“Life After Trump”: Imaginary and Symbolic Identification in the U.S.A

We are witnessing the populist decline of our democracies. As Angela Merkel put it quite bluntly, we have entered a “post-factual” age, where the anonymous votes of the masses are conducted by collective convergences of affective identification. Enlightenment and scientific scrutiny have become dull, the numbers useless beyond garnishing straightforward rewarding messages (“We’re great!”). Nevertheless, we must not be fooled. It was not sheer foolishness that drove us to vote for these ‘Brexits’, but something deeply rooted in the way we invest ourselves in the social domain.

And now the Americans have demonstrated it quite as well again. Of course, not to be blamed for the apparent lack of choice they had (as the creators of the animated series, South Park, have put it – “between a giant douche and a turd sandwich”). Just like Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Israel, and many other ideological contemporaries, the American elections have demonstrated yet again, that in our current political climate – a  corrupt and conservative form of parliamentary plutocracy – the populist-right always has the crucial advantage of at least outwardly expressing the obscene repressed desires of the masses.

In the Berlin coffeeshops we are regularly appalled: how can these racist, misogynic narcissists gain the trust and support of their voters? How can an American woman vote for a man calling to “grab women by their pussy”? Well, Jacques Lacan once said that in politics there are only “fools and knaves”. Unfortunately, it seems that the knaves of the populist-right have quite intuitively grasped the structures which mediate our investment in the social domain. By very efficiently, but most probably unknowingly, utilising the well founded Lacanian distinction between two forms of identification – ‘imaginary identification’ and ‘symbolic identification’ – they keep on gaining power.


Kena Betancur, 2016

We tend to characterise ‘identification’ as the act of adopting a nobler quality, value, or distinct characteristic, of a prominent role model. For instance, in the identification with Beyonce’s unique form of feminine demeanour, or queen Victoria’s table manners. We believe that identifying with these figures necessarily revolves what is good in them by becoming similar to them. Nevertheless, philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that this approach is misguided on two crucial levels, a mistake which, to my opinion, stands behind the crucial political errors furthering us from progressing our democracies to a place beyond corruption and capital.

1. Identifying With the Abominable:

First of all, we must understand that the character or quality with which we identify with in a person is quite occasionally not so positive or glamorous and not necessarily conspicuous but is usually hidden. For instance, in the charming 70’s of British Punk-Rock, many Britons chose to identify with wild and dirty musicians such as Johnny Rotten – lead singer of the Sex Pistols. And indeed, Mr. Rotten did represent something that was surly “rotten” in the British culture of that time.

Another very relevant example is the case of Donald Trump’s 2016 run for presidency. It was Trump’s problematic personality – an indecent vulgar speaker, an advocate of xenophobia and misogyny, and more – which has been used as a direct target for the competing American parties. These were convinced that directing their propaganda on the abashment of Trump’s character – on his dubious corrupt past, or his inability to admit to any wrong doing or lack of experience – would hand them the presidency on a silver plater. But what these parties did not take into account was the fact that Trump’s obscene features are exactly the ones that will make so many individuals identify with him.

American culture is deeply rooted in the repression of its dubious corrupt past, on an inherent xenophobia, and an inability to admit to any wrong doing in its capricious military adventures. Accordingly, it was exactly Trump’s brute and shameless character – set on the background of a story of an actually unaccomplished businessman with simple desires, vulnerable in his attempt to portray himself as a success story – that was the site for the identification of the american masses sharing that standpoint. These actual features, and their centrality in both the Republican and Democratic debate, were a big factor in Trump’s being elected to be, maybe quite astonishingly, the 45th president of the United States of America.

The first lesson learned here is that the strength of identification is not necessarily rooted in a positive and glamorous disposition of a character, but can also be rooted in pathetic, crude, and mundane nature of an individual. Therefore we should not be surprised in November 2016 that focusing the campaign on the abominable qualities of Trump did not limit the capacity of our identification, but strengthened it.


2. Imaginary Identification is Conditioned by a Symbolic One:

The second mistake is rooted in ignoring the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’ identifications. Simply stated, ‘imaginary identification’ is an identification with an ideal or a characteristic of an individual – somebody we would have wanted to be. ‘symbolic identification’ is the identification with the place from which we perceive this person as valued; the perspective from which we see ourselves as loved, or as deserving love.

Different people have different ideals. For instance, some see the patriotic soldier as the manifestation of a universal good, while others see the ascetic, peace-seeking pacifist as taking that same place. Some will define the patriotic soldier as a cruel oppressive figure which signifies self destruction and despair, while others will define the ascetic pacifist as the personification of blind and childish idealism. There are different types of ideals, which entail different standpoints or perspectives from which to be judges as ideal. The critical point which cannot be ignored is that every ‘imaginary (ideal) identification’ is always preliminarily rooted in a perspective from which it is perceived. This perspective rules and defines our ‘imaginary’ form of identification, it is from these perspectives that we can see ourselves as deserving to be loved and thus choose to identify as someone which deserves that love. The identification with a certain perspective, and not an ideal character, is called ‘symbolic identification’.

Accordingly, whenever we are trying to asses the identification with an ideal figure we should always ask ourselves what is the perspective which is taken into account when the subject identifies with this figure?

This point was not taken into account by the American Democratic party and its notorious delegate, Hilary Clinton. They have failed to supply the political domain with an alternative symbolic platform from which a different form of ‘imaginary identification’ can take place, but were only relying on Clinton being a better object of ‘imaginary identification’ judged from the same perspective.

American politics have always been rooted in the domain of ‘imaginary identification’, it is this stagnation in political dynamism of the symbolic domain which has dictated the repetitive reelection of charismatic and easy-to-relate-to figures. Some times figures like Barak Obama, which are identifiable thanks to their very elegant and admirable conduct (being a talkshow star and sometimes a standup comedian), and other times like the vulgar Trump. But because ‘Imaginary identification’ relies on its symbolic designation, Americans can hope to see real change in its conduct only when its politics start to address the symbolic grounds that enable these identifications to thrive, and provide a different one.

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Tony Pro, 2016

This gap between the way I perceive myself as loved (imaginary identification), and the place from which I am perceived as deserving love (symbolic identification), is taken under great scrutiny in the course of an analysis. Žižek gives us the example of the case of the obsessive-neurotic (and here we might deal with a confession as well): for the obsessive-neurotic ‘imaginary identification’ conditions the masochistic logic of his compulsive behaviour. He humiliates himself, prevents his our success, prearranges his failures, etc. The critical question asked in the course of analysis is where can this cruel oppressive tendency (super-ego) be located? How can the obsessive prearrangement of his failure gain him pleasure? In other words, from where does his ‘symbolic identification’ function?

When considering the surprising success of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign we should take into account these two factors. One, that identifying with an individual does not necessarily rely on him or her being a positive or admirable person, on the contrary, it is sometimes the very decadent negative aspect of an individual that will make us identify. Two, that identification does not only manifest on its ‘imaginary’ level; that every ‘imaginary identification’ is rooted in a ‘symbolic’ perspective from which it is scrutinised. While ‘imaginary identification’ leaves us in the place of the obsessive – of an impossible and oppressive identification – the psychoanalytical clinic teaches us that ‘symbolic identification’ is the one that enables living. Accordingly, when assessing the causes of the massive identification with Trump we must take into account the place which enabled it, the symbolic site from which it is evaluated in the American cultural domain. Maybe the direct and brave interrogation of that ‘symbolic’ perspective in its cultural history and contemporary politics might enable “life after Trump”, even in the traumatic and grotesque U.S of A.

“There is no sexual relationship”

Wherever we look around us – especially while in a morose and misanthropic mood – we see “relationships”. Now, strictly philosophically speaking, a “relationship” is a concept designating an element which mediates between two things.  Accordingly, we can propose, for example, that there is a “relation of proximity” between me and my cat right at this moment, or a “relation of friendship” between me and my neighbour, etc. The question at the forefront of our discussion today will revolve an especially interesting relationship – the “sexual relationship” – and more particularly Jacques Lacan’s assertion that “There is no sexual relationship”.

Lets start with a first definition: a sexual relationship mediates between two individuals and involves sexual enjoyment. 

[The polyamorous readers might take into account that a ternary relationship (a threesome) actually consists of three binary relationships]


Thomas Ruff, Nudes, 2000

But what exactly is sexual enjoyment? Well, we can approach the question of sexual enjoyment (without discriminating any of its forms) on two levels: the physiological level – I.E. of the real bodies – and the psychological level – I.E. the one that takes place entirely in our minds. Sexuality, as it is manifest in the physiological level, has to do with a strange form of friction, setting a variety of mucous membranes and several types of sponges into action, which sometimes leads to procreation, but mostly just to an original form of biological expenditure. This dimension of sexuality completely lacks social and symbolic context; in it sexuality is a senseless, chaotic, grotesque collision between different masses of tissue. It is quite obvious that, as human-beings, we do not enjoy sex in a strictly physiological manner; that in order to ‘get off’ we require some’thing’ to assist us in painting this whole picture in a different light. This intervention takes place on the psychological level – through the meaning each and every one of us attributes to this senseless act which we all are so curiously attracted to.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Vagina

So, how does one enjoy? The answer to this question is found in the cultural domain, in language, at childhood. It is a question which does not have a single right answer, but has a multiplicity of answers – for we are, according to Freud, at our root “polymorphously perverse”. Soon enough you learn that some ‘get off’ the voice of their partner, while some can ‘get off’ only in the presence of high-heals. It is not the physiological sexual act which defines our enjoyment, but the way in which we interpret it on the basis of the symbolic and imaginary domain of our accumulated social existence.

Now, if our enjoyment is mediated through a symbolic or imaginary interpretation of the sexual act, then we have to assume that it necessarily entails a relationship to an image or an object in our psychic reality. Moreover, if interpretation is unavoidably lacking – especially when it has to do with a human being – then we cannot assume that this object can truly encompass the metaphysical girth of a subject. In other words, there is no way to take a subject, a human being, and reduce her or him into an image or an object (outside of our own mind that is). A subject is always more than the object we make of him or her – there is always more to my sexual partners than what I make of them during sex. That is what makes sex with people so much more enjoyable then sex with inanimate objects (although there are those very unique forms of fetishism). Therefore, it is clear why it is not the other subject which is included in our sexual enjoyment, but an object that we make of him or her, or assume that he or her has. It is something in them – most of the time something that they do not actually posses – that we ‘get off’ on. That something is the object of our desire, carefully assembled through our traumatic encounters with sexuality at a young age and our admirable attempts to make some ‘symbolic’ or ‘imaginary’ sense out of them. It is an object which is ours, rooted in an original (object) cause that is ours, through which we can gain access to our own enjoyment. This form of enjoyment is a narcissistic enjoyment – it takes place in my body, under my interpretation, and in relation to an object which gains its reality strictly in relation to my fundamental fantasy.

That is why, if we assume that a sexual relationship is necessarily conditioned on sexual enjoyment, we cannot assume that it entails a relationship to a subject. And indeed, Lacan reminds us again and again that, while having sex, the individual is in actuality alone. That the beautiful image of a naked body pressed on another is an ‘image’ – an ‘imag’inary representation; that sexual enjoyment is always narcissistic, and takes us far away from the subject with us to the domain of fantasy – of the object of desire.


Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1594

Now we can better understand one facet (amongst many others) of Lacan’s famous aphorism – “there is no sexual relationship”; an argument which was especially shocking in an era where everybody was constantly talking about sexuality. Lacan claims that in the sexual act the subject forms a relationship with an object, that desire is fetishistically set on the other – his or her ass, breast, cock, voice, gaze… This is a desire which is confined by its cause, and thus cannot be truly incorporated in the other subject, but can only be projected as an object that his or her body carries for us; an object singularly concocted in the framework of our own fantasy. Interestingly enough, Lacan sometimes calls this form of enjoyment ‘hommo-sexual’ – a play on the french word ‘homme‘ (meaning man), designating an enjoyment which includes only one and the same person (or masculine enjoyment – more on that later on…).

Nevertheless, the fact that “there is no sexual relationship” does not necessarily imply that there are no other subjects in the world! On the contrary, it is exactly the objectification of our partners –  meaning, the assumption that they carry this object of our desire – which implies their subjective reality. It is only a subject that can carry this object, or what Plato and Lacan call “agalma”. It is the insistence on the apprehension of the ‘non-relation’ of sex, the ‘void’ of the sexual relationship, and axiomatically validate the existence of a second subject, that we can call ‘love’. Through love, which first has to go through desire, we bestow being on the subject. Yet, we should not get confused, this is not a “subject-on-subject” relationship, it is not a relationship at all, but a supposition of the existence of “the scene of the Two” (see: Alain Badiou); a place in the world, constructed through the experience of love, and under the axiomatic fidelity to the idea of living as-Two. But love is for another time, we first must meddle a bit more in the domain of desire. All of this and a little more will be tackled in the upcoming posts.

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Jeff Koons, Ilona on Top, 1990