Jacques-Alain Miller

II. Life As Condition Of Jouissance
Translated By Jorge Jauregui

My sole interest for life is its connection to jouissance in as much as it could be that life is what deserves to be qualified as real. I believe Lacan’s propositions do not object the formulation that life is the condition of jouissance. If life is condition of jouissance,it is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. I’ve been careful to distinguish life as such, to not say as force, and the body. Life overflows the body. What obliges you to attest there isn’t jouissance unless life appears under the form of a living body.


Let’s examine the proposition. What that the living body says to us? It says that the case is not only the imaginary body, under the form of its form. The case is not the body image, the one we know, to which we refer to since it is operative in the mirror stage— the specular body that doubles the organism. It is neither the symbolic body, the one whose persistent recurrence prompts the heraldry metaphor under Lacan’s pen. Coat of arms are codes. Body parts can certainly be represented, beside with other natural elements, yet they account for signifiers. They are imaginary signifiers whose matter is taken from the image. When we say “the living body,” we leave aside both the symbolized body and the body image. The body affected by jouissance is neither imaginary nor symbolic, but a living one. Nothing prevents locating jouissance as an affect of the body, and the question is to give this adjective that cannot be elided, its sense, alive, for us so less precise than the imaginary or the symbolic adjective. These echo Lacan’s teaching and may after all be founded under epistemology and even under the works of history of science that he used to support his distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic, whereas the living enters our discourse without being the least endowed with that incomparable precision.

The question is to give this adjective of the living its sense and also of detecting in which way, through which incidence, the affect of jouissance starts in the body. We have then, if we admit this perspective, the condition of the body.

I can at once mention a second condition that adds to thecondition of body so that something like the sufficient condition be attained. It is the signifier condition, if we settle for Lacan’s formula that the signifier is cause of jouissance. Thus the perspective—life as condition of jouissance, the condition of body, the condition ofsignifier—I will explore in this Lacanian biology.

At the end of it there is a clinic that revolves on a definitionI believe has been neglected from the symptom, thus fundamen- tal, that must be addressed. It is the one of the symptom as event of the body, which appears at least once in Lacan. If it has been neglected, it’s for sure that it looks partial. The symptom as event of the body seems to neglect evidence, as in the case of the obses- sional symptom excelling as symptom of the mind, even though the obsessional symptom of the mind is always accompanied bycorporal symptoms. And then, the definition of the symptom asevent of the body stands for an impasse on every other symptom that, in the different clinical structures, affect par excellence themind, the uttered, language. It is thus a logical definition of thesymptom, of which we are not prone to escape much as we appre- hend the symptom as jouissance, even when we apprehend it in the Freudian terms of Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, as drive satisfaction. If the symptom is drive satisfaction, if it is jouissanceas conditioned by life under the form of the body, that implies that the living body prevails in every symptom.

This is the horizon of what I call Lacanian biology: the recapture of the symptomatology from the body events. However, this will demand some redefinitions, certain precisions that seemingly prevent the definition to be considered as operative.


To well measure what I have spoken apropos life and its materialistic myths, I’ll say something about death. In relation to death, it is the right moment to settle up Lacan’s saying that Freudian biology has nothing to do with biology. Let’s clean up Lacan’s distinction between Freudian biology and biology in strict sense. It led Lacan to identify two deaths from the system of Pope Pius VIwhich appears in Sade’s Juliette. The first death, in this cogitation, is the one to strike life off the individual body and transform it into a corpse. The second is the one that will strike the molecules of the body reduced to corpse. You should reread this split of death.The Lacanian split is not the Sadean split. It finds support on the Sadean split, but is not subdued by it. The two deaths existence supposes the existence of two lives or of two forms of life: the firstone takes place under the form of the body and the second one under a form infra, infra-corporal, a molecular life. The Sadean speculation relies on this materialistic vitalism, encouraging what we may call “the crime”, which would be the desire to strike notonly to the first life but also to the molecular life.

If we distance ourselves from the criminal passion ani- mating the above mentioned speculation, the scheme of the split is outlined this way: a death beyond death, a life beyond life. Nevertheless, both in Diderot and in Sade, the double life and the double death belong to the biological register. A dreamed biology. The dichotomy thus introduced affects the actual difference (that exists) between life and the death. The split Lacan canvasses in his Ethics of Psychoanalysis is based on the fact that life as suchoverflows the life of the individual body and that the body is but atransitory form, a perishable form of life. Sade’s Wunsch, which ultimately Lacan calls death drive, aims at life as such beyond the body. When we speak of Sade, who is the carrier of such a name? It is the subject that assumes, that takes for itself the death drive, subjetctifying it as a crime, and extending it up to the elements of the rotten body of which it desires its disappearance, its annihilation. Do we find something similar in Freud? If Lacan looked inSade for the biological split, he did so because there is no track of this split in Freud. Freud does not distinguish between life and the body.

Let’s look into chapter V of Beyond the Pleasure Principle where Freud develops what he will term in 1925 an extreme line of thought,one susceptible of amendment and rectification.

What is this extreme line? It consists, firstly, in attributingthe clinical compulsion to repetition to the living body, to the living organism as such, or even to the living substance; secondly, envis- aging this repetition as a tendency towards the re-establishment of a previous state; thirdly, in identifying this state anterior to death as (with) no-life, that is biological death in as much as the non- living was there before the living. The demonstration attempted by Freud in chapters V and VI isolates a movement towards death that would affect the living as such. For him the individual body obeys (follows) the same logic (rationale) that governs life as such. Besides, it is what leads him to look for the manifestations of these drives since the origin of life. What comes up in Freud as the initial state, the natural state, is the inanimate state, as far as it is a state without tension, and life appears as an exterior disturbance arising in the inanimate. Freud says it explicitly in this extreme specula- tion: “The properties of life were roused in the inanimate matter by the action of a force.” He asserts himself that this force is truly unthinkable for us. He is still arguing with the vitalism that haunts the biology of his time. Lacan, coherent with his point of departure, at once denies biological relevancy to death, conceived as the re- turn of the animate to the inanimate. He develops it in Seminar II.

What forces Freud to think about death as fate of the living seized by a repetition which entails a bias towards death? What forces him to introduce this conception? What forces Freud to think of that, says Lacan, it is not the death of living beings but human life. By this expression he deems human exchange, intersubjectivty, the fact of language. On the one side Lacan admits repetition as a clinical phenomenon, yet, on the other, he bestows a complete different meaning to the connection between repetition and death.

Where Freud, in his extreme speculation, perceives rep- etition as an originally vital phenomenon, Lacan doesn’t. The Lacanian repetition is not coming from the behavior of the living organism. It is not a vital phenomenon but an anti-vital one, much as according to Freudian speculation in the human species repetition opposes adaptation. Repetition and adaptation are two importantregisters at times pursued with difficulty, yet persistently, along thispaper of Lacan.

All animal psychology celebrates the adaptation of the ani- mal organism to its milieu. Von Uexküll enliven reference is perma-nent with Lacan: he shows for instance the way the fly owns a world to itself by apprehending from the environment significant spaces towhich it appears gloriously adapted. Adaptation culminates therein harmony. Therefore adaptation, fitting, or, as Lacan argues in“L’étourdit,” trait by trait rapport between the Umwelt and the In- nenwelt, between the exterior world and the animal’s interior world. Thus, a perfect inside/out between the organism and its milieu.

It is in relation to this important experimental concept, arising from observation, that repetition, by contrast, takes on its dimension. It’s in relation to this wonderful, harmonic adapta- tion, that Freudian repetition re-read by Lacan takes on relief, to the extent that you don’t have to be a witch doctor to show that repetition is, for the human kind, a factor of failure to adapt; that repetition such as it originates in the clinic, appears fundamentally as determining a maladjusted behavior in relation to life require- ments, to the well-being of the body.

What Freud calls need of repetition, far from being a need like any other one appears on the contrary as an disharmonic constraint concerning the living being as such. In this respect Lacan admits the fact of repetition. He demonstrates that with regard to adaptation, repetition belongs to a register which is not at all bio- logical, yet can only be thought in the register of language. This is already outlining, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the place of the superego as principle of anti-vital repetition.


This is what leads Freud to introduce his concept of the super- ego—till then related to what suited self-preservation in the living being—in the exact lieu of the ego. Thus he equates the drives of the ego to the drives of the living being sufficing its subsistence.In chapter V of Beyond the Pleasure Principle you see Freud’s embarrassment with the term of the ego drives; throughout his difficult argumentation the drives of the ego become the drive of death. He starts putting the drives of the ego in brackets. He states, nevertheless, about 1925, in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, that it is just a provisory appellation simply rooted in the first Freudian terminology. The drive of death, as it looms in Freud’s text, is the drive of the superego. Self-preservation, in itself a prerogative of the ego and a reissue of the Aristotelian soul, is dissolved. What emerges instead is a drive that restores the living to death—the opposite of self-preservation. Lacan reads it like detours of the signifying system, which is the Freudian name for the superego. There is in Freud, supported and valued as such, a dualism of drives. There is death drive, which I translate as drive of the superego, and there is the sexual drives, life drives adverse to the drives that lead to death—hence they are not drives of self-preservation, but of reproduction. Freud bases this dualism on Weismann’s biology, on the difference between soma and the germ-cell.


Here we can question the place of libido between the death drive and the sexual drives. This place seems particularly complex since, on one side, libido is present in so called self-preservation drives that refer to the ego as reservoir of libido, yet on the other it is equally present in the sexual drives that preserve life. To this effect Freud remarks that the opposition between drives of the ego and sexual drives proves to be inadequate, and he intends to rebuff the inconvenience which consists in locating the libido inside the dualism and replacing this opposition by that of life drives and the death drive.

You must notice the striking transformation that Lacan performs on this theory of drives allegedly grounded on biology. When we say drive we are not taking into account, in spite of Freud’s repeated warnings, the dualism of the drives: Lacan’s perspective outclasses the dualism of the drives. Lacan takes great pains to extract the drive as such from what Freud accepted under the form of this dualism. Besides he surrounds it with all the precautions so as to render infeasible its avoidance so pretext that by doing so you would fall down into Jungism, pansexuality, etc.

Often I spoke about the drives in Lacan without underlining the evident and major fact that he annuls the Freudian dualism of the drives. He says it his way, discreetly, in The Four Fundamental Concepts: “The distinction between the life drive and the death drive is true in as much as it manifests two aspects of the drive. But allthe sexual drives bring out death as signifier.”10 He is even clearer in the contemporary écrit to the above mentioned Seminar, “Posi- tion de l’inconscient” where he argues that “every drive is virtually drive of death.”11 This means but the annulment of the Freudian dualism. He represents it to us under the form of his myth of the lamella, which is a mythical representation of the libido. He draws his inspiration from the reference Freud takes from Plato’s Banquetso to fashion his myth from that of Aristophanes. He represents for us the libido as an organ, as an object, but an object endowed witha deadly sense. He defines the libido under the form of the myth, as a being carrier of death.

Lacan’s complex exertion touches on both death and libido. It consists in showing that death is by no means the prerogative of the death drive, that it is present in the sexual drives and, sym- metrically, the libido is present in the death drive. This doubledemonstration, scattered along Lacan’s teaching, finally results inthe annulment of the dualism of the drives as well as allowing us today to say “the drive.” Freud himself indicates that the libido isfound in the death drive when he defines, in chapter V, repetitionas repetition of a primary satisfaction, a somehow washed out and inadequate repetition. Straightaway he posits failure as the foun- dation of repetition. The satisfaction attained by repetition is notequivalent to the mandatory satisfaction. There is always a deficit.Here Freud perceives the origin of what shoves ahead the human being, of what precludes satisfaction in any established situation, forcing him to move ahead in his path towards death, before the aim of a complete satisfaction could be attained.

The essential Freudian dichotomy is re-absorbed some- how by Lacan who evinces that death and the libido have close links. This is the real sense of his myth of the lamella: the libido is a deadly being. This formula distorts, gets over the boundaries Freud established for the dualism he drags with him ever since the difference between drives of the ego and sexual drives, and life drives and death drive. This monism of the drive is certainly a mo- ment of consequence in Lacan’s teaching. His point of departure is eminently binary: language and libido, symbolic and imaginary. The very movement of his teaching rolls towards the production of monist categories. Somehow we witness entire sections of his teachings collapse when these monist categories arise, the first of which is that of a reunified drive.






1. Jacob, François, The Logic of Life, NJ: Princenton Univ. Press, 1993.
2. Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique
of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, NY: Norton, 1988.
3. Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and
Knowledge: Encore, 1972-1973, NY: Norton, 1998.
4. Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY:
Norton, 1992.
5. Lacan., J., “De la psychanalyse dans ses rapports avec la realité,” in Scilicet, Paris,
6. Lacan, J., “Joyce, le symptôme,” in L’Ane, Paris, 1982.
7. Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, S.E. XVIII, London: The Hogarth
Press, 1986. 8. ibid
9. ibid
10. Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,
1964, NY: Norton, 1978.
11. Lacan, J., “Position de l’inconscient,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.