1 THE VOID OF MODERNITY Lefort’s understanding of society was, like for Cornelius Castoriadis but in different terms, predicated on the assertion that human beings are historical animals that create ontological forms. Societies, in other words, create their own worlds in time, in the full light (but not always cognizance) of the fact that these worlds are 1) always finite and 2) can be radically new, i.e., radically other than those existing worlds that make this othering possible. For Lefort, history is discontinuity – and I’ll come back to this issue. What I want to lay out just first is that history means ontological genesis, whose terrain has a specific significational geometry, if I may call it that: the conjuncture of
mise en forme
(forming/shaping – this is a poietic notion);
mise en scène
(staging/realizing – this is a theatrical and perhaps practical notion – I mean in terms of
as opposed to
mise en sens
(creating/realizing meaning, which is both poietic and practical – this is a neologism coming out of the psychoanalytic theory of Piera Aulagnier, whose incomparable contribution was to show how psychotics in fact create language and produce meaning, albeit meaning signifiable only to themselves). In these terms, Lefort’s thesis, roughly speaking, is that modernity ushers in a new historical-ontological form, even if by “mutation”: an other social imaginary (this would be the poietic), an other framework of social realization (this would be the theatrical/ practical), an other way of creating meaning for itself (this would be the
mise en sens
). The content of this proposition, for Lefort, is that modernity is the social historical form that realizes the political. Society is no longer in a closed circuit where the symbolic and real coexist in a stable network of meaning, but enters a kind of existential rift: the symbolic and the real are distended by a kind of primary void. In obvious political terms, this void appears precisely because the double body of the king is severed from its head – both the crown (symbolically) and the actual head (in altogether literal terms).
There’s much to say here about the figure of the body. Certainly, for Lefort the popular body-politic of modern democracy does not substitute for the king’s two bodies. Whatever the discussion about the uncertainties of secularization, there an arithmetic incommensurability here: the multitude cannot be divided into two. First of all, its symbology is entirely worldly, and this worldliness cannot be fissured. I’m not saying
Lefort speaks of the fact that parading captive Louis XVI before the people makes visible the body of the King in such a way that his
makes the transgression of regicide even more traumatic. Philippe Roger, a renown French historian of this period, argues the contrary: Louis XVI loses access to his symbolic body when he begins to adopt the language that challenges the Ancien Regime, even before Bastille. When he addresses the issue of
les classes priviligiées
he has automatically entered the domain of the people, and when he is finally (re)named Citizen Capet, his execution is a matter of course – the perils of citizenship. I am suggesting we keep these two interpretations in juxtaposition.