Knowledge-at-work is an Effort with Real Engagement — Işık Barış Fidaner

According to Fabio Vighi, the Lacanian notion of “knowledge-at-work” (savoir-faire, know-how) shows a way out of the capitalist valorization of labor-power:

In Lacan, the very difference between Symbolic and Real can be seen to reflect the antagonism between abstract and concrete universality: the concreteness of the Real, its singular unruliness, coincides with the universal inconsistency of the Symbolic. In that respect, labour as working capacity should be enlisted within the register of the Real of jouissance – always the intractable work of the unconscious, which as such relates to a specific modality of enjoyment – while the valorisation process is the (by definition failed) attempt to convert this unconscious, concrete ‘laboring’ into a socio-symbolic fiction whose legitimacy claim rests on the ideological imposition, and policing, of the abstract exchangeability of the labour-commodity. Lacan’s definition of the unconscious substance of work in non-productivist terms is crucial for my Hegelian argument concerning the implosion of the capitalist dialectic with its foundation in labour-power. Lacan’s linking of work to knowledge and thus to the Real of jouissance (work as savoir-faire, unconscious knowledge-at-work), in Seminars XVI and XVII, grants his theoretical position a dialectical advantage over other critiques of labour and capitalist productivity that emerged in France in the early 1970s, such as those of Jean Baudrillard, Georges Bataille and Jacques Camatte. (“The Hegelian Moment: from the Withering Away of Labour to the Concrete Universality of Work”)

Let me translate Vighi’s distinction into my own terms. I define “effort” as “engaged labor-power” [1] and make a Lacanian distinction between “symbolic engagement” and “real engagement” [2]. A symbolic engagement functions like an investment of labor-power (or labor-time) that serves capitalist valorization, whereas a real engagement is an “unconscious knowledge-at-work” that carries the “Real of jouissance” as in Vighi’s conception.

Their crucial difference concerns their relation to usefulness: A symbolic engagement “tries to be useful” by relying on certain assumptions about usefulness, in other words, it is symbolically authorized by the big Other. An example of symbolic engagement is the Marxist notion of “concrete labor” that “produces use-values” based on the social preconceptions about usefulness. On the other hand, a real engagement does not rely on such preconceptions, which makes it “useless” by definition. Since real engagements involve the Real of jouissance, a good example is anything that’s called an “addiction” [3]. Another good example of real engagement is Sisyphus’ punishment [4]. In brief, real engagement has to do with the compulsion-to-repeat of the death drive.

But the fact that real engagement is “non-productivist” (Vighi) does not mean that it’s simply unproductive: Real engagement can redefine the meaning of productivity. Just like the analytic discourse producing a new Master-Signifier, not always but sometimes, a “useless” real engagement is able to redefine the notion of usefulness as such. I call this possibility, “real authorization” or “self-authorization” [5]. This is also called “politics”. I think the word “effort” nicely captures the political dimension of “knowledge-at-work” (Vighi) or “real engagement” (Fidaner). However, this political dimension is always ambiguous and at any moment it can slide back to the capitalist valorization of an effort with symbolic engagement.

I think the crucial difference between symbolic engagement and real engagement concerns how they refer to the central notions of physics: While symbolic engagement refers to “energy” (just think of the self-help literature about “regaining your energy” etc.), real engagement refers to “entropy”: By the second law of thermodynamics that says “Entropy always increases”, the concept of entropy directly relates to the arrow of time. This means that “entropy” is the locus of retroactive realization (Nachträglichkeit, après-coup, afterwardsness) and that’s why “entropy” is associated with “information” [6].

Let’s first focus on the concept of energy. Consider the difference between “potential energy” and “kinetic energy”. Surely, there is a logic of investment (Besetzung, cathexis, occupation, investissement) between them: When potential energy is invested in a certain motion, it becomes kinetic energy. Such a relation implies a freedom of conscious choice: If we change the physical configuration, the same potential energy will be invested into another kind of kinetic energy. However, it was precisely this illusion of willful free choice that was negated by the discovery of the unconscious desires and drives by psychoanalysis.

The Lacanian notion of “Master-Signifier” names a functioning anchorage between a certain potential energy and a certain kinetic energy. For example, the nationalists are invested (symbolically engaged) in their political cause because they believe in their Nation. Could the potential energy of the same people invested in an entirely different political cause, if the social configuration was modified? Not necessarily! [7] There are unconscious limitations to the illusory freedom of choice, and this is precisely what “real engagement” means. The concept of energy is contradictory in itself, divided between “potential energy” and “kinetic energy”, and Entropy names this inherent contradiction of energy.

“Effort” is a nice word to associate with the entropic contradiction of energy, because it connotes the unconscious impossibilities that underpin knowledge-at-work, while still containing the political ambiguity. The crucial message is that information is produced retroactively, which means that “potential energy” does not exist substantially; it’s the retroactive construction of the subject; in other words, a fantasy.


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler (Placeless Things) blog, Admin/Editor/Curator of Žižekian Analysis, and one of the admins of “Žižek and the Slovenian School” group on Facebook. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Effort is engaged labor-power”

[2] See “Symbolic Engagement and Real Engagement”

[3] About what follows from “addiction”, see “Postmodern Alienation Model”

[4] See “Working-Class Pride and Authorization”

[5] See “Symbolic Authorization of Fetishes and Real Authorization of Symptoms”

[6] About energy and entropy, see “Spatial and Combinatorial”. Entropy is crucial for Lacan, see his descriptions in Seminar 17 pages 48-51 of Russell Grigg’s translation.

[7] Not-necessarily is one of the connotations of not-All.


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