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Psychoanalysis and Marxism Ernesto Laclau; Amy G. Reiter-McIntosh Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 2, The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis.

(Winter, 1987), pp. 330-333.

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Psychoanalysis and Marxism

Ernesto Laclau

Translated by Amy G . Reiter-McIntosh

To think the relationships which exist between Marxism and psychoanalysis obliges one to reflect upon the intersections between two theoretical fields, each composed independently of the other and whose possible forms of mutual reference do not merge into any obvious .system of translation. For example, it is impossible to affirm-though it has often been done-that psychoanalysis adds a theory of subjectivity to the field of historical materialism, given that the latter has been constituted, by and large, as a negation of the validity and the pertinence of any theory of subjectivity (although certainly not of the category of "subject"). Thus, no simple model of supplement or articulation is of the slightest use. The problem is rather that of finding an index o comparison between two f different theoretical fields, but that, in turn, implies the construction of a new field, within which the comparison would make sense. This new field is one which may be characterized as "post-Marxist" and is the result of a multitude of theoretico-political interventions whose cumulative effect in relation to the categories of classical Marxism is similar to what Heidegger called a "de-struction of the history of ontology." For Heidegger, this "de-struction" did not signify the purely negative operation of rejecting a tradition, but exactly the opposite: it is by means of a radical questioning which is situated beyond this tradition-but which is only possible in relation to it-that the originary meaning of the categories of this tradition (which have long since become stale and trivialized) may be recovered. In this sense, effecting a "de-struction" of the history of Marxism implies going beyond the deceptive evidence of
Cnrtcal Ingulry

13 (Winter 1987)

O 1987 by T h e University of Chicago. 0093-189618711302-0009$01,00, ll rights reserved A

Critical Inquiry

Winter 1987


concepts such as "class," "capital," and so on, and re-creating the meaning of the originary synthesis that such concepts aspired to establish, the total system of theoretical alternatives in regard to which they represented only limited options, and the ambiguities inherent in their constitution itself-the "hymen" in the Derridean sense-which, although violently repressed, rise up here and there in diverse discursive surfaces. It is the systematic and genealogical outline of these nuclei of ambiguity which initially allows for a destruction of the history of Marxism and which constitutes post-Marxism as the field of our current political reflection. But it is precisely in these surfaces of discursive ambiguity that it is possible to detect the presence of logics of the political which allows for the establishment of a true dialogue, without complacent metaphorization, between Marxism and psychoanalytic theory. I would like to highlight two points, which I consider fundamental, concerning these discursive surfaces. 1) Marxism has so often been presented as a prolongation and a culmination of the Enlightenment-and therefore as one of the pinnacles of modernity-that any attempt at deconstructing its categories must begin by focusing on two decisive points where Marxism breaks with the tradition of the Enlightenment. These points are: (a) the affirmation of the central character of negativity-struggle and antagonism-in the structure of any collective identity; and (b) the affirmation of the opaqueness of the social-the ideological nature of collective representations-which establishes a permanent gap between the real and the manifest senses of individual and social group actions. It is easy to see how it is possible, from these two points, to establish a dialogue with psychoanalysis. The second point may be linked to the action of the unconscious and to the plurality of "systems" established in the various Freudian topographies. The first, by establishing the non-immanent and ever-threatened character of any collective identity (resulting from the negativity inherent to antagonism), allows the consideration of class struggle as a dialectic of identifications composed around a real/impossible kernel. However, let us not proceed too quickly. This reading of Marxism, which sees within it not the pinnacle of modernity but rather one of its first crises, is only possible if one is unaware of at least-in an optimistic calculation-half of Marx's work. (The same could be said about Hegel.) Marxism is not only a discourse of negativity and the opaqueness of the
Ernesto Laclau is a lecturer in the Department of Government and director of the Graduate Program in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex. He is the author of Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) and, with Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (1985). Amy G. Reiter-McIntosh is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.


Ernesto Laclau

Psychoanalysis and Marxism

social, it is also an attempt-perfectly compatible with the Enlightenment-to limit and master them. T h e negativity and opaqueness of the social only exist in "human prehistory," which will be definitely surpassed by communism conceived as homogeneous and transparent society. It is from this mastery of totality that the moment of negativity loses its constitutive and foundational character: it shone for just a brief moment in theoretical discourse, only to dissolve an instant later into the full positivity which reabsorbed it-positivity of history and society as totalizations of their partial processes, the positivity of the subject-the social classes-as agents of history. It would be absurd to deny that this dimension of masteryltransparencylrationalism is present in Marxism. Even more: this is the dimension which reaffirms itself increasingly from the AntiDuhrzng to Stalin. 2 ) Consequently, if we want to trace the genealogy of post-Marxism, we cannot stop at the dichotomy of positivitylnegativity, opaqueness1 transparency. We must also highlight the radical inconsistency of these two dimensions. It is necessary to detect the surface where rationalist logic meets its limits-in other words, to detect those nuclei of ambiguity, those hymen where the arbitrariness and the contingency of any logic of closure is shown. Now, in the discursive field of historical Marxism, we find a privileged zone of deconstructive effects which dissolve the rationality, positivity, and transparency of Marxist categories: this is the ensemble of phenomena linked to what is known as "unequal and combined development." Let us consider the problem in its simplest terms. "Unequal and combined development" exists when a synchronic articulation occurs between stages which Marxist theory considers as successive (for example, the articulation between democratic tasks and the socialist leadership of those tasks). The key term to describe this articulation is "hegemony." In fact, the concept of hegemony as it was developed in the Marxist tradition, from Plekhanov and Axelrod to Gramsci, is that of a dislocation of a "strategy" which is irreducible to a full presence that encloses, of a self-sufficient totality, the differential ensemble of its terms. Hegemony exists when that which would have been a rational succession of stages is interrupted by a contingency that cannot be subsumed under the logical categories of Marxist theory: in other words, it exists when the (democratic) tasks, which in a "normal" development would have corresponded to a class (the bourgeoisie), must pass, given the weakness of the latter, to another class (in this case, the working class). A moment of reflection suffices to realize that what is explicitly thought in this relationshipthe actors of the hegemonic relationship (the social classes), the class nature of the hegemonized task-is that which, strictly speaking, is absent to the extent that normal development has been dislocated; while that which is actually present-the relationship of dislocation-is named but not thought. Therefore, hegemony is in reality a hinge, given that on the

one hand it sutures the relationship between two elements (the task and the agent); but, on the other hand, since this suture is produced in the field of a primary and insurmountable relationship of dislocation, we can only attribute a character of inscription to it, not one of necessary articulation. In other words, the hegemonic relationship can be thought only by assunling the category of lack as a point of departure. We can clearly see the pertinence of some central concepts of Lacanian theory. The hegemonic subject is the subject of the signifier, which is, in this sense, a subject without a signified; and it is only from this logic of the signifier that the hegemonic relationship as such may be conceived. But in this case, the categories of negativity and opaqueness, which we presented as characteristic of that first crisis of modernity represented by the Hegelianl Marxist moment, are not reabsorbed as a partial moment by any rationalist transparency. They are constitutive. Thus, there is no Aufhebung. This is precisely the point where the logic of the unconscious, as the logic of the signifier, reveals itself as an essentially political logic (insofar as politics, from Machiavelli onward, have primarily been the thought of dislocation); and where the social, ultimately irreducible to the status of full presence, also reveals itself as political. The political thus acquires the status of an ontology of the social. Therefore, the "de-struction" of the history of Marxism is not a speculative operation-an epistemological operation, if you will-given that it presupposes no duality of subjectJobject, but rather the generalization of the logic of the signifier to the ensemble of its theoretical categories. Consequently, these categories are neither removed nor reabsorbed by a higher rationality but shown in their contingency and historicity. For the same reason, this generalization is not a speculativelabstract process, but a practicalldiscursive one. It is the generalization of the phenomena of the "unequal and combined development" of the imperialist age into any social identity which, as in the Heideggerian image of the broken hammer, transforms the dislocation into a horizon from which all identity may be thought and constituted (these two terms being exactly synonymous). This indicates the direction and the way in which a possible confluence of (post-)Marxism and psychoanalysis is conceivable, neither as the addition of a supplement to the former by the latter nor as the introduction of a new causal element-the unconscious instead of economy-but as the coincidence of the two, around the logic of the signifier as a logic of unevenness and dislocation, a coincidence grounded on the fact that the latter is the logic which presides over the possibility/impossibility of the constitution of any identity.