- Todd McGowan, "The End of Dissatisfaction?: Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment"
Politicians and their Constitutive Lies
Despite the fact that their turn to political action stems only from a perceived threat to their imaginary enjoyment, the Michigan State students are at least able to conceive themselves as political beings and enter into a political arena (however isolated that arena might be). To most people, the very words "politics" and "politician" are the equivalent of obscenities, and conceiving of one=self in political terms is anathema. This increasingly popular attitude indicates the ease with which one can conceive oneself as detached from the political sphere, as a apolitical being. We avoid politics because we think we can - and because we see it as both an alien and alienating process. But the attempt to avoid alienation is really just an attempt to avoid the social order: any emergence of the subject in the social order is necessarily alienating, a process in which the subject gains a symbolic identity at the price of his or her being. According to Lacan's formulation in Seminar XI, "when the subject appears somewhere as meaning [ie, as a symbolic identity], he is manifested elsewhere as 'fading,' as disappearance." It is this experience of alienation that the word "politics" evokes today, and in this sense, animus towards "politics" or "politicians" is implicitly animus towards the very idea of a social order. To involve oneself in politics would be to tacitly accept the necessity of one's alienation - a prospect the contemporary subject would like to avoid at all costs, precisely because this alienation makes evident the failure of one's private, imaginary enjoyment. A sense of alienation indicates that the imaginary realm is symbolically mediated, and "politics," insofar as it is alienating, constantly reminds us of this mediation.
On one level, it is easy to see mass emnity towards politicians in populist terms, as the healthy expression of hatred on behalf of those ruled towards those who rule them. And perhaps, even as recently as twenty years ago, this was the case. Today, however, such a position is no longer tenable. Today we hate politicians not because they are representatives of the ruling class, but because they compromise - or to put it more clearly, because they lie. The lie of the politician is not, as we often see it, an indication of moral failure, but an act that inheres the very idea of social relations. In order to interact with each other socially, we must agree to keep up certain appearances, we must, in short, both accept and proffer widespread deceipt. Social existence demands, for instance, that we inquire politely after the health of people we don't really care about, that we refrain from telling colleagues what we really think of their work, and that we listen to friends with an attentive expression even when we are bored to tears. The continued existence of the social bond is itself deceipt par excellence. The social bond exists only because we collectively believe that it does, and yet it exists with the pretense of being substantive. This lie at the heart of the social bond is the fundamental constitutive lie, the basis for all the polite, social ties that follow from it.
Politicians must engage in this kind of lying all the time - speaking so as not to offend the Other - or else they would never get elected to any office. The politician's lie as such is not a manipulative lie, but a constitutive one, an indication that she/he respects - and is trying to answer - the desire of the Other. Though we might fantasize about a politician who actually tells the truth, such a phenomena is nonetheless structurally impossible: once someone is in the position of running for office, she/he is necessarily wholly invested in ther desire of the Other, so that even telling the truth from this position would be a form of constitutive lie...
...To refuse to accept the constitutive lie and to despise politicians for it is to disavow the power of the Other, insofar as the constitutive lie explicitly acknowledges the Other's hold over us. But this disavowal, like all disavowals, doesn't make that power go away. Historically, subjects have taken up these lies as a part of their social duty. Today, however, they occasion resentment in subjects, because in being forced to lie, we feel explicitly the demands of the Other - and we feel that we are betraying out private, imaginary enjoyment and thus betraying the imperative to enjoy. Which is not to say that we are experiencing an outbreak of mass truth-telling among contemporary subjects. Emnity for the constitutive, necessary lie is not emnity for all kinds of deceipt, just for the deceipt demanded by the social order. Many types of non-constitutive lies proliferate today and don't occasion the same kind of hostility as the politician's lie. Fabricating a background on a resume, cheating on an exam,, making up sources for a research project - none of these lies are forced upon us by the Other, and hence, they do not make apparent the Other's hold over us. When we lie in this way, we are, in a sense, being "true" to ourselves, insofar as we are advancing our own private interests, our private enjoyment. In contrast, the politician's lie represents a threat to this enjoyment, as it forcefully reminds us of our own castration - what we are accustomed to feeling and against which we recoil. When we recoil from the politician's constitutive lie and disavow it, we enact a disavowal of castration, and this disavowal becomes almost di rigueur in the society of commanded enjoyment.
This recoil from the constitutive lie is simply the manifestation of hostility towards the social order and its constitutive hold over us. Such hostility develops because we perceive the social order as a continued threat to our ability to sustain our private enjoyment, not because we are actually revolting against symbolic authority. What we fail to see - and what psycho-analyses takes pains to point out - is that no matter how private we feel this enjoyment to be, it is always located within the symbolic order. The social order is not the enemy of this imaginary enjoyment - nor is it threatened by it. What we imagine as our radicality is actually that which locates us firmly under the sway of symbolic authority. Our experience as subjects today is dramatically misleading: it prompt us to feel, almost inevitably, as if we are radical beings. The society of commanded enjoyment does offer us the opportunity to realize this feeling of radicality in action, though few of us actually do. Instead, we remain content with our isolated, private enjoyment and the image of radicality. But the isolation of private enjoyment and its seeming radicality are never as isolated and radical as all that. Recognizing this is the incipience of a politics with more at stake than my private enjoyment, because politics as such can only begin when we realize just how radical we aren't. The command to enjoy does open up this political possibility. However, we don't engage in a radical political activity as long as we remain confident that we are already radical. Instead, we retreat into apathy, and as we do, the public world erodes.