As I stumble around trying to figure out how to develop the idea of collective desire, I've gotten some valuable advice from Anna Kornbluh. Her essay, "Enjoying Law: Psychoanalysis and Sovereign Bodies," provides some ideas that feel like directions for me.
Her essay is a commentary on Eric Santner's The Royal Remains. I admire Santner, but this book didn't really say much to me. That points to my limitations as a reader because Kornbluh draws from it some crucial insights.
First, the vesting of the people with sovereignty is, in some sense, traumatic. A question, then, is "in what sense"? For whom is it traumatic? Presumably for the elites, the ruling class -- and, the centuries of anxiety about the sovereignty of the people, the ruminations on its dangers and impossibilities, the counter-revolutionary attempts to roll it back, fought on every possible terrain are indications of the depth and persistence of this trauma. Kornbluh uses the expression "an inassimilable enigma."
Second, connected with this trauma is anxiety. Kornbluh notes that, for Lacan, anxiety always pertains to "the specter of bodily fragmentation produced by the contrastive encounter with a whole image (as in the mirror stage)." In political theory, we might note the repeated, unsolveable problem of the unity of the people. How can the people be a whole? They are temporally, spatially, and culturally variable; their borders are indistinct. Hobbes solves the problem by holding the people in place via an exteriorized sovereign. Rousseau modifies this by relying both on an exterior legislator and on a set of interiorized transformations and practices.
Kornbluh continues: "We can see in what sense this immediately attends sovereignty of both types: the localization of law-forming, law-executing power in the image of the king is undermined by the mortal body of the king (cf Kantorwicz’s The King’s Two Bodies); the displacement of sovereignty to the body popular intensifies this threat of fragmentation by incarnating political agency in the contested, indistinct shape of “the people.”" At the risk of going off-topic here, it's noteworthy that most any political group (sovereign or not) faces the problem of its body, attempting to deal with it via rules of inclusion and exclusion (membership) and legislating what can be done in its name, that is, the rules attending to its signification.
Third, she writes:
The parallel drawn between the real of the subject (her mass of libido) and the real of the political (“the impossible,” that which is un-integratable vis-à-vis law) forms the basis of psychoanalytic political theory (what Freud called mass psychology). There are perhaps two fundamental concepts of such a theory: an understanding of “the political” as neither sphere nor substance, but as a site or stuff of antagonism or void; and an insight that every social formation, in installing provisional bonds across this void, is sutured by libido.
I find these sentences immensely helpful. They bring to mind an exchange I had with Kornbluh, where she asked about some of my discussion of affective networks--was I saying that affect replaced libidio as a mechanism of political bonding. I don't recall what I answered and I'm not quite sure what I think. My basic thought right now is that affective networks can transmit libidinal forces as well as affective ones, that communicative capitalism relies on libidinal and affective ties (where libidinal ones are not simply those that are more intense but those with more bonding capacity, in other words, strong over weak ties).
Fourth, Kornbluh brilliantly and succinctly presents the difference between psychoanalytic and Foucauldian approaches to the political. I'm tempted to add that her presentation could also be extended to the distinction between psychoanalytic and Deleuzian accounts as well:
We might say, in a Lacanian idiom, and following Mladen Dolar, that Foucauldian power is putatively independent of the symbolic (the law, the master signifier) and the imaginary (consciousness, recognition) and is rather a self-sufficient real which pervades political space, whereas Lacan, maintaining the interdependence of symbolic, imaginary, and real, conceives the real as impossible, as pure negativity that cannot appear within political space. In staging a confrontation between psychoanalysis and historicism, Copjec, Dolar, and others zero in on this problem of transcendence, the gap between the social and the political, the impossible real that Freud’s theory of sovereignty figured as the preposterous obscenity of the primal father.
Fifth, she opens up a crucial line of inquiry, perhaps the one most important to the possibility of theorizing collective desire. Kornbluh writes:
Freud’s repeated exploration of law as endowing enjoyment suggests the possibility, however slim, that the sovereignty of the people, far from depriving law of its guarantee and therefore debilitating enjoyment, might occasion a new mode of relation to the contingencies of desire and the vicissitudes of the drive. Is the epochal transition to popular sovereignty not only an occasion for anxiety, but also an occasion for the exuberant experimentation with what transindividual or collective power?
The challenge she sets out is one of theorizing the sovereignty of the people in terms of a law capable of acknowledging its own constitutive lack and openness, its own impossible ground (or the impossibility of grounding it). Different traditions approach this lack in terms generosity, reflexivity, and constituent power.
Kornbluh concludes by noting that "the assumption, or subjectivation, of the fragmented body, of the inoperative community, comprises the promise of the sovereignty of the people, which must subjectivize the void of its being, the insuperable fact that it is, in the Lacanian formulation, “not all.” The lack of grounds, of complete identity, of full determination is what enables the subjectification of the people. The people is subject because it is open and incomplete. In Kornbluh's wors, "A sovereign people is a fragmented body. Articulating joints and filling out curves is an intractable challenge, but liberating for all that—prompting provisional responses and makeshifts that just may result in surprisingly strong movement."