I have been trying to distill the things I’ve been working on of late to a clearish principle. Having spent some time exploring various Lacanian and pyschoanalytic ideas (see the last post for a rather dense version of this), I think it timely to identify a vocabulary that is more amenable to expanded discussion.
My principle (for now, at least) is ‘excess’. I wrote a number of short things last year about Brexit and excess in argument, on hate speech, and I was also looking at elements of religious preaching and evangelising (where a certain kind of excess is welcomed). And I was, at the same time, thinking through the way Lacan’s concept of the real (the unsymbolizable dimension of experience that has a traumatic effect but can also be something of a captivating lure) might be important in understanding modes of speaking and arguing. All of these things are really about rhetorical excess: when clear boundaries in cultural and political reasoning collapse and enable intense and often exaggerated claims, hostility, or fantasy to become salient. It strikes me that, in an age of Trump and Brexit, resurgent far-right populism and so on, the character of debate and argument is increasingly one of excess. Exceeding established parameters of discussion, willfully invoking dangerous and threatening ideas that destabilise the terrain on which conflicts are played out, the persistent censure and hostility of social media communications, anti-semitism on the left and right, and the emergence of anxieties about ‘post-Truth’ strategies; all these can be conceived as symptomatic of an excessiveness in public culture in recent years. Forms of excess in rhetoric also reveal the ways that established modes of arguing once functioned as barriers to hold off difficult, painful or just unacceptable feelings and attitudes. Once those are gone (and how easy that has been!) a rich stream of vituperation and hostility comes to the fore. This is not necessarily all a bad thing, but it does suggest that speech is never entirely disconnected from violence.
I’ll post some more items on this as the ideas crystallise.