Friday, October 7, 2011

Master-Signifiers, Atonal Worlds, And Clausewitzian Theory Of Choice: Creating Habits by Imposing Master-Signifiers On The Self

There is a certain discomfort I feel in the world. A discomfort that stems from an uncertainty about how to relate to people. I stand at bus stops, I walk the streets, I stand behind espresso machines, and I look around at people. I see pretty girls. I see friendly faces. I want to talk to many of you. But there is something about this world we live in that prevents me from comfortably talking to strangers. What is it about this cultural world I live in? What does this world feel like, and why does it feel this way? Why are my relationships so weird and uncertain? Why is there no comfortable starting point for social interaction? Breaking the ice seems like such a difficult task sometimes. Why? And what can I do about it? The operative question of this essay, therefore, is this: Why is it so hard to talk to strangers?

This essay is undoubtedly an attempt at personal transformation. I want to make myself more expressive to strangers. I want to talk to people on the street more. I want to be comfortable doing this. So what I need to do is to analyze my discomfort. Ask myself: Why it is so difficult to talk to strangers? What is it about the world that we live in that makes us assume that we are disinterested in one another or cannot relate to one another? What can I do to make myself more comfortable talking to strangers? In asking these question there are several thinkers and ideas that will help me. First and foremost is Slavoj Zizek and his work on master-signifiers and atonal worlds, terms originally introduced by Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou, respectively. Those ideas should give me a strong framework to analyze my own experiences. I then hope to use Carl von Clausewitz’s insights into the nature of high-command to reflect on the way I make decisions in the social world, and how I would like to modify my social decision making. The goal of this all, as with so much of my writing over the last two years, is to create new habits for myself. In this instance, however, I am exploring the idea that I can create habits for myself by driving master-signifiers into my heart, by analyzing the notion of master-signifiers, atonality, and decision making. The hope is that decision making, at some level, is about the imposition of master-signifiers. And that I can therefore make certain decisions that will translate into changes in my heart, changes in the master-signifiers that govern my habits. All of this might sound abstract and weird, but this writing should make it clearer. Perhaps you would like to follow me on this line of thought? It won’t be too long. I’ll begin by generally discussing the notion of a master-signifier, what it is. I’ll then move on to talk about the state of master-signifiers in my present world, which can be called an ‘Atonal World’. Finally, I’ll run down Clausewitz’s notion of decision making and explain the relationship between master-signifiers and the creation of habits. Onward to master-signifiers.


This writing was on the whole inspired by a particular chapter in Slavoj Zizek’s book Violence. The chapter is titled ‘Sexuality in the Atonal World’. This was the first place I encountered the notion of a master-signifier, and that of atonality. A master-signifier is a idea of Jacques Lacan’s. It is primarily a way of conceptualizing symbolic orders that organize societies. In every culture there are certain things that simply are the way they are. You can analyze them only so far, and eventually you hit a cultural bedrock in which all you can say is ‘this is simply our tradition, this is how we do things’. A master-signifier can make no further appeal to any other signifier, it stands completely on its own as a symbolic bedrock. Interestingly, Urban Dictionary provides a pretty good definition: “In Lacanian theory, a signifier which stops the slippage of the signified under the signifier and fixes meaning, thereby forming a stable symbolic order. It is a particular signifier with no signified of its own, which stands in for the "fullness" of the meaning of the symbolic system itself. However, since contingency and lack are taken to be primary in Lacanian theory, it is necessarily arbitrary and is unable to guarantee its own primacy except through arbitrary and ungrounded violence.” At the end of the day, all culture is somewhat arbitrary. There will always be certain things that simply are that way, that simply exist as they are. Tradition and custom will always be there as master-signifiers.

What are some examples of master-signifiers? Well, historically, we can say that gender once stood as a master-signifier. It used to be the case that gender was conceptualized as a simple binary, and that was simply how things were. Or perhaps I can say that politeness or humanity is a master-signifier of sorts. We are polite to people simply because they are human beings who deserve to be treated well. In any case, I don’t feel like going too far into examples of master-signifiers, but I hope the idea is clear. Well, to be honest, it isn’t as clear to me as it should be. But I think these points should make sense: 1. Every society operates on some kind of symbolic order, a set of linguistically constructed rules and categories that regulate and structure relationships. 2. That at the bottom of these symbolic orders there are certain signifiers that can make no further appeals to logic, they are symbolic bedrock of a symbolic order.

The question for me, though, is this: What are the master-signifiers in our own culture? What are the things that I simply take for granted? This is where the notion of atonal worlds becomes relevant.

Atonal Worlds

This notion of an atonal world was originally advanced by Alain Badio, but I have learned about it from Zizek. Badiou draws on the idea of atonal music in order to metaphorically describe the state of contemporary culture. Atonal music is, according to wikipedia, ‘music that lacks a tonal center, or key’. An atonal world, therefore, is a world which lacks a clear tonal center, “which lacks the intervention of a Master-Signifier to impose a meaningful order onto the confused multiplicity of reality” (Violence, 34). Badiou and Zizek believe that we live in a world in which master-signifiers have ceased to adequately order reality for us. We live in a messy world of gray and uncertainty. “A basic feature of our postmodern world,” Zizek asserts, “is that it tries to dispense with the agency of the ordering Master-Signifier: the complexity of the world needs to be asserted unconditionally” (Violence, 35). Our world is constantly uncertain, without a stable symbolic order (other than economic order, perhaps). This is perhaps putting it too strongly. But we don’t have stable symbolic orders like we used to, like people had in other moments in history.

I, for one, feel this in my daily life, and think that this notion does some good in explaining why it is so difficult to talk to strangers. When I’m on the street and I see people all around me I have no idea what I could possibly relate to them about. There is no simple thing that I can assume that we have in common. There is no reliable symbolic order to structure our interactions. So I keep to myself. I don’t put myself out there. There is this feeling of uncertainty, a palpable lack of common ground. It can be hard to deal with. It can be hard not knowing precisely how to relate to people, not knowing what type of common ground I have with people around me. Anyways, this is the issue of atonal worlds. And I think that this notion really helps me understand why it can be so hard to talk to strangers. It is because I live in a world without a clear symbolic order.

So what should I do about this? I don’t have any (obvious) master-signifiers that obviously structure my relationships, and yet I still want to talk to strangers. What should I do? Well, there two questions left for me to ask. First, I must ask: Does this world really lack a tone? Or is there a secret tone that sustains its supposed atonality? After that I’ll explain how Zizek and I think that the study of wartime decision making can provide some insights.

This World’s Secret Tone

Although this world’s most prominent master-signifiers may have diminished power, and this world appears to be atonal, that does not mean that this world completely lacks a tone, completely lacks a symbolic order. Because it would be impossible a society to function if it completely lacked a symbolic order. So what am I to do about this front of atonality in my world? Zizek asks this same question. He says, “how are we to proceed when (as is the case today) we dwell in an atonal world, a world of multiplicities lacking a determinate tonality?” (In Defense Of Lost Causes, 31). The answer, Zizek asserts, is that “one has to oppose it in such a way that one compels it to ‘tonalize’ itself, to openly admit the secret tone that sustains its atonality” (Ibid.). For Zizek this means asking certain questions about our symbolic world. Asking questions, for example, about “the secret qualifications of ‘tolerance’ which excludes as ‘intolerant’ certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a ‘threat to freedom’ questions about the limits of the existing freedom” (Ibid.). There must therefore always be a secret tone, a hidden master-signifier, which sustains the atonal appearance of a world.

So what is the secret tone that sustains the supposed atonality of my world? I think that the economy provides the secret tone that sustains tits appearance of atonality. This point is not something I’m confident about, but a casual observation that occurred to me on a walk. It is probably too simple, and frankly, doesn’t make much sense when I think about it. But none of this stuff really does. I find it all somewhat confusing and strange. Zizek’s work, however, does in some ways imply this conclusion. Being the Marxist that he is, Zizek talks about how the economy is the force that underlies all other Master-Signifiers, or contaminates them with its own secret tone. I’m not sure if this is the proper conclusion to draw from Zizek. But please see if this quotation corroborates what I’m saying, or if you can decipher i better than I: “The ‘economy,’... is not just one of the spheres of political struggle, but the ‘cause’ of the mutual contamination–expression of struggles. To put it succinctly, Left-Right is the Master-Signifier ‘contaminated’ by the series of other oppositions, while the economy is the objet a, the elusive object that sustains this contamination....” (Ibid., 291). Such a difficult quotation. But it seems as though he is saying that the economy provides the secret tone that sustains the appearance of our seemingly atonal world. That it is the Master-Signifier that secretly creeps its way into all other facets of the symbolic order. Or, to put it in terms I developed in July, perhaps it is the ‘master medium’ through which all other mediums function.

And because this essay is really about why it is so hard to talk to strangers, I will have to bring a little personal reflection to bear on this idea. Because the question I really want to answer is, Why do I or do I not speak to a person? I can say that the place I speak to the largest amount of people is at work or other economically defined moments. As a barista, I talk to say many different people. All kinds of strangers, all kinds of co-workers, all kinds of people. And I love it. That is one thing I have always loved about working, I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can or should talk to someone. If you are in my store, I have no problem with speaking to you at any moment. I will say hello even if you aren’t looking at me. I will ask you questions. I will talk to you. So funny how that works. How work provides me with this symbolic order in which speaking to someone is so easy and expected. It really is fascinating, how that works. So, it would seem to me that the economic system is in fact one thing that provides the secret tone that supports the atonal appearance of my world.

Work is a great opportunity to meet people, and I’m happy it can be a social medium for me. But I also want to break with that type of symbolic order, because I don’t just want to be able to speak to someone in an economic setting. I want to speak with people at most junctures. Whenever I want, wherever I want. But it doesn’t work that way. But maybe I can push myself to make socializing less economically regulated. And this is what I really need to do: I need to attempt and modify the Master-Signifiers that are in my heart and soul. Because right now I’m analyzing supposedly large, abstract, impersonal forces. Things like symbolic order, the determining role of the economy, and atonal words. But all of these impersonal forces have a very personal correlate in my heart. I am saying that the economy has a determining role, and I feel that determination in my habitual thoughts and actions. So the real task of analyzing these ideas about symbolic orders is to modify the way that I relate to Master-Signifiers. The goal is to modify my habits. Right now it would be useful to define habit as the subjective expression of Master-Signifiers. The things I do without question, my habits, are Master-Signifiers working their way into my heart and shaping my behavior. Change my Master-Signifiers, change my habits.

In the next section I want to ask how this can be done. How I can access my heart’s Master-Signifiers, and how I can hope to change them. I plan on answering this question by using insights from strategic military theory.

Clausewitz, Choice, And The Heart’s Master-Signifiers

Now the question of why it is hard to talk to people has once again collapsed into a question about habits. The concern is now to understand how I can modify my habits by modifying the Master-Signifiers that are secretly governing my thoughts and emotions. And in order to understand this process of changing Master-Signifiers and habits I want to turn to strategic military theory. I am taking this analytical route because Zizek prompts me to do so. He explains the notion of a Master-Signifier by discussing Winston Churchill and JFK. He explains how Churchill wondered about political decision making, about how “after the specialist–economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists–propose their multiple, elaborated, and refined analyses, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult of transposing this complex multitude of views, where for every reason for, there are two reasons against and vice versa, into a simple, decisive Yes or No. We shall attack or we continue to wait” (Violence, 34). Similarly, JFK remarked that “the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer–often, indeed, to the decider himself” (34-35). Zizek argues that “This decisive gesture which can never be fully grounded in reasons is that of a Master” (35). What these men have done is to impose a Master-Signifier on others. They are able, through their words, to govern the actions of all kinds of other people.

This example isn’t 100% clear to me. But there is some kind of relationship between ultimate choice and Master-Signifiers. It seems that the act of choice resembles a Master-Signifier in that it cannot infinitely appeal to logic. At some point the choice simply must be made. This notion is consistent with my understand of Clausewitz. In On War Clausewitz explains how great commanders have to make decision through intuitive mental processes. They will not always know why they are making the decision they do. At some point they just have to trust their mind to have unconsciously sorted the information they have received. They must treat their unconscious instincts, the deepest parts of their minds from which huge decisions come, as a sort of Master-Signifier in its own right. They must trust the Master-Signifier that emerges from their heart, from their unconscious.

The only issue is the question of where those decisions come from, what kind of Master-Signifiers they are contingent on. Because I’ve already established that society’s Master-Signifiers work their way into my heart and effect my thoughts, emotions, and decisions. So there must be some kind of back and forth between the Master-Signifiers that exist within my heart and the Master-Signifiers that come from my heart. The things that go from outside to inside (Culture, Traditions, etc.) must effect the things that come out (Master-Signifier decisions).

So, I think what I really want to do is change the decisions I make, change the Master-Signifiers that come out of my heart. I want to change the decisions I habitually make. And in particular the decisions I make with regard to who I want to talk to and when. The only way to change those decisions that come out would be to change the Master-Signifiers within. I have to discover the tones of my world, discover how they have colored my decision making process. And I need to get to a place where I’m comfortable with the Master-Signifiers that come out of my heart, with the choices that I intuit.

Conclusion: Master-Signifiers and Habits

This whole essay is really skirting the issues that I have been calling personal archeology and self-creation for a little while now. The task is to discover the determinants of thought and action and to change them. To give myself a new set of habits by discovering what they are and by replacing them. This is something I’ve usually discussed in Foucauldian terms. But now I have that Lacan, Badiou, and Zizek have given me a new way of conceptualizing it. I am now able to speak in terms of Master-Signifiers and the ones that dwell in my heart. I’m able to speak of the atonality of this world that I live in, and to understand that my relationships are structured by the economy and by other secret tones that I’m not aware of. This has still been such a consistent theme for me. My writing is very personal. It is always about changing myself, understanding myself, examining myself, creating myself.

I just want to talk to more people. I want the decision that comes out of my heart to be the decision to speak. And I need to understand why it is that my environment often encourages me not to speak. It seems to me that we stand at bus stops and we don’t speak to one another because we live in this atonal world. This world where the economy sustains our relationships. This world in which you can’t just talk to people. But I want to replace that Master-Signifier with one of my own, with the idea that I should just speak to people. Just speak. Just talk. I want this message to come out of my heart. ‘Speak! Speak to them all!’

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