Wage Labor and Jouissance: Why the Left Needs Žižek to Understand Workers

What follows is less of an academic essay and more of a personal tribute to the work of Slavoj Žižek. His concepts, theories and insights have had a profound impact on my own thinking, but this influence goes far beyond abstract philosophizing and speculation. I argue that Žižek’s work is extremely relevant when it comes to understanding the concrete dynamics that comprise social spaces and especially the ones at play at our shitty jobs. To properly grasp the structures and forces workers must deal with in wage labor, one must get familiarized with Žižek’s expansions and applications of Jacques Lacan’s concept of jouissance (enjoyment). What Žižek offers us is an explanation as to why it is so difficult to forge worker solidarity and develop class consciousness at the exact spot where one would think it would be the easiest. Žižek has said, “To be a Marxist today, one has to go through Lacan!” I totally agree. However, I’d add a slight modification to this statement, “To be Marxist today, one has to go through Lacan and Žižek!” Getting a handle on today’s political economy and on the challenges Marxist-leftist organizing faces necessitates a Žižekian interpretation of libidinal economy. Jouissance is an essential factor of the material conditions.

Now, academically speaking, here’s where things get real unorthodox. I will not be basing my analysis of wage labor on the latest economic data, on the most “accurate” statistics, on the “expert” opinions of those who belong to the professional-managerial class or on any sociological research. Instead, I’m grounding this objective investigation on nothing other than my own subjective, lived, blue-collar experiences and on the psychoanalytic concepts I’ve learned from Žižek. When it comes to wage labor, there is more truth in one’s subjective distortions than in all the quantitative “neutrality” of statistics. My evidence is my experience, but my experience is the experience of so many other wage laborers. This is my Žižekian account of the battles of jouissance that shape my workspaces.

Here’s the situation: I’m not a professional academic. I have no bachelor’s, no master’s and no Ph.D. (hell, I really never even graduated from high school — I did get a GED, though) I have, however, been seriously studying philosophy for nearly 20 years now. I tried to go to university a few times, but I was never able to keep going for one reason or another. Anyway, I’m currently working at a distribution company (let’s call it Bridgemort). I usually work in the warehouse as an order filler but I’m also a delivery driver part of the time. I was actually able to work throughout the pandemic owing to the fact that Bridgemort was deemed essential labor, since we sell and distribute a lot of PPE (masks, sanitizer, gloves) as well as toilet paper, soap, cleaning supplies, trash liners, etc. But when I’m not working at the warehouse, I spend all my time writing and studying theory, e.g., Žižek, Lacan, Baudrillard, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Deleuze, etc. So, I’m a 39 year-old, working class burnout with a stubborn passion for philosophy. Long story short, I hate wage labor and I love theory.

Jouissance, Law and Inherent Transgression

The key concept I’ll be discussing here is jouissance. But what exactly did Lacan have in mind when using this French term? To answer this question, we must get clear on the difference between pleasure and jouissance. For both Freud and Lacan, the pleasure principle and the reality principle work together to establish a homeostasis or equilibrium in the body. This means that the human organism seeks a state that is free from excitation, tension, pressure, etc. To be in pleasure is to be calm, cool and collected, to have a balance in the body’s sensations. Whenever the body is filled with an overabundance of excitations, the pleasure principle kicks in and seeks to discharge these intensities so as to return to a state of pleasure. However, as Freud came to discover later in his career, there is another principle or tendency within the human being and its name is the death drive. And as Lacan put it, “every drive is virtually a death drive” (Écrits, ‘Position of the Unconscious’, p. 848). This drive does not seek pleasure (lack of excitation), but, instead, pursues jouissance (excessive excitation). Lacan said, “the pleasure principle is presented to us as possessing a mode of operation which is precisely to avoid excess, too much pleasure” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 54). Jouissance is “too much pleasure”, that is, enjoyment to the point of pain, suffering or discomfort. Jouissance is what is “beyond the pleasure principle”.

Throughout his years spent doing psychoanalysis, Freud realized that many of his patients’ behaviors and actions could not be made sense of by interpreting them through the pleasure principle. He saw how they would repetitiously and compulsively partake in self-sabotaging acts or, in other words, prevent themselves from attaining pleasure. Lacan would pick up where Freud left off and develop the concept of the death drive in a far more robust and nuanced way. Lacan viewed death drive and the jouissance it seeks as inscribed into the very core of human existence. He said that drive “can in no way be limited to a psychological notion. It is an absolutely fundamental ontological notion” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 127). This means that drive is a part of the structure of our very being. We are beings torn between pleasure and jouissance.

But in what sense is drive a death drive? Is this to say that drive is always striving to bring about our literal death? No, it’s not that simple (though this is how it is often interpreted). For Lacan, drive entails both Eros (life drive) and Thanatos (death drive). Drive is dialectically split between these two tendencies. Žižek explains it like this:

Insofar as, for Lacan, drive as such is ultimately the death drive, the Freudian antagonism between Eros and Thanatos has to be transposed within the death drive itself. The death drive thus stands simultaneously for life that persists beyond (what Lacan calls the first, biological) death — the life of the undead — and for the endeavor to end up this very life-beyond-death. Eros designates the horrifying Real of the “love/life beyond death,” of the immortal drive, while Thanatos stands for the striving to end this horror.
(The Abyss of Freedom, p. 103)

In other words, death drive moves us in a direction towards a zombie-like state of pure jouissance (an excess of sublime excitation). On the one hand, drive thirsts for a perverse kind of immorality, and, on the other, yearns for the end of this condition. However, given how Eros is at work in the drive, drive does not flat out seek a return to an inanimate state, but, rather, the immortal death of the undead. But this undeath does involve a certain death and it is that of the subject of pleasure. What I mean by this is our everyday “selves” or, in Lacanese, our Imaginary-Symbolic identities. For us to be rational, functional human beings, for us to successfully operate in society, we must be kept at a distance from jouissance. Jouissance overrides our ability to act in accordance with social protocols, ethical principles, etc. Why? Because we cannot put things in context or mediate between them while being utterly submerged in the “immediacy” of jouissance. Simply put, we cannot function properly when there is too much excitation in our bodies.

Viewed from this psychoanalytic perspective, Law, rationality and the Good are in place precisely to keep jouissance at bay. In Lacan’s words, “Freud’s use of the good can be summed up in the notion that keeps us a long way from our jouissance” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 185). We must have prohibitions placed on us in order to save us from the lethality of jouissance and enable us to live amongst each other with relative ease. As Žižek put it, “One should never forget that, for Lacan, the Oedipal paternal Law is ultimately in the service of the ‘pleasure principle’: it is the agency of pacification-normalization which, far from disturbing the balance of pleasure, ‘stabilizes the impossible’, bringing about the minimal condi­tion for the tolerable coexistence of subjects” (The Ticklish Subject, p. 349). So all of this adds up to identifying the pleasure principle with Law and with the Good (the good life). Against the unit comprised of pleasure, Law, the Good and reason we find the antagonistic unit of death drive, evil, jouissance and irrationality. Yet both units are dialectically operative at all times within our libidinal economies.

But things are more complicated than this insofar as Law itself is split between its official principles and is obscene underside. This is one of Žižek’s most profound developments of Lacanian theory. The idea is that there are certain forms of disavowed jouissance that actually serve to reproduce society. According to Žižek, within the Law, there is the law of moral ideals (Ego-ideal, big Other) and the law of inherent transgression (superego, death drive, jouissance). But how does one go about getting fully initiated into a particular social group? It is not enough to simply identify oneself with its official mandates and explicit values. Not at all! Instead, one must partake in certain forms of obscene enjoyment that transgress the group’s publicly sanctioned standards and practices. The true member of a community is a true member due entirely to implicitly understanding how to remain at a distance from the group’s explicit rules. As Žižek explains:

When does one belong to a community? The difference concerns the netherworld of unwritten obscene rules which regulate the “inherent transgression” of the community, the way we are allowed/expected to violate its explicit rules. This is why the subject who closely follows the explicit rules of a community will never be accepted by its members as “one of us”: he or she does not participate in the transgressive rituals which actually keep this community together. And society, as opposed to community, is a collective which can dispense with this set of unwritten rules — since this is impossible, there is no society without community. This is where theories which advocate the subversive character of mimicry get it wrong; according to these theories, the properly subversive attitude of the Other — say, of a colonized subject who lives under the domination of the colonizing culture — is to mimic the dominant discourse, but at a distance, so that what he or she does and says is like what the colonizers themselves do . . . almost, with an unfathomable difference which makes his or her Otherness all the more tangible. I am tempted to turn this thesis around: it is the foreigner who faithfully abides by the rules of the dominant culture he or she wants to penetrate and identify with who is condemned forever to remain an outsider, because he or she fails to practise, to participate in, the self-distance of the dominant culture, the unwritten rules which tell us how and when to violate the explicit rules of this culture. We are “in”, integrated into a culture, perceived by members as “one of us”, only when we succeed in practising this unfathomable distance from the symbolic rules — ultimately, it is, only this distance which proclaims our identity, our belonging to the culture in question.
(For They Do Not Know What They Do, p. lxi)

Here, Žižek highlights the Hegelian-dialectical twist of communal membership. True identification is the right type of disidentification. Authentic belonging is the proper form of alienation. To overidentify with the Law is to fail to abide by it. A great example of this strange dynamic is that of the military. Žižek said:

What interests me at all levels of the social structure, and especially at the level of analysing ideologies and social nor­mativity, is the functioning of what I usually refer to as the obscene supplement underbelly of the law. If we take any normative structure, then in order to sustain itself this struc­ture has to rely on some unwritten rules that must remain unspoken; these rules always have an obscene dimension. My standard example is that of the military community where, at one level, you have a set of explicit rules (hierarchy, procedure, discipline, etc.), but in order for these explicit rules to function they need an obscene supplement: that is, all the obscene unwritten rules that sustain a military community — dirty sexist jokes, sadistic rituals, rites of passage and so on. Anyone who has served in the military knows how the whole military discipline is sustained ultimately by this obscene underbelly. And I think that it is crucial to focus on this rela­tionship in analysing the functioning of ideology today.
(Conversations with Žižek, p. 128)

The Law is, therefore, supported by a secret law — the law of the drive and the superego. But isn’t it an oxymoron to speak of the law of drive? No! This is where Lacan’s concept of the superego comes into play: “Nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance — Enjoy!” (Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, p. 3). Even Freud himself was aware of this fundamental connection between superego and drive (id): “Thus the super-ego is always close to the id and can act as its representative vis-à-vis the ego. It reaches deep down into the id and for that reason is farther from consciousness than the ego is” (The Ego and the Id, p. 49). The superego actually siphons off a portion of the drive’s partial enjoyment in order to reproduce social order, which is the enjoyment of inherent transgression, but it must be emphasized that this is merely a portion of the drive and that much of it remains unrestrained by the superego’s redirection. Therefore, we must differentiate between the pure drive and superegoic drive (I owe this insight to Todd McGowan). We can even say that pure drive is a threat to the inherent transgression of superegoic drive insofar as it seeks that which is beyond the entire Law (explicit law, implicit law, obscene supplement). The pure drive transgresses the Law as such. The superego puts a shackle on the drive but the drive is very slippery and has more than one arm.

Nevertheless, while the official maxims of the Law serve to distance us from jouissance, the unofficial side of it commands us to enjoy ourselves. This amounts to saying that we have a duty to enjoy, an obligation to get our hands dirty with the stains of jouissance. Again, Žižek clarifies it for us:

Although jouissance can be translated as ‘enjoyment’, translators of Lacan often leave it in French in order to render palpable its excessive, properly traumatic character: we are not dealing with simple pleasures, but with a violent intrusion that brings more pain than pleasure. This is how we usually perceive the Freudian superego, the cruel and sadistic ethical agency that bombards us with impossible demands and then gleefully observes our failure to meet them. No wonder, then, that Lacan posited an equation between jouissance and superego: to enjoy is not a matter of following one’s spontaneous tendencies; it is rather something we do as a kind of weird and twisted ethical duty.
(How to Read Lacan, p. 79)

This means that the less we enjoy, the guiltier we feel about it, since we have a “moral” duty to attain more and more and more jouissance. The superego is always assailing us with its commandment to “Enjoy!”, but we can also think of it as an injunction for “More!” Everywhere we go in the consumer society, every restaurant and every coffee shop, every movie theater and every sporting event, we are bombarded by this injunction. This means that when we are incapable of the “too much”, for example, spending too much money, we feel all shitty about ourselves as if we are guilty of a terrible crime.

Jouissance and Wage Labor

Now that we have a basic orientation with Lacan’s concept of jouissance and Žižek’s concept of inherent transgression, I want to turn to how I’ve seen them structure wage labor. First, I want to say a couple of things about my last job. Before starting at Bridgemort, I worked as a bouncer/doorman at a barcade (let’s call this place Left-Right). What’s a barcade? It’s a bar filled with all of the classic arcade games my generation grew up playing, e.g., Donkey Kong, Galaga, Contra, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, etc. This establishment is a tribute to all our beloved pop culture of the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. They always have classic movies such as Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and E.T. playing on big screens. Not to mention that the place is decorated in images of pop culture icons, that is, the walls are covered by the giant visages of Bart Simpson, Steve Urkel, Debbie Gibson, Prince, Eric Cartman, Janet Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest of the memberberries gang. While I only worked at the barcade for a short time, I noticed the two main forms of jouissance that sustained it.

The first form of inherent transgression was the nightly ritual that immediately commenced the moment the place closed. Once the last customer left and the doors were locked, all the employees would launch into a loud and vicious tirade about all of the annoying customers they had to deal with throughout the night. They’d make fun of how people looked and acted by hurling the worst insults they could think of at them. With a turn of a lock, they would all instantaneously drop their obligatory smiles, their customer service dispositions and solicitous voices, their professional gestures and “bad faith” manners, and just fucking let loose on anybody who inconvenienced them throughout the shift. For example, there was the two following refrains: the guys would argue over which of the irritating women (usually the ones who got too drunk) in the bar that night was the ugliest and the woman would joke and speculate on which “creep” was the most pathetic (which one still lives in his mother’s basement, has the smallest dick, etc.). However, these generic refrains would only get the workers so far, since the true point of the obscene ritual was to get as creative and original with your insults as possible.

And it goes without saying that this behavior totally violated the official standards and practices of the business, but it’s also what held this workspace together. In other words, it’s precisely what made it as successful and functional as it was (note that this was and still is one of the most popular bars in my whole city). It’s also worth highlighting that the staff was comprised of a wide variety of different types of people. There were whites, blacks, hispanics and asians, men and women, gay and straight and bi, cis and trans, within this group of employees. All of these different people bonded over their communal ritual of inherent transgression. The two things that the vast majority of them had in common were (1) they were under 40 years-old and (2) they were liberals. I believe only a few of them were over 40 and that there were only two (very moderate) conservatives in the group.

However, there actually was a second initiation rite or a second form of inherent transgression that was the more important of the two, since it’s what gave one access to full and official community membership. Participating in the first type, the nightly vulgarity, was what granted a new employee a honorary, titular or nominal status within the group, but the second type is what got you accepted within the inner circle. To truly belong to the community, one had to party on the party bus. Once a year, they would throw their company party, which always took place on a party bus they rented for a Saturday night. This always turned into a bacchanalian “orgy”. Ok, it wasn’t a literal orgy, but it was certainly of that spirit. Everybody would get riotously drunk, they’d strip down to their underwear, the girls would get topless and make out with each other, etc. This was the authentic form of inherent transgression.

For this group of arcade bartenders, waitresses and bouncers, the wild, irresponsible and sexual youthfulness of this annual “orgy” of jouissance unconsciously functioned as a fitting libidinal supplement to the excess of innocent childishness that is the barcade itself. All of these “adults” spend all of their time in a monument dedicated to all of the pop culture that filled them with enjoyment as children but also one centered around the large consumption of alcohol while attempting to get laid — it comes as no surprise that they would be drawn to tap into the Real truth of this contradictory dynamic. The true inherent transgression is in taking part in the unconscious truth of the barcade itself — the “orgy” of “children”. The most fundamental fantasmatic figure which present-day consumerism orients itself around is the child who remains a child while getting to drink and fuck. Simply put, the obscene secret which organizes and underpins the barcade is that it intermixes the rambunctious jouissance of innocent children at play (video games, Skee-Ball, kid movies) with the lascivious jouissance of sexually mature adults (drunkenness, actual sex, etc.) which is the mixture that explodes once a year on a party bus but which must never be spoken about (except in very specific ways).

Alright, so I know what you’re thinking about. You want to know where I was in all this. I’ll tell you. So, my thing was that I had no desire to actually become a member of this group. I know where all of this ends up. If you go all in on the inherent transgression, then you will inevitably find yourself becoming friends with your coworkers, which is something I did not and do not want. It was Žižek’s insights into libidinal dynamics operative within social relations that enable me to learn how to strategically manipulate them. For me, the mission was to be functionally accepted by the group, but not to the point of fully being one of them. This is the art of cultivating the proper distance (not too far, not too close). Sure, there were customers that annoyed the shit out of me while checking IDs at the door or when I’d have to break up fights, but, to me, the nightly ritual was more of a chore than anything else. I couldn’t care less that they were making fun of the customers — whatever — but I also had no interest in hanging around with them talking shit on people I had already forgotten. So, to be part of it while not really being part of it, I’d just “laugh” approvingly at their stupid jokes and throw one of my own out there once in a while just to maintain my honorary membership. My goal was to make my work life, my interactions with my fellow employees, as smooth and functional as possible without ever finding myself in the terrible situation of being friends with them. Simply put, I succeeded in positioning myself in such a way as to be embraced as one of them while at work but not assimilated enough to get invited to their gatherings outside of work. Mission accomplished.

I can hear you now, “Yeah, yeah, alright, but tell me about your experiences on the party bus!” Well, I never got the chance to take that wild ride on the bus with all of them. I only worked at the place for 6 months. Yes, I was invited to the company party, but it never happened due to the COVID pandemic hitting the world and forcing us into a lockdown. I never went back to work there. However, I did get one of the other bouncers to tell me about what goes down on the party bus. One night, he was really pressuring me to go to the upcoming party, but he was very secretive about it. I had to lean in close and ask him about it in a whispery insider voice to get him to tell me all about the “sins” I ought to prepare myself for, which itself signified my group membership. In other words, I had to take these communicational measures to signal to him that he could covertly disclose the obscene enjoyment that circulates behind the scenes. For one, the fact that I treated the matter as worthy of being kept a secret indicated that I was already a full member, and secondly, my desire to know all the dirty details of the bus party was an anticipatory and fantasmatic participation in all their ceremonious jouissance. Jesus was very psychoanalytically astute on the workings of one’s fantasy-space when he said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5: 27–8).

I did, however, have one primary form of jouissance while working at Left-Right, but this was an exherent transgression and not an inherent one, which means that this was one type of enjoyment that was not permitted in any way, shape or form by the Law of Left-Right. This was the jouissance I got from taking advantage of the situation I found myself in. The managers actually didn’t mind at all if us security guys had our phones out all night while sitting there by the entrances carding people. I, however, wouldn’t spend my time staring into the wastelands we call Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but, instead, would use up nearly my entire shift reading Žižek books on my iPhone.

During the months I worked there, I was able to closely read through The Sublime Object of Ideology, Enjoy Your Symptom!, The Metastases of Enjoyment, Tarrying with the Negative, The Plague of Fantasies, The Ticklish Subject and The Parallax View. In fact, I was so immersed in these readings that I stopped checking IDs altogether. I mean, yes, I’d quickly glance at them just to simulate performing the task, but I didn’t have any time to waste on that distracting bullshit — I had more to learn about jouissance, inherent transgression, ideology, drive, objet petit a, etc. Now, this bar took the whole checking IDs thing very, very seriously, since Liquor Control watched the place like a hawk owing to the fact that it was also an arcade geared towards young people. So, of course, me failing to be a good employee by not checking IDs so as to get back as quickly as possible to reading Žižek was an absolute transgression, but, hey, I was luckily able to get away with it without ever getting caught, which would have immediately resulted in me getting fired. My death drive was obviously having a bit of fun in taking this self-destructive risk but wo es war, soil ich werden. Besides, the last thing I would ever want to be is a “good employee”. My anti-capitalist jouissance was located in turning my shitty job into my own private Žižek seminar.

But, then, COVID . . . As you can imagine, a barcade would be the last place to reopen after a lockdown because, you know, having a bar filled with a bunch of drunk idiots crammed together around arcade machines grabbing the same joysticks and mashing the same buttons is not the smartest idea during a pandemic (Dr. Fauci wouldn’t tolerate that shit for a second). This is all just to say that I had to get another job. Well, it just so happens that my childhood best friend (I’ll refer to him as Gizmo) is the Vice President at Bridgemort and since it was classified as essential labor it was allowed to stay open. He hired me the moment he heard that I needed a job. It probably goes without saying that the types of people I worked with at Left-Right (a trendy bar) were very different from the ones I currently work with at Bridgemort (an industrial warehouse). However, despite their many differences, these two groups of wage laborers have one thing in common — the jouissance of inherent transgression.

What do I do at Bridgemort? Like I mentioned above, I’m mainly an order filler but I’m also a delivery driver when they need me to be, which means that most of my days are spent in a warehouse riding around on a picker and Tetris stacking heavy boxes on pallets. Obviously, this is a far more “blue-collar” job than my last one comprised of sitting on my ass pretending to check IDs while studying Žižek’s books. Sadly, I actually have to work at Bridgemort, but this doesn’t stop me from continuing my Žižek seminar. I can’t sit there reading PDFs all day, but I can test out all of the insights I’ve learned from Žižek in my interactions with my “fellow” proletariats. I essentially view Bridgemort as an experiment in the manipulation of libidinal dynamics. Some of my jouissance at Bridgemort is in toying with this business’s own game of inherent transgression through the “weaponization” of my knowledge of Žižekian-Lacanian theory. At Bridgemort, like I did at Left-Right, I often just sit back and watch Žižek’s insights play themselves out right in front of my eyes in the behavior of my coworkers. When it comes to how I perceive social situations, Žižek changed everything for me by raising all of these implicit and unspoken dynamics to the level of the conscious registration and libidinal discernment. Bridgemort’s “unconscious” is my new playground.

Bridgemort is similar to Left-Right insofar as they both have an obscene supplement structured around the exchange of profanity, but the form and content of their respective types of vulgarity differ greatly. Whereas the libidinal ritual at Left-Right focused on degrading the customers, the one at Bridgemort centers around our degradation of each other. And Left-Right can’t hold a candle to Bridgemort when it comes to the distribution of politically incorrect obscenity. These working-class guys are very old school when it comes to the way they joke with one another. As one of them said to me shortly after I got hired on, “Out there it’s 2020, but in here it’s 1974”. They gleefully joke about all of those topics that are now considered to be absolutely off limit, e.g., race, sexuality, gender, etc. Now, this sort of joking never happened at Left-Right, but, remember, we are dealing with drastically different types of people. Left-Right was oriented around the sensibilities of millennials and zoomers, whereas Bridgemort is still based on the attitudes and dispositions of boomers and Xers. I immediately registered the sharp generational divide between these two businesses in regards to their tastes in jokes.

Simply put, one of the main forms of inherent transgression that organizes Bridgemort is a form of joking that predates the hegemonic rise of political correctness. This space is not “safe” — only the thick-skinned survive. The white guys make black jokes. The black guys make white jokes. The Korean guy makes jokes about the Mexican and the Mexican makes fun of everybody. If you’re short, then be prepared to hear all about it. The same goes if you’re fat, old, ugly, bald, have acne, have crooked teeth, etc. Basically, any flaw you have will be brutally pointed out to you. But all these obscene insults are never immediately hurled at new workers their first day on the job. You yourself must indicate that you are willing to play this game and you give this consent by making self-deprecating jokes. Self-deprecation is the first initiation rite.

Anyway, I’m far from being a shaming moralist of the liberal-leftist variety, but this type of joking did take some getting used to even for me. I’ll now run through some of the more memorable jokes I’ve heard there. I immediately picked up on how Bridgemort’s inherent transgression worked, so I quickly made my self-deprecating jokes and within the first week they had already opened the floodgates of vulgarity on me. The Mexican guy, who I’ll call Burger (it’s an inside joke), walked over to me, held up his smartphone and started playing a video. In it, there’s a beautiful woman sitting on an airplane recording herself. She, then, begins to pan down only to reveal her fully erect penis. With a smirk and a chuckle, Burger said, “Her dick is bigger than mine”.

Burger absolutely enjoys joking about racial stereotypes and dynamics. He knows nothing about psychoanalysis, but is an intuitive expert when it comes to the facilitation and manipulation of comedic jouissance. He’s actually one of Obama’s Dreamers, i.e., an immigrant in the DACA program, who still lacks official citizenship here in America. He crossed over the border “illegally” with his mother and sister when he was very young, but really gets a kick out of joking about it. He loves giving us white guys shit for being lazy workers (which we are) in comparison to him and his Mexican work ethic: “You fucking gringos are dogshit! Bro, how the fuck am I willing to work harder for this country than its own fucking citizens are, bro?” Of course, the white guys enjoy saying stuff like “Hey, Burger, we noticed that you were off a couple days last week. What were you doing? Did you have to go down to the border and help some more of your family members sneak across?” Burger replies, “Haha, nope, I had to go over to your mom’s house and help her out — only a Mexican is willing to work hard enough to get her off.” Another form of his jouissance that shows itself is in him being granted the n-word pass by the black guys and, yes, he actually says it and the black guys don’t seem to mind it at all. I think this primarily works because of how he constantly flaunts this “Mexican privilege”, as he puts it, in all of the white guys’ faces. “Haha, it feels so good to say it just because I know you gringos can’t!

Besides all of the racial joking, there’s also the jokes that get exchanged between the men and the women. You’d think that the #MeToo Movement would have ended this form of joking once and for all, but it’s alive and well in the warehouse. In fact, the women often sneak out of the office to the warehouse just to make fun of one another to us order fillers. One must behave very professionally within the confines of the office but everything changes when you walk out into the warehouse. To cross this literal barrier is to go beyond the pleasure principle. Now, the men and women joke differently with each other than the guys do amongst themselves. This form of joking is not so much putting down either of the genders, but, rather, in simply sexualizing the interactions. Psychoanalysis fundamentally understands that prohibition eroticizes. There is a strong desire with both the men and women to put a sexual spin on things for the very reason that this is strongly forbidden at this particular moment in our culture.

As funny as it sounds, the main way they do this is by using the joke made famous by Steve Carroll’s character (Michael Scott) on The Office. The joke works like this: after someone makes a non-sexual statement, but one that can also be heard as sexual, all you have to do is say “That’s what she said” (there’s an obvious Freudian dimension to this joke insofar as all it really does is highlight a certain slip-of-the-tongue). For example, one of the guys was trying to fill a cardboard box with as many toilet brushes as he could. In frustration he said, “This box is completely full! I can’t fit any more in it!” And that’s when one of the women obligatorily screamed, “That’s what she said”. This happens once or twice a day and is now a superegoic duty we all have to sexualize the situation as often as we can with the “That’s what she said”.

But, of course, all of this joking is done in a spirit of fun and mutual entertainment, that is, it’s what makes the workday go by in a flash insofar as it accelerates the temporality of wage labor, and, thereby, makes it all the more bearable. Žižek’s insights into how obscene jokes about race, gender, etc., can actually produce personal and social bonds between different people is supported by my experiences as a wage laborer. However, the true dark side of the inherent transgression at Bridgemort is not in the politically incorrect joking, but, rather, in the struggles over the theft of enjoyment. Žižek discusses this logic in relation to nationalism:

Nationalism thus presents a privileged domain of the eruption of enjoyment into the social field. The national Cause is ultimately nothing but the way subjects of a given ethnic community organize their enjoyment through national myths. What is therefore at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing. We always impute to the “other” an excessive enjoyment: he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/or he has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what really bothers us about the “other” is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment, precisely the surplus, the “excess” that pertains to this way: the smell of “their” food, “their” noisy songs and dances, “their” strange manners, “their” attitude to work. To the racist, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor, and it is quite amusing to notice the haste with which one passes from reproaching the other with a refusal to work to reproaching him for the theft of work. The basic paradox is that our Thing is conceived as something inaccessible to the other and at the same time threatened by him. According to Freud, the same paradox defines the experience of castration, which, within the subject’s psychic economy, appears as something that “really cannot happen,” but we are nonetheless horrified by its prospect. The ground of incompatibility between different ethnic subject positions is thus not exclusively the different structure of their symbolic identifications. What categorically resists universalization is rather the particular structure of their relationship toward enjoyment . . .
What we conceal by imputing to the Other the theft of enjoyment is the traumatic fact that we never possessed what was allegedly stolen from us: the lack (“castration”) is originary, enjoyment constitutes itself as “stolen,” or, to quote Hegel’s precise formulation from his Science of Logic, it “only comes to be through being left behind.”
(Tarrying with the Negative, pp. 202–4)

Žižek developed this idea primarily to explain the unconscious logic behind outbursts of racial violence and ethnic scapegoating, which, I agree, are the worst of its manifestations, but the theft of enjoyment is also the metric by which wage laborers often measure their coworkers. These blue collar guys libidinally fixate so much on how hard others are working. They spend half of their shift obsessively calculating the amount of fantasmatic enjoyment that other workers are stealing from them or are getting an unfair portion of. This is where all of their aggressivity, resentment and anger towards each other is located. And this is precisely why it is so incredibly difficult to cultivate anything like class consciousness and worker solidarity. As the Lacanian-Hegelian theorist Todd McGowan said:

But if Marx errs, his error does not lie, as his critics often allege, in underestimating “innate human selfishness.” Instead, his error — and, again, it is the common error today — lies in the other direction, in underestimating the capacity of subjects to act against their self-interest
(The End of Dissatisfaction?, p. 4)

Marx’s biggest error was underestimating how much human beings actually enjoy acting against their own self-interest (pleasure) due to the workings of their drives (jouissance). Simply put, Marx had no concept of the death drive. This is huge due to how much jouissance and drive factor into politics and economics. A Marxist must now say that libidinal conditions are material conditions, that is, a Marxist must now see that libidinal dynamics (drive, jouissance, desire, fantasy, etc.) all are essential parts of the structure of the material conditions of wage labor.

The Left keeps on beating its head against the wall precisely because it cannot figure out that people do not primarily desire what is in their best interest. We need a Left oriented around the game of jouissance, a game that the Right is far better at playing, instead of one that focuses solely on pleasure. Marx was well aware of how capitalism pits workers against one another in the economic competition rooted in the division of labor.

The greater division of labour enables one labourer to accomplish the work of five, ten, or twenty labourers; it therefore increases competition among the labourers fivefold, tenfold, or twentyfold. The labourers compete not only by selling themselves one cheaper than the other, but also by one doing the work of five, ten, or twenty; and they are forced to compete in this manner by the division of labour, which is introduced and steadily improved by capital. . . .
The labourer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labour, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.
(‘Wage-Labour and Capital’, pp. 44–5)

This intrinsic antagonism of wage labor plays itself out, psychoanalytically speaking, in the fantasy spaces of the workers as they compute, gauge and tally up how much jouissance their coworkers are unjustifiably enjoying at their expense (based on their level of productivity). Libidinally speaking, to be a wage laborer is to scapegoat all other wage laborers. Now, the reason why this is an inherent transgression and an ideological obfuscation is due to how it keeps wage laborers from ever focusing on the even greater antagonism, i.e., the one between labor and capital. As Marx put it, “the interests of capital and the interests of wage-labour are diametrically opposed to each other” (‘Wage-Labour and Capital’, p. 39). Capitalist ideology makes your fellow proletariat the thief of your enjoyment instead of the fucking capitalist who actually exploits you. The whole of capitalist society is set up to ideologically convince me — the wage slave — that capital accumulation is ultimately about providing me with the best life possible. Bullshit! All capital cares about is its own accumulation at all costs . . . including mine. My coworkers are not my true enemies — capital is the true thief of my enjoyment, of my labor power, of my surplus-value, of my time and energy, of my freedom. I would prefer not to. As Alenka Zupančič perfectly puts it, “The invisible hand of the market, supposedly looking after general welfare and justice, is always also, and already, the invisible handjob of the market, putting most of the wealth decidedly out of common reach” (What Is Sex?, p. 32).

Here’s what I know: I know that having a shitty job ruins one’s life. I know that I’m miserable because I have to work and cannot spend my days writing and reading theory. I know that my coworkers do not enjoy some special type of enjoyment that I do not get to partake of. I know that the reason why my life sucks is because of the structure of wage labor itself and the futurelessness it slaps me across the face with every morning I wake up. I know that this whole ideological charade of capitalism being a system of personal freedom is a bad joke. I know that the jouissance I get while at work is actually an ideological mechanism of misdirection that lubricates the reproduction of my workspace. I know that understanding the dynamics of jouissance and inherent transgression are essential to any meaningful type of leftist organization. I know that my freedom lies in being freed from wage labor and its superegoic forms of enjoyment. I am ready to exchange my capitalist “freedom” for the servitude of a Cause. Žižek has played a crucial role in my realization of all this and I am very grateful to him for that. Play us out, Slavoj!

Two levels of volunteering (which are simultaneously two levels of servitude volontaire) are different not only with regard to the content of servitude (to market mechanisms, to an emancipatory cause), their very form is different. In capitalist servitude, we simply feel free, while in authentic liberation, we accept voluntary servitude as serving a cause and not just ourselves. In today’s cynical functioning of capitalism, I can know very well what I am doing and continue to do it, the liberating aspect of my knowledge is suspended, while in the authentic dialectics of liberation, the awareness of my situation is already the first step of liberation. In capitalism, I am enslaved precisely when I “feel free,” this feeling is the very form of my servitude, while in an emancipatory process, I am free when I “feel as a slave,” i.e., the very feeling of being enslaved already bears witness to the fact that, in the core of my subjectivity, I am free — only when my position of enunciation is that of a free subject can I experience my servitude as an abomination. We thus get here two versions of the Möbius strip reversal: if we follow capitalist freedom to the end, it turns into the very form of servitude, and if we want to break out of the capitalist servitude volontaire, our assertion of freedom again has to assume the form of its opposite, of voluntarily serving a cause.
(Sex and the Failed Absolute, pp. 262–3)

I am a Cause!
I am the Dangerous Maybe!
I am Underground Theory!


If you would like to support my work, then you can do so on Patreon. My goal is to get freed from wage slavery and to devote the majority of my time and energy to writing books and blog posts on topics ranging from philosophy, psychoanalysis, pop culture, politics, ideology critique, consumerism, capitalism, etc.



I would prefer not to.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store