......• The Concept of Semblant in Lacan's Teaching
.........Russell Grigg

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I do three things in this paper. I give what I think is arguably the best way to understand the concept of a semblant in Lacan's teaching; I reject or at least seriously qualify a second way in which the notion of semblant in Lacan is frequently understood, which is to see it as akin to the phallus; and I finish by criticizing the very, very broad way in which Lacan uses this term in his late teaching.

The semblant in Lacan

First, though a word on its significance. The importance of the concept is indicated by Lacan's description of objet a as a semblant that fills the void left by the loss of the primary object. If we can explore the nature of this semblant, we shall be able to come to a better understanding of some aspects of objet a. For Lacan a semblant is an object of enjoyment that is both seductive and deceptive. The subject both believes and doesn't believe in semblants but in any case opts for them over the real thing because paradoxically they are a source of satisfaction, better than the real thing that one avoids any encounter with at all cost. Or more accurately, because the semblant fills a lack, we should say that the semblant comes to the place where something should be but isn't, and where its lack produces affects focusing on anxiety.

First, though, a comment on the term "semblant" itself is in order. The not so common English word "semblant" means being like or resembling; seeming rather than being real; being (merely) apparent. In French the same word with the same spelling is both in common usage and richer in connotation. While it carries a similar connotation of appearance to its English counterpart, it also has the related but supplementary meaning of outer appearance, pretence, even imitation. Moreover, and this is what is most interesting about the French usage for our purposes, is that "un semblant" can carry the connotation of something man made and of not being an appearance that one is taken in by but is happy to make do with. The semblant resembles what it imitates. This notion of something that is not authentic but is also in some way nondeceptive is well captured by Jankelevitch who refers to "un semblant" as a transparent appearance.

This accident of French where a range of phenomena are expressed by one word for which in English we would have to use a circumlocution makes it easier to isolate two prominent but on reflection quite peculiar features of the semblant:

1. its strange ersatz quality such that we are capable of finding greater satisfaction in it than in the real thing; and, the fact that it has the quality of pretence, where we are happy to make believe (faire semblant as the French say) and pretend it is what it is not, even as we know it is not that thing.

It strikes me that these two features of the semblant are what makes it a distinctive term with such rich connotations - connotations that Villiers de L'Isle Adam is drawing on when he writes Les semblants de l'amour ne sont-ils pas devenus, pour presque tous, préférables l'amour même? [1] And Lacan draws upon rather than creates these connotations in his own use of the term. The aspect of pretence and make believe combines with the "surplus satisfaction" that can be derived from a semblant to explain why a semblant is not an appearance: the moon on the horizon gives the appearance of being larger than it is, but it is nevertheless not a semblant. And this no doubt also explains why "semblant" is not common currency in either English or French philosophy, at least not in metaphysics or epistemology. It seems never to have been used to designate anything like "appearance" in its familiar contrast with reality.

Consider Lacan's response in Seminar XI to Merleau Ponty's posthumously published Le visible et l'invisible, and to what Lacan describes as "the emergence (from the field of the visible) of something like the search for an unnamed substance from which I, the seer, extract myself." [2] While such remarks could clearly herald a critique of Merleau Ponty as offering a kind of crypto Heideggerian analysis of being, Lacan finds something quite different in Le Visible et l'invisible; his final assessment of Merleau Ponty's work associates him with Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the wilderness, because Lacan finds something wild and frenzied in Merleau Ponty's work accompanied by an interest, cut short by Merleau Ponty's early death, in new ways of thinking about the subject opened up by psychoanalysis.

Lacan's interpretation of Merleau Ponty is instructive because of its emphasis on what a split or fracture within being itself between semblant and reality, rather than in pursuing the old philosophical problem of representation and the opposition between appearance and reality. The former opposition, the semblantreality split, has a clinical basis but is also detectable, Lacan believes, even in the purely natural world. Alongside the account of Merleau Ponty we therefore find Lacan discussing Roger Caillois' work on the three functions of mimicry in the natural world, disguise, camouflage and intimidation. [3] Caillois' thesis is that the phenomenon of mimicry displays something inexplicable in merely functional or instrumental terms and gives the lie to the view that everything in nature can be explained in terms of an instinct for survival; rather, mimicry supports the conclusion of autonomous forces which he rather boldly calls "aesthetic."

Caillois presents an ingenious argument to substantiate this claim. He first points out that humans find astonishing and bewitching beauty in surprising places in nature. The perfect geometrical proportions of a Nautilus shell, the incredibly delicate and regular ribbing found in Radiolaria, or even the shell of a humble seaurchin - all seem to indicate a spontaneous geometrical beauty arising from out of the forces of nature itself. However, he continues, the beauty is purely accidental since the regular, and pleasing, geometrical shapes are a result of the governing principle of maximum strength from a minimum of material. This principle is utilitarian and, it seems a reasonable assumption to think that it has strong survival value. In marveling at the beauty of nature in this way we are therefore anthropomorphising a principle of economy and seeing in it a drive to create a beautiful form.

Caillois further claims, however, that this cannot be extended to everything in the natural world without exception. Consider butterfly wings. Marshalling evidence of various kinds, Caillois reasons that the beauty of the shapes and colors on butterfly wings cannot be explained entirely on instrumental grounds, and this leads him to conclude that there must exist an autonomous aesthetic force in nature. It is a very interesting thesis and well argued; though, based as it is a single example from the natural world, the conclusion seems too hasty and the argument requires more support.

A second aspect of Caillois's work dealing with the function of semblants in the natural world and the corresponding split between semblant and reality is particularly relevant to psychoanalysis. What Caillois emphasizes is the mediating role that disguise and masquerade play in the presentation of masculinity and femininity in animals' sexual behaviour. However, it is not possible to move seamlessly from the animal to the human world; on the contrary, the differences go to the heart of Lacan's concept of the semblant. In the animal world semblance is mere appearance because it lacks the element of makebelieve that makes semblance such a strange function in humans. This is the point of the discussion of objet a in the field of the visible in Seminar XI; objet a is located just at the point at which the fact of being taken in, of being duped, is recognized by the subject.

In the field of the visible, at least, objet a emerges at the point at which a representation appears as something other than it had previously seemed. This is the implication of taking the example of the trompe l'oeil which fascinates because it successfully both represents something other than what it is and declares the fact that it is doing so. This is in contrast with animals which are apt to be deceived by a simulacrum that need not look all that much like the object it stands for but can simply be a sign or act to trigger some response in the other. If we continue along this line of thought, we can appreciate how this suggests that humans appreciate verisimilitude not because one mistakes the representation for the thing itself but because one appreciates the likeness qua likeness. To take an example, while scarecrows scare crows because they flap and shake in the wind, scarecrows scare humans because the collapse of their success at imitating a human reveals, in a sometimes abrupt and startling manner, indications that they are a simulacrum of a human.

Owing to the resemblance with the uncanny in what I have just described, a parenthetical comment is relevant here. Freud persuasively argues for two features of the uncanny. It is produced where the literary or fictional device creates a realistic representation of reality and then exploits this backdrop of realistic portrayal to depict something unrealistic. This explains both why fantasy, by definition unrealistic, is never uncanny and why cinema, with its natural facility for realism, has the necessary conditions for creating something uncanny. The second feature is the special nature of its relation to the appendages of the human body, in particular the phallus in so far as it bears upon what is present in the maternal body but should be missing from it. What these two features share is the characteristic of being an intrusion of the real into the field of the visible, or the field of representation more generally.

If this is a correct view of the uncanny and its origin, then the semblant lies at the opposite pole because in the game of makebelieve characteristic of semblants the subject knows that a semblant both is and is not the object that causes his desire. This makes the semblant closer to Freud's fetish object than to the uncanny, as it both stands in for the missing object and signifies and memorializes it at the same time.

We can understand why an objet a acts as more than a substitute faute de mieux, where the original object-the uncastrated maternal phallus-is unattainable and the horror of castration drives the subject to seek a diminished and impoverished substitute. This would completely fail to explain the most significant and striking feature of fetishism, which is that the fetishist is generally more than pleased with the ingenious solution he has found and has no desire to abandon it. His troubles, if troubles he has, revolve around the delicate issue of getting the other party to accept his clever solution, and not around his own conflicts over his choice of object; and this is fundamentally different from the neurotic's agonizing over his object choice.

An objet a produces its effects around the fact that it captures this moment of deception, which leads Lacan to say, first, that the most intense encounter between masculine and feminine occurs when their encounter is mediated by masks, in which the function of seductive lure is prominent; and, second, that people can play with this mask knowing that the "gaze" lies beyond them. The concept has similarities with the fetish, and also with the Freud's use of the term "illusion". Freud distinguishes illusion from error: an illusion is not always an error; an error is not invariably an illusion. Illusions have their basis in a desire for a belief to be the case, to the point where, even if the belief is true, interest in its truth is irrelevant. As for the fetish, at least in some contexts a semblant functions to avoid the horror or anxiety produced by an encounter with the real.

Thus, for Lacan "semblant" carries the connotation of being seductive and therefore deceptive. We believe in semblants, or rather we opt for a semblant over the real because semblants are a means of satisfaction or a way of avoiding unpleasure; when a semblant collapses, anxiety emerges. It fills a lack by coming to the place where something should be but isn't, and where its lack produces a negative affect of some sort, but focusing on anxiety. Semblants are a form of substitution of something that provides a source of satisfaction for another object that would cause anxiety. The general formula is


Semblant as phallus?

A second way to look at semblants is picked up by J.A. Miller when he says that the function of semblants is to "veil nothing" and also to convert this nothing into something. [4] Again, the double aspect of semblants appears in this definition which emphasizes the functions of veiling and also of drawing our attention to this very veiling. Miller goes on to say that it is because of this double aspect of semblants that as a semblant the veil phallicizes, and phallicizes the body in particular.

Note however that a semblant is not the phallus. What are the grounds for saying this? First, I don't think Lacan held this view. I take Lacan to be holding to this distinction between semblant and phallus when in "Position of the unconscious" he remarks, "In restoring... the function of the 'partial' object (by introducing the concept of objet a)... I have not been able to extend it to... the object (φ) as 'cause' of the castration complex." [5] If I read this passage right, then I think Richard Klein is mistaken to quote it to the effect that this object φ will later become the objet a. [6] On my reading, it is rather the case that Lacan insists on treating the objet a and phallus as different.

I also think the two concepts are different enough from one another and mark a significant enough difference between the phenomena to make it worth keeping maintaining the distinction. The semblant, which I am urging should be understood as a substitute that has the two characteristics of being a source of satisfaction even as it is recognized to be a substitute for an object that doesn't exist, is itself the object of satisfaction. In the case of the phallus as _ which veils nothing but converts this nothing into something, the object causing the desired object is the object created ex nihilo beyond the veil. The semblant is on the side of the fetish object, while the phallus is on the side of masquerade.

The difference is important in the sexual field. In female homosexuality, where the supreme interest is invariably in the fundamental issue of femininity, the relationship is dominated by the object as cause of desire. As a result there is a natural ease with which such women invoke their masculinity. Compare this with male transsexualism, on the other hand, where the phallic masquerade leads to the adoption of a parodic, exaggerated and at times delusional style of femininity. [7]

Lacan's extension of the term

There is an extended use of the term in Lacan's later work in which he broadens the meaning of the term and speaks of semblance merely as a standin or substitute. Because the deceptive and satisfying aspect of the concept is lost, an important feature of the concept disappears.

It is not difficult to see why J.A. Miller claimed that the Lacanian epoch of psychoanalysis came into its own with the recognition that the Other does not exist and that only its semblance does. The significance of the moment arises from the fact that it produced the subsequent recognition that the Name-of-the-Father is a lure, whereas it had originally been designed to guarantee the Other's existence-the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father in psychosis producing serious disturbances at the level of the Other. This leads Lacan to the thesis there is no Other, only its semblance. "One can only make do without the Name of the Father qua real [8] on condition that one makes use of it as semblant."

This is an important point the implications of which will unfold through a series of seminars such as Seminar XVII where Lacan criticizes the Freudian Oedipus complex as being useless and one of Freud's dreams.

However, "semblant" had assumed so much importance for Lacan by the end of his teaching that it had come to include just about everything that had been previously distinguished, and this is a problem. Language, the Other, the Name-of-the-Father, the phallus, all come to be regarded as semblants. Both the growing importance Lacan progressively assigns to the concept and the notsogradual growth in its extension are in indirect proportion to the continued usefulness of the concept. Whatever the significance of a new orientation in Lacan's late teaching, and whatever the new clinical and theoretical orientations it opens out onto, the value of this new orientation is not assured by merely extending the meaning of the concept.

These brief remarks call for elaboration. They are no doubt insufficiently nuance and detailed. However I think the general line of the argument is essentially correct.


[1] A. Villiers de L'Isle Adam, Contes cruels, Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883, p. 341.

[2] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, London: Hogarth Press, 1977, p. 82.

[3] See R. Caillois, The Mask of Medusa, London: Gollancz, 1964.

[4] "Nous appelons semblant ce qui a fonction de voiler le rien", J.A. Miller, "Des semblants dans la relation entre les sexes", La Cause freudienne 36, 1997, p. 7. I think the translation "veiling nothing" has the double advantage over "veiling the nothing" both of capturing better the sense of the original French and of being better English.

[5] Jacques Lacan, Écrits, New York: Norton, 2006, p. 721, n. 4.

[6]See "Gaze and Representation", in V. Voruz and B. Wolf (eds.), The Later Lacan, New York: SUNY Press, 2007, p. 181.

[7] Jacques Lacan, op. cit., p. 619.

[8] E. Laurent and J.A. Miller, "The Other who doesn't exist and his ethical committees", in R. Golan et al. (eds.), Almanac of Psychoanalysis, Jerusalem: Technosdar, 1998.


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