Universal/Particular/Singular and the Relation Between Master-Signifier and objet petit a

September 26, 2008

After our discussion yesterday, I started thinking about how Zizek often refers to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer and the Sovereign exception.

If you are not familiar with it, homo sacer refers to a social status of exclusion – homo sacer (sacred man) can be killed but not sacrificed.  It is one kind of exception that forms a particular society.  The other exception is the Sovereign exception, something like Sovereign who is exempted from the law, but who binds the law.  The sovereign, in other words, is both inside and outside the law.

Using these terms, and to relate master-signifier and objet a, as well as the relation between universal, particular and singular to politics, I’m wondering if we can think of the people in general as forming some kind of abstract universal, empty set.  The Sovereign exception is added to/subtracted from this set in order to transform the empty set of people into legal subjects/citizens.  In this way, the Sovereign acts as a master-signifier, transforming the abstract universal into a concrete universal, or a Universal Particular.  The sovereign, in other words, serves as the quilting point tying the particular (sovereign exception) to the universal (legal subjectivity/citizenship), and constructs the form of Inclusion.  Exclusion is represented by homo sacer.  At any time, anyone can become homo sacer/outcast.  However, at the same time, legal subjects/citizens have to find support for their own inclusion in society through some externalized obstacle (objet petita a), which represents exclusion.

In Marxist terms, the antagonism between Sovereign exception and homo sacer is one of class struggle.  And, in order to legitimize that concrete universality of legal subjectivity, the class struggle has to be displaced onto some particular exclusion (Jew, Arab, working class, etc.).  The Universal Singular reprsents this particular exclusion as an externalized obstacle, in which legal subjects find support for their own inclusion.  The proletariat is the universal subject insofar as anyone at any time can become homo sacer, i.e. can be excluded so that the set defining inclusion can find support through some exclusion.  The proletariat is, in this sense, the category of Truth, ‘the revolutionary Subject proper’ (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, p. 81); anyone can potentially become homo sacer.

However, as the quilting point that forms the concrete universality of legal subjectivity, the Sovereign exception finds its point of absolute negation in homo sacer.  Would this be a way of thinking the relation between master-signifier and objet petit a?  Objet a as the point of absolute negation of the master-signifier?  Or, in contrast, does the sovereign exception find its point of absolute negation in itself (as an exception that is both inside and outside the law), does the master-signifier, in other words, find its own point of absolute negation in itself; and, therefore, does the objet a represent that which gives support to the set that is defined by the setting of the master-signifier – does homo sacer give support to legal subjectivity?  Put differently, does objet a displace the master-signifier?


14 Responses to “Universal/Particular/Singular and the Relation Between Master-Signifier and objet petit a”

  1. The Universal Singular said

    Just one amendment: does the objet petit a displace the master-signifier as that which gives support to the subject’s identity?

  2. sonnyburnett said

    I guess your main question is, what is the precise relation between S1 and objet a?

    The simplist answer is, they have a metonymical relation, that is, the latter ‘drops out’ of the former’s self-relation. So there is a lag of sorts, between apprehension of the ‘manifold’ to be ‘objectified’ and the comprehension of that manifold. That is, our comprehension can never catch up with our apprehension: every attempt to fill out the void with an object takes place in (yet another) void. To which we must again come up with another object to ‘fill it out’, though we only do this in another void….etc etc…

    And of course the attempt of any signifier to completely represent itself generates the very void that it is endeavoring to fill out through that activity. This is where you get the metaphoric relation of the signifier to the void (ie, $).

    As for applying S1, S2, $, a to the ‘real world’, have fun. I can’t do it all that well yet. Everytime I do, I get spooked to how the example undermines the Notion & I head back running into theory. I’m just not that well versed with the self-negating Notion just yet.

  3. The Universal Singular said

    I see what you’re saying. And I agree with your point about the objet petit a ‘dropping out’ of the master-signifier’s self-relation, i.e. out of its self-relating negativity. I think, then, basically, that the objet petit a drops out as something that displaces the self-relating negativity of the master-signifier. In this way, it transforms absolute negativity into something positive. The objet a, in other words, gives support to the subject’s identity in the Symbolic Order. This, essentially, is what fantasy does: $a. It gives support to the subject’s identity through its relation to the objet petit a.

    What we have, then, is the real Real as impossibility, S1 as symbolic Real, which is the signifier of the lack itself, and objet petit a as imaginary Real, which is an externalized obstacle which lends support to the positivity of symbolic order.

    Using Agamben’s terms, we thus have the Sovereign exception as the master-signifier, structuring the law itself; the legal subject who finds the support of its identity in fantasy (reality structured like a fantasy); and homo sacer as the externalized obstacle (objet a), in relation to which the legal subject finds support of itself.
    Homo sacer is the subject who lacks objective support for its identity (i.e. no relation to an externalized obstacle/objet petit a). This, is, perhaps, one way of thinking of the proletarian, as the subject who lacks objective support for her identity (or who has been robbed of this support by becoming the absolute outcast/excluded).

    In class struggle, the proletarian confronts the ruling class in a manner which demonstrates the ultimate impossibility of the latter’s self-legitimization. This is ‘traversing the fantasy’: identifying with the traumatic/impossible/nightmarish aspect of the fantasy; essentially, the fact that the ruling class’ self-legitimation is based on false presuppositions.

    In other words, the proletarian forces the ruling class to confront its own self-negation.

    Homo sacer is, on the one hand, imaginary Real, functioning as objet a for individuals immersed in the symbolic order; and, on the other hand, the split subject ($), deprived of objective support. In this way, the proletarian (homo sacer) is indeed the revolutionary Subject, as opposed to a simple category of social being, such as ‘working-class’. Working-class is an identity supported by fantasy ($a). Proletarian is just $.

  4. battleofthegiants said

    I was thinking about the Zizek’s “proletariat” business the other day, and it seems to me he gives two different accounts.

    The second (chronologically speaking) is the one that matches what you’re saying: the slum dwellers as described in Mike Davis’ “Planet of Slums” – which I think I sent you guys a while back. Z talks about it in parallax view, saying that perhaps they are the place to look for an ‘evental site’, i.e. as the place from where the ‘truth of the captialist system of class domination’ will come from.

    Bob Jessop notes that Marx’s description of the proletariat in his “intro to a critique of Hegel’s P.O.R” (or whatever it’s called) sounds like a group of people who are completely destitute, and more like a lumpen-proletariat rather than a working class. We can also say that it matches what Zizek says about the slums. However, this description comes BEFORE Marx develops historical materialism and writes Capital V1, where the proletariat are those who actually make society possible – i.e. they create all the wealth. Slum dwellers, of course, do not.

    This means that there is perhaps some (if only small) ground to back up Z’s claim that he wants to separate the notion of Prole from that of working class…

    But, (this is the first notion of Proletariat, as it is in Ticklish Subject, for example) the ground for this division (I think, at least) is that Capitalism is the exploitation that underlies them all (see also his discussion of ‘subtraction’ in Defense of Lost Causes). So, the groups I remember him making reference to in Ticklish are those that are already a part of civil society in one way or another, and not ‘excluded’ as an exception from it. I.e., it’s formally against ‘human rights’ to be sexist, racist, etc. That is, we’re all exploited by capital, so ANY group or class can rise up and be the universal. This, perhaps, is Z’s attempt to move the locus of revolution away from one, sole locus – the working class. That is, any group can potentially BEGIN the revolution, and bring the rest into the movement as it unfolds.

    Marx’s description of the proletariat above calls them “in, but not of, civil society”. I have yet to read Marx’s Critique of P.O.R., so It’s not clear to me what that means. Perhaps it is like I’ve said above: people are formally included, but actually excluded from civil society, based on their economic position. I’m not sure if this applied to ‘slum dwellers’ or not. It seems to me it does… i.e. they formally have rights, but I doubt they’re adhered to in any way (I’ve yet to read Davis’ book – I sent you guys the paper of the same name – so I can’t say for sure).

    I’m not sure if all this helps anything or not…

    But I do remember Z writing in Parallax something to the effect that It’s impossible to identify with Homo-Sacer, which says to me one can’t take Homo-sacer as either objet a or synthome. I had at one point thought of Homo-Sacer as ‘objet a’ as well, and Z seems to write that way in places, but in Parallax he goes against that reading.

  5. The Universal Singular said

    Another thing to consider, maybe, is the difference between the proletariat as the subject of enunciation and the subject of the enunciated. Just quickly, off the top of my head, the difference seems to be how we speak of the proletariat – as an obstacle to the smooth running of society, the social whole. In this way, I would argue that the proletariat, as the subject of the enunciated has the function of objet petit a. However, from the position of the subject of enunciation, I would say that the proletariat is the split/barred subject, $, deprived of support in the object: the basic Marxist thesis is that the proletarian is the subject who is deprived of support for her being in the object (this is alienation). This object is appropriated by the capitalist. So the proletarian is not an individual supported by fantasy ($a), but simply $. Not just a status of social being, but as a status of Truth. The proletarian is the substance as subject, or the subject of History.

    Homo sacer sits on the fence here. It is the substance as subject. Anyone can at any time be homo sacer. In this way, homo sacer treads the line between inclusion and exclusion.

    The reference to the slum dweller is interesting, I read it in a different way. I don’t think the point is that the slum dweller is the proletarian in the sense of revolutionary subject. I think that the slum dweller is the proletarian in the sense of symptom… the symptom which the ordinary individual has to confront in order to ‘traverse the fantasy’. The image of the slum dweller can be disavowed because the ordinary, middle class citizen can keep a distance from him. There is an element of fetishism disavowal here. I know (that there are slum dwellers and that their life is terrible and that I’m a shit for letting this go on), but nevertheless (I can enjoy my life peacefully without being bothered by them)… What is required is a traversing of the fantasy which can allow the ordinary citizen to see the truth of her own subjectivity in the status of the symptom (that we can all, at any time, become homo sacer)… Now the only thing that has held me back from making this kind of statement is Zizek’s disapproval of those bumper-sticker-like sayings, such as “we are all sarajevo”, etc…

    My only guess at a way to resolve this one is to suggest that this kind of saying is not truly identifying with the symptom. It is just another form of disavowal.

  6. The Universal Singular said

    I just realized that when I was trying to make the losenge for the formula for fantasy, the internet machine must have translated this into some kind of code… so I am going to write it like this from now on: $^a

  7. The Universal Singular said

    One more thing about slum dwellers: no, they don’t produce wealth, but they DO make society possible. It is the disavowal of this group, and those like them, that make society appear possible. It is the disavowal of the antagonism described by Laclau and Mouffe, which Zizek often refers to: ‘society doesn’t exist’, or ‘society isn’t a valid object of discourse’.

    Slum dwellers make society appear as a social whole, totality, by counting as the signified of exclusion. But they also demonstrate the contradiction inherent in the belief in a fully closed society/totality.

    When Zizek is talking about class struggle, or class antagonism, I think he is referring to the Leninist conception of the class state, or more generally, the Marxist theory of the state, where the state exists as complete, or appears complete, only when it makes class antagonism appear as reconcilable. The state is, in fact, an organ of class rule. If the state exists, then class antagonism has not been reconciled, and the slum dwellers attest to this!

    However, as in the case of totalitarianism, the state needs some evidence of exclusion, or evil, etc. in order to regulate its own legitimization. In this way, I think the slum dwellers do make society seem possible.

  8. battleofthegiants said

    Where does he say we shouldn’t say (for instance) “we are all German Jews”? I always got the impression that was what we were supposed to say… and that it didn’t apply to homo-sacer…

  9. The Universal Singular said

    yeah… you’re right… he does refer to that saying approvingly. But I don’t think it’s homo sacer that it doesn’t apply to, I think it’s the muselmann…

    So I guess that IS a way of identifying with the symptom.

    But this symptom is still not the revolutionary subject, per se. This proletarian is still the subject of the enunciated. What matters, I think, is the position of enunciation (either from the position of the concrete universal order, or from the position of the Left).

    “The leftist political gesture par excellence (in contrast to the rightist motif of ‘to each his or her own place’) is thus to question the concrete existing universal order on behalf of its symptom, of the part that, although inherent to the existing universal order, has no ‘proper place’ within it…” (Multiculturalism, or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism, p. 178 in The Universal Exception).

    When we get to the end of FTKNWTD, we can maybe talk about this passage in relation to the ethics of drive as an ethics for the Left.

  10. The Universal Singular said

    “… is not the brutal intervention of the Russian police into the Moscow theatre, killing more of their own people than of the Chechen ‘terrorists’, a clear indication that we are all potentially Homo sacer? It is not that some of us are full citizens while others are excluded – an unexpected state of emergency can exclude every one of us” (Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, p. 55).

  11. battleofthegiants said

    But Zizek doesn’t talk about ‘the Muselmann’ and Homo sacer as different: “…the terrifying figure of the Muselmann, the ‘living dead’ in the concentration camps” (Parallax, 112); “…a slum-dweller, much more than a refugee, is Homo sacer, the systematically created ‘living dead’ of global capitalism” (Parallax, 269).

    Perhaps elsewhere he does make the distinction, and maybe Agamben does too… it could just be that Z’s made a slip, or that the ‘level of analysis’ that he’s working on (one of the three reals?) allows him to make the comparison…

    Zizek seems to also want to link the ‘Muselmann’ to Odradek, the lamella, the sinthome, deathdrive, etc etc, which potentially means that you COULD identify with the Musselman, which would go against what he says earlier… although at one point he writes that while he wants to make a link between “Alien” and “Odradek”, “They are not to be directly identified” (Parallax, 118). Perhaps the same is true of “Muselmann” and Odradek…

    I also need to whip my old horse here. The whole slum section begins with “What if”: “What if the new proletarian position is that of the inhabitants of slums in the new megalopolises?” (Parallax, 268). And later: “While we should resist the easy temptation to elevate and idealize the slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class, we should, nonetheless, in Badiou’s terms, perceive the slums as one of the dew authentic ‘evental sites’ in today’s society…” (268). What I’m getting at is that he’s making one of his theoretical leaps, and what he’s saying needs to be treated accordingly. And so he ends with some half-hearted comment on how the ‘symbolic class’ might be able to form an alliance with slum dwellers.

    I never understand the difference between the two enunciatedes. But I now see something in Zizek’s argument that I’m not sure I can stand behind: With all this business about the “Muselmann” and the witness, and the symptom not being able to speak, hasn’t he just put a whole crowd of people in the position of ‘victim’ who can’t do anything for themselves, but have to have someone else do it for them? This is, of course, precisely his argument against NATO and the West’s approach to Yugoslavia in the 90s – we want people to be victims, so it disturbs us when they stand up and fight for themselves…so make sure they can’t!

    The only thing saving this line of argument, I guess, is registering the right ‘sinthome’ or ‘symptom’, which was precisely what Marx was trying to identify in the working class…

    But if it’s that some other group has to say “we are all X”, and act ‘in their name’, it doesn’t jive with my understanding of how Z sees the party: i.e. It’s not there to do all the work FOR you, but to show you how you are able to do all the work…

    Then again, maybe the work of the Party as Z sees it is to ‘point out the symptom’ – but to whom? The symptom itself as a group of people? But that goes against the idea of someone using the symptom as the basis of ‘becoming proletarian’…

    Am I inventing this inconsistency, or is it in me and not Z?

    Or maybe that’s what drives Z to make his final comment on the ’symbolic class’ – they would act as the catalyst that would enable the slum dwellers to speak for themselves?


  12. The Universal Singular said

    I think you’ve raised some good points… I just want to review Parallax and Agamben’s Homo Sacer before I respond… so I’ll get back on this later. I do remember Agamben making the distinction between Muselmann and Homo sacer, though.

    These are obviously elements I’ve been having trouble with as well.

    One thing on subject of enunciated and subject of enunciation. The difference as I see it is that between the subject who is speaking (about someone or something) – this is the subject of enunciation; and, the subject who is spoken about (by someone else) – this is the subject of the enunciated. When the proletarian speaks for herself, she is the subject of enunciation. When she is spoken about she is the subject of the enunciated.

  13. The Universal Singular said

    I’ve been rereading the sections in Parallax on Muselmann, homo sacer and slum deweller, as well as the end of Homo Sacer, where Agamben talks about Muselmann.

    I think that in both there IS a distinction between the two, although I think that Zizek is inconsistent with his use of the two terms, which is why there is confusion.

    For Agamben, no life is more political than that of homo sacer. Homo sacer is the political subject par excellence.

    Muselmann, however, is the extreme figure of the concentration camp inhabitant. Not only is he excluded, he no longer belongs to the human world in any way.

    Homo sacer, I think, is objet petit a as an externalized obstacle in politics. In other words, politics exists because homo sacer demonstrates that society doesn’t exist. In this way, homo sacer treads the line between inclusion and exclusion. The Muselmann, however, doesn’t even register. His life is no longer even political; he doesn’t even register on the radar of politics.

    Here’s where I disagree with Zizek, or at least, where I think he mixes up his terms. I think that homo sacer IS refugee, and represents the objet petit a in politics/society.
    I think that slum dweller IS Muselmann.
    However, I think that both can be regarded as proletarian… and here’s where the difference between working class as a category of social being and the proletarian as category of Truth.

    Muselmann is proletarian as a category of Truth. It is, perhaps, in this way, Real (as impossible jouissance)… when Zizek compares Muselmann to Odradek he talks about it as ‘jouissance embodied’… jouissance as that which serves nothing (Parallax, p. 115). It is a figure of Thing-jouissance. This is how I think we should read the reference to the slum dweller. Proletarian as symptom.

    But homo sacer, I think, is a category of social being, like the working class, like the Jew (objet petit a).

    The difference between homo sacer and Muselmann, I think, is one between jouissance and objet petit a… real Real (impossible) and imaginary Real (objet petit a, externalized obstacle).

    In terms of the role of the Party and the question of the ‘victim’ not being able to ‘do it for themselves’… I think that this is something we should discuss when we get to the end of FTKNWTD, when Zizek talks about the ethics of the drive. But I agree that it does create a problem in Zizek’s Marxism. At least it creates a problem in terms of the agency of the revolutionary subject, I think.

  14. The Universal Singular said

    Maybe another (better) way of putting it is: Homo sacer is symptom, and Muselmann is sinthome.

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