I’m not often drawn to the Lacanian reading of things. There are a few reasons for this, none of which approach anything like a refutation of Lacan. I always feel that I’m not particularly interested at present, but that some day I will be. Anyway, for someone who does Lacan well, I’d refer you to Levi Bryant, who, in terms of raw IQ, is pretty much unrivaled in his field.
Still, I can’t help but think there’s something Lacanny about the current national debate around facts, which, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting and the CIA’s findings about Russian mischief, appears poised to upend the sustaining illusion of our nationhood. What follows is not a Lacanian reading, but Lacanny conjecture.
It begins, perhaps, with the argument over climate change. That was the first major clash between basic science and politics. Religion and science had of course clashed before that, and those clashes inevitably spilled over onto politics; but if there is religious opposition to the science of climate change, it is because the politics of climate change denial has spill out onto religion, not the other way around. In any case, climate change denial is not an article of faith for most sects.
If we can call the time in which we’re living a post-factual era, then that zeitgeist must be divided into two ideologies. Fittingly, we might group climate change denial into the “Inconvenient Truth” ideology. This is when you are presented with facts which extend from an epistemic edifice (i.e. modern science) that you otherwise rely upon to be true…But there is an additional ideological buttress which allows you to ignore the inconvenient facts without seeing the overall epistemic edifice crumble.
Let me explain. To say that climate change deniers don’t believe in modern science is not quite accurate. They (mostly) believe in a heliocentric planetary system, the electromagnetic force, El Niño, photosynthesis, and chromosomes. As modern folk, they wouldn’t, if these beliefs suddenly went away, have the mythographical tools to explain why flowers bloom and the sun rises in the east. That’s not to say that they can explain rosebuds or sunrises in scientific terms themselves, but they rely on the knowledge that someone can–that there is some well-ordered epistemic structure subtending those explanations, just as they rely on the actual sun rising in the east whether or not they are awake to see it. In fact, they can only argue against climate change because they rely on the scientific edifice. Because science is this transcendent thing, the scientists themselves can be accused of being political, perhaps even venal. At the very least, scientists’ findings can be equivocated and thus politicized. At most, that 1 out of 100 scientists who denies climate change is not wrong–he’s Luther at Wittenberg. Very modern.
I’m not really saying anything new here about the “Inconvenient Truth” ideology. What’s new and morbidly fascinating is what I’ll call the “Under Audit” ideology. I refer here to Trump’s obvious lie about not being able to release his tax returns because he’s under IRS audit. On the campaign trail, Trump propagated that lie with a parry and thrust maneuver, charging that the IRS was always singling him out for his success and his politics. Pivoting from the lie to the jab at the IRS no doubt played well for his anti-government audience, but–really–he needn’t have bothered. Nobody but nobody thought the ‘under audit’ defense was anything but a barefaced lie…And that was okay. What made it okay was precisely that it was such an obvious lie. There was absolutely no depth to the lie. Since everybody knew it was a lie, it passed from the realm of propositions to that of pragmatics. “I’ll release my tax returns as soon as…” became, in the minds of his supporters, a purely phatic utterance, no different from saying “Bless you” after a sneeze.
A phatic utterance can be disingenuous, but it cannot be counterfactual. There is no information exchanged between interlocutors, only affect. The symbolic void between interlocutors is in fact minimized, allowing one to identify with the other. The lie is closer to a catchphrase (e.g. “Drain the swamp”) than it is to an analyzable proposition. But that is only possible if everyone can accept that everyone accepts the utterance as a lie. If some Trump supporters had professed sincerely to believe the ‘under audit’ utterance, then it would have been in danger of drifting back into the realm of propositions, which would have made Trump and his supporters answerable for the substance of the proposition.
Contrast that with the Clinton-Benghazi stuff. I’ll confess I’m not even entirely sure what Clinton was supposed to have lied about there. But for our purposes, it’s sufficient to know that Clinton did or did not do something which led to the deaths of embassy workers, and that whatever it was she did or did not do, she lied about it. Let’s just call the thing she supposedly lied about the “Benghazi Sin,” or “BS” for short. The facts of the 3-year, 7 million dollar congressional inquiry into the alleged BS tell us that there is no evidence at all to support the BS. Yet it continues to be a healthy conspiracy theory with all the institutional dressing of a real political scandal.
Obviously, the conspiracy theory was materially instantiated by the Republican-led congress and amplified by the Fox News echo chamber. But I wonder if the whiff of BS lingers as an effect of the Under Audit ideology as well. Let’s put the Trump case together with the Clinton case. Clinton, of course, is accused of lying about a more serious matter, but let’s subtract that from the equation for now. What remains is 1) a lie that everyone accepts that everyone accepts is a lie and 2) a lie that some accept as a lie and some do not. Let’s further assume that those who do accept the Clinton lie as a lie also believe that those who do not accept it are sincere in not accepting it. The belief that those who do not accept it are sincere gives the Clinton lie more depth and holds it tightly in the realm of propositions. The proposition is up for dispute; it opens up a void between self and other (objet petit a?). But the dispute holds out the tantalizing promise of settlement, of reconciling knowledge with the object of knowledge, and calling out by name the force that makes the circumstances of one’s own experiences so fragmented and unintelligible. Thus any credible evidence to refute the charge that Clinton lied–so long as it is believed that other people believe the evidence to be credible–merely adds gasoline to the fire.
But with the ‘under audit’ lie, that symbolic distance is already closed. There is no need to invest it with desirous energy. We need only linger til human voices wake us, and we drown…