Daniel Tutt provides a Lacanian Perspective on Black Lives Matter via Sheldon George, Fanon and others.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have exhibited what several commentators consider the longest protest movement in American history. Although the daily protests have died down, the movement has grown to include a remarkably diverse set of participants since it initially took off in Minneapolis in late May. The protests were sparked by a gruesome video of a white officer pressing his kneecap onto the neck of a black man named George Floyd for over 8 minutes, killing Floyd in broad daylight with other officers and pedestrians looking on. The protest movement escalated quickly in Minneapolis with protestors burning down a police precinct and then quickly expanded to major cities across the country. The protests were thus launched with a militant objective and grew to incorporate various liberal, progressive and reformist orientations over time.
Lacanian psychoanalysis is a useful practice to help us grasp these revolts both from the perspective of race and racial injustice and from the more abstract question of revolt. Lacan’s teachings on revolt and revolution are ambiguous. On the one hand, his teachings were the only acceptable psychoanalytic teachings of the French Communist Party in 1970 and many of his students during the heady 68’ period went on to work as militant political activists such as Felix Guattari. On the other hand, Lacan cast profound pessimism on the May 68 protestors that crowded his seminar room, seeming to suggest then and later in Television that the revolutionary moment is a “narcissistic illusion, an inverted reflection of the revolutionary’s ego ideal in the placid mirror of the subject presumed to know” as Peter Starr notes.
The Racial Symbolic
Let’s begin with what I consider one of the better contemporary Lacanian frameworks for thinking race and racial identity provided by the Lacanian theorist Sheldon George. I want to examine how the protest movements have upended what George calls the “Racial Symbolic.” The Racial Symbolic is not that different from Lacan’s concept of the symbolic order, but is localized to the cultural and social experience of racism and racial identity in America. The Racial Symbolic is similar to what the political philosopher Charles Mills calls the “Racial Contract,” a political, moral and epistemological set of informal and formal contracts that privilege whites as a group at the expense of nonwhites. The Racial Contract continuously rewrites the social contract and undermines it, as it is being rewritten. It creates not only racial exploitation but race itself. George’s Racial Symbolic goes a step further by incorporating the psychic harm of racism on black subjectivity as well as white subjectivity.
In the Racial Symbolic, race and racial identity are embraced by black Americans, and promise a liberation based on an intersubjective identification with the signifiers of race (history, culture etc.). George writes that African American scholars promote the idea that racial identity should be treated as a “bricolage,” wherein identifications with racial signifiers establish differences between the self and other, so that identity differences can be established in positive racial terms. The Racial Symbolic is therefore structured around the “attempt to establish the self’s and the other’s divergent relations to being.” George argues, however, that projects based on the Racial Symbolic, such as those promoting racial recognition, cross-racial understanding and education, both within racial groups and across them, are inadequate because they lead to a fundamental aggressiveness.
Racial identity, in George’s view, risks falling into a trap of aggressiveness because the racial symbolic is constructed on the basis of a promise of restoring a “lost bliss of the Real” – that is, a Real founded in the historical signifier of American slavery. This primal scene creates a “jouissance of the Real,” an overlap of pleasure and pain that affects whites and blacks in different ways. The subject, either white or black, does not seek a restoration of this lost Real as such but rather identifies with the object a or “remainder” of it. The remainder of the lost Real is treated in a “post-structuralist” treatment of signifiers such that signifiers associated with race contain a promise for liberation. But George claims, in Lacanian fashion, that this promise of liberation remains tied to the terms set by an idea of the self that is conditioned by whiteness, that is, by a conception of the self that proposes a fundamental wholeness or sense of completion.
Thus, the racial signifiers that are meant to grant agency and identity in the Racial Symbolic often alienate the subject because they are situated within a set of signifiers that are determined by the S1, or master signifier of “whiteness.” An S1 signifier, or what Lacan calls a “master signifier” is problematic in this regard because the subject remains determined by the S1 despite their assumed position of freedom. George follows Lacan’s distinction between the master signifier or S1 and binary signifier S2 to define the split within racial identifications. As a master signifier, whiteness is fundamentally aggressive because “it aims at an impossible ideal of completion that no living subject – not even a white subject – can ever embody.” This impossibility of wholeness makes whiteness itself a fantasy and thus introduces a second object a. The first object a of the racial symbolic is internal to the community of black Americans and is related to the restoration of a lost wholeness, whereas the second is whiteness as such, which “masquerades as the phallus or the signifier of being and jouissance” that determines the other. George writes that for the racial symbolic, the goal of racial signifiers is to aggrandize “the lost bliss of the Real,” but this symbolic functions actively to impair the raced subject’s separation from this Real while also fortifying this subject’s alienation by the signifier (of whiteness).”Thus, unconsciously bound to both the Real and the Symbolic, race functions as an illusory, impossible possession – an Imaginary object a that is both within and absent from the subject.
What race effectively seeks is subject completion. It “searches for the fantasy object within the symbolic,” but arrives at a drive substitution. The Racial Symbolic is thus founded on drive and not desire, and this relation of the object a to drive creates a stagnant fantasy of race; one which causes psychic aggression. George proposes a different form of thinking the racial symbolic wherein the object a, or remnant of the lost Real, should privilege a relation to desire for the subject. In this case a metonymic chain of signifiers of race can create what he names a ‘cynical’ distance from the drive of the racial object a.
George is not arguing for a naïve post-racial form of subjectivity, he instead argues for a “cynicism” around race, an ironic distance to racial discourse and the presupposition that its discourse and promise of psychic liberation is in fact efficacious. His strategy here is ethical and should not be read as inattentive to the oppressive political realities endemic to white supremacy as a socio-political reality of power. Rather, he aims to isolate the psychic impact of white supremacy. While George does not define whiteness directly, it is clear that whiteness is the master signifier which determines the S2 or split subject of race, because it is premised on the promise of a fulfillment and wholeness. Whiteness is thus fundamentally an imaginary phenomenon as Lacan defined the imaginary as drawn to completion and fundamentally aggressive.
To address whiteness and the trap it entails in the Racial Symbolic, George calls for a “cynical questioning of the mandates and signifiers of the racial symbolic” so that the raced subject may attain an “obstacle to his fading.” Taking the lead of Frantz Fanon’s work on the racial psyche of black colonial analysands in his clinic, George argues that the Racial Symbolic presents a bind for the black subject such that they must come to “recognize” their desire “as desire of the Other,” that is, as a desire shaped by a symbolic structure that precedes and delimits their existence. Referring to the case of Jean Veneuse in the clinic of Fanon, a black man who reached extraordinary academic heights within the European academy and desired to no longer be determined by his blackness but could not escape it, George argues that the subject of race is in need of a “separation from the S2 binary chain that defines them from the S1 master signifier of race.”George’s “cynical” orientation to the Racial Symbolic is useful in that it disrupts the drive repetition of the raced signifiers that situate and tether the raced subject to a symbolic determined by the S1 of whiteness. As I mentioned before, the S1 or master signifier blocks desire in that it creates a harmony for all other signifiers on the condition of retaining its place within the symbolic chain. George claims that a cynical distance to the Racial Symbolic is important to cultivate so that the lack in the signifiers of the other become more apparent and the idea of psychic wholeness is seriously questioned. Such a project, George writes, “opens a space for the subject to access a part of the self which escapes the signifier.”
What we are talking about here is the distinction between desire and drive. The subject is founded on an ethical decision; that is, George is true to Lacan’s view that the subject is founded on a decisive break from the law of the symbolic. For the racial subject, it is necessary to create a distance from the signifier of whiteness which determines the other signifiers by opening up a space for the subject to access parts of the self which escape the master signifier and thus found a subjectivity in release from the hold of the racial symbolic. More specifically, George argues that the problem with the Racial Symbolic is that it privileges drive over desire, such that it closes up upon “a jouissance of pain and pleasure, this insertion into the self of the Other’s signifier.” The racial subject is engaged in an endless drive that circles the hollow object a of the Lost Real and this repetition leads to alienation and aggressivity. George’s cynical strategy is to pose race as desire, wherein a metonymic movement from object to object in search of satisfaction is enacted and a release from the S1 is opened.
Police Killings as Ruptures of Shame
I want to read the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising protests as an opening and rupturing of the Racial Symbolic, that is, as a movement from drive to desire. George himself argues that police shootings of black people ignite a “scopic shift” — that is, they open a shift in the gaze of the Racial Symbolic. As discussed above, the objectification of the racial subject makes the racial subject a “disembodied observer.” Yet at moments in which the police are caught on camera exhibiting profound and direct disregard for black life, such as in the murder of George Floyd, the shaming gaze of the police, which is normally a primary enforcement of whiteness qua master signifier, is reversed onto whiteness as such and onto the police as the emblem of this oppression. In the brutal footage of George Floyd’s death which sparked these current protests the police dispossessed themselves of the agency of the shaming gaze, but through the act of the protests, the shaming gaze is reversed. This reversal sparks a conflagration of shame. That is, it draws the subject’s desire away from the pathological object of his or her fixation in the Racial Symbolic and opens a new relation to desire.
The shame of the entirety of whiteness is exposed in the moment of the murderous event, and this enables, as George suggests, the individual African American to define more freely his or her own identity. The formerly hidden gaze is now exposed and becomes transposed onto the wider field of whiteness as such. What the George Floyd murder provoked, similar to the murder of Michael Brown which birthed the Black Lives Matter movement, is a profound cynicism of the Racial Symbolic itself. The protests suspend the repetition drive of the Racial Symbolic and open a new ambivalence that affects both white and black people in different ways. As much as the protests promote a questioning of the Racial Symbolic, they also intensify certain aggressive tendencies, as whiteness is put on trial in ways which are far beyond what most white people are prepared to confront. That is, the protests force whiteness as an S1 to account for a far wider range of oppressions than it normally is associated with. For white protestors, the master signifier of whiteness is internalized with a sense of abjection. It is this abjection that has led to what I will call a hysterical liberal protest subject.
Avoiding the Liberal-Militant Conflation
As we mentioned at the outset, the protests are internally diverse, composed of a more general liberal non-violent reformist orientation and a liberatory militant orientation. Although this distinction is clear on the ground in the protest movement, it has become less clear in the demands of the movement as evidenced by the corporate and business community already removing the name master from certain pieces of technology. The movement thus risks a conflation of militant with liberal demands. However, the psychoanalytic difference between these two positions is worth teasing out. In the liberal position, there is an abject internalization of whiteness as evidenced in the videos of white liberal protestors performing rituals of atonement and forgiveness for their own complicity in white supremacy.
In these rituals, the master signifier of whiteness is exposed and rendered complicit with the oppression of black people and functions as a stand-in for a whole number of social ills it was formerly let off the hook for. But with George’s idea of the Racial Symbolic, this complicity is fundamentally a violent and impossible complicity as it insists on understanding race at the same level of the Racial Symbolic that George articulates. That is, the white liberal is positing an idea of race that is at the level of being, a difference which aggravates and does little to seriously question the Racial Symbolic or facilitate new forms of cross-racial solidarity. In the rituals of guilt and asking for forgiveness from black Americans, the white liberals are intensifying the Racial Symbolic’s distinction at the level of being.
How might we theorize the more militant protestors subject positions? For Lacan, the rebel is a tragic hero who learns that “human jouissance depends on a transgressive movement that ultimately reaffirms the very laws, social norms, or taboos against which it is directed.” But he warned the ’68 protestors that if you want a new master, you will get one! This can be read as suggesting that revolt cannot replace the master’s injunction, but why? Lacan suggests that the rebel—and here he means the abstract rebel, i.e. any rebel—risks becoming the speculative double of the eternal master—whether that master be one’s own imaginary relation to whiteness, the police or the Law of the Father. As Peter Starr writes, the rebel’s “liberationist ideology veils the master’s power.” In revolting, the rebel fulfills the foremost precondition of the master’s continuing function as power. Starr pinpoints this paradoxical insight of Lacan’s discussion of the master in the way that “the very intensity of the revolutionary desire that the rebel sends into the communal system comes to repeat itself, on the far side of the Other’s lack of response.” The rebel or revolutionary shows a love for escaping the master’s discourse, but this love for an escape or rupture mires the rebel in the specular image of their ego ideal.
For Lacan, the problem of rebellion is that it does not present a fully transparent moment of truth. As Starr points out:
The knowledge of a fully self-present and potentially consummate revolutionary moment, which the militant originally supposes of the Other, can only be a narcissistic illusion, an inverted reflection of the revolutionary’s ego ideal in the placid mirror of the subject presumed to know.
This fact that the rebellion does not present a consummate moment of rupture that is non-narcissistic is a tragic piece of insight Lacan offers to any would-be rebel. The rebel cannot easily escape specular misrecognition in the act of rebellion. Lacan’s anti-philosophical orientation is clear: the rebel is taking the act of their rebellion as a “truth of truth” – and Lacan is pushing against this metaphysical idea of truth in favor of a step-by-step approach to the rebellion. Lacan prefers to read the rebellion as an oscillation between hope and despair. Because human desire is an impasse, a tragicomic impasse, that same ambivalence and vacillation of desire must be recognized within rebellion.
What interests Lacan in rebellions is that they “render a power more absolute for being reduced to the words that signify power.” With Lacan’s tragic insights into rebellion, we must determine how to think a space for a revolt which is not captured by the master. As Žižek comments in Less Than Nothing (2012):
Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master.
Thinking these revolts along the axis of the drive of the Racial Symbolic helps us to see how the protests are posing a rupture that is both a re-visitation of the archaic scene of the jouissance of slavery and its legacies, as well as opening a metonymic process of desire in which racial signifiers are enforced but also offered up for new potential solidarity within and across races. For the white liberal, the protests open a new discourse of hysteria – a “what am I to the other?” is posed. The response the white liberal receives is a resounding “you are this!” – you are complicit in the misery of black people. The white liberal fits a hysterical structure, aiming to embody a fantasy object in the other’s desire. The desire of the hysteric is to be “all for the other” and Lacan shows how this desire is ultimately a desire for the ideal Father.
The militant is less invested in the repetition of the Racial Symbolic and more drawn to the desire of new possibilities opened in the movement. The militant can thus be thought along with George’s idea of cynical distance from the Racial Symbolic. But the forces of capture—both from the state and from capital—threaten to conflate the militant with the liberal, or even worse, to make the liberal into the militant. Thus, the biggest challenge to the protest movement, from the standpoint of desire, is that that the protests’ demands are being met. The fact that the business community, for example, have already deeply embraced the protestors’ demands under the rubric of “woke capitalism” recalls what Lacan said in Television, that to denounce capitalism is to “reinforce it—by normalizing it, that is, perfecting it.” Satisfying the immediate liberatory demands of the protests send the protests back into the inertia of the Racial Symbolic, a reorientation to the everyday.
Daniel Tutt is a philosopher and media producer. He teaches philosophy at George Washington University and is a member of the Lacanian Forum of Washington, DC. His writing can be found at danieltutt.com.
[1-8] George, Sheldon “From Alienation to Cynicism: Race and the Lacanian Unconscious” 2014 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1088-0763 Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society Vol. 19. p. 2, p. 11, p. 10, p. 9 p. 12, p. 182, p. 16
[9-14] Starr, Peter, Logic of Revolts: French Theory After May 68, Stanford University Press, 1995. p. 57, p. 58. p. 59, p. 73.
 Zizek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing. Verso, 2012. p. 616.
 Lacan, Jacques Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, W.W. Norton and Co., 1990. pp. 13-14.