On vagueness and its conservation

The previous blog on What makes an economy a ‘libidinal economy’? spoke of the libidinal economy of a network as “a form of social organization that supported forms of emancipation that promised not a ‘full jouissance’ but rather ways-of-being in which gaps could be minded”.[1] But how are we to understand ‘libidinal investment’ per se, and in particular its effects? The following quote from Yannis Stavrakakis approaches this question from a political perspective:

[Lacanian theory] highlights the way our symbolic and imaginary representations are invested with the ‘fantasmatic’ and/or ‘symptomatic’ energy of jouissance, thus acquiring a resilience which explains their long-term fixity and the difficulties associated with displacing them and with socio-political change in general….  when things stick it is because, apart from offering a hegemonic symbolic crystallisation, they effectively manipulate an affective, libidinal dimension.  The ideological capitonnage effected throgh a semiotic nodal point has to be supported by a knotting at the affective level of jouissance in order to stick.” [2]

This book by Stavrakakis emphasises the contribution that a Lacanian understanding offers concerning the relation between the affective and the discursive. He concludes by saying:

Libidinal investment and the mobilisation of jouissance are the necessary prerequisite for any sustainable identification (from nationalism to consumerism)…. but the type of investment still has to be decided…. instead of functioning as a support for fantasy (for hegemonic fantasies), the partial drive can become the leading force towards a reorientation of enjoyment faithful to the positive/negative dialectics. Only thus shall we be able to really enjoy our partial enjoyment, without subordinating it to the cataclysmic desire of fantasy.[3]

But what does this mean in practice, and what is distinctive about this way of understanding the relation between the affective and the discursive?  I have written elsewhere about the particular challenges presented by the partial drives (Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation), so in this blog I want to tackle two questions: what is different about this understanding, and how does it help us to understand how the relation between the affective and the discursive manifests itself through the way we sustain our identifications?

A different way of understanding the relation between the affective and the discursive?
The blog in July 2012 raised the question of what was happening to ‘Boundaries’, ‘Authority’ and ‘Containment’.  It argued that while ‘social defense thinking’ enabled us to think about the way a particular individual’s identity was supported by an enterprise, it did not enable us to think about the impact of innovation on the nature of that support. A subsequent paper on Anxiety and Innovation, given at a 2013 colloquium in Oxford on the current state of ‘social defense thinking’, approached this question in terms of the individual’s ‘double subjection’ – subjection both to the unconscious and to the socially constructed ‘other’. This double subjection had its parallel in the double subjection that followed from affiliation to an enterprise, both through the support an enterprise lent as a social formation to an individual’s self-identification, and also from the structures of interaction with which the enterprise was itself identified.  Anxiety attending this double subjection arose correspondingly along two dimensions: to warn the individual of possible failure to perform in accordance with the social formation, but also to warn of the possible failure of the very structures of interaction.[4] The paper argued that, while this second dimension of anxiety was experienced in terms of the potential annihilation of support for their self-identification (aka existential anxiety), it could also be experienced as an opportunity for innovation.

A difficulty arises when we try to make this distinction in terms of object-relations. With existential anxiety, what is at stake is not symbol formation per se, but rather the subject’s relation to particular ways of organising object-relating.[5] Such ‘particular ways’ are present prototypically in the maternal matrix, made manifest in the way the mother contains the anxiety of her child.  Re-introducing the missing ‘subject’ allows us to distinguish such ‘particular ways’ of organising object-relating as an organisation of relations between object-signifiers that is over-determined by the subject’s relation to the unconscious.  This over-determination reflects unconscious valencies that restrict the ways in which the subject uses object-signifiers.[6] ‘Thirdness’ is a way of referring to these ‘particular ways’ of using object-signifiers that give meaning and are implicit in the way anxiety is contained.[7]  Understanding the experience of ‘containment’ as a relation to this ‘Thirdness’, however, still demands a structural understanding of this relation and the need, therefore, to look more closely at Freud’s Project.

The whole  system in Freud’s Project acted as a substrate to consciousness which supported a secondary stratification aka ‘formation’ of the subject’s relation to unconscious object-signifiers aka word-presentations (the -system). [8] Approached in this way, while the word-presentation in the unconscious could equally be an ideogram or phoneme, it could also be complex patterns of relationship between word-presentations. These recognised word-presentations and patterns of word-presentations acted as the lexicon of signification, while at the same being bathed in the affective medium of the unconscious -complex organising quantity (quotas of ‘affect’) distributed across different neuronal pathways as networks of complication.[9] This reading of Freud’s Project does not detract from Bion’s rendering of alpha- and beta-elements. Rather it takes it further by providing an unconscious basis for ‘formations’ in a way that Bion did not – ‘formations’ becoming complex patterns of relationship between word-presentations. In effect, libidinal investment in particular ‘formations’ could be subject to the equivalent of symbolic equation applied to these complex patterns.

So this is what is different about a Lacanian understanding: it is rooted in a different reading of Freud’s Project in which the relation between the affective and the discursive is one in which the affective is attached not only to object-signifiers but to whole formations of object-signifiers. But how does this manifest itself in the way we sustain our identifications?

The way this relation between the affective and the discursive manifests itself in the way we sustain our identifications


Counter-resistance is always on the side of the supplier-provider
[1] Social defenses against anxiety emphasise the use of such Thirdness as a container. The emerging difficulties with this understanding of the organisation of an enterprise are described in what is happening to boundaries, authority and containment?. An account of how these defenses arise is given in Getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency. This understanding of organisation considers resistance on the side of the supplier-provider through its conservation of identity, contrasting this supply-side resistance with demand-side situational resistance. See Situational Resistance: challenges to the supply-side conservation of identity. Identifying ‘true’ resistance with the demand-side in this way renders supply-side resistance as counter-resistance.


[1] In speaking of the libidinal economy of the network, I was addressing the effects of the relation to the ‘gap’ aka some lack/absence around which a network emerges. Some of the implications of this understanding of a network are taken up in the blog on stratification.
[2] pp20-21 Stavrakakis, Y. (2007). The Lacanian Left: psychoanalysis, theory, politics. New York, SUNY Press.
[3] ibid p282
[4] The blog on Requisite Authority introduces a diagnostic tool that examines the different possible forms of congruence between social formation (role) and structures of behaviour (task), depending on how an enterprise has defined its boundaries and its relationships across those boundaries. The underlying drivers of this congruence are the need for the enteprise to sustain appropriately differentiated behaviours in response to differentiated demands, through being able to integrate those differentiated behaviours in the interests of the enterprise as a whole. The potential annihilation arises when either an enterprise insists on a particular social formation that is not congruent with its actual behaviors,or people in the enterprise engage in behaviors that are not congruent with the current social formation of roles. Some such loss of alignment is inevitable in the process of growing an enterprise within its particular environments. For more on this, see Situational Resistance: challenges to the supply-side conservation of identity
[5] For more on this, see The missing subject-ego relation in true symbolism, symbolic equation and object-relations for the relationship between the ‘subject’ and the processes of symbol formation.
[6] The 4-term relation between subject, ‘formation’, object-signifier and signified-object includes signified-objects that are experienced as ‘external’ in the sense of observable by others, and as ‘internal’ in the sense of being experienced in relation to the unconscious. In these terms, the ‘formation’ is organising meaning both in relation to the unconscious and also to the ‘social’, reflecting a double subjection.  See Matrices, mattresses and the relation to the referent group
[7] See To ‘contain’: signifiers, signifieds and Thirdness
[8] This is enlarged upon at length in Getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency.
[9] The unconscious was therefore structured ‘like a language is structured’ in the sense that it was constituted through the articulation of different patterns of distribution of affect, derived from the person’s embodied (and as such affective) experiencing and subject to the particular forms of difference which that experiencing articulated.

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