Sunday, September 6, 2009

Master-Signifier

From Slavoj Žižek: Interrogating the Real, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2005, 2006), p. 371:

One of Žižek's key terms and the centrepiece of his renewed analysis of ideology is the notion of the master-signifier. Žižek provides perhaps two accounts of how the master-signifier works in making appear natural or conventional what is in fact a forced and artificial construction of reality: 'The elementary operation of the point de capiton should be sought in this "miraculous" turn, in this quid pro quo by means of which what was previously the very source of disarray becomes proof and testimony of a triumph' (p. 116); and 'the Master-Signifier [is] no longer a simple abbreviation that designates a series of markers but the name of the hidden ground of this series of markers that act as so many expressions-effects of this ground' (p. 186). That is, the master-signifier is not a simple empirical quality that makes sense of previously existing circumstances, but rather a kind of radical hypothesis that proposes an always unrepresentable signifier through which these very circumstances become visible for the first time. 'Therein resides the paradoxical achievement of symbolization: the vain quest for the "true meaning" (the ultimate signified) is supplanted by a unique signifying gesture' (p. 277). But if this is the unique strength and power of a master-signifier--that it is not simply an empirical designation, that it already takes into account our own distance from it, its inability to be definitively stated--it is also this that opens up a certain way out of it, for we are always able to point to a deeper explanation of it, what it itself stands in for and what allows it to be stated. It is something like this that is to be seen in Hegel's notion of concrete universality and in Žižek's thinking of the empty space of enunciation. As Žižek writes of the way that the master-signifier is its own limit: Lacan, in contrast to Derrida, 'directly offers a concept of this element [of the supplement], namely the concept of the Master-Signifier, S1 in relation to S2 ... In Lacan, S1 stands for the supplement ... and, simultaneously, for the totalizing Master-Signifier ... the Centre which Derrida endeavors to "deconstruct" is ultimately the very supplement which threatens to disrupt its totalizing power' (p. 194).

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