Amongst a plethora of radical theoretical perspectives, a new paradigm is slowly becoming hegemonic. Inspired by the work of Jacques Lacan, theorists are increasingly turning to the concept of “constitutive lack” to find a way out of the impasses of classical Marxist, speculative and analytical approaches to political theory. Beneath the debates between rivals such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, there is a unity of purpose about the parameters of political theory. Across the work of authors such as Žižek, Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Yannis Stavrakakis, David Howarth, Renata Salecl, Jason Glynos, Aletta Norval and Saul Newman, there is a central set of motifs and claims which mark out a distinct tradition within contemporary political thought. The idea of “constitutive lack”, constructed as an ontological claim, operates also in these theories as a normative concept, and it is used to found normative claims. The title of Alenka Zupančič’s most famous book – Ethics of the Real – summarises the outlook of all these authors1.
The challenge posed by this influential perspective is too important to ignore. Its paradigmatic structure - the shared, often unconscious and unreflexive, assumptions which unite its various proponents in a single way of thinking and arguing - is becoming the dominant trend in (ostensibly) radical theory. It is accounting for a growing number of submitted and published articles and is gaining a growing support among researchers and graduates. It has almost invisibly gained a foothold in theoretical literature significant enough to raise its influence to a level second only, perhaps, to the analytical/Rawlsian tradition. This is at least partly due to its radical pretensions. It is, however, crucial to challenge it, because its political effects are to paralyse “radical” theory. It provides a very weak basis for any kind of politics, and certainly no basis for a radical or transformative agenda. It is, in short, a surrogate radicalism, a theoretical placebo which does not live up to the promises it makes.
This article examines this paradigm through a critique of its founding concept. In contrast to the claims of authors such as Laclau to have escaped the “essentialism” of classical political theory, I shall demonstrate that the idea of “constitutive lack” involves the reintroduction of myth and essentialism into political theory. I shall demonstrate that Lacanian political theory cannot meet its claims to be “radical” and “anti-essentialist”, and its central arguments are analytically flawed. First of all, however, I shall outline the parameters of this new theoretical paradigm2.
A new paradigm: the concept of lack in political theory
The concept of “constitutive lack” arises across a number of theories and under a number of labels (e.g. the Real, the Thing, antagonism and the political). It emerged initially as an ontological concept in the work of Jacques Lacan, the focus of much adulation among the authors discussed here. There is already in Lacan (and Althusser) an imperative to embrace or accept the lack at the root of the social. He explicitly states that the question of ethics ‘is to be articulated from the point of view of the location of man in relation to the Real’3. It is this imperative which provides the starting-point for the kind of politicized Lacanianism with which this paper is concerned.
The basic claim of Lacanian theory is that identity - whether individual or social - is founded on a lack. Therefore, social relations are always irreducibly concerned with antagonism, conflict, strife and exclusion. Chantal Mouffe, for instance, writes of ‘the primary reality of strife in social life’4, while Slavoj Žižek seeks an ‘ethics grounded in reference to the traumatic Real which resists symbolization’5. ‘Lack (“castration”) is original; enjoyment constitutes itself as “stolen”’6. According to Stavrakakis, the Real is ‘inherent in human experience’ and ‘doesn’t stop not being written’7. Hence, the primary element of social life is a negativity which prevents the emergence of any social “whole”. In Mouffe’s words, ‘society is the illusion... that hides the struggle and antagonism behind the scenes’, putting the ‘harsh reality’ of antagonism behind a ‘protective veil’8. For Newman, ‘war is the...