LRO x TLR: From Paranoia to Conspiracy Theory

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When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do

(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)

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LRO 265
17th December 2020


From Paranoia to Conspiracy Theory*
Roger Litten

On the basis of Lacan’s formulation of paranoia as the localization of jouissance in the place of the Other we can consider paranoia to be a treatment of jouissance that seeks to clear an inhabitable space for the subject by situating an unmanageable jouissance in an exterior field, always at the risk of the return of that jouissance in the figure of an invasive and persecutory Other.

In these terms, paranoia can be mapped onto the Oedipal logic of masculine sexuation, where a well-ordered set of stable attributes is founded on the position of the exception, the one that is not like all the others, the father who has access to the enjoyment of all the women, as condition of a pacified bond between the band of brothers subject to the law of prohibition.

The paranoiac solution, however, becomes more difficult to maintain in an era in which the Other is increasingly perceived not to exist, and the unitary master signifiers that governed our world and whose reign was previously unchallenged have been dispersed under the pressures of globalization.

The contemporary subject is instead confronted with a multiplicity of signifiers operating in the form of a constellation, a swarm, Lacan’s essaim, accompanied by the massifying effects of population in the melting pot of civilizations no longer separated by the stable frontiers and rigid binary partitions of the previous era.

The extension of the logic of the not-all under the pressures of globalization has given rise to new challenges for the regulation of jouissance and for the organization of a social space which is no longer ordered by reference to the paternal exception but rather constituted as an open series subject to the immanence of jouissance.

The current coronavirus pandemic is itself a symptom of the conditions of globalization, the viral transmission throughout an increasingly connected world of an invisible agent that attacks both the intimacy of the body and the integrity of the social bond, leaving subjects abandoned to their solitary jouissance.

One striking aspect of the pandemic has been the profusion of the conspiracy theories that we have seen proliferating around the site of this eruption of a biological real that turns those closest to us into a mortal threat.

We can pay attention not so much to the content as to some of the characteristics of these conspiracy theories, which are themselves spread by viral transmission, enhanced by the effects of amplification and rapid diffusion enabled by the digital platforms of our global social networks.

It is easy to be bewildered by some of these outlandish theories which appear almost designed to defy belief and do not seem to be integrated into any coherent or consistent worldview. They have no obvious common feature unless it be distrust of all forms of received knowledge and a questioning of the legitimacy of all institutional forms of authority, ultimately targeting the arbitrariness of the link between signifier and signified, foundation of any stable effect of meaning or truth.

These conspiracy theories, which can thus be seen to map the rise of populism in contemporary politics, constitute a floating mass of unstable and interchangeable significations not organized into any coherent discourse and therefore not bound to any recognizable conditions of knowledge, meaning, truth or belief.

These significations, messages in search of a code, offer momentary hooks, temporary points of adherence, for alignments between the most diverse social groupings, micro-communities coming together in the shelter of fragile bubbles of certainty. They do not, however, seem to serve as signifiers that might be effective in the naming of jouissance or offer stable points of identification for subjects adrift in a sea of meanings.

We can consider these phenomena as symptoms of the impasses of contemporary civilization, itself no longer organized into any coherent discourse that would distribute places and provide some kind of purchase on jouissance. Instead we witness the elements of discourse floating in free circulation without the effects of production that would allow the extraction of an object of jouissance or the constitution of a functioning Other.

It is here perhaps that the introduction of the analytic discourse, the psychoanalyst as a new object launched onto the market of commodities, might offer a recourse against the discontents of contemporary civilization. Let us not forget Lacan’s initial characterization of psychoanalysis as a ‘directed paranoia’, one that makes use of the semblant of the Other to install the analyst in the position of partner of jouissance.

It is around the axes of analytic transference that the elements of a discourse can be ordered, allowing the subject to elaborate a question about the hole in knowledge and to extract a signifier that would enable the naming of a singular jouissance. It is in this way that psychoanalysis offers each subject, one by one, the opportunity to construct a symptom that could provide them with a way out of the contemporary labyrinths of jouissance.

*Originally published in The Lacanian Review, no. 10 (2020): 212-213.

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