Curated by Alejandra Seeber

Chapter 5
Pierre Rey

translated by Marvin Gonzalez

Our possessions possess us.

Some, through having misunderstood, possess so much that they do not enjoy sufficiently and arrive at that turning point where money passes from the means to the ends. They are rich, they have millions, while their hearts can bear it, they will waste away to gain double: they appraise their lack and its amounts to the infinite, and with that they abolish the barrier that separates need and desire.

Limited necessity defines them.

Infinite desire alienates them.

It happens with money as with analysis. There is a fine line where it gets out of control, where ends and means, replacing each other, reciprocally alter the logic of their function. On occasions, by dint of speech, those who speak become specialists of the couch, as much as those who hear. The word, its practice, its duration and its rate, turned into an end in itself, a reason to live, ends up constituting a perverse investment in the fundamental structure of an existence in which the real, reduced to the unreal nature of the letter that maintains it at a distance, makes itself manifest only to better elude the flow of discourse.

The analyst himself is not protected from the contagion.

Less so because his analysands would not be capable of doing without him, but on the contrary because he is phantasmatically protected from death by their demand. Could he survive without the parapet of souls in pain, who came to him so he could name their desire?

What is truly yours, when it is known in that dialect, he, fixed by definition in the non-doing, takes the place of the dead in which your life slips away. Soft. Truncated. Detained. Some, who remain sitting too long on the edge, take the great risk of staying there. Teachers in activities that incite acts that elude them, neutral spectators whose lives dissolve into the torrent of the discourse of the other without ever being chaffed, no good has come of your office—perhaps it comes out sometimes?—Fiery collisions of its drive, sperm and blood, heart beating, tear, wound.

I was talking about the function of sacredness, of asceticism, renunciation, of withdrawal. He shrugged his shoulders:

—Nothing can be gained with that.

There had to be the exceptional breadth of Lacan to pass from one end to the other, to analyze, fight, doubt, be indignant, live, search, enjoy, suffer. He passed unscathed through the intertwined circles of the three orders determined by the symbolic, real, and imaginary. And in the advent of madness, it forges new ground every time it abolishes the plain word, completely, so everything is opened once more elsewhere, over another thing.

One day I fell sick. I notified him to cancel my appointment for the next day. With dazzling speed that left me dizzy, within minutes he arranged my treatment: in a matter of hours, doors miraculously burst open that would have remained closed and, after having heard just one word from his lips, people that I had never met treated me as if were something infinitely precious to them.

Father. Heavenly father.

I was, perhaps, fifteen months old; I cannot forget it.

That night my parents had left me in the care of a friend. It started to storm. My father returned to pick me up. He got me out of bed. My father carried me over his shoulders as if I were a feather; he protected me from rain and in huge strides safely traversed the deserted streets of the town, faced the night until we arrived at the house. Tiny, shaken, intoxicated by the formidable force of the march through the storm, that night I felt the intensity of utter protection. I speak by analogy, as the experience of radiant energy had by the child that I used to be, curled up against his father, and the man that I was, returned to childhood to experience an identical power light years away.

Styles of Life
Eric Laurent

Author’s Bio

translated by Gabrielle Shorr

Sublimation, Sublimierung, the word is in Freud, taken from his discourse on the art of his time. After Kant, the sublime was distinguished from beauty by the tension that persisted in it while subsiding in beauty. Thus Freud proposed: this tension reveals the direct satisfaction of a drive in aesthetic activity. The artist, by his apparent renunciation of direct sexual satisfaction, against nature, invents a specific, direct satisfaction to the components of drives, split off from sexuality. The artist elevates the most intimate paths of the formations of his unconscious to the level of artworks recognized by all, thereby finding the avenue of the most authentic recognition. The Freudian conception willingly admits to being part of the “fin de siècle” symbolist and positivist horizon. Most often, we would only see yet another doctor affirming that all human activities, from those most openly engaged in the heaviness of the matter to the most ethereal, find their foundation in man’s vital appetites. Furthermore, psychoanalysts managed therein to renew the perspective of Sainte-Beuve, searching for other traces more intimate than those revealed by the artwork itself. This offered an applied psychoanalytic literature, too assiduous, where the enigma of the artist’s “don merveilleux” was always unraveling, and the present state of the theory was always being illustrated.

A recurring torment animates this literature. If the sublimatory satisfaction is so perfect, why is the artist unhappy? Why does he not sublimate enough to liberate himself from his darkest hours, and why doesn’t he heal himself of his nervous, psychotic, or perverse afflictions? Why is it that the one who finishes by being recognized and accepted in his art doesn’t find in it peace and sufficient support? Why does the artist continue to suffer, as numerous suicides, or equally numerous losses, continually remind us? In this way psychoanalysis doesn’t easily resolve the discourse that preceded it on the “melancholy” of the artist, his Saturnian genius, his proximity to madness, the sadness and the morbid and fecund shifts of his essence (sentiment vital).

Therefore we’re critical of sublimation, as no one uses the word anymore; and the Freudian scandal, which added an important dimension to the drive, has abated.

The reception of a psychoanalytic discourse on sublimation has changed. We no longer expect from it a revelation on the relations of intimate life and creation. No one doubts that there are some. On this topic, it’s no longer a discussion of Proust versus Sainte-Beuve. It’s Proust and Saint-Beuve together. On the one hand, there’s the inflation of life stories where all the smallest “petits papiers” of the artist are included, even, if possible, the transcript (le texte) of his therapy sessions; on the other hand, there’s the most detailed examination of the act of creation, tracking down the smallest repentance, or in the most recently discovered manuscript, a new perspective on the “don merveilleux.” It’s both the death of the author and his apotheosis. Psychoanalysis accompanied this movement. With Proust, psychoanalysis could follow to a tee the transposition and translation of the obsessions of every artist in a language that is his own. With Sainte-Beuve, psychoanalysis could accept the most precise details of the modes of jouissance particular to each artist, without making them seem prudish. Psychoanalysis has surely contributed to reigning in the limits of the genre.

A question remains: what should we do? It’s here that Lacan’s reading of Freud introduces a new perspective. The analyst doesn’t precede the artist, who would be reduced to the role of a foil by the nice theory of the transference (transposition) of drives. The analyst follows the artist as his shadow, imbued with the idea that the artist is the herald of malaise in civilization. He emphasizes and announces that which shows itself only as veiled. The artist renounces nothing of himself, and by the same, rejoins the horizon of his time, ours, which is not what certain people believe is a quest for meaning, but the search for an ethics of desire.

Kojève had formulated the first perspective, that, at the end of history, the only choice left will be to live, not according to an ideal, but according to an aesthetics of life. He called this “snobbism.” He became enchanted with Japan; he discovered its rituals, understanding it not as empire of signs, but as a country of 80 million snobs. We are no doubt less convinced that Kojève will live to see the end of history, but we know with him that what remains by science alone, of all spheres of human activity, leaves each person without a guide on how to live. It’s difficult to define a moral asceticism that allows each person to feel One. We can infer the disenchantment of the world and the externalization of provisory morals.

A conception of psychoanalysis as a path for de-idealisation could also add to this perspective an alleviation of the weight of the Ideal. Every subject ought to inform himself of the conditions of jouissance through the experience of analysis and then content himself with slipping into the present forms of moral life. From an amusing perspective, the American philosopher Richard Rorty describes well a world emptied of ideals but peopled by personalities, figures of the vocabulary of moral reflection, to the point where there is only “the magnanimous one, the real Christian, the honest one, the loose one, the one who believes in God, the hypocrite, the Roman, the saint, a Julien Sorel, a timid gazelle, a hyena, a depressive, a grande dame, a man of respect, a Bloomsbury…” He also accepts the reduction of the ideals of the time to three figures realized by his colleague Alasdair MacIntyre, “the Aesthete, the Manager, the Therapist,” and he would imagine himself happy to live in a world thus remedially defined, except he would maximize happiness along the precepts of John Rawls. It’s the reduction of the world to Styles of Life. In our field of thought, the search for a modern stoicism has wanted to respond to the same demand. It’s the perspective adopted by the DSM-IV, the clinical and statistical manual, in the description of perversions without lawful medical records. Under the pressure of gay lobbies, the American Psychiatric Association judged it the most democratic to represent homosexuality and its neighboring sadomasochism as “alternative styles of life.” This is only a clinical variation of the trend.

In opposition to this orientation, this serial presents a series of studies on four artists, who were men of truth, following with a commentary of Jacques Lacan’s first study on Gide. Their work, which takes jouissance literally, is not sublime, it is symptôme.

What does psychoanalysis then retain? It’s simple. Psychoanalysis refuses all disenchantment and is opposed to a perspective of disillusionment. If we must learn something from the artist, it’s that he makes himself the one responsible for the truth of his mode of jouissance. He makes it happen in the reality of his existence and, by that, he elevates himself to the ranks of a man of truth. What must resolve itself in psychoanalysis is not the fall of ideals, their mourning and renunciation. What must resolve itself is desire, insomuch as it doesn’t content itself with modes of collective renunciation to the truth of each person. Psychoanalysis is more Augustinian than one thinks; it deliberately proposes an ethics founded on desire. No God is on its horizon, but there is a respect for ideals that the psychoanalyst has, that one “can only transcend (s’en passer) by first obeying (s’en servir).”

When the image makes itself destiny
Marie-Helene Brousse

Alejandra Seeber

translated by Albert Herter with Gabrielle Shorr

The image is that of a dead pigeon at the bottom of a garbage-can. How has this image made a destiny for a subject? More generally, from where does an image take its structuring power? It’s a question that nevertheless presents itself as a paradox because, despite some of the earliest of Lacan’s texts on the imaginary, which put the image-form in the place of structuring power, the imaginary axis was quickly defined, under the control of the symbolic, as the power of suggestion, illusion, or veiling, and the image by its function as misrecognition. “The structure is not the form,” writes Lacan in the text “Note on the report of Daniel Lagache” (p. 649): the structure is the signifying articulation as such.

Yet this image punctuated the analysis of this subject and operated as a key for deciphering her destiny. “In kindergarten, in the playground, she opens a trash can to spit chewing gum and her eyes meet a dead pigeon.” This is the image that, while detached, is inserted into a little story. That morning her father had accompanied her to school; on the way both had stopped at the bakery, and then the father had so unexpectedly bought her her favorite candy, chewing gum. Upon reaching the school, in the courtyard, she came up against the school prohibition, raised by her classmates, no doubt jealous. No chewing gum at school, and going to spit, thus lifting the lid at the bottom of the bin, she had this encounter on the order of a trauma.

The oedipal frame of the image appears clear: hand in hand with Dad, he gives her the coveted oral object: 1st stage. At school, at the same time as the rivalry with her fellows (semblables), the prohibition arises that deprives the object of oedipal satisfaction: 2nd stage of the Law. She has to spit out her chewing gum: 3rd stage, of loss. Then arises the meeting, spitting the chewing gum and the vision of a dead pigeon in the open trashcan: 4th stage of the emergence of the traumatic picture. If stages 1, 2, and 3 correspond to the stages of Oedipus and thereby define the coordinates of the desiring position for this woman, one can see the construction of a fantasy. These images are therefore erasable in the symbolic. The fourth stage performs a collage  that, by its incongruity, which is to say its nonsensical aspect, points to the emergence of the real. One only applies the qualifier “indelible” to what is traumatic.

Indeed, our hypothesis is that an image is indelible if it precisely houses this mark of the real, the emergence of the drive in a framework operated by the symbolic.


Alejandra Seeber

 First of all, the framework of the story allows us to locate the moment of an onset of a double phobia that marked the patient’s childhood and adolescence, a phobia already overcome before entering analysis. Its earliest form, following the construction mentioned, was a phobia of cemeteries that had forced the child to make many detours in her neighborhood. This phobia of cemeteries unfolded around the signifier “dust”: the smell of dust more accurately. A little later, articulated at catechism, arising in conjunction with the first, the phobia of Christ on the cross. Anxiety is thus associated with disgust. In counterpoint, the child developed a fascination with virgins. These phobias yielded spontaneously once she tied together an amorous relationship with one who would become the father of her children and was the cause of her entry into analysis; in fact, as she waited only a few weeks for her second child, at a moment when her intractable desire for a child appeared to her the pivot of her existence, her companion ended his life. It is in these dramatic circumstances and carrying a question to which she had the answer that she began her analysis. She came to ask me if she should keep the child. But you’ll understand from the key given by the chewing gum anecdote that she would in no way admit to being deprived the satisfaction of keeping it. The time had not come to slip, to quote Hamlet’s formula, between her and her desire. The husband-Christ, as she later discovered, was dead, and she would not separate from the object. To work on this image at the oedipal level, I engaged a text of Lacan’s, in “Note on the report of Daniel Lagache.” He writes: “It is because it obviates this moment of lack that an image comes to the position of bearing the full brunt of desire: projection, function of the imaginary.” Then he adds: “Contrary to this, an index is instated at the heart of being to designate the hole in it: introjection, a relation to the symbolic” (p. 655). Supporting desire, the loss of the incestuous object, which is articulated at this time as an oral theory of generation, fixated the subject on motherhood. But at the same time it installed the index that is the dead pigeon, the signifier that refers to the hole, the thing that is both closest to the subject and that which escapes her most. Later on in this same text Lacan evokes the mechanism of phobia.

One doesn’t, however, easily get rid of a real so insistent. The analytical work led her from the guilt caused by the suicide of her companion to the enigma, through a vain appeal to the Other of the symbolic, for him to definitely and completely edge what, on the occasion, emerged from the initial hole. But in this appeal to the symbolic, which, although absolutely necessary, all the same proved vain, there unexpectedly reappeared a jouissance she had herself ignored. Thus, a few years after setting up the funeral and the burial in the most faithful representation of the deceased she could come up with, in the dignity of a work of mourning, happily remarried and provided with an additional child, she was caught unawares by the surprise. Returning from a session, she discovered herself seated at the cemetery gates where her first companion had been buried—the daily shortcut to run her errands—and recognized herself in the very old women who, in this beautiful province, spend their days watching over the graves. Harnessing the power of the symbolic that had neither allowed her to do away with the dead pigeon nor have a decent burial. As in the Holbein, “The Ambassadors,” it continued to stain, and thus guide, the whole of her life. The analysis, having made this return, appeared to her again as “a phallic symbol, anamorphic ghost” which, as Lacan says in Seminar XI (p. 83), reflects our own nothingness by rendering it visible. The deceased took the place of the subject and correspondingly annihilated that which was immobilized in the position of guardian of the tomb.

Seminar XI makes it possible to deal with the indelible image, this time from the relation to the object, and to question the relationship between this type of image and the drive. Speaking of the core on which the subject tightens her story in free association (p. 66), he refers to it as something traumatic, which caused a schism in the subject, consequently defined as the real taken from an accidental meeting. By its repetition, this accident reveals its meaning and leads to the drive. But the real glimpsed in the encounter is inopportune and this splitting of the subject is both traumatic, that is to say, charged with artificiality and contingency, and complicit, that is to say, in the service of the Name the Father. It is here not so much a dialectic of truth and appearance, but the manifestation of a cut. She saw, when spitting, a dead pigeon: strange contingency; while on the horizon, the stopping point of our experience, which is castration anxiety. But in so doing she was seen by a gaze that she saw not: if the pigeon is comparable to the eye and, as the head of death, makes a stain and there represents the annihilation by castration—it is also the look by which something of the sexual relation is reached in a way that is desexualised: the object as absence, before sexualization of lack. It embodies that which—the favorite treat related to a separation that is self-mutilation—is beyond the phallic function. Indelibility is caused by the fading of the subject of which the actual image is a trace.

The analysis allows for operating on the image a separation between
[it]—and objet a, reviving the splitting of the subject, thus on the one hand there’s the projection outside of the cemetery, pronounced henceforth like it’s no longer about the child and the definitive loss of the companion—and on the other hand, objet a is made to emerge as an object of the drive; the gaze appears in the indelible image as a mark of the real, the gaze of the dead pigeon that she doesn’t see seeing her immobilizes a real in the fixity of the thing.

Her existence was previously deployed between two points. On the one hand, she was still attached to the oral object lost to the demand of the oedipal Other. This was demonstrated in this fierce desire for a child with whom she had long defined her being. However, not without symptoms. She had for a long time been seized by a maddening anguish when her children escaped her gaze, reversing the position she occupies in the image and, similarly, remained marked by an avoidance of the gaze that organized her relation to the other, so that the gaze made her a strange thing to herself. An image is indelible for having made visible the splitting of the subject effected by a real not completely phallic.

What would have happened had she carried out the analysis to its conclusion, which was not the case for this analysand? Always indelible, but the fascination and horror at least cease to be a solution to the lack-of-being. Once separated from the drive, the attachment to the demand of the Other it conveyed may disappear. The drive can then be defined as the rapport between lack-of-being of the subject and the real lack in the Other. For the analysand that involves, in addition to the fall of the omnipotence of the maternal position, the discovery of what is not saturable either by the child or death: the lack of signifier in the real. The character of indelibility is the mark of A, heterogeneous to the order of the demand of the Other. At the end of an analysis, this element A ceases to be of the order of a trauma, the real, to access the modality of the impossible. The indelibility of the traumatic image, marking the jouissance of a subject, becomes for him the mark of the impossible.

Marriage, Divorce, and Company
Pierre-Gilles Gueguen

Author’s Bio

translated by Marcus Andersson

The debate surrounding homosexual marriage shows the role of psychoanalysis in French culture today. Never before have so many psychoanalysts given their “expert” opinion in this debate. Yet never before has psychoanalysis been so violently criticized. Critics attack Lacan for being homophobic or against transsexuals by using hastily chosen and poorly interpreted citations to attribute malevolent intentions to his work. Moreover, in the fields of mental health and academia, political currents are at work eradicating psychoanalytic training. And Freud is still being put on trial for having cheated on his wife with his sister-in-law: big deal!

I don’t believe that psychoanalysts should play the part of politicians and jurists, legislating what is good and evil in matters of sex, what is and isn’t acceptable in the profiling of sexual activities… of the others. Lacan, I think, definitively established the following claim: there is no sexual relation (which doesn’t prevent people from inscribing several things onto this void).

In democracies, or in non-totalitarian regimes—those which permit the practice of psychoanalysis—laws and norms governing behavior are created and elaborated upon through the provided legal networks. As a citizen, I support homosexual marriage. Marriage is a civil contract, and those who believe it’s a sacrament reserved for two people of the opposite sex have the option to marry in a religious context.

If I consider potential obstacles that psychoanalytic doctrine would have today with the legalization of homosexual marriage, I would say that I couldn’t find any.

I don’t believe in idealization of the family, a structure that hasn’t ceased evolving since the Roman family, passing through the patrimonial family of the 19th century and the reconstituted families of today. My practice as an analyst has helped me to see this. And Lacan had no illusions about the family, either. In 1938, he predicted the end of the standard model, and the whole of his teaching consisted in gradually departing from the Oedipal normativity. The phase “Name of the Father” was already Lacan’s way of taking a distance from the relation to the real father (père de la réalité) and the duties imposed on him by religion.

Lacan, whom one criticizes or invokes without rhyme or reason, taught us, especially in Seminar XX and Seminar XXIII, that the logic of the social link and of sexuation isn’t a logic of identification, but a logic, rather, of jouissance.

I think this is what troubles a significant part of the French population; the issue isn’t that homosexuals have the right to marry, but that a place has been won in our time by those only tolerated at the margins of society, who now find themselves, in a socio-topological turn of events, at the center of attention.

Jouissance is autistic, on both the feminine and the masculine sides. Everyone’s loneliness is assured, with the exception of finding in one’s partner one’s symptom as the medium of jouissance. Love enables this passage and promotes the social link: women, more so than men, are aware of this. Some feel the need to ensure that this love takes an official form, as this, they think, underpins and supports their position of jouissance; it “stabilizes” them in a place in broad daylight. And there is no psychoanalytic reason to refuse them that.

Psychoanalysis wasn’t born in the Platonic heaven of ideas: it was invented in Vienna in a practice where Freud let himself learn from his patients. Today more than ever, it is important to remember that the jouissance of others is always difficult to bear, as well as one’s own. And it’s with regard to this issue that one seeks a psychoanalyst.

If, by chance, I were asked if I’m in favor of homosexual divorce, I’d also express my support.

From Symptom to Fantasy and Back
Jacques-Alain Miller
translated by Ellie Ragland

Author’s Bio

Lesson 3, November 17, 1982

“Return to Lacan” is what several people in a hurry wanted to proclaim. They wanted to imitate Lacan in his relationship to Freud. That is not at all the slogan under which I imagined I was doing this course. The return to Freud, about which Lacan made his own slogan at the beginning of the ‘50s, responds to a completely different conjecture: first to reaffirm his connection to Freud at the moment when he found himself, he Lacan, outside the International Institution; it was to deny that he was a Freudian dissident; it was from the start to reaffirm his position of a true orthodox Freudianism. Moreover, on this point, one finds the same movement which led him in 1964 to baptize his School “Freudian” at the moment when this movement of rejection which had already appeared in 1953 was repeating itself.

Thus, this slogan of the “return to Freud” and the one that includes the very title of the Parisian School, had a scope that one can only call political in the psychoanalytical field. This return to Freud denounced the practice of formation which only went along with affirming itself in the societies attached to the International: a practice of formation which led to thinking that Freud found himself outclassed by the students along the thread of time and that it would be as useless to read him as it is, after all, useless for a practicing mathematician to read him. I would say that what concerns his practice as a mathematician was to read the authors where a certain symbol emerged, some axiom or some theorem. This is the doctrine that is always valid for the orthodox ones on our side, the side which is for him (if one will admit some genius for the first students and for Freud himself, it is no longer the hour for that) one is now trying to get the hang of what concerns psychoanalysis. At the same time, the field is now marked out and one can visit its former works, perhaps as some kind of ruins, ancient ruins. This means that Lacan has seen this occasion, this movement, begin and that he denounces those reading Fenichel rather than Freud. This temptation has not stopped growing in the very moment, moreover, when the only concepts admitted, finally, remained Freudian, came from Freud. But at the base of Freud’s work Lacan has not made an object of the type of reading he has inaugurated. This would truly be an abuse on our part, and a mimicry of imagining ourselves as having taken place in a return to Lacan in a conjuncture which has nothing comparable in our area. What concerns us is no longer what Lacan has “truly said,” to use the formula. One must attest to the fact that more often one has used the teaching of Lacan as it is collected in the Écrits or the Seminars, as a meat cooler. I mean the place where when one opens the door, one will find enough to sustain some exposes, some lectures, or seminars; one opens and one serves oneself with what one finds, and then one serves it back to the public, which wishes, indeed, to follow it. What concerns us is no longer that Lacan would have always said the same thing. It is basically on this idea that the usage of a meat freezer stands, that at some point one takes Lacan’s teaching, when all is said and done, as if everything were contemporary. That is based on the illusion that I have denounced regarding Lacan, that he knew it already…that he already knew where he was going to end up. Basically, his teaching is completely orientable. Subject Supposed to Know, according to Lacan and, at the bottom, in a simple remark, he contradicts himself—which is evident for an attentive reader—the simple remark in which he contradicts himself could distance us already from this illusion that I am exposing.

I believe, then, that the point of view which we reach, and use Lacan’s teaching here is a point of view, is in accordance with the fact that this teaching is wrought by a difficulty, let us say, even, a contradiction, and why not? It is also constantly worked on by a failure. It is what brings it to this indefinite renewal—weekly, for a long time—which from a certain aspect can resemble a flight forward. I mean, of course, he solves this difficulty, but in making a solution he also takes it up to another level; in this way he recognizes this difficulty as always better, and also revives what Lacan himself called the advance of his teaching. This is, indeed, my point of view here, to consider this advance as a relaunching of a fundamental difficulty which is not Lacan’s difficulty, but which is what I think of as the difficulty of psychoanalysis. What he revives in this way is the same thing as psychoanalysis itself.

In this regard, the conflict which one has made the center of the discussion of Lacan’s teaching, this conflict over the matheme and of what would not be a matheme, from the matheme to the patheme, this conflict appears completely secondary to what is in question here. I believe that to situate this difficulty which launches itself again and again in Lacan’s teaching—and I have no greater ambition than to solve definitively, on the contrary, whether I call this course from the “symptom to the fantasy,” or something else—it is to exploit this difficulty, even to make it worth something in the practice of psychoanalysis.

To take a perspective on this difficulty, it must be understood that to start off from this unconscious structured like a language, and also to follow what has been, for example, the very first moments of Lacan’s seminar, one finds at the base that the unconscious is structured like a language. That has given the idea to Lacanians that the point of view of Dr. Lacan on psychoanalysis was a unitary point of view, unitary and ruled by this axiom. They concluded from it that everything that surged forth in the field of analytic experience must be structured like a language. It is that which nourished the illusion of which I was speaking about the “return to Freud.” Now, if you follow with a little bit of attention these beginnings of Dr. Lacan, you will perceive that, all the same, this unconscious structured like a language realizes essentially the first Freudian discovery, which is effectively that of the unconscious and which witness, I have recalled it already, the three inaugural works that Lacan calls upon regularly in support of this thesis, the three works “The Interpretation of Dreams,” “Psychopathology…,” and “Humor…”.  One sees that many of Lacan’s students have remained strictly at this moment of Lacanian invention, regarding Freud’s discovery. The beginning of Lacan’s teaching is to give value to that, especially starting with the five psychoanalyses of Freud and at the beginning the Rat Man and Dora, before the period when the seminar was registered as official. Starting from there, what were the first questions Lacan asked in his first seminars?

The first question, let us say, has been what doctrine of the treatment to deduce from the unconscious structured like a language? And, especially, what theory of the transference would one deduce from the unconscious structured like a language? It is the object of his Seminar I on the technical writings of Freud, which is published now. There, evidently, he entered  into a certain contingency, I mean the demand which had been made of him by Henry Ey to do a chapter for a medical encyclopedia, which is found inscribed in the Écrits under the title of “Variantes de la cure-type” (“Variations on the Standard Treatment,” Fink’s translation of the Écrits). It is a work asked for by Henry Ey, of whom one can imagine that he was not indifferent regarding Lacan’s choice of theme for the year [Cf., Seminar I).

In Seminar I you have precisely (it is a seminar which should be read on the basis of this Écrit) the materials that Lacan carried along to write this text. At the same time, it is taken from, studied from, some Écrits by Freud which are found in a median position in his works—after which Lacan’s accent was basically put on this inaugural discovery of Freud. In his first seminar, Lacan is concerned with the median part of Freud’s work. In Seminar II, if we orient the chronology of his seminars in relation to a Freudian chronology, Lacan swerves beyond this median part of Freud’s work in so far as the text he relies on this year is “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” It is already a bold step for Lacan to treat the question of the ego in psychoanalysis on the basis of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” and not on the basis of the ego and the id. As I recalled to you the last time, that consists in stressing that this period of Freud’s reflection is commanded by “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” It is the text that is necessary in order to resituate the second Freudian topic in its place.

That being said, the first treatment of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” has some completely remarkable traits for what concerns us this year concerning the symptom to the fantasy: Lacan’s interpretation of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is made, strictly starting with the signifier. Of course his effort to reinscribe the death drive, a concept barred by both Freudians and Post-Freudians, a concept they consider as not susceptible of integration into Freud’s work, it is, nonetheless, on this concept that the slogan “return to Freud” seems to justify itself all the more. What seemed, rather, to be the very prerogative of the Kleinians, was preserving the death drive. The Freudians themselves were chained to unremitting combat over this concept which was considered as  a truly wild imagining of Freud’s. You know that Jones himself, who wished to be especially faithful to the letter of Freud, lowered his arms before this death drive which appeared completely contradictory to their themes.

Lacan did his best, even beyond that, to realize, to reintroduce the death drive into the concepts of psychoanalysis, but he reintroduces the death drive strictly (go see the texts) starting with the signifying chain. Basically, this aspect has dominated the reading of Lacan and one must say that he has put his own originality there, put himself in this perspective, so that this perspective wins. It is noticeable in the fact that Lacan’s Écrit which is taken up again, which gives form to and pursues the effort to reflect on Seminar II, is the Écrit on “The Purloined Letter.” In spite of the chronology, Lacan placed it at the beginning of the volume of his Écrits.

One finds there  certain contingent elements; I do not know the part that played in his decision. I remember that at the epoch when he was putting together his volume of the Écrits, I communicated to him the idea that perhaps it would be a little hard to begin the volume by following chronology strictly, and that he ought to find a text to put at the beginning that was outside chronology. He asked me what  I thought and I said to him, for reasons that I understand now, “The Purloined Letter.”  He responded to me that it was exactly what he thought. The result is that I am still uncertain about the part I played, since that could basically be a coincidence. Having said that, I mean to temper a bit the exaltation that there is, precisely in the fact of making of this text the key text of Lacan’s work. It is what someone has tried who was one of my philosophy professors, by taking up and analyzing this text of Lacan’s as if it gave the key to all his teaching, thinking perhaps that a more profound reading of Edgar Poe’s story would give a completely essential perspective to the practice of psychoanalysis—which I doubt. It is necessary to give priority to this place. This being said, it is obvious that one read Seminar I with “Variations on the Standard Treatment.” …Seminar I  with the Écrit destined for what?– just as one would read Seminar II with the Écrit on “The Purloined Letter.” Now what is the destiny of this Écrit?

It is especially designated to valorize what Lacan did not hesitate to call the autonomy of the symbolic. He even begins by celebrating the profundity with which the grasp of the symbolic takes over the human being. It is an obviously famous beginning since one knows that people feel difficulties in reading the Écrits, but finally, generally speaking, on p. 11, especially, there are several blank pages before that, in fact on p. 3 of the text, they are still on this page, and it is famous for this reason: this sentence—“One can grasp the symbolic taking over by certain biases of the imaginary that succeed in practicing themselves up to the most intimate part of the human organism.”

That receives a very precise meaning which could be considered  as a sentence for all Lacanian occasions. That says, precisely, that nothing outside the imaginary resists the power of the symbol. That says, especially concerning Freud’s work, that the automatism of repetition all the way through itself is a signifying effect.

If you reread the addition Lacan made to this seminar on “The Purloined Letter,” this introduction where he rejected it in the post-face of this Écrit, that is exactly what he says: “Freud’s automatism of repetition responds, he says, to certain clinical paradoxes”; but that is not an addition. (It is against the post-Freudians who wanted to remove that from the Freudian concept.) It is not just an addition. It is, on the contrary, an essential element; sometimes Freud perceives that the analytic experience is governed in some way—beyond life. Basically, if life is ruled by the pleasure principle, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” effectively opens up onto a beyond life. But what is the beyond life of which it is a question? The beyond life is strictly the signifying chain. The chain by the fact that  it is taken into the signifying dyad, into the signifying pair. And, thus, one has retained the fort-da as the illustration itself of the Freudian text, of this signifying text which responds to what one can call an axiom: that one signifier does not go without another, that the minimum of the signifier is 2, in the Borromean space, in the field of Borromean reflection, the minimum is 3. It is a small short cut that I am giving there, but which enables us to see in what way Lacan found a structure also which exceeds precisely what one obtains starting with the signifier. Starting with the signifier, one finds a minimum of 2, and in this case a signifier all alone is a paradox which does not mean that it cannot be thought; moreover, one is forced into the analytic experience with the position of the phallus as quite precisely a signifier without a pair. But, finally, it takes on its value of paradox exactly because it is thought of as starting with the signifier of which the minimum is 2. This shows the importance of the cut in Lacan’s teaching, starting with the moment where the minimum of 3 rules reflection.

Here, the fort-da has the same value, if you wish, of the paradigm that it has at the beginning for Lacan of the Borromean knot. It is the power of the signifying pair. The object within there is valuable, rather, as annulled,  as subservient to the signifier. If one can give it a status of before its being caught up by the symbolic, let us say, a natural status, it does not become “human” since Lacan uses  this adjective on this occasion —“it only  becomes human by the movement which annihilates (it is Lacan’s text itself) its natural property.” In this regard, Lacan uses the expression of the point zero of desire. The expression that he gives himself as imaged, indicates that desire is beyond, that desire in the status that it always had for Lacan as profoundly without an object (which will develop metonymy, the metonymic status that Lacan will invent for it later). Basically, this status of desire is given by the signifying annulations of the object of which the fort-da is obliged to be the paradigm.

If we read that from the point of view we have now, we will perceive that this text has no name, has been considered as banal, has become banal in Lacan’s teaching. That says something very precise about what Lacan is going to have to refute in what follows: that means that the profound status of the object in psychoanalysis is to be a serf of the signifier.

Basically, the object in the fort-da is analyzed as an object that only takes on its value as symbolized. There is no other status of the object than that one. You remark upon it still, even if you read Lacan’s Écrit on “The Agency of the Letter,” there is a sentence which can become completely banal, where Lacan renders his reading of Freud’s “Three Essays On the Theory of Sexuality.” It is a text one can raise to the rank of one of Freud’s great texts in the measure that one makes of it, as we see now, a text consecrated precisely to Freud’s second discovery, that of the object which is not reducible: it is not reducible to the unconscious, that is, not reducible to the structure of the formations of the unconscious. When Lacan talks about it in those years, what does he say about the “Three Essays?” He says, I summarize—“The Three Essays” demonstrate that “every access to the object derive from a dialectic of the return.” When one reads that, I am talking for myself, I read it like that a long time ago without any problem. That certainly makes an illusion to the fact that for Freud the object is a profoundly lost object and, then, that one can accede to the object only by starting with the return of the object and not of its first donation. Even though the word “dialectic” seems to be simply from Lacan’s vocabulary at that epoch, that is not at all the case. It is even the essential word of this sentence that you will find on p. 519 of his Écrits (in “The Agency of the Letter”). It is a word that is completely essential since it consumes precisely the fact that the object is strictly integrated in this signifying logic that Lacan baptized as “dialectical” at the epoch. There is no autonomy, let us talk about it in this regard, there is no autonomy of the logic of the object, there is even less logic of the fantasy, of course. That implies precisely that the only autonomy there is is symbolic autonomy.

What, in this first Lacan, comes to contradict his insistence on a signifying supremacy? Effectively, a function of inertia; but this function is brought back strictly, and as inessential, to the imaginary. It is at the base of Lacan’s schema, the one which is also known now and which you know as opposing two axes, the one which brings the Subject to the Other and the second axis which links the ego to the small other, in an imaginary couple (Écrits, p. 53).

In this way that the Écrits begin, given that the text that has been placed at the beginning begins by the insistence of the signifying chain which is found to be interfered with by the specular relation, the relation to the mirror, the rapport of the two small others that are the ego and the image of the other, but at the base of which the essential thing is to see that, for Lacan, this interference is inessential. It is what is said absolutely and put at the forefront of the Écrits: “We know the importance of imaginary impregnations in the partializations of the symbolic alternative (symbolic alternative of which the fort-da gives us the example) which gives its allure to the signifying chain. But we suggest that (it is the law appropriate law for this chain); the fort-da rules the psychoanalytic determinative. Put another way, if you want, insistence is put on the first plane and inertia is basically not even an effect for the subject.” It is situated as making a couple with insistence. Lacan says “the imaginary factors, despite their inertia, only make a figure there of shadows and reflections.” I will say that that could, however—“insistence” and “inertia”—be something which, on the contrary, travels in a completely unexpected way up to this date in Lacan’s teaching. This inertia is especially the way in which we oppose the function of the fantasy in the insistence of the symptom. At the base, to qualify the imaginary concerns an approximation about which one can say that at the moment when Lacan will get rid of it, that will truly open up the second part of his teaching; when he will recognize in this inertia, not simply the inertia of the imaginary factor, but a completely essential determination.

What one can also note is that from the beginning, even if that only breaks his nose (? Poindre le nez?), the structure of the analytic experience is determined by Alcan as based on an opposition; that there be an axis which is the symbolic one, and that there be another axis which is not at all harmonious with the first, but which, on the contrary, traverses it, interferes with it, which is the so-called imaginary axis. One must already retain that it is a structure with two dimensions. We could reutilize this type of schema when we oppose the fantasy to the symptom, although that would not be articulated, of course, with the same terms at the end of the vectors. We also give value in our way, starting with Lacan, of course, to the opposition of the axis of the symptom and to that of the fantasy.

Thus, inertia and insistence are a couple, evidently completely different from what Lacan gave as a value in his Seminar II, where it is a question of homeostasis and repetition, a homeostasis supposed to be what aims at the pleasure principle, to which repetition as a function of insistence is opposed. In the repetition it is a question for us of what is valued, as contrary (valued beginning with an ulterior Lacan) to what Lacan says at this date; namely, that insistence is not the essential part of the repetition, but of inertia as well and inertia is not to be linked to an imaginary homeostasis, but  is, on the contrary, there to reverse things, the essential one being what is in question in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

One must see that this elementary schematism between signifying insistence and imaginary inertia is not gone beyond in Lacan’s Seminar III. Besides, when Lacan presents his schema, he has already done his Seminar III and he says that it is “this dialectic of intersubjectivity (implied in this schema) about which we have demonstrated the necessary usage through the three years of our seminar spent at St. Anne (that is to say, since the theory of transference  is in question in Seminar I), up to the structure of paranoia.” It is, let us say, under this authority that Lacan takes up his Seminar III—the structure of paranoia. Now for the whole of these three seminars, he gives us, and after the fact, this valuable opposition of signifying insistence and imaginary inertia. In this regard, if you wish, one understands (that is not a headshake?/coup de tete) why in Seminar IV, taken as the fourth seminar, Lacan has approached “the object relation.” Basically what we have there, I shall say even that one also understands, following this, why the title of his fifth seminar is “Formations of the Unconscious.” I mean that one perceives that it is a question for him of adjusting as closely as possible what arises from the signifying chain which is something quite different from the imaginary in the inertia that shows up in the analytic experience. I would even say, retrospectively, that qualifying inertia as an imaginary factor in the analytic treatment has a completely unfortunate theoretical effect and to which Lacan will only return a long time after. That has the effect of stopping us from giving the least function to primordial masochism. You will perceive that the place which is assigned there to this imaginary inertia is the one which, later, when Lacan will have taken up Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” again, is the same place in which it will be necessary for him to inscribe the inertia of jouissance.

Now, let us take up once more the fort-da. Of course, there is a signifying insistence which is almost on the first plane. But what can one say about this object which is woven into the signifying insistence, this little bobbin reel of the child.

If we say that its natural property is annulled, we could transcribe that by saying that its value is before anything else one of exchange and not of usage. Effectively there is a circulation of this reel (in this story) since the reel returns to the child. That means that even if one does not see it, and for a good reason, one part plays with the other, it plays with the maternal other. It is what Freud adds in his text; he is not content with just observing this little child, he brings his game back to the absence of his mother. That does not prevent, precisely to the contrary, that it be with this absence that the child plays: he plays with an Other, especially with a small variation that one could make on this story. Freud did not try, doubtlessly, he held himself at a distance from this experimentation on man, even on the small child. But you can imagine to yourselves what would happen if, in the middle of this game, you took the bobbin and put it in your pocket. I mean, there is something essential there in that the other is completely up to the measure of the child and that, effectively, in this regard, the other is mastered, if one can identify with the bobbin itself, on this occasion; with this other as object.

Then this bobbin has a usage for this subject. That does not mean that it is useful to him, but that it is of a utility to him that is beyond the utilitarian. Basically he has a usage of jouissance with this bobbin. One can only say that. This bobbin permits this subject in this instance to organize his position in the Other, in the breast of the Other. It is obviously a game, but what does one mean when one says that it is a game?

To say that it is a game is to imply that the bobbin is at the disposition of the subject in question, even if he has invented this bobbin reel fort-da as a game. This game is made on the basis of his loss of his mother as primordial object. That is to say that is made on the basis of a certain lack of jouissance. In this place the bobbin game permits the subject to give himself pleasure, to make pleasure in a moment of distress in relation to this jouissance. It suffices for that that one perceive what? That this game of the bobbin, let us say, is a montage, and which is, of course, scanned by the signifier. This game is analogous to a fantasy; it is, without a doubt, a sentence that has a minimum of the sentence which is the signifying opposition. But its essential property is to permit the subject to orient himself in his relation to the Other, and by a rapport to a desire of the Other which is completely characterized by the absence of the mother. This suffices to impose the dimension of desire of the mother which Lacan will take up elsewhere. It is very true that in his too often repeated formula of the paternal metaphor in his text on the psychoses, precisely in its formula when he writes “desire of the mother,” it is at the place first symbolized by the absence of the mother, that is to say that which he calls “elsewhere” is the mother. This appeal to an “elsewhere” suffices to install the phallic mirage as the reason for its absence, a mirage which will only find its consistency, in Lacan’s sense, with the introduction of the Name of the Father.

What does the fort-da present to us? The manner in which the little child arranges himself with the desire of the Other. He arranges himself with the Other’s desire thanks to a small montage about which the derisory “elsewhere” yields nothing to the derisory part of all the fantasies which pass to the act. When Lacan marks the derision of masochistic practice, for example, derision of this montage, it is to put it into a series with what the game of the bobbin is. It is also with an object which is at the disposition of the subject, to succeed in making pleasure where anxiety is sustained by the desire of the Other. At base, this example appears already sufficient to indicate according to what terms Lacan will later use the expression, “at least one foot of the fantasy is in the Other.” Obviously that is not seen in the game; there one finds what Freud introduces in his analysis. He introduces the mother, to be precise. It is this rapport to the mother which is not visible and for a reason; this relation to the mother is essential to what this montage holds.

The nature of this consideration is, it seems to me, to wake up a little the idea that one can create oneself by the child’s game and by the beneficent effects that one expects from it, which would end up as a paradise of children’s games; so to speak, this would be a transitional space, for example. Winnicott’s consideration on this point is sympathetic, his trying to determine a space between the ego and the non ego; this conception is very Sartrian. It is why Monsieur Pontalis accords so much interest to Winnicott. Evidently, he has the idea of a mixed fix between the en-soi and the pour-soi, a space sufficiently supple where there is enough lack so that creativity would be possible: a mixed space of some sort. What seems to me to be a flaw in this consideration is that one cannot consider the playful as such, one cannot make an absolute of the game. An absolute is what one cannot detach from the Other, the game. Even the child who seems to play all alone, he plays, indeed, with the Other; even when it is in the absence of the other, let us say the real instance is there; then one perceives, of course, that the presence of the Other of the signifier is necessary to him, but it suffices that it come from that place insofar as it is very well symbolized by the absence of the other.

What this small child, whose future one knows, demonstrates, I mean a small child who has succeeded in having a certain sufficiency in relation to the anxiety sustained by the mother’s absence, is that he has achieved a remarkable sufficiency. I mean he has succeeded in this, he shows us the way in which he dominates (let us see this term, why not, since it is at his disposition), he dominates his distress whose conceptual importance for Freud you know in the following parts of his work. This game is exactly what permits him, when his mother has left and he can do nothing about it, I mean that in this situation he is dependent (in the sense that effectively he is a kind of marionette) thanks to this game he makes of himself, and it is the definition that Lacan gives to the fantasy, the director who permits him to annihilate, to obliterate the fact, if it be only that of the marionette of the signifier. For those who have this definition of Lacan’s in their ears which is found in “The Direction of the Treatment,” the fantasy signifies that “language permits the subject to consider himself as the machinist, so to speak, the director of the whole imaginary capture of which he will be nothing other than the living marionette.” Let us leave to one side this imaginary capture about which I have already let it be heard that that moves. Close to this word, it is obvious that the game is precisely what permits this subject to consider himself (the game of the bobbin) as the machinist, namely, the director of which he is only the living marionette. One has the witness of this in the text of Freud himself that it is a question there for the subject of surmounting a certain letting fall of oneself. One has the witness of that in a note that Freud links to a subsequent observation: “One day the child’s mother had left for several hours, and on her return, the child welcomed her with the words ‘baby-roo.’” Which was incomprehensible at the beginning, but it turns out that nevertheless during this long period of solitude, the child had found a method to make himself disappear. He had discovered his reflection, his image in a mirror, a big mirror, which did not even touch the ground, in such a fashion that by lying on the ground, he could make his image in the mirror disappear. One finds another reference to this story; Strachey signals it in his Interpretation of Dreams.

In this regard, we have a montage which permits the subject to surmount his own disappearance, his own fall in relation to the Other. That shows us that what one expects in fact from the therapeutic game, is definitively that one expects the fantasy itself to be therapeutic.

Here the question of the psychotic fantasy is opened up, obviously, in a short circuit, and one wonders about the place where one ought to situate it. It is not something, for fundamental reasons, that one puts on the first plane and it is true that one does not necessarily find oneself in fantamatization… It would, however, not be impossible to situate the psychotic fantasy, and one could do it particularly by taking Schreber’s writings as a guide. That starts by the fantasy: I mean an emergence that one can qualify as fantasmatic connotes his entrance into psychosis, the “it would be beautiful to be a woman in the act of undergoing intercourse.” You know that this idea came to him the evening of the day when he took up his functions at the Senate of the President of the Leipzig court.

“How beautiful it would be…” is indisputably a fantasy which has the same value of being a precursor to what we will find at the end of his observation, namely the real perspective that he has definitively undergone this intercourse with God. When that emerges as an idea, he says at some point that it had been surprising for him, that he had not maintained that idea before and that it appeared to him as very surprising for a future with the title of President of an appeal court at Leipzig. Thus, he had not completely lost his moral sense in the place of this fantasy. We know that fantasies do not make one lose one’s moral sense, I mean a connotation of shame over a fantasy is not at all an argument against this characterization. One can say that this fantasy gives him pleasure, at least there is this note implied by the “beautiful”: if we follow Kant on this idea that the beautiful gives pleasure. The problem lies in what follows, which he will feel in the suffering of jouissance, which completely overflows this frame. I mean that afterwards it is, on the contrary, an invasion of jouissance. We are seeing an invasion of jouissance. If one considers it as the realization of a fantasy, it does not become bountiful in this sense.

There, as well, one perceives that the fantasy as such, and it is coherent I must say with the same approach made by Freud to this question, and it is precisely what Lacan said in the Sadian paradigm—that the fantasy is essentially a tempering of jouissance. It is a limit brought to jouissance. That is precisely what Lacan says when he suggests that, given that desire is supported in the fantasy by certain limits, limits which Lacan called in other places that which protects “the thing,” the neighborhood of “the thing” insofar as it is distinct from the object. The term “neighborhood of the thing” is used by Lacan in his text on Kant. It is a very pretty term since that makes allusion, on the one hand, to the manner in which one called the lady in courtly love the beautiful neighbor (it is one of the terms of appeal of the lady); on the other hand, this neighborhood has a topological accent. Passing beyond certain limits in the neighborhood of the thing, the fantasy is precisely a failure. Lacan’s thesis regarding this is not an exaltation of the fantasy. Of course we try to approach a certain beyond the symptom in what we call fantasy. We consider even that this beyond the symptom, that is, this beyond the therapeutic, is necessary to situate the analytic experience and clinically that means the fantasy. Let us note that Lacan’s “didactic” problem is based on the fantasy and not on the symptom. It is on this remark which makes good sense that I have started in the past.

That does not mean that the fantasy is the final word of what is in question, on the contrary, since the experience Lacan calls the pass requires traversing it, namely, in a certain beyond the fantasy.

Why a beyond the fantasy? That completes “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The fantasy brings jouissance to the pleasure principle and that is why Freud introduces it by the day dream, leading to masturbation: a montage, starting with the signifier, doubtlessly, which permits the subject to withdraw some pleasure regarding a point which profoundly exceeds it. It is what we will see when we take up “the child is being beaten.” In itself the fantasy is what mops up jouissance, and not in just any way, but dabs at an exacerbation of this jouissance.

This pass, there is at least someone that Lacan attests has made it, at least made a traversal of the fantasy he says that Sade gave us. He did not present this fantasy in his work, of course. Basically, in his work he comments on his fantasy, he puts it on the stage, he multiplies it, and at the same time he gives us a schema. “It is in his life,” Lacan said, “that Sade passed beyond his fantasy”; he adds “that is what permits him to give us a reading of his fantasy in his work,” which is coherent with his idea that Sade, definitively, was not the dupe of his fantasy. He was not the dupe of his fantasy and he tried very little to literally realize his fantasy. We do not mean, then, that he dedicated himself to realizing his fantasy. On the contrary his life obeys a comparable structure, but he himself is in another place than his fantasy. It is all the more remarkable that in his life, he is in no way at all an executioner. He is in the place of the victim. Sade has some partisans, who are not the sadists, but some sadists: there are some sadists, some people who dedicate themselves to Sade’s work, to writing about his life, who reunite to honor the memory of the Marquis de Sade. It is clear that they are embarrassed since they present him to us as a great humanist; in any case, they show that they are reserving their aggressivity for Robespierre, Saint-Just, finally for all terrifying people. They consider that regarding them, Sade was a lamb. One always has a little discomfort because they do not succeed in making Sade be considered as a great humanist, great defender of the Rights of Man, that he is, however: they do not succeed because basically one is caught in this between two, of his position in fantasy and his position in life. It is a logical guide that Lacan offered these Sadists. Finally, one must say, they have their ears closed. He offered them an orientation of structure which would have permitted them to arrange somewhat their relationships with Sade himself.

One finds again this mopping up of the fantasy at the exit of Schreber’s itinerary. This reconstitution of the fantasy, at base, I would say, finds what Freud’s little nephew [with the Fort! Da! of the bobbin reel] attained at the beginning, I mean a certain putting into place of his letting something fall, since the “let it fall” is a term that Schreber uses in his Memoirs, and that Lacan took to a truly essential place in structure. Schreber, he concludes, did this by what Lacan called in his first epoch “a restoration of imaginary structure.” But we know now that in what Lacan calls imaginary, if we can read it as is appropriate, one must practice a little change on the term of imaginary.

“A restoration of the imaginary structure” is characterized by what? It is characterized—it is what Freud stressed and Lacan after him—by a transexualist practice: Schreber decorated as a woman admires himself in the mirror, stating, and we agree with his opinion, that nothing distinguishes him from a beautiful woman when he admires himself. A transexualist practice, and at the same time he develops in his body an air of feminine voluptuousness.

What is this voluptuousness? This voluptuousness about which one knows that at certain moments it engulfs all of Schreber like a powerful wave is precisely what we can give as this formula: what he calls feminine voluptuousness. It is jouissance as brought to pleasure, even though he has felt it in the entire course of his history as suffering. A jouissance that also attains itself in the mirror, starting with the feeling in his body that one can call “narcissistic jouissance.” It is the term that Lacan uses, “the narcissistic jouissance of Schreber,” but that we have to take to an essential function starting with the following part of Lacan’s teaching, that is, that the stabilization of the delirious metaphor which characterizes his exit (the exit where we are, finally not where we remain in regard to Schreber’s text) from his problem. It is also characterized by a stabilization of the fantasy, I mean precisely by a mopping up of this jouissance about which he is witness to us. In the course of his history, it engulfed him entirely. The second element where I would restore this imaginary structure is this perspective of divine copulation where the “how beautiful it would be to be a woman in the act of undergoing intercourse” gives birth to a perspective of sustaining intercourse with God insofar as he is the only woman in the world. It is indisputably a fantasy. I believe that on the page where it is a question of that, the word Lacan pronounces is “Schreber’s fantasy” (p. 570). He characterizes the Schreberian fantasy by the absence of mediation which is to say (it is what Freud had already noted) that it is only by a movement as asymptomatic as this unique feminine creature and by divinity that they will find themselves co-joined. In this regard the mediation has a flaw: there are no other mediations except the infinite right which gives an asymptomatic rapport. In this regard, the absence of mediation is owed to the absence of an Other which would pacify the relationship. But one can say that, as such, it attests to this absence of mediation in the measure—let us take a short cut—where any fantasy attests to the fact that there is no sexual rapport and that it is at the place of this “there is no sexual rapport” that the fantasy emerges. We have the schema itself that Lacan proposes to us as the structure of the subject at the term of the psychotic instance. We can consider this schema as that of the fantasy that comes to the place where “there is no sexual rapport.” Basically, it is the story of a “let it fall” where the subject, this time, returns to the “there” (Da!) and this “there” of his presence, his Dasein, metamorphosizes him into a woman. It is certain that we can oppose Lacan’s schema R in the same manner as we oppose the structure of the fort-da on the condition that we situate the inertia of the jouissance in relation to the signifying proceedings, that we oppose the schema of the fort-da to this terminal schema of Lacan’s where there is not simply signifying stability, but also fantasmatic stability.

This having been said, I do not think (I shall rethink it), but for the moment I do not think that there would be a place for a plane of the psychotic fantasy, I mean that I think that this has its place precisely at the initial and terminal points of the process and I do not have the feeling that this would be a great help in the consideration of the process, if you wish. Now I see the gain that one would achieve in Lacan’s teaching starting with a construction like the one that opposes the symptom and the fantasy (this word “the fantasy” lost on p. 570 that obviously I have read numerous times and without paying the least attention to it and which, in the problematic of this year can, on the contrary, appear completely remarkable…).

This introduction, this rapid rereading of the fort-da, shows us how everything that banalizes what makes up the extraordinary writing of the fantasy by Lacan–$ & a–indicates quite precisely in Lacan’s schemas the imaginary pertinence of the texts.

It is remarkable because basically, up to this writing, in the whole part of the reflection which precedes it, and exactly at the level where he constructs this schematism that has remained famous, what is there about the fantasy in Lacan? for Lacan? Basically, has he made anything out of the fantasy?

First, one must pick up that he reduces it to a fantasmatization. In the text itself where he introduces this schema, he does not go beyond that, despite all the fantasmatization given play by analytic experience. Said otherwise, the term of fantasmatization is just characterized, rather, as an imaginative “activity,” stressing the imaginary efflorescence revealed by the wanderings of the subject in the analytic experience. It is there, I believe, that one finds all the fantamatization. He gives this fantasmatization, always situated on this a’—a axis which will become later i (a) . m, he gives it as completely included in the relation to the other, the specular relation; even beyond being included, it is subordinated to the specular relation. Put another way, he gives us at the moment when he introduces this autonomy of the signifier as reduction of the fantasy as being only a fantasmatization subordinated to the phenomena that come from the mirror stage.

I will say, moreover, that it gives this extraordinary optimism to Lacan’s text of that epoch. There is an optimism founded theoretically on a psychoanalytic optimism based on symbolic autonomy; I would say—on  belief (one is almost afraid to say this word, even for the first Lacan), an almost naive belief in the powers of the word (parole) to deliver the word (mot) the subject will recognize and will see there how to recognize his desire.

From then on we can say something very simple about the fantasy at the beginning of Lacan’s teaching; it is that fantasies are strictly correlative for him with the imaginary. They are, then, always reducible, definitively, to this a—a’. It is still the conception he has when he is concerned with Schreber. Basically, he has this conception which means that even if he puts jouissance into play in the matter, he only puts it into play as narcissistic, that is to say, situated on this axis. All his work, basically, and it is there that we will pick up his thread again, all Lacan’s work  during his time of liberating jouissance concerns this axis a—a’. Besides, it carried with it, the imaginary terms where he situated it.

Everything that is remarkable about Lacan’s writing leaves us with the fantasy. That inscribes the fantasy, not as an ego fantasy, but as a fantasy of the subject. And the fantasy concerns the subject as subject of the signifier. It is a great novelty, that is not clearly evident at all, and we must follow in our experience what can justify it.

Obviously the subject is inscribed in the nothing as no more than a writing in the fantasy. You will distinguish that it is the difference from this subject which figures in this schema. It is in order that Lacan  become able to relate the fantasy to the subject that it has first been necessary that the subject be barred. The fantasy,  at base,  is not articulable to the subject of the recognition of desire. The fantasy is not utterable to the subject of the word, because the subject of the word, in this sense, is a full subject, a subject which accomplishes itself integrally in nomination:  It is a subject who is satisfied with finding his name. That is the paradigm that Lacan had taken, the “you are my wife” that I say to the other to be heard by the Other to say what I am. There one has quite precisely the function of mediation: by the intermediary of the Other, the name that I am returns to me. When Lacan says that Schreber’s fantasy, in its final form, attests to an absence of mediation, this means precisely that an absence of mediation attests to  this absence of a return coming from the Other since in this regard, he remains well separated from it; there is no recognition there, in the Schreberian fantasy. At the basis of the subject of the word (parole), not the subject of language, the subject of the word (parole) as recognition is harmonious with nomination.

It is only starting from the moment when one puts forth the recognition of desire as a contradiction in terms (it is what I explained last year, I showed you the precise moment when Lacan makes this discovery, at least in the Ecrits, the moment when he himself can no longer attest to it, can no longer write  it—the recognition of desire; that is to say it is when all the Hegelian residues fall away), it is only at this moment when a hole is installed in the heart of the subject himself, that it becomes possible to install the imaginary in this heart of the function of the subject. Lacan’s  writing attests to that.

It is surely a paradox since what is the effect of discovering that the subject of the signifier is a barred subject? That has especially the effect of rendering us sensitive to everything which, from the subject of desire, only makes us glide into the signifier (it is what I called the distracted aspect of the psychoanalysis of which one has the witness in the three inaugural works of Freud). It is precisely because in barring the subject, Lacan accentuates the gliding of the subject in the signifying chain that the accent finds itself borne in a completely new fashion on inertia, the new inertia which finds its writing there and which is that of the fantasy. Fantasmatic inertia whose paradox, I repeat it, fantasmatic inertia whose paradox is all the more accentuated in that Lacan now operates with an emptied subject, with the subject emptied of the signifying chain.

That is a theoretical step, a step that one must make even now because…: I cannot explain it otherwise than by a misrecognition of the advances of Lacan, by the discretion in which  analysts value the place of their approach to the fantasy. It is necessary that there be there something which would be especially difficult, something which has a part both in the clinic and in the theory. There one perceives that to reconstitute this theoretical apparatus, as well, is in the nature of modifying the direction of the treatment.

This passage, this point is completely essential for us to come to an understanding of how Lacan could start with the autonomy of the symbolic, of its supremacy, to arrive 20 years later at considering the symbolic as strictly equivalent to the two other functions: to consider the symbolic as homogeneous with the real and the imaginary. Basically we are holding up the two ends for the blow of a chain of teaching which goes from the schema of the purloined letter—supremacy of the symbolic—to the schema of the Borromean where the symbolic does not appear in any position of so-called autonomic supremacy. It appears, on the contrary, as strictly equivalent, in the topological treatment, strictly equivalent to the two other dimensions.

Starting from this autonomy of the symbolic, Lacan comes to the inertia of the real, beyond even the inertia of the fantasy; the inertia of the real and to its big question: How does one leave the symbolic; can one touch the real? It happens, if I can say it, as a question to which there has been a response, since this text of “The Purloined Letter,” to which everything in its path will appear to it. To see it succeeded by transforming what was a response for it, to transform it into a question, I would say it is what is the most difficult for each person. For that reason I do not conceive of this course at all as a return to Lacan, but as a grinding of our Lacanian koinè; an effort to fight against the banalization of what Lacan conquered at each moment, I mean against the very banality of his thought.

Obviously this trajectory has more or less modified the effort  that Lacan put forth to talk about psychoanalysis. With the autonomy of the symbolic, one can say that his stress is very constantly an optimistic one. But, beginning with interpretation, one has the feeling that everything is possible in the analytic experience, including the assumption of castration and of death, and that its stress, in so far as this inertia takes a position more and more essential in his teaching, certainly, is the pessimistic accent that is carried over. It is, evidently, not the matter of his tones there, but I do not believe either that it is simply a question for Lacan of affects, nor a question of age. Nothing serves better as an index of this transformation than his position on the death drive. In the beginning it seemed to him that it was important to attest to the supremacy of the signifier over the object. To reread Freud, then (since at that moment he reread Freud several times and even Freud’s texts, as we reread several times Lacan’s texts, finding some things there), rereading “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” there will no longer be the supremacy of the signifier over the object as it will seem to him to attest, but, on the contrary, to the stress carried back to jouissance; and a connection will be made, then, with the following Freudian texts, “a child is being beaten” and “primordial masochism.” Besides, suddenly there is something there that I must make you perceive; it is that this $, this barred subject of the signifier, when Lacan introduced it in his seminar, he did not introduce it based on considerations on the signifying chain. He introduced it starting with the fantasy of “a child is being beaten.” The nature of that is to demonstrate to us that in what follows there is a connection to be established between original repression and the fundamental fantasy.

It is a point (I will keep it for the next time) which appears to me more certain for making the reading we have made of “a child is being beaten” move a little. To go to the end of what I evoked regarding Schreber (to the end provisionally), why not admit that for him this fantasy, to take up Lacan’s terms, is what he holds in the place of the Father’s Name? I mean that that places itself as a supplement to the lack in the Other. Besides, it is like that that the fantasy emerges for Schreber. At the moment when his psychosis broke out, the preceding fantasy emerges to the point where the Other fails in his call to it. The same for the subject, the one that we have in analysis, any meeting with a lack in the Other incites the fantasy. I will say  for sure that each time the subject encounters the structural lack in the Other, there is an impossibility beyond that of the good faith of bringing onto some plateau and Other of the Other; but  I will say that even each time a fundamental identification is touched, the subject has recourse to the fantasy. I would perhaps have brought to that one or two examples, but I do not want to abuse it… Each time that a masculine identification is touched, one sees quite precisely this fantasy emerge (that happens especially for two girls, I mean the one who is second in regard to a first, who has often borne the parents’ hope for a boy), a fantasy by which this subject tries to find once again his position in the Other. Each time that a master signifier is detached from this starting complex (that can be visible), the subject finds once more, puts in order again, his position in the Other, this time by means of the fantasy. It is a solution that one can call imaginary, evidently, in the fashion in which it enunciates itself; that can also be good if you lack a way to give an interpretation. That also presentifies the lack in the Other. An interpretation is a delicate question when it obviously comes  to fill up the hole in the Other. It is indeed that which creates the responsibility of giving an interpretation. When one gives an interpretation, if one interprets starting from the position of the Subject Supposed to Know, evidently one closes off the production of what I give there as the fantasy. One closes it and, then, I would say that one must know how to interpret starting with the lack in the Other, and not starting with the position of the Subject Supposed to Know. One way to do it, and it is the unrefined method, is to interpret by asking questions. It is the coarse way because one must know how to interpret, if I may say, positively, but this kind of interpretation is a question for the subject. Without that, if interpreting with a question creates an enigma, that is only an interpretation of an interpretation.

It is precious, then, to preserve this position called a lack in the Other, in the position of analyst, precisely so that something from the subject in its barred status may emerge. That is, not to emerge with the title of supposed, it emerges with the name of asking the question on what am I?  What do I have? This is the same question, moreover, as what do I enjoy, if I dare to say it. What do I enjoy? And just as well, what is at the bottom of all this is the manner in which all interpretation ought to be welcomed, all that I hear (j’ouâs)?

What Lacan thought Women Knew: The Real and the Symptom
Ellie Ragland

Olaf Breuning


Author’s Bio


In Le sinthome (Book XXIII, 1975-1976), Lacan says that “The Woman in question is another name of God” [1]. While women might want to be associated with God, they do not like to hear that they do not exist. It wounds them deeply and makes them think Lacan is Freud, telling them they have penis envy.

But woman does exist as not-all there in reference to the phallic signifier which Lacan calls the universal of man, the “they say…” and One and all say it. This places man within a logic of the finite, the faute, as opposed to women who dwell within the logic of the particular and the infinite, not all (pas-toute) under the sway of phallic law.

What I find interesting in this proposition of Lacan’s is that one will not understand what Lacan thought women knew without embracing this piece of logic, that women also exist on the side of the One. The logic is the same as that of the masculine relation to the law. Woman is connected to the Φ…, which Lacan calls the signifier of jouissance. There can be no law or order without reference to this first signifier. On the feminine side, the exception is negated.

While there can be no logic of sexual difference except in reference to that which differs from the feminine, Lacan affirmed this in reference to the hysteric: “To be hysterical or not…. Is there One or not?…This not-whole (pas-toute) …seems to imply the existence of the One that constitutes (fait) the exception. In the logic of the pas-tout (Φx) one may deduce…that there is an x that contradicts it. But that is true on one sole condition…we are dealing with the finite. Regarding that which is finite…there is a strict equivalence….[But] on the basis of the particular, there is an exception….We could…be dealing with the infinite. When I say that woman is not-whole and that is why I cannot say Woman, it is precisely because I raise the question of a jouissance that with respect to everything that can be used in the function Φx is in the realm of the infinite”[2].


breuning_olaf2 Olaf Breuning

Many feminists protest that the breast could serve this function. Anything could be first. But, in looking at Lacan’s sexuation graph, one sees that a new logic is in play. If men dwell within a domain of the finite, something must refer to the infinite. Indeed, Lacan’s placing of Don Juan within the feminine logic of seeking new partners one by one (S. XX, p. 10) shows that for most men, the law of the finite acts like the lack-in-being and merely drives them further in sexuality, in search of the infinite of which masculine sexuality is deprived. And it is precisely the non-existence of Woman, of the Other, of a fixed place that one would found a logic of difference based on a third term,–that is, the phallic signifier as the mark of difference itself. Woman’s non-existence has, rather, to do with the impossibility of a logic of the same. They all differ one from the other and so logic itself must be based on difference, not sameness as classical entailment logic thinks. Although one may try to make of women an ensemble of the same, Miller shows in Extimité that any logic of identity of same to same is a fiction, the kind of myth on which classical logic bases itself [3].

Each of us, each thing, everything differs, no matter how subtly, from every other person or thing. Thus, women stand in for the Other who does not exist and are, thus, closer to the real, to the question of origins. Moreover, Woman is man’s symptom insofar as the symptom for psychoanalysis is the equivalent of what knowledge is in the real for science[4] (Miller, “The Construction…”,  p. 95). There is, says Miller, an antinomy between meaning and the real and this is a question of the symptom which responds to the signifier (“The Construction…”, p. 96 & p. 100).[5] And even though one may think woman is everything, as Lacan says, it is not really that that is in question (one of woman’s names—as semblant–is Eve and as such she is the mother of sin, the first whore). It is on this slope that man often approaches woman via his superego—founded on the slope of the One–as the primordial forbidden mother. Making love with women brings incest in its wake for men, and especially once she becomes a mother herself. Women are painted with the brush of man’s symptomatology toward her which is why Lacan and Miller stress that while woman is man’s symptom, he is also sometimes her destroyer. She is, for men, a dream, a myth, a “piece of the real.” Lacan says “the complete necessity of the human species [is] that there be an Other of the Other. It is this One that is usually called God, but of which analysis unveils that it is very simply The Woman” (Les non-dupes errent, p. 48, December 18, 1973).


So what do women know, given that in respect to universal castration (Ellie2x), they do not have the imaginary phallus (- φ)? They know that they are imaginarily castrated. They also know that this is a myth, a fiction. But insofar as they believe in the phallus, women are on shaky ground. “The phenomenon of belief entails an absence of grounding…open to charges of illusion” Miller says (Miller, “The Construction…”, p.90). Yet, living close to the real as they do, women live within a world where each one goes her own way regarding lack and loss—Φx—precisely because she does not have the imaginary phallus. They may believe they have it, or that their baby is it, or their partner—there where Miller says semblance joins the real—even though semblance and the real are contrary one to the other.[6] But these imaginary phalluses are only fictional, semblants. Yet one speaks of feminine jouissance, while Miller tells us that jouissance does not completely cover everything as Lacan thought it did for male sexuality. The phallus as language and law marks a point of limit, as does the idea that there is one who is not completely subjugated to this phallus. The meaning of the feminine relation to the real is inscribed in truth. That is, knowledge is not inscribed in the real, but in truth (Miller, “The Construction…”, p. 97). In Seminar XX, Lacan says that males can make the error of believing they are whole simply because the signifier male means that which opposes itself to female. The idea of such a symmetrical opposition is founded on the mistaken assumption that the opposition gives rise to a relation. This is an illusion [7].


Yet, living close to lack on the side of the feminine constitutes a wound, places woman closer to the death drive, as Dominique Laurent writes [8]. Paradoxically this also opens for women a supplemental feminine jouissance. Lacan said in L’Étourdit that woman is only half under the superego (surmoitié) while man enjoys from the signifier One, enjoys paradoxically from the place of the superego whose injunction to man is to “Enjoy!” This reality places a certain sexual liberty on woman’s side and perhaps explains why men are sometimes conflicted once they enjoy a woman. Woman is only half under the One. One must, of course, remember Miller’s point—that a part of jouissance remains unsymbolized, even in analysis[9]. Still, if one exists on the side of the infinite, then, limits are gone, are loose. Lacan said about this that women are “crazy,” pas toute crazy. But they belie the logic of the whole, the One of a fictionalized completeness. On the side of the One that bows down to law and limit, there is the opposite of a kind of craziness, of excess, which Miller develops on the feminine side as the plus which differs from the logic of alienation into language, a logic of the negative. In Les non-dupes errent (S. 1973-1974, trans. by Cormac Gallagher, unedited translation), Lacan says that language is an effect that shows that there is the signifier One (December 11, 1973). That is, no signifier means anything except in reference to another one. Again, one meets the logic of the
Ur-father—there is no rule without an exception to it—there is no signifier without a first one to which another one can refer, as mentioned (∀x).

In Encore, Lacan said that the feminine exception to the law of castration is a particular that contradicts the masculine universal (April 10, 1973, p. 102). The masculine universal, of course, resembles the master discourse where the field of the master’s knowledge equals knowledge (S1) in an incorrect way, leaving out desire, fantasy, drive, jouissance, the real. Women have all kinds of attributes that embrace the logic of the feminine: they talk more freely than does the male imprisoned in symbolic rigidity; they have wider scope to dramatize semblance as a-ffect—that which Miller says is a way of writing the proximity of this object to the unconscious (“The Construction…”, p. 93). They have the possibility of a supplemental sexual jouissance—they may enjoy sexually beyond the limit of a simple orgasm; they may show intimacy more easily than a man who knows, consciously or not, that he is castrated as the sexuation graph shows (Ellie2). And women know these things about man and sexuality whether they believe them or not. Miller makes a strict distinction between believing and knowing (“The Construction…”, pp. 93-98). Lacan made the observation in Seminar XX that woman dwells on the dark side of God who is weighty and fecund. To believe in the impossible, in the real, is weighty. By dwelling close to nothing, women are closer to the real than are most men. Women know, if only unconsciously, that there is no set of all sets (Ø). The profundity of being as a woman, albeit fictional, concerns accepting a position in the social gaze of replacing the Other who does not exist.


But if Woman is man’s symptom, how do we square that with the late Lacan’s having said that the father is the sinthome—the père-version? What is the father as the perverse version? Why is he the sinthome? He is, I would say, the father Freud constructs unwittingly as the one who has sexual desire. That is, Freud argued that libido controls the mental game, not reason. Lacan turned libido into jouissance and argued that men desire the feminine—be the men gay or straight. Woman’s desire is more complicated, I would say, confused as it is with lack and loss and the desire to replace both by love. Knowing that she is man’s symptom and that the father himself is the symptom, woman treats man at the level of the semblant insofar as it is assigned by a given socio-historical Other which does not exist, but pretends to in language and images.

I have said earlier that woman attaches man to the real via the connection of the Φ… with the barred Other. That is why I read Lacan’s sexuation graph as barred—the hole in the symbolic attesting to the Other’s inexistence. This formula shows the real as what is encountered beyond the Other. Man encounters this beyond, this plus, on the side of woman—and it is the reality of the set which is not complete, which leads to the infinite regression of jouissance. What Lacan argues in his sexuation graph is that the feminine is discordential with the masculine. While the man accepts the universal of castration, of rules and regulations—∀x—woman does not accept this
logic—Ellie2x—but opposes ideas such as that sexuality can be reduced to “making the right moves.” There is a beyond the phallus in sexuality that concerns the soul as Lacan says in Encore when he argues in “Love Letter” that the soul loves the soul. He is speaking of the hommosexuelle—the man who knows a pure love of Woman as the one who is not castrated, who points to some beyond in the sexual game[10]. This love is a rejection of castration, but not the psychotic’s rejection of castration. It is the one who knows that das Ding is not the genital organs. And Lacan places this knowledge on the side of the male homosexual.

Man loves that which seems whole and untouched by sexual sin. The hommosexuelle loves the woman who is not sexual, although he may seek sex infinitely elsewhere. Woman wonders why heterosexual men have the paradoxical problem of wanting her and rejecting her because of their desire? Miller makes sense of such a contradiction in his talk of “the existence of the real, independently of any knowledge of the real” (“The Construction…”, p. 90). Women know about man’s symptom regarding her own sexual attractions, even if they do not know they know. Women know they have something men want even if they do not know for sure what this is. Both men and women confuse the semblant, the masquerade, with sexual desire. Woman knows that man is caught in the finite Φ… limitations of desire, while she knows that desire concerns something more, the void in being (Ø). Sex concerns the impossible search for the infinite. One could even call this the human search which often abuts in theology. So, woman is not only man’s symptom of the finite impossibilities of desire, but of his confusion between the semblant and the real (“The Construction…”, p. 91), which are interminably oppositional. Men confuse the idea of The Woman who would exist with truth, truth standing in for the real. She knows that he believes, unconsciously, that she knows true from false, right from wrong, good from bad. Moreover, the semblants of Woman accrete for man. He marries the one whom he believes to know the truth about life. Miller says that what constitutes the sinthome is that one believe in it. And the sinthome is real, a fixation of jouissance, because it repeats itself, placing a meaning in the real that man seeks via Woman (“The Construction…”,  pp. 94 & 97).


[1] Jacques Lacan, Le Sèminaire, livre XXIII (1975-1976), Le sinthome, text established by Jacques Alain Miller (Paris:  Seuil, 2005), p. 14.
[2] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, book XX (1972-1973):  Encore, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. with notes by Bruce Fink (New York:  Norton, 1998), p. 103.
[3] Jacques-Alain Miller, Extimitè, Seminar given to the Department of Psychoanalysis, Paris VIII, Saint-Denis (1985-1986), lessons of January 5, 1986 and March 5, 1986.
[4] Jacques-Alain Miller, “Studies – Speaking in Tongues II, The Constructions of Symptomatic Reality” trans. by Adrian Price, the tenth-session (February 26, 1997) of L’orientation lacanienne II, l6, L’Autre qui n’existe pas et ses comitès d’èthique, p. 95.  The full text I am quoting from is drawn from the second half of the January 17, 1997, session and includes four subsequent sessions.  This text is available in Spanish translation as J.-A. Miller, El Otro que no existe y sus comitès d’èthica, Seminario en colaboración con Éric Laurent, trans. by N. Gonzalez, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 2005.
[5] Jacques-Alain Miller, “A Departure from the Disjunction Between Meaning and the Real,” the eleventh session (March 5, 1997), p. 100.
[6] Jacques-Alain Miller, “Social Semblance and the Social Real,” lesson of January 22, 1997, p. 80.
[7] Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, “The Sexual Masquerade: A Lacanian Theory of Sexual Difference,” Lacan and the Subject of Language, co-edited by Ellie Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Bracher (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 50; a revival of the book to appear in 2014 with Routledge in England (Taylor & Frnacis, Ltd.).
[8] Dominique Laurent, “Death Drive in the Feminine,”  trans. by Ellie Ragland (Re)-Turn: A  Journal of Lacanian Studies, vol. 6, Spring 2011, pp. 79-88.
[9] Jacques-Alain Miller, First meeting of the Seminar, November 17, 1999, The Us[ages] of the Laps[e] (Les Us du Laps) (1999-2000), Seminar given to the Department of Psychoanalysis, Paris VIII, Saint-Denis, trans. by Ellie Ragland, (Re)-Turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies, vol. 6, Spring 2011, p. 31.
[10] Ellie Ragland, “Lacan and the Hommosexuelle: ‘A Love Letter’”, Homosexuality & Psychoanalysis, co-ed. by Tim Dean and Christopher Lane (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 98-119.

The Paradox
Shahriar Vaghfipour

Author’s Bio

The Western unquestionably indicates the truth and the ideological lie of America as “the home of free Americans.” The paradox here is well-pictured in a famous movie of this genre, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone, an Italian–his films seem to be American to such an extent that their names directly signify America: consider Once Upon a Time America and Once Upon a Time The West. The identification of Westerns with America appropriates all territories of cinematic representations.

In a similar way, the Noir crime genre doubles the literary representation of America, for it summarizes the private eye genre, which was born in America and reached its summit there. (It is noteworthy however that British fictions such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poiro are based on a hero whose profession was detection of crimes with private capital; these fictions were not crime fictions as such but mystery stories). It was the Noir that cleansed the American body of crime fiction of all impurity or contamination that was insidiously trafficked from Europe. It shows the truth of crime fiction.

In a brilliant essay on Raymond Chandler, Fredric Jameson puts his finger on the fact that, in British crime fiction, the ideal topos is an idyllic countryside or the shire, and the murder itself is an interruption in the pastoral intimacy and gentle nobility of the British universe; while in Chandler’s novels, the crime is an everyday and quotidian reality, same as in Noir fictions, which are set in the streets of modern metropolises (usually Los Angeles). Its view is the infinite horizon and long-shots, not locked-rooms or the castles of the Lords; for this reason, Chandler’s style is a hysteric and telegraphic one which is looking on the exteriority, narrating the cruel, dirty reality of liberal society, while the poor, standardized style of Agatha Christie’s works is proper to an obsessive expedition in the suspects’ psychology in the hope of finding a non-English element which unveils the criminal; because affirming the English nobility in its whole is the ideal of this literary genre.

To be continued…

Phallic Convection and the Psychotic as Unsexed
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix

Author’s Bio

For Lacan, the psychotic suffers as he does because, although the signifier performs all of its absolute operations (metaphor, metonymy, message, code, deferred action, etc.), it does not perform its major contingent operation. As a result the psychotic has not arrived at true intersubjectivity. The psychotic doesn’t know that the other’s desire is caused by a lack. The contingent operation that the signifier fails to perform, producing psychosis, can be considered under three aspects: the paternal metaphor, the repression of the maternal phallus, and the choice between being and having (the ratio between demand and desire) in relation to the veiled phallus. The result of this threefold operation, if it is successful, is the production of a sexed being. Only this sexed being can then offer his desire to be alienated in and by the community as energy for social and economic production. Because the failure of this operation is the fundamental feature that defines the psychotic, we can see that psychosis is, precisely, and nothing beyond, being unsexed. It follows that sex, for its part, is what protects the neurotic from the thing-in-itself, enmeshing him, most of the time, in the safety of the veil of maya.

For the neurotic, the sliding of the signifying chain takes place as the unconscious across the field of social and economic exchange. For the psychotic, the same sliding takes place, but in the field of phenomenal awareness–it is a sliding-in-itself–hallucinatory sliding from one perceptual object to another along laws of association, persecutory thrills and horror, delusory astonishment, mystery and truth, the ineffable, the inane. He is confronted with the real of the signifier itself, and it is in this sense that we can say the psychotic has no unconscious. The neurotic endures a split between his reality and the unconscious metonymy of his desire; for the psychotic there is no such division. For the psychotic the phenomenon is the noumenon. Somehow for the neurotic the phenomenal sliding is blocked. Can we say more–beyond invoking the paternal metaphor–to explain how this blockage happens?

We can begin by describing the social grid. The neurotic subject is problematically situated, along with the terms shaping his hopes, dreams, and fears, in a social grid. The signifiers that appear for him refer to other signifiers that are communally recognized. He feels the need to represent himself as something he is not in order to dupe the Other–though he can never be sure he has succeeded–so as to desire and cause desire. He commits himself and those around him by means of speech. The signifiers in their interconnection block one another like a system of checks and balances, by referring to one another in a system of reference. The limit of any isolated signifier is an abstract, wrenching, all-meaningful inanity. Any signifying wave will crash onto the rock of the real unless it is can pass its signifying baton on to another signifier–which is what the communal signifiers do. They contain and check one another; they refer to one another. In this way the ultimate meaning can be deferred indefinitely. Only now and then does any signifying wave manage to break. The limits of meaning–the ineffable and the refrain–are marked off, quarantined for exceptional crises, revelations about death and so on.

But how does a subject of language enter into this symbolic grid and become neurotic? The crucial term–the eye of the social storm–is the phallus. The name-of-the-father pushes the phallus under the bar. There are three moments of this passage, each of which relies absolutely on the success of the other two. Lacan especially emphasizes the paternal metaphor–by accepting paternal attribution, the subject constitutes himself as desiring in or against the name-of-the father–but there are complementary operations too. He also says that the paternal metaphor necessarily implies the renunciation of the maternal phallus.

What Lacan does not emphasize as much in his writings on psychosis–but which is no less important–is that in accepting the paternal metaphor and renouncing the maternal phallus, the subject must, and now can, adopt one of two positions in relation to the veiled phallus, which has gone under the bar. He must either predominately wish to be the phallus (the demand for love) or to have the phallus (desire). The ratio of demand to desire determines whether the subject is male or female. For the female, demand is stronger than desire and for the male desire is stronger than demand. Lacan articulates the nonrelation between the sexes in many different ways over the course of his teaching, but he never abandons this fundamental opposition which is articulated in “The Signification of the Phallus.”

If the paternal metaphor fails for the psychotic, the maternal phallus is not renounced. There is therefore no veiled phallus to act as the eye of the socio-neurotic storm, as the term to which all other significations ultimately and indefinitely refer.

It follows that a neurotic must be sexed, and a psychotic cannot be–the psychotic has no sex. Only sexed beings can participate in the social bond. At the metapsychological level Lacan is thinking in terms of structural anthropology: the women are the gifts that the men circulate so as to establish and renew kinship ties. The woman wants to be the perfect gift; the man wants to have the most and the best gifts. All neurotic symptoms and all hopes and dreams are in one way or another metaphorical substitutions or metonymical displacements, compromises, etc., for the impossible status of either being or having the perfect gift. Thus arises the flurry of exchange, ambition, communication, romance, war, and economic crisis that make up the cul-de-sac of neurotic desire.

We can thus imagine a phallic convection, a tornado of signification whirling around the phallus which, by means of its momentum across the intersubjective field, blocks those delusory and persecutory slidings that would be possible on still waters whose smooth surface could reflect the noumenal moon.

Nervenanhang, Nerve-annexation
Josefina Ayerza

Paul Branca


Author’s Bio

In Schreber’s Memoirs, verbal hallucination takes on an infinite variety of forms. Lacan points to the differences which happen to stem from its speech structure.

So he will distinguish the code phenomena and the message phenomena.

As to the code phenomena there are the voices, that talk a basic language. Schreber describes it as “a vigorous though somewhat antiquated German, characterized by its great wealth of euphemisms,” and he says of its form that it is authentic on account of its characteristics of “noble distinction and simplicity.”

The relation of the message to itself is redoubled here.

These messages are taken to be borne of beings whose relations are enunciated by the messages themselves, in modes, says Lacan, that prove to be quite analogous to the connections between signifiers.

The term Nervenanhang, which translates as “nerve-annexation,” and which also comes from these messages, illustrates this remark insofar as passion and action between these beings are reduced to those annexed or dis-annexed nerves. But also insofar as these nerves, just like the divine rays (Gottesstrahlen) with which they are homogeneous, are nothing but the entification of the spoken words they bear (S. 130) which the voices formulate as: “The nature of the rays is that they must speak.”

Do we have a phallus here?

If the purpose of the big Other is suspended, the other will coincide with the horrific Thing—like in Antigone. Right away jouissance is displaced. Now the symbolic Order is the monstrous Thing that directly sucks up to me—Schreber’s God, who directly controls him, penetrates him with the rays of jouissance.

If there is no Thing to underpin our everyday, symbolically regulated exchange with others, there is a “flat,” aseptic universe, in which subjects, deprived of their hubris of excessive passion, are reduced to lifeless pawns.

These code phenomena are specified in locutions that are neological in both their form—new compound words, and usage.

“It is the signifier itself—and not what it signifies—that is the object of the communication.”


This is the system’s relation to its own constitution as signifier, which should be filed under the question of metalanguage and which, says Lacan, demonstrates the impropriety of this notion—Lacan is against elements differentiated within language.

What is actually involved is an effect of the signifier, insofar as its degree of certainty (second degree: signification of signification) takes on a weight proportional to the enigmatic void that first presents itself in the place of signification itself. 

—At this point in the book we know that the support for his side in the forced game of Denkzwang (thought), which God’s words constrain him to play, has a dramatic stake. God, whose powers of ignorance become apparent later, considering the subject to have been annihilated, leaves him in the liegen lassen (lurch).

—The fact that the effort to reply, which the subject is thus stuck on, so to speak, in this way in his being as a subject, eventually fails at a moment of “thinking nothing.”

—What he calls the Briillenwunder (“bellowing-miracle”), a yorn from his breast that surprises him beyond all warning, whether he is alone or with others who are horrified by the image he offers them of his mouth suddenly agape before the unspeakable void, abandoned by the cigar that was stuck there a moment before…

(b) Hulfe” rufen are the cries of “help” made by “those of  God’s nerves separated from the total mass,” whose woeful tone is explained by the greater distance to which God withdraws.

In 1914 Freud would probably not have missed the true reason for the reversal in Schreber’s sense of indignation—initially aroused in him by the idea of Entmannung, which was precisely the fact that in the interval the subject had died.

This, at least, was the event that the voices—always informed by the right sources and ever constant in their information service—told him after the fact, complete with the date and name of the newspaper, in which the event was announced in the obituaries.

I believe that this symbolic determination is demonstrated in the form in which the imaginary structure comes to be restored. At this stage, the imaginary structure presents two facets that Freud himself distinguished.

The first is that of a trans-sexualist practice, not at all unworthy of being related to perversion, the features of which have been presented in many case histories since that time.

Be that as it may, we see our subject give himself over to an erotic activity which, he emphasizes, is strictly reserved for solitude, but whose satisfactions he nevertheless admits to—satisfactions his image in the mirror gives him, when, dressed in the cheap adornments of feminine finery…nothing in the upper part of his body, seems to him incapable of convincing any possible aficionado of the female bust.” He has breasts — in his mind.

Lacan here talks of “endosomatic perception,” of the so-called nerves of female pleasure, particularly in those zones where they are supposed to be erogenous in women.

One remark he makes—the remark that if he were to incessantly contemplate woman’s image, and never detach his thoughts from the prop of something feminine, God’s sensuality would be all the better served.

And this turns our attention to the other facet of his libidinal fantasies. “This other facet,” says Lacan, “links the subject’s feminization to the coordinate of divine copulation.”

Freud saw the sense of mortification, when he stressed that “soul-voluptuousness” is linked to “bliss,” insofar as the latter is the state of deceased souls. The fact that the now blessed voluptuousness should become the soul’s bliss is, indeed, an essential turning point.

John Wallace


Lying in the garbage heap,[1] we find the I schema, Lacan’s attempt to symbolize Schreber’s way at the end of the psychotic process, but if this is the end, why this inward swerving, swerving with gaps, whose swerving immediately brings to mind Lucretius’ clinamen, the universally constitutive and unpredictable swerve of atoms from an a priori straight path through the void?


Recall here Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of Einstein’s passage from special to general theory:

While the special theory already introduces the notion of curved space, it conceives of the curvature as the effect of matter that curves space, i.e. only empty space would not be curved. With the passage to the general theory, the causality is reversed: far from causing the curvature of space, matter is its effect and the presence of matter signals that space is curved.[2]

If we follow Einstein, Lucretius got it wrong. The original fact, the minimal element, is the curvature of space in the void, into which some matter must appear to signal that it is curved. There is clinamen, a swerve in matter that precedes and precludes matter in-itself. As Mladen Dolar puts it:

So clinamen has always already happened… It is not a secondary fate that would befall the atom in itself in its supposed straight path – once one has departed from the path, one supposes the straight direction, but a direction that doesn’t exist in itself. Straying retroactively produces the in-itself, and this is where the subject comes in.[3] 

The subject is the necessary stray away from the stray in-itself, but the way it strays away from the stray in-itself, that is itself, the way it veers, or more precisely, the way it Vers-, will be determinate of what kind of subject it will be, and the retroactive supposition of a straight path is not necessarily the only way to go.[4] For the subject to suppose a once straight direction, the subject must first attribute a departure to its path.


For Lacan, there can be nothing before the signifier, but in the mythical moment prior to symbolization, nothing has a choice to make, though a forced one, Bejahung or Verwerfung, one way or the other.

If it is Bejahung, than the primordial signifier is symbolized, along with it, the lack in being its symbolization attributes. Freud laid it out in his paper on “Negation” (1925), the ground for negation (Verneinung), the judgment of existence, “to be or not to be,” is paved by the judgment of attribution it attempts to annul. If the subject wants to know nothing about it, he will fail. He already knows it. “It’s not my mother.”  Maybe “yes,” maybe “no,” but he’d prefer not. We are not so concerned with this “yes-no” sayer in all of its proliferations.

If it is Verwerfung, the primordial signifier is refused symbolization, along with it, the non-being that brings into existence the ground for being to raise itself up on. Jacques-Alain Miller calls this choice “unthinkable’” before offering us the means to grasp it, “— since that would include, in some way, the fact that separation anticipates alienation.”[5] If he knows nothing about it, he will fail “spectacularly.”[6] He knows nothing “and yet it moves.” For the psychotic subject “no” means, and when it returns, it will return with enormous meaning. “No” may not only mean “yes”… it could mean a “kick to the head!”[7]

… what is refused in the symbolic order re-emerges in the real.[8]


To return to Žižek’s discussion of Einstein’s passage from special to general theory:

‘What can all of this have to do with psychoanalysis?’ Much more than it may appear: in a way that echoes Einstein, for Lacan the Real–the Thing–is not so much the inert presence that curves symbolic space (introducing gaps and inconsistencies in it), but rather, an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies.[9]

In psychosis, the swerving path of the symbolic, and the gaps and inconsistencies it introduces, the distance between the symbolic and the real, is rejected, a lack of distance which opens up the possibility, though not necessarily the necessity, of the swerve of the symbolic swerving in on the psychotic subject, opening a further hole in the imaginary where the subject would be propped up by the phallic image, re-emerging in reality, and injecting him with gaps and inconsistencies that are not out there, but return whole as the real that rushes to close the gaps. A real father, a One father [Un-père], must appear in one of these gaps to signal an absence, but the defense of the rushing real is not directed against the real father who appears there, it is against the there where he appears.

In psychoanalysis defense is directed against a mirage, a void, nothingness, and not against anything that exists and carries weight in life.[10]

The psychotic recreation, symbolized by the I schema, is what has come to swerve the subject away from the holes in the symbolic and the imaginary, and through the gaps and inconsistencies immanent to reality that the swerving has opened, a clinamen of clinamen.


The schema shows that the final state of psychosis does not represent the frozen chaos   encountered in the aftermath of an earthquake, but rather the bringing to light lines of efficiency that makes people talk when it is a problem with an elegant solution.[11]

So then, Lacan’s schema formalizes the already after the fact of the foreclosure [Verwerfung] of the-Name-of-the-Father, the structural non-foundation of the psychotic subject, that has left Schreber open to a hole in the symbolic, and its contingent return in reality as the real, whole with the delusional reconstruction that is the solution.

Or did Freud already say it?

The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.[12]

Yes, but here there is one step further, as Lacan returns to Freud:

For it is a fact that without any other support or prop other than a written document- which is not only a testimony to, but also a product of this final state of psychosis- Freud shed light on the very evolution of the psychotic process, allowing us to elucidate its proper determination, by which I mean the only organicity that is essentially involved in this process: the organicity that motivates the structure of the signification. [13]

The only organicity is the body of the signifier, whose essential organicity is the essential problem for Schreber, as he lacks the only one, the Name-of-the-Father that would be a full stop to the endless sliding of signification. In order for there to be a full stop, and there is an order, a logical one, Schreber would have had to answer the call of the signifier that summoned him. As Wagner says through Parsifal, “die Wunde schliesst de Speer nur, der sie schlug,” the wound can only be healed by the spear which made it, and Schreber refused the spear that would cut his hole a wound.

And so they come … Nervananhang, Seelenmord, etc… not appearing from nowhere, but taken from the synchronic whole, cut up, fragmentized, and re-arranged as neo-logical constructions, as signifiers in themselves, charged with meaning, and referring to meaning only known and unknown to the subject Schreber to whom these words have appeared in simultaneity as revelations and ruptures coming in the place of something that never was and has no name.

Schreber’s attempt at a solution here at the end of the psychotic process is the authorization of a body words, the Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, in which these word bodies can hang together, acting as a substitution for the substitution that never came to be. As Eric Laurent puts it:

The delusional work can be conceived thus: to construct the letter with the aid of the letter to the point where it can abolish the symbol and really raise it to the second power. This is what will makes its co-existence compatible with the absence of support, not of an established discourse, but of any established Name-of-the-Father. [14]

The success of this work is already the body Schreber is left with, however, it is never wholly so, [15] as Schreber will continue to add postscripts and appendixes to this already massive production, and moreover, will continue to be troubled by the formation of the organ, not the female organ, but the organ of the transsexualist jouissance that he sees forming and localizing in his dressing room mirror, and whose appearance in the I schema points the way to Lacan’s next teaching and the subject of jouissance.

The question then becomes “how to live with organs?”

In Schreber’s own words, which we return to after neglecting Lacan’s warning not to forget them:

Where intellectual understanding ends, the domain of belief begins, man must reconcile himself to the fact that things exist which are true although he cannot understand them.[16]

[1] ‘Nonetheless, it would be better to consign this schema to the garbage heap, if, like so many others, it prompted anyone to forget, because of an intuitive image, the analysis on which the image is based.’ Jacques Lacan, “On A Question Prior To Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis,” in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. B. Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 478.
[2] Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 72-73.
[3] Mladen Dolar, “Hegel and Freud”, E-Flux Journal 34: (April, 2012): 11(PDF page #).
[4] “From Ver- to clinamen there is only a step, a step astray, a step off track.” Dolar, op. cit. 11.
[5] Jacques-Alain Miller, “The Effect of the Subject in Psychoses,” The Symptom 13: (Autumn 2002): 12. (PDF page #).
[6] ‘If we follow the line of the failure of negation, then in psychosis negation fails by spectacular success, it succeeds in annihilating itself to such an extent that reality itself emerges as the embodiment of negativity, with no possible escape.’ Dolar, op. cit. 11.
[7] As Josefina Ayerza puts it in her teaching, for the psychotic subject, “a kick is a kick!”
[8] Lacan, The Psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III, ed. J.A. Miller, trans. R. Grigg (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 13.
[9] Žižek, op. cit. 478, 72-73.
[10] Lacan, The Psychoses, op. cit. 215.
[11] Lacan, Écrits, op. cit. 477.
[12] Sigmund Freud, “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001), 71.
[13] Lacan, Écrits, op. cit. 477.
[14] Eric Laurent, “Three Enigmas: Meaning, Significance, Jouissance,” in The Later Lacan: An Introduction, V. Voruz and B. Wolf eds.,  (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 126.
[15] ‘Such a reconstruction after the catastrophe is successful to a greater or lesser extent, but never wholly so…’ Freud, op. cit. 71.
[16] Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, trans. I. Macalpine and R. Hunter (New York: New York Review of Books: 2000), 16.

Introduction to Encore
Francois Regnault

Guy Ben-Ari

Guy Ben-Ari

Guy Ben-Ari

Being part of a cartel (a group of 4 with a Plus-One) intending to study The Seminar XX, Encore, I asked the other four members of it which interpretation they would give to the title Encore. These are their answers:

— Because it’s never that, it’s always called encore.

Jouissance without end, without limit.

— Unceasing jouissance.

— The necessary.

— The yell of jouissance.

1. The Seminar XX, which Jacques Lacan called Encore, was delivered between December 12, 1972 and June 26, 1975. It takes place at a turning point in French politics after the events of May 68, and in the teaching of Jacques Lacan.

The events of May 68 had resulted in Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (whose cover shows Daniel Cohn-Bendit facing a member of the CRS, the French mobile police forces), an upside down resumption of the Freudian project, which also resorts to another “reverse,” like the one invented by Balzac in The Seamy Side of History that digs another hollow space in the heart of the city; the other side would be what psychoanalysis tries to keep away from, making a detour to a better address, for example, the discourse of the Master. Indeed Lacan sets up his theory of the four discourses, which are four different forms of arrangements between the subject and the Other, more exactly between the subject, its signifiers and knowledge, on the one hand, and the rest that results from this same arrangement, called surplus-jouir (plus-de-jouir). We run here into a reference made to profit, the “bonus” which according to Marx results from the capitalist mode of production. Therefore we find ourselves in a political dimension that belongs to the unconscious and which authorizes the expression: “The unconscious is politics.” Social ties (there is two for socializing) between these instances, which Lacan calls “discourse.”

2. In Encore (whose cover shows Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa as it stands in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome) the puzzle of the discourses recurs again and again, but the issue unfolds in the dimension that rules Lacan’s teaching at least since Seminar XVI D’un Autre à l’autreFrom an Other to the other—(just before 1968!) until its very end, until it becomes almost the dominant category, that is jouissance. (Jouissance posited as an absolute, see Chapter XIII of the Seminar XVI).

Thus this is no wonder that jouissance (of which one must not forget the legal origin, fruit and tenure) is introduced early in its opposition to the functional: “Jouissance is what is useless.” The superego, the concept of Freud’s second topography to which he gave a repressive meaning (Kant’s Moral Law), Lacan did not consider it less brutal, but he also deems it obscene, and changes its orientation by enjoining it Jouis! (Yes, I mean the Law, I heard, j’ouis, her voice, and she becomes my desire). And soon taking up residence in the field of sexuality, this approach brings about the following statements: a) “The jouissance of the Other, of the Other’s body that symbolizes it, is not a sign of love.” b) “Ultimately, one person’s body is just a part of the Other’s body.” c) Finally,“…it is the Other who jouit.”[1]

Then, “there is a hole there and that hole is called the Other.”[2] Later on Lacan will declare that “the Other doesn’t exist.”

3. From then on a relationship between jouissance and sexuality is articulated (according to a topology that will be developed later on in the seminar), a relationship which cannot be reduced to the male and female orgasms, but one that will meet the obstacle of choice set up by psychoanalysis, namely that “there is no sexual relationship” and that will be resolved by way of love, made up for its absence. “What makes up the sexual relationship is, quite precisely, love.”[3]

4. The Seminar XX performs as a theory on jouissance in its complex relationship with love, where Freud’s emphasis on narcissism remains evident, and where the opposition between desire and love’s demand, which dominated the so-called “classical” Lacanian theory (we propose here a rather flexible periodization), is being displaced to a more central articulation and perhaps to a more consistent involvement with the deepening of the clinic: the opposition between phallic jouissance, and that other jouissance, the one Lacan named “supplementary jouissance.”[4] It will allow Lacan (in Chapter VI of the Seminar “God and Woman(barred) Jouissance”) to assign to the mystical a point of fall (or) of real. As a result, the reputed mystical delusions are just “mere business of fucking.”

If phallic jouissance can encapsulate as a whole and in its more persistent meanings a whole range of psychoanalytic issues such as orgasm pleasure, the pleasure principle, sexual satisfaction, sexual fetishism, perversion, etc., it has now to contend with this other dimension of itself, one that is often considered enigmatic, an other jouissance, one called the other jouissance.

5. So there, psychoanalysis feels embarrassed with this other jouissance, and the following statement reveals the discomfort: “Were there another jouissance than phallic jouissance, it shouldn’t be/could never fail to be that one.” From there on the paradox is established: in fact there is no other than phallic jouissance (such as orgasm, detumescence, the primacy of the phallus, etc.) “except the one concerning which woman doesn’t breathe a word.” Psychoanalysis therefore assumes here that woman is capable of an unverifiable jouissance, other (other than the one Charles de Brosses, a libertine from the eighteenth century, boasted to recognize in the traits of Bernini’s Saint Theresa). It is then necessary to Lacan to resort to a Stoic logic according to which truth is deduced from the false: “Suppose that there is another (true!)—but there isn’t (false!).” The doubt remains, after all, and it weighs heavily: the male is intrigued and ponders over the notion that woman is not, is never whole, or encore that The woman (as a whole) does not exist. “There is a jouissance that is hers (the woman), that belongs to that ‘she’ that doesn’t exist and doesn’t signify anything.”[5] Hence the idea that we are dealing with “a jouissance that is in the realm of the infinite.”[6]  And “Why not interpret one face of the Other, the God face, as based on feminine jouissance?”[7]

6. Of course, the signifier is still in effect, because the thesis that “the unconscious is structured like a language” [8] (thus articulated by the signifying chains) stays fundamental. Actually, the signifier receives additional developments. From the outset, it is accurately related to jouissance: “the signifier is situated at the level of substance jouissante,” “the signifier is the material cause of jouissance.”[9] Without it there is no way to deal with jouissance, which is not physiological or biological. And without it, no way to address the réalité.[10] 

A gap is widening at the same time between signifier and signified: “the signified is not what you hear. What you hear is the signifier. The signified is the effect of the signifier.”[11] Thus the letter is the effect of discourse, which means it works only according to arrangements previously defined.

However, the écrit differs from the signifier in a more marked way than at the time of “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud.”[12] So there is a retrospective justification, from there on, of the common usage of letters by Lacan to indicate a cryptic term as the objet a, a locus, as that of the big Other (A), or the phallus, to differentiate the organ as far as its function is concerned, and this signifies—already an acquired thesis—“the signifier of jouissance.”

Accordingly the letter was the localized structure of the signifier (the model of the characters of the printing industry at its beginnings): the signifier as a written symbol occupies a place which Lacan forces to be place of Other one (A). “To allow for the explanation of the (analytic) discourse, I put forward the use of a certain number of letters. First of all, a, which I call objet, but which, nevertheless, is but a letter. Then A, that I make function in that aspect of the proposition that takes only the form of a written formula, and that is produced by mathematical logic. I designate thereby that which is first of all a locus, a place. I called it ‘the locus of the Other’.”[13]  The constellation—signifier, letter, written symbol—becomes then more complex according to the necessity to take into account the vagaries of jouissance.

Guy Ben-Ari-Hidden Observer-courtesy Scaramouche NY

Guy Ben-Ari

Guy Ben-Ari

Eristic dialogue with Aristotle’s logic, from the point of view of the dichotomy between particular and universal propositions: in Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, which define the “roles” of the man and woman, it is what makes exception, the obstacle to universality as well as to particularity, which is taken into account, and not what would make the particular to be satisfied in being the particularity of universal propositions.

Dialogue with the modal logic, which deals with necessity and contingency, but where Lacan introduces the function of what is written (l’écrit) as well as that of temporality (“to stop not being written, doesn’t stop being written,” etc) which reorganize the functions of necessity, of contingency, of the impossible and the possible, so that the real, which has been defined by Lacan as the impossible (as in the real of the clinic, “the impossible to endure”) in turn becomes an obstacle to necessity, instead of supporting it.  In the end, or better said first of all, the sexual rapport as impossible rules modal logic. “The ‘doesn’t stop not being written’ is the impossible, as I define it on the basis of the fact that it cannot in any case ‘being written’, and it is with this that I characterize the sexual relationship—the sexual relationship doesn’t stop not being written.”[14]

Thus for the Logic. For the Ethics, the reader of Encore will have to resort to the Nicomachean Ethics (which aim at the Good, and is subsequently followed by Christian beatitude), because, on numerous issues, Lacan implicitly and expressly converses with this Ethics of the Good, in order to substitute them for his Ethic of the Well-Spoken, l’éthique du Bien-dire. [15]

All this reveals that the Seminar is certainly one of the richest and one of the densest of the series; it also demands that we work on its particulars as well as on its method. This is a Seminar that a reductive scholasticism, which results in univocal propositions, would not succeed in explicate the meaning, and that equally deductive axioms would fail to elucidate its modus operandi. The fact that one of its chapters is titled “On the Baroque” (again Bernini!) should persuade us to look into its different mixed topics having recourse to metaphors and allegories: jouissance, love, sexual rapport—phallic jouissance, the Other jouissance—the formulas of sexuation (the man, woman)—an intimidating and almost constant dialogue with Aristotle, his logic and his ethics—a new relationship with mysticism and the mystics at variance with clinical nosology—in short, twists, convolutions, knots.

One should then read Encore step by step, without expecting the progression to be linear nor its movement straight. One must hold several threads together (the twisted columns of Bernini!), and sort out theses which cannot be neither successive nor even unequivocal. At all times one needs to discern the kernel.

However, one can also choose a topic (for instance jouissance, the difference of sexes, the écrit, the correlation with Aristotle, etc), and in every theme, to become especially attached to what is relevant. On the whole, to follow Lacan’s narrative thread. What is left then of that which Lacan and Aristotle have in common? Certainly the idea of an ongoing research, where the stakes need to be reconstructed at every step, if one doesn’t want to transform this connection into a booklet of results.

It follows that Encore thoroughly indicates: “Reader, encore an effort to be Lacanian.”


Signifier: the term originated in Ferdinand de Saussure, the linguist (based on a tradition that stems from the Stoics and Saint Augustine). The elements of a given language, as far as they are just different the ones from the others. (For instance French distinguishes between rivière and fleuve, English has only “river.” The rest follows in order!). Next one should detect the terms indicating the signifier, the letter, reading, the écrit, etc.

Phallus: not the penis but the real organ as it can come to be missed, what is imaginary (“they are going to cut it to you”), and therefore, what symbolically makes the signifier of jouissance, the phallus that is not missing, and in this way is exempted from the difference between the sexes. Also, the means by which a woman makes use of phallic jouissance.

Sexual relationship: what would write the rapport between man and woman according to sex. One would write that x R y (x being the man, y woman, R the rapport), this shows some scorn for the fact that woman enters in this relationship only quoad matrem, “as mother,” as substantiated by clinical analysis. As a reminder, clinical analysis constantly senses that this relationship “does not “work,” (no need of statistical valuation here: any clinical case makes exception, and becomes a law). As a result human beings fuck, they even manage to reproduce but, of course, there is something else due to a misunderstanding, to a failure of jouissance. As Lacan states, “It is the speaking body insofar as it can only manage to reproduce thanks to a misunderstanding regarding its jouissance. It only reproduces thanks to a missing (ratage) what it wants to say, for what it wants to say is its effective jouissance. And it is by missing that jouissance that it reproduces—in other words—by fucking.”[16]

Discourse: a specific positioning between four specific proceedings where are located the subject, the signifier that rules them, knowledge which gets on the way of the signifier, jouissance which ensues from it, restraint to the surplus-jouir (plus-de-jouir) (unlike pleasure, jouissance does not exclude suffering, as attested by perversions, sadism, masochism, voyeurism, exhibitionism).

In the formulas of sexuation [17] we detect the unknown x (the man or woman according to the formula), the universal (V) and existential (E) quantifiers, the trait—above the terms that state negation, finally F (Phi) of the phallic function. Hence the four discourses, named by Lacan: of the Master, of the Hysteric, of the University, of the Analyst.[18]

Jouissance: in Seminar XVI, D’un Autre à l’autre, From an Other to the other, Lacan compares jouissance to “the insatiable cask of the Danaids.”[19]

*Last but not least, I would like to express my gratitude to my colleagues in the Cartel, namely, Gudrun Scherer, Sarah Abitbol, Damien Guyonnet, Stylianos Kontakiotis, with whom I endeavor the arduous traversing of this Encore.

[1] Lacan J., Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, 1972-1973, New York: W.W. Norton, 1998, p.23.
[2] Ibid, p. 113.
[3] Ibid, p. 44.
[4] Ibid, p. 72.
[5] Ibid, p. 74.
[6] Ibid, p. 103.
[7] Ibid, p. 77.
[8] Ibid, p. 138.
[9] Ibid, pp. 23 & 24.
[10] Ibid, p. 55.
[11] Ibid, p. 32.
[12] Lacan J., “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud,” Ecrits, New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
[13] Lacan J., Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, 1972-1973, op. cit., p.27.
[14] Ibid, p. 55, 94, 144.
[15] Lacan J., Television, New York: W.W. Norton, 1990, p. 41 and Autres ecrits, Paris: Seuil, 2001, p. 541.
[16] Lacan J., Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, 1972-1973, op. cit., p. 120.
[17] Ibid, p. 78.
[18] Ibid, p. 16.
[19] Lacan J., Le Seminaire, livre XVI, D’un Autre a l’autre, Paris: Seuil, 2006, pp. 15 and 335.

The Real of Violence, Cynicism, and the “Right of Distress”
Slavoj Zizek

Anne-Lise Coste


Lise Ann

Lise Ann

Author’s Bio

1 The Cynic’s Naivety

The cynicism of those in power is today often so direct and open that there seems to be no need for the critique of ideology: why should we lose time and engage in arduous “symptomal reading,” discerning gaps and repressions in the public discourse of those in power, when this discourse more or less openly and shamelessly admits its particular interests? There are nonetheless multiple problems with this thesis. However, such a cynical notion of society in which those in power brutally admit what they are doing is by far not sufficient: precisely when they openly and “realistically” admit that it is ultimately all about power, money, influence, or whatsoever, they err to the extreme, their realism without illusions is the very form of their blindness. What they fatefully underestimate is the efficiency of illusions which structure and sustain their ruthless power games or financial speculations. At the beginning of Hitler’s rule, it was the big capitalist cynics who told themselves “let’s allow Hitler to take over and get us rid of the Left, and then we’ll get rid of him.” The financial crisis of 2008 was not brought about by the cynical bankers who acted upon the “greed is good” principle, not by blinded idealists. Therein resides the limit of Sloterdijk’s old formula of cynical reason “they know what they are doing, and they are nonetheless doing it”: they are blind for the illusions inherent to the brutal “realist” stance.

Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the “anonymous kingdom of the Republic.” [1] The parliamentary deputees of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they all the time generated royalist slips of tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. What they were effectively doing was to establish the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much (by for instance guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their very “inner” royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism – the royalists

deceived themselves concerning the fact of their united rule. They did not comprehend that if each of their factions, regarded separately, by itself, was royalist, the product of their chemical combination had necessarily to be republican /…/ Thus we find these royalists in the beginning believing in an immediate restoration, later preserving the republican form with foaming rage and deadly invective against it on their lips, and finally confessing that they can endure each other only in the republic and postponing the restoration indefinitely /die Restauration aufs Unbestimmte vertagen/. The enjoyment of the united rule /der Genuß der vereinigten Herrschaft/ itself strengthened each of the two factions, and made each of them still more unable and unwilling to subordinate itself to the other, that is, to restore the monarchy.[2]

Marx describes here a precise case of perverted libidinal economy: there is a Goal (restoration of the monarchy) which embers of the group experience as their true goal, but which, for tactical reasons, has to be publicly disavowed; however, what brings enjoyment are not multiple ways of obscenely making fun of the ideology they have to follow publicly (rage and invectives again republicanism), but the very indefinite postponed of the realization of their official Goal (which allows them to rule united). Recall how it is when, in the private sphere, I am unhappily married, I mock my wife all the time, declaring my intention to abandon here for my mistress whom I really love, and while I get small pleasures from invectives against my wife, the enjoyment that sustains me is generated by the indefinite postponement of really leaving my wife for my mistress. And, back to politics, were today’s Party of Order not the Us Republicans during the time of Ronald Reagan? Their orleanists were new tech liberal capitalists, and their legitimists tea Party fundamentalists – they hated each other, but they knew they can only rule together, so each of them endlessly postponed the measures they really care about (ban on abortion, etc.). This is the formula of today’s cynical politics: its true dupes are the cynics themselves who are not aware that their truth is in what they are mocking, not in their hidden belief. As such, cynicism is a perverted attitude: it transposes onto its other (non-cynical dupes) its own division. This is why, as Freud pointed out, the perverse activity is not an open display of the unconscious, but its greatest obfuscation.

There is one thing about Henry Kissinger, the ultimate cynical Realpolitiker, which cannot but struck the eye of all observers: how utterly wrong were all his predictions. When news reached the West about the 1991 anti-Gorbachev military coup, he immediately accepted the new regime (which ignominiously collapsed three days later) as a fact; etc.etc. – in short, when Socialist regimes were already a living dead, he was counting on a long-term pact with them. What this example perfectly demonstrates is the limitation of the cynical attitude: cynics are les non-dupes who errent; what they fail to recognize is the symbolic efficiency of the illusions, the way they regulate activity which generates social reality. The position of cynicism is that of wisdom – the paradigmatic cynic tells you privately, in a confidential low-key voice: “But don’t you get it that it is all really about… /money, power, sex/, that all high principles and values are just empty phrases which count for nothing?” In this sense, philosophers effectively “believe in the power of ideas,” they believe that “ideas rule the world,” cynics are fully justified in accusing them of this sin – however, what the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom. It is the philosophers who are the true realists: they are well aware that the cynical position is impossible and inconsistent, that cynics effectively follow the principle they publicly mock. Stalin was a cynic if there ever was one – but precisely as such, he sincerely believed in Communism.

2 Demystifying Violence Read More »

The Experience of the Real in Psychoanalysis
Jacques-Alain Miller

Dmitry-Gutov, ignorance. Courtesy Scaramouche NY.


Dmitry Gutov

Dmitry Gutov, Ignorance. Courtesy Scaramouche NY

Author’s Bio

translated by Jorge Jauregui

Today I will be commenting on some of what I talked about at the University of California in Los Angeles where I was invited to give a lecture. The main audience, categorically entrenched in the domain of cultural studies, was certainly not made of practitioners, not of clinicians, but of academics proper. What to tell you? The interest in Jacques Lacan flourishes in this category, and this is how you are bound to admit it as an undeniable fact.

To convey an understanding of cultural studies in the United States would entail some casual reference to the couleur locale, and this is what I will abstain from doing. I won’t do it because we are not alone and my words would reach their ears at once [laughter] loaded with our own couleur locale and with the misunderstandings to follow from there. So let me leave the couleur locale aside, much as my personal perception with regard to Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Sunset Boulevard.

I say enough if I tell you that above all I was charmed with the weather [laughter] and now I feel as if I am in a uniform dressed with a suit and a tie. Over there I found myself driven by the climate, by the ambiance, to the point of acquiring white sneakers and participating in the colloquium open-collared in a T-shirt. I promised myself to do the same upon my return, [laughter] but there is dust in Paris, and I’ve actually realized that I am a bit of a chameleon myself who takes pleasure in conforming to environments.

During my talk, I tried to find a spot for these cultural studies in the Freudian Field, that is studies that are not clinical as they earnestly avow. Devoted to contemporary sublimation, the aforementioned studies analyze objects of cultural consumption—from the most ordinary to the most sophisticated. If at its best they disclose one of the bearings of discontent in civilization, at their worst they are simply being part of it.

No enticement offered by our civilization, as they say, to colonize the site of Das Ding—of jouissance qua impossible—is foreign to them.

Lacan’s seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis [1] was translated into English several years ago and serves as a main reference to cultural studies. You may surmise that the abundance of enticements in the US is what started and legitimized this institution as the locus par excellence where Lacan’s teaching expanded; in marked contrast I may say with the shutting of the clinical field to the actual teaching.

Besides in the US psychoanalysis pays a heavy toll under the guise of a crisis—as I was reminded later on in New York. People undergo analysis less and less, insofar as psychoanalysis is primarily perceived as therapy. It has been for many years now that health insurance companies have enforced a standard called “managed care” (soins organisés). Under such an organization controlling reimbursements, psychoanalytic treatment cannot be validated. Likewise the mandate of the health industry leads irresistibly the suffering subject away from psychoanalysis.

The tone of the message, with that margin of error attributable to chance meetings, is very different from the one I got ten years ago when I used to visit the US on a regular basis.

This crisis—if I were to find its grounding—is the expression of a setback. The setback of psychoanalysis’ medication and also its “psychologisation” on behalf of an important faction of psychoanalysts outside the IPA (International Psychoanalytic Association) whose practice is secured by degrees in psychology.

I think that psychoanalysis’ reduction to a mere therapy has paved the way to a competition with medication. Again it is losing ground and American psychoanalysts have relinquished its practice as a subjective experience while reducing it to the status of a simple cure.

So follows their impotence to carry on with the transference proper in psychoanalysis—I was already well aware of this. The waning becomes manifest among the advocates of cultural studies, whose interest in decoding Lacan remains purely intellectual, that is to say, disjointed from the analytical experience. They talk psychoanalysis, yet for them psychoanalysis is confined to the reading and deciphering of whatever they have of Lacan’s enunciation. The notion that this enunciation is supported, inspired and warranted by an actual experience, by what is for each one their inception into analysis is completely foreign to them. It was even futile to attempt its awakening with this crowd; their rapport to knowledge is completely distinct from the “supposed knowledge.”

They are constrained to knowledge delivered in accordance with the modality of academic discourse. And this discourse owns such a consistency, carries such a weight, and is so conspicuous, that a peculiar deep indifference has developed to the danger posited by a subjective experience such as psychoanalysis, Lacanian psychoanalysis.

So what has the future in store as far as this quick outline is concerned? I think that the sensing of an impasse is necessary for a new generation of analysts, presently analysands, led to look into Lacan and find the ways of a renaissance of psychoanalysis.

There are perhaps augural signs, if I’m to believe the quiet grumbling of several young New York psychiatrists who at the very start of their professional life already feel oppressed, so they told me, by the gradual narrowness of the psychoanalytical environment. They are haunted by the idea that perhaps with Lacan they may find a way to open up, to relaunch analytical practice.

And yet their disposition remains inchoate as far as the language barrier is concerned; a significant portion of Lacan’s teaching is in French, his cultural background is alien to them and the investment they will have to endure seems too dear.

I replied thereof that there is no way out but to wait for the heightening of their own impasse, for the situation to worsen, to become unbearable and then, perhaps, they will find the appropriate leverage to sustain the effort they seem unwilling to bear. Nevertheless there is a nucleus of people, whom I perceive as sufficiently worried. So let me go back to Los Angeles, to my lecture, to its slightly different Parisian rendition due to the couleur locale. I’ll start precisely from there.

The name of the symposium I took part in—a name unthinkable in this country—was “The Subject Encore,encore in French, in italics, thus referring to Seminar XX.[2] This subject was coupled with a querying of the Lacanian subject—as they put it—they were looking for its detection in fields such as natural science, law, religion, and the body…

Querying coupled with Encore. Seminar XX was translated last year by an old boy from the Département de psychanalyse and of the Section clinique, Bruce Fink, an excellent translation, though perhaps a little heavy with notes, as I personally told him. Besides I’m quite delighted with the fact that in the United States the anciens from this Cours and the Section clinique are in the avant-garde, accordingly enhancing the presence of Lacan’s teaching. Thus the attendees were the above mentioned Fink, now devoted to an exhaustive English version of Écrits, Slavoj Zizek, a powerful and original voice within the context of cultural studies, and Russell Grigg from Sydney, who is also a translator of Lacan’s Seminars.

From what was achieved in the 80’s, Lacan’s text circulates in the English tongue. I must confess I was touched by this encouraging fact.

Myself, without a clear indication of the purpose of my presence apart from being a kind of guarantor of the symposium, I figured I would deal with its topic the way I had been told to, I would deal with the subject Encore.

There is an itinerary to be tracked from the subject to Encore—the Seminar. Here this subject is challenged to the point of being subverted deeper than it has ever been challenged and subverted in Lacan’s teaching. Indeed, Lacan introduces the subject essentially as a lack-in-being—as the opposite, the negative of a being.  Thus it’s symbol: S

Subject   S

The subject is handled as lack-in-being. Still, in Seminar XX, Encore, you may say that Lacan assigns another agency to it and at the same time attempts a joint articulation of both the subject and this other agency. He calls it the speaking subject (être parlant).

Subject   S ———> Speaking Subject

I’ve already stressed the polarity between a subject defined as lack-in-being and an agency that highlights the term être (being). Later on, I proposed not a matheme but a neologism: the parlêtre.

Subject   S ———> Speaking Subject “Parlêtre.”

Our American colleagues—colleagues in the reading of Lacan—will probably preserve it as untranslatable. Indeed, they revere untranslatable words. French too feel a particular well being while conveying Freud’s German terminology. In the US it befits the preservation of the French term or Lacan’s Other.

The untranslatable word that shines in society is jouissance. Lacan himself was against its translation into English. In 1966 while visiting the United States, he noticed the term “enjoyment” as the key word in a Coca-Cola advertisement: “Enjoy Coca-Cola.” [laughter] He immediately decided that “enjoyment” was not to become jouissance. And so, everybody agreed to keep to this injunction—you even find it in the Encore translation—and I think that’s just fine. Yet lately, they are willing to add some others. They realized, for instance, that “knowledge” was at pains to convey the meaning of the word savoir. So, in their lecturing, you heard more often than not savoir, in the French. Until now they seem unconcerned with parlêtre, but just wait. They will find good reasons to preserve the neologism attached to our tongue.

The subject, as such, is specially disjointed from the body. Lacan introduces it, and then deals with it as a correlation, first vis-à-vis parole, and then as pure correlation of the signifier. You may say that this is what makes the difference with the speaking subject. If with Lacan the subject becomes the speaking subject, this is due to an agency fundamentally anchored in the body.

Subject   S———> Speaking Subject “Parlêtre”


Here it is the body that makes the difference. The theory of the subject deals primarily with the effects of the signifier as they account for signification. And it works as a central reference with the mechanics of metonymy and metaphor prone to disclose the different modes of production of signification, in keeping with the signifier. These mechanics, their very notion, conduct the coding of the text—of parole—yet the text as such, severed from the statement (énonciation), “em-bodied” if I may say. Conversely, the speaking subject, its theory different from the subject’s theory, deals with the effects of the signifier as affecting and not as signification. That is, the signifier’s effects occur specifically in the body. And by way of a short-circuit, the major effect is what Lacan termed jouissanceJouissance presumes the body; jouissance needs the body as its support, thus Lacan called it substance. In Aristotle’s tongue it’s ousia; where ousia is, so is substance.

Yet the subject is an upokeimenom, not ousia. That is, the subject is below, at the level of substance, though in a distinct mode. The subject is purely signified supposition and essentially not substantial.

This is the path I followed when answering the enigma in the title of this Symposium.

There is no exaggeration in positing Lacan’s teaching as being animated by the difficulty of thinking about the subject as lack-in-being, that is, as a certain kind of non-being, together with jouissance as substance. Freud dubbed this “thinking together” as drive, but only developed it under the auspices of the myth. Lacan’s teaching, up to Encore, consists of thinking of the subject and jouissance together, as a relationship, under the auspices of relatedness itself. This relation is detected in the matheme; S, lozenge, petit a, that Lacan transcribed as the fantasm.

S <> a

The cipher spells the problematic rapport between the subject and its eventuality of jouissance. Lacan wrote down successive versions of this rapport.

However, if you look into Seminar XX, jouissance and the subject are not cogitated under relational auspices, and that for a very simple reason, namely Lacan gave up on the subject. He forgoes the subject in order to invent a category, and this is the speaking subject. Here, subject and jouissance are thought together under the auspices of a new entity: a body affected by the signifier, a body that is moved, aroused by the unconscious.

A kind of inversion prevails, a turnaround in Lacan’s project itself when he introduces, discreetly, in his own way, instead of or by the subject, the speaking subject.

Yet, cautiously too, he wavers all previously familiar categories so that parlêtre could, might, substitute for the very word “unconscious.” Nonetheless the subject is still the starting point. And there is no impasse in this notion. To expose it in the California setting—as a proviso of Lacan’s teaching at its inception and as odd as it seems—I was driven to allude to Jean-Paul Sartre. This name, despite being contemporary with Lacan’s, is not in the least affiliated with cultural studies, and seems connected to a distant past, to a faraway epistemological era, for them as well as for us. And yet, all things considered, in all fairness, this name opened the way for Lacan to free psychoanalysis from the prison of the ego.

In any case, having to confront this audience, this is where I started. The name of the paper I delivered was “Shifting Paradigms in Lacan.” I had recourse to the word paradigm since it is broadly used in academic language, the pursuit of paradigms for instance. So shifting paradigms could be viewed as paradigms that change and yet there is something more to the shift, something akin to what Jakobson used in terms of the “I,” the shifter, words that engage, connect. Consequently shifting paradigms are not paradigms that couple randomly, they rather relate methodically to each other and thus confer the notion of discontinuity within the prevalence of a kind of continuity.

So with “Shifting Paradigms in Lacan”—which sounds very cultural studies—I tried to convey a general overview of the theory, yet I was unable to follow it to its conclusion. I particularly stressed the fact that Lacan’s texts were not to be read as in a contemporary stance. These texts were articulated in a wasteland where paradigms were thus connected successively, without being equivalent. Accordingly I handed them a specific group of scansions while defining the contour of the areas these scansions isolate; the scansions in the rapport of the subject to jouissance up to the emergence of the speaking subject where the antinomy, so to say, is at least hypothetically overcome.

As an introduction I dealt with the initial position of the subject, and then I proceeded with what Lacan owes to Sartre since I consider it the best starting place at least for those who do not lean on Freud’s work. I especially emphasized two concepts, namely trans-factuality and trans-individuality.

Thus read the first sentence of my paper: “It was a truly monumental shift to move the ego from the central position it had acquired in psychoanalytic thought since the twenties to establish the speaking subject as a focal point of the cure.” Oh, this reminds me of Los Angeles. [laughter] I underlined the fact that if psychoanalysis was crystallized in the twenties, in the United States it really took shape after WWII, when, based on a misreading of Freud’s second topic, psychoanalysis got centered around the agency of the ego. Lacan’s main influence was the undermining, the shifting of the ego’s central position in psychoanalysis towards the speaking subject. That was the novelty introduced by the report to the Rome Congress.[3]

In the US psychoanalytic training is still anchored to the notion of ego-psychology as Hartmann affixed it. Several attempts were made to mend the situation, notably by Kernberg who conflated ego-psychology with object-relation theory.

However, the main shift was the transition from the ego to the subject. The Hartmannian ego, a psychological and synthetic entity that regulates the individual’s dealings with reality, was meant to act over a neutralized, objective and de-sexualized libido. The autonomy of this notion was threatened by the id and the superego. It followed that a psychological trope appeared as somehow reified to the dominant philosophical paradigm of continental Europe in the 50’s, and this is the existentialist paradigm.

Sartre in 1943 attempted a reformulation of Freud under the designation of existentialist psychoanalysis: you will find it in the last chapter of Being and Nothingness.[4] Another French philosopher, Michel Foucault, went against Sartre in 1966 pointing to a new rupture in The Order of Things [5] where he scrutinizes the course of European culture from the sixteenth century on. The focal point of his book—quite different from Being and Nothingness—is also psychoanalysis. These two vast projects converge in Freud, in psychoanalysis.

As for the astonishing essay written before WW II—an essay that Lacan read—Sartre already advanced a post-Husserlian analysis of the field of consciousness. Transcendence of the Ego [6] introduced an essential difference between the ego and pure consciousness-for-itself.

Sartre was able to isolate, besides the ego and its representations, besides the ego and its ailments, another agency, non-ethical, namely pure consciousness-for-itself, which is without an object and therefore is not against itself. He envisioned this agency as different from the ego and named it consciousness-for-itself.

Ego  =/=  Consciousness-(for)-itself

He bracketed “for” to highlight the non-presence of an objectification, thus an unreflective consciousness, prior to any reflection on itself, undivided and precisely unsubstantial.

He conceived the ego as an object in the psychic field and yet this field was construed as a somehow pre-personal consciousness, as a void—since Being and Nothingness evolves from this essay—as a kind of chasm, of emptiness, as a lack-in-being. The Lacanian lack-of-being (manque-à-être) originates in the Sartrian notion of lack-in-being.

Sartre invented an effect as the consciousness par excellence, but the main fact was his isolation of a negative function, a lack-in-being, a chasm. After the war he expounded the consequences of this difference in a short biography on Baudelaire where he posited the notion of an external original choice independent of any exterior determination, that is originating in the pure undetermined initiative of the void.

Ego  =/=  Consciousness-(for)-itself


Sartre detected in that original choice the central and irreducible causality of human personality. His fundamental project, the ambitious and unfinished Flaubert, carried out an identical design.

An original choice means a choice that is not determined by a positive conditioning, which is not mechanically conditioned by family or history since the unsubstantial void introduced by Sartre brings up a chasm in its determinations.

It is instead a causality, therefore Sartre was taken back to a causality occupying this very chasm. The notion of the original choice is echoed in Lacan’s 1946 essay on psychic causality [7] where the last word in the very causality is depicted as “the being’s fathomless decision.” Lacan relates psychosis’ causality to that being’s fathomless decision. A few years ago I myself emphasized this same relationship.

By the same token the being’s fathomless decision re-echoed Sartre’s original choice. Propos sur la causalite psychique is an existentialist text. I sustain that what Sartre called in Being and Nothingness “for-itself” is at least a forerunner of what is termed as the Lacanian subject, although this subject is the unconscious’ subject and is in no way related to a pure field of consciousness. What Sartre concocted as an existentialist void, Lacan reworked under a logical frame, as an empty set.

The setting in motion of such a negative entity—a nothing, yet a nothing that is precisely not nothing, that is a kind of call to being—introduces in fact a decisive break at the level of immanence, while determining the birth of the Lacanian subject and the destruction of the Hartmannian ego in psychoanalysis.

The level of immanence is a notion I’m borrowing from Deleuze, be it real, biological, natural or just a given. With regard to a vital, real immanence, the introduction of a negative entity opens up a transcendental field, a kind of hereafter. It concerns what in Lacan is to be viewed as the structure of “hereafter,” that is, there is a hereafter to any given thing.

This in turn brings in what I termed a trans-factual dimension, a capital notion in Lacan. It is precisely this dimension that makes you conceive of the penis as something more than an organ: to ponder the penis as just a physical organ would confine you to a field of immanence. To posit the male reproductive organ as a signifier or as a signified means its inscription in a trans-factual dimension, albeit the risk of being labeled a spiritualist since this dimension strays from a positive given. In general, trans-factuality implies a systematic anti-naturalism: it gathers all anti-naturalist and anti-positivist discourses.

Finally it leads Sartre to the extravagant proposition that “…in a way, I choose to be born.”

Yet, at the same time, it is what leads Lacan to assert the non-existence of sexual rapport. The two propositions are inscribed in this trans-factual order.

Incidentally, Lacan and Sartre have both stressed the independence of meaning concerning constraints, and the dependence of meaning regarding intention. Lacan outlines it in the matrix of the retroaction diagram. Here, on the axis, facts are inscribed according to a chronological order, and meaning can be construed retroactively over a story, and independent of facts’ materiality.


Undoubtedly, this Lacanian retroaction diagram is based on the Freudian Nachträglichkeit, after Freud’s après-coup, you may refer to The Wolfman. In any case it has exactly the same structure as the existentialist project rendered here by Lacan, and which introduces the dependence of meaning assigned to the past with regard to the project entertained for the future.

The Sartrian notion posits that facts from the past can change upon the visioning of the future, thus the meaning is established retroactively with regard to that visioning. The notion proceeds from Heidegger, though it takes shape with Sartre. In Being and Nothingness Sartre characterizes the sentence itself—a sentence—as a project. He writes: “The sentence is a project which can be interpreted only in terms of nihilation of a given (the very one which one wishes to designate), in terms of a posited end (its designation which itself supposed other ends in relation to which it is only a means).”[8]

This other passage about language is extremely Lacanian, “…the ‘meaning’ of my expressions always escapes me. I never know exactly if I signify what I wish to signify nor even if I am signifying anything. It would be necessary that at the precise instant I should read in the Other what on principle is inconceivable. For lack of knowing what I actually express for the Other, I constitute my language as an incomplete phenomenon of flight outside myself. As soon as I express myself, I can only guess at the meaning of what I express, i.e., the meaning of what I am—since in this perspective to express and to be are one. The Other is always there, present and experienced as the one who gives to language its meaning.”[9]

You have—barely developed by Sartre—the contracted matrix of Lacan’s reflection on the agency of the Other in language. The Lacanian critique of the libido’s maturing development according to Abraham finds its basis here and was replaced by subjective significations.

In 1966, in Écrits, Lacan greets his 1952 text “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” as introducing the issue of the subject. The subject of psychoanalysis is rooted in existentialism and at the same time is a rupture with the philosophy of consciousness. In Sartre trans-factuality is always solipsist, I think, it is always of the subject alone and the original choice is somehow the epitome of this isolation. It’s a pure outburst of being solitary and the actions described by Sartre in this dimension of trans-factuality constitute but modalities of my consciousness. The Other is always introduced in a secondary way, as nothing other than the being that makes my consciousness fall into objectivity—my consciousness falls into mortal competition. Likewise it appears essentially as the gaze—Lacan mentions it in Seminar XI [10]—the gaze of the Other, which, when rising, topples the lack-in-being down from consciousness; the lack-in-being then becomes an object—it becomes reified.

As things go Lacan is frequently used à la Sartre, even if Sartre is often forgotten, this notion of reification being so much embedded in the culture. And this means the subject becomes a mere object. This is Sartre, for him the function of the Other is to topple pure consciousness down to the level of the object.

You can see the difference. In Lacan the subjective link to the Other is conversely originator, whereas in Sartre it is always introduced in a second instance. If you look into Being and Nothingness you have a philosophical introduction, “The Pursuit of Being” and “The Problem of Nothingness,” and then you have a section on “Being-for-Itself” and finally in part three “Being-for-Others,” where you get acquainted with the Other in a secondary way. If in Lacan the subjective link to the Other is originator, it does not make sense to speak about the Lacanian subject by itself and be all the more fascinated with the Lacanian subject if you lack the notion that the Other precedes it.

Lacan’s sensational innovation was to inscribe all prevailing operations in the trans-factual dimension, insofar as they are effective operations of language. Where in Sartre you have modalities of consciousness that are susceptible to phenomenological descriptions, in Lacan you have effective operations of language. You have substitutions, combinations, and concatenations of signifiers getting inscribed.  In Lacan the signifier functions as the key to trans-factuality. Let trans-factuality acquire a material consistency, the consistency of a symbolic order is opened to scientific approach.

Then, naturally, what further distinguishes Sartre, and this already distinguishes Sartre and Lacan, is trans-individuality, which means that the subject is not only thoroughly dependent on the Other, but is a concept entirely related to the Other. It suffices then to perceive the subject, to consider—you might take the approach as Lacan did when he reformulated Hegel—the identity of the subject as depending on the Other’s mediation.

However, if you look for the Freudian foundation of the subject, you will find it in the formation of the unconscious, which Lacan uses as a model, that is the Witz. When Lacan undertakes a seminar on the formations of the unconscious—in Seminar V [11]—he starts with seven lectures on the Witz. The Witz emphasizes, particularly if you refer to Freud’s work [12], the fact that you are dealing with a formation of the unconscious, which is a social process. As Freud states, a Witz must, necessarily, be told to someone else. Therefore the psychical process, far from being imaginarily confined within, is completed and concluded only after it has been communicated, that is after it is clearly achieved in the locus of the Other. The Witz is the paradigm of everything Lacan calls the formations of the unconscious and its privilege consists in denuding the function of the Other. The Witz stages the Other since it embodies the Other in public, the mot d’esprit, whereas this function remains veiled in dreams as well as in slips of the tongue (parapraxes). The agency of the Other is laid bare in the process of the Witz and Lacan re-conceptualizes other formations of the unconscious based precisely on the Witz.

To regulate the approach to the unconscious over the occurrence of the Witz entails the positing of the unconscious as a discourse en acte—between the subject and the Other; the event does not presume the unconscious as an inert content, already there, only to become apparent hereafter.

The unconscious is a discourse that pivots around the answer of the Other, which welcomes it, refuses it or confirms it, validates or invalidates it, that in all instances concludes upon its meaning and truth. Hence the definition of the unconscious as the discourse of the Other.

In Lacan’s teaching the subject with reference to the discourse of the Other is a paradigm not susceptible to shifting. It’s the dependency of the subject with regard to the discourse of the Other, it’s the dependency of the subject vis-à-vis the Other’s signifier, it’s even its dependency with respect to the objet a as embedded in the Other: a steady paradigm when approaching Lacan.

The subject would not be conceptualized without the Other. The norm is enhanced all over the doctrine of the end of analysis, which was never thought by Lacan as liberation but rather as assumption. Even though the end of analysis is defined as the passe, even though it allows of a certain evaporation of the Other as subject-supposed-to-know, the end of analysis never negates but rather clarifies the dependency of the subject vis-à-vis the doctrine of the passe as far as the objet a is concerned—the objet a is like the residue of the evaporation, of the fall.

In any case, what gets carried on from existentialism into Lacan’s structuralism is the supremacy of meaning over the given.

There is always a schism between the fact and the meaning. And it’s this very schism which allows for the pondering on the incidence of traumatism as a fact that doesn’t find its meaning. Contrariwise, in Sartre the giving of meaning is always related to nihilation—the operation proper of consciousness-for-itself that nihilates the given, i.e., to posit ends, to posit the must-be, to posit the ideal.

Nihilation, in Sartre, is a matter of freedom whereas the giving of meaning, in Lacan, is always related to proceedings of the signified. In Sartre, it’s freedom that makes holes; in Lacan, the signifier introduces the lack—the signifier as the materiality proper to the trans-factual order. In Lacan, the signifier introduces the locus and the lack in the real, or introduces the chasm and mortification in the living. And that is the reason why in Seminar II,[13] through a sort of short-circuit, Lacan downgrades, somewhat hastily, the death drive to be the sole relation of the subject to the signifier.

The signifier—through its endeavors of nullification, mortification, of introducing the chasm and death—is the very engine of the death drive.

Thus Lacan progressively radicalized the primacy of the Other, revealing the signifiers as cause of the signified, see “The Agency of the Letter in…,”[14] he even exposes the signifier as cause of the subject. That is the reason for him abruptly relinquishing the notion of the subject as speaking subject, of the subject as spoken subject. That is to say, it’s not the listener, it’s not the speaker, the reference to the Other’s discourse is the referring subject. And its form, it speaks of him/her in the Other.

And there is a sort of concomitant variation between the Other—the big Other—and the subject. Easy enough, Lacan progressively describes a big Other swelling up, bigger and bigger. At the start it’s the Other as subject, in Seminar II; in Seminar V it’s the locus of coding to become abstract, a symbolic locus, supra-individual, immortal, almost anonymous. And finally it becomes a synonym of culture, of knowledge; it’s the locus of parental structures, of the paternal metaphor, of the register of the discourse, of the social norm. It can merge with the god of the philosophers as well as with the god of Abraham, its lack of warranty meanwhile included, the Other is always a kind of all-enclosing fully swollen, huge place that comprehends almost everything. I say almost everything because it does not include the subject. At the same time it is used in such a way that it can be embodied in a being: a father, a mother, etc., while becoming logically reduced to the minimal articulation of a signifier.

How to deal with the subject in relation to that? You may say that the subject is always tied to the Other by means of a system of communicating vessels, that is to say that the more the Other swells up, the more the subject is constricted to its plainest expression. It’s the very topic of interpretation, it’s the Subject Lacan writes with capital S, characterized in its ineffable and stupid existence. And this Subject is precisely reduced to almost nothing because all its determinations are located in the Other.

The Lacanian conceptual proceeding consists in separating—under the names of subject and big Other—the subject from all its determinations, insofar as they get transferred to the Other.

Lacan writes in his “On a question preliminary…”[15] that “the condition of the subject S is dependent on what is being unfolded in the Other O.” And this is a constant paradigm, which makes up for the mounting of the couple subject/Other. Lacan’s procedure consists of systemically transferring to the locus of the Other, under many diverse forms, whatever is determining in the subject; correlatively the subject empties itself.  The more the Other gets filled, the more the subject gets emptied; till it becomes a hole, a hole with different modalities.

This led Lacan to his symbol of S and also to the use of set theory and to identify the subject with the empty set.

So far I’ve spoken of the subject as a unity, so let me posit its division: the subject is inscribed as a lack, it depletes the signifier, knowledge. When Lacan attempts its positioning in the Freudian id amongst the drives, he says, it’s an empty locus and is therefore inscribed as S, yet the subject is always represented.

Lacan calls S1 the master signifier, and the split between S and S1 constitutes the principle of the division of the subject. Whence you always use the subject over its two faces, and often without noticing it. On the one hand you may relate the subject to its manifestations, odd or bizarre manifestations, that is to say that you may identify it with an accountancy, either in the black or in the red, as never completely inscribed and therefore as a paradoxical presence; and on the other hand, there is always another face of the subject where it is constant insofar as it is being carried in the signifying chain.

You always have to deal with the tension between an inscribed subject positioned in the Other’s network, in the signifying chains, in the blackboard—as in Seminar XI—and a foreclosed subject, as minus one, never in its place.  You tend to shift quite briskly from one description to the other.

It’s Lacan’s paradox to persist in naming this function “subject” whereas what he calls “subject” is completely estranged from what you normally understand as “subject.” If you take it seriously, what he calls “subject” is entirely alienated from any agency of subjectivity. The question is why didn’t Lacan substitute the name, why did he persistently carry on with such debris from the ancient world as the word “subject.”

The answer is that Lacan preserves the name “subject” in order to transfer it to a function of the signifier, precisely to deter the return of the classical subject.

The fact is you get used to designating as “subject” something thoroughly different from subjectivity, actually for that name to be filled with something other than classical subjectivity. When simply speaking Lacan’s language, without necessarily understanding it, you repeat this mise à l’écart, this nihilation of classical subjectivity.

[1] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, NY: Norton, 1992.
[2] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore, NY: Norton, 1998.
[3] Lacan, J., “The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis,” in Écrits: A Selection, NY: Norton, 1977.
[4] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, NY: Washington Square Press, 1992.
[5] Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, NY: Vintage Press, 1994.                                                                             [6] Sartre, J.-P., Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness, NY: Noonday Press, 1957.
[7] Lacan, J., “Propos sur la causalité psychique,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.
[8] Sartre, J.-P., Being and Nothingness, p. 661.
[9] ibid, p. 486.
[10] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, NY: Norton, 1977.                                                                     [11] Lacan, J., Le séminaire, Livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient, Paris: Seuil, 1998.                                                                                                            [12] Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, S.E. VIII, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986.                                                                     [13] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, NY: Norton, 1988.                                                  [14] Lacan, J., “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” in Écrits: A Selection, NY: Norton, 1977.
[15] Lacan, J., “On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis,” in Écrits: A Selection, NY: Norton, 1977..


This is not a Vanitas–Damien Hirst, a close look
Gérard Wajcman

Damien Hirst


Hirst Red Nose Day

Hirst Red Nose Day

Author’s Bio

Dazzling Mum.

This could be the ultimate meaning of this glittering piece, beacon work of Damien Hirst. It is in any case original. It gives reason to his title: For the love of God.

A skull plus a phrase invoking the name of God, is all it takes to unfold an ingenuous iconology around this work, that is, provided of course that one consent to see there something other than a scandal, a “hooligan’s” provocation “for the love of God” or the acme of barnumization of art, to use Marc Fumaroli’s expression, once the sulfurous clouds dissipated around the most expensive work of art on Earth, before a skull that shows its yellowed teeth while speaking of the love of God, in our latitudes, we are inevitably sucked into the Christian iconography of the vanitas. To refer this skull that shimmers like a disco ball to the austere tradition of memento mori will always seem like a last word, profound and serious, meant to settle all accounts with the artistic work. Obviously, we keep in mind the date of its creation, 2007, and its flaunting extravagance, only then to speak with compunction about contemporary vanitas. And it’s in the bag. Even if it’s at the price of neglecting certain details of the work, and without any sense of wonder. Like wondering whether in the case of vanitas, it is the idea of Christian life and death that stirs beneath this skull. Vanity of vanities, all commentary is vanity. Almost all.

Finally, we seem to have this distant gaze on contemporary art that Daniel Arasse diagnosed as a congenital myopia of art history, a long-distance shortsightedness. Here we would better follow this historian’s recommendation and exercise a close look to account for certain details of For the love of God that don’t mesh with the habitual ingenuous interpretation. That’s not to say that the reference to the Christian vanitas is irrelevant, but it certainly does not saturate the work’s signification. Religious thinking about death is far from exhausting what Damien Hirst’s skull has in mind.

It is peculiar to the work of art to make speak. Every work in this respect has to do with what the English in the eighteenth century called a conversation piece, which designates an unusual object capable of arousing gaze, interest and commentary. Jacques-Alain Miller proposed to define art as what we say about art. I would point out at least what artistic objects leave to be said, holding that the works that cause these discourses exceed of them-selves the discourses. The object of art remains insoluble in the discourse of art. If we judge by the multitudinous commentaries that have assailed it, Damien Hirst’s skull would be the king of conversation pieces. But there is more to say.

Contrary to ancient works whose subjects are thematically framed in a semantically defined space, it seems a remarkable property of contemporary art, of some works at least, to bring forth a flood of disordered speech, to baffle the senses and to open an infinite polysemy. In this regard, Damien Hirst’s skull orned in 8601 diamonds seems set with almost as many diverse significations. Among which, many are borne out by the artist himself.

Detail #1:  the title


Beyond any eventually dogmatic or moral sense, the work has in the first place a personal signification. Damien Hirst tells us that indeed, the work’s title is tied to a memory. When he was a young artist in the 90s (he was born in 1965), vitriolic period of the Young British Artists for which he was a figurehead, he was in the habit of confiding what he had in mind for his future works to his mother. These ideas must have seemed a little crazy, extravagant, to his mum, no doubt a believer, in order that she end up accustomed to exclaiming: “For the love of God, what are you going to do next!

Here we are suddenly projected far from the severe inspiration of a Pieter Claesz or a Philippe de Champaigne, far from the moral lesson of theology. The Holy family is there on the horizon, but it’s Damien Hirst’s. And more than the All-Mighty Father, what is invoked here, beneath the title, is the mother. Mum, in truth. Damien Hirst’s mum who we imagine all thrilled with wonder, love, admiration, pleasure, and a vague terror before her son’s extravagances. A mother who reveals herself finally to be all-mighty, because, if we judge by the rather mad idea of fashioning a skull in platinum, entirely covered in diamonds, we must admit that she will not have taken the Lord’s name in vain:  her son seems attached to never letting her down and to making her thrill again. That is, to always have to do something crazier each time.

If we look at this work like a bouquet of diamonds for his mum, a gift in short, other than that this intimate reference defuses all heavily moral interpretations, it becomes logical enough that the work reveal itself ultimately to be unsaleable. It is priceless, and without any other possible owner or recipient. For her eyes only.

It remains that what is supposed to make this mother thrill is not so much the objects as the idea of works still to come. This does beg the question of what Damien Hirst is going to be able to come up with next.

A word more. I’ve said that by looking at this work as designed to daze his mum, that is, in aiming at her enjoyment, we were far from the severe inspiration of these mediations on death that are the vanitas. And I randomly mentioned the names of Pieter Claesz and Philippe de Champaigne. Now if we look for example at Philippe de Champaigne’s vanitas in the Musée de Tessé in Le Mans (1644) or the Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill at the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1628), we can only be seized by one thing. Let’s call it their knockdown beauty. I mean these paintings that offer themselves as allegories of human life and call us to meditate on death, on the irremediable and the ephemeral, the finitude of our condition, the transient nature of our existence and the illusionary futility of the world, these somber meditations on the vanity of things that invite us to an asceticism are themselves finally, anything but vain, somber, or ascetic. Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas murmur these paintings, except that the manner in which they are painted sings out something like:  all is vanity, ephemeral, except painting, which is eternal. Its glory shall shine forth for ages and ages! The finitude of humankind, the eternity of art.

And the pleasure of painting. It’s fascinating to see to what extent these works that invite us to renounce on the enjoyments of the world testify in their least detail, be it in the grace of the objects, the rendering of the materials, the refinement of colors, the head-spinning know-how used to paint yellowed teeth, a flame’s reflection on a skull bone or the gleaming transparency of an overturned glass, to the artist’s almost palpable enjoyment in painting these vanitas. I would say, without true metaphor, that these vanitas are the jewels of painting.

In this way, not only does Damien Hirst’s jeweler’s master piece rejoin the most profound, the most austere of the classical vanitas traditions, but it exerts on them a powerful light of truth by openly exposing that these works exhorting renouncement and detachment from earthly enjoyments are themselves bursting at the seams with enjoyment. The painter’s body, bent over the canvas, occupied in painting the deterioration of bodies, seems to vibrate throughout every part of the painting. As if we were feeling the art and life of Pieter Claesz or Philippe de Champaigne palpitate in the least detail of their paintings of death. Moral lessons dripping with enjoyment.

And it’s not just about enjoyment. These lessons from the crypt are made to enchant the spectator’s gaze. If in the anecdote he tells, Damien Hirst let’s us hear that with For the love of God his foremost desire was to seduce his mum once again, we need only draw our eyes to their paintings in order to be convinced that Philippe de Champaigne and Pieter Claesz worked to offer these death’s-heads for our contemplation in a way that elates those who contemplate them.

The artist’s enjoyment and that of the viewer, answer to each other.

Who will doubt that Damien Hirst had a blast making For the love of God?

Detail #2:  the diamonds


The exclamations and lamentations about the price of Damien Hirst’s work have to stop.

Sixty five million pounds sterling (or seventy four million euros, or one hundred six million dollars) is its price. But twelve thousand écus, is the sum, judged exorbitant at the time, that was paid for The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa produced by Bernini in the church Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome for cardinal Cornaro’s mortuary chapel. That was in 1652. There would be a thousand other examples of financial excesses in history, but Bernini’s is a good one when we consider that he also participated in the wild expenditures of Pope Urbain VIII Barberini. Better still, and to add to the fact that baroque is a term that comes from the jeweler’s craft, the comparison of the Damien Hirst’s richly adorned skull to this Bernini work would be justified enough in that in decoration of a mortuary chapel, it raises to the recently canonized Carmelite Teresa’s glory, an orgy of polychromatic marble and gold leaf metal.

With theses sumptuous expenditures, the evocation of the baroque theater of death is consistent enough to situate the skull of Damien Hirst. That probably did not escape certain critics.

But why think that this work would be a vanitas, a macabre memento mori to the glory of death–remember you must die?

And if this skull was on the contrary, rebelling against death?

Strangely, the symbol of death seems to eclipse everything, blinding us to the real. Most often we see there a vanitas, that is, we no longer see a skull made of bone; we see a gaudy ornament, noble metal covered in precious stones. That is, we don’t see metal and gems; we see the outrageousness of an artist. That is, we don’t see death there where it is. Because death here is also in the stones themselves. In the diamonds. That is, in the mines of Russia, Australia or South Africa where men work to extract them, sometimes at the price of their lives. The diamond as the price of life and of death. Bye bye beautiful bijou. Hello weapon of war. The work suddenly appears hard and cutting like diamond.

Damien Hirst isn’t satisfied here with some compassionate thought; he criticizes and condemns, he speaks of the capitalist logic, of a criminal dimension in the diamond industry. He says: “The cutthroat nature of the diamond industry, and the capitalist society which supports it, is central to the work’s concept.

Death is in this skull, but the death at the back of the skull For the love of God isn’t metaphysical Death, the thought of Christian Death, at once end to and passage from a transitory life. It’s a real death, the most vile of them all: the death dealt to another. A crime. In silence, the work renders visible that the exploitation of diamond mines is firstly the exploitation of the miners, and inhumane. The precarious life of this supposed “vanitas,” the vain life, isn’t ours, the good Lord’s poor children. It’s what the life of these miners is worth in the eyes of the big bosses of the industry. In the mine pit, it’s stones versus life. And to think that some managed to find that calling this piece “For the love of gold” was very spiritual in aiming at Damien Hirst’s supposed rapacity.

What the memento of the death’s-head finally says is not Remember you must die. It is: Remember they die.

The burst of precious stones suddenly glows darkly; the extravagance of a contemporary artist turns to the tragic. Not in the name of Death, but in the name of the dead. By using the diamond, sublime stone, as material, the artist does more than elevate a monument to the dead of a murderous capitalism. He reveals that this supreme symbol of luxury and beauty is a veil on savagery and horror. At the same time, he shows us the most common blindness –in the face of what sparkles.

In For the love of God, Damien Hirst accomplishes an unveiling.  He does his artist’s job, he works the truth.

Detail #3:  the skull


There must be a profound affinity between the body and stone for stone to be so called upon as soon as it’s a question of giving sepulcher to the human body. Jacques-Alain Miller spoke of this ridged One always summoned to there petrify the defunct members of the human species. The reign of death is the reign of stone. Stone separates death from the living, but also the dead from the living; creating a perimetered space, separate, forbidden, sacred. Cavern, pyramid, tombstone, dug, sculpted, engraved, stone is everywhere in the culture of death.

In For the love of God, Damien Hirst enclosed someone dead, in the stones, in the diamonds. Precious, brilliant cut, engraved, the diamond is the highest of high fashion stones. The work is the encounter between the culture of death and the culture of stones.

All that goes to show, for a third time, that Damien Hirst’s skull is not a vanitas.

The skull we’re dealing with here isn’t a death’s-head, it is the head of someone dead.

The particular thing about the skulls of the vanitas is that they are anonymous. It remains that in Christian culture, there is at the origin of the skull, a name: Adam’s. The skull of the vanitas refers to Golgotha, or, in Aramaic, the Mound of skulls. And this hill, still called the Calvary, close to Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, is according to tradition, the place where Adam was born, where he sinned and where his body was buried. It is said that it was Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem during Abraham’s time, who placed Adam’s skull at the Calvary. And so, Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity on the very same spot of the original sin, and below the feet of the crucified, Adam’s skull is found.

At the same time, to say that the skull of the vanitas is Adam’s skull is a way of saying that the skull is anonymous, the generic one of sinners, of the entirety of sinful humanity, of the Human that the skull exhibits in its mortal destiny, its failing, its senescence. And even outside of the Christian tradition, in anatomical terms, the erasure of the face that a skeleton implies is a way to bring a human back to the species, to the anonymity of the species. Under the gaze of the forensic scientist or the anatomist, the skull of a human becomes the skull of the human, homo sapiens, the skull of human kind.

Damien Hirst’s skull is not Adam’s, nor is it the skull of the Human. It is neither the anonymous skull of the poor sinner, nor the universal one of homo sapiens. It is not a symbol. And it’s not simply a work of platinum and diamonds fashioned into a death’s-head. I mean that under the diamonds and platinum there is a real skull, a head of bone, a human among humans. We don’t see it. Only its teeth fit into its jaw are visible. But once again, if there is a real skull there underneath, and beyond the fact that he covered it over, Damien Hirst didn’t use it like an indifferent human skull with the aim of making it an anonymous symbol of the anonymous death in a vanitas.

First of all, Damien Hirst bought the skull from a London taxidermist, after which he had it undergo a battery of scientific exams, biological and physical, one of which was carbon 14 dating, to learn more about the person in question. Research revealed that it was the skull of a man, of European origin, and more certainly Mediterranean, who died at the age of 35, having lived during the second half of the 18th century. We know no more than that, but what counts is that for Damien Hirst, the skull he used was not a skull, but the skull of this man, a singular person.

No symbol. Fuck the symbol. This skull is not Death; it’s a dead man. And if it’s bejeweled, as richly, as luxuriously as possible, it is once again an artistic act of truth.

The decoration of skulls refers to other traditions than Christian ones. Without speaking of a homage to the comic book character that Damien Hirst used to read as a child, Tharg the Mighty, who like the skull, had a circle engraved on his fore head, a multitude of ethnological references comes to mind. Be they the Marquesan trophy skulls, the reliquary skulls of New Zealand, the African Fang peoples’ incrusted and painted skulls, or the still thriving Mexican death’s-heads decorated to the point of being grotesque.

From the mention of these different customs, practices and objects of far away cultures, we gather that there are obviously other possible attitudes in the face of death than the one we know in our latitudes. But there’s more, more striking. What all these traditions manifest finally is that these people don’t like death. A fascinating exhibition by Yves Lefur in 2000, La mort n’en saura rien [Death won’t find out -TN], that confronted the relics of Europe and Oceania, demonstrated this with blinding evidence. Christianity is a civilization of the love of death. And these vanitas are the highest and most outspoken manifestation.

Damien Hirst doesn’t like death. “You don’t like it,” he says, “so you disguise it or decorate it to make it look like something bearable–to such an extent that it becomes something else.” In describing the practices of distant civilizations this way, he’s describing exactly what he did in For the love of God. Damien Hirst acted as a Mexican, he disguised a dead man. He produced a work of desacralized death.

Death is iconophagic. It eats images like worms eat away at the body. In his Sermon on death, Bossuet came as close as possible to that death, the death beyond the image that causes even language to fail: “[…] the body will take on another name, even that of cadaver will no longer remain, for it will become, as Tertullian says, ‘something that has no name in any language.’”

To the nameless and imageless of death, to the horrifying je-ne-sais-quoi, Damien Hirst gave an image that’s better than bearable, gleaming, even chiming, in diamonds, and with a pretty name: For the love of God.

So doing, he deceived death.

That’s not vain.

Diary Entry II, 9 December 2013: CRISES AND PSYCHE
Roger Van Voorhees

By the light’s races which took me to you

I began with the shadow

and forclosed my speech –

obscuring the eyes, as if I can read

what remains unseen: a shade

holding the stars that rush away from the outer limits

of the city –

rose galaxy lost,

whose conductions motion me

accorded by all that goes missing

now I am operated as an idea,

and at last this moment is fitted

and loses its place,

whose indistinction designs

a new lack of personality,

and so refreshes us forever.

For the fitting must articulate the moment we resurrect –

New suit and tie –

Crisis and psyche entwined –

I remain

with you wherever you depart –

as love reinvents

classes are described by the new usages.

Articulating my expulsion

clapped free of

the epoch and its landing flash,

I recover the shadow –

the hospitals blossom only for you, to water

the life, whose affection

embraces this clairvoyance

as it encases the light with a coating of silver,

such that the flame rises within a mist

of the consciousness that is its containment,

the scenes of its existence going up

as a cloud of perfume commercials.

Glints of mortality interupt the reverie, the ascent

reaching after an extreme, until its escalation

breaks upon an always deepening inflection of fact –

this whole new world of facts

which has just begun

to experience us for the very first time.


Soon enough another rose will lose its authority

as a velvet warrior of wallpaper entombs the sea

for which I speak,

back-lit by this rain that will only walk

because it never thinks

while standing forth its behemoth of décor,

the era is already bled

to death at the hands of all spaces.

Kiss on my hand

waved forth by the new life, whenever the life

waves onwards like a woman

changing her mind –

to weigh us down with magnetism

lifted by this exit that compels you –

and fall again into life

and so acquit of all purpose our characters –

as when one’s hope has no use, and freedom

proceeds from suspended emergency.

Quivering alongside your disquiet is this stalk

of spearmint, glittering

alone as it bristles with heightened sensitivity,

and amplifies itself

at the Arctic Circle’s heart.


The corduroy lamp stains us

with many lights

listing as I write, misplaced

and out of joint

for you what belongs nowhere

and to nobody: many variations of plantlife

who love to be sung to and touched

often, and the faculty office tether into focus:

a butterfly net – whose swishing

bypasses this network

and squadrons of the policing parrots – a total

broken off the repetition of idea

into randomized particles of speech.

Moods as catches: a holiday

butterfly – and once it is set off – realizing

many events – insurgency budget

invest of its celebration –

a sparksurpasing all sequence, as you resign

the purpose and result, to cure

of the straight jacket ordaining want, and tie

of magic separations this noose

going to flower.

Every thinking miracle –

alienate and smear the page

with clarity; for the task is to disinclude, and so find

distinction you’d have never known was there.


It is a flesh renewal each ommision purifies,

as friendship encircle

a hollowing spot

you learn the repulsion

is a secret to invert, and so invite

what welcome turns

the exclusivity you design

so as to stimulate something special –

and rotate and give away

smile of the friend defusing function,

nerves “going for it,”

a disimilarity recovered

by shown spasms of attitude –

for the hilarity breaks

aquarium hysteria –

and health resurgence, as the agencies are detached

by fascination and study of toxin –

circled when every station accepts a driving impulse

to insult

and imposture –

any and all feature is justified,

raising sensitivity

like hairs:

a skin that stretches its horizons

as the distinguished equals drop from pattern.


When it rains

it pours –

feels allowed as ever to speak on my behalf –

a market biology – afternoon

twilight drop two style points

off the exhange –

and the marigold conglomerate

as the diary extend my anatomy,

a jacket lining today

of acts


and unknown –

overheard as this surface Angel

compiling annuity the Peach Arsenal –

as I can see now how you roughen the light

to be rumpled history –

when I watch for myself,

as if a bystander

rising with the lilac tide.  And the nose is a locator –

searches waylaid ecstasies of fluoroscence

for the request: the honey-suckle drifters, who smile and tip

their hats, ticking by

one after another as they pass.


It came off as no secret

and the aspect

broken off moments, the light

placed, so that existing

just now you reminded me of

a rose, imaged

the way the curtains shift

you past the horizon,

with a rippling gesture to reflect

– as flesh chases wind –

the impermanence you seek.

And the utterance

lifts, when borne forth hesitating it is an energy


to unfasten the dragon’s tail

from a reality which credit

deadpans all over the pilloried earth –

until siblings

blazing contrast the trial

merged oceans

with those writing clans

to behave

as if there can be no interest in a part

or whole; creatures not of light

or shadow, to evaporate as an empire

dialed downwards, until its resolution

alights as a figured seed of thousands –

one alone absorbs of gravity

company collect

by rumor

at lost controls –

for a writing table will atomize

the five days business week,

whose exploits put to aspersion of

use our writing tribes

who make these rains of no capital –

policy parrots and rentals of fun

that if the desert’s every corner fold

and return their favor –

to unladen its meaning

such that a three sides weekend consciousness can spell

the infinitude with a next story: spirits

who insinuate the existence gaining by every leap

and crack unaccounted for –

who are the grass signatories that inform my lamp

and by whose lights I am an attracted

mist of fragment – for the generator is an enmity –

see its kissing repellents charge

with outgoing charm the welcome lightyears gathered as lakes,

whose innings twitter and split

as the phrase and life communicator.


Souvenirs treated of

storied sound

place beside me my timing –

reading schedule –

white heat of paper and sweat

at night –

anniversary flowers

and fruit of seasons’ machinery put aside

as a reminder –

my interval

of renewed exhaustion –

lights filtered into that function

sprung as powers off the bottom –

and lamping further returns,

a canary skirt

moonlighting as a skylight illuminates the page.

And floods

as I am the page now if cut

identity of flowers,

to be twisting my way up

canary skirt,

you can see us by their thief

and the more fun to be had –

I have another look

and dandelion identity

– a millionth tear

scything its way open, and crystal emancipation

for catches of the rose and throat

dissolved, another crime wave has swept the city

it is the wine in my feet –

to chirp and have fun,

who are stealing the way out

Read More »

Art After Lacan
Francois Regnault

Alejandra Seeber


Alejandra Seeber

Alejandra Seeber

Author’s Bio

translated by Barbara P. Fulks and Jorge Jauregui

The question is addressed in the singular, “art,” and the response is easy. I would like to depart from the response in order to return to the question. In a strange though simple passage of Jacques Lacan’s Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis,[1] we read: “When I give you a formula such as ‘The desire of man is the desire of the Other,” it is a gnomic formula, although Freud didn’t seek to present it as such. But he does so from time to time without doing it on purpose. Thus I once quoted a very short formula which brought together the respective mechanisms of hysteria, obsessional neurosis and paranoia with three forms of sublimation, art, religion and science. At another point he relates paranoia to scientific discourse.[2] These clues will help us to articulate in all its generality the formula in which we will in the end order the function of sublimation with reference to the Thing.

This Thing is accessible in very elementary examples, which are almost of the type of the classic philosophical demonstration, including a blackboard and a piece of chalk. I referred last time to the schematic example of the vase so as to allow you to grasp where the Thing is situated in the rapport that places man in the mediating function between the real and the signifier. This Thing, all forms of which created by man belong to the sphere of sublimation, this Thing will always be represented by emptiness, precisely because it cannot be represented by anything else—or, more exactly, because it can only be represented by something else. But in every form of sublimation emptiness is determinative.

I will point out right away three different ways according to which art, religion and the discourse of science turn out to be related to that; I will point this out by means of three formulas that I don’t say I will retain in the end, when we have completed our journey together.

All art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness. I don’t believe this to be a vain formula, in spite of its generality, in guiding those who are interested in explaining the problems of art; and I believe I have the means of illustrating that to you in a variety of striking ways.

Religion in all its forms consists of avoiding this emptiness. We can illustrate that in forcing the note of Freudian analysis for the good reason that Freud emphasized the obsessional traits of religious behavior. Yet although the whole ceremonial phase of the body of religious practices, in effect, enters into this framework, we can hardly be fully satisfied with this formula. A phrase like “respecting this emptiness” perhaps goes further. In any case, the emptiness remains in the center, and that is precisely why sublimation is involved.

As for our third term, the discourse of science, to the extent that it finds its origin in our tradition in the discourse of wisdom or of philosophy, the term Freud uses in connection with paranoia and its rapport to psychic reality—Unglauben—finds its full meaning there.”

It is almost too beautiful.  A definition of art, of religion and of science taken from emptiness, as in the writings of the Taoist philosophers.  There is an almost forced correspondence between these figures of the spirit, in the Hegelian sense, and the workings of the unconscious in clinical structures. In the beginning is the hole. Then, around the hole:


We could learn this by heart, on the condition that we not forget the context in which this categorization is found: in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in the chapter Lacan himself entitled “Marginal comments” (3 February 1960). In “La science et la vérité”, at the beginning of Seminar XIII, L’objet de la psychanalyse, while foreclosure is still ascribed to science, repression is no longer correlated to art but to magic, and religion is attributed to the category of denial, not of displacement.[3]

We shouldn’t linger on this difficulty—after all, art and religion are not always distant from each other. Moreover, after five years, Lacan could have changed his point of view. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that “La science et la vérité” defined the function of a procedure related to truth as cause, while The Ethics defined a procedure in relation to the Thing.

Let’s return to art, which organizes the hole. What is this hole? What is this void? It represents the Thing (das Ding). What is the Thing?

Freud says, according to Lacan, that “the first and most immediate goal of the test of reality is not to find in a real perception an object which corresponds to the one which the subject represents to himself at that moment, but to find it again.”

As for Lacan “that object will be there when in the end all conditions have been fulfilled—it is, of course, clear that what is supposed to be found cannot be found again. It is in its nature that the object as such is lost. It will never be found again.”

Let us say that the object, which will never be refound, is the Thing.

The world of our experience, the Freudian world, assumes that it is this object, das Ding, as the absolute Other of the subject, that one is supposed to find again.[4]

 We assert that this experience is seminal in the Freudian field, and that it characterizes the subject, its object and its desire.

This object has never been lost, although it must be refound. This object is not even spoken. It slides between words and things, in the illusion that words correspond to things, a constant illusion contradicted by misunderstanding and yet endlessly reappearing. The Thing is thus situated “between the real and the signifier.” We will return to this formula.

The sliding between signi-fiers, this revelation that Lacan owes to Saussure, logically involves two apparently incompatible situations:

This Thing will always be represented by emptiness, precisely because it cannot be represented by anything else—or more exactly, because it cannot but be represented by something else.[5]

 First situation: the void represents the Thing: we are on the side of logic, of the real.

Second situation: An Other thing represents the Thing: we are on the side of representation, of art.

In the first situation, we are dealing with philosophical or theological variations, such as the empty set, or creation ex nihilo (developed in the same Seminar). From the point of view of the signifying chain, the missing signifier will move the chain, the zero in the series of numbers. From the point of view of topology, this will be the hole.

In the second situation, a hole is made in the real by the name, especially the Name-of-the-Father. First the name: “Nomination is the only thing that positively makes a hole.”[6] And then the signifier: “By reducing the unconscious to the symbolic, that is to what of the signifier which makes a hole…”  “The signifier of which ultimately there is no other definition but the hole. The signifier makes a hole.”  “The unconscious is the real. I measure my words if I say: the real inasmuch as it is a hole.”[7]

And then, the Name-of-the Father:

The Jews have well explained what is that they call the Father. They position Him somewhere in the hole, at a spot unfathomable for us. I am what I am, that is the hole.[8]

 All the same, let’s be cautious:  “Nobody knows what this hole is.”[9] The more we talk about it, the more it is shrouded.

It resembles the mouth, “the image of the corporeal hole,” the blind spot, even death. “Death won’t even conceal it since we don’t know what death is.”[10]

And finally, why not the Mother, as Jacques-Alain Miller points out:

…the real Other, inscribed in the symbolic under the signifier of the primal object, the first exterior to the subject, which bears in Freud the name of das Ding.[11]

 Let’s confine our quest to art and search for the meaning in Lacan’s statement: “art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around emptiness.” We have the metaphor of the potter, molding a vase around emptiness. We perceive it in the most trivial, compelling example: “in everyday life the essence of a mustard pot lies in the fact that it appears as an empty mustard pot.”[12]

But then, applied to art, the question is: where are we going to find this void around which it is organized? The vase may be empty, but is the temple empty? Is the statue empty? Las Meninas? Is a Beethoven symphony empty? What about Don Quixote and Joyce’s Ulysses? This is the precise question.

Is there a system in Lacan which particularizes these tropes of emptiness—showing in each instance how what we call art is organized around a void?

Or should we exclude what does not fit in such an organization from the ensemble of the arts?

And first of all, what authority do the void and the Thing confer to psychoanalysis to speak about art?


We know the reversal performed by Lacan through the Freudian perspective: psychoanalysis does not apply to works of art. The clearest statement is found in “Jeunesse de Gide.”[13] Lacan dismisses the idea that Jean Delay’s book on Gide “has even for an instant resembled what the analytical world calls a work of applied psychoanalysis.” He rejects what this absurd assessment conveys of the confusion that reigns in this field. “Psychoanalysis is not applied except as treatment, to a speaking and listening subject.” One does not psychoanalyze mutes or the deaf or the dead!

In another statement Lacan is equally unambiguous, this time in regard to Marguerite Duras:

the only advantage that the psychoanalyst has the right to draw from his position, were this then to be recognized as such, is to recall with Freud that in his work the artist always precedes him, and that he does not have to play the psychologist where the artist paves the way for him.[14]

 Of course Freud always asserted psychoanalysis’ inadequacy to decipher the mystery of works of art:

Since artistic talent and capacity are intimately connected with sublimation we must admit that the nature of the artistic function is also inaccessible to us along psycho-analytic lines.[15]

 And Freud tends to refer these mysteries to the laws of biology or to accidents of birth. Psychoanalysis can, however, disclose some of the creative process and a lot of the artist’s psychology. Freud himself does it with Leonardo da Vinci. Accordingly, Lacan will not apply psychoanalysis to art, nor to the artist. But he will apply art to psychoanalysis, positing that since the artist precedes the psychologist, his/her art should advance psychoanalytic theory.

As has often been pointed out in the Freudian field, the procedure is not always easy to grasp. To begin with, we must not defer too much to art, nor should we bow and scrape before the artist. Lacan courteously shows respect, pays tribute, as in his “Homage to Marguerite Duras…” He also refers to our century as dominated by “the genius of Samuel Beckett.” Likewise, Shakespeare, Claudel, Genet, Sophocles, Racine inspire his enthusiasm: “This text, Hamlet, is to fall head over heels for, it’s amazing, unimaginable.”[16] Gide merits an entire essay, Joyce almost a whole Seminar.[17]

But this praise does not prevent the possibility of a clinical diagnosis of the author, of his subjective position, if only by allusion.

Lacan’s “Jeunesse de Gide” inspired by Jean Delay’s book  is not concerned at all with the work itself, but rather with the position of the subject vis-à-vis literature and desire. The article is an investigation “of the relationship of a man to literature,” as he says, and as his subtitle indicates (“…or the letter and its desire”), or of general relationships perceived from a particular standpoint, the case of Gide. Also, he maintains “an objective neutrality” in respect to Proust’s stance against Sainte-Beuve, namely whether the life of the author explains his work or not. Proust, as we know, contrasts the superficial self, which interests only the bad critic, to the profound self, to which we owe the work. Lacan wants to displace Sainte-Beuve’s predicate “from critique to literary condition.” Thus Gide himself supplies the material for his novels in his diaries.

If art organizes the work around the hole, proceeding through repression, one can conceive that psychoanalysis applied according to Freud attempts to highlight a return of the repressed in the work or in the artist. Freud tried to do this in regard to Leonardo da Vinci. We need to scrutinize the mechanisms of sublimation in order to discover, behind La Gioconda’s cryptic smile, not only a key to childhood memories, but also to masculine homosexuality, perversion, sadomasochism, orality, etc. In this case, everything conforming to a particular trait of the artist may become in turn a theoretical development of an analytical concept. And a simple quarter turn of the ideational apparatus used allows us to change the elements of applied psychoanalysis into elements of theoretical psychoanalysis. This involves the following consequence: often, with Freud, what at first appears to be a lucubration on the author subsequently evolves into the development of a concept. This is notably true with regard to Moses, to Leonardo da Vinci, to Michelangelo or Goethe, none of whom can benefit from a cure.

We cannot say that the Lacanian design is to perceive what the artist or the work represses, but rather, the work and the artist must perceive what theory still misapprehends. The work runs counter to its eventual presumptions, and the analytic theorist receives art’s message in an inverse form.

Thus, Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with the skull’s anamorphosis, demonstrates the phallus and the gaze, rather than the painter’s fantasy. Sophocles’s Antigone reveals the meaning of between two deaths. Hamlet is a construction of our desire, and of the phallus in it; Claudel’s trilogy addresses desire in the modern world. We must even say that The Ambassadors and Las Meninas show what painting is, while Sophocles and Claudel define ancient and modern tragedy respectively. The theory of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, notably the drive, cannot avoid knowing what a painting is; the ethics of psychoanalysis cannot ignore the tragic. Art, then, is not just about decoration, illustration. In truth, it organizes. We know that Lacan’s question about science is: “What sort of science includes psychoanalysis?”[18] Couldn’t we also say, instead of what is a psychoanalysis that includes art, what is an art that includes psychoanalysis?

Conversely, Lacan was right to say that Hamlet is not a clinical case, that he is neither an hysteric nor an obsessional neurotic (or he is rather both),[19] but this doesn’t keep Lacan from applying all sorts of statements using Hamlet as support. So it is true that the same trait which is particular to a clinical case can be translated into a general characteristic of the concept.  The title “Joyce le symptôme[20] is an example.

The same art which organizes psychoanalysis also organizes the hole in the Thing. How does it proceed?


One might imagine a Lacanian Fine Arts system and run through each one of the arts in order to understand Lacan’s point of view on each type. But with what system should we proceed?

Without being completely arbitrary, I could take as a standard Hegel’s Aesthetics, an authoritative reference for Lacan. The Western tradition has perfected several systems of this sort, the last great philosophical system being surely that of Hegel. It is thus interesting to ask what remains of such a system confronted with the criterion of the hole?

mfg3 Alejandra Seeber

This is one way of getting at Lacan’s eventual anti-philosophy. Hegel obviously does not start with the hole, but in spirit represented in a sensible form:

The beautiful of art unfolds itself in the several arts and in their creations into a world of actualized beauty.  The content of this world is the beautiful, and the true beautiful is spiritual being in concrete shape, the Ideal, the absolute mind, and the truth itself.[21]

 The unfolding of the concept of art will proceed from the exterior of the sensible in order to ascend to interiorized sensibility. The following are, briefly, the stages of this dialectic.

The first of the particular arts is architecture. Its task consist in so manipulating external inorganic nature that, as an external world conformable to art, it becomes cognate to spirit. Its material is matter itself in its immediate externality as a mechanical heavy mass, and its forms remain those of inorganic nature. In this material and in these forms the Ideal, as concrete spirituality, cannot be realized. Hence the reality presented in them remains opposed to the Idea, because it is something external not penetrated by the idea only in abstract relation to it. The fundamental type of the art of building is the symbolic form of art.

Note this reference to the temple:

By architecture the inorganic external world has been purified, set in order symmetrically, and made akin to the spirit, and the god’s temple stands there ready. Into this temple the god enters himself as the lightning-flash of individuality, striking and permeating the inert mass, and the infinite form of spirit itself concentrates and gives shape to something corporeal. This is the task of sculpture.

Then there is a less external relationship between this god and the form in which it appears:

In so far as in sculpture the spiritual inner life, at which architecture can only hint, makes itself at home in the sensuous shape and its external material, and in so far as these two sides are so mutually formed that neither preponderates, sculpture acquires the classical art-form as its fundamental type.

If architecture characterizes the symbolic phase of art, Hegel thinks that sculpture is intrinsically classical as ideal, while in the third form of art, called romantic, the divine is still interiorized and manifests itself in the particular:

…has to show itself particularized in itself and appropriate to subjective inwardness. Material for this is afforded by colour, musical sound and finally sound as the indication of inner intuitions and ideas. As modes of realizing the content in question by means of these materials we have painting, music and poetry. They acquire their type from the romantic form of art on whose form of configuration they are adapted to impress themselves in the most appropriate manner. The sensuous medium appears as particularized in itself and posited throughout as ideal.

But it’s a subjective visibility:

The first art, standing next to sculpture, is painting. It uses as material for its content, and its content configuration, visibility as such, in so far as this is particularized, i.e. developed into colour. This quality of visibility inherently subjectivized and posited as ideal, and the making visible which belong to painting, have their differences in a more ideal way, i.e. in the particular colours, and they free art from the complete sensuous spatiality of material things by being restricted to the dimensions of a plane surface.


Music treats the sensuous as ideal, and does so by negating and idealizing into the individual isolation of a single point, the indifferent externality of space, whose complete semblance is accepted and imitated by painting. The single point, qua such a negativity (excluding space) is in itself a concrete and active process of positive negation within the attributes of matter, in the shape of a motion and tremor of the material body within itself and in its relation to itself. Such an inchoate ideality of matter, which appears no longer as under the form of space, but as temporal ideality, is sound, the sensuous set down as negated, with its abstract visibility converted into audibility, inasmuch as sound liberates the ideal content from its immersion in matter.


As regards to the third and most spiritual mode of representation of the romantic art-type, we must look for it in poetry. Its characteristic peculiarity lies in the power with which it subjects to the mind and to its ideas the sensuous element from which music and painting began to liberate art. The merely negative point up to which music had developed now makes its appearance as the completely concrete point, which is mind, the self-conscious individual, producing out of itself the infinite space of its ideas, unites it with the temporal character of sound. Yet this sensuous element is in poetry separated from the content of consciousness. Poetry is the universal art of the mind which has become free in its own nature, and which is not tied to find its realization in external sensuous matter, but expatiates exclusively in the inner space and inner time of the ideas and feelings.

In poetry, Hegel will introduce successively epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry which includes theater, but not the novel. This hierarchy articulates, connects, deduces architecture, symbolic art, sculpture, classical art, then painting, music and poetry, and all the romantic arts.

We must say that, except for perhaps les vrais cinglés de cinéma (the French title of Jerry Lewis’ Hollywood or Bust), this organic system of academic specializations still haunts the communal representation of the arts. And in spite of all our denials, it is not true that we advocate equality between painting and cuisine (as some gourmets suggest), or haute couture (as some in France would pretend), or flower arranging (as practiced by the Japanese). For while there is an ethics of psychoanalysis, according to Lacan, there is no aesthetics of psychoanalysis.

However, before addressing the most important question posed in the arts from this point of view which is that of the articulation of the visible and the audible (to paraphrase Joyce’s Stephen in his meditation on the Dublin shore) or painting and literature, I will mention some similarities, perhaps not coincidental, between Hegel and Lacan.

There is a Lacanian theory on painting and some theoretical considerations and even an entire article on literature. There is not, to my knowledge, any theory of architecture, sculpture, or music. Lacan says only, I don’t remember where, that architecture and music have an eminent place and are even supreme arts because of their relationship to mathematics. Hegel remarks:

Like architecture, music has in itself, as an antithesis to feeling and inwardness, a relation of quantity conformable to the mathematical intellect; it also has its basis a fixed conformity to law on the part of the notes and their combination and succession.

As for the temple, for Hegel, because art derives from religion, at the center is what he calls god, or the divine. This is a point of view close to Lacan’s:

To put it briefly, primitive architecture can be defined as something organized around emptiness. That is also the authentic impression that the forms of a cathedral like Saint Mark’s give us, and it is the true meaning of all architecture. Then subsequently, for economic reasons, one is satisfied with painting images of that architecture, one learns to paint architecture on the walls of architecture; and painting, too, is first of all something that is organized around emptiness. Since it is a matter of finding once more the sacred emptiness of architecture in the less marked medium of painting, the attempt is made to create something that resembles it more and more closely, that is to say, perspective is discovered.[22]

 From this, we could obviously infer elements for a theory on sculpture in which the starting point would be pottery, and then proceed to elevate the statue to the dignity of the Thing. There is nothing comparable, however, to Freud’s analysis of Michelangelo’s Moses.

I don’t know of any allusion made by Lacan regarding music. We must admit that the subject “psychoanalysis and music” never inspired any great writing, in spite of Theodor Reik’s treatment of Gustav Mahler. We search in vain for the equivalent in music of Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, or Lacan’s Seminars on painting and theater.

In truth, the authors who have risked this subject have either discussed poetry put to music by composers (such as Reik’s work on Mahler’s symphony Resurrection) or have strayed into psychological or phenomenological considerations on the internal meaning and the conscience of the times. We could say that the analytical ear hears the signifier, not the sounds and the chords, and that there is a double voice, one that speaks and one that sings.[23] Maybe music is of no use in psychoanalysis.[24] This is what I would conclude from the apparent silence of Lacan on the question. Unlike Freud, who acknowledged his deaf ear for music, Lacan, in the 1950s and 60s, frequently attended concerts in theaters of the Domaine musical where the music of Boulez, Berio and Stockhausen was performed under the auspices of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud.

We are left with painting and poetry, as though art after Lacan were divided according to these two categories.


One is tempted here to radically separate painting and literature and to assign painting to the gaze and literature to the letter.

One could even maintain that in the definition of art given at the beginning of this essay, which proceeds from the Thing, there is no reason to include poetry, let alone prose. Art should only concern architecture, sculpture, and painting. Poetry would be consigned to the signifier. Accordingly there wouldn’t be a system of the arts in Lacan. Nor is there in Hegel any such system in a hierarchical and dialectical sense.

The question is more complex than it seems. First we have Lacan’s radical assertion that

Cogitation remains muddled in the imaginary, which is rooted in the body. Literature bears witness, be it philosophical or artistic, or literary—besides, they do not differ one from the other.[25]

 And then Lacan shows Joyce stuck in what he calls the sphere and the cross, meaning beyond the world and theology, in the Borromean knot. Lacan also unhesitatingly applies the theory of the Thing, or the void (and later the Borromean knot) to literature, particularly to the phenomenon of Courtly Love.

“Courtly love as anamorphosis,” is Jacques-Alain Miller’s apt title of a chapter of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis in which, starting from the theory of the Thing, Lacan states that “the poetry of courtly love, in effect, tends to locate in the place of the Thing certain discontents of the culture.”[26] The creation of poetry consists in posing, according to the mode of sublimation proper to art, an object I would call bewitching, a cruel partner. This is the demanding Lady of the Knights or Dante’s earthly but inaccessible Beatrice, who actually functions as the anamorphic skull, stages the performance, and assumes the function of the Thing.

We see the Thing in prehistoric cave painting, in Holbein’s work, in Courtly Love, and consequently in both poetry and prose. Now we should periodize the arts.

From the moment when perspective was discovered in painting, a form of architecture appears that adopts the perspectivism of painting. Palladio’s art, for example, makes this very obvious. Go and see Palladio’s theater in Vicenze, a little masterpiece of its kind that is in any case instructive and exemplary. Neoclassical architecture submits itself to the laws of perspective, plays with them, and makes them its own. That is, it places them inside of something that was done in painting in order to find once again the emptiness of primitive architecture.

From that point on one is entangled in a knot which seems to flee increasingly from the meaning of this emptiness.  And I believe that the Baroque return to the play of forms, to all manner of devices, including anamorphosis, is an effort to restore the true meaning of artistic inquiry; artists use the discovery of the property of lines to make something emerge that is precisely there where one has lost one’s bearings or, strictly speaking, nowhere.[27]

 If we wanted to be schematic, the history of the arts in Lacan would be characterized by a double scansion: the arts of the void and then the arts of anamorphosis.

First the vase. Second the skull.

The vase defines primitive art. The skull, art contemporary with science. It would be interesting to analyze abstract art using this idea.[28]

But anamorphosis, in other words a hollowing out of pictorial or literary space, does not exclude the void and may in fact be registered as such. This is what Lacan calls the vacuole in Courtly Love.

Here we see functioning in the pure state the authority of that place the instinct aims for in sublimation. That is to say, that what man demands, what he cannot help but demand, is to be deprived of something real. And one of you, in explaining to me what I am trying to show in das Ding, referred to it neatly as the vacuole.

Where, in effect, is the vacuole created for us?  It is at the center of the signifiers(…)[29]

 As it turns out then, the void has a symbolic as well as spatial function in the order of the real, and art uses the imaginary to organize the real symbolically.

But why, beyond the functional definition of art given at the beginning, did Lacan, throughout his teaching, regularly return to Renaissance painting,  or rather painting from the quattrocento to Velasquez, rather than to any other period? And why poetry rather than prose, and, in poetry, why the theater rather than the poem?

If we take an inventory, Seminars VII, XI, and XIII devote rather lengthy passages to painters such as Holbein and Velasquez. The most frequently mentioned poets are Sophocles, Plautus, Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, Claudel, and Genet. Some of them receive extensive attention in the Seminars, whereas the novel gets nothing (if we except the courtly homage to Marguerite Duras and the essay on Gide). I’ve already stated that the Seminar devoted to Joyce deals with his position vis-à-vis writing and the letter rather than with the contents of Joyce’s body of work. Moreover, Lacan praises Freud in this regard:

Because one cannot come to a close when analyzing a bouquet, Freud, after all, only wrote articles on the subject, and strictly speaking, aside from Dostoïevski, he did not analyze the novel. He only made a curt allusion to Ibsen. He refrained himself![30]

 There seems to be an exception to this inventory, but it really isn’t one. “The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe is not a novel but a short story, a structural story that Lacan used to begin his Écrits. This is a singular story in that it positions the letter in the place of the void, of the Thing.

To conclude, let’s suggest some hypotheses about these Lacanian choices.

First, painting. Italian Renaissance painting (also that of Holbein and Velasquez), characterized by perspective, combines a general theory of the gaze (pertaining to the register of the object of psychoanalysis, since the gaze is one of the four objects causing desire), thus of the blind side, with the subject of science, its negation, its projection toward the infinite—and the reference to projected space, which commands the topology of the unconscious.

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis Lacan asks “what is a painting?,” a question that intersects the history of painting, rather than “what is painting?,” a philosophical or historical question. History, the truth, is an obstacle to the question, according to a Lacanian formula. Often, for him, “everything is always there,” just never in the same place, or if so, never in the same way. The charting of painting is structural, not historical. It isn’t organized diachronically except by its structure, which is as timeless as the unconscious.

Also with painting or space we are on the side of the objet a rather than that of the signifier. On the slope of the cause of desire. If we pass on to the side of the signifier, we run into what is written, the letter being as we remember “the essentially localized structure of the signifier.” [31]  The purloined letter provides the rules of the game. We apply Poe’s story to the theory of the signifier.

But then, why did Lacan prefer to address the theater rather than the novel? And what do the exceptions of Gide and Joyce mean? Gide and Proust, significantly quoted in Seminar III,[32] are writers who treat their own lives as material for their work, which is typical of modern literature. Joyce is the exception as we shall see.

Let’s return to theater. Lacan was quite clear in the sessions devoted to Hamlet. Theater personifies the Discourse of the Other, either in the form of character or because the actor enunciates the Discourse of an other, the author. Representation, he says, makes real the fact that truth is presented in the form of fiction. In Hamlet, the theater within the theater makes the theme of truth as fiction evident.

The great plays are, at the same time, a presentation of the Discourse of the Other, an organization around desire (Hamlet), an encounter of the limits between Eros and madness (Oedipus, Antigone), a mark of the phallus (Genet’s Le Balcon), an analysis of sacrifice, of desire, of tragedy (Claudel’s trilogy), a definition of the point de capiton (Racine’s Athalie), a match between the small other and the Ideal I (Molière’s Amphitryon), etc. It would be erroneous to conclude that these plays address a central theme in Lacan’s Seminars.[33]

To a certain extent, each of these great plays deals with themes that are privileged in each of the other plays. Tragedy, comedy, the phallus, desire, etc. are found in each one of these constructions, in these fictions of the discourse of the Other functioning as truth.

Besides, as Lacan says, the players lend not only their bodies, that is their imaginary, but also their “unconscious”[34] to the Discourse of the Other. The signifier is articulated around a specific real which is the value of the theater, and it will always serve as verification for the analyst.


We are left with Joyce. Lacan, who regretted not having had him in analysis, concluded his teaching with him. Joyce interested Lacan early on and he was the last great artist of whom Lacan spoke.

First, Joyce leaves the signifier in order to go to the side of the letter. “

The letter is, radically speaking, an effect of discourse. What happens in Joyce’s work? The signifier stuffs the signified. What you hear is the signifier. The signified is the effect of the signifier. It is because the signifiers fit together, combine, and concertina—read Finnegans Wake—that something is produced by way of meaning (comme signifié) that may seem enigmatic, but is clearly what is closest to what we analysts, thanks to analytic discourse, have to read—slips of the tongue (lapsus).[35]

 Consequently, a body of work which from Ulysses to Finnegans Wake is entirely committed to slips of the tongue, to writing, is revealed as the analytical exercise by which Joyce the author keeps at bay something akin to psychosis. We’ve left the field of interpretation, of the signifier, for the workings of the letter, of writing.

In the continuous progression of his art, this word (which turns him into a symptom), is a word he writes, he breaks, he dismantles. Reading him, from his first critical essays, then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and finally Finnegans Wake, one can hardly overlook the fact that a certain rapport to the word (parole) is forced upon him, so that he ends up smashing, dissolving language itself, dismantling it, since all phonetic identity is gone.[36]

 Only with Joyce do we leave art, the issue which organizes the hole, in order to have only the equivalent of an analysis, a series of knots undone and retied. The hole is foreclosed.

Does this departure from art put an end to literature?

This was Joyce’s desire according to Lacan. Was it conversely Lacan’s desire according to Joyce?

Joyce did enjoy (joui) the writing of Finnegans Wake, one could feel it. Now, the fact of it being published baffles me since it overrides literature.

To wake it up attests his intent to put an end to it.[37]

This article originally appeared in lacanian ink 19, Fall 2001. Images in this article courtesy of the artist.


[1] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, pp. 129-30.
[2] We find, for instance, that in Totem and Taboo, chapter 2, “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence,” in fine, Freud argues: “The neuroses exhibit on the one hand striking and far-reaching points of agreement with those great social institutions, art, religion and philosophy.  But on the other hand they seem like distortions of them.  It might be maintained that a case of hysteria is a caricature of a work of art, that an obsessional neurosis is a caricature of religion and that a paranoic delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system.”  One is not dealing with science, but the difference with philosophy is not here forcibly pertinent (relevant).  Philosophy and science would have in common a certain systematization, or the spirit of system.  We know Freud’s expression in a letter to Ferenczi from October 6, 1910: “I have succeeded where the paranoiac fails.”
[3] Lacan, J., “La science et la vérité,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.  First lecture of Le séminaire, Livre XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse, 1965-1966, unpublished.
[4] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, p. 52.
[5] ibid p. 130.
[6] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXII: R.S.I., 1974-1975,” in Ornicar? 5, 1975, p. 55.
[7] ibid p. 50.
[8] ibid p. 54.
[9] ibid p. 41.
[10] For the body and the blind spot, see “Le séminaire XXIII: Le shinthome,” in Ornicar? 8, 1977.  For death see note 9.
[11] Jacques-Alain Miller’s “Commentary on the graphs,” in Jacques Lacan’s Écrits: A Selection , NY: Norton, 1977, p. 333.
[12] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, p. 120.
[13] Lacan, J., “La jeunesse de Gide ou la lettre du désir,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.
[14] Lacan, J., “Homage to Marguerite Duras, on Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” in Duras by Duras, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987.
[15] Freud, Sigmund, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, S.E. XI, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986, p. 136.
[16] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interpretation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 24, p. 23.
[17] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXIII: Le sinthome, 1975-1976,” in Ornicar? 6-11, especially the sessions of 11/18/1975 and 01/20/1976, in Joyce avec Lacan (see note 20).
[18] Lacan, J., Le séminaire, Livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964, Paris: Seuil, 1973, backcover.
[19] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interpretation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 25, p. 25.
[20] “Joyce le symptôme I et II,” in Joyce avec Lacan, edited by Jacques Aubert, Paris: Bibl. Des Analytica, Navarin, 1987.
[21] Hegel, G.W.F., Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Oxford University Press, 1998.
[22] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, pp. 135-6.
[23] In a conference on phonetics, at Ivry in 1988, Jacques-Alain Miller observed that “the voice as objet a does not belong to the register of sound.” “Jacques Lacan et la voix,” in Quarto 54, June 1994.
[24] A cartel accompanied by two musicians convince us (all the five members of the cartel) that the apologue of the prisoners is not without force if applied to the composition of certain pieces. Indeed, a structural approach rather than a compositional one might demonstrate a procedural identity between the chain, the knot, etc. and the temporal organization of a piece of music. This would avoid facile allegory which would run aground if one were looking for the sexual function of the dominant seventh, or castration in syncopation, for example.
[25] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXII: R.S.I., 1974-1975,” in Ornicar? 5, 1975, p. 37.
[26] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, p. 150.
[27] ibid p. 136.
[28] Gérard Wajcman examines Lacan’s treatment of modern art.  See his L’objet du siècle, Paris: Verdier, 1998.
[29] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, p. 150.
[30] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXII: R.S.I., 1974-1975,” in Ornicar? 7, 1975, p. 15.
[31] Lacan, J., “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” in Écrits: A Selection, NY: Norton, 1977, p. 153.
[32] Lacan., J., The Seminar, Book I: Freud’s Writings on Technique, 1953-1954, NY: Norton, 1988.
[33] Hamlet: Le séminaire, Livre VI, “Le désir et son interprétation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 24 to 27; Oedipus and Antigone, as well as Claudel’s trilogy: The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton; Genet’s Le Balcon: Le séminaire, Livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient, 1957-1958, Paris: Seuil; Racine’s Athalie: The Seminar, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956, chapter XXI, NY: Norton; Molière’s Amphitryon: The Seminar, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Techniques of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, chapter XXI, NY: Norton.  Also the preface to Wedekind’s play, L’Éveil du printemps, Paris: Gallimard, 1974.
[34] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interpretation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 25, p. 18.
[35] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XX: On feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore, 1972-1973, NY: Norton, 1998, chapter III.
[36] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire XXIII: Le shinthome,” in Ornicar? 8, 1977.
[37] “Joyce le symptôme II,” in Joyce avec Lacan, p. 36.

Beckett After Joyce // Sinthome as Symptom
Rodney Sharkey

Psychoanalysis is about what happens when things spill out from one place to another, even to places where there would seem to be little
connection. . .  What seems to be internal is already out there in the world, and whatever is external stands to be already there deep within.[1]


Figure 1 [2]


Figure 2 [3]


Figure 4 [4]

–           –           –

Read some pages from Finnegans Wake without trying to understand anything. It reads, but as someone of my circle remarked to me, that’s because we can feel present in it the jouissance of the one who wrote it.[5]

–           –           –

such as it was, fall and fall about, to the

brindishing of his charmed life, as toastified by his cheeriubi-

cundenances, no matter whether it was chateaubottled Guiness’s

or Phoenix brewery stout it was or John Jameson and Sons or

Roob Coccola or, for the matter of that, O’Connell’s famous old

Dublin ale that he wanted like hell [6]

–           –           –

Here form is content, content is form. . . . [Joyce’s] writing is not about something; it is that something itself. . . . When the sense is dancing, the words dance . . . [t]he language is drunk. The very words are tilted and effervescent . . . we cannot hope to snare the sense which is for ever rising to the surface of the form and becoming the form itself.[7]

–           –           –

After my father’s death I had trouble psychologically. The bad years were between when I had to crawl home in 1932 and after my father’s death in 1933. I’ll tell you how it was. I was walking up Dawson Street and I felt I couldn’t go on. It was a strange experience I can’t really describe. I found I couldn’t go on moving. So I had to rush into the famous pub in Dawson Street, Davy Byrne’s. I don’t know where I was going, maybe up to Harcourt Street. So I went into the nearest pub and got a drink–just to stay still. And I felt I needed help. So I went to Geoffrey Thompson’s surgery.[8]

–           –           –

Beckett presented himself [at the Tavistock Institute] to [Wilfred Ruprecht] Bion [in 1934] with severe anxiety symptoms, which he described in his opening session: a bursting, apparently arrhythmic heart, night sweats, shudders, panic, breathlessness, and, at its most severe, total paralysis.[9]

–           –           –

I used to lie on the couch and try to go back in my past. I think it probably did help. I think it helped me perhaps to control the panic. I certainly came up with some extraordinary memories of being in the womb. Intrauterine memories. I remember feeling trapped, of being imprisoned and unable to escape, of crying to be let out but no one could hear, no one was listening. I remember being in pain but being unable to do anything about it.[10]

–           –           –


Samuel Beckett’s first extended publication, the collection of short stories More Pricks than Kicks, 1934.

–           –           –

Half-past nine. It was raining bitterly when Belacqua, keyed up to take his bearings, issued forth [from out of the public house] into the unintelligible world of Lincoln Place. But he had bought a bottle. It was like a breast in the pocket of his reefer . . . he disinclined to stand, let alone walk . . . the next thing was his hands dragged roughly down from his eyes, which he opened on the vast crimson face of an ogre.  .  . This, he thought, is the face of some person talking. It was. It was that part of a civic guard pouring abuse upon him.[11]

–           –           –

It is crucial to Lacan’s importance for literary studies that one note his rethinking of creativity (sublimation). Unlike Freud, he did not view invention as neurotic displacement for Oedipal lack. Rather, a creation can function as a supplement or a bridge built between the ‘partial drives,’ the objet a, desire, and language. Art is a way to dwell in language as a subject of unconscious desire, as well as a way to adorn the void.[12]


Samuel Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, published in 1938.

–           –           –

The eponymous hero having been immolated in an accident, an acquaintance accidentally spills his ashes in a London pub.

By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.[13]

–           –           –

The purpose of art is not to permit repression, but to pose a question that the artist him or herself has not answered or resolved.[14]

–           –           –

Le symptôme est purement ce que conditionne lalangue, mais d’une certaine façon, Joyce le porte à la puissance du langage.[15]

–           –           –

Samuel Beckett completed analysis in 1936, writing to a friend:

If the heart had not put the fear of death into me, I would be still boozing & sneering & lounging around & feeling that I was too good for anything else. It was with a specific fear & a specific complaint that I went . . . to Bion to learn the . . . symptom of a diseased condition . . . in my “pre-history,” a bubble on the puddle . . . And the fact of its [now] bubbling more fiercely than ever is perhaps . . . from the waste that splutters most, when the bath is nearly empty.[16]

–           –           –

Year later, Beckett in conversation with Martin Esslin:

“Have you something against Ireland?”

“Oh no, I’m a fervent patriot and republican.”

“Why do you live in Paris?”

“Well, you know, if I were in Dublin I would just be sitting around in a pub.”[17]

–           –            –

Samuel Beckett the RE: publican

Writing “the local”

from Pub to publication

As Beckett said: “It is reclamation work, like the draining of the Zuyder Zee.”[18]

 –           –           –

Through the word–which is already a presence made of absence –absence itself comes to be named in an original moment.[19]

–           –           –

There must be something in the signifier which resonates. It is surprising that this has been in no way apparent to the English philosophers. I call them philosophers because they are not psychoanalysts–they have a rock-solid belief that language has no effect. They imagine that there are drives and so on . . . for they don’t know what a drive is: the echo in the body of the fact that there is speech [dire]; but for this speech to resonate . . . the body must be sensitive to it.[20]

–           –           –


Figure 5 [21] 


As in much late Lacanian theory, the symptom, or “sinthome” (an earlier, archaic spelling of symptom) is represented as a diagram, a Borromean knot (see fig. 1), knotting the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary (RSI), with the sinthome taking the topological form of a splice between the three rings: as such, it is both a link and supplement to the RSI topology. In this regard, the sinthome supersedes the “Name-of-the-Father” as the lynch pin (or “point de caption”) of Lacanian theory. Variously, the phallus, the Nom du père and the sinthome have served the purpose of stabilising the symbolic order, which (by the time of Lacan’s formulating of the sinthome) itself is superseded by the more comprehensive and symbiotic relationship between the three elements of the tripartite RSI topology. In Seminar XXIII and related papers, Lacan proposes that James Joyce becomes the sinthome, binding the RSI topology together and thus forestalling psychosis. In such a formulation, the sinthome regulates the domain of the imaginary (sight and feeling) and the symbolic (language) to mediate the Real, negotiating it through new configurations of experience. However, a “shattering” also occurs, by linguistic strike. In this regard, in “Joyce the Symptom,” Lacan declares:

Mais qu’il lait publié, c’est ce don’t j’esperérais, s’il était là, le convaincre qu’il voulait être Joyce le symptôme, en tant que, le symtôme, il en donne l’appareil, l’essence, l’abstraction. . . . Le symptôme est purement ce que conditionne lalangue, mais d’une certaine façon, Joyce le porte à la puissance du langage sans que pour autant rien n’en soit analyzable, c’est ce qui frappe, et littéralement interdit – au sens où l’on dit – je reste interdit. (“Joyce the Symptom, pp. 25 -27)

[I wish were he here, that I could convince him that he wanted to be Joyce the Symptom, of the symptom he has its apparatus, its essence, its abstraction. . . . The symptom is, purely, that which conditions lalangue, but in a certain way, Joyce carries the symptom to the very power of language–without, for all that, making any of it analyzable, it is what strikes and literally forbids–in the sense that one says–I am dumbfounded.]

In “carrying” his symptom to a new threshold, Joyce succeeds in dumbfounding his audience through his final novel, Finnegans Wake.

Samuel Beckett appears to negotiate an absent father through both analysis and writing. A traumatic moment in a pub is replayed as an escape from the anesthetizing effects of alcohol. In his early work, discussed here, he moves from the pub to publication. From a Lacanian perspective, in acting out his mental distress in symbolic form, Beckett is not using his symptom to challenge the symbolic order, so although he uses his symptoms creatively, he does not yet arrive at the precipice of the artist. Later, when he rejects Joycean omnipotence, he inhabits his own voice (“dwells in language”) as its own distinctive “strike.”

[1] Tony Twaites, Reading Freud: Psychoanalysis as Cultural Theory (London: Sage Publications, 2007), pp. 2-3.
[2] Shelly Brivic’s illustration of Lacan’s Borromean Knot. In Shelly Brivic, Joyce Through Lacan and Zizek: Explorations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 15.
[3] Lacan’s Borromean Knot reproduced by the base of three pints of Guinness on a blank A4 sheet, Davy Byrne’s Pub, Dublin, June 16, 2012.
[4] John Minihan, Portrait of Samuel Beckett, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1976.
[5] Jacques Lacan, “Seminar XXIII,” 1976, Ornicar? (1976): 6-11, Jacques-Alain Miller (ed.), trans. Luke Thurston. Page numbers refer to Luke Thurston’s unpublished English translation, p. 5. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/97204361/Seminar-of-Jacques-Lacan-Book-XXIII-Le-Sinthome
[6] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), P. 382.1-6.
[7] Samuel Beckett, “Dante … Bruno . Vico . . Joyce,” Ruby Cohn (ed.), Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder 1983), p.27)
[8] James Knowlson, Samuel Beckett: Damned to Fame (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 67
[9] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 206.
[10]  James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 210.
[11] Samuel Beckett, More Pricks than Kicks (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), p. 75.
[12] Ellie Raglan-Sullivan, “Lacan’s Seminars on James Joyce: Writing as Symptom and ‘Singular Solution’” J. Vera (ed.), Compromise Formations: Current Directions in Psychoanalytic Criticism, pps. 61-85 (Ohio: Kent State University, 1989), p. 75.
[13] Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Picador, 1973), p. 154
[14] Ellie Raglan-Sullivan, “Singular Solution,” p. 69
[15] Jacques Lacan, “Joyce the Symptom.” Talk given on the 16th June 1975.  Text established by J-A Miller partially from the notes of Eric Laurent. Jacques-Alain Miller (ed.), Joyce Avec Lacan (Paris: Navarin éditeur, 1987), p. 27
[16] Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940, (eds.) M. D. Fehsenfeld, L. M. Overbeck, D. Gunn, and G. Craig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 259.
[17] Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (London: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 265.
[18] Samuel Becket (1933-35 some unpublished), “Psychology Note Books,” TCD MS 10971/7, 10971/8, Manuscript Department, Trinity College Dublin Library. Quoted in Matthew Feldman, Beckett’s Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Interwar Notes’ (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 31.
[19] Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis.” Ecrits: A Selection, B. Fink (ed.) trans. B. Fink, H. Fink and R. Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 53.
[20] Jacques Lacan, “Seminar XXIII,” p. 4.
[21] Samuel Beckett on the set of “Eh Joe,” Berlin, 1996.
Retrieved from www.medienkunstnetz.de/artist/beckett/biography

A Story From Lacan’s Practice



Femininity between Goodness and Act
Slavoj Zizek

Author’s Bio

Let us approach the central topic of Lacan’s seminar Encore—the paradoxes of feminine sexuality—through Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (BW), a film which enables us to avoid the fatal misreading of Lacan’s notion of feminine jouissance.

BW, a film about the inherent deadlocks of Goodness,[1] is set during the 70’s in a small Presbyterian community on the West Coast of Scotland. Bess, a simpleminded and deeply religious local girl, marries Jan, a hearty oil-rig worker, courting the disapproval of the village elders. After the sexual ecstasy of their honeymoon Bess can’t bear having Jan return to the rigs, so she begs God to return Jan to her saying that in exchange for his return she would put up with any trial of her faith. Soon afterwards, as if in answer to her prayers, Jan effectively returns, but paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident on the oil-rig. Confined to his hospital bed, Jan tells Bess she must make love to other men and describe her experiences to him in detail—this way, she will keep awake his will to live: although she will be doing the act physically with other men, the true sex will occur in their conversation…

When after her first successful adventure Jan’s condition improves slightly, Bess dolls herself up as a vulgar prostitute and starts to consort with men in spite of warnings from her mother that she will be cast out of the church. After a series of ups and downs in her perverse pact with Jan (his occasional bouts of depression when he declares that he wants to die; her near-lynching by local kids, then being consigned to a mental hospital and escaping), she is informed that Jan is dying. Interpreting this as a sign that she is not doing enough for him, she returns to an offshore ship where she was once already cut by a sadistic sailor and barely escaped, well aware of what she can expect there. She is brutally beaten and, when brought to the hospital and informed that Jan is no better, dies in despair. At the coroner’s inquest, the doctor who took care of her earlier testifies that her true disease was Goodness itself. She is nonetheless denied the proper funeral service; Jan (now miraculously able to walk) and his friends steal her body and launch it to rest out at sea. Later, they are woken up by the sound of church bells resounding miraculously from high above the oil-rig…

This final shot of the film—the bells high in the sky—is to be conceived of as the psychotic “answer of the real”: the hallucinatory return in the real of the divine jouissance whose foreclosure from the symbolic is signalled by the absence of the bells from the church tower (throughout the film we hear complaints about the removal of the bells from the local church). This last answer of the real concludes the long series of exchanges and acts by proxy which follow the Fall from paradisiacal jouissance. That is to say, in the first part of the film, during her brief marital happiness, Bess fully enjoys sex with her husband in an absolutely innocent sense (all the talk in some reviews of the film about her sexual repression is totally misplaced); it is this very excessive attachment of hers to him which induces her to commit her original sin: unable to accept separation from Jan, she has violent fits of impotent fury and rage, and then, in a desperate prayer, offers God the first symbolic exchange—she is ready to renounce anything, to suffer any deprivation or humiliation, only if Jan is brought back to her…

When, as if an answer to her entreaty, Jan effectively returns, but completely paralyzed from the neck down, Bess reads his accident as the first “answer of the real,” as God’s price for the realization of her unconditional wish. From this point onward, throughout the film, she reads even the tiniest fluctuations in his humor and health as signs addressed to her: when he falls back into depression, it is because she did not sacrifice herself enough for him, etc. Consequently, when, towards the film’s end, Jan seems to approach the final coma, she decides to accomplish the ultimate act of exchange and visits a sadistic customer who, as she is well aware, will beat her to death—and indeed, after Bess dies, Jan miraculously regains his ability to walk. This denouement, of course, is purely fantasmatic: Jan’s miraculous healing is the answer of the real to her absolute sacrifice—it is literally over her dead body that he rises up again. Sex with strangers is for Bess a humiliating and excruciating experience, and this very pain confirms her belief that she is engaged in a properly religious act of sacrifice, doing it for the love of her neighbor, to alleviate his pain, to enable him to enjoy by proxy. (One of the critics quite appropriately remarked that BW does for God and sexuality what Babette’s Feast does for God and food…). It is thus easy to discern in her acts the contours of what Lacan defined as the modern, post-classical tragedy[2]: the highest sacrifice of love is not to remain pure, intact, for the absent (or impotent) lover, but to sin for him, to besmirch oneself for him. This is clearly signalled when alone in the church Bess tells God that, on account of what she is doing for Jan, she is going to Hell. “Whom do you want to save?” comes the divine reply, “Jan, or yourself?” In short, to save Jan, Bess accepts to betray HERSELF. The highest sacrifice of love is to accept freely and willingly the role of the other through which the subject enjoys: not to suffer for the other, but to enjoy for him. The price Bess has to pay for it is complete alienation: her jouissance is now in words, not in things, not in the bodily sexual activity itself, but in her verbal report on her exploits to the crippled Jan…

P1010684 Ana Cardoso

Here, of course, the obvious reproach imposes itself: is thus BW not the utmost “male chauvinist” film celebrating and elevating into a sublime act of sacrifice the role which is forcefully imposed on women in patriarchal societies, that of serving as the support of male masturbatory fantasies? Bess is completely alienated in the male phallic economy, sacrificing her jouissance for the sake of her crippled partner’s mental masturbation. However, at a closer look, things get more complex. According to the standard version of the Lacanian theory, the non-all (pas-tout) of woman means that not all of a woman is caught up in the phallic jouissance: She is always split between a part of her which accepts the role of a seductive masquerade aimed at fascinating the man, attracting the male gaze, and another part of her which resists being drawn into the dialectic of (male) desire, a mysterious jouissance beyond Phallus about which nothing can be said…

The first thing to add to this standard version is that the allusion to some unfathomable mysterious ingredient behind the mask is constitutive of the feminine seductive masquerade: the way woman seduces and transfixes the male gaze is precisely by adopting the role of the Enigma embodied, as if her whole appearance is a lure, a veil concealing some unspeakable secret. In other words, the very notion of a “feminine secret,” of some mysterious jouissance which eludes the male gaze, is constitutive of the phallic spectacle of seduction: inherent to phallic economy is the reference to some mysterious X which remains forever out of its reach.[3]

In what, then, does the feminine jouissance “beyond the phallus” consist? Perhaps the radical attitude of Bess in BW provides an answer: she undermines the phallic economy and enters the domain of feminine jouissance by way of her very unconditional surrender to it, by way of renouncing every remnant of the inaccessible “feminine mystique,” of some secret Beyond which allegedly eludes the male phallic grasp. Bess thus inverts the terms of phallic seduction in which a woman assumes the appearance of Mystery: Bess’ sacrifice is unconditional, there is nothing Beyond, and this very absolute immanence undermines the phallic economy—deprived of its “inherent transgression” (of the fantasizing about some mysterious Beyond avoiding its grasp), the phallic economy disintegrates.

BW is subversive on account of its over-orthodox, excessive realization of the fantasy of the feminine sacrifice for the male jouissance. So we have two versions of the excess which escapes the (sexual) partner’s grasp: on the woman’s side, it is the feminine Mystery beneath the provocative masquerade which eludes male grasp; on the man’s side, it is the drive which makes him stick unconditionally to his (political, artistic, religious, professional…) vocation. (This logic also accounts for the popularity of Colleen McCullough’s Thornbirds in which Father Ralph is torn between his love for Maggie and his unconditional religious vocation—paradoxically, a chaste priest is one of the emblematic figures of the non-castrated Other, of the Other not bound by the symbolic Law). The eternal male paranoia is that the woman is jealous of this part of him which resists her seductive charm, and that she wants to snatch it from him, to induce him to sacrifice that kernel of his creativity for her (afterwards, of course, she will drop him, because her interest for him was sustained precisely by that mysterious ingredient which resisted her grasp…). Consequently, as is proven by BW, the woman perturbs the phallic economy precisely by way of renouncing any Mystery and of totally and openly dedicating herself to her partner’s satisfaction.

It is thus crucial to bear in mind the radical asymmetry between the respective positions of Bess and Jan: Jan’s jouissance remains phallic (a masturbatory jouissance supported by the fantasies of and about the Other), he acts as a kind of libidinal vampire feeding on the other’s fantasies to sustain the flow of his phallic jouissance, while Bess’ position is that of feeding him voluntarily with the blood of fantasies. The asymmetry resides in the fact that Jan’s request that Bess should have sex with other men and report on it to him is in itself ambiguous: apart from the obvious reading (to provide him with fantasms which will make his crippled life bearable for him), it can also be read as a self-sacrificing act of extreme goodness—what if he does it because he is aware that otherwise she will lead a chaste life to the end? Asking her to have sex with other men is thus a stratagem destined to prevent her from sacrificing herself, that is to entice her to enjoy sex by way of providing her with a rationale which justifies it (she is really doing this just to please him).

The film indicates that, at the beginning, Jan finds himself in the predicament of the Wagnerian hero: wanting, but unable to die; so he enjoins Bess to have sex with other men and report on it to him as a supreme altruistic act—in order to enable Bess to enjoy sex—gradually, however, he gets caught up in it and effectively enjoys it more and more, so that what began as a gesture of excessive goodness turns into perverse enjoyment. That Jan is aware of the trap he got entangled in is clear from his conversation with the priest towards the end of the film when he confesses to him that he is evil, overwhelmed by bad thoughts…  Jan’s trajectory thus goes from initial goodness towards the neighbor to her perverse exploitation—with the underlying lesson that excessive goodness necessarily ends up in this way. In short, Breaking the Waves could be read as the inversion of the standard metaphysical opposition between pure mind and dirty body: (Jan’s) dirty mind versus (Bess’) pure body.

Bess is thus the figure of pure absolute Faith which transcends (or rather suspends) the very gap between the big Other and jouissance, between the symbolic and the real: the price to be paid for such immediate coincidence of religious faith and sexual jouissance is psychosis. Is, then, the film itself psychotic? How can one render palpable such a direct story about miracles today, in our cynical postmodern era? The key to Breaking the Waves is provided by the tension between the narrative and the way it is shot, between content and form. Three features of the form cannot escape the attentive spectator: 1. the nervous, jerky hand-held camera shots, with the visible grains on the screen, as if we are watching an enlarged home-movie shot on video; 2. the breaks and overlapping in the continuity (shots which follow often imply a time break or render the same event from a different viewpoint; furthermore, the camera pans from speaker to speaker, rather than cutting away as in a proper studio production); 3. there is no music accompaniment (except in the case of long static tableaux introducing each of the seven segments of the film: these tableaux are accompanied by excerpts from the big hits of Elton John, David Bowie, etc., popular during the time the story is supposed to take place). These features lend the film a kind of hystericized amateurish intensity reminding one of the famous early Cassavetes films, creating a sense of immediacy, of eavesdropping on the characters before the camera person has had a chance to edit the film, thereby prettying it up: at the level of form, the film relates to the standard professional film like homemade amateur pornography to professional pornography.

Fontaine_AC MODULE Ana Cardoso

The group of European directors led by von Trier himself recently published an anti-Hollywood manifesto that enumerates a series of rules to be followed by European independent cinema production: no special effects, no post-production manipulations, hand-held camera, no big budget, etc. Although Breaking the Waves already follows most of these rules, it does so as part of a specific cinematic strategy that exploits the antagonism between form and content: we do not get a narrative content that would seem to fit these rules (contemporary bleak realist narrative), but, on the contrary, an extremely Romantic narrative, the utmost opposite of the content implied by these formal rules. Von Trier himself emphasized that, if the film has been shot in a “direct” melodramatic-passionate way which seems to fit its content, “it would have been far too suffocating. You would not have been able to stand it.  What we’ve done is to take a style and put it over the story like a filter.  Like encoding a television signal, when you pay in order to see a film: here we are encoding a signal for the film, which the viewer will later ensure they decode. The raw, documentary style which I’ve laid over the film and which actually annuls and contests it, means that we accept the story as it is.”[4]


Therein resides the paradox: the only way for the spectator to accept the story as it is, is to encode it in a form which annuls and contests it—to submit it to a kind of dreamwork. Furthermore, the paradox which should not escape us is that von Trier’s procedure is the exact opposite of the usual melodramatic procedure in which the repressed kernel of the narrative returns in the excess of the form: the expressive pathos of music, the ridiculous sentimentality of acting, etc. Here, the narrative itself is ridiculously Romantic, pathetic, excessive, and the form understates (instead of accentuating) the excessive pathos of the content. The key to the film is thus provided by this antagonism between the ultra-Romantic content of Belief and the pseudo-documentary form—their relationship is thoroughly ambiguous. As von Trier himself emphasizes, it is not simply that the form undermines content: it is precisely by means of the “sober” distance towards the content that the film renders it “palpable,” that it prevents the content from appearing ridiculous (the same as in conversation, where a passionate declaration of love which would appear ridiculous if enunciated directly can pass if coated in the protective shield of irony). And, furthermore, is not the same antagonism discernible within the content itself, in the guise of the tension between the ascetic Presbyterian religious community, caught in the religious ritual from which every trace of jouissance is evacuated (signalled by the removal of the Church bells), and the authentic personal relationship to God grounded in intense jouissance:

What if the appearance of the strict opposition between the dry orthodox Letter of ritual (which regulates life in the Protestant community) and the living Spirit of true belief beyond dogma (of Bess) is misleading? What if—in the same way the excessively Romantic narrative is palpable only through the lenses of pseudo-documentary camera-form—pure authentic belief is palpable only against the background of—or filtered by—the closed orthodox religious community? Here, however, the problems with the film begin: today, the predominant form of subjectivity is not identification with a closed orthodox religious community (against which one could then rebel), but the “open” permissive subject avoiding any fixed obligations; the paradox is that, in a way, both poles from Breaking the Waves are on the same side against this predominant form of subjectivity. In a society in which, more and more, since there is no God (Law), everything is prohibited, the film establishes a fundamental Prohibition which opens up the space for authentic Transgression.

The problem of the film is that this third term, the predominant form of subjectivity today, is simply missing in it: von Trier reduces the conflict to the one between tradition (Church as Institution) and postmodernity (miracle), the properly modern dimension disappears. This dimension, of course, is present, but only in its immediate material existence (in the guise of oil-rigs and platforms, the ultimate form of today’s exploitation of nature); however it is suspended at the level of its subjective impact.

It is thus all to easy to read Bess as the latest incarnation of the figure of naive authentic feminine believer dismissed by her constrained orthodox environs as a promiscuous madwoman. The film should rather be read as a meditation on the difficulty, impossibility even, of Belief today: of belief in miracles, inclusive of the miracle of cinema itself. It doesn’t escape the usual fate of “returns to authentic belief”: the pure Belief inverts itself into just another aesthetic game.

As to the final appearance of the bells high in the sky, a possible reading of BW could claim that this, precisely, is the point at which the film slides into religious obscurantism. That is to say, it seems possible to argue that the film should end with the death of Bess and Jan’s subsequent regained ability to walk: this way, we would be dealing with an undecidable Pascalean wager, a “crazy” reliance on divine Will which reads in contingent events “answers of the real,” and which is sustained in the purity of its belief by the very fact that it cannot be “objectively verified” (as in Jansenist theology which emphasizes that miracles appear as such only to those who already believe in them; to the neutral observers, they necessarily appear as meaningless coincidences and contingencies). If this were the case, BW’s ultimate message would be that “each of us has a beatific vision of Paradise and Redemption inside of him or herself, without any guarantee in external reality…” However, what BW accomplishes is similar to the well-known genre of paranoiac stories in which the idée fixe turns out to be true and not a mere hero’s hallucination: it finishes with a brutal and unexpected factual confirmation of Bess’ faith, somewhat like Henry James’ Turn of the Screw rewritten in such a way that, at the end, we would get an objective confirmation that the appearing devilish figures were “real,” not just the governess’ hysterical hallucination.

At this precise point, one should introduce the distinction between modernism and postmodernism: if there were to be no direct miracle, no bells in the sky, the film would be a typical modernist work about the tragic deadlock of absolute faith; the last minutes, when the miracle does occur, are a kind of postmodernist appendix to the otherwise tragic modernist existential drama of Faith. That is to say, what characterizes postmodernism is precisely that one can return to a pre-modern “enchanted universe” in which miracles effectively do occur, as an aesthetic spectacle, without “really believing it,” but also without any ironic or cynical distance.

The ending of BW is thus to be perceived in the same way one should accept those “magic” moments in David Lynch, in which persons (who otherwise often stand for utter corruption) are suddenly transported by a religious vision of an angelic bliss. In Blue Velvet, for example, Laura Dern unexpectedly starts to report to Kyle MacLachlan on her vision of a bleak universe suddenly filled by robins and their singing, to the accompaniment of religious organ music—it is crucial not to take this scene of innocent bliss with a cynical distance. Of course, in the last scene of Blue Velvet, we see a robin cruelly holding in his beak a dead bug, thus establishing the connection with the traumatic shot, from the film’s beginning, of the camera approaching the earth and rendering the disgusting crawl of life—but, again, as in pre-Raphaelite paintings, edenic bliss and disgust at life’s corruption are the two sides of the same coin, so it would be wrong to read this last shot as an ironic undermining of Dern’s ecstatic description of the robin as the embodiment of the pure goodness.

template-07  Ana Cardoso

Is the supreme case of this radical ambiguity not Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, an extremely licentious girl engaging in promiscuous sex and drugs, and nonetheless elevated to the status of a redeemed innocence after her martyr’s death? In the final scene of Fire Walk With Me, the movie sequel to the Twin Peaks series, after the famous shot of her body wrapped in white plastic, we see her in the mysterious Red Lodge—this Zone of Twin Peaks—sitting on a chair, with the agent Cooper standing by her with his hand on her shoulder, benevolently smiling as if to comfort her; after some moments of anxious perplexity, she gradually relaxes and starts to laugh, with a laughter mixed with tears; the laughter gets more and more buoyant, until the vision of an angel appears in the air in front of her. Ridiculous and kitschy as this scene may appear, one should insist again that, when the brutally raped and murdered Laura Palmer is redeemed, changed into a happily smiling figure looking at the angelic vision of herself, there is absolutely no irony involved.

So the ultimate lesson of BW is that the standard Victorian male-chauvinist wisdom according to which the only way for a woman to remain sane, to avoid hysteric outbursts or perverse debauchery—is to get married, has to be turned around: the true question is, how is it possible for a woman to be married without falling into psychosis. The answer is, of course, by accepting the partner’s (husband’s) castration—the fact that the partner merely has the phallus, but is not the phallus itself, one is only allowed to fantasize about Another Man who would be the phallus itself, while the consequences of actually encountering such a man are catastrophic, as is attested to by the psychotic fate of Bess.

[1]   —I wanted to do a film about goodness—“Naked Miracles,” Interview with Lars von Trier, Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, Issue 10, p 12.
[2]   Lacan Jacques, Le Séminaire, Livre VIII: Le transfert, Paris: Seuil, 1988.
[3]   For a more detailed account of this aspect of the feminine masquerade, see Chapter 2 of Slavoj Zizek, The Indivisible Remainder, London: Verso, 1996.
[4]   “Naked Miracles,” op cit, p 12.