« Language at Degree Zero » by 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, E., “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)


« The Price of Democracy » par Andreas Steininger

When Europe lay in ruins after the devastation of two world wars, it was clear, and by this I mean that it was clear to most bodies of survivors on the basis of an immediate experience, that the value of a new order could only be measured by whether this construction would succeed in stopping, cutting a destructive Trieb, one that slides into the beyond of a life-affirming function. There was a lot to be said for this. I mean, one composed elements of the Lacanian registers to build a bulwark against the headlessness of the destructive and deadly side of the Trieb. Human rights in their simple and elementary reference to the Golden Rule (do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you) – which, beyond a mediating ideal, proposes feedback with the real as a direct touchstone – the legal letters of the rule of law as a symbolic framework fixed in writing, the symbolic algorithm of majority voting, where each vote has an umpteenth weight of the umpteenth voter, the documented right of the press to contradict the signifier of the man, etc. In the imaginary, one immersed oneself in the narcissistically charged image of enlightened humanism, an openness to the world, a developed society, etc. All this knotted itself in the term democracy to a self-understanding of Western Europe. Firmly joined, this construction seemed like a cut against the passions of the Todestrieb, hatred and ignorance.

The connection to this construction democracy lives from the direct experience of Not and Angst. For instance, because of the fear of my mother-in-law, who survived an escape by a hail of bombs as a little girl in the back seat of a bicycle. It is imposed on the late-born to somehow find their connection to this reality in order to grasp the relevance of democracy at first hand. This is not limited to a mental culture of remembrance. This means a connection by means of a savoir y faire, by means of an invented knowledge how one can concretely try something here with this traumatic.

If now, 70 years later, the connection to the traumatic core of the construction of democracy is more and more forgotten, it seems as if it is an unalterable matter of course, as if the hardware box of democracy with all its pleasant consequences continues to tick when it is gradually abolished.

But the real of democracy still hits us as a cut. As a cut in the wake of the Geneva Refugee Convention, which imposes on us to arrange for people from other cultural areas to live next to us, as a cut, that we have to arrange ourselves with the enjoyment of our neighbours, as a cut, that a politician has to live with the fact that he is criticised by the media and has to arrange for the separation of powers.

The question is whether it is precisely in these disagreeable cuts that one can recognize the necessary price and therefore the relevance and presence of democracy, or whether one, with which political capital is made today, does everything possible to avoid these cuts – in the erroneous belief that democracy could still continue to exist.

« Refugee Lives matter » by Roger Litten

Article paru dans Lacanian Review Online, le 7 septembre 2018


As psychoanalysts we can hardly claim to have answers to all the ills, political or otherwise, of modern civilisation. But as practitioners of speech and language we can at least strive to pay attention to what is at stake in some of the discourses currently taking shape around us.

The recent resurgence of far-right political parties has been accompanied by the infiltration of the public sphere by an insidious discourse that does not call directly for violence and killing, but rather seeks to put a lethal jouissance to work under the guise of rational appeal to some common good.[i]

How are we to find ways to counter the rise of these new discourses, anonymous in their enunciation, neutral and reasonable in their argument, but lethal in their consequences, consequences for which any responsibility is disavowed in advance?

Take for instance the leading article of a recent issue of The Spectator magazine in the UK[ii]. This piece carries the commendable title ‘Refugee Lives Matter’. One only has to read the first few paragraphs of this article, however, to discover that these lives do not matter in quite the way that one might expect.

The piece opens by drawing links between the refugee policies of the USA and Europe:

“The photographs of children in cages at US migration centres, apparently separated from the parents with whom they illegally entered the country, do not reflect well on the Trump administration. Talking tough on migration helped the President to win the election but there is a difference between building a wall and carrying out a policy which appears to use cruelty as a shock tactic.”

The exact nature of the difference between building a wall and a policy of cruelty is not specified. The paragraphs that follow, however, suggest that the author thinks that building a wall would in fact be an act of kindness in comparison with what he considers the true cruelty at stake in the West’s treatment of migrants from Third World countries:

“Yet there is a policy towards migrants that is ultimately far crueller, and which is being pursued beneath our noses in Europe. This is to tempt migrant into unseaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean.”

Note here the rhetorical role of that delicate little word “tempt”. In the light of the complex and intertwined issues at stake in the contemporary phenomenon of migration in a globalised world, it offers a reassuring simplification to be able to think that that it is Europe’s “tempting” policy on migration that is one of its primary drivers.

A similar argument was at the root of the UK government’s refusal to sign up to any European refugee rescue programme in the Mediterranean, on the grounds that rescuing refugees would simply exacerbate the problem. Better then to stand by and watch desperate men, women and children drowning in the Mediterranean than to feel any sense of implication in a question that touches each one of us in our humanity.

Avoiding this awkward trap, the author of this piece resorts instead to the neutral administrative language of statistics and calculation, laying the foundation for a rather abrupt conclusion that might otherwise appear here as a non sequitur:

“Last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration, 3,116 people died attempting to reach European countries from North Africa by sea, in addition to 5,143 deaths in 2016. However demeaning the treatment meted out to Mexicans caught after a failed dash across the US border, it is not killing them.”

Note the spurious link by which we arrive at the claim that however demeaning the treatment of immigrants in the US at least “it is not killing them”. This apparently reasonable claim leaves us only a couple of delicate steps away from the true destination of this scurrilous line of argument, that perhaps it would be better for all concerned if we did in fact resort to killing a few more of “them”.

“European governments cannot claim they bear no responsibility for these deaths. Migrants are taking the risks because, in the vast majority of cases, their journeys are successful – and if they land, they probably get to stay. This is due to EU policy on migration.”

It turns out that the anonymous author of this ‘opinion piece’ is not in fact entirely averse to assigning responsibility for this lamentable situation. If these deaths can be attributed directly to the European Union policy on immigration, then it is clear that the only possible conclusion at this point is that the policy will have to change.

Although the author is not yet quite brazen enough to carry his own argument through to its logical conclusion, he is quite happy to point us in the right direction, once more resorting to the objective and impersonal vocabulary of statistical calculations in order to spare us the messy business of implication in difficult ethical and political choices.

“For every life lost in the Mediterranean in 2016, there were 50 successful landings; a death rate of just 2 percent. The Britons and Irish who emigrated to America in search of a better life faced far higher chances of dying yet were not deterred. If there is a 98 per cent chance of being able to start a new life on a more prosperous continent, it ought to be no surprise that so many take this risk.”

The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. It is not all that difficult to see, however, that under these terms what would be required would be a more or less radical readjustment of the parameters of the calculation. The author could not, of course, be expected to assume responsibility for deciding just what level of migrant deaths would be appropriate to act as a suitable deterrent. What ratio, after all, would be sufficient to clear the conscience of all right-thinking Europeans of any sense of implication in this mess?

One of the outstanding achievements of this piece, however, is not so much the well-tried device of replacing awkward political choices with the language of administrative calculations but rather that of managing to present an argument for more lethal outcomes for immigrants under the guise of humanitarian concern for the interests of those who will be the victims of this change of policy. Refugee lives matter indeed!

Are we really going to allow this kind of discourse to infiltrate our public spaces without comment? Or will we have to set ourselves the task of calling out its obscenity wherever and in whatever form we encounter it, before we ourselves become so immune to its insidious effects that we no longer notice what it is saying?

[i] Cf., ‘Discourses That Kill’, Argument for the European Forum to be held in Brussels on 1st December 2018, circulated on NLS-Messager number 2738, 7th July, 2018.

[ii] Leading Article, ‘Refugee lives matter’, The Spectator, 23rd June 2018.

Discourses That Kill – European Forum organized by Zadig in Belgium

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European Forum organised by Zadig in Belgium

At Saint Louis University, Brussels

1st December 2018

European Forum organised by the psychoanalysts of Zadig in collaboration with the Réseau Interdisciplinarité-Société (Ris) of Saint Louis university, with the support of the Ecole de la Cause freudienne (ECF) and the New Lacanian School (NLS), and under the auspice of the EuroFederation of Psychoanalysis (EFP).

Everyone, if such an expression is sustainable, would no doubt want the Nazi concentration camps to be a horror without tomorrow. Dr. Lacan, for his part, was without illusions and considered instead that their emergence, which introduced a rupture in History, represents the reaction of precursors to the social changes engendered by globalization and brought about by science. “Our future as common markets -he wrote- will be balanced by an increasingly hard-line extension of the process of segregation.” [1] Today, in Europe, we are there. The erasure of geographical and cultural boundaries has been accompanied by an escalation of statements promoted by the enemies of the human race in the 1930s. These have spread, while becoming banalised, in the discourses that found the social bond. The consequence is a radical rejection of the foreigner[l’étranger] by violent and criminal actions that have become daily.

So there are discourses that kill. Their character is insidious because they have nothing vehement. They do not call for killing, their language is smooth, politically correct. They present themselves as the expression of incontestable necessities written in the stars. It is not said that we must close the borders of the continent and let the migrants drown in the sea. It says rather: “we cannot welcome everyone, right?” The criminal action of non-assistance to people in danger is camouflaged behind a legalistic ethics: “I am only applying the Law”.

Worst. These discourses are not hateful. They are cold and rational, operating in the name of the well-being of nations. The agents of these discourses that murder present themselves as great servants of the State, or even as modern heroes sacrificing their humanity to do their duty. They claim they are just saying and doing what everyone thinks. In fact, they put the most lethal drives at the service of a so-called common good. Nothing is easier than to mobilize these drives since they are part of our humanity. But by appealing to this evil that is in each of us, it is the ethical dimension that is flouted. Because the fact that we can all have murderous fantasies does not justify acting on them.

There is a great risk of becoming accomplices if we let ourselves be put to sleep by these discourses that trivialize the worst. At the European Forum on 1 December 2018, we will try to de-trivialize them by showing their diabolic stand. These ideologies, which claim to be neutral, but which are criminal in their consequences, cannot be counted among the legitimate elements of democracy. It is therefore a question of producing a discourse that resists and combats the discourses that kill.

[1] Lacan J., “Proposition of 9 October 1967 on the Psychoanalyst of the School”.

Gil Caroz

For the Organising Commitee of the Forum

Translation: Florencia Shanahan