In Bell’s explanation, the promise of liberalism finds its broad appeal in the basis of projecting an infinitely successful future, and that future is purchased with the exercise of exquisite individual judgment. In her words, “liberalism contains a necessary but potentially destabilizing point at which the ability to make promises joins the ability to hesitate, and, by the tracing of lines of causality, to imagine the future differently. The possibility of beginning anew, the possible moment at which promises are exchanged and plans laid down is a profoundly political moment.”[i] Bell uses political here in the Arendtian sense of commons making: liberalism ties people together with the promise that they might, through the exercise of individual agency, make a new community. Interestingly, the status of the indivduals that are the subject of these appeals is what makes the situation necessary but destabilizing: it is necessary that individual choice be absolute, but choice itself could potentially choose no choice. This parallels the problem of democratic representation as enunciated by Rousseau: “the people” may exist but if “the people” only exist as an interiority of themselves, their legitimacy will collapse through lack of external point of identification against. There would be a kind of lack of reflexivity about who the people are that would prove fatal to mass publicity. Similarly, individualism has to extract an infallible vision of the self out of a founding which nevertheless owes itself to the incredible fallibility underscored by the fact of subjectivity itself: the separation and owed fealty of one subject to another, made through the divisional character of language itself.
Explaining this admittedly obtuse point requires a turn to Jacque Lacan’s essay “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipation Certainty: A New Sophism.” Like many of Lacan’s short essays, this one features a confusing parable. Centered around a prison warden offering a certain gambit to prisoners, the conceit that frames the essay is that the warden offers three prisoners a chance to escape from their confinement but only if they guess right in a curious game of the warden’s choosing. In his formulation, the warden places 5 prisoners in a holding cell, where he will possess five disks “differing only in color: three white and two black.”[ii] The warden will fasten one disc to each prisoner, and the prisoners will be able to examine the discs on the other prisoners, but forbidden from verbally communicating the knowledge they derive to the other prisoners. “The first to be able to deduce his own color will be the one to benefit from the discharging material” and allowed to leave.[iii] Of course sheer guesswork will not suffice: any prisoner knowing their designation must also be able to “show their work” by providing a logical account of how they know. Moreover, the sneaky warden uses only the white disks. Lacan gives his reader the “perfect solution” from the inmates, a solution which appears to circumvent the warden’s own trickery:
I am white, and here is how I know it. Since my companions were whites, I thought that, had I been a black, each of them would have been able to infer the following: If I too were a black, the other would have necessarily realized straight away that he was a white and would have realized straight away that he was a white and would have left immediately; therefore I am not a black.” And both would have left together, convinced they were whites. As they did nothing of the kind, I must be a white like them. At that, I made for the door to make my conclusion known.[iv]
While this solution is valid, in the sense with which we in argument are intimately familiar, the validity of the solution requires that the reader ignore a curious game of time being played by the inmates in their answer. Specifically, in order to formulate this opinion as stated, the element of time must be obviated or elided from one’s consumption of the account given by the prisoners. The moment of deduction cannot be said to properly exist, because at each moment where the deduction of color occurs a kind of simultaneity that cannot be coterminous with the movement resulting from the deduction is nevertheless drawn from the decision to make a move. As Lacan notes, even if the first motion followed the logic given by the prisoners, the shared movement of all towards the door should inspire a second halt, at which the surefooted movements of each other infect each prisoner with doubt as to their color. Nevertheless, the prisoners can infer from this second cessation that his disc is white, as if his disk were black the other actors would have had no need of stopping. The actions themselves certify the “white-dottedness” of the prisoners.
Lacan declares that this solution is “valid” although perhaps not true. Nevertheless, its validity is what matters for the purposes of telling a kind of parable about subjectivity. Much like the prisoners in his tale, human subjects come to know their own subjectivity only through the production of a logical exclusion: that is, in Lacan’s “mirror stage” where a subject encounters another subject, and then formulates a seemingly coherent (yet constantly fractured) identity by excluding and exteriorizing the image seen in the mirror. Crucially, this annexation nevertheless locks subjects into a kind of fealty with their mirroristic Other, for without that figure, the self would have no cause to exist. This identification is not “true” of course: subjectivity is itself a kind of armor of fiction, an insistence of coherence in the face of a world so wide and complex that the affirmation of utter incoherence (and a lack of agency) would perhaps be more “true.” But subjectivity is valid: it establishes its own terms, and much like the halting prisoner’s in Lacan’s story, then verifies and makes more permanent this identity through a series of self-confirming halting glances. Combined with the actions taken (either by the prisoners to move towards the door or of subjects to gesture through speech towards their own totality) and we have a tautologically constituted but nevertheless valid recipe for subjectivity: the belief that one is a subject. Much as the belief that each of the prisoners hold that they have white disks is guaranteed and solidified by their decision to move towards the door, and confirmed by “valid” readings of their circumstance, so too does human subjectivity confirm itself through the exercise of a nonetheless tautologically constructed faculty: the faculty of human reason itself, which takes its own exercise to confirm the fact of its existence.
Both these engines are driven through one careful elision: the elision of the moment of reflexive judgment itself. Lacan is quick to point out that there is no spatial logic that could hold the decisions of the prisoners are logically valid because such judgments rely on a criminally unsophisticated model of communication as something like a sender/receiver model, which understands that what matters is the positive content communicated by actions. Such an understanding compresses the logic of the subject into a clear and linear mode of reasoning, when is at odds with the reasoning actually on display. To believe otherwise assumes that each subject is totally and completely free of the information provided by the actions of others: moreover, such a model of temporality spatializes in such a way that one has to assume the actions/decisions taken by a subject are the result of a particular line of reasoning rather than co-conspirators in producing the validity of that very reasoning itself. The spatial form of logic itself helps to reinforce the very myth of coherence that contributes to our ability to imagine what Joseph Frank calls “the actions and event of a particular time only as the bodying for of eternal prototypes…this timeless world of myth…finds its appropriate aesthetic expression in spatial form.”[v] To put it another way: no syllogism makes sense without our assuming the coherence of the form of the syllogism as a given fact. Similarly, the actions and account given of the actors within Lacan’s parable make a total amount of sense within the assumption of the narrative when they take the actions as he describe them occurring, but without their actions the logical solution they give (and the solution they find) could never have been. These actions of a particular time make the eternal prototype of logic meaningful in terms of communicating their reasoning. There is no universal which can make any sense without the set of particulars that make it make sense.
[i] Bell, "The promse of liberalism and the performance of freedom," 82.
[ii] Jacques Lacan, "Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty--A New Sophism," in Ecrits, ed. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2004), 161.
[iv] Ibid., 162.
[v] Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991). 63-64.