revolutionary sovereignty

Colin Lanceley, Popiel, 1972


The cleaning operation is promoted by the capitalist and state symbolic order in the name of defending Life

Political philosophy and psychoanalysis tension a fundamental relationship to think about the way we relate to one of the structuring oppositions of our subjective and collective experience: the constitution of an interior space and an exterior space, an inside and an outside. In addition to a simple analogy of this opposition, as it would be something like the opposition between nationals and foreigners or family members and strangers, I will seek to expose some of the dynamics that illustrate the opposition that seems to guide a series of issues inherent to the political, philosophical, aesthetic and clinical debate. . Being understood as a contradiction or a differential relationship, inside and outside and/or inside and outside install different dynamics of identity, belonging, difference, distance and elimination. We will try to understand why by circumscribing the problem of these opposites.

At the outset, we will start with a detour: to explain why the toilet is the object of this title. I will trigger some lines by Slavoj Žižek in the documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006) about the film The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), speaking of a toilet: “In our most elementary experience, when we flush the toilet, excrements simply disappear from our reality, into another space, which we perceive phenomenologically as a kind of subterranean world. Another reality, a chaotic and primordial reality. And the greatest of horrors, of course, would be if the flush didn't work, if objects returned: if leftovers, leftover excrement, returned from this dimension.”[I]

Žižek's example illustrates an interesting relationship that is constituted in the model of the toilet: this is precisely the passage between the interior space, clean and organized, and the subterranean world, the chaotic exterior. In this model, the toilet, which functions as one of the exit doors for the undesirable excesses of humans in the house, is the point of contact between the inside of the house and the outside. The horror that Žižek refers to is the situation where the flow that eliminates undesirable excesses (human excrement) is interrupted, or worse, the univocity of its meaning is inverted: the inside to the outside becomes the outside to the inside. Expulsion and elimination become invasion and contagion. Such is the paradigm of cleaning and hygiene: the clean and organized space of the house must be kept pure, at the expense of the constant expulsion and elimination of dirty, impure, chaotic and disorganizing objects.

The architecture of the house responds to this need, as analyzed by Nick Land (2019): “The floors of a house lend themselves to social stratification and, therefore, to philosophical and theological metaphor; the basement representing the place of servants, animality, the unconscious. What is repressed in this case is not the cellar itself—hell is not repressed but displayed—but the hollow walls, the outside pipe, the arterial system of tubes, ducts, and chimneys, everything that facilitates corruption of vertically articulated space by the quasi-horizontality of an insidious dimension.”[ii]

The repression of this arterial system of tubes, ducts and chimneys occurs precisely because they are built as the small exits of the house, the outlets for objects and flows that must be expelled from the interior of the house, but which, due to this same character, allow the entry of objects and flows from outside, outside invaders. If Žižek is thinking of something that is eliminated from the inside out but that can return by obstructing the normal flow of the system, Land is looking for a character who is one of the signs of the parasitic and contagious invader, of the flow from outside that brings the impurity and filth of exteriority: the rats.

In a strange genealogy, Land (2019) uses historiographical writings on rats and the history of plagues, to analyze how black rats, which inhabited domestic and naval spaces, formed a population in Europe during Antiquity and the Middle Ages and spread a series of pests due to their parasitic transmissibility. However, public hygiene was not widely disseminated, and this type of rat was practically invisible to regular cleaning care for most of the population. The second type of rat, the brown rat from Asia, formed a population from the XNUMXth century until today when it inhabits the sewage pipes of industrial cities, eliminating a good part of the populations of black rats.

Such a decline in the population of black rats was mainly due to the increasing control of rodents and sanitation and public hygiene projects in the large cities of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, with brown rats being the survivors due to their greater agility and versatility to live in sewer pipes. With that, the State started to organize not only the basic sanitation and hygiene of public spaces, but also to intervene in the organization of the interior space of the house. The State dominates the house down the drain.

Žižek talks about a return of what is expelled and Land about attempts to control invasions from the outside, and thus both surround the same problem: what regulates the relations between inside and outside? Or rather, how is the opposition between inside and outside produced? Why is the interior coded as the space of organization, cleanliness, and purity versus an exterior of chaos, dirt, and impurity? What elements qualify something as pure or impure?

Both offer us models to propose that the inner space, the inside, is only coded as such a space of organization, purity and cleanliness by a process of repression of elements marked as impure, dirty and chaotic. Such a process of repression, on the other hand, points to this outside, indicates its non-covering and its status of constant threat. The repression of chaotic flows is what hides how the organizing activity itself depends on what erupts against the interior space to maintain its need.

Moving from the toilet model to a more general discussion of cleanliness, Žižek demonstrates a parallel between The Conversation e Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) to expose the elementary character of cleaning work as an activity that organizes interior space, against exterior space: “I think this tells us a lot about the satisfaction of work, of a job well done, which is not so much building something new, but perhaps human work, in its most elemental form, work as it would be at its zero level, is the work of cleaning up the traces of a stain. The work of erasing a stain, removing this chaotic underground world, which threatens to explode and devour us at every moment.”[iii]

The stain or dirt then becomes the element that marks the emergency need for cleaning work, the elimination of impurities in the interior space. Here we can introduce how the models of Žižek and Land are strongly inserted in the psychoanalytic discussion of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and even Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: the interior space is the organized, clean and pure inside, where there is a completeness of meaning that closes a totality—a symbolic order; the exterior or the outside is marked as chaos, dirt and impurity by its ability to pierce such a symbolic order, to disorganize the totality - the Real. The Real pierces the symbolic order, prevents its completeness; at the same time, it is what the symbolic order needs to build its structures that constantly seek to cover up, repress and conceal this chaotic flux. Cleaning is then the task that the symbolic order undertakes to eliminate and expel what disorganizes it, justifying itself as an activity by this constant threat of invasion.

Here, a problem opportunely exposed by Alain Badiou (2017) emerges: how the symbolic order, which is currently structured as contemporary imperial capitalism, seeks to build its completeness of meaning and its totality as the whole of reality, and what disorganizes such reality — “the omnipresence of corruption”[iv] which is the capitalist mode of production — is codified as an exception to reality, presented as a scandal.

The scandalous exception then has two functions: the concealment of this Real that permeates and pierces the entire symbolic order and prevents its completeness, as well as the legitimation of a more brutal repression against this singularized threat. The paranoid delusion of purity and cleanliness that is at play in Žižek's toilet and in Land's rats reaches here a fundamental political projection: who are those selected by the symbolic order as the impure, dirty and prone to chaos?

How does this symbolic order of contemporary imperial capitalism and the modern State codify its threats and mobilize its scandals to legitimize the purges, expulsions and repressions systematically employed to guarantee its functioning, the punishment in the name of cleansing? And more important for me: how to overcome the model of scandal and paranoia of purity that are direct consequences of the opposition inside and outside as structuring our experience?

Rodrigo Guéron (2020), also starting from the psychoanalytical and political-philosophical discussion, problematizes a mere re-ordering of the symbolic order or a paradigm of simple inclusion of those on the margins, arguing that such an operation is the very nature of the State: “All kinds of The operation of punishment must, in the first place, introject the law of laws, it is about overcoding the debt of debts, that is, the transcendent and infinite debt to the State to which we owe our lives. What must be eliminated is everything that seems to disturb the clear and Apollonian designation of meaning of this signifier: any strange force to the perfect relationship (...) there is even a whole apparatus of signifiers to designate these forces, such as the crimes foreseen by law in an impressive effort of the codes to frame everything that threatens the social machine, clearly determining a space of interiority and exteriority.”[v]

The cleaning operation is promoted by the capitalist and state symbolic order in the name of defending Life. The State that goes down the drain in Land's descriptions of rats is the same State that racially marks the purity and impurity of the population, those who must live and or who must be eliminated for being a biological threat to racial purity, as exposed by Michel Foucault (1999) when talking about State racism. Land's rats are even closer to Žižek's model of the toilet and Foucault's discussion of State racism, by referring to a case analyzed by Freud and named the rat man, as it involves a delirium with a torture method where the tortured is anally violated by rats: “The image of anal rape that organizes the rats’ delirium (…) does not indicate an Oedipal ambivalence, but the racist misogyny that projects all flows does not -domesticated into an expulsion axiom”.[vi] At stake here is a model in which outside elements that must be expelled invert their meaning and invade the inside space.

The race war in the modern State in favor of the biological purity of the population, the corruption scandal that emerges as an exception to the rule, the rats that inhabit the plumbing and invade the house (or the anus), the flushing of the toilet that does not work and does it return the droppings: what do all these models have in common? The first two are examples of the process of constituting an interior space legitimized by the construction of an external threat to be eliminated in order to maintain the supposed purity of the interior. The last two are the counterpart of such a process: these returns of the Real that disorganize the symbolic order and allow a radical change of that order. But how to ensure that the returns of the Real are not de-potentialized, repressed in their subversive character, assimilated by the symbolic order and turned into parameters for a new opposition inside and outside?

Hal Foster (2017), in an argument similar to Badiou's opposition between reality presented as scandalous and the Real, opposes reality as an effect of representation to the real as traumatic, referring to Lacan's trou-matic, where the real is the hole (trou) in the symbolic order. The real as traumatic is related to the artifice of abjection, which Foster features in a dialogue with Julia Kristeva. This artifice is articulated in two poles: “... the operation of abjecting and the condition of being abjected. To abject (…) is to expel, to separate; to be abject, on the other hand, is to be repulsive, stuck, subject just enough to feel this condition of being subject at risk. For Kristeva, the operation of abjecting is fundamental for the maintenance of both the subject and society, while the condition of being abject is corrosive of both formations. It would be the abject, then, destroyer or, in some way, founder of subjective and social orders; would it be a crisis or, in some way, a confirmation of these orders? If a subject or a society abjects the strange within itself, wouldn't abjection be a regulatory operation? (…) Or can the condition of abjection be mimicked in order to invoke, to disturb it, the operation of abjection?”[vii]

Despite Foster identifying problems in the strategies that explore trauma and abjection, something fundamental is enunciated for the break with the inside/outside opposition: the same operation that confirms the symbolic order is the one that attests to its crisis, as the same abject that indicates the incompleteness of the order by piercing it is the one that is instrumentalized to make it more resistant. To clog the toilet and make the real return, to break with the symbolic order without the possibility of being assimilated, something like what Žižek finds in Maximilien Robespierre is at stake: “The 'divine violence' (…) as the heroic act of assuming the solitude of a sovereign decision. It is a decision (…) not covered by the big Other.”[viii] Revolutionary sovereignty: blowing up the wall that separates order from the inside and chaos from the outside, leaving the ruins as furniture in a space that is no longer a house.

*Bernardo Joao do Rego Monteiro Moreira is studying political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).



BADIOU, Alain. In search of the lost real. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora, 2017.

FOSTER, Hal. the return of the real. São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2017.

FOUCAULT, Michael. In defense of society: course at the Collège de France (1975-1976). São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1999.

GUERON, Rodrigo. Capitalism, Desire & Politics: Deleuze and Guattari read Marx: Rio de Janeiro: Nau Editora, 2020.

LAND, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2019.

THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA. Directed by: Sophie Fiennes. United Kingdom, Austria and the Netherlands: Mischief Films & Amoeba Film, 2006.

ŽIŽEK, Slavoj. “Robespierre, or the 'divine violence' of terror”. In: ROBESPIERRE, Maximilien. Virtue and Terror. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editora, 2008.



[I] In the original: “In our most elementary [sic] experience, when we flush the toilet, excrements simply disappear out of our reality, into another space, which we phenomenologically perceive as a kind of a netherworld. Another reality, chaotic, primordial reality. And the ultimate horror, or- [sic] of course, if the flushing doesn't work, if objects return, if remainders, excremental remainders return from that dimension.” (My translation).

[ii] (LAND, 2019, p. 191. My translation).

[iii] In the original: “I think this tells us a lot about the satisfaction of work, of a job well done, which is not so much to build something new, but maybe human work, at its most elementary [sic], work as it were at the zero level, is the work of cleaning the traces of a stain. The work of erasing a stain, keeping away this chaotic netherworld, which threatens to explode any time and engulf us.” (My translation).

[iv] (Badiou, 2017, p. 18).

[v] (Guéron, 2020, p. 330).

[vi] (Land, 2019, p. 200. My translation).

[vii] (Foster, 2017, p. 148).

[viii] (Žižek, 2008, p. 11-12).

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