The Real at the heart of society

Most social theorists nowadays stress the discursive nature of society.  In other words, they point out that society is not simply a collection of individuals, i.e.  group psychology writ large, but rather is structured by a network of signifiers and signifieds.   This has often been interpreted by Marxist critics as some kind of idealistic (in the philosophical sense of the word) argument, which attempts to reduce social formations to structures of meaning, ignoring the material dimensions of power and economics.

However, this is is ignore the fact that discursive structures are material in themselves.  In other words, meaning has a material structure, and is not just some kind of ‘epiphenomenon’ that some Marxists like to think it is.  As Louis Althusser argued over 40 years ago, a great deal of (material) effort goes into constructing and sustaining what he defined as the ideological state apparatus, which is serving the interests of the ruling class.   And even if we were to prefer the concept of hegemony to that of ruling class,1 it is still clear that those with power and influence put a great deal of effort into legitimating their position and de-legitimating the position of their opponents; and the way they do this is primarily through the use of ideas and images, for example through various forms of media.   To put it another way, power is as much a function of meaning as it is of physical violence and repression.2

Having said all this, there is also a serious caveat:  even if we accept that social formations (of any description) are discursive, are based around meaning, at the heart of this meaning is a void, a kernel of non-meaning, an impossibility.  Of course, this void, this impossibility has, somewhat paradoxically, a name: the Real.  However, we need to be careful not to think of the Real as being somehow ‘extra-discursive’, as being ‘outside’ of language and meaning; on the contrary, it is a function of meaning.  In other words, and as I have argued elsewhere, meaning begets non-meaning.  Another way to put this is to argue that society is structured around a trauma, in the sense that trauma is another way of defining the Real.  

In fact we could argue that the purpose of any social formation is to try and ‘de-traumatise’ what is at the heart of human relations, which is a set of contradictions.  This applies to organisations and families as much as it does to whole societies.  Any kind of social organisation is full of contradiction; for example, between capital and labour, between employees’ desire for job security and employers’ need for a flexible labour market, between personal ambition and good of the collective whole.   Politics is essentially a way of ‘managing’ contradiction; in fact, so is most management itself.   Even within totalitarian societies, there is still a great deal of contradiction, both in the ruling party and in the wider society; the Nazi party, for example, was full of infighting, and was in fact a very inefficient political apparatus.   And in democratic societies these contradictions are even more marked because everyone wants a voice and their place in the sun.   The role of government is essentially to pretend that everyone does have a voice and a say in how things are run, whilst ensuring that the interests of the ruling class or hegemonic grouping.  This might be one reason why Freud defined politics as one of the three ‘impossible professions’. 3

However, there is another twist (as always) to this argument.  The very fact that at the heart of politics, at the heart of society, there is an impossibility (the Real) does not mean that there is no point in either politics or society.  Rather, it’s precisely this impossibility that drives people to either participate directly in politics itself, or to vote for others to do this on their behalf.  It is this core of impossibility, this kernel of the Real that motivates people, engenders their desire, makes them strive for something beyond the misery and mundaneness of everyday life, to long for the promise of a new life.  Essentially this is what both politics and society (and in fact economics as well) is for: to ‘manage’ people’s desire for the impossible. 

  1. a term that many ‘post-Marxists’ such as Ernesto Laclau prefer. []
  2. Although we should never underestimate the role of physical violence and repression in sustaining hegemony in any society []
  3. The other two being education and psychoanalysis. []