Lacan contra Foucault: Subjectivity, Universalism, Politics

The American University of Beirut, Faculty of Arts and Sciences held the seminar “Lacan contra Foucault: Subjectivity, Universalism, Politics” in 2016.


While Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault are both enormously influential theorists within the humanities, their work has inspired divergent and often explicitly antagonistic theoretical agendas. What is at stake in each thinker’s work pertains to the core questions and critiques of Enlightenment and Modernity. Both Lacan and Foucault challenge the Kantian compact between reason, autonomy, and freedom, but they do so in very different ways and with very different consequences for our understanding of universalism, law, reason, habits, and the passions. The aim of this conference is to try to clarify the nature of this divergence as well as the stakes of this antagonism. It will do so by focusing on three fundamental topics of disagreement that divide Lacan from Foucault: the nature of the subject; the status of the universal; and the function of politics.

Papers based on the conference appeared in ‘Lacan Contra Foucault: Subjectivity, Sex, and Politics’


The Absence of the Sexual Relationship: Invariant of the Species or Historical Phase?
Lorenzo Chiesa, Genoa School of Humanities

Is what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the ‘absence of the sexual relationship’ the basic – transcendental and biological – invariant of the speaking animal? Or should it be understood as a historical product strictly linked with the advent of modern science? Also, assuming that language is structurally incomplete, and therefore that homo sapienscannot avoid the dialectic of semblance and truth, does this necessarily entail that the absence of any meta-language always correspond to the absence of the sexual relationship? In this paper I will show how, in his Seminars of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lacan develops two different, if not incompatible, narratives. The paper should pave the way for a broader discussion of how the ‘historicist temptation’ Lacan finally does not succumb to intersects with Foucault’s considerations on human nature (especially in his 1971 conversation with Chomsky). Could we maintain, as has recently been suggested, that Foucault himself belongs to a ‘Freudian paradigm’ for which history is made of ‘true fictions’? Does such an understanding of the ‘Freudian paradigm’ not run the risk of turning Foucault into a Freudian only at the price of labelling Lacan as anti-Freudian?

No: Foucault
Joan Copjec, Brown University

Despite the telegraphed “no” of the title, this paper is not a full-scale rejection of Foucault, but a firm dismissal of his rejection of Freud and psychoanalysis. The latter rejection is based primarily on Foucault’s claim that in psychoanalysis every negation amounts to the same one. The simple claim of the paper is not only “not so!” but also an attempt to recover what is radical in Freud and lost on Foucault.

The Other Space of the Communist Party
Jodi Dean, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

This paper puts Lacan’s account of the Other Space to work in a theory of the communist party. Lacan associates the Freudian unconscious with a gap, a gap where something happens but remains unrealized. It’s not that this something is or is not there, that it exists or doesn’t exist. Rather, the unrealized makes itself felt. It exerts a pressure. The function of the transference in analysis is forcing the gap. Through the transference different unconscious agencies in the subject become manifest. The transference registers the effects of an Other beyond analyst and analysand: the analytic relation is not reducible to the interaction between them; it is the site of the appearance of an Other. The transference is important for a theory of the party because of its function “as a mode of access to what is hidden in the unconscious.” Insofar as the party is a form that accesses the discharge that has ended, the crowd that has gone home, the people who are not there but exert a force nonetheless, it is a site of transferential relations. Rather than rejecting these relations in a fantasy of politics without power, I emphasize the importance of the psychic effects of sociality in building collective strength. Institutions are symbolic arrangements that organize and concentrate the social space. They “fix” an Other, not in the sense of immobilizing it but in the sense of putting in relation the emergent effects of sociality. This “putting in relation” substantializes the link, giving it its force, enabling it to exert its pressure. A party is an organization and concentration of sociality in behalf of a certain politics. For communists this is a politics of and for the working class, the producers, the oppressed, the people as the rest of us. “Party” knots together effects of ideal ego, ego ideal, superego, subject supposed to know, and subject supposed to believe. The particular content of any of these component effects changes over time and place even as the operations they designate remain as features of the party form. I illustrate my argument with examples from The Party Organizer, a third period publication of the CPUSA. I put my argument to work in a critique of John Holloway’s Foucauldian anarchism.

Cutting Off the King’s Head
Mladen Dolar, Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts

In a famous pronouncement Foucault said: “It is necessary to cut off the king’s head: in political theory this hasn’t happened yet.” Political theory kept being stuck, in one way or another, with the framework of sovereignty, law, repression, instead of envisaging the new dispositives of power in their heterogeneous multiplicity, proliferation and productivity, the emergence of biopolitics etc. This goes also for psychoanalysis which was prey to the ‘monarchy of sex’ (as he famously put it on the last page of the first volume of the History of sexuality), unable to abandon the framework of prohibition, the father, the law and repression, instead of espousing bodies and pleasures, and was thus itself, unwittingly, a major mechanism of power it allegedly opposed. The paper will try to scrutinize some assumptions of this way of seeing the opposition and framing the question. There is something missing in the massive alternative between the monarchy of the sovereign, father, law, sex, truth on the one hand, and multiplicity, heterogeneity, proliferation, bodies, pleasure on the other, the alternative on which Foucault’s work, in its vast elaborate ramifications, seems to be premised.

Exchanging Memory: Reflections on Postwar Enjoyment
Rohit Goel, University of Chicago

My paper uses the example of Lebanon to show how memory of past atrocity is a fetish object of useless enjoyment that overshoots the very need it at once constructs and aims to satisfy: avoiding the repetition of past violence. Putting Lacan’s theory of discourse into conversation with Marx’s analysis of value in capital, I argue that postwar “transitional” justice mechanisms, hegemonic after 1989, steer toward the perpetual accumulation of knowledge about the past — what Lacan calls surplus-enjoyment or jouissance or a and Marx calls surplus-value — at the expense of working through history to overcome the recurrence of social antagonism. Along the way, I argue that reading Lacan with Marx to analyze “late capitalism” or postwar liberal society offers a high stakes corrective to structuralist and poststructuralist pronouncements of “the death of the subject.” For instance, Michel Foucault’s diagnosis of the nexus of knowledge and power as absolute tends to a politics of silence in the face of necessarily alienating discourses (on madness, criminalization, sexuality…), either retreating to a “care of the self” or self-consciously refusing to engage the constitutive contradictions of discourse for fear of reproducing the latter’s terms/potency. I conclude by suggesting alternatives to liberal transitional justice programs as well as structuralist/poststructuralist subject annihilation in the aftermath of catastrophe.

Valuation and Enjoyment: Lacan and Foucault through Marx and Bataille
Robert Meister, University of California, Santa Cruz

I begin with the questions of politics implied by a schematic reading of Foucault through Lacan: Is Foucault’s account of knowledge/power reducible to a technique for translating University Discourse into a Discourse of the Master? How can this be done except through the Discourse of the Hysteric? What else could be desired here except for a true Master? And didn’t Foucault himself become that Master in the post-modern University Discourse created by my generation of left-academics who came of age in the aftermath of 1968?

This is of course a caricature, but rather than qualify it through a more comprehensive reading of Foucault’s Lectures and Lacan’s Seminars, I want to draw out the political project of moving beyond these three quarter-turns of Lacan’s discursive dial, especially in an era of financialized capitalism. Instead of debunking Foucault in favor of Lacan, my central claim is that Foucault provides an academically assimilable version of Georges Bataille, whose Accursed Share exhibits the micro-foundations of Foucault’s early project I thus argue that Foucault carried forward Bataille’s critique of dominant strands of French Hegelianism into the realm of historical studies in much the way that Marx did for his own critique of Hegel and left-Hegelianism. Because Lacan, also had a lifelong engagement with the same critique of conscious mind (via the death instinct) that obsessed Bataille, Lacan’s late turn to Marx and materialism in response to 1968 is a good site on which to raise the question of thinking Marx with Bataille, or asking what it means for capitalism to have an unconscious.

My main argument in the paper is about why the unconscious of capitalism is especially important in the era of its subsumption by finance that Lacan and Foucault did not live to see. In financialized capitalism the creation units of capital preservation–quite literally hedges and options–has equal importance to the production of commodities and the employment of labor power in earlier version of capitalism that have been well-analyzed from a Lacanian perspective by Zupančič, Žižek and others. I argue that financialized capitalism in important ways confesses the post-modern critique of its prehistory, denaturalizing the “real economy” and making its continuation expressly contingent on the liquidity of markets, which is itself ultimately a political/financial project involving the commensurability of public and private debt.

An effect of this transformation is that fully financialized subjects would no longer think of themselves as owners of skills, but rather as managers of a portfolio of attributes the contents of which must be continuously rebalanced and rehedged in order to provide resiliency, which is now expressly considered as a measure of downside protection against risks that are no longer worth taking now that we know what dangers we have been lucky enough to survive. What, then, can be said of our collective enjoyment of the gains accumulated by those who harvest the upside generated by this heightened volatility? My paper will analyze the relationship between security and insecurity, life and death in the unconscious of a financialized subject who no longer thinks merely as a commoditized individual. Are there political potentialities here that have been missed by more productionist versions of historical materialism that dismiss the important changes represented by finance in the Real of capitalist desire?

Desire & Pleasure: Deleuze and Foucault’s Readings of Wilhelm Reich
Nicolae Morar, University of Oregon

In this paper, I defend the thesis that in order to understand Foucault and Deleuze’s diametrically opposed views regarding desire and pleasure, one has to analyze the ways in which those thinkers have been influenced by Wilhelm Reich’s works.

Reich’s 1946 The Mass Psychology of Fascism has played a central role in framing the political questions surrounding the repression of sexuality. Deleuze’s political writings have been influenced by this Freudo-Marxist perspective, up to the point that in Anti-Oedipus (1972), he and Guattari claim that Reich, after Spinoza, has rediscovered the fundamental problem of political philosophy: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” Deleuze & Guattari continue, “after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?” In this case, an appeal to ignorance would be an epistemic failure. Following Reich, Deleuze & Guattari provide us with a different explanation – one that revives the notion of desire. Our desires are positive insofar as “what we desire, what we invest our desire in, is a social formation.” Instead of extracting an object that is presumed to be the object of desire (negative explanation), we are always in the process of constructing a positive social assemblage. Deleuze & Guattari reinforce Reich’s sex-economic hypothesis since they recognize that libidinal economy and political economy are one and the same. And if our desires are social from the beginning, in a way, they are not our own. This is the only way we can understand our investment in social formations that repress us. Our desires are not just a part of one’s psychic reality. They are always already part of the very social formation one finds oneself in.

As early as 1973, Foucault distances himself from Reich’s Freudo-Marxist approach, and also from Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. In his Rio lecture, Foucault notes, “I admit that a problem such as this (Anti-Oedipus) is very appealing to me, and that I am also tempted to look behind what is claimed to be the Oedipus story – for something unrelated to the indeterminate, endlessly repeated story of our desire and our unconscious, but related to the history of a power, a political power.” In his 1975 talk at Columbia University (at the Schizo-Culture Conference), Foucault reiterates this point in an even bolder manner: “I now see the Reichian schema as an obstacle rather than an instrument.”(154) The Reichian schema is fully revealed as an obstacle only in 1976 in La Volonté de Savoir. Foucault’s argument assumes that any explanation of sexuality that focuses primarily on sexual repression (as Reich does) cannot escape analyzing the underlying power mechanism otherwise than in a reduced, schematic, and negative form. “Which is to say [..], these analyses assume that power exerts itself basically in the form of an interdiction and exclusion.” Against Reich, Foucault argues that rather than being deductive, the power mechanisms produce, invent, create, and ultimately normalize sexual subjects. Reich’s failure, and to a certain extent Deleuze & Guattari’s as well, is to confound and to merge the strategies of power with the interdictions of the law and with the mechanisms of domination and exploitation. Hence, “the rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures.”

Capitalist Forms of Subjectivity: Foucault between Psychoanalysis and Marxism
Johanna Oksala, University of Helsinki

The paper argues that Foucault makes an important contribution to our understanding of capitalist forms of subjectivity – a problem that Marxism, psychoanalysis and the combinations of the two have struggled with. Moreover, I will show that Foucault’s break-through in this field of questioning, namely his account of productive power, can be understood as a critical response to the problems that both psychoanalysis and Marxism had in theorizing the relationship between power and subjectivity.

The argument proceeds in three parts. In the first section I will consider how Foucault’s critique of psychoanalysis in The History of Sexuality is modified in a lecture delivered in Brazil in 1976 titled ‘The Mesh of Power’. In this lecture Foucault notably develops his account of productive power in dialogue with Lacan and Marx. In the second section I will turn to Foucault’s lectures on governmentality and argue that in these lectures we find his most developed view of the homo economicus as the capitalist form of subjectivity. I will conclude by briefly considering the consequences of Foucault’s account for our current understanding of ourselves.

What Comes After “The Death of Man”: Foucault and Lacan, Sexuality and Freedom
Aaron Schuster, Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam

Foucault’s relationship to psychoanalysis, and especially Lacanian psychoanalysis, is a highly complex one. From his early enthusiasm in The Order of Things, in which psychoanalysis is assigned a privileged place in the account of the birth of the human sciences and their possible “beyond,” Foucault ends up, in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, becoming one of its most powerful critics, denouncing the “repressive hypothesis” as one of the prevalent myths of modern power. Yet some years later, in his lecture course The Hermeneutics of the Subject (1981-82), Foucault praises Lacan as the one of the few thinkers to thematize the relation between the subject and truth. In this talk, I will disentangle this relationship by focusing on one key moment: Foucault’s and Lacan’s interpretations of Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas, and how they reflect different understandings of subjectivity and modernity. I will show how Foucault and Lacan draw two contrasting conclusions from the “death of Man,” i.e. the crisis of the human sciences and the eclipse of their vision of a central constituting subject or transcendental ego. I will then look back on Foucault’s “history of sexuality” project, and examine how these competing conceptions of subjectivity impact on the understanding of sexuality and the possibility of emancipation.

Biopolitics, Sexuality, and the Unconscious
Alenka Zupančič, Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts

The lecture deals with the way in which Michel Foucault first introduced the notion of ‘biopolitics’ through the referential frame of sexuality and psychoanalysis. It focuses on the concept that is utterly and conspicuously missing from Foucault’s account, in The History of Sexuality, of the psychoanalytic take on sexuality – namely the unconscious. It argues that this omission amounts to a conceptual decision which has important and far-reaching consequences for the (Foucauldian) concept of biopolitics as such.

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