Love, Psychoanalysis, and Leftist Political Ontology, Part 1 (Daniel Tutt)

MusesThe following is the first installment of a two-part article by Daniel Tutt entitled “Love, Psychoanalysis, and Leftist Political Ontology.”  It has been published concurrently as part of an anthology entitled Sex and Nothing: Bridges from Psychoanalysis to Philosophy, edited by Alejandro Cerda-Rueda (New York: Karnac Books, 2016).


“Love may be a stumbling block for ethics, unless love simply puts ethics into question by imitating it.” – Maurice Blanchot[1]

In his essay, “Potentialities,” Giorgio Agamben divides philosophy into two lines, what he names the line of “transcendence” and the line of “immanence.” He writes of “a line of immanence (Spinoza, Deleuze, Foucault and Nietzsche) and a line of transcendence (Kant, Husserl, Levinas, Derrida).[2]

What characterizes each group are a common set of theoretical tendencies in how they theorize ontology, or being qua being. Procedures of division, antagonism, or contingency characterize the sphere of ontology in the camp of transcendence, and their concepts tend to rely upon a strong theory of the act/event. For the immanence camp, on the other hand, ontology has completely absorbed the sphere of the political and a rupture with ontology is typically rendered impossible. In the Empire series, Hardt and Negri are clearly working within the immanence camp.

For example, they conclude that ontology has absorbed the political completely; therefore, all that is political is also biopolitical.[3] Similarly, Agamben’s own political ontology has drawn out the consequences of this immanence-based orientation towards ontology as his thinking examines the subjective and juridical status of human life outside of the hegemonic juridical order. Yet for Agamben, homo sacer, or the excluded citizen, is both within and outside of the biopolitical order, inhabiting the threshold between bare life and socio-political life. Every effort to re-think this political space must come with a clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinctions between zoe and bios.

Agamben argues that we must think ontology and politics beyond any relation of difference, which is why he aims to think the political as a non-relation and goes even further than Heidegger in seeking a “new non-foundational and non-relational ontology.”[4] This makes a theory of the event nearly impossible in Agamben’s work, and this tendency is common amongst the immanence camp more generally.

A Theory of Transcendence: Leftist Political Ontology

Oliver Marchart and Carsten Strauthausen have named a certain post-Marxist strand of contemporary political ontology in continental thought ‘leftist ontology,’ a specific type of political ontology that has largely abandoned the Marxist idea of the “relative autonomy” of cultural politics (i.e. of thought) vis-à-vis the economy. Leftist political ontology in contemporary theory, “considers the potential productivity of thought to disrupt the status quo, including its economic structure.”[5] According to Frederic Jameson, leftist ontology “stops dialectics, embraces paradox, and ruptures thought.”[6] It inaugurates a different kind of thought on ontology because it thinks thought’s relation to being differently than the long line of left-Heideggerianism, and this difference implies a new and distinctive role for the foundation of the social domain and for the domain of the political.

This essay does not seek to provide an exhaustive account of leftist ontology; rather, it seeks to lay down the basic contours of its thought and its consequences for thinking politics and ontology. While leftist ontology is largely seeking a way out of Heideggerian ontological difference, it is important to sketch out the ways that the spheres of the “social”, “politics” and the “political” are developed in relation to ontology. In general, the social is thought as synonymous to the realm of politics in the “ontic” sense – consisting largely of a play of differences among finite beings.

One of the defining characteristics of leftist ontology is that thought can only occur if thought itself identifies substance rather than form, i.e. if thought identifies with and alters the ontological (the political) and not only the ontic (the social). The political is thus thought as the sphere of the ontological, similar to what Heidegger referred to as Beying, or a sphere where a deeper form of ontological rupture or change comes about. Thought, as such, now contains the capacity for thinking political change. Another way of stating this is that thought must act as a part of substance (the political/ontological) rather than try to merely reflect the social, which is defined as the “state of the situation” for Badiou, or what Ernesto Laclau simply refers to as the “social.”

Despite strong resistances to Heideggerian ontology, particularly in Badiou’s and Žižek’s work, it is still nonetheless helpful to frame the return to ontology in leftist ontology more broadly along the Heideggerian distinction between the ontological and the ontic. In this framework, the social is a neutralized sphere of being(s), where there exists, to use the metaphor of signifier relations, an inability of any master signifier to assume a quilting point. The relation between the ontic (social) and the ontological (political) can be thought using Saussure’s curve, which Lacan highlights in Seminar III on psychosis.

child-labour-children-slavery-demonstration-protestThe top curve consists of a flow of objects, feelings, crying, etc. what Lacan calls “thoughts,” while the bottom of the curve contains signifiers—each in isolation to one another and metonymically separate. For the psychotic, a quilting point, or a button tie between the two curves, or something that can produce meaning, occurs when there is a linkage between a signifier and a signified, but this never occurs and remains omitted in the field of psychosis. This same relation can be graphed onto the social and the political, wherein the social is a realm of pure signifiers in metonymic relation to one another, while the ontological is composed of pure affective, imaginary signified relations.

The signifier is what Lacan says “polarizes meanings, hooks onto them, groups them in bundles,”[7] and while a signifier polarizes meanings, it is also what creates meanings.[8] In leftist ontology, the social is a psychotic formation, stunted from achieving emancipatory potential, which is why a theory of transcendence, or thought as break and rupture is so central to thinking political ontology.

Love Beyond Tragedy: Towards a Humanized Political Love

How does psychoanalysis connect with the field leftist ontology? Where might psychoanalysis be aligned within the two lines of transcendence and immanence that Agamben sketches? When Lacan was asked whether psychoanalysis has an ontology, he responded that the unconscious has an ontological function, but he stated that, “the gap of the unconscious may be said to be pre-ontological.[9]

As Justin Clemens has persuasively argued, what psychoanalysis gives to the question of ontology is love, despite the well-known maxim that love is always giving what one does not have. While love is the central affect in psychoanalysis as it is what makes up the transference relation between the analyst and the analysand, there are two different types of love according to Lacan: love of eros and love at the site of the social bond. In his Group Psychology, Freud argues that it is the love for the father that sustains the social bond.

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen develops an important, albeit controversial, argument in The Freudian Subject that counters Freud’s central claim of love’s role at the site of the social bond. For Borch-Jacobsen, the social bond of love with the father leaves no room for thinking an egalitarian, or even an emancipatory social relation as he argues the father is in all cases reducible to a totalitarian leader. While he claims that Freud maintains a reliance on Oedipus and castration as a solution to the impasse of the violence inherent to every social bond, it is the very basis of Freud’s theory of desire—which he sees as mimetic and inherently narcissistic—that ends up demanding a totalitarian master or father to cement the social bond.

Putting Borch-Jacobsen’s critique to the side for a moment and turning to Lacan’s use of love, we find an all-together different set of theoretical approaches to the question of the social and the social bond. The argument in what follows is that Lacan’s theory of love places love as a solution to the problem of jouissance and to the break of ‘imaginary servitude that riddles political emancipation projects. The consequences of this are that psychoanalytic love is compatible to a theory of transcendence, where breaks, cuts and ruptures with ontology are central operations.

Nowhere is this use of love as a political operation more apparent in the work of post-Lacanian, or Lacanian influenced thinkers ‘love-as-transcendence’ in the thought of Žižek, Zupančič, Badiou and Nancy, a highly diverse set of thinkers who each share an important theoretical touchstone in Lacanian psychoanalysis such as Žižek, Zupančič, Badiou and Nancy. These highly diverse set of thinkers each share an important theoretical touchstone in Lacanian psychoanalysis, despite their theoretical differences and debates amongst one another. After developing a footing in leftist ontology and Lacan’s theory of love, we will turn to each of these thinkers to more closely examine how love is deployed in their thinking on the political and the question of the subject.

Whether Lacan’s teachings present us with a more radical politics of emancipation from capitalism is at best an ambiguity in his work, and at worst, political emancipation is a pessimistic position on the side of impossibility. In Television, Lacan famously said that to denounce capitalism, “I reinforce it—by normalizing it, that is, perfecting it.”[10] Lacan thus paints the revolutionary as a tragic heroine, who learns that “human jouissance depends on a transgressive movement that ultimately reaffirms the very laws, social norms, or taboos against which it is directed.”[11]

Lacan famously told the protestors, who crashed his seminars during the May 68 period, many of whom were asking for clarification on what he means by his theory of the ‘Name-of-the-Father; that they secretly desire a new master, despite their aversion to masters. There is a certain cliché of Lacan’s point as it pertains to the question of mastery, but it nonetheless presents us with the haunting question of whether all political emancipation is dependent on a master in order to facilitate a break, to pose a rupture with a social order, and to open a new space of desire.

As Peter Starr argues in his essay “The Tragic Ear of the Intellectual,” Lacan’s warning to the revolutionaries of May 68 indicates the revolutionary subject’s very inability to replace the master’s injunction. Starr comments that the “liberationist ideology” of the 68’ers “veils the master’s power, thereby fulfilling the foremost precondition to its continuing function as power.”[12] The problem Starr pinpoints in Lacan’s discussion of the master’s discourse is the way that, “the very intensity of the revolutionary desire that the rebel sends into the communal system comes to repeat itself, on the far side of the Other’s lack of response.”[13] The rebel or revolutionary shows a love for escaping the master’s discourse, but this love for an escape or rupture with the master’s discourse always goes to present the revolutionary with “the specular image of the rebel’s ego ideal.”[14]

As Starr points out:

The knowledge of a fully self-present and potentially consummate revolutionary moment, which the militant originally supposes of the Other, can only be a narcissistic illusion, an inverted reflection of the revolutionary’s ego ideal in the placid mirror of the subject presumed to know.[15]

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-black-white-vintage-suitcase-girl-railroadtracks-walking-1To return to the question of love, we find that love is what enters at the point of inevitable specular misrecognition to sever and break with this imaginary conflict. As Lacan comments: “psychoanalysis alone recognizes the knot of imaginary servitude that love must always untie anew or sever.”[16] In his later work when the category of pleasure and jouissance become more and more prevalent, love is an affect capable of humanizing an otherwise monstrous jouissance, and I argue that this humanization of love is what enables psychoanalysis to think politics outside of the tragic key.

What interests us in this context is how a ‘humanized love’ is related to leftist ontology, specifically in the line of transcendence as we have outlined it above. The first indication of Lacan’s use of love beyond tragedy comes about in Seminar VIII on transference, where he claims that love makes the Real of desire accessible without its tragic dimension. This transition is evident in the turn from ethics to love in Seminar VII on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis in 1965, to Seminar VIII in 1966 on transference love. As Zupančič has pointed out, Lacan’s ontological theory of jouissance during the ethics seminar, results in a “heroism of lack” paradigm, wherein all objects lack and “reality is constituted based on a lack in the Real.[17]

Politics is tragic for a would-be revolutionary because to follow the maxim from the ethics seminar, “do not compromise on your desire” the result is self-defeat and tragedy. However, if we add the condition of love to this situation, the subject’s relation to desire and to jouissance is transformed. Because jouissance in this tragic mode always relegates the Other to the Real, the Other materializes its presence as an excess. Thus, to renounce jouissance, there is always some surplus enjoyment left over and this means that every resistance to power will thus always result in both subjectivation and de-subjectivation, since some remainder of the primordial lie (of desire) always clouds the scene of action (the ethical).

But in the second period of Lacan’s ontology, he formulates jouissance as that which subtracts from lack, which is what the concept of the drive is aiming at.[18] Pure desire, or monstrous jouissance, what Freud calls the das Ding (the Thing) is found at the end of the metonymic chain of desire—always pushed to a “that’s not it.” To think the final “that’s not it” would be to think the abolishment of the cause of desire itself. In this second period, Lacan’s maxim, “do not compromise on your desire” is achieved by sacrificing the cause of one’s desire itself. This moment of pure desire occurs in the frame of the subject’s fundamental fantasy, and it occurs as a psychoanalytic act on the side of drive.[19]

When Lacan writes in the unpublished seminar Angoisse, “only love-sublimation makes it possible to humanize jouissance[20]” we should immediately note how different this version of sublimation is from the type of sublimation he speaks about in the Seminar VII on ethics, which is tied to sublimation as a raising of the object to the dignity of the Thing. This earlier type of sublimation is based on the model of elevation of the idealized object. Love-sublimation, on the other hand, makes it possible for jouissance to condescend to desire.

This is a type of sublimation that “humanizes jouissance” as Lacan states,[21] and this capacity for love to humanize jouissance means that there is a split at the heart of love, similar to comedy. The split inherent to love – and what makes it such an interesting ethico-political category – is its capacity to both rupture the subject in the Real, while also maintaining a rapport with the most banal object in the Other. The Other is sustained in love while the Real is touched, but this touch [tuché] does not result in a thrown out of jointness of the subject, as we find in the ethics seminar. Love is no longer on the side of the impossible desire that one must follow into the depths of the unknown as we find in the Greek models of Antigone and Oedipus, but is now, because of love, the site of work and of struggle.

In this context, it’s helpful to distinguish desire from love, and what better way to frame the difference than with reference to Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 1.13.29 PMPlato’s metaphor of love in the Symposium. Plato’s short fable imagines a hand reaching out to clutch a rose, wherein the rose represents beauty and the desired outcome of reaching out for the rose is that the hand receives the rose in an embrace, and thus attain the object of desire. But imagine that instead of the clutch-taking place, what actually takes place is that the rose reaches back to the hand that reaches for it and embraces the hand in another type of embrace than the one desired. It is this alternative embrace that produces love for Plato. The lesson is clear: love is not achieved when the hand that reaches for the beautiful rose meets the rose itself, for this would be desire.

Love occurs when the hand that reaches for the beautiful rose experiences a second hand –from the rose itself – that reaches back to it and grasps it. In this fable, love does not elevate the One of desire, which would have been the outcome of the unity of the object of desire with that of the desiring subject wishing to obtain it. Love is rather that which gives the subject a rapport with desire. If the rose was obtained it would not satisfy desire, as desire always slips away into the metonymic chain, where it can never be pinned down, and is in a continual relation of “that’s not it.”

Desire is always a desire of the Other, making its object un-obtainable in a way different than that of love. Love is of the Two precisely because it sustains desire, and gives the subject a link to their desire. This is why love is such a crucial affect for working through Lacan’s ethical maxim, “do not compromise on your desire” as it enables a proximity to the das Ding of desire—that monstrous desire where the Other (the Neighbor) resides.

Daniel Tutt is a philosopher, filmmaker and interfaith activist. Daniel received his Ph.D. from the European Graduate School in August 2014, where he studied continental philosophy, media studies, and psychoanalysis. His dissertation invokes the concept of community in contemporary continental philosophy through a comparative analysis of four influential thinkers including Alain Badiou (advisor and chair of dissertation), Slavoj Žižek, Ernesto Laclau and Jean-Luc Nancy. He is the Director and Co-Producer of a documentary film in the making entitled “Insurrections” that explores the role of philosophy and thinking since the period of intensified rioting and protests beginning in August of 2010 in London and then continuing to Arab regions, before igniting in the Occupy Wall Street movements globally. The film will feature interviews with important thinkers in philosophy today, including Jodi Dean, Alain Badiou, Cornel West and Farhang Erfani. It will additionally interview leading activists from different parts of the world who played prominent roles in insurrections.


[1]  Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. by Pierre Joris (Barrytown: NY, Station Hill Press, 1988), 40.

[2]  Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 23.

[3] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 2000, 26.

[4] Carsten Strauthausen, “Neo-Left Ontology”, Postmodern Culture 16 (2006): 3, 22.

[5] Ibid, 12.

[6] Ibid, 15.

[7] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Psychoses Vol. Book III (Bk. 3), trans. by Russell Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 291

[8] Ibid, 292.

[9] Jacques Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.), 1981, 30

[10] Jacques Lacan, Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment (Boston MA: MIT Press), 13-14.

[11] Peter Starr, Logic of Failed Revolts: French Theory After May 68 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 57.

[12] Ibid, 57

[13] Ibid, 58

[14] Ibid, 59

[15] Ibid, 59

[16] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. by Bruce Fink, New York (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.), 1999, 81.

[17] Alenka Zupančič,  Ethics of the Real (New York:: Verso, 2008), 241.

[18] Ibid, 242.

[19] Ibid, 244-245.

[20] Jacques Lacan, L’Angoisse, unpublished seminar, lecture from May 13, 1963.

[21] Alenka Zupančič, “Investigations of the Lacanian Field”,  Polygraph: An International Journal of Culture and Politics 17, 140.

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