Towards a Substantialist Materialism

We must nevertheless distinguish between two different uses of the term “libido” … libido as an energetic concept, regulating the equivalence of phenomena, and libido as a substantialist hypothesis, relating the phenomena to matter.

I refer to the hypothesis as substantialist, and not as materialist, because recourse to the idea of matter is but a naïve, outmoded form of authentic materialism.

Jacques Lacan. “Beyond the ‘Reality Principle.'” Écrits (2002).

There is a reason I employ the phrase ’empty matter’ as the name of this project, and this quote serves as one of the many interlaced influences I draw from.

What Lacan is getting at here is the Freudian distinction between libido as a virtual measure of the mental energies of a subject and libido as the explanative link between these mental energies and the biological redirection that occurs in the body when these energies are followed. Libido today is often referred to as one’s ‘sex drive,’ and this is no wonder considering that the evolution of the term begins with Freud’s broad categorization of libido as the dynamic force behind one’s desires (which in psychoanalytic thinking all find a ‘sexual’ basis, but this is a discussion for another time, qua Zupančič). To bring the term back to its clinical distinction, ‘libido’ is the capacity of the subject to respond to phenomena within their own register of desire, both on a psychical level of triggering a mental response and on a material level of engaging with the subject’s biological functions and the object of desire in external reality in order to realize this response.

This, much like Dr. Evil’s in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is a simplistic and somewhat misleading break-down of the term. Lacan’s point in claiming the ‘libido as a substantialist hypothesis’ is to get at the interconnected relationship between the mental and the material, and how in engaging in the phenomena of one, a subject necessarily invokes the other in order to access it. In this sense, libido is not so much a virtual measure on the one hand and an external explanation on the other but a virtually external point of contact with the signifying apparatus that a subject engages in when forming and following desires. This is not to confound the two aspects of the term Lacan distinguishes between, but rather to explain how the concept of libido as an internal process is deeply entangled with libido as a marker of one’s organization of outside reality. For Lacan, libido is “the very condition of symbolic identification and the essential entity of the rational order” (73). Sexuality aside, the simple act of stating “I desire x” is not comprised of independently gathering enough psychic energy to set forth on a desire and then finding an external object on which to focus this energy, but rather of the internal symbolic registration that occurs in the recognition of the external object and how this signification relates to the system of meaning that a subject possesses when forming this desire. ‘Libidinal energy’ in this sense may be more accurately described as the signifying chain’s ability to provide a symbolism that triggers the subjective phenomena necessary (like a sensation of desire) for maintaining this internal fantasy over the external object.

There is a claim to be made here that signification or meaning generation in language is then one of the most material processes humans can perform. As Žižek points out, “every language is embedded in a particular lifeworld, traversed by its traces: language is not a neutral transcendental frame that structures our approach to reality, it is fully penetrated/distorted by contingent historical forces, antagonisms, desires, which forever twist and pervert its purity” (42). Meaning is never exact or isolated but in this sense always-already determined by both the material elements a signifier sticks to and how this signifier is utilized by individuals throughout its history. Here it is extremely useful to recall Sara Ahmed’s discussion of affective economies in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Ahmed describes how “emotions can move through the movement or circulation of objects. Such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension” (11). In experiencing a certain emotion, Ahmed argues, the subject is faced with the history of the object in question, and it is this history of fear, or disgust, or desire, that ‘sticks’ to an object and provides an affective cue to the subject who responds. My only challenge to this is that when discussing affect or emotion, is it not rather that meaning becomes saturated, and affect arrives as the subjective affirmation of this meaning and its instigation of these ‘sites of personal and social tension’ through the various antagonisms and desires it spawns? In any case, Ahmed is emphasizing the always-already determined aspect of our encounters with objects and how this external determination plays a large role in how we come to perceive things. Language in this sense is both an internal, mental operation and an external, material trace of matter’s history in human reality.

A substantialist or ‘authentic’ materialism is thus one that not only assumes the relation of signifying phenomena to an underlying matter but that signification is itself material, a consequence of the stickiness of signifiers and the very real appearance of the letter in physical reality. Embedding language in external reality is inherent with being a speaking subject, and it is not an individual venture but rather one informed by all of the subjective inflections that language has gathered before we come into it. In this way, all matter is ‘full’ in our point of contact with it: it’s particular material substance overflows with the traces of signification we collectively imbue it with and is further distorted by the subject who passes this signification through their own interpretative frame in the moment of an encounter. Lacan’s trick here is linking the letter, a physical but meaningless manifestation of language, to the material objects that the letter becomes attached to, in turn positioning language as the ‘sticky substance’ of reality that generates meaning in a seemingly external relation to the subject. We are not just using words to simply refer to objects, but rather placing these words within our virtual image of a particular object, registering it symbolically in the same moment that this registration is materialized in the external object that simultaneously determines and is determined by the symbolism stuck to it.

What I am getting at is that in order to reach an ’empty matter,’ we must acknowledge that the perception of reality we hold is determined through this material process of embedding significations in objects and others. This is not to say that all meaning is arbitrary and that language is a tool we can eventually warp into making ‘cat’ mean ‘dog’ and so on. What this acknowledgement means is that language as a material process and matter as linguistic expression are both founded in the subjective or ‘libidinal’ energy that one approaches the construction of symbolic reality with. The subject is not just the agent of their reality but the distortion within it that generates the meanings they become familiar with. In recognizing this, matter is not made ’empty’ in the sense that all meaning can be extricated, but rather in the sense that it becomes porous, its history revealed and opened up to the influences one can stick to it. It is in this way that meaning is not able to change, but shift. Consider the position of plastic straws in western society: 15 years ago, straws were symbols of convenience and capitalist enjoyment; today, straws are frequently banned by major corporations and municipal governments and are increasingly gaining the signification of ecological devastation and capitalist disregard. The materiality of language in this way provides a progressive method of raising awareness over the issue, and it is sticking these signifiers of a new, precarious reality to the very real matter that expresses them in our interpretations that allows for a glimmer of hope to shine through the fog of contemporary culture. If we cannot change the world, we can change how we speak about it.


Ahmed, Sarah. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd. ed., Routledge, 2015.

Lacan, Jacques. “Beyond the ‘Reality Principle.'” Écrits, translated by Bruce Fink, Norton, 2002, pp. 58-74.

Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels. MIT Press, 2017.

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