The Distribution of Enjoyment


Summary: This essay confronts the problem of the enjoyment produced by right-wing populism through a psychoanalytic interpretation of this phenomenon. The structure of right-wing populism is instructive because it enables us to thoroughly disentangle the enjoyment that it produces from power. As a result, we can recognize how the supporters of the populist leader enjoy through the very threat to their identity that the leader promises to eliminate (primarily immigrants). This, in turn, permits a new theorization of the structure of enjoyment as such.


The Insider


The fundamental problem that confronts all theorizing about society and culture today is the rise of right-wing populism. This is the most conspicuous contemporary symptom that calls for interpretation. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Recep Erdoǧan in Turkey to Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, these populists figures have gained control of much of the world and threaten even the most stable democratic regimes, like France and Germany. The question that theorists must answer is why these figures can succeed, even in situations where the economic conditions are not at all disastrous, as they were in Germany in 1933. Right-wing populism stands out for the national and ethnic enjoyment that it produces. This enjoyment is not pleasure but an excessive experience that goes beyond pleasure and disrupts everyday life. One backs a populist for the promise of a restored tribal enjoyment—something lost in the onslaught on global capitalism and its cosmopolitan ideology. Psychoanalytic theory finds itself uniquely poised to address this problem, since it focuses on the disruptiveness of the unconscious and the enjoyment that this disruption provides for us.

My claim here is that psychoanalytic theory enables us to see that the enjoyment that drives right-wing populism is not what it initially appears. Although this enjoyment presents itself as tribal and insular, as an enjoyment of belonging, it is in fact an enjoyment of those who don’t belong. From Nazism to Donald Trump, right-wing populist leaders insist on the danger that an outsider group poses to the enjoyment of the nation. But they posit this danger in order to provide a way for their supporters to enjoy themselves. Through the threat that they promise to eradicate, right-wing populism offers an enjoyment of the outsiders that it posits as a danger to the nation or group. While the threat is a source of anxiety, it simultaneously provides access to an opaque otherness that impassions the populist supporters. They enjoy through the enjoyment of the threatening outsider.[1]

When one looks at those who support right-wing populists, it is clear that the leaders do not represent the self-interest of these supporters, despite their claims to the contrary. The most ominous danger that threatens nativist working class populations is not an influx of immigrants—no matter how great in number—but the variegations of global capitalism. As long as firms receive financial incentives from the market to eliminate jobs through automizing or outsourcing, they will continue to eliminate the positions that employ the working class in the most developed countries. No matter how few immigrants enter a country, the corporations benefiting from the globalization process will not be able to sustain working class employment while remaining viable relative to their competitors.

But in this situation today, leftist alternatives that locate the problem in the structure of global capitalism haven’t had much success, except to some extent in South America (and even there right-wing populism has won tremendous victories). In most of the world, the working class has largely abandoned leftist parties in response to the appeal of right-wing populist leaders. While it is true that moderate and left-leaning parties have betrayed the working class to accommodate themselves to global capitalism, this betrayal has worked both ways, as the working class has embraced right-wing populism in large numbers.

If populist leaders are not speaking to the self-interest of the working class, they are nonetheless successfully appealing to this class. They do so by providing nationalist enjoyment for the displaced workers, an enjoyment that leftist alternatives are not able to muster. This enjoyment deficit is the driving force behind the contemporary immiseration of the Left and triumph of right-wing populism. The appeals of these populists almost always center on the question of immigration in order to generate a nationalist enjoyment. The central role that enjoyment plays in the rise of right-wing populism shows that we must turn to psychoanalytic theory to make sense of what’s going on today.

The association of right-wing populism with enjoyment is self-evident. Anyone looking at a populist rally can see the clear manifestations of enjoyment in both the leader and the audience, even though the participants don’t recognize the nature of this enjoyment. The enjoyment most often comes at the expense, at least today, of immigrants and refugees. Whereas Nazism primarily targeted Jews, today’s populists almost inevitably build animus toward immigrants and refugees in order to foster nationalist enjoyment among their followers. The enjoyment functions as a form of glue for those in the group. They connect with those others who share their form of enjoyment. In order to combat this enjoyment, without which right-wing populism would have no cards left to play, one must begin by making sense of it.

The handy explanation for the enjoyment that this populism provides doesn’t even require psychoanalysis. It seems obvious that the followers of the right-wing populist enjoy the power that derives from their inclusion in a group that excludes certain others. This is a standard way of making sense of enjoyment: we enjoy following our self-interest and gaining power over others. The populist’s open racism makes this power dynamic clear. By reminding supporters of their inclusion in a group (the nation) that excludes outsiders (immigrants), the populist leader gives these supporters a sense of power over the outsiders who don’t belong. In the same way that popular students enjoy the power of their popularity in high school through their exclusion of the school’s losers, the disciples of the populist leader find immense enjoyment in having what others don’t, especially if they themselves live relatively modest or even dispossessed lives. The more that subjects fall victim to the exigencies of contemporary global capitalism, the more susceptible they become to this kind of appeal. Submitting oneself to the authority of the populist leader provides a rare opportunity to access power for those who ordinarily feel deprived of it. It is enjoyable to be in power, which is why so many people seek power in its various guises. If we understand enjoyment as the result of power, the analysis of populism becomes much easier. It is an attempt at grabbing power and enjoying this power, purely and simply.

At first glance, it appears that psychoanalysis simply provides support for this alignment of power with enjoyment. Although Freud sees thinking in terms of power rather than sexuality as a heresy worthy of excommunication from the psychoanalytic community (which was the sad fate that befell Alfred Adler), he nonetheless conceives of only one form of libido, which he views as masculine.[2] He links the masculinity of the libido to masculine social dominance and power. One cannot reduce libido to the desire for power, but at the same time, the enjoyment that the libido offers plays the decisive role in the difference between the sexes and the hierarchy that results from this difference.

In addition to identifying the libido as singular and male, Freud sees female sexuality as derivative in relation to the masculine libido, which is why the girl’s sexual development poses more of a problem for him than the boy’s. Rather than seeing female sexuality as structured in a completely alternative manner to male sexuality, Freud centers it around the male organ.[3] He does so because the male organ represents social power, though it itself is powerless. It represents social power because it provides a signifier for unconscious desire.

The phallus harnesses the disruptiveness of desire by placing it in the form of signification. In this way, the phallic signifier translates desire into social privilege. Possessing it offers the possessor a social privilege that those who lack it do not have. One enjoys the power of the phallus, not the feeling that one derives from the sensations it produces. The problem with this enjoyment, as Freud carefully shows, is that the subject who enjoys through the phallus is nothing but the tool of this signifier. Phallic enjoyment is never the subject’s own.[4] The phallus enjoys through the subject that feigns having it, depriving this subject of the very thing it claims to possess. The phallus forces the subject to enjoy through the signifier in the same way that Jorge Bergoglio can enjoy the benefits of being the pope only by becoming Pope Francis.[5]

Freud’s claim that penis envy plays an outsized role in femininity follows directly from the belief that the penis is the site of enjoyment because of the social power it represents.[6] This is the reason that women envy it. In his essay “Femininity,” Freud articulates this infamous conclusion with a great deal of conviction. He states, “One cannot very well doubt the importance of envy for the penis.” A moment later, he continues in this same vein, “The discovery that she is castrated is a turning-point in a girl’s growth” (Freud 1933, pp. 125-26). With these statements, the position of psychoanalysis, at least in its initial formation, seems clear. The girl’s envy has nothing to do with the sensations that derive from having a penis because she has her own alternate genital sensations that may, for all she knows, be more pleasurable than those associated with the penis. She envies the penis of the boy because it represents power, and power is the site of enjoyment.

If one thinks in terms of Freud’s initial theory of sexuality, it is possible to marry the psychoanalytic explanation for the rise of right-wing populism with an explanation focused on power (derived from Michel Foucault).[7] Even though psychoanalysis privileges desire and enjoyment over power, there is nonetheless an overlap between power and enjoyment in Freud’s conception of how we enjoy. From Freud’s perspective, it makes perfect sense why people thirst for power: it is the avenue to enjoying by finding the signifier of desire. While Freud rejects power as an explanatory grid for understanding society, he does grant it an important role from the moment that he identifies the phallus as the privileged signifier and libido as masculine. But this is not the end point of psychoanalytic thinking around the problem of enjoyment and how it might contribute to the rise of right-wing populism.


The Outsider


Since Freud posits that there is only one libido and that there is no alternative form of enjoyment, he has trouble coming up with a theory of feminine enjoyment—or what we might call an enjoyment completely dissociated from power. In fact, throughout his life Freud remains silent or perplexed on the question of how women enjoy. He even goes so far, toward the end of his life, to proclaim that “the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology” (Freud 1926, p. 212). Feminine sexuality is a dark continent for Freud because he sees the phallus as the privileged signifier and thus as holding a monopoly on enjoyment. One can only enjoy, as Freud sees it, from the side of the phallus, which is why he never offers up an alternative form of enjoyment to the masculine variety.

But given the revolution in Freud’s thinking that occurs in 1920 (before his speculations about feminine sexuality), Freud himself should have seen that enjoyment associated with power—and thus with the phallus—cannot be the whole story. Prior to 1920, Freud theorizes enjoyment through his concept of the pleasure principle, which one can easily reconcile with phallic power. According to the logic of the pleasure principle, one enjoys through the discharge of excitation, a discharge that mirrors both male ejaculation (and thus suggests the phallus) and the exercise of power. One enjoys the discharge of power—exercising it over others. This theory, however, does not survive the transformation that occurs in Freud’s thought when he writes Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In this work, Freud discovers that subjects derive enjoyment not from experiences of mastery but from repeating moments when mastery fails. He discovers that lack is what one enjoys. The absence of power, rather than its acquisition, becomes central to how the psyche structures its enjoyment. Although the experience of failure is never pleasurable, Freud recognizes that there is nonetheless something satisfying about it because it enables subjects to have an experience of loss, which is what generates and sustains their status as lacking, desiring subjects. Only the lacking subject can enjoy, which is why subjects repeat moments when they lose power rather than attempting all the time to attain and guard it. It is through loss that we have an object to enjoy at all. There is no initial plenitude, which is why we must lose the enjoyable object into existence. Even those bent on world conquest inevitably find ways to undermine their own project because it is only through these moments that the project conveys enjoyment. The pleasure of power cannot hold a candle to the enjoyment of its loss.

Interestingly, Freud never connects his revolutionary speculation in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to the problem of feminine sexuality. Instead, he labels feminine sexuality a “dark continent” in 1926, writes his essay on “Female Sexuality” in 1931, and then in his chapter from the New Introductory Lectures on “Femininity” in 1933, he acts as if as if he has not passed through the transformative discovery of 1920.[8] Despite his insight into the fraudulent nature of the penis (or phallus) as a signifier of power and his understanding that power is not what drives the subject, he remains caught within a power-centered conception of enjoyment and unable to think of a feminine alternative. This blind spot would mark a limitation in Freud’s ability to understand the contemporary populist leaders. He would undoubtedly follow common sense and chalk up their successes to the enjoyment of power.

Actually, Freud did consider a form of right-wing populism when he wrote Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, a work published just a year after the 1920 revolution in his thought. In his analysis of group psychology, Freud analyzes the identification with the leader that takes place in the military and religious groups. Although he doesn’t discuss populist leaders, it is easy to translate his analysis into this context. Freud identifies the leader with the figure of the primal father, the one who has no obstacles to his sexual enjoyment, and he sees group coherence forming through identification with this leader. The group’s enjoyment depends on the powerful leader, who enjoys the power of transgressing all the limits that govern everyone else in the group.[9]

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, despite appearing after Freud’s discovery of the death drive, betrays no influence from this revolutionary concept. The identification with the powerful leader that enables group members to vicariously transgress limits represents an instance of the pleasure principle’s dominance, not the disruption of the death drive. If Freud were to think through the role of the death drive in constituting the group, he would have had to confront how the weaknesses of the leader, rather than the leader’s strength, ensures the bond. But he never approaches the group from this perspective.

Even after he theorizes a beyond to the pleasure principle and its link to power, Freud continues to analyze social phenomena through the schema of the pleasure principle. As he sees it, subjects identify with the figure representing the primal father to partake in the enjoyment that derives from having the power to transgress all social limits. Freud cannot conceive of a role for loss in the dynamics of the group. Instead, the group coheres around the figure of exceptional enjoyment.

We can see this perfectly in the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his supporters. His power consists in his status as an exception. Like the primal father, he brooks no restrictions on his enjoyment. He not only grabs women by their genitalia, but he feels comfortable bragging about this activity. In addition, the duty to tell the truth does not constrain him in any way. Lying is not even strategic but simply part of his way of being. Likewise, he does not even bother to hide his wanton corruption and abuse of the presidency for personal gain. His violations of the norms that govern all other subjects are central to his appeal. All of these activities testify to his position as a figure beyond castration. The limits that govern others, those subjected to castration or symbolic lack, do not govern him. Or so it seems.

Trump seems like a return to the primal father as Freud describes him in Totem and Taboo. According to Freud, the primal father has a monopoly on enjoyment. Freud describes the primal horde by noting that “there is a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons as they grow up” (Freud 1913, p. 141). The enjoyment that Freud sees operating in the group remains the enjoyment of power, of having a privilege that others lack. Power gives the father the ability to do whatever he wants with whomever he wants. Even though he doesn’t use these terms, here Freud conceives enjoyment as phallic enjoyment, as enjoyment inextricably linked to the exercise of power. He does so despite his insight in Beyond the Pleasure Principle about another form of enjoyment that involves the absence or failure of power, a form of enjoyment linked to the repetition of loss.

Throughout his theorizing after Beyond the Pleasure Principle (especially when he tackles the question of feminine sexuality), Freud displays an intriguing inability to integrate the possibility of another form of enjoyment, an enjoyment beyond the phallus, that emerges in that work. Rather than unpacking the enjoyment that occurs outside of the structure of power or in contrast to it, Freud continues to consider enjoyment as belonging to power exclusively. It’s as if Freud remains stuck to his original idea that the libido is masculine and cannot find a path out of this association. For Freud, power is never why we do things, but the position of power is attractive because it provides a clear path to enjoyment.

One of the great advances within psychoanalytic thought made by Jacques Lacan concerns disentangling one form of enjoyment from power. When he theorizes feminine enjoyment (jouissance) in his Seminar XX, he makes clear that there is an alternative to the enjoyment of the insider or the powerful that masculinity provides. Feminine sexuality, as Lacan sees it, has a different relationship to the symbolic structure (or castration) than masculinity. Femininity doesn’t suffer from the belief that it can escape castration in the way that masculinity does—there is no figure of the primal mother who enjoys without constraint—and this lack of investment in the possibility of escape creates another form of enjoyment. Feminine sexuality, as Lacan sees it, doesn’t rely on identifying with the powerful exception who avoids castration. It has nothing to do with the figure of the primal father, who animates the enjoyment of the group in Freud’s theorization of it. As a result, feminine enjoyment doesn’t involve the same sort of submission and identification that characterizes masculine or phallic enjoyment.

In contrast to Freud, Lacan identifies castration with the individual’s entrance into language, its subjection to the signifier. For Lacan, there is no question of the man escaping castration while the woman submits to it. Both versions of subjectivity depend on castration, but one version simply denies that it has taken place by looking down at the image of his own body. The male makes a basic mistake with regard to his own castration because he allows his eyes to deceive him. The other side—the feminine side—lacks a capacity for this self-deception and thus must openly confront the problem of castration. No one gets out of the problem of castration, but only one sex recognizes the problem for what it is. The two forms of enjoyment that Lacan delineates rely on these two different attitudes toward castration.

Masculine or phallic enjoyment depends on a figure so powerful that he manages to escape castration altogether. Although it provides an illusory assurance that he has successfully avoided castration, it is not enough for the man to look at his own body to attain phallic enjoyment. He must confirm that there are no limits on his power, which is the proof of noncastration that even the body cannot provide. If castration signifies a lack of power, the figure of noncastration must be solitary in his potency. There must be no rivals because they would signify potential defects or chinks in the armor of noncastration.

Phallic enjoyment necessitates an exceptional figure, a figure who is the one—or identifying with this one—not subjected to castration. But because this figure doesn’t exist, because everyone is subjected to castration except the imaginary primal father, phallic enjoyment can never be anything but imaginary enjoyment. In the case of phallic enjoyment, the subject enjoys an image of exceptionality that corresponds to a position that no one can ever actually occupy. No one escapes castration and lives to tell about it, and yet phallic enjoyment has its basis in this escape.

Lacan describes feminine enjoyment as formally distinct from the exceptionality of phallic enjoyment. It does not rely on the one figure who escapes castration. In Seminar XX, he states that the enjoying woman “has a supplementary jouissance compared to what the phallic function designates by way of jouissance” (Lacan 1998, p. 73). He emphasizes that there is a clear distinction between the masculine form of enjoyment and the feminine. His analysis of feminine enjoyment leads him to proclaim, “There is a jouissance … ‘beyond the phallus.’” (Lacan 1998, p. 74). Feminine enjoyment depends not on the exception to castration but on the lack of any exception. In this direction, one escapes the enjoyment-suffocating process of castration precisely by abandoning the dream of escaping it. This is an enjoyment predicated on loss itself, on the full acceptance of castration as the precondition for enjoyment rather than a barrier to it.

Though Lacan associates feminine enjoyment (or the Other enjoyment) with mysticism, there is nothing mysterious about it. When one can give up the promise of a pure uncastrated enjoyment that the phallus promulgates, one can enjoy through the loss that castration represents instead of trying to surmount it through identification with a noncastrated father figure. There is an enjoyment outside of the realms of power.

While Lacan himself never connects what he calls feminine enjoyment to Freud’s theorization of repetition in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, there is nonetheless an evident link. Feminine enjoyment is the enjoyment of absence, rooted in the refusal of the fantasy of escaping loss. It doesn’t try to overcome loss but locates its satisfaction within the structure of loss. This enjoyment is indifferent to the power that the phallus represents.

Contra Freud, Lacan insists that there are two forms of enjoyment—a phallic or masculine version, and an Other or feminine version. This is not a biological distinction. Either sex can partake in either form of enjoyment since they rely on different psychic structures rather than different body parts.[10] What is significant for contemporary politics is the form that enjoyment takes, not the association with masculinity or femininity.

The problem is that even if we admit the existence of another form of enjoyment, this does not seem to offer any help with understanding right-wing populism, since populist movements depend so thoroughly of identification with the apparently noncastrated leader. If there is a site for phallic or masculine enjoyment today, it must be in the right-wing populist group, which leads us straight back to the question of power. But there is another theoretical possibility opened up by Lacan’s theorization of an alternative form of enjoyment. There is a path beyond the stale analysis of power as the driving force for everything that we do.


The Outside of the Inside


In order to shed light on the problem of right-wing populism, we must offer a slight theoretical corrective to Lacan’s understanding of enjoyment that has dramatic political consequences. Lacan makes the important discovery of an alternative form of enjoyment, an enjoyment suggested by Freud’s discovery in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but he doesn’t go far enough in this direction. By continuing to theorize two distinct forms of enjoyment, Lacan remains too Freudian, too committed to the idea that there must really be a phallic form of enjoyment. The phallus is always a fraud: it produces enjoyment parasitically through its relationship to those who don’t belong.

But if we look carefully at the apparent cases of phallic enjoyment, we can conclude instead that there is only one enjoyment, and it is the enjoyment of nonbelonging. Those who seem to enjoy through the phallus do so via a fantasy that reveals the absence of any phallic enjoyment. Identification with the figure of the primal father who escapes castration alone cannot provide the requisite enjoyment for the populist group because this figure is imaginary. This identification actually obscures the unconscious fantasy structure at work in populist enjoyment, a fantasy of loss and nonbelonging.

Since noncastration is impossible, enjoyment must occur through castration rather than its imaginary avoidance, which is what Freud discovers in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The enjoyment of nonbelonging or enjoyment beyond the phallus is precisely the enjoyment that the masculine subject fantasizes when it enjoys in the phallic way. To put it another way, phallic enjoyment is nothing but the fantasy of what Lacan calls feminine enjoyment, if we understand feminine enjoyment as the enjoyment tied to loss rather than power.

The anti-immigrant populist leader shows nicely how phallic enjoyment actually masks the enjoyment of loss that is actually at stake. Although the populist leader stresses the need to keep immigrants out, the enjoyment that the leader arouses exists only through the image of the threat that immigrants pose to the enjoyment of those who belong. Belonging or power provides no enjoyment at all unless it borrows this enjoyment from outside, from those who are located in the position of loss or exclusion. Populism depends on a threatening other as the site of the enjoyment that it produces, which is why there can be no leftist or emancipatory populism. Those who are in can only enjoy by identifying with those who are outside, even while they pour their hatred onto these figures.

In the midterm election of 2018, Donald Trump illustrated this logic perfectly. Faced with the prospect of dramatic losses for his party in Congress, Trump began to warn about a caravan of migrants headed for the southern border of the United States. According to his rhetoric, this caravan was tantamount to an invasion, a threat that required sending the military to the border in order to repel the oncoming horde. But immediately after the election, all concern about the caravan dissipated. Trump no longer spoke of it. Its sole purpose was to arouse potential conservative voters enough that they would vote rather than just staying home. Faced with an electoral crisis, Trump had no other recourse for arousal than appealing to the imminent threat of immigrants. This is because the outsider’s enjoyment has the effect of constituting that of the insider, or the Other enjoyment is actually the source of phallic enjoyment.

Trump repeated the same strategy in his reelection campaign of 2020. This time, rather than invoking a foreign horde, he turned to a domestic enemy invading American suburbs. His image of a lawless band of anarchists, leftists, and protesters created exactly the same structural dynamic as did his invocation of the immigrant caravan. The point in each instance was to arouse his would-be followers through the enjoyment of those who didn’t belong to the social order. He bet on the enjoyment of this nonbelonging as his path to victory.

During the reelection campaign, Trump even went so far as to openly insert himself in the position of nonbelonging in order to mobilize this enjoyment for his followers. As the coronavirus pandemic raged throughout the United States, he downplayed its significance and argued against the public health measures that might have mitigated its destructiveness. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top epidemiologist, became Trump’s foil during the campaign. Fauci was the expert insider, while Trump remained the outsider. Despite living in the seat of American power, Trump campaigned as an outsider because he knew, at least unconsciously, that nonbelonging was the location of enjoyment. His colossal failure to contain the pandemic didn’t prevent him from almost winning reelection. His power stemmed from knowing not to identify himself with the position of power. Trump gave his followers an opportunity to enjoy as outsiders, which is the only possible form of enjoyment.

Phallic power itself cannot provide enjoyment for the subject because it relies on a basic misunderstanding of how enjoyment operates. The primal father who transgresses all limits on enjoyment would actually find himself completely bereft of enjoyment precisely because he transgresses all limits. Enjoyment always depends on a limit, which is what the primal father, by definition, disdains. A limit would testify to a brake on the power of the primal father. But the power of the primal father lies in the absence of limits that would constrain him, but this absence is also what eliminates his ability to enjoy. Even as an imaginary figure and as an ideal, the primal father is joyless. Identifying with the populist leader as a primal father cannot serve to arouse the members of the group. They require contact with the figures of externality who threaten to swallow them up. It is only through these limit figures—these figures transgressing the limit between outside and inside, between exile and belonging—that they can enjoy.

Psychoanalytic theory contributes to making sense of the contemporary rise of right-wing populism by directing our analysis away from the lure of power, which is where social analysis in the wake of Michel Foucault tends to concentrate itself. We can recognize an appeal rooted in enjoyment rather than in power. At the same time, the phenomenon of this populism offers us an opportunity for rethinking how psychoanalytic theory conceives enjoyment. Not only does phallic enjoyment not have a monopoly on how we enjoy. It is actually nothing but a false form, a disguise hiding the enjoyment that it draws from those who don’t belong. As Joan Copjec points out, “jouissance flourishes only there where it is not validated by the Other” (Copjec 2002, p. 167). In other words, belonging signals the death of enjoyment. The phallus not only wrongly convinces us that we desire power, but it further deceives us into thinking that its signification of enjoyment might provide real enjoyment.

By theorizing all enjoyment as the enjoyment of failing to belong, we can rethink how solidarity might come about. Rather than being a moment of universal inclusion, a community that finally accepts all subjective variegations without any exclusions, solidarity must be the avowal of universal nonbelonging, a recognition of the emptiness that accompanies all belonging. There is no possible community, no group that could create an identity that would give one the assurances of belonging. Neither the nation, nor a religion, nor an ethnicity can create an effective communal bond. All belonging is mythical. When one belongs, one accepts a myth that fantasizes an external threat through which one can enjoy. But no matter how much one commits to the idea, belonging is impossible. Nonetheless, as long as belonging is the goal, we will have to contend with the threat of right-wing populism. One can strike at this phenomenon foundationally only through the acceptance of a universal nonbelonging. Only the enjoyment of universal nonbelonging can defeat the ubiquity of today’s runaway populism.





Copjec, J. (2002) Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (Cambridge: MIT Press).


Foucault, M. (2012) On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1979-1980, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador).


Freud, S.:

-       (1913) Totem and Taboo, SE 13, 1-161.

-       1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, SE 18, 67-143.

-       (1926) The Question of Lay Analysis, SE 20, 179-258.

-       (1931) Female Sexuality, SE 21, 223-243.

-       (1933) “Femininity” in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, SE 22, 112-135.


Lacan, J.:

-       (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore 1972-1973, trans. Bruce Fink. (New York: Norton).

-       (2006) “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink. (New York: Norton).


Ruti, M. (2018) Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press).


Žižek, S. (1993) Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke University Press).


Zupančič, A. (2008) The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: MIT Press).


[1] In Tarrying with the Negative, Slavoj Žižek views those espousing ethnic hatred as actually hating their own enjoyment. He writes, “The hatred of the Other is the hatred of our own excess of enjoyment” (Žižek 1993, p. 206). But in addition to hating their own excess of enjoyment in the act of hating the other, those who indulge in this hatred also discover their own form of enjoyment through the other. It is precisely because one finds oneself bereft of enjoyment that one looks with envy toward others.

[2] Freud’s conflict with Adler over the latter’s concept of “organ inferiority” bubbled for some time and then came to a head in 1911. The break that occurred, like so many in Freud’s life, was absolute and final.

[3] Many of Freud’s closest followers, such as Ernest Jones, attack him vigorously for his refusal to credit that female sexuality is simply other than male sexuality. As Jones sees it, the insistence that there is only one libido must be chalked up to Freud’s anti-feminism.

[4] In his essay “The Signification of the Phallus,” Jacques Lacan identifies the function of the phallus with signifying not itself but the whole field of signification. He points out that “the phallus … is the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as signifier” (Lacan 2006, p. 579). What he’s getting at here is that the phallus is actually rooted in the field of the Other rather than being isolated in the way that it appears.\

[5] This is why Alenka Zupančič insists that psychoanalysis, from beginning to end, is a feminist enterprise. See Zupančič 2008.

[6] In Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings, Mari Ruti makes the clever point that, given the status of the penis as the signifier of power, penis envy represents a logical response on the part of women, a sign that they have the proper sense of what’s going on in society. See Ruti 2018.

[7] Foucault himself sees his power analysis as at odds with a psychoanalytic explanation. See especially Foucault 2012.

[8] See Freud 1931 and Freud 1933.

[9] The group members can be equal and still enjoy group membership as long as the leader is not among the equals. As Freud puts it, “Many equals, who can identify themselves with one another, and a single person superior to them all—that is the situation that we find realized in groups that are capable of subsisting” (Freud 1921, 121). The superiority of the leader is superior power, which produces enjoyment that becomes available to the group members through identification.

[10] Lacan uses the term “phallus” rather than “penis” to avoid any confusion with biology.






Todd McGowan teaches theory and film at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Universality and Identity PoliticsEmancipation After HegelOnly a Joke Can Save UsCapitalism and Desire, and other works. He is the editor of the Film Theory in Practice Series at Bloomsbury and coeditor with Slavoj Žižek and Adrian Johnston of the Diaeresis series at Northwestern University Press.


Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059
Scientific Journal in the List 11 by the ANVUR (Italian Agency for Evaluation of the University System and Research)