectical—character of the signifier.
It would therefore be a fundamental misconception to understand capitalist exploitation in terms of a group of people parasitically “stealing” or “extracting” value from an underlying vitalistic labor force that predates its symbolic alienation—like the idea of a “genie in the current” in the example of the power plant. As Marx repeatedly says: all transactions between the worker and the capitalist are fair — nobody is tricked, nobody cheats. Rather, exploitation must be understood as implicit in the very social-symbolic form in which the capitalist exchange takes place.
Marx’s analysis, much like Lacan’s, I argue, is not a hermeneutics of depth, seeking to uncover a full reality/actuality hidden behind the veil. On the contrary, it is the very form of the symbolic system that is the condition for the surplus-production and exploitation at work. The intricate material character of the signifier and the real abstractions operative in capitalism are the literal crux of the matter, and both notions align Lacan and Marx in their disruption of classical metaphysics.