......• How to Read Lacan •
.........5. Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien

.........Slavoj Zizek

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Whenever the membranes of the egg in which the foetus emerges on its way to becoming a new-born are broken, imagine for a moment that something flies off, and that one can do it with an egg as easily as with a man, namely the hommelette, or the lamella. The lamella is something extra-flat, which moves like the amoeba. It is just a little more complicated. But it goes everywhere. And as it is something - I will tell you shortly why - that is related to what the sexed being loses in sexuality, it is, like the amoeba in relation to sexed beings, immortal - because it survives any division, and scissiparous intervention. And it can turn around. Well! This is not very reassuring. But suppose it comes and envelopes your face while you are quietly asleep... I can't see how we would not join battle with a being capable of these properties. But it would not be a very convenient battle. This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is not to exist, but which is nevertheless an organ - I can give you more details as to its zoological place - is the libido. It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life. It is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction. And it is of this that all the forms of the objet a that can be enumerated are the representatives, the equivalents. [1]

Every word has a weight here, in this deceivingly poetic description of the mythic creature called by Lacan "lamella" (which can vaguely be translated as "manlet," a condensation of "man" and "omelet"). Lacan imagines lamella as a version of what Freud called "partial object": a weird organ which is magically autonomized, surviving without a body whose organ it should have been, like a hand that wonders around alone in early Surrealist films, or like the smile in Alice in Wonderland that persists alone, even when the Cheshire cat's body is no longer present: "'All right', said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone. 'Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin', thought Alice; 'but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'" The lamella is an entity of pure surface, without the density of a substance, an infinitely plastic object that can not only incessantly change its form, but can even transpose itself from one to another medium: imagine a "something" that is first heard as a shrilling sound, and then pops up as a monstrously distorted body. A lamella is indivisible, indestructible, and immortal - more precisely, undead in the sense this term has in horror fiction: not the sublime spiritual immortality, but the obscene immortality of the "living dead" which, after every annihilation, re-composes themselves and clumsily goes on. As Lacan puts it in his terms, lamella does not exist, it insists: it is unreal, an entity of pure semblance, a multiplicity of appearances which seem to envelop a central void - its status is purely fantasmatic. This blind indestructible insistence of the libido is what Freud called "death drive," and one should bear in mind that "death drive" is, paradoxically, the Freudian name for its very opposite, for the way immortality appears within psychoanalysis: for an uncanny excess of life, for an "undead" urge which persist beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death, of generation and corruption. This is why Freud equates death drive with the so-called "compulsion-to-repeat," an uncanny urge to repeat painful past experiences which seems to outgrow the natural limitations of the organism affected by it and to insist even beyond the organism's death - again, like the living dead in a horror film who just go on. This excess inscribes itself into the human body in the guise of a wound which makes the subject "undead," depriving him of the capacity to die (like the wound on the ill boy's stomach from Kafka's "A Country Doctor"): when this wound is healed, the hero can die in peace.

For any avid cinema-goer, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that he has already seen all this. Lacan's description not only reminds one of the nightmare creatures in horror movies; more specifically, it can be read, point by point, as describing a movie shot more than a decade after he wrote those words, Ridley Scott's Alien. The monstrous "alien" in the film so closely resembles Lacan's lamella that it cannot but evoke the impression that Lacan somehow saw the film before it was even made. Everything Lacan talks about is there: the monster appears indestructible; if one cuts it into pieces, it merely multiplies; it is something extra-flat that all of a sudden flies off and envelops your face; with infinite plasticity, it can morph itself into a multitude of shapes; in it, pure evil animality overlaps with machinic blind insistence. The "alien" is effectively libido as pure life, indestructible and immortal. To quote Stephen Mulhall:

The alien's form of life is (just, merely, simply) life, life as such: it is not so much a particular species as the essence of what it means to be a species, to be a creature, a natural being - it is Nature incarnate or sublimed, a nightmare embodiment of the natural realm understood as utterly subordinate to, utterly exhausted by, the twinned Darwinian drives to survive and reproduce. [2]

Beyond representation as it is in its monstrosity, lamella nonetheless remains within the domain of the Imaginary, although as a kind of limit-image: the image to cancel all images, the image that endeavors to stretch the imagination to the very border of the irrepresentable. (In horror sci-fi, this line was brought to extreme with John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 remake of the old classic, which fully deployed the infinite plasticity and morphing capacity of the alien Thing.) As such, lamella stands for the Real in its most terrifying dimension, as the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities - a figure well known in literature in its multiple guises, from E.A. Poe's maelstrom and Kurtz's "horror" at the end of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness to Pip from Melville's Moby Dick who, cast to the bottom of the ocean, experiences the demon God:

Carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes /.../ Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke to it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.

This Real of lamella is to be opposed to the other mode of the Real, the scientific one. For those used to dismiss Lacan as just another ãpostmodern" relativist, this may come as a surprise: Lacan is resolutely anti-"postmodern," opposed to any notion of science as just another story we are telling ourselves about ourselves, a narrative whose apparent supremacy over other - mythic, artistic, etc. - narratives is only grounded in the historically contingent Western "regime of truth" (to use a term rendered popular by Michel Foucault). For Lacan, the problem is that this scientific Real

is precisely what we completely lack. We are totally separated from it. ... We shall never totally clarify the relationship between those beings-of-language /parlêtres/ that we sexuate as man and those beings-of-language that we sexuate as woman. [3]

The idea that sustains this passage is much more complex than it may appear, so we have to be very precise here. What separates us, humans, from the ãreal Real" targeted by science, what makes it inaccessible to us? It is neither the cobweb of the Imaginary (illusions, misperceptions), which distorts what we perceive, nor the "wall of language," the symbolic networkthrough which we relate to reality, but another Real. This Real is for Lacan the Real inscribed into the very core of human sexuality: ãthere is no sexual relationship," human sexuality is marked by an irreducible failure, sexual difference is the antagonism of the two sexual positions between which there is no common denominator, enjoyment can be gained only against the background of a fundamental loss. The link between this loss and lamella is clearly indicated in the passage which opens this chapter: the myth of lamella presents the fantasmatic entity that gives body to what a living being loses when it enters the (symbolically regulated) regime of sexual difference. Since one of the Freudian names of this loss is "castration," one can also say that lamella is a kind of positive obverse of castration: the non-castrated remainder, the indestructible partial object cut off from the living body caught in sexual difference.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the Lacanian Real is a much more complex category than the idea of a fixed trans-historical "hard core" that forever eludes symbolization; it has nothing to do with what Immanuel Kant called the "Thing-in-itself," reality the way it is out there, independently of us, prior to being distorted by our perceptions: "/.../ this notion is not at all Kantian. I even insist on this. If there is a notion of the real, it is extremely complex and, because of this, incomprehensible, it cannot be comprehended in a way that would make an All out of it." [4] How, then, are we to find our way and to introduce some clarity into this conundrum of the Reals? Let us begin with Freud's dream on Irma's injection, selected by him to open his magnum opus The Interpretation of Dreams.

The "latent thought" this dream expresses is Freud's feeling of guilt and responsibility for the failure of his treatment of Irma, a young woman and one of his patients. The dream's first part, Freud's confrontation with Irma, ends with Freud looking deep into Irma's throat; what he sees there renders the Real in the guise of the primordial flesh, the palpitation of the life substance as the Thing itself, in its disgusting dimension of a cancerous outgrowth. The dream's second part, the comic conversation among the three doctors, Freud's friends, who offer different excuses for the failure of the treatment, ends up with a chemical formula (of trimethylamine) writ large. Each part thus concludes with a figuration of the Real, first, the real of lamella, of the terrifying formless Thing, then, the scientific Real, the real of a formula which renders the nature's meaningless functioning. The difference hinges on the different starting point: if we start with the Imaginary (the mirror-confrontation of Freud and Irma), we get the Real in its imaginary dimension, the horrifying primordial image that cancels the imagery itself; if we start with the Symbolic (the exchange of arguments between the three doctors), we get language deprived of the wealth of its human sense, transformed into the Real of a meaningless formula.

This, however, is not the end of the story. To these two Reals, we have to add a third Real, that of a mysterious je ne sais quoi, the unfathomable "something" that makes an ordinary object sublime - what Lacan called l'objet petit a. There is, in science fiction horror movies, a figure of alien opposed to that of the irrepresentable and all-devouring monster of Scott's Alien, a figure immortalized in a whole series of films from the early 1950s whose most famous representative is The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. An ordinary American wanders somewhere in the half-abandoned countryside, when his car breaks down, so he goes for help to the closest small town; soon, however, he notices that something strange is going on in the town - people behave in a strange way, as if they are not fully themselves. It becomes clear to him that the town is already taken over by the aliens who penetrated and colonized human bodies, controlling them from within: although the aliens look and act exactly like humans, there is as a rule a tiny detail which betrays their true nature (a strange glimpse in their eyes; too much skin between their fingers or between their ears and heads). This detail is the Lacanian objet petit a, a tiny feature whose presence magically transubstantiates its bearer into an alien. In contrast to Scott's alien who is totally different from humans, the difference is here minimal, barely perceptible - and are we not dealing with the same in our everyday racism? Although we are ready to accept the Jewish, Arab, Oriental other, there is some detail which bothers us in the West: they way they accentuate a certain word, the way they count money, the way they laugh. This tiny feature renders them aliens, no matter how they try to behave like us.

According to Freud, the melancholic is not aware of what he has lost in the lost object - one has to introduce here the Lacanian distinction between the objet a as the cause of desire and the object of desire: while the object of desire is simply the desired object, the cause of desire is the feature on account of which we desire the desired object (some detail, tic, which we are usually unaware of and sometimes even misperceive it as the obstacle, as that in spite of which we desire the object). This gap between object and cause also explains the popularity of The Brief Encounter, the classic British melodrama about an illicit affair from 1945, in the gay community: the reason is not simply that the furtive encounters of the two lovers in the dark passages and platforms of the railway station resembles the way gays were compelled to meet back in the 1940s, since they were not yet allowed to flirt openly. Far from being an obstacle to the fulfillment of the gay desire, these features effectively functioned as its cause: deprived of these undercover conditions, the gay relationship loses a good part of its transgressive beguilement. What we get in The Brief Encounter is not the object of the gay desire (the couple is straight), but its cause. No wonder, then, that gays often express their opposition to the liberal policy of fully legalizing gay couples: what sustains their opposition is not the (justified) awareness of the falsity of this liberal policy, but the fear that, being deprived of its obstacle/cause, the gay desire itself will wane.

From this perspective, the melancholic is not primarily the subject fixated on the lost object, unable to perform the work of mourning on it; he is, rather, the subject who possesses the object, but has lost his desire for it, because the cause which made him desire this object has withdrawn, lost its efficiency. Far from accentuating to the extreme the situation of the frustrated desire, of the desire deprived of its object, melancholy stands for the presence of the object itself deprived of our desire for it - melancholy occurs when we finally get the desired object, but are disappointed at it. In this precise sense, melancholy (disappointment at all positive, empirical objects, none of which can satisfy our desire) effectively is the beginning of philosophy. Say, a person who, all his life, was used to live in a certain city and is finally compelled to move elsewhere, is, of course, saddened by the prospect of being thrown into a new environment - however, what is it that effectively makes him sad? It is not the prospect of leaving the place which was for long years his home, but the much more subtle fear of losing his very attachment to this place. What makes me sad is the fact that I am aware that, sooner or later - sooner than I am ready to admit -, I will integrate myself into a new community, forgetting the place which now means to me so much. In short, what makes me sad is the awareness that I will lose my desire for (what is now) my home. The status of this object-cause of desire is that of an anamorphosis: a part of the picture which, when we look at the picture in a direct frontal way, appears as a meaningless stain, acquires the contours of a known object when we change our position and look at the picture from aside. Lacan's point is here even more radical: the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void - it acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways. The most beautiful case of it in literature occurs when, in Shakespeare's Richard II, Bushy tries to comfort the Queen, worried about the unfortunate King on a military campaign:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord's departure,
Find shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail;
Which, look'd on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not.

This is objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself "nothing but confusion," and which acquires a definite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject's desires and fears - as such, as a mere "shadow of what it is not," objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject's desire. Let us not forget that the most famous anamorphosis in the history of painting, that of Holbein's The Ambassadors, concerns death: when we look from the proper lateral standpoint at the anamorphically prolonged stain in the lower part of the painting, set amongst object's of human vanity, it reveals itself as the death skull. Bushy's consolation can be read together with Richard's later monologue, in which he locates Death in the void in the middle of the hollow royal crown, as the secret master-jester who let us play a king and enjoy our authority, only to pierce our ballooned shape with a needle and reduce us to nothing:

for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

It is usually said that Richard finds it difficult to accept the distinction between "the king's two bodies," and to learn to live as a common human being divested of the royal charisma; however, the lesson of the play is that this operation, simple and elementary as it appears to be, is ultimately impossible to perform - why? To put it succinctly, Richard starts to perceive his "kingness" as an effect of anamorphosis, as a "shadow of nothing"; however, getting rid of this unsubstantial specter does not leave us with simple reality of what we effectively are - as if one cannot simply oppose anamorphosis of charisma and substantial reality, as if all reality is an effect of anamorphosis, a "shadow of nothing," and what we get if we look at it "straight on" is a chaotic nothing. So what we get after we are deprived of symbolic identifications, "demonarchized," is nothing. The "Death" figure in the middle of the crown, is not simply death, but the subject himself reduced to the void, Richard's position when, confronted with Henry's demand to resign the crown, he basically replies "I know no I /to do it/!":

Are you contented to resign the crown?

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no 'no,' for I resign to thee.
Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand.

This apparently confused reply to Henry's request relies on a complex reasoning, based on a brilliant exercise in what Lacan called lalangue (a neologism which some translate as "llanguage": language as the space of illicit pleasures that defy any normativity: the chaotic multitude of homonymies, word-plays, "irregular" metaphoric links and resonances). It plays with three different ways to write (and understand) what we pronounce as "Ay, no; no, ay." Richard's words can be read simply as a redoubled refusal, accompanied with the exclamatory "ay." Or, if we understand "ay" as "I," they can also be read as a refusal, but this time based on a denial of the very existence of the I, a condensed form of "I (say) no (because there is) no I to do it." This same point can be made also in the third reading, which understands it as (a homophony of) "I know no I": "You want me to do it, but since you want me to be nothing, to totally undo myself, who am I to do it? In such a situation, there is no I to do it, to give you the crown!" One can also translate this exchange into a modern idiom, in the mode of the (in)famous and sometimes quite delightful John Durband's translations of Shakespeare into today's common English:

I've got just enough of this crap! I want a clear answer: will you give me the crown? Yes or no?

No and no, no no! OK, if you insist, I'll do it, but first I would like to draw your attention to a slight problem: your demand involves an untenable pragmatic paradox! You want me to give you the crown and thus make you a legitimate ruler, but the very situation in which you put me reduces me to nobody and nothing and thus deprives me of the very authority that would make the gesture you want me to perform a working performative! So, since you call the shots and hold me in your power, why not, I'll just give you the damned crown - but I warn you, this act of mine is merely a bodily gesture, not a true performative that would make you a king!

There is a memorable scene in City Lights, one of Charlie Chaplin's absolute masterpieces. After he swallows by mistake a whistle, the Tramp gets an attack of hiccups, which leads to a comical effect. Because of the movement of air in his stomach, each hiccup makes the whistle blow and thus generates a weird sound of whistles coming from inside the body; the embarrassed Tramp desperately tries to cover up these sounds, not knowing what exactly to do. Does this scene not stage shame at its purest? I am ashamed when I am confronted with the excess in my body, and it is significant that the source of shame in this scene is sound: a spectral sound emanating from within my body, sound as an autonomous organ without body, located in the very heart of my body and at the same time uncontrollable, like a kind of parasite, a foreign intruder.

What all this amounts to is that, for Lacan, the Real, at its most radical, has to be totally de-substantialized. It is not an external thing that resists being caught in the symbolic network, but the crack within the symbolic network itself. The Real as the monstrous Thing behind the veil of appearances is precisely the ultimate lure which, as Richard Kearney was right to emphasize,1 lends itself easily to the New Age appropriation, as in the Joseph Campbell's notion of the monstrous God:

By monster I mean some horrendous presence or apparition that explodes all your standards for harmony, order and ethical conduct /.../ That's God in the role of destroyer. Such experiences go past ethical judgements. This is wiped out /.../ God is horrific." [5]

What is the lure here? Apropos the notion of the Real as the substantial Thing, Lacan accomplishes a reversal which is ultimately the same as the passage from the special to the general theory of relativity in Einstein. While the special theory already introduces the notion of the curved space, it conceives of this curvature as the effect of matter: it is the presence of matter which curves the space, i.e. only an empty space would have been non-curved. With the passage to the general theory, the causality is reversed: far from causing the curvature of the space, matter is its effect, i.e., the presence of matter signals that the space is curved. What can all this have to do with psychoanalysis? Much more than it may appear: in the way exactly homologous to Einstein, for Lacan, the Real - the Thing - is not so much the inert presence which curves the symbolic space (introducing gaps and inconsistencies in it), but, rather, an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies.

This brings us back to Freud himself who, in the development of his theory of trauma, changed his position in a way strangely homologous to Einstein's above-described shift. Freud started with the notion of trauma as something that, from outside, intrudes into our psychic life and disturbs its balance, throwing it out of joint the symbolic coordinates which organize our experience - think about a brutal rape or about witnessing (or even being submitted to) a torture. From this perspective, the problem is how to symbolize the trauma, how to integrate it into our universe of meaning and thus cancel its disorienting impact. Later, Freud opted for the opposite approach. His analysis of "Wolfsman," his famous Russian patient, isolated as the early traumatic event that marked his life the fact that, as a child of one and a half, he witnessed the parental coitus a tergo. However, originally, when this scene took place, there was nothing traumatic in it: far from shattering the child, he just inscribed it into his memory as an event the sense of which was not clear at all to him. Only years later, when the child became obsessed with the question "where do children come from" and started to develop infantile sexual theories, did he draw out this memory in order to use it as a traumatic scene embodying the mystery of sexuality. The scene was thus traumatized, elevated into a traumatic Real, only retroactively, in order to help the child to cope with the impasse of his symbolic universe (his inability to find answers to the enigma of sexuality). In exact homology to Einstein's shift, the original fact is here the symbolic deadlock, and the traumatic event is resuscitated to fill in the gaps in the universe of meaning.

Does exactly the same not hold also for the Real of a social antagonism? Anti-Semitism "reifies" (embodies in a particular group of people) the inherent social antagonism: it treats Jew as the Thing which, from outside, intrudes into the social body and disturbs its balance. What happens in the passage from the position of strict class struggle to the Fascist anti-Semitism is not just a simple replacement of one figure of the enemy (bourgeoisie, the ruling class) with another (Jews); the logic of the struggle is totally different. In the class struggle, classes themselves are caught in the antagonism which is inherent to social structure, while the Jew is a foreign intruded which causes social antagonism, so that all we need in order to restore social harmony is to annihilate Jews. That is to say, in exactly the same way Wolfsman as a child resuscitated the scene of the parental coitus in order to organize his infantile sexual theories, a Fascist anti-Semite elevates the Jew into the monstrous Thing that causes social decadence.

The final thing to note is how Lacan often resorts to the scientific Real and evokes examples from "hard sciences" in order to clarify the conundrums of the psychoanalytic Real - how are we to take these references? Are they meant to be merely metaphors, didactic borrowings with no inherent cognitive value, or do they involve a theoretical link between the two domains? Although Lacan tends to downplay his borrowings, reducing them to didactic tools, the case is often more ambiguous.

Let us take Lacan's characterization of "hard sciences" as dealing with what he calls savoir dans le réel (knowledge in the real): it is as if there is a knowledge of the laws of nature directly inscribed into the Real of natural objects and processes - for instance, a stone ãknows" what laws of gravity to obey when it is falling. It may seem that therein lies the difference between nature and history: in human history, ãlaws" are norms which can be forgotten or otherwise disobeyed. There is an archetypal scene from cartoons which relies for its comical effect precisely on the confusion of these two levels: a cat walks floating in the air above the precipice, and it falls down only after it looks down and becomes aware of how it has no support beneath its feet - as if it has momentarily forgotten the natural laws its body has to obey, and has to be reminded of them. However, to pass from comedy to tragedy, when a political regime disintegrates in historical reality, can one not, along similar lines, distinguish between its two deaths, symbolic and real? This gap can extend in both directions: there are weird epochs when a regime, for a limited period, persists in power, although its time is clearly over, as if it goes on living because it doesn't notice that it is already dead. Was there not something like this with Napoleon after his return from Elba in 1815? As Hegel wrote, Napoleon had to be defeated twice to get the point: his first defeat in 1813 could still be taken as a mere accident of history, and it is only through his repeated defeat at Waterloo that it became clear how his passing expresses a deeper historical necessity. But there are also weird epochs when, although a regime goes on for some time, everybody (including members of the regime themselves) are somehow aware that its time is over, that they are living on a borrowed time.

Are, however, such paradoxes really the exclusive domain of human history? At its most daring, quantum physics DOES seem to allow for such a paradox of cartoons, of the momentarily suspension, "forgetting," of the knowledge in the real. Imagine that you have to take a flight on day x to pick up a fortune the next day, but do not have the money to buy the ticket; but then you discover that the accounting system of the airline is such that if you wire the ticket payment within 24 hours of arrival at your destination, no one will ever know it was not paid prior to departure. In a homologous way,

the energy a particle has can wildly fluctuate so long as this fluctuation is over a short enough time scale. So, just as the accounting system of the airline 'allows' you to 'borrow' the money for a plane ticket provided you pay it back quickly enough, quantum mechanics allows a particle to 'borrow' energy so long it can relinquish it within a time frame determined by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. /.../ But quantum mechanics forces us to take the analogy one important step further. Imagine someone who is a compulsive borrower and goes from friend to friend asking for money. /.../ Borrow and return, borrow and return - over and over again with unflagging intensity he takes in money only to give it back in short order. /.../ a similar frantic shifting back and forth of energy and momentum is occurring perpetually in the universe of microscopic distance and time intervals. [6]

This is how, even in an empty region of space, a particle emerges out of Nothing, "borrowing" its energy from the future and paying for it (with its annihilation) before the system notices this borrowing. The whole network can function like this, in a rhythm of borrowing and annihilation, one borrowing from the other, displacing the debt onto the other, postponing the payment of the debt. What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): one can cheat insofar as the second is in a delay with regard to the first. What makes quantum physics so strange is that one can cheat "in reality," with one's being.

The big counterpoint to quantum physics, Einstein's theory of relativity, also offers unexpected parallels with the Lacanian theory. The starting point of the theory of relativity is the strange fact that, for every observer, no matter in what direction and how fast he moves, light moves at the same speed; in an analogous way, for Lacan, no matter if the desiring subject approaches or runs from his object of desire, this object seems to remain at the same distance from him. Who doesn't remember the nightmarish situation from dreams: the more I run away, the more I remain at the same place? This paradox can be neatly solved by the difference between the object and the cause of desire: no matter how close I get to the object of desire, its cause remains at a distance, elusive. Furthermore, the general theory of relativity solves the antinomy between the relativity of every movement with regard to observer and the absolute velocity of light, which moves at a constant speed independently of the point of observation, with the notion of curved space. In a homologous way, the Freudian solution to the antinomy between the subject's approaching or running away from his objects of desire and the "constant speed" (and distance from him) of the object-cause of desire (objet petit a) resides in the curved space of desire: sometimes (as a rule, even), the shortest way to realize a desire is to by-pass its object-goal, to circulate around it, to postpone its encounter. What Lacan calls objet petit a is the agent of this curving: the unfathomable X on account of which, when we confront the object of our desire, more satisfaction is provided by dancing around it than by directly going at it.

Today's physics is caught in a strange duality: theory of relativity gives the best description of how nature functions at the macroscopic (cosmic) level, and quantum physics the best description of how it functions at the microscopic (subatomic) level - the problem is simply that the two theories are incompatible, so that the central is how to accomplish the passage to a "unified" TOE - theory of everything that would unite the two. We should not be surprised, then, to find an echo of this duality in the central duality of the Freudian theory: on the one side, the hermeneutics of the unconscious, interpretations of dreams, slips of tongue, symptoms (exemplified in Freud's three early masterpieces: The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious); on the other side, the energetics of the unconscious, a more positivist study of our psychic apparatus as a machine for dealing with libidinal energies, bringing about the metamorphoses ("vicissitudes") of drives (whose first big deployment is Freud's volume on the theories of sexuality). At the conceptual level, this split is best exemplified by the two terms that Freud sometimes uses as interchangeable, the Unconscious (whose formations are to be interpreted) and the Id (the site of the unconscious energies). How to bring together these two slopes of the Freudian edifice? Among many neologisms of late Lacan, there is le sinthome, "sinthom" as opposed to symptom. Sinthoms are a kind of "atoms of enjoyment," the minimal synthesis of language and enjoyment, units of signs permeated with enjoyment (like a tic we compulsively repeat). Are sinthoms not quanta of enjoyment, its smallest, most elementary, packages? Are they not, as such, a Freudian equivalent to superstrings, destined to bring together the two slopes of modern physics, relativity theory and quantum mechanism? Although Lacan is often reproached for neglecting the link between psychoanalysis and natural sciences on which Freud always insisted, this link is well and alive in his work.


[1] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 197-198. Here is a case of how, in reading Lacan, one should pass from a Seminar to the corresponding écrit - the écrit corresponding to the Seminar XI is "Position of the Unconscious," which contains a very dense, but also more precise, formulation of the myth of lamella. L'objet petit a, where a stands for "the other", thus the "object small other (following Lacan's wish, the term is left unstranslated) is Lacan's neologism with multiple meanings. Principally it designates the object-cause of desire, not directly the object of desire, but that which, in the object we desire, make us desire it.

[2] Stephen Mulhall, On Film, London: Routledge 2001, p. 19.

[3] Lacan, J., Le triomphe de la religion, précedé du Discours aux catholiques, Paris: Seuil 2005, p. 93-94.

[4] ibid, p. 96-7.

[5] Campbell, Joseph, The Power of Myth, New York: Doubleday 1988, p. 222.

[6] Greene, Brian, The Elegant Universe, New York: Norton 1999, p. 116-119.

Jacques Lacan's Bibliography in English

Jacques-Alain Miller's Bibliography in English

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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