"Let's bury a few liberals!" (A Lacanian Gesture)

Alex Betancourt-Serrano*



Judging by recent reflections from cultural theorists, political scientists, historians and philosophers, it seems Francis Fukuyama had it his way: we are indeed at the end of history1. I have, of course, to give you the immediate caveat. Fukuyama seems to have 'won' academically (a Pyrrhic victory for sure), to the extent that most of contemporary political discourse has given up any meaningful critique of contemporary political liberalism and its historical conception. And a meaningful critique entails much more than any remedial assessment of the current state of affairs either through the politics of tolerance, multiculturalism, or respect for different cultures, ethnic rights, gay rights, feminist struggles etc. Academics and media pundits depart from the Fukuyamian assumption about which liberalism is the end of history, and in a self-deluding understanding of themselves as leftists immediately move to give a fierce defense of multicultural tolerance based on a plea for the welfare state. However, seldom does one encounter meaningful demands that effectively go beyond this pseudo-leftist reformist agenda, to put it in an old-fashioned Marxist parlance. This is indeed a bleak picture. However, it gets worse.

The political Right no longer assumes the blatantly racist stance they once did. We no longer hear the old McCarthyite stance where the 'Other' (be it barbarian Blacks, Latinos with throat cutting knives, or Commie bastards) was demonized tout court. Or at least we don't hear it as often. On the contrary, nowadays the Right claims to have absolute respect for the 'Other'. All we have to do is tune to Fox News and we'll get George W. Bush talking about the good, tolerant, and respectful Muslim as opposed to the bad, fundamentalist, and intransigent one. The same dichotomization of the 'Other' is part of many other discursive agendas. Among the variety, we have the salutary welcome to the hard working single mother with two jobs opposed to the lazy welfare queen who does not want to help herself and achieve independence, but who instead wants the government to do everything for her and still has an attitude. Again, and along the same lines, we have the good homosexual, who keeps his desire to himself and does not go around bothering anyone. That is, the homosexual who is just that and whose sexuality is a private matter but whose public behavior is like that of any other guy. But then we have the bad and perverse homosexual; the one who has to display his desire publicly and doesn't behave appropriately, for he wants to impose his 'otherness'. In short, the Right nowadays is also, although in an obscene manner, tolerant and multicultural. This is not to say that a liberal and a conservative are the same thing, but to say that they are in the same paradigmatic universe. Although their politics and their historical perspective differ in their content (not in any radical way), they remain the same in their paradigmatic form. Let me clarify this point.

In terms of political content, a Liberal individual fights to protect acquired rights (usually of a constitutional character). She may also struggle to defend, whether possible, to expand protections accorded by the welfare state. The political content of a true Conservative individual goes the other way around: he wants the government to intervene in matters a liberal understands as private such as the body and the bedroom. Furthermore, he wants the government out of matters a liberal would consider pertaining to the public realm (for they affect us all) such as the economy and the market.

In terms of history, the most progressive that we get from the liberal standpoint is the 'postcolonial studies' discursive agenda in which alternative narratives of history are championed. The main claim of historical injustice is expressed in terms of the failure to recognize the cultural particularity and worth of the 'Other', and its right of inclusion to the historical narrative. For the purpose of this essay, and since I depart from what I believe is a progressive stance, I will leave aside the "Right", in terms of content although not of form. I believe both discourses share the same paradigmatic form. What I call the common paradigmatic form entails, politically, a discourse of rights and responsibilities entwined with a capitalist free market ideology. Historically, it embraces the Fukuyamian notion that liberal-democracy is the culmination of history and therefore an impossibility of envisioning and alternative historico-political spectrum. Lately, many in the (US) academic left seem to be suffering from an atrophy of their politico-historical imagination. The remaining of this essay can be read as an attempt, in good old Marxist parlance, at a 'prolegomena to a possible cure for the academic left atrophy.'


I think is appropriate to begin by briefly approaching the coordinates of the postcolonial approach to history. The proposal of postcolonial history is concerned with "writing difference inside the history of modernity" and while they're at it, "fighting the assimilation of its narratives inside the European political imaginary."2 The main focus is on the discontinuity of subaltern narratives with relation to official history. It aims to deconstruct official history and modern historiography in order to show how they configure both hegemonic relations as well as marginal experiences. One of the major complaints is that dominant historiography "with its emphasis on the state as the central problem of insurgency, deprives the rebel from recognition as a historical subject in its own right."3 One of the most important critiques of this project is against historicism, in particular one identified as the Western Marxist conception of the political, where if there is no presence of a highly develop cultural bourgeoisie, such predicament is considered "pre-political" in terms of its stage of development.4 The project is also presented as a way of transcending liberalism, and its historical narratives.

As it has been pointed out by a recent assessment of the postcolonial project, "subaltern voices emerge in the frontiers of cultural hybridity; in the margins of history and official languages; through the experience of cultural difference and of resistance to totalization; in the ambiguity of the nation and in the perplexity of living the finitude of the nation."5 Gayatri Spivak's work has been understood as an attempt from within the postcolonial approach to "recover the subaltern consciousness through a deconstruction of dominant historiography and the production of an effect of truth from the subaltern."6 Spivak points out how the postcolonial intellectual has to be aware of her own position. She insists on the distinction of speaking for someone (as in representative forms of government) and speaking about someone (as in philosophical traditions).7 Ultimately her position implies that the subaltern can speak, that in order for this voice to be heard, she has to pass through the hegemonic discourse before it can reach an agency in its own terms.8 The question is what is this hegemonic discourse through which the subaltern voice has to go through when it 'speaks'? In the West, such hegemony is nothing else than the coordinates of liberal-democracy.

Let me briefly take then one of the latest attempts, from a well-known philosopher, to deal with the injustices committed against the 'Other'. In her recent book Women and Human Development, Martha C. Nussbaum takes as her point of departure the social, political, economic and domestic predicament of poor women in India. Her basic aim is to provide the "philosophical underpinning for an account of basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by the governments of all nations, as a bare minimum of what respect for human dignity requires."9 Informed by John Rawls' theory and its Kantian motto of treating every individual as an end in itself and never as a mean, Nussbaum identifies a "list of central human capabilities, setting them in the context of a type of political liberalism that makes them specifically political goals and present them in a manner free of any specific metaphysical grounding."10 The politics that drive Nussbaum's interest are those whose concern is the presence of constitutional essentials and issues of basic justice. The Indian constitution, she argues, provides for most of measures necessary to secure equality to women. The problem relies on a basically misogynist culture and the lack of political will to enforce these constitutional essentials. But the most pervasive aspect is that there is a lack of "public reason". This is Rawls's notion, where public reason is to be the discourse of a political society essentially transparent, and that actively seeks the public good. Nussbaum also shares the Rawlsian commitment to the absence of a "comprehensive doctrine" in public matters. That is, a liberal society that should not promote any conception of the good, since that has to be left to the private realm.

This kind of liberal approach to disadvantaged members of society is the most progressive discourse that we get nowadays in mainstream academia. When postcolonial theorists and historians acknowledge that in order for the voice of the other to be heard it has to pass through the hegemonic discourse, this liberal discourse is the path that claims of justice and recognition have to take. The problem is that although the expectation is that subaltern claims will point to the injustice of the system and that 'subaltern history' will give them recognition, there is here a deeper fantastic logic (in the sense of fantasy) operating here. A logic that the postcolonial position, which is presumably the most progressive when it comes to the subjugation of the 'Other', misses. This fantasy binds, whether they intended it or not, the postcolonial project to political liberalism. Let me resort to Freud to clarify my argument.


I think we can all agree with Freud that as humans we are all self-interpreting subjects, or at least have the capacity for it. But more importantly we are also historical subjects. This is not to say of course that the approaches discussed here denied this, on the contrary they assume it wholeheartedly. Nor do they deny that as historical subjects, we can look at ourselves and our place in history and interpret what is the significance of our place and how we got there. Now, among many possible interpretations and self-understandings we must acknowledge that the experience of the historically marginalized and politically excluded is a painful one. Such an experience may be a traumatic historical experience. Moreover, in terms of one's subjective and historical positioning in front of the place one is sited by a hegemonic narrative and the way one may see oneself can produce certain kinds of attachments that impede seeing oneself in a historico-political alternative position. That is to say, a painful historical experience and the possible attachments that such an experience may produce with its corollary socio-economic position can produce a fundamental fantasy that ties one to an oppressive structure. Wendy Brown has called this logic "wounded attachments".11

What I want to point out is that in relation to the current historico-political understandings and approaches to the injustices committed against the 'Other', is that these approaches actually rely on the aforementioned fantasy. Such fantastic structure helps to both: sustain the liberal position with its theoretical and political framework, and secondly, such a stance ensures the reliability of the status quo. This (possibly unconscious) reliability gives the feeling that things will be OK, and the 'other' will remain 'other' as long as nothing changes in any fundamental way. A Freudian understanding of that fantastic tie, which creates a defensive structure in front of emancipation, not only sheds light theoretically about the dependency on that structure, but more importantly, the psychoanalytic notion of 'working through' can help to break one's entanglements with oppressive and unjust structures of power, and our ideological dependency to existing social 'reality'. A personal anecdote might be of help to clarify my argument.


I am sure that some of the readers at some point have been in a Christian burial ceremony in Latin America. Contrary to the usually quiet and solemn occasion Anglo-Saxon burials are, their Latin counterpart can be seeing as an actually very cathartic experience. One can hear people screaming a mile away. The display of emotional pain and suffering is impressive. Anyway, I have always thought that this is quite a healthy event. Nonetheless, and at the risk of sounding tactlessly blasphemous, I want to confess a certain sadistic impulse of mine in those occasions, to prove a larger and important point.

There is usually in these burials someone (usually a relative of the deceased: a mother, father, sibling, husband or wife) whom repeatedly asks, while enduring unbearable pain and suffering, to be buried along with the deceased. I have always felt a strong perverse impulse of actually pushing this person into the grave. Such perversity requires, of course, a certain distance from the actual situation of emotional pain and suffering. I believe such sadistic impulse only emerges when one is not embedded in the situation. Hence its structure is both fantastic (in the Freudian sense) but also hypocritical. Nevertheless, I think this example, cruel as it is, points to something important. If someone would in effect take this violent passage a l'acte and literally push the person into the grave along with the deceased, I belief a truly Lacanian experience would take place: an encounter with the infamous Real. The person would be literally facing death and realize that there is nothing there and that his or her presence and liveliness cannot fill that void. The point is that although you may be a suffering subject, the bottom line is that you are alive and the deceased is not. It is only your liveliness that allows you to make the symbolic gesture of wanting to be dead. If you were to be pushed into the grave, an encounter with the real kernel of the 'Other' would take place. Finally, one would find out that there is nothing there, not only literally in terms of the absence of life, but more radically, in the sense that the 'Other' is constitutively VOID.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, I believe is the following: let's bury the liberal multiculturalist and the postcolonial historian! This would certainly be considered to be a truly Lacanian gesture. Such gesture would reveal two fundamental points. First, that the postcolonial historian can maintain his/her position, not only because there is an 'Other' that sustains and makes possible the postcolonial discourse, but more importantly because the place of this 'Other' is constitutive, so that as long as that 'Other' remains such, as long as nothing actually changes, the postcolonial discourse is secured. If there were to be a truly radical change (let us say, in anachronistic fashion, a proletarian revolution bringing a democratization of the economy along with a policy of redistribution), the first heads to roll would be those of the postcolonial intelligentsia and the liberal multiculturalists. Their scrounging nature would become clear immediately (in Lacanesse aprčs coup). That is why there is no risk in arguing, a la Kant, as much as one wants as long as one obeys. The postcolonial historian and the political liberal are secure in their positions. Only a truly structural change would unveiled the logic behind these positions and at the same time probably even erase them. However, until such structural change take place in a sense we seem to live in a Kantian universe.12 As we can remember Kant understood Enlightenment as the emergence of humanity from immaturity, where immaturity was the "inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another."13 In the Kantian universe the only requisite for Enlightenment is freedom, that is, the use of reason publicly in all matters. Hence, what Kant considered Enlightenment's proper command was Frederick's motto "Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!"14 The command provided freedom to the subject as a scholar to call into question laws, believes, and commands but it required, from the same subject as passive member of society, his civic duty to obey. Liberals and postcolonial theorists depend on such discursive universe, for a different and radical one would cost them their existence. I said earlier that the Lacanian gesture (or rather my sadistic impulse) reveals two things. The second would be the radical lack of the 'other': in Lacanesse a constitutive lack. That is to say, there is nothing transcendental about the 'other'. Only a materialist historical understanding about how this 'other' became subjugated politically and economically and how its otherness served as a scapegoat for such subjugation, only such an approach can sustain one's authentic solidarity towards that 'other'. Rather than this, the postcolonial fetishistic focus is with the ontological status of otherness and its epistemological contours. This approach, although some argue that it historicizes the other, I believe that it effectively erases the possibility of a true solidarity. It erases this possibility because it fetishizes that which is lacking in the 'other', and after such fetishization, it tries to fill that void.

Liberals, such as Martha Nussbaum, try to fill the void with a good dose of political liberalism to poor Indian women; the Derrideans with the infamous difference; the Foucaultians with the microphysics of power, etc. However, a Freudian understanding would allow us to avoid that fetishization, work through our own egotistic investment in otherness and be effectively solidary.


To conclude, I want to propose an outline for a theoretical engagement between Freud (as providing an excellent antidote for the fetish with otherness) and Walter Benjamin whom I believe can give us an acute sense of the historical materialism I mentioned earlier is needed.

I believe that Benjamin provides us with an acute sense of historical materialism that avoids the pitfalls of the postcolonial approach. Benjamin argues "the historical materialist must sacrifice the epic dimension of history. The past for him becomes the subject of a construction whose locus is not empty time, the particular life, the particular work. [because epoch presupposes continuity and does not account for particularity]." According to Benjamin the materialist approach "breaks the epoch away from its reified historical continuity, and the life from the epoch, and the work from the life's work. But the result is that in the work the life's work, in the life's work the epoch, and in the epoch the course of history are suspended and preserved."15 The problem that he sees in, cultural history, and the conceptions that I have discussed here fall under this category, is that cultural history represented "on the basis of pragmatic story-telling certainly makes no sense. But the absurdity of a dialectical history of culture as such lies deeper, since the continuum of history, blown apart by dialectics, is nowhere scattered over a wider area than in that part people call culture. In short, cultural history only seems to represent a deepening of insight; it does not present even the appearance of progress in dialectics. For it lacks the destructive element that guarantees the authenticity of dialectical thought and of the dialectician's experience."16 As we mentioned earlier the postcolonial approach certainly is a deepening of insight, but it lacks the destructive element. In Benjamin this destructive element does away not only with the liberal conception of history, but moreover with any formula that tries to attach the progressive agenda of democracy with a reformist, revisionist or reactionary political imaginary. Benjamin insistence on the "tradition of the oppressed" places both the historian and the oppressed agency outside the paradigmatic universe of bourgeois liberalism and against all currents of consensual politics. Moreover, Benjamin argues that a "treatment which focus on the conscious interests of individuals, rather than on the often unconscious reactions of their class to its position in the production process, lead to an overestimation of the role of conscious elements in the formation of ideology."17 And it is along these lines that I see a fruitful encounter between a Freudian approach that takes the 'other' seriously, in its incompleteness, evading fantasy, fetishism and melancholy, and a Benjaminian non-traditional historical materialism, but one where the elements of a generation's dreams are material for both critique and understanding.

* I would like to thank Antonio Y. Vázquez-Arroyo and Mónica Espinosa for their critical comments to this polemical essay.

1. Slavoj Zizek makes a similar remark although he meant it differently. See Slavoj Zizek (ed), Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, New York: Verso, 2002. Here Zizek argues that Fukuyama was right in the sense that "in so far as the proper opposite of history is nature, the "end of history" means that the social process itself is more and more "naturalized", experienced as a new form of "fate", as a blind uncontrollable force" p. 292

2.Mónica Espinosa-Arango, "Dentro de la Historia: Un Debate Sobre Representación Histórica, Poscolonialidad y Protestas Indígenas", p. 22. Forthcoming in Carlos Pabón (ed.) El Pasado del Presente: Debates Historiográficos Contemporáneos, San Juan: Ediciones Vértigo, 2004

3.Ibid., p. 24.

4.See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000. For an altogether different (in style and content) appreciation of Marxism(s) contribution to history and to the discipline of cultural studies where the postcolonial project is most present see Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003)

5.Espinosa, pp. 29-30. See also Homi K. Bhabha The Location of Culture. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994, ch. 8

6.Espinosa, p. 34.

7.See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Carry Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988

8.There is an interesting critique of this position, from an also postcolonial perspective, made by R. Radhakrishnan, "Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity", in Callaloo, Volume 16, Issue 4, On "Post-Colonial Discourse": A Special Issue (Autumn, 1993), 750-771.

9.Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 5.

10.Ibid, emphasis in the original.

11.See her outstanding States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995. Especially chapter 3.

12.Slavoj Zizek compares an argument made by Gilbert Keith Chesterton regarding freedom of thought to Kant's position in his "Answer to the Question What is Enlightenment?" Chesterton writes "We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style, the emancipation of the slave's mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free, and he will not free himself." As quoted in Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, New York: Verso, 2002, p. 3.

13. Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 54.

14.Ibid, p. 59 emphasis in the original

15.Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, London; New York: Verso, 2000 p. 352

16.Ibid, p. 360

17.Ibid, p. 375