Here are some notes on what I’ve been up to in my research over the last few years. This has been concerned with how we analyse public speech by combining rhetorical enquiry with the insights of psychoanalysis. Apologies for the length.
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We need to think rhetorically about public speech. That is, we need to see public speech — in all its varieties — not simply as the sending of a discrete ‘message’ from A to B but, moreover, as a way of crafting the message such that it positions subjects towards each other and/or the world in a certain way. This is not to diminish the idea of speech and communication having a message but to say that part of what the message does is contained in its linguistic and argumentative formulation. If we attend simply to its overt content, abstracted from its form, we miss the force it exerts and what effects it may render possible. For example, to call the late Princess Diana ‘the people’s princess’, as Tony Blair did in 1997, was not just to invite you to think of her as a princess ‘for’ the people; rather, it evoked all the romantic associations of princesses (beauty, virtue, vulnerability) and merged them with the idealisations made of the universal ordinariness of ‘the people’. Her tragedy thereby became ours and we could thus ‘own’ our part of her story. This practice of shaping speech is what I would call ‘rhetorical’. While rhetoric is present in all speech, its crafting (and amenability to strategy) is most salient in its public and political forms where particular ‘demands’ and messages are explicitly fashioned to be in some ways desireable.
But we also need to think psychoanalytically about rhetoric. The reason for this is that much of what happens in the reception of speech can be understood as unconscious. That is to say, the effect of another’s (or even our own) speech upon us often falls outside our conscious awareness as we listen and digest it. Certainly it is possible to halt some interpersonal conversations, to go back and correct troublesome phrases, inaccurate terms and so on. But to ‘get’ the message, we have to surrender ourselves to what is said and allow our thoughts to be directed by the words we hear. Moreover, the deeper, affective or emotional dimension of what is said is not always overt. Even when we know that we like or dislike what we hear, we do not always know why we do. Psychoanalysis points us towards the unconscious effects and possibilities in experiences that are, in other respects, seemingly conscious. For instance, we remember our dreams, but we do not always know what they mean or why they trouble us.
Part of what I’ve been working on of late has been the connection between rhetoric — understood as the investigation of the forms of public speech — and psychoanalysis — the investigation of how the unconscious is manifest. Bringing the two fields together involves conceptualising speech as a means to shape and sustain desire. Drawing upon Lacan, we may conceive speech (the construction of ‘chains of signifiers’) as a means to position the subject (i.e. the person with an unconscious) in relation to the ‘Other’ (not so much another person but the ‘place’ from which they speak; the assumed source of authority and meaning ‘in’ them and from which we seek recognition: e.g. we talk to police officers not as ordinary people but as expressions of legal authority). In so far as the Other confers recognition, it stabilises our desire (our longing for some satisfaction via the objects we seek out). It is not that the Other actually satisfies our desire: dissatisfaction is central to desiring. But articulating our desire via the Other (who is in our unconscious and only occasionally external) legitimates it and, as our normal (‘neurotic’) mode of being, enables us to structure our lives with some prospect of finding more objects to desire. Intertwined with the overt (or ‘manifest’) content of spoken messages, therefore, is the unconscious motivation to position ourselves towards the Other so that we may desire.
In politics and public culture, we call upon these Others frequently through public speech and oratory. Rhetoric is visible in the choices of words that connect and disconnect — by means of metaphors and argumentative techniques — pathways to the Other and our achievement of recognition. Thus we may hear spoken the good deeds of citizens whose labours are celebrated as contributions to some ‘national purpose’, ‘civic virtue’, ‘human improvement’, and so on. Equally, we hear often of the dangers of certain practices (drug taking, bullying, excessive greed) that receive no recognition from the Other. Often the Other is a pure abstraction (a normative principle or an imagined object like ‘the nation’ or ‘common sense’), at other times it may be embodied in some one or thing in particular (the Monarch, President, Mayor, the Law). The virtue of these Others lies in how they help coordinate who we are and what we want in relation to everyone else; essentially by saying that what we want is what the Other wants.
Outside of the praise and blame of ceremonial speech, we also find public debate competing to identify what it is the Other wants of us. Does a working economy demand lower or higher wages, greater cooperation or greater competition?; does a commitment to freedom bestow recognition primarily on entrepreneurial behaviour than on social solidarity, more on self-responsible citizens or social experimentation?, and so on. Ideological conflict and debate aims to figure the relation between the Other and subjects (understood in a generic way as ordinary citizens, nationals, ‘hard working families’), often berating an existing government or authority for not aligning with the Other’s desire. In these ways and more, the subject is viewed from the perspective of its relation to the Other.
Public speech thus aims to coordinate desire; it identifies the goals and the dangers, the definitions and justifications (or the structure of prohibitions), by means of which auditors are encouraged to articulate their wants. Of course, speech (especially political speech) identifies objects and relations that purport, eventually, to actually satisfy us: promising greater wealth, fewer immigrants, more housing, and so on. But these objects are only the overt part of the message (the underlying implication perhaps being: living in abundance and reducing reliance on the Other, eradicating the anxiety of difference that confuses what the Other wants, helping the needy to demonstrate our worthiness of the Other’s recognition): psychoanalysis invites us to make explicit the unconscious motivations in an argumentative stance that supports the explicit message by articulating the subject/Other relation. Tellingly, much political speech revolves around the question of prohibition: what do we need to prevent in order that something acceptable or desirable might then occur? The Other (as a substitute parent) always restricts and selects ‘acceptable’ desires.
But public speech is also persistently vulnerable to the contingencies of events, the oddities of their speakers and audiences, and the presence of counter-arguments disrupting and diminishing efforts to figure desire. This vulnerability can be understood in terms of what Lacan called the Real. This refers to the register of unsymbolized desire that exerts pressure on the subject’s symbolic and imaginary formations (the rationalisation of its symbolic status and the self-image it bears as its identity). For Lacan, the Real is what, clinically-speaking, gets excluded from unconscious desire via repression but also, moreover, by way of the inherent selectivity of any language and cultural system. It is the unspeakable force of excluded sensations and desires that is generated when one builds one’s self-image and adopts ways of rendering the world meaningful. These unassimilated energies have no symbolic form and so their presence is often felt as an undefinable threat or anxiety impressing itself upon the subject. The Real makes itself present not as a definable thing but as the disruption or distortion to our symbolic frameworks. In some ways, the Real accounts for our singularity as individuals – the peculiar inflections and unique personal aversions that form our personalities by shaping how we comport ourselves in our social roles (see Ruti 2012). Managing the Real is the constant underside to having a sense of self and it is present primarily at the limits of our capacity to symbolise (i.e. connect with the Other) and to imagine ourselves as integral, autonomous agents. As ‘raw’ unprocessed desire, the Real is sometimes felt as an unmanageable, visceral excess; a confusing bodily disorganisation that cannot be processed. When things begin to ‘fall apart’ in our psychic lives is the moment when, quite individually, the Real intrudes into — and so disfigures — our existence. Typically, we resist the alluring force of the Real and stick to our symbolic code as closely as we can. This refusal can be extremely discomforting (which is why people choose to do pyschoanalytic therapy), revealing our symbolic frameworks as inadequate, unable to process the force and scale of our feelings.
In public speech the Real presents itself in various ways as the limit to rhetorical symbolisation. It is the persistent excess in the situation that gives rise to speech and — at the same time — the impossibility of ever fully controlling that situation. It is only because established patterns of rhetoric are disrupted or disabled by external events such as catastrophes, crises, policy failures, election results, wars and so on that more rhetoric is supplied to restore the subject/Other relation damaged by these events. Chains of signifiers are usually produced to recapture desire so that the Other can be restored and subjects reoriented towards it. The Real is here experienced as the pressure of unknowable desires whose parameters cannot be calculated. Public rhetoric in such circumstances must find its way to restoring the question of the Other’s desire following this disruption and restoring the investment of desire in it. This is done not necessarily by resolving the problem such that it goes away altogether but by assimilating it into the way speech is organised — altering its usual stance, finding new phrases to define a common purpose, and so on. But speech never exhaustively ends this task and there is always a lingering stain of unassimilated desires in circulation that threatens the capacity of governments and authorities to control the impact of any situation.
So public discourse is never really just about the subject/Other relation — it is always asserting this relation in light of the ever-present potential for it to fall apart. It is common, then, for speech to incorporate an element of the Real — a distorting gap — into its net of signifiers. Here the Real shows itself as the true ‘engine’ of desire. Public and political speech is persistently feeding off the breakdown in the symbolic order where such gaps appear. In these gaps — between saying and doing, expectation and reality, etc — lies a threatening disruption that can be figured as a psychical ’cause’ of new desires. That is, the cracks and fissures in the symbolic order, the inconsistencies and disturbances that, inevitably, rise to the surface are places from which a new, more visceral experience of desire comes to the fore.
Much public speech is concerned with avoiding such circumstances and returning the same compromised formulations of the Other’s desire; but at the same time, speech is compelled to encounter the gaps in the symbolic order and use them as spurs to more intense kinds of identification. Often this done by figuring the Real in the form of a ‘lost’ thing, some quality of plenitude that resides in the Other: national prestige, moral virtue, true leadership, justice, and so on. The actual Other (or its embodiment) may fall short, but the qualities towards which it is aimed are presented as eternal — if, as yet, unfulfilled. Speakers will often identify elements of an actual tragedy as the irruption of that lost quality into brief presence (the bereaved servicemen, the brave public servants, the dedicated teachers and so on). Here, the lost object invites a profound psychic attachment that overrides the inconsistencies of the symbolic order. The profitless dedication to service exemplifies its incalculable fullness beyond measurement — a manifestation of what Lacan called ‘enjoyment’ (a painful pleasure beyond any personal gain).
Loss and enjoyment go together because the sacrifice of plenitude — an intimate and profound connection with the Other — is the founding experience of all subjectivity. Blair’s eulogy to Princess Diana — referred to above — exemplified precisely this. It briefly transformed one person’s tragedy into a universal loss, thereby permitting the public not simply to ‘know’ of Diana’s death but to ‘enjoy’ it. To invoke such a loss is to return subjects to an all-encompassing experience of plenitude that the symbolic world of words can normally never adequately capture. Invocations of loss and sacrifice are vital for public rhetoric. Unlike the managerial talk of ministers and office holders, they bring us closest to our own raw underside of desire. Thus so many memorable moments of speech concern (or try to appeal to) bereavement, death, catastrophe, war and other circumstances that invite us to psychically enjoy and not merely to desire (on this, see McGowan 2013).
So, in summary, I think rhetoric has two, contrasting but overlapping ‘psychic’ functions: to coordinate desire by articulating the subject’s relation to the Other AND to structure the subject’s enjoyment through that relation. The first points to the positive principles or norms by which our desires are legitimated (and contested); the second highlights the negativity that supports desire (an actual loss or a looming, future one). These functions are in dialectical tension: one tells us how to desire, the other tells us that we are incomplete. Normal public speech aims to make the first an answer to the second, allowing us to feel pleasure (at the legitimacy of our desires) while permitting us, simultaneously, to enjoy our loss.
I hope to develop these themes (with a few more examples) and I’ll try to put them up on this site as I progress.
McGowan, Todd. 2013. Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. London: University of Nebraska Press.
Ruti, Mari. 2012. The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within. New York: Fordham University Press.