Lacan and ‘Unmasking the Entrepreneur’

In their recently published book, Unmasking the Entrepreneur, Campbell Jones and Andre Spicer offer a new way of looking at the idea of the Entrepreneur, through a range of different philosophical and theoretical perspectives. Many assumptions are made about the Entrepreneur, this elusive character that so many academics have tried to pin down through a set of recognisable characteristics or as a key innovative actor within a capitalist economic system. The value placed on the entrepreneur is echoed in most Western governments through their support of an enterprise culture and of entrepreneurial behaviour across all sectors of life. In this post, I will discuss part of Chapter 3, in which the writers draw on Jacques Lacan‘s work to critique an essentialist view of the entrepreneur. They ask us to consider the idea that the reason why academics have found it difficult to categorise the Entrepreneur, in a definitive way, is not necessarily a failure on the behalf of the researchers but instead, it is because the ‘entrepreneurship discourse does not exist’.

The starting point for Campbell Jones and Andre Spicer is to take a critical perspective. They argue that entrepreneurship research can be divided into three major areas; Firstly the functionalist which seeks to explore the causes and outcomes of entrepreneurship, secondly the interpretive which tends to observe entrepreneurship as it is conducted day to day and thirdly, a critical approach which questions the category of the entrepreneur including how the entrepreneur is represented and takes a critical view of the impact on society. They claim that the critical approach, such as the work by Paul du Gay, is relatively small in comparison with the array of literature which appears to accept entrepreneurship and has no compulsion to investigate and critique many of the commonly held assumptions about the subject.

In order to do this, Jones and Spicers refer to the work Lacan’s theory of  ‘the mirror stage’ which explores the notion of our symbolised identity and the gap which exists between that and ourselves. The ‘mirror stage’ is based on the notion that when a child is about 6 months old and looks in the mirror, he or she starts to recognise their image rather than thinking of themselves as part of their mother (which is how they understand themselves until then). So for the first time, they have a sense of their image through the eyes of others. I should add that this has been contested by others and is by no means accepted by all academics. However, Lacan goes on to develop the idea of the ‘dual relationship’, as the gap between a person and his or her image. This is described as the ‘silent real’. That which is unspeakable. That which is absent. To quote Jones and Spicer, ‘the mirror stage’ gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image’.

‘We are suggesting that entrepreneurship is not a coherent and stable discourse which is help together around a stable centre. Such a unity is almost always assumed by functionalist approaches to entrepreneurship, and this is something a critical perspective brings to light. Rather, it is a paradoxical, incomplete and worm ridden symbolic structure which posits an impossible and indeed incomprehensible object at its centre. To put it into the strictest Lacanian formulation, entrepreneurship discourse does not exist.’(Jones and Spicer, 2009)

The idea that the identity of the entrepreneur is a ‘fictional construct’ (du Gay, 2000), is helpful in ‘unmasking’ the theoretical and popular image of the entrepreneur. The argument here is that the entrepreneur, as with the emperor’s clothes, is an image from the outside and that behind the mask is nothing.

In research investigating the modern man, James Donald, agrees with Lacan’s theory that their is nothing behind the image; it is not the case that beneath these layers, a ‘true’ or ‘real’ person is hiding. However, he suggests that: ‘This nothing is once again the necessary nothing we keep coming up against, the abstraction that is the subject, the empty place that makes appearance, conduct and consciousness possible. Being a citizen, being a man about town, being a person – these are not identities, they are performances.’ (Donald, 2000).

The use of the word performances suggests an opportunity to ‘act out’ an image and the potential for subversion and resistance as discussed by Jacqueline Rose in her analysis of Lacan.

But to come back to the question of entrepreneurship discourse, the point the authors are trying to make, is not simply that entrepreneurship discourse does not exist, but that research which has attempted to identify the entrepreneur has in fact simply explored the ‘absent centre’, the ‘lack’, that the underlining failure of entrepreneurship discourse reveals something more profound. In unmasking, the authors seek to suggest that it is the undefinable nature of the entrepreneur, ‘the entrepreneur as an empty signifier’ which is the entrepreneur.

This is not to say that they reject the existence of entrepreneurship discourse in a different sense. The signifiers and signified are part of a narrative which serve to illustrate the identity of the entrepreneur so many seek. ‘It is not in ‘being’ an entrepreneur that one secures identity, but in the gap between the subject and the object of desire.’


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