A “Review” of Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire
This blog post consists of a “review” of Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Costs of Free Markets (2016). I put “review” in scare quotes because it’s not a typical review at all. The “review” is really just my attempt to flesh out the overarching argument of the book. McGowan’s argument relies on a key distinction made by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. What I’ll be doing here is attempting to articulate McGowan’s main argument in a way that he himself doesn’t, which I hope will only reinforce its claims. The “review” is simply my way of getting at the heart of Capitalism and Desire. My own work is based in Lacanian theory, but Lacanian theory is, for me, a combination of the work of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek and Todd McGowan, so my hope is that this post will bring McGowan’s work to the attention of my readers who have not yet heard of it but who also are interested in psychoanalysis and capitalism. In my opinion, Capitalism and Desire is a true classic and easily one of the very best examples of applying psychoanalysis to capitalist society.
In Capitalism and Desire, Todd McGowan explores the ways in which capitalism exploits the structures of human desire in order to reproduce itself, that is, the mechanisms through which capitalism hijacks our desire so as to make us desire the capitalist system itself. The perspective from which McGowan’s analysis takes place is that of Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis mixed with Hegelian philosophy (McGowan’s work has been greatly influenced by that of the Lacanian-Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Žižek). McGowan’s psychoanalytic investigation into the relation between capitalism and desire leads to discussions of injustice, repression, subjectivity, privacy, the gaze, sacrifice, God, freedom, infinity, teleology, love and romance, abundance and scarcity, the sublime, enjoyment, etc. Simply put, Capitalism and Desire is an odyssey into the complex libidinal dynamics at work in societies ruled by free markets and capital accumulation. If capitalism is the Inferno and if the reader (desire itself) is Dante, then McGowan is Virgil leading the way through this libidinal hellscape all while making sense of it and pointing out the many tricks it plays on us along the way.
McGowan’s main thesis in the book is that there is a certain homology (likeness in structure) between capitalism and human desire. In other words, there is a compatibility between the two. Now, we must be very precise here! McGowan is not saying that capitalism is absolutely inevitable due to its affinity to human nature, which is an argument many defenders of capitalism try to make. The standard version of this argument is based on the concept of homo economicus (“economic man”), which holds that human beings are essentially rational agents who are always in pursuit of what’s in their self-interest, i.e., the satisfaction of basic needs. McGowan does not celebrate capitalism nor does he accept this particular concept of the human being. Rather, McGowan will argue for the “unnaturalness” of the capitalist system as well as argue that there is a lot of ideology at the heart of the relation between capitalism and desire. As McGowan puts it:
Despite appearances, capitalism is not the result of human nature. The system’s apologists who insist on this point do so in order to sustain an aura of inevitability around it. But nonetheless, beyond the bare socio-economic agenda of its proponents, we can understand why this association arises. Associating capitalism with human nature is an ideological gesture, but the feeling that capitalism fits our mode of desiring is not wholly ideological. Capitalism’s emergence and its psychic appeal are related to the nature of human subjectivity, though this subjectivity is itself unnatural, a function not of natural processes but of a disjunction from the natural world. Capitalism succeeds as it does by playing into the alienation from nature that occurs through signification. Though the development of capitalism was not necessary — one can imagine a world in which it didn’t emerge — one can nonetheless understand its rise and staying power in terms of the structure of the psyche. We are, one might say, psychically disposed to invest ourselves in the capitalist system. Capitalism succeeds because it capitalizes on our status as unnatural beings.
If humans were simply instinctual animals, capitalism would neither develop nor take a psychic hold on us. It is not just by accident that there is no capitalist system flourishing in the animal world. In this sense, the claim of a link between capitalism and human nature should be rejected out of hand. Capitalism’s appeal is inextricable from the emergence of the signifier and the transformation that this emergence effects on speaking beings. The passion that subjects exhibit for capitalism derives from the break from nature that occurs when subjects begin to speak. Through this break, natural human needs undergo a complete transformation and become susceptible to the allure of accumulation and of the commodity that capitalism will bring to the fore. We aren’t capitalists because we are animalistic but because we are fundamentally removed from our animality. The commodity does not fulfill a natural need but a desire distorted by the signifier, a desire that emerges through the signifier’s distortion of animality. There are thus no prototypical capitalist structures in the animal world. It is language that gives birth to the possibility of this economic form. The exploration of capitalism must first and foremost be an exploration of what occurs with the introduction of the signifier.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 22–3)
The immediate questions that spring to mind are these two: (1) how does language or the “introduction of the signifier” structure desire? (2) why is linguistically-structured desire susceptible to capitalism? Language structures desire insofar as signifiers (words) flood human experience with absence. A word stands in for a thing or makes the thing present in its very absence, which means we become capable of desiring the thing even when it is not directly in front of us. The representational mechanism of the signifier introduces present-absences into our experience and these lost objects become the source of desire itself. Also, and just as importantly, the meaning (signification) of signifiers always depends on how they refer to other signifiers. To know what the signifier “tree” means necessitates knowing what “plant”, “leaves”, “bark”, “branches”, “roots”, “wood”, etc., also mean. Just as signification skips from one signifier to another, so, too, does desire skip from object to object in search of ultimate enjoyment. Desire’s process of skipping from one object to the next is called “metonymy” by Lacan (for more on this see my blog post ‘Theory of Desire: Jacques Lacan and Squid Game’). The metonymy of desire is exploited by capitalism through all of the commodities it dangles in front of the subject. Capitalism uses the metonymic structure of desire to get us to keep on buying more commodities, which, of course, aids the system in accumulating capital. McGowan is concerned with how we can free ourselves from this situation.
Before moving on, and for the sake of clarification, I want to take a look at how Žižek summarized the main thesis of Capitalism and Desire. Here it is:
Why does capitalism exert such ideological fascination? Why does it appear to many people as the social order that best fits human nature? Even many leftists privately admit that capitalism is the only thing that really works, and resign themselves to a more welfare-and-human-rights oriented capitalism, abandoning “full” socialism as an unworkable utopia . . . Todd MacGowan provided a Lacanian explanation of the resiliency of capitalism, boldly admitting that, in some (very qualified) sense capitalism effectively does fit “human nature.” In contrast to premodern social orders which obfuscate the paradox of human desire and presume that desire is structured in a straightforward teleological way (we humans strive towards some ultimate goal, be it happiness or another kind of material or spiritual fulfilment, and aim at finding peace and satisfaction in its achievement), capitalism is the first and only social order that incorporates into its functioning the basic paradox of human desire. This paradox concerns the functioning of surplus in our libidinal economy: whatever we achieve is never “that,” we always want something else and more, and the ultimate aim of our desire is not to achieve some ultimate goal but to reproduce its own endless self-reproduction in an ever expanded form. This is why the imbalance of the system defines capitalism: capitalism can only thrive through its own constant self-undermining and revolutionizing. The paradox is that, because we desire the surplus that eludes every object, our very orientation towards pleasure and satisfaction compels us to permanently sacrifice available satisfactions on behalf of satisfactions to come — in capitalism, hedonism and asceticism coincide — or, to quote the concise recapitulation from the cover of MacGowan’s book:
Capitalism hides sacrifice and thus enables us to find our satisfaction in it without ever avowing the link between sacrifice and satisfaction. All satisfaction depends on some form of sacrifice — of time, of resources, of utility, and so on — but capitalism disguises sacrifice as self-interest, which enables capitalist subjects to engage in satisfying sacrifices while believing that they are just pursuing their self-interest.
What capitalism mobilizes and simultaneously obfuscates is that the ultimate source of pleasure is sacrifice itself: capitalism obfuscates this paradox by permanently dangling before our (producer’s and consumer’s) eyes the deceitful promise of future satisfaction. In short, instead of admitting that the promise of future satisfaction is just an illusory ploy to justify the present sacrifice and renunciations, capitalism turns things around and presents sacrifices and renunciations as means to achieve future satisfaction. Once this devilish logic of surplus is directly mobilized, there is no return to pre-capitalist balance — as Marx already saw clearly, liberation is possible only through capitalism. But what kind of liberation? One has to reject the dream of a different new libidinal economy outside the paradoxes of sacrifice and surplus, this secret dream of most socialist and other radical utopias. The paradoxical structure of human desire is a kind of a priori: we cannot step out of it and (re)establish some new balanced universe in which we will not be fixated on a surplus, but just work for our satisfactions.
(Hegel in a Wired Brain, pp. 154–5)
Žižek nicely articulates the main thrust of McGowan’s argument, which holds that capitalism takes advantage of how human beings derive enjoyment from sacrifice and loss (how we enjoy not getting enjoyment). This libidinal logic is what I want to explore in the rest of this post. But, before moving on, I just have to point something out. Did you notice that Žižek misspelled McGowan’s name as “MacGowan”? Well, there’s a funny little story behind this that McGowan shared with me in personal correspondence. McGowan and Žižek have been friends for around three decades, so Žižek knows damn well how to spell “McGowan” properly. In fact, Žižek was alerted by Russell Sbriglia (a fellow colleague of both McGowan and Žižek) that he had Todd’s name misspelled in the draft of the book, but still Žižek opted to leave it misspelled as “MacGowan”. And it can’t be a typo, since the name is misspelled like that every time it appears in Hegel in a Wired Brain. This is just a thing with Žižek, since he also used to misspell “Todd” as “Tod”. I found there to be a strange humor in this scenario, so I decided to turn it into a joke for Todd, since I know how much he loves philosophical and psychoanalytic jokes. Want to hear the joke? Ok, here goes: Why does Slavoj Žižek purposely misspell Todd McGowan’s last name as “MacGowan”? Because Žižek really has a thing for that little “a”. Hey, Todd, cue the laugh track. Alright, let’s move on.
This McGowanian adventure through the connections between capitalism and desire relies heavily on Lacan’s concept of jouissance, which McGowan refers to as “satisfaction” or “enjoyment”. Lacan opposes jouissance to pleasure and this distinction is utterly crucial to grasp if one is to follow McGowan’s line of thought. Pleasure is the lack of excitation, whereas jouissance is excessive excitation. Pleasure operates according to the pleasure principle, which seeks to expel excitement, tension, stimulation, friction, etc., from the body and restore it to a state of homeostasis (equilibrium, calmness, tensionlessness) in the name of self-interest. Jouissance, on the other hand, is that which is beyond the pleasure principle and operates in accordance with the death drive (the compulsion to repeat). Jouissance is the excess or surplus of enjoyment we get from sacrificing our pleasure and undermining our self-interest through self-destructive behavior — to enjoy self-destruction is to enjoy various forms of loss. Žižek writes, “The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never “just life”: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things” (Less Than Nothing, p. 499). The human being is forever caught within the friction between the pleasure principle (pleasure) and death drive (jouissance). (See my blog post ‘Enjoy Your Pandemic!: Lacan, Žižek and Coronavirus’ for a more detailed discussion of this distinction.) As McGowan explains:
Freud first conceives of the appeal of loss in response to his observation of self-destructive actions that appear to violate the pleasure principle. It is the penchant for self-sabotage and self-destruction that leads Freud to speculate about the existence of a death drive that aims at a return to an inorganic state. But we don’t have to indulge in this type of hypothesis if we recognize the constitutive role that loss plays in the subject’s satisfaction. Without the lost object, the subject would lose what animates it and the source of its enjoyment. The act of self-sabotage, even though it detracts from the subject’s pleasure, enables the subject to continue to satisfy itself. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud theorizes that the negative therapeutic reaction that subverts the psychoanalytic cure is not just the product of resistances. The subject does not want to be cured because it associates healing with the loss of its foundational loss, a prospect much more horrifying that the pain of the neurosis.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 32)
According to McGowan, capitalism does not repress desire and enjoyment (as many leftist thinkers have claimed), but, rather, facilitates both of them. Put differently, he argues that we are both satisfied and unsatisfied by capitalism. But if what we desire is enjoyment and if the desire for enjoyment is the same as the lack of enjoyment, then how can we possibly have both at the same time? This depends on the concept of fetishist disavowal as well as the distinction between desire and drive. Fetishist disavowal involves a split or division in how the subject relates itself to certain libidinally invested objects. In the case of the capitalist subject, the fetishist disavowal works like this: “I know very well that I have enjoyment, but, still, I will continue to act as though I do not”. The way to square this circle is with the distinction between the partial (actual-possible) jouissance of drive and the whole (virtual-impossible) jouissance of fantasy. Capitalism seduces us into acting as though fantasmatic jouissance is the only jouissance worthy of the name, which amounts to saying that the actual enjoyment we do have is not real enjoyment — it’s not the Real Thing (absolutely pure, concentrated and uncompromised enjoyment). Here’s how Žižek describes the difference between desire and drive:
With regard to satisfaction, this does not mean that, in contrast to desire which is constitutively non-satisfied, the drive achieves satisfaction by way of reaching the object which eludes desire. True, in contrast to desire, the drive is by definition satisfied, but this is because, in it, satisfaction is achieved in the repeated failure to reach the object, in repeatedly circling around the object.
(Less Than Nothing, p. 496)
The basic idea here is that fantasy shapes desire and convinces it that there is a perfectly sublime type of enjoyment that is inaccessible in the subject’s day-to-day life. These fantasmatic depictions of idealized enjoyment make our actual, everyday forms of enjoyment appear to be unsatisfying, banal, bland, dull, etc., when, in truth, they’re the only types of enjoyment that are possible for us to enjoy. As Lacan said, “In any case, if I refer to the drive, it is insofar as it is at the level of the drive that the state of satisfaction is to be rectified” (Seminar XI, p. 166). Fantasmatic enjoyment promises to fill us with a paradoxical enjoyment: on the one hand, it is extremely intensive and overwhelming, that is, it’s an enjoyment so intense that it destroys the subject, but, on the other hand, it fills the subject with profound peace, completion, tranquility and an even greater sense of its own singularity. This sublime enjoyment both annihilates the subject while also singularizing it, but the problem, of course, is that this whole enjoyment does not exist. The everyday jouissance of the drive pales in comparison to the perfect enjoyment concocted by the images of our fantasy-space, but it’s also the concrete enjoyment we have that actually sustains our lives and gives us our concrete singularity. You have to lose your “unsatisfying” forms of partial enjoyment in order to find out just how truly satisfying they were all along.
And yet another way to explain the difference between desire and drive is by seeing how desire holds out the hope (fantasy) of actually attaining the impossible object of sublime enjoyment, whereas drive gets actual enjoyment from desire not getting what it wants. Here we arrive at the concept of death drive and, for Lacan, “every drive is virtually a death drive” (Écrits, ‘Position of the Unconscious’, p. 848). The enjoyment of the drive is gained from enjoying what we don’t have (this is the title of another of McGowan’s books). This is precisely where things get so counterintuitive. One of our most fundamental presuppositions is that we enjoy what we have, for example, the commodities we accumulate, but Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis shows us that our actual enjoyment is located in loss, absence, sacrifice, self-sabotage, failure, deferral, obstruction, prevention, unattainability, and so on. We enjoy the obstacles of enjoyment. Žižek describes the jouissance (satisfaction) of the drive this way:
This is what Lacan means by the “satisfaction of the drives”: a drive does not bring satisfaction because its object is a stand-in for the Thing, but because a drive, as it were, turns failure into triumph — in it, the very failure to reach its goal, the repetition of this failure, the endless circulation around the object, generates a satisfaction of its own. To put it even more pointedly, the object of the drive is not related to the Thing as a filler of its void: the drive is literally a counter-movement to desire, it does not strive towards impossible fullness and then, being forced to renounce it, get stuck onto a partial object as its remainder — the drive is quite literally the very “drive” to break the All of continuity in which we are embedded, to introduce a radical imbalance into it, and the difference between drive and desire is precisely that, in desire, this cut, this fixation onto a partial object, is as it were “transcendentalized,” transposed into a stand in for the void of the Thing.
(Less Than Nothing, p. 498)
Death drive is the enjoyment we get from self-sabotaging our pleasure (wellbeing, homeostasis, stability, security). Death drive basically refers to the enjoyment human beings get from acting against their own self-interest. It’s the tendency in us that gets intense excitement from self-destruction, from giving ourselves too much trouble, from stirring up drama, from putting obstacles in our own paths, etc. This concept was first develop by Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (death drive itself is what operates beyond the pleasure principle) and later refined by Jacques Lacan in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis and Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. This concept has been greatly fleshed out in the many works of Žižek and McGowan.
We tell ourselves that we desire x, y and z. We tell ourselves that our future happiness depends on the eventual possession of these things. However, the disturbing truth is that our enjoyment has it source in the ways we unconsciously prevent ourselves from attaining these fantasmatic states of affairs. This is why Lacan said, “This satisfaction is paradoxical” (Seminar XI, p. 166). Simply put, we enjoy our failures to realize our desire, i.e., attain enjoyment (this is why Lacan often referred to death drive as “primary masochism”). Put differently, we enjoy the ways we fail to get the object we desire.
Lacan made a distinction between the goal of the drive and the aim of the drive. This distinction plays off of the two meanings of the French word “but”. Lacan says, “When you entrust someone with a mission, the aim is not what he brings back, but the itinerary he must take. The aim is the way taken. The French word but maybe translated by another word in English, goal. In archery, the goal is not the but either, it is not the bird you shot, it is having scored a hit and thereby attained your but” (Seminar XI, p. 179). The goal is to get the object, but the aim is to repeatedly miss the object so as to get enjoyment from this failure itself. The goal (but) of archery is to be successful in scoring a good hit, but the aim (but) is all of those failed attempts to do so, all of those ways the archer goes about not hitting the target. In other words, the partial enjoyment is found in simply drawing the bow and letting go (“the way taken”) and not in the hit itself. But McGowan takes this insight and develops it:
The satisfaction of the subject derives from the path that it takes. But what Lacan fails to add here is that this path necessarily involves an encounter with loss: rather than seeking out its object, the subject finds ways to miss it and to ensure that it remains lost. The lost object is constitutively lost, and the satisfaction that it offers depends on it remaining so. The subject has no hope that it might attain its lost object, which is why psychoanalysis must refrain from describing the infant’s satisfying relationship with the mother’s breast prohibited by the father. It is only in retrospect (or from the perspective of an observer) that this relationship appears perfectly satisfying.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 31)
Žižek also agrees with McGowan on this point, “This brings us to the Freudian drive, whose true aim is not its goal (object), but the repeated attempt to reach it (for example, what brings satisfaction in the oral drive is not its object [milk], but the repeated act of sucking). We can thus conceive curvature, its circular movement, as ontologically secondary, as a way of turning the failure of desire into success” (Less Than Nothing, p. 376). This distinction between the drive’s goal and the drive’s aim, which is very much aligned to the distinction between desire and drive, is really just one way among many to understand Lacan’s concept of the split or divided subject. Lacan put it like this in his discussion of drive:
All those here who are psycho-analysts must now feel to what extent I am introducing here the most essential level of accommodation. It is clear that those with whom we deal, the patients, are not satisfied, as one says, with what they are. And yet, we know that everything they are, everything they experience, even their symptoms, involves satisfaction. They satisfy something that no doubt runs counter to that with which they might be satisfied, or rather, perhaps, they give satisfaction to something. They are not content with their state, but all the same, being in a state that gives so little content, they are content.
(Seminar XI, p. 166)
Lacan goes on to refer to this sort of satisfaction (jouissance) as too much trouble. His point is that jouissance is gained through giving ourselves too much trouble or through the “ways of displeasure”, i.e., by making things harder on ourselves, through overly complicating things, by unconsciously putting obstacles in our own way that block immediate access to the object, etc. Psychoanalysis reveals how human beings get satisfaction from their dissatisfaction or, as Lacan put it, “We know that the forms of arrangement that exist between what works well and what works badly constitute a continuous series” (Seminar XI, p. 166). To combine the words of Lacan and McGowan, the circuit of the drive is the paradox of enjoying (“what works well”) what we don’t have (“what works badly”) — this is the paradox of gaining satisfaction from dissatisfaction. Lacan, then, claims that the intervention of psychoanalysis only seeks to shorten the circuit of the drive, that is, to help the subject gain jouissance without giving itself so much trouble.
This libidinal paradox of the indirect enjoyment (satisfaction) we get from not getting direct enjoyment (dissatisfaction), the paradox of libidinal success in libidinal failure, is what Lacan meant by the term “surplus-enjoyment”, which is a concept he developed in Seminar XVI and was inspired by Marx’s concept of surplus-value. However, the way surplus-enjoyment actually works remains unconscious for the subject, i.e., we do not consciously understand how our own enjoyment works. While McGowan does not explicitly mention surplus-enjoyment in Capitalism and Desire, it is always operating in the background of his analyses.
Every subject of the signifier endures loss. This is the primary fact of subjectivity. But the tragic nature of subjectivity leads the subject to misrecognize how it obtains satisfaction. The subject’s devotion to loss remains necessarily unconscious as it consciously strives to win. Though the subject attains its satisfaction from the absence of the object, it nonetheless consciously associates satisfaction with the object’s presence. For this reason, the subject fails to recognize its own satisfaction and believes itself dissatisfied, but this dissatisfaction feeds on hope for a future success. Though the disappointments pile up, the subject who fantasizes about ultimately obtaining its object continues to look toward the next object as potentially being the one. The subject can keep up its hopefulness only by forgetting the series of disappointments that its previous acquisitions of the object have produced.
The subject moves from object to object in order to avoid confronting the fact that it misses the same lost object again and again. The perpetual movement of desire obscures its rootedness in missing the object rather than obtaining it. The subject fails to see that the object is satisfying as an object and not as a possible possession. When the subject invests itself in the fantasy of obtaining the object, it avoids the monotony of the subject’s form of satisfaction. One has dissatisfaction, but one also has a variety of objects that one desires with the promise of a future satisfaction. This future satisfaction never comes, and obtaining objects brings with it an inevitable disappointment. One thought that one was obtaining the impossible lost object, but one ends up with just an ordinary empirical object that pales in comparison. I believed that the piece of chocolate cake that I just ate embodied the lost object itself before I ate it, but after having done so I realize its underwhelming ordinariness.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 32–3)
Žižek points out that the paradoxical surplus-enjoyment produced through the friction of desire and drive makes it both impossible and unavoidable to enjoy. The whole jouissance of desire/fantasy is impossible but the partial jouissance of the drive is unavoidable, which amounts to saying that we both have an excess of enjoyment and no enjoyment at all.
Consequently, this something is not simply a remainder of the pre-symbolic Real that resists symbolic negation, but a spectral X called by Lacan the objet a or surplus-enjoyment. Here Lacan’s key distinction between pleasure (Lust, plaisir) and enjoyment (Geniessen, jouissance) comes into play: what is “beyond the pleasure principle” is enjoyment itself, the drive as such. The basic paradox of jouissance is that it is both impossible and unavoidable: it is never fully achieved, always missed, but, simultaneously, we never can get rid of it — every renunciation of enjoyment generates an enjoyment in renunciation, every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle, and so on. This reversal provides the minimal definition of surplus-enjoyment: it involves a paradoxical “pleasure in pain.” That is to say, when Lacan uses the term plus-de-jouir, one has to ask another naïve but crucial question: in what does this surplus consist? Is it merely a qualitative increase of ordinary pleasure? The ambiguity of the French expression is decisive here: it can mean “surplus of enjoyment” as well as “no enjoyment” — the surplus of enjoyment over mere pleasure is generated by the presence of the very opposite of pleasure, namely pain; it is the part of jouissance which resists being contained by homeostasis, by the pleasure-principle; it is the excess of pleasure produced by “repression” itself, which is why we lose it if we abolish repression.
(Less Than Nothing, pp. 307–8)
It’s important to see that the drive is an aspect of subjectivity that the subject itself cannot bring itself to identify with. Lacan was quick to stress this point by saying, “All I am doing here is putting into words, with a bit more rigor to bring out the paradox, the fact that the drives and the ego are in conflict and that there is a choice that has to be made” (Seminar III, p. 93). The drive has a mind of its own, that is, it’s like some alien force operating inside you against your (conscious) will. For example, think of the little creature that bursts out of human chests in the Alien films. Of course, the psychoanalytic insight is that this foreign externality is actually the core of subjectivity. This paradoxical figure of the not-me-that-is-me is what Lacan called extimacy (external intimacy). The drive is the me-in-me-that-is-more-me-than-me. Here’s how Žižek clarifies this point:
Such an ecstatic surrender to obscene jouissance in all its stupidity entangles the subject into what Lacan, following Freud, calls drive; perhaps its paradigmatic expressions are the repulsive private rituals (sniffing one’s own sweat, sticking one’s finger into one’s nose, etc.) that bring intense satisfaction without our being aware of it — or, insofar as we are aware of it, without our being able to do anything to prevent it. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes, an impoverished young woman puts on a pair of magical shoes and almost dies when her feet won’t stop dancing. She is only saved when an executioner cuts off her feet with his axe. Her still-shod feet dance on, whereas she is given wooden feet and finds peace in religion. These shoes stand for drive at its purest: an ‘undead’ partial object that functions as a kind of impersonal willing — ‘it wants,’ it persists in its repetitive movement (of dancing), it follows its path and exacts its satisfaction at any price, irrespective of the subject’s well-being. This drive is that which is ‘in the subject more than itself’: although the subject cannot ever subjectivize it, assume it as its own by way of saying ‘It is I who want to do this,’ it nonetheless operates in its very kernel.
(Event, p. 131)
In Seminar XI, Lacan argued that the drive is “acephalous” or “headless”. As he said, “This articulation leads us to make of the manifestation of the drive the mode of a headless subject” (Seminar XI, p. 181). He goes on to say, “The object of the drive is to be situated at the level of what I have metaphorically called a headless subjectification, a subjectification without subject” (Seminar XI, p. 184). What he meant is that our drives operate independently from our consciousness. The drive is neither the ego nor the desiring subject proper, but, rather, a kind of pure “subject” within subjectivity. In other words, the drive has both a mind and a life of its own, but is also the hard kernel of subjectivity itself. The drive is, therefore, our extimate (external-intimate) being. Žižek says, “The subject which emerges in and through this experience of terror is ultimately cogito itself, the abyss of self-relating negativity that forms the core of transcendental subjectivity, the acephalous subject of (the death-)drive. It is the properly in-human subject” (Sex and the Failed Absolute, p. 154). We like to think of ourselves as masters in our own house (controllers of our own subjectivities), but, in truth, we are always being unconsciously carried through life on the backs of our drives. In truth, the dancer is her red shoes.
Lacan proceeds to make a rather strange claim: he asserts that the drive is a montage. He says, “The drive is precisely that montage by which sexuality participates in the psychical life” (Seminar XI, p. 176). I know, I know! What the hell could this possibly mean? Well, the idea is that death drive assembles various forms of partial enjoyment into a single apparatus of enjoyment. If you Google “montage”, then it brings up definitions such as “the process or technique of selecting, editing, and piecing together separate sections of film to form a continuous whole”. For our purposes, we can rewrite this definition in the following way: drive is “the process or technique of selecting, editing, and piecing together separate forms of partial jouissance to form a continuous whole”. First off, we must not confuse this “continuous whole” with the whole enjoyment of fantasy. This “whole” is merely the montage (combination, selection, editing together) of partial enjoyments, which, as a “whole”, is still only a partial enjoyment. Lacan actually provides us with an example to illustrate his point:
The montage of the drive is a montage which, first, is presented as having neither head nor tail — in the sense in which one speaks of montage in a surrealist collage. If we bring together the paradoxes that we just defined at the level of Drang, at that of the object, at that of the aim of the drive, I think that the resulting image would show the working of a dynamo connected up to a gas-tap, a peacock’s feather emerges, and tickles the belly of a pretty woman, who is just lying there looking beautiful. Indeed, the thing begins to become interesting from this very fact, that the drive defines, according to Freud, all the forms of which one may reverse such a mechanism. This does not mean that one turns the dynamo upside-down — one unrolls its wires, it is they that become the peacock’s feather, the gas-tap goes into the lady’s mouth, and the bird’s rump emerges in the middle.
(Seminar XI, p. 169)
Obviously, this paragraph is very difficult to comprehend, so I’m going to unpack it so as to make clear the point Lacan is trying to convey. To say that the drive is a montage is to say that the drive is made up of all kinds of disparate elements that have no discernible affinity towards each other. In other words, the drive is comprised of a bunch of random and fragmentary elements that do not go together at all. Lacan is describing the drive as a very strange sort of apparatus and one comprised of very heterogenous factors. This is why he likens it to a “surrealist” collage. Surrealism in general always combined objects and events that had no logical relations to one another. Luis Buñuel’s short surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929) is very much a montage of sequences that make no sense. The film starts with a guy slicing a woman’s eye with a straight razor, then ants are crawling out of a hand, then a woman pokes at a severed hand with a stick, then a guy rubs a woman’s breasts that transform into butt cheeks then back into breasts again, then he pulls two pianos with dead donkeys on them across an apartment, etc. You get the point.
A “dynamo” is a electrical generator, i.e., a device that produces electricity. Just as the parts of a dynamo produce electricity, so, too, do the components of a drive produce jouissance (electricity and jouissance can both be said to be types of energy). The dynamo is connected up to a gas-tap (gas valve), which causes a peacock’s feather to tickle a woman’s belly. The point is that the various parts of this apparatus all work together to give the woman a certain sensation (her jouissance). This is all nonsensical insofar as nothing about the combination of these components (dynamo, gas-tap, peacock feather) immediately suggests that they would provide enjoyment when assembled in this way. But this nonsensical montage (combination, circuit, assemblage) is the woman’s singular enjoyment. As Robert Harari elaborates:
We must underscore another matter related to the topic of the combinatory and the combination, namely, the leap from the general to the particular. Instinct bears the nature of the general. It is universal, it encompasses every individual in the species. The drive, conversely, accounts for a sort of singular formula — if we can put it like that. Instead of postulating, as the instinct would have it, that the individual is just a member of the species, the drive respects the value of singularity.
(Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 202)
However, Lacan goes on to add that the most interesting thing about the drive is how its components can be reversed, but what is the reversal of the drive’s mechanism? As I understand it, the idea is that the drive can get jouissance from reconfiguring its elements, that is, through making new connections and arrangements between them. While the drive remains the same, remains comprised of the same elements, the drive can also differ from itself through playing with its components (recombining them).
Now, Lacanians often debate the relation between drive itself and the four partial drives. For Lacan, the four partial drives are (1) oral drive, (2) anal drive, (3) scopic drive, (4) invocatory drive. Each of these drives has an erogenous zone, a partial object (objet petit a) and a verb (action). Dylan Evans gives us a helpful table of the four drives in his An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (p. 48):
Each of these drives can have their own circuitry to them, that is, each is a multifaceted apparatus, but they also can get positioned within a greater circuit that comprises all four of them. For Lacan, there are four drives connected to four erogenous zones (mouth, anus, eyes, ears) and every one of them is a death drive. Why? Because drive as such is always the drive towards jouissance, that is, for that which lies beyond the pleasure principle and, by extension, the reality principle. The pleasure-reality principle seeks to maintain a certain homeostasis in our libidinal economy. This principle serves the Symbolic order by keeping human beings in a bodily state that enables them to behave in accordance with societal standards and protocols. However, every drive seeks to transgress the limits imposed on it by society. Drives pursue various sorts of intense excitement and excessive stimulation that destabilize one’s functional identity. Because each drive is a death drive, we can speak of the death drive (singular) and of death drives (plural). Lacan, Žižek and McGowan often speak of the death drive but keep in mind that there is a certain plurality to it — the montage of the drives.
As we just saw, Lacan described drives as a surrealist machine cobbled together out of all kinds of disparate objects, parts, features, etc. Remember the beginning of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? Think about Pee-wee’s breakfast machine as a drive: it cannot merely function according to Symbolic dictates, i.e., “prepare Pee-wee’s breakfast”, but goes out of control and makes a total mess of the kitchen. Another example is Doc’s dog-feeding machine at the beginning of Back to the Future. So we all have this dangerous dimension in us. There is the Imaginary-Symbolic subject, the person I am through my social identity that conforms to society and Law, but there is also a subject of the drive (death drive). This subject is the violent impulse to transgress the Law, rules, customs and protocols of my Symbolic order. It does not take the wellbeing of the other (other people) or the Other (Society at large) into account. Death drive is like The Joker in The Dark Knight — a force of destabilization and disruption. The subject of the drive(s) is the Real that escapes the Symbolic-Imaginary capture of Law.
But all of this still sounds overly abstract and conceptual. Besides, Lacan’s example of the tickle machine does not help clarify drive. So, what we need is a concrete example that does present the drive in a way that is actually intelligible. Let’s take the example of someone going out for a night of partying. If there is an actual jouissance gained from the partying, then what is the configuration of the partial drives in this process of enjoyment? Well, the oral drive (mouth, lips) can get enjoyment from drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating food, kissing and screaming loudly. Of course, human beings have their preferences when it comes to the alcohol they drink and how they drink it, the cigarettes they smoke, the food they eat, the way they kiss and even the wild sounds they project out of their mouths. It’s the ways they perform these self-destructive activities that provide partial enjoyment.
What about the anal drive (anus)? Well, yes, shitting can feel good and many people enjoy anal sex, but the anal drive can also get enjoyment from activities that do not directly stimulate the anus. Psychoanalytic thinkers have long known that money, for the anal drive, often functions like shit insofar as there is enjoyment in withholding it from others as well as in spending it in certain ways. Money is shit. A night of partying often involves blowing one’s money on expensive commodities, on gambling, etc. Hell, rappers get intense enjoyment from “making it rain” at the club, that is, from throwing large stacks of money out over the crowd. To make it rain is really to make it shit (the “it” is the anal drive).
What about the scopic drive (eyes)? Obviously, we get enjoyment from what we see. We enjoy how others look and how others look at us. We can enjoy people looking at us in various ways, e.g., a seductive look, a look of envy, etc. We enjoy the ways places themselves look, i.e., their atmosphere, ambiance, lighting, design, etc. We can enjoy the blurring of objects and lights in our field of vision while driving fast.
Finally, the invocatory drive (ears) can enjoy the ways people talk to us and also the sound of our own voices. There’s enjoyment in the sounds of music, in the roar of a crowd, in the applause of an audience, in the revving of an engine, in a voice attempting to seduce oneself, etc.
There’s much more to say about the partial drives, but at least we have a sense of how they enjoy themselves, so let’s now assemble a party machine (party circuit, party apparatus). Let’s say that our partier’s drive (montage) is comprised of the oral drive’s enjoyment in drinking screwdrivers with lots of ice, of the anal drive’s enjoyment in risking money at the craps table, of the scopic drive’s enjoyment of the neon lights, and of the invocatory drive’s enjoyment of Judas Priest’s Painkiller played really fucking loud. This singular configuration of these “dynamos”, “gas-taps” and “peacock feathers” work together to give our partier’s belly a tickle, i.e., a jolt of partial jouissance. This is the circuit of the drive. But there are no necessary or logical connections between icy screwdrivers, craps tables, neon lights and Judas Priest’s Painkiller. When juxtaposed we see how “surreal” this disparate montage really is. However, this singular concoction of self-destructive and excessive excitations is the partier’s preferred form of enjoyment. This is the partier’s actual jouissance of the drive. And the enjoyment of the drive is the subject’s very freedom! Žižek said:
Yes. Paradoxical as it may sound, psychoanalysis also opts for autonomy. The psychoanalytic name for this autonomy is death drive. Death drive is not something manipulated by circumstances. Death drive just is this non-functional thrust of our libido, or will, that cannot be explained in objective terms. It means that there is in human beings an aspect of behaviour that persists beyond any instrumental activity towards achieving certain goals (pleasure, reproduction, wealth, power). It’s a kind of self-sabotaging drive. Against the usual inscription of psychoanalysis into the naturalistic determinist framework where the human being is controlled by unconscious desires, I think that paradoxically psychoanalysis is the strongest assertion of autonomy. Death drive is a name for autonomy.
(Conversations with Žižek, pp. 93–4)
But what about the whole jouissance of the fantasy? In other words, what is the relation between fantasmatic desire and non-fantasmatic drive? Drive simply does what it does, that is, drive has a mind of its own and solely fixates on the repetition of its partial enjoyment, whereas desire is always constituted by some fantasy of whole enjoyment that always keeps desire chasing another object through an endless process of deferral. McGowan devotes an entire chapter to the role infinity plays in capitalism that relies on the Hegelian distinction between the bad infinite and the true infinite. Let’s take a look at McGowan’s explication of it:
What makes Hegel the most important anticapitalist philosopher, inclusive of Marx, is his conception of infinity. Up to Kant and Fichte, philosophers could only formulate what Hegel calls the bad infinite (die schlechte Unendlichkeit). That is, they portray the infinite externally, as the inability to reach an endpoint. To this day, this is how we commonly think of infinity. The break that Hegel introduces — a break more philosophically significant than any other he authors — is that of the true infinite. The idea of true infinite enables Hegel to simultaneously avoid two pitfalls — the finitude of the closed world of traditional society and the infinite progress implicit in modernity.
The bad infinite, for Hegel, has no limit. Like the series of whole numbers, it simply keeps going and going without reaching an endpoint. The finite, in contrast, has an external limit that it can never surpass. Animal life, which always ends in death, is finite. The true infinite adopts the limit from the finite, but this limit does not come externally. Rather than escaping limitation, the true infinite limits itself, like the subject that confines itself to a single project out of a multitude of possibilities.
In this sense, the true infinite is opposed to both the bad infinite that has no limit and the finite that has an external limit. For the true infinite, the limit emerges out of the infinite’s articulation of its infinitude. In the Science of Logic, Hegel offers a contrast between the bad and good versions of the infinite. He says, “The image of progression in infinity is the straight line; the infinite is only at the two limits of this line, and always only where the latter (which is existence) is not but transcends itself, and in its non-existence, that is, in the indeterminate. As true infinite, bent back upon itself, its image becomes the circle, the line that has reached itself, closed and wholly present, without beginning and end.” This idea of self-limitation or exclusion of its own limit allows Hegel to envision an alternative to capitalist modernity without regressing to the finite logic of traditional society. Though it occurs on the terrain of logic, it represents his great political breakthrough. His new version of infinity offers an alternative to capitalism that remains nonetheless within the spirit of modernity.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 136–7)
Desire is like the bad infinite insofar as it constantly pursues a type of perfect enjoyment that no object can actually supply, since it’s always just one more object away from it. Desire goes from object to object searching for this ideal enjoyment in a linear way that is like a straight line. Drive, on the other hand, repeats its same enjoyment through cycling through its circuit or circle. Desire and drive, thus, have different forms of temporality due to being different forms of infinity. As Žižek puts it, “This rotary movement, in which the linear progress of time is suspended in a repetitive loop, is the drive at its most elementary” (Less Than Nothing, p. 499). The true infinite of the drive’s enjoyment is found in how it can keep modifying its circuit from inside itself (it can reconfigure its little “machines” or partial objects in infinite ways). To quote Žižek again, “We become “humans” when we get caught up in a closed, self-propelling loop of repeating the same gesture and finding satisfaction in it” (Less Than Nothing, p. 499).
However, the bad infinite of desire tends to have the upper hand over the true infinite of the drive. Why? Because the contrast between fantasmatic-whole jouissance and actual-partial jouissance is strong. If we were to ask our partier about his actual enjoyment, he’d act like it wasn’t all that enjoyable at all due to his fantasies of perfect enjoyment. He’d end up basically saying that he doesn’t really have any great enjoyment to speak of. However, he’d say that he’d only truly be able to enjoy himself if he was a successful businessman, or if he was a famous musician, or if he was a great athlete, or whatever other type of fantasy organized his desire. This antagonism or friction between drive and desire, between actual enjoyment and fantasmatic enjoyment, is precisely the structure of our subjectivity that capitalism uses to its own advantage. Let’s check out how Žižek conceptualizes this relation:
Therein lies the difference between desire and drive: desire is grounded in its constitutive lack, while the drive circulates around a hole, a gap in the order of being. In other words, the circular movement of the drive obeys the weird logic of the curved space in which the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a curve: the drive “knows” that the quickest way to realize its aim is to circulate around its goal-object. At the immediate level of addressing individuals, capitalism of course interpellates them as consumers, as subjects of desire, soliciting in them ever new perverse and excessive desires (for which it offers products to satisfy them); furthermore, it obviously also manipulates the “desire to desire,” celebrating the very desire to desire ever new objects and modes of pleasure. However, even if it already manipulates desire in a way which takes into account the fact that the most elementary desire is the desire to reproduce itself as desire (and not to find satisfaction), at this level, we do not yet reach the drive. The drive inheres in capitalism at a more fundamental, systemic, level: the drive is that which propels forward the entire capitalist machinery, it is the impersonal compulsion to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction. We enter the mode of the drive the moment the circulation of money as capital becomes an end in itself, since the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. (One should bear in mind here Lacan’s well-known distinction between the aim and the goal of drive: while the goal is the object around which the drive circulates, its true aim is the endless continuation of this circulation as such.) The capitalist drive thus belongs to no particular individual — it is rather that those individuals who act as the direct “agents” of capital (capitalists themselves, top managers) have to display it.
(Less Than Nothing, pp. 496–7)
OK, so, this dynamic between desire and drive existed long before capitalism showed up, that is, capitalism piggybacks on the “naturalness” of desire (the basic structure of our libidinal economy), but capitalism figured out how to use it to its own advantage through the ideology of “the promise of a better tomorrow”. Capitalist ideology tells us that if we accumulate enough of the right commodities, then one day in the future we will attain a final commodity that will be the bearer of whole enjoyment. The great ideological mechanism of capitalism is that it gets us to enjoy our failures to attain the final commodity that would provide ultimate enjoyment while fetishistically disavowing this concrete enjoyment in this process.
We get actual satisfaction from consuming commodities that do not ultimately satisfy us but we also fail to view this enjoyment as enjoyment because of the fantasies of perfect enjoyment the system bombards us with to keep us unsatisfied. These ideological fantasies keep us consuming because of how they convince us that perfect enjoyment is found in some commodity we have yet to possess. “If I can just get that new Mercedes . . .” It’s in this sense that capitalism satisfies and dissatisfies us — it provides us with actual-possible enjoyment while keeping us focused on fantasmatic-impossible enjoyment. Capitalism intensifies the tension between drive and desire through the logic of commodification. Enjoyment itself is not the ideological enemy but accumulation, with all its false promises and fantasmatic trickery, is the rival we must oppose. We will not challenge capitalism by convincing people of how it dissatisfies them. The point of critique must be our enjoyment in capitalism and not our dissatisfaction with it.
Though dissatisfaction with capitalism seems necessary for any critique of the system, dissatisfaction as such inheres within the capitalist economy. Capitalist subjects remain capitalist subjects because they see themselves as dissatisfied beings in pursuit of satisfaction and thereby misrecognize the satisfaction they have found. The critique of capitalism must begin out of our satisfaction with capitalism and not our dissatisfaction with it. But the capitalist system never avows this satisfaction. Recognizing it requires the most radical act today — that of interpretation.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 239)
People have a hard time confronting their unconscious forms of enjoyment because what they discover is that they enjoy things that go against their own self-interest (this, of course, is the way of the death drive). Nothing is more “self-evident” in capitalist society than the “fact” that all people are in rational pursuit of what’s in their self-interest, but the whole point of critique is to challenge what seems to be the most obvious “truths”. The most obvious “truth” in the eyes of a capitalist subject is that accumulation is the path towards happiness (ultimate enjoyment). But there’s a problem: “The imperative to accumulate doesn’t permit capitalist subjects to feel as if they no longer have any need to accumulate. According to the morality of capitalism, too much is never enough” (Capitalism and Desire, pp. 240–1).
The ideology here claims that those who choose to pursue the accumulation of wealth and commodities will be rewarded by the system, whereas those who refuse this will be punished. The truth is that you will likely end up very, very far from rich no matter what your attitude is towards capitalism. Accumulation is only the ideological motor of capitalism, that is, it is not the true engine of the system. What really drives capitalism is our drives (jouissance, enjoyment). We get jouissance from our attempts to accumulate, but focusing on accumulation (desire, fantasy) instead of enjoyment (drive) distorts the situation. This means that “The political task today is to wrench satisfaction from the hold of accumulation by exposing the deception involved with accumulation” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 241). The big ideological issue with accumulation is that it conceals the ways we actually get jouissance out of it. It is actually all of the sacrifices (losses) we make in the pursuit of accumulation that provide us with enjoyment. And sacrifice, of course, is the opposite of accumulation.
The problem with the model of accumulation is that it hides its own manner of producing satisfaction. While the accumulating subject aims at obtaining the ultimate satisfaction in the future, this subject satisfies itself in the present through the sacrifices that it makes to obtain the object it seeks. Accumulation serves as a cover for sacrifice — the sacrifice of time, of energy, of resources, of freedom, and so on. In doing so, it obscures the role that loss plays in all satisfaction. We don’t find satisfaction in having or obtaining a privileged object through acts of accumulation but rather enjoy the object in its loss or absence. The sacrifice that accumulation demands provides satisfaction because it recreates our experience of loss, but no one who is bent on accumulation can recognize the role that loss plays.
Capitalism’s privileging of accumulation obscures the role that traumatic loss plays in our satisfaction. There is no satisfaction without loss. Or to put it in other terms, we are not subjects who might obtain a satisfying object but subjects who can find satisfaction only through the necessity of the object’s loss. Even when we are right next to someone we love, we enjoy what is absent in the beloved, not what is present: that part of the beloved that we can’t decipher. Capitalism’s success derives from shielding our psyches from this necessary loss and its intrinsic connection to our satisfaction. But we can recognize the disappointment that accompanies accumulation.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 241–2)
McGowan’s answer to this problem is for us to suspend our fetishist disavowal and to consciously and wholeheartedly affirm our actual enjoyment. It’s through acknowledging and registering that our actual forms of enjoyment are all the enjoyment there is to have that we can break away from the ideology of “the promise”, from the ideology of a commodity that brings with it perfect enjoyment. The moment we free ourselves from this ideological fantasy is the moment we disinvest ourselves from capitalism itself. There is no absolutely sublime enjoyment tucked away within the capitalist system at the highest levels of accumulation (the social positions of the rich and famous). No amount of commodities contains this impossible enjoyment. This is why McGowan concludes the book by saying, “Enjoy, don’t accumulate!” To embrace the forms of actual enjoyment as the only forms of enjoyment there are to enjoy is to escape from capitalism’s ideological fantasy.
The whole point of Lacan’s theory of desire, his concept of objet petit a, is that the lost object that causes desire is necessarily and structurally lost, that is, it is impossible to attain it precisely because it was never a real object we possessed in the first place. Once we have accumulated all of the objects we believe it will take to make us perfectly happy, we find ourselves disappointed and desire begins desiring other objects. Accumulation of commodities is essentially a waste of time, since it is doomed to fail. The ideological trick is getting us to think that accumulating enough objects of desire (commodities) will eventually bring us to possess the object-cause of desire (lost object, objet petit a, the little “a”). It won’t! We ought to embrace our jouissance without hope in accumulation. Karl Marx himself knew this to be so.
In the second volume of Capital, Marx makes a statement that summarizes capitalism and the possibility of undermining it. It is a statement worthy of Freud after 1920, and yet he made it roughly fifty years in advance of Freud writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Marx says, “For capitalism is already essentially abolished once we assume that it is enjoyment that is the driving motive and not enrichment itself.” Here Marx understands that capitalism depends on a psychic investment in the promise of the future and that a sense of one’s satisfaction is incompatible with the continued survival of capitalism. This is his most profound statement and his most important legacy. Until we accept that the satisfaction of loss is our driving motive, we will remain the hostages of an economy of enrichment.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 243–4)
Enjoy! Don’t accumulate!
Drive! Don’t desire!
I want to conclude this “review” by noting the similarity and difference between Todd McGowan and Slavoj Žižek. They have much in common owing to the fact that they are both Lacanian-Hegelians who critique capitalism, but they are also very different when it comes to their writing styles as well as to the aspects of capitalism they fix their critiques on. McGowan is a profoundly lucid writer who makes his arguments incredibly easy to follow due to their laser-like precision, whereas Žižek’s arguments are much more difficult to follow owing to their free-associational form. What I’m saying is that they are very different thinkers to read despite their theoretical similarity. Perhaps the most interesting relation between the two is that it can be argued that McGowan actually wrote the two books that Žižek has always been trying to write: (1) a Lacanian-Hegelian critique of capitalism and (2) a Lacanian reading of Hegel’s philosophy. McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire and Emancipation After Hegel are exactly those two books. In a sense, all of Žižek’s books are also these two books, but McGowan was able to pull it off with a conciseness and focus that Žižek has not.
There are two last things I want to say. Be sure to read McGowan’s footnotes! He’s one of the greatest footnote writers I’ve ever come across. And, finally, I highly recommend listening to the podcast McGowan does with Ryan Engley titled Why Theory. I cannot begin to express how much I’ve learned about Lacan, Freud, Hegel, Žižek, film studies, the politics of jouissance, pop culture analysis, etc., from this podcast. It’s where McGowan applies and expands on the work he’s done in his books. Also, I have summary notes of each chapter of Capitalism and Desire that I plan on sharing in another post, so keep an eye out for that if you want to hear more about the book.
Hey, Todd, thanks so much for all the weapons! I promise to use them well in my own book!