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Ivan Gololobov

The life of systems and temporal limits of subjectivity

In the new theories of discourse (Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek, Norval, Howarth, Glynos, Stavrakakis) subjectivity is seen as a decision taken in the undecidable terrain.

The undecidability, translated by the term ‘dislocation’ is regarded as a moment when systematic organisation of a social body collapse. The collapse of systematic organisation can be also understood as a collapse of its objectivity – a disintegration of a conventionally recognised elements of a society and relations established between them. Exactly in this moment when objectivity of society dissolves here comes a possibility for the subjectivity to emerge.

The terrain or region of undecidability – a spatial dimension – is recognised as a limit for any possible subjectivity. Yet it seems that apart from the spatial limit there is another restriction for the subjective move to emerge - temporal.

It is implicitly present in the new theories of discourse and translated by the very term ‘moment’ of subjectivity. However, the temporal factor of subjective move often comes to be sacrificed for the sake of a wider spatial analysis of this phenomena and does not transcend the study of a moment to its past and future.

The most visible gap is in the study of its past. The new theories pay a lot of attention to the moment of emergence and further constitution of subjectivity. However, rarely, if not at all, address the question of how a social system comes to the state which allows emergence of a subjective more. And it is exactly this focus which immediately brings us to the second – temporal limit of subjectivity.

In this paper I will try to follow this task and to propose an ‘discourse-friendly’ explanation of how a system comes to the state where subjectivity becomes possible.

One of the main thesis postulated in the works of Ernesto Laclau is the ‘impossibility of society’. Society is necessary, as far as it is hardly possible to imagine human being living outside it, but society is impossible because due to many reasons, which I am not going to revisit now, it can never be constituted in the way it was thought originally.

This thesis, however, does not dissolve the object of the social analysis, but makes us looking at the social from the other angle.

The fact that society is impossible does not, in any way, mean that it does not exist. It indeed does not exist as a closed, fully constituted system, but it finds itself and objectifies its presence in the process of becoming one. It is in this process of fighting for its sought completeness where society really becomes itself.

It is exactly this process which constitute the main object of Laclau’s analytical project and which includes such concepts as hegemonic representation, emptying and filling signifiers, building the chains of equivalences and differences. They are all seen as different sides of the process aimed at achieving a certain type of social order.

However, approaching the social as a process we unavoidably face an interesting problem, which, in my opinion, does not receive enough elaboration in the works of Ernesto Laclau and his colleagues.

Portraying society as a process rather than a state we, then, have to assume that this process develops in time and, hence, it has it different phases. With regards to the ideas of Laclau these phases would have to represent different stages of this movement towards the systematic closure of society. And since the full constitution of the social systematicity is, as aforesaid, impossible in principle, this process is a never-ending one. The tendency towards the greater stability of social relations gradually transforms into the opposite perspective of dissolution of social order.

The movement from the point of lesser systematicity to a greater one is visited more than enough. It is this problem which many discourse studies, in fact, focus on dwelling into various questions of hegemonic projects, organisation of particular discourses and emergences of new identities. However, the opposite movement where tendentially constituted social order goes into its own dissolution is not that popular among discourse theorists. Looking through the literature published in recent years one may easily find that the questions of emergence of social identities and constitution of particular social order are definitely of more interest than the ones of their dissolution and social disintegration.

Analysing the way Laclau portrays this process in his writing, it becomes clear why these issues are far from being the central ones in discourse analysis. Identifying the problem detected in his theoretical approach towards the process of social disintegration seems to be a good introduction of the questions put forward in my research.

The process of disintegration endangering any tendentially constituted social order is described by Laclau through the unavoidable contradiction between the logic of equivalence and the logic of difference established between the elements within a particular hegemonic project. As far as hegemony in terms of Laclau is, strictly speaking, the only way of systematic organisation we can say that this contradiction can be found in any sphere that pretends to be organised. In general terms the matter of this contradiction is the following. Each element of the system is particular as far as it differs from the other elements, but at the same time they are all equal as far as they all belong to one system where these differences are drawn. Expanding the area of equivalence by introducing other elements to the system unavoidably leads to a proliferation of differences between particular elements, which, in the end, become so sharp than no representation can reconciles them under a singe roof. In such a way the dissolution of the system is regarded as process organically resulted from the growth and expansion of the systematic affiliations.

This explanation seems to be absolutely clear and, in fact, very constructive as it, in a disarming way, demonstrates the utopian character of any arguments on a possibility to built a perfect society in a particular place in a particular time. However, if we look at this explanation deeper we will find one moment, which makes an empirical implication of this proposal to be a very uneasy task.

If the system expands, it necessarily includes more and more elements in the sphere of its regulation. This thesis clearly meets the ends with the thesis of openness of a system which, in its turn lays in the foundation of the argument on ‘impossibility of society’. However, the question which arises next is - where do these elements come from?

This question is left by discourse theorists unattended. Yet it seems that some theoretical investigations in other fields, close to discourse analysis, may clarify this problem for us. Here I speak about literature and cultural studies and a particular branch which is usually called Russian cultural semiotics or Soviet literature structuralism.

The main argument of Yuriy Lotman, one of the most prominent theorists of Russian semiotics states that any sign system in order to exist requires limits to distinguishing the areas of competence between the its own (right) and the other (wrong) way of rendering reality intelligible.

These limits are not objective. As a matter of fact it is impossible to identify existentially present limits between sigh systems as well as it is hardly possible to identify the surface where these limits are drawn.

The limits distinguishing two systems are discursively created, which means that the other system is being represented by means of a given one and by this inside one system there appears the other one and the limit between the two. This assumption is based on the Lotman’s argument that any realities, external to a given language can be identified by the former only as a part of the content-expression dichotomy, intervening the language.

Criss-crossing with other cultural structure can be done through different forms. To intervene our world this ‘external’ culture has to cease being ‘external’ for the latter. It has to find a name for itself on the language of those culture which it intervenes from outside.

Space lying outside a language, beyond its limits [including other language - I.G.], intervenes the field of language, and becomes a “content” only as a consistent part of dichotomy content-expression. [Lotman 1992, pp. 7-8]

This content-expression dichotomy is exactly this representation of the external realities that include first of all other languages.

The process of representation, performing the other system by means of a given one takes forms of translation where signs of the former one become to be correlated with signs of the latter semiotic creation.

Because of the “superstructural” character of representation, the secondary modelling systems of arts, science, religion etc. play the role of binding semiotic creations that provide the process of translation and make possible recognition of one language by another.

Each process of translation requires a structural juxtaposition of the translated and translating language and systems. This juxtaposition is the only way to express a message composed in the other language by means of a given one even when it comes to translations in natural languages, which will be used as an example to demonstrate the operation of the translation. The crucial point in this process is that the structural organisations involved in the process of translation are in principle different. If they will be similar there will be one language, but not two. Consequently, no translation will be needed and no coexistence of two different languages would be possible.

The essential heterogeneity of languages involved in the structural juxtaposition makes any translation conditionally-adequate in principle. The conditionally-adequate translation means that there emerges a certain number of objects that does not belong neither to the translated system nor to the translating language. [Lotman 2001: 159, 178, 607-608]

Lotman believes that these elements do not disappear and remain as an actual sphere of any language creating a so-called irregular area of language. [2001 b: 547] In this area arbitrariness of signs is absent, relations between signifiers and signified are not stable, which altogether leads to the situation when “words have no meaning and meanings have no words”. [Lotman 1993: 412]

Under the circumstances of multiple translations between two languages, inherent to any dialogue, the irregular area proliferates as there appear more and more elements not conventionalised in language.

The explosion occurs when the proliferation of irregular area reaches a certain point and goes beyond the limits of credible systemticity offered by structural organisation so that language becomes dislocated, which means that systematicity of meaningfulness becomes contingent, and irregular, unpredictable, abnormal events come into play and ‘unattached’ objects enter the discourse.

In such a way describing the dislocation of discursive structure, the death of discourse, we now can avoid impersonal references to the object entering Laclauian differentio-equivalential chain ‘out of nowhere’ and can identify the points where interaction of different systematic areas generate an irregular area whose proliferation inflicts disintegration and further dissolution of discursive systematicity inflicting emergence of subjectivity – authors, leaders and ‘prophets’.

Since the systems constantly exist in interaction with the other systems (there exist two or more systems or none) its life is strictly mapped on the irreversible arrow of time (the irregular zone can not be integrated back into the systems in the way it was before the interaction, if it can – it will be the other, different, system). We live in a changing world, but we see it from inside the time like ‘our’, ever present reality, where the time is seen as nothing else than a position in a spatially defined trajectory . Yet looking at the society from a theoretical distance we see that it is essentially characterised by novelty and irreversibility. We constantly face new forms of social organisation and the task of social analyst is to find an instrument of describing this novelty in an environment operating by the categories of the past.


Lotman M.Yu. (2001) Semiosfera (Saint Petersburg: Iskusstvo - SPb).

Lotman M.Yu. (1992a) Kul’tura i vzryv (Moscow: Progress).

M.Yu. Lotman i Tartussko-Moskovskaya semioticheskaya Shkola (Moscow: Gnozis)