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Language at Degree Zero 


Carlo De Panfilis



Racism, or hatred of the Other, shifts its targets according to how the forms of social bonds change (1).


The globalized capitalist economic system, science and technology have defined new social positions. The imposition of the Universal upon every social order has caused fundamental changes in the field of ethics. The liberal free market has resulted in a retreat on the level of social rights. The counterweight of the single market has produced an exacerbation and extension of the processes of segregation and a reduction of the sense of belonging to a community. On the one hand, therefore, we are witnessing the generalized and multiple homogenization of the modes of jouissance which fragment social ties, producing a hedonistic individualism, exacerbating and concealing the very lack of jouissance itself. On the other hand, we are adrift among multiple productive, economic and social crises, with the loss of acquired civil rights, which come head to head with an increase in immigration. It follows that the current subjectivity is marked by a fragmentation both of social bonds and of the possibility of recognizing oneself as belonging to a community.


The solution proposed and championed by so-called “populism” is the establishment of a unifying identity. The construction of this identity begins either by claiming some internal specificity of the individual to be defended, or it is an identity in opposition to some external otherness, defined precisely in its opposition to the other. For those individuals unable to recognize themselves in this common construction, the only shared identity is that of the collective drives and fears, in the name of an absolute mastery of all ways of jouissance and the rejection of differences.


In this way are born new forms of identitarian conformity. The attachment to a particular type of identity favors radicalization processes and fuels conflicts. This fueling of conflict is sustained and pursued through a language that does not produce either discourse or dialogue but only places demands upon, and requires rejection of, the other, culminating in its most radical and generalized outcome: the fear of being replaced. This is a self-perpetuating process and presents serious risks of dehumanization. We hear political leaders who foreshadow that an “ethnic substitution”, desired by both internal political forces as well as international “power centers”, is happening in our country. The tone of the declarations may change slightly, but not their meaning: “I don’t accept the Ius Soli in Italy, it is a substitution of peoples”; “The left, worldwide, has planned an invasion (of immigrants), a substitution of peoples”; “An operation of ethnic replacement is under way, coordinated by Europe.” Therefore, we have a conflict that produces a language without words, which cannot be dialectically overcome because it posits itself as a “we” that is not only threatened with “elimination” but even with “substitution”.


The work of Freud is opposed to this idea of a unifying identity with the introduction of the unconscious and the consequent subjective division. Lacan says: “The idea of a unifying unity of the human condition has had on me the effect of a scandalous lie” (2). The language that aims at a unifying identity consists of an appeal to “values”, such as those of an ethnic or religious identity, which draw their strength from being presented as “truth”. It is a language that can be expressed in different forms, evocative and easily presentable in the form of an image, of the apparently “true” and weighty phrase, of forms of communication whose emotional impact is great but whose dialectic content is nil. Zero degrees of language, whose richness becomes ornamental, iconic, impressive, raises up barbed wire against otherness and with it democracy.


(1) Laurent, É., “Le racisme 2.0”, Hurly-Burly, No. 11, 2014, pp. 217-22.

(2) Lacan, J., Intervention at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (18-21/10/1966)




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