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«FILOZOFIA Roč. 69, 2014, č. 9 _ MASTER SIGNIFIER: A BRIEF GENEALOGY OF LACANO-MAOISM1 JASON BARKER, Department of British and American Language and ...»

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Roč. 69, 2014, č. 9




JASON BARKER, Department of British and American Language and Culture, Kyung Hee University,


BARKER, J.: Master Signifier: A Brief Genealogy of Lacano-Maoism FILOZOFIA, 69, 2014, No. 9, pp. 752-764 Historical studies of Mao Tse-tung and Maoism are mostly damning moralisations.

As for Mao’s influence in philosophy, such studies are rare if not completely non- existent. By conducting a brief genealogy of Lacano-Maoism, a hybrid of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Maoist politics which emerged post-May 68 in France and whose adherents still include Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, this article considers the ex- tent to which this fusion of Mao and Lacan may still have implications for contempo- rary philosophy and related theoretical discourses. The article speculates on Mao, not as a historical figure, but as a “master signifier” in French theory of the 1960s and 1970s.

Keywords: Badiou – Lacan – Mao – Politics – Psychoanalysis – Revolution – Theory – Žižek Introduction. Mao Tse-tung has exerted a considerable influence in French philoso- phy, one whose true scope is arguably yet to be fully explored. I want to restrict myself in this essay to the reception of Mao in the realm of theory – the theory which originates in France and which today extends to a number of fields outside philosophy, notably to po- litical and critical theory, literary and cultural studies – in Great Britain, the United States, Australia, as well as many other Anglophone countries around the world.

Mao’s status in the aforementioned theory, I claim, is that of a master signifier. What is a master signifier? The function of a master signifier is to “make understandable [lisi- ble]” speech.2 In linguistic terms, according to the psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller, the master signifier “succeeds in making the signifier and the signified correspond, hal- ting them in their contrary shift of meaning [glissement].”3 In psychoanalysis such shifts or “slips of the tongue” mark the beginning of the transference through which the subject 1 This is a revised version of a paper presented at The Second International Conference on Chinese Form of Marxist Literary Criticism, Central China Normal University, Wuhan, China, 9-14 April 2013. I would like to thank the organizers for their kind invitation to the event as well as the editors of Filozofia for accepting the article for publication.

2 Jacques-Alain Miller, “inconscient ≠ psychanalyse”, Le Cours de Jacques-Alain Miller, Ecole de la cause freudienne, no date. Accessed 1 September 2014. http://www.causefreudienne.net/etudier/lecours-de-jacques-alain-miller/inconscient-different-psychanalyse 3 Ibid.

752 generates a new meaning – a new master signifier – through word association.

Mao was of course a master signifier in the sense of an ideological rallying point for the radical left whose politics swept across France in May 68, and inspiring the students’ and workers’ movements there for several of the following years. These movements coincided with Mao’s unleashing of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, which officially lasted from 1966 to 1976. But Mao was not always equal to the direction of the political events he unleashed, and so was not always up to the task of halting contrary shifts of meaning. Clearly there are historical explanations for the contradictions which afflicted and ultimately undermined the revolutionary movements in China and France in the 1970s. However, my approach here will be theoretical and, in drawing on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, concerned with the discursive register of revolutionary politics, and ultimately limited to the general discursive field in which any master signifier must operate as a linguistic term. In other words, “Mao” serves as a signifier for the inventive and revolutionary potentials of theory itself, rather than as the biography from which historical or political lessons can be drawn. There are more than enough biographies of Mao already in circulation.4 It is important to underline the fact that Mao’s personal history and politics are not my primary concern. Indeed, there is still something compelling to Lacan’s thoroughly rationalist idea that all subjective (or, strictly speaking, analytic) experience is formalizable (rather than a question of interpretation). No serious discussion of contemporary theory can ignore its formalistic or scientific basis. This will be the basis of my argument at least.

The Mao Paradox. Perhaps the first philosopher in France, if not the West, to admit the influence of Mao in his philosophy (or “Theory” with a capital “T”), was Louis Althusser. In Althusser’s Pour Marx (1965) there are a handful of references to Mao and his famous Yenan essay On Contradiction (1937). Furthermore, unposted correspondence from November 1963 confirms that Althusser self-censored a lengthy Mao quotation from “On the Materialist Dialectic” prior to its publication in La Pensée, in August 1963, at the request of the editor in chief.5 Althusser’s interest in Mao can be understood in at least two ways. The first relates to philosophy. In the late 1950s and early 60s an intellectual battle was being conducted in France between phenomenologists on one side – principally Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – and the so-called “structuralists” on the other – principally Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Althusser himself. Among the latter thinkers only Althusser was a Marxist and member of the French Communist Party (PCF). However, what these “structuralists”6 allegSee e.g. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: the Unknown Story (London: Cape, 2005) for a typically bitter and depressing rendering of Mao as a tyrant responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin.

5 Louis Althusser, “Unposted Letter to Lucien Sève (24 November 1963).” Alt2.C6-02. Althusser Fond 2, Correspondence. Archives de Louis Althusser. L’IMEC.

6 In the Italian foreword published in the English translation of Reading Capital (1970) Althusser says: “With a very few exceptions... our interpretation of Marx has generally been recognized and 753 Filozofia 69, 9 edly shared was a commitment to the human sciences (and principally structural linguistics) and their progressive approach to the study of human beings in society. Althusser’s allegiance to structuralism is at least debatable (as is Foucault’s7), a fact made abundantly clear in a polemical seminar Althusser gave in 1966 denouncing Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist methodology.8 Althusser’s battle against phenomenology can be understood on the same terms as his battle against Hegelian Marxism. And not just against the “bad Hegel” or the idealist aspects of Hegel that Lenin famously criticised. For Althusser, Hegel had to be purged from Marxist doctrine; this was the measure of Marxism’s scientificity and its modernism i.e. its consistency with the 20th century revolutions in Russia and China, as well as with

the progressive development of the human sciences in the West. Let us quote briefly Althusser from his essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962) from Pour Marx:

Mao Tse-tung’s pamphlet On Contradiction (1937) contains a whole series of analyses in which the Marxist conception of contradiction appears in a quite un-Hegelian light. Its essential concepts would be sought in vain in Hegel: principal and secondary contradiction; principal and secondary aspect of a contradiction; antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradiction; law of the uneven development of a contradiction.9 Althusser concludes this passage by noting that Mao’s essay is both “descriptive” and “abstract.” For Althusser, Mao’s essay is certainly not a work of philosophy. However, the influence of Mao on Althusser’s philosophy is perfectly emblematic of the interdisciplinary nature of French intellectual life from the late 1950s. That a philosophy professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, an institution not known for its cosmopolitan eclecticism, could draw philosophical inspiration from the work of Mao was testimony to the revolution taking place in French intellectual life at that time. And this trend in philosophical inventiveness would also inspire many of Althusser’s students, many of whom would emerge in the 1960s and 70s as important theorists in their own right.

Mao also had tactical significance for Althusser. Apart from an intellectual or philosophical battle, Althusser’s other battle during the 1960s was “internal,” and was being waged against “theoretical sterility” in the PCF, of which Althusser was a lifelong member. In 1956 Khrushchev’s famous speech at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party had opened the way to de-Stalinization. Although supposedly a “liberation” from judged, in homage to the current fashion, as ‘structuralist’... We believe that despite the terminological ambiguity, the profound tendency of our texts was not attached to the ‘structuralist’ ideology.” Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books 1970).

7 Foucault’s resistance to the label (and to any label) is well known, although his early work does at least recognize the displacement of philosophy by the human sciences, among them structural linguistics, in the era of modernity.


Althusser, “On Lévi-Strauss” in The Humanist Controversy, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (London:

Verso, 2003).

9 Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1969), 94n.

754 Stalinist dogmatism – a liberation welcomed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) – the response of the PCF’s chief theoretician, Roger Garaudy, marked a revisionist turn toward Marxist humanism: “We should realize how much we risk throwing overboard,” Garaudy would write in 1963, “if we underestimate the Hegelian heritage in Marx: not only his youthful works, Engels and Lenin, but also Capital itself.”10 For Althusser, faced with this kind of regressive thinking, Mao was a beacon of intellectual renewal since Mao himself had, during the 1920s and 30s, waged a successful battle against dogmatism in the Chinese Communist Party without lapsing into precisely this kind of petty bourgeois revisionism. The ideological heritage of Marx’s early works, with their notions of “freedom” and “man,” was as foreign to Althusser’s conception of Marxism in the 1960s as it was to Mao’s in the 1930s. For both Althusser and Mao, Marxism was politically, ideologically and theoretically closed to compromise.

Whether the stakes involved in battling this revisionist tendency were, in the French political conjuncture of the late 1950s and early 60s, as high as those confronting Mao in the 1930s, or even comparable, is not immediately clear. However, what does seem fairly clear is the fact that in the context of de-Stalinization and the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1950s and early 60s, the figure of Mao helps to open up an entirely different theoretical universe in French intellectual life.

Mao represents a deep conceptual paradox in the history of Marxism. Even Mao himself recognizes this in the essays he writes prior to taking power in 1949. “Why is it that red political power can exist in China?”11 he asks in 1928. After all, Mao’s political experience, somewhat like Lenin’s, seems to completely contradict the Marxist theory of history; while, at the same time, Mao himself remains violently opposed to revisionism.

Consider Mao’s theory of the uneven development of a social formation comprising “plural” contradictions and antagonisms, a theory which is far from orthodox in its reading of historical materialism and the role of the economic base as the determinant factor of superstructural relations.12 Mao is in this sense both a conservative and radical figure, both orthodox and avant-garde, proclaiming his political practice within the revolutionary tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin, while at the same time challenging and (re)inventing that very same tradition.

The paradox that Mao represents arguably helps to explain his appeal and significance as a revolutionary figure particularly for the student movements of the late 1960s.

Alain Badiou often makes the point that both the Cultural Revolution in China and the events of May 68 in France were complex responses to the possibilities of conducting mass politics in contemporary society and to the forms of State power which tend to counteract such politics.13 10 Roger Garaudy quoted in Althusser, ibid., 163n.

11 Mao Tse-tung, Why is it that Red Political Power Can Exist in China? (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1968).

12 Cf. Althusser, ibid., 250, 254-5.

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