AND THE EVENT OF THE BODY
I. Examining the algorIthms of life the concept of life
The Concept of Life
Finding myself again with the work of Freud, Lacan, and the prac- tice of psychoanalysis, I see that I have carefully circumvented an explanation of the coordinates of the concept of life. I must say that this is an eminently problematic concept, and one of which Lacan said, in his 1955 Seminar: “The phenomenon of life remains in its essence completely impenetrable. It continues to escape us no matter what we do.” One might ask if Lacan knew at that time of the decisive step of Watson and Crick‘s truly epochal discovery of the structure of DNA. Their very brief initial article, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids,” appeared in the journal Nature in 1953 and inaugurated the triumphal years of genetics. We are today at the dawn of the century which will see the sensational practical consequences of this step.
Is the phenomenon of life therefore penetrable after the discovery of this structure? Quite the contrary. In 1970, one of the crafters of the triumphs of molecular genetics, François Jacob, could say, in his book The Logic of Life: “We do not question life any more in the laboratory; we no longer try to encompass its contours. We only try to analyze living systems.”1 It is a fact that, when we analyze the living being, not in its superb stature—its unity evident at the macroscopic level—but rather at the level of the molecule, the processes in play highlight the physics and the chemistry involved but do not at all distinguish themselves from the processes which unfold in inanimate matter, in inert systems.
Lacan’s statement, then, is perfectly true in spite of the progress of molecular biology. As François Jacob said, the decline of the concept of life does not date from the middle of this century, but from the advent of thermodynamics: “The operational value of the concept of life had to decline after the birth of thermodynamics.”
This perspective is perfectly coherent with that explained by Lacan in the beginning chapters of his Seminar The Ego,2 where hepointed out that Freudian biology is first of all an energetics. Thisis the route he would take up, in his own way, as he resumes that year and afterwards the lessons of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.Because Freudian biology is first of all an energetics, Lacan allowshimself to say that Freudian biology is not a biology. This is so if we understand by biology a discipline which has life as its object, but it is certainly less correct now that we have in some way a biology without life, a biology which has as its object—this is one of Jacob’s expressions, but it could just as well be Lacan’s—“the algorithms of the living world.” This expression reveals the notion of a procedure, marked by a certain vagueness, central to biology. In this context Lacan formulated in Encore (1972)3 what could passfor an analytic concept of life which seems to define life as jouis- sance: “We don’t know what it means to be alive except for the following fact, that a body is something that enjoys itself (cela se jouit).” It is that a definition of life? It is rather the opposite. Wedo not know what life is. We only know that there is no jouissancewithout life. And why not formulate the principle in this way: life is the condition of jouissance. But that is not all. It is precisely a matter of life under the form of the body. Jouissance is unthinkable without the living body, itself the condition of jouissance. This point of departure justifies reopening the biology dossier.
1. Life and the one of the Body
In our discipline, which is clinical, life presents itself to us in the form of the individual body, and we can remain there. We are even obliged to remain there.
It is there that one can make a distinction between life and body, as in the expression “living body.” Life is not reduced to body in its beautiful and evident unity. There is evidence of the individual body, of the body as One, which is a sign of the imaginary order.
Let us take care to be a little flexible in questioning thestatus of the individual in regard to life, and especially the status of this One who appears in some way natural. All of Lacan’s Seminar called Encore is pervaded by this insistent interrogation: must we think that the One comes to us from the pretext of this imaginary evidence of the unity of the body? What is the value of the otherposition, the thesis that the One comes to us from the signifier andnot from the One of the body? Lacan did a lot to test this evidence. In particular he wrote a sentence about zoology which merits atten- tion and development. “Zoology can proceed from the pretense of the individual to make being (être) of life (vivant), but the individual is diminished by this discipline to the level of a polypary.”
When we are dealing with animal, with the living (vivant), it is the individual, the body-one. We can say that the living being is realized in an individual. But what can we then make of the polyps, the polyparies that inspired our 18th century materialists—Trem- bley’s famous polypary which was conceived as simultaneously mineral, vegetable and animal? What to make of the colony of coral in which corporeal individuality becomes eminently problematic?We find ourselves before a sort of collective semi-individualized being which seems to be there in order to fill the gaps in the chainof beings.
A whole line of thought has been devoted to the notion that ev- erything is continuous in matter, leading us from the inanimate to the living without addressing the problem of continuity. Diderot’sd’Alembert’s Dream was written to show at what point life exceeds the poor One of body and appears to the contrary like an extraordi- nary drive of proliferation. D’Alembert’s dream, properly stated, Diderot and d’Alembert’s conversation, begins with the image of a swarm of bees described as a clump that appears as a being, an individual, an animal. It is evidently an illusion. It is an assem- blage, but, if we blur the little legs the bees are holding on with, if we pass insensibly from contiguity to continuity, we can see a whole and an animal-one. We know it, not from d’Alembert, since he’s dreaming, but from Doctor Bordeu who narrates d’Alembert’s oneiric deliria to Melle de Lespinasse. Hence, he imagines the swarm of bees transformed into a veritable polyp and dreams, in the same vein, the human polyp. This puts you in the atmosphere of d’Alembert’s dream where you see progressively the One be-come multiple in nature and the multiple as one, finally a perpetualreversibility from one to the other.
All this elides enormously at the end of d’Alembert’s dream,since everything is found in the general flux: everything changes,everything passes, only the all remains, culminating in the One-all which stops at the boundaries of the world. Ultimately there is only one huge living animal which is nature itself: “And you speak of individuals? None exists. There is only a sole great individual, it is the all.”
It happened that Lacan, precisely during the years when he was trying to give jouissance its stature, while he was presenting his lectures and pursuing his avocation of buying old books, looked through this materialist literature. He evoked Maupertuis.
This marks the distance we have come from the monism of matter, of a matter which includes life. Take, for example, Diderot, with his vitalist Spinozism in which everything, even stone, is supposed to be sensate. Thus he begins his conversation with d’Alembert, who says to him: “But you are not going to tell me that stone is sensate—But why not? It cries, we just don’t hear it.”
By degrees he demonstrates, appealing to nutrition, that mineral contributes to the growth of vegetable, and vegetable,absorbed by herbivore, finds itself in the living body. Thus wehave an extraordinary continuity of sensibility, the same principle shared by the philosophies of nature which oblige us to distinguish two states of sensibility: one inert and one active, in which the inert (stone) may become active. This leads us also to the sensational 19th century lucubrations of Schelling on the ages of the world, in which consciousness is already encompassed in the notions of the inanimate, so that, in this world, the death of the individual is reduced to nothing more than an illusion.
Says Diderot: “And life? Life, a series of actions and reactions. Living, I act and react in mass—mass of my body, the animalcules that form me. Dead, I act and react in molecules. Thus I don’t die at all. No, without doubt. I don’t die at all in this sense, neither myself nor whatever I’m made up of.” It is a vision of life eternal if one doesn’t stop at the imaginary form of the body, but rather allows theanimalcules, the fibers, the molecules to continue their little journey.
In this way life and also jouissance are everywhere in nature. Jouissance is coextensive with omnipresent life. Citing Diderot: “There is nothing in nature which does not suffer or feel pleasure.” There we have jouissance understood as all of nature and as each of its states. The word “hylozoism” dates from around 1760 in Diderot’s Encyclopedia. This erudite word derives from hyle (matter) and zoe (life) and refers to the doctrine of living mat- ter made God. And, as Lacan said, for the materialists of the 18th century, their God was matter.
Amazingly enough, the idea of the great living and immortal All was also the doctrine of the stoics, the very ones who inventedthe difference between the signifier and the signified. How couldthey, on the one hand, use language to articulate and disarticulate, while on the other hand adhere simultaneously to this doctrine of the great animate world and of life everywhere? Here we have proofthat they apprehended the unity of the signifier One at the level oflanguage, because in nature, they only apprehended the unity of the All. And this supports Lacan’s thesis that one apprehends theOne from the signifier and not from nature. The closer you get, themore you see what One is made of. We have every reason to use hylozoism as a point of reference in the question we are advancing, since it is clearly the implicit basis of Sade’s theory elaborated by Lacan in the section of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis4 on transgres- sion and jouissance in transgression. Sade refers to the system of Pope Pius VI, the criminal Pope whose postulate is that nature itself desires destruction, death. Sade distinguished in this regard two deaths: that of the individual, who is already jouissance, havingfinished with the other, and that of the matter itself, of the cadaver which results from the death of the individual. You find Sade’s texton pages 210-211 of his Seminar VII. The radical criminal wants not only to be the other at the level of life, of the individual body,but also in the matter that subsists after the first crime. Diderot’shylozoism is the basis of the theory of two deaths.
The idea of two deaths is like the two sides of Diderot’s double life: “Living, I act and react in mass. Dead, I act and react in molecules.” Diderot’s system is the exact reverse of Sade’s. Sadegives us the first and second death; Diderot the first and second life.
2. The Emergence of Body in Pieces
Descartes and substance-jouissance
Lacan refers to Descartes to introduce life-jouissance or what he calls substance-jouissance. This is the opposite of hylozoism, be- cause there is no question of living matter. He is not going to look for it in Diderot’s jouissance, which is everywhere, universal, in every point in nature. We do not lack different levels of material in Diderot’s work; we have continuous praise of the infinite pos- sibilities of jouissance, from the most minuscule and insensible to the most vast. Descartes, however, reduces matter to thought, and this reduction excludes by principle the jouissance of body, since body emerges from thought.
And so Lacan can say, in his text “De la psychanalyse dans ses rapports avec la realité”5 that the body, reduced to thought, was profoundly misunderstood by Descartes. The constitutive misun- derstanding of the reduction of matter and body to thought is in separating the body from its jouissance. But one must state at that the misunderstanding is also found in the operations to which we currently submit the body more and more frequently.
I read a kind of prophesy in what Lacan wrote in 1967 on this subject: “with the shocks of the imminent excesses of our surgery, we are disposed to make the body into its own pieces.” It is not only that the being of life is not the One of the individual, but also that the being of life, when the body is a speaking being, is this body in pieces. This is not the profusion of Diderot: “We are all polyparies, we are all colonies of animalcules badly individuated.” It is the One put in question by the body in pieces.
An Essay of Swiftian Inspiration
The body in pieces—we know it at the level of fantasme. It is the expression Lacan coined in order to put in parentheses the imaginary phenomena on which Melanie Klein insisted. We are talking about the body in pieces as realized through surgical operation. Biol- ogy, having celebrated the unity of the living over a long period of time, now distinguishes itself every day with the dismemberment (morcellement) of this unity.
Just today I came upon an extraordinary essay in this week’s Time magazine. You know that we can transplant the most important organs, since the epochal heart transplant of Dr. Barnard.
The problem today is that we do not have enough of these organs to transplant. 62,000 Americans are waiting for organs in order to survive! Who will give them these organs?
The author of this Time article has an idea—we must buy them. Of course there must be someone to sell them. So, a sensational proposition: authorize families to sell the organs of their deceased.
There is an objection. Only the poorest people will be tempted to sell the kidneys and the hearts of their dear departed for $300—the value the author proposes. The response to that is: all suffering in the world affects the poor more than the rich. The poor live less well, they dress less well, they have the most dangerous jobs, and they have the smallest cars. Thus, if one insists, we can pay them $3,000 rather than $300. The audacious author admits a limit: he doesn’t propose buying the organs of the living, because that would be an affront to human dignity.
This little text which happened to fall into my hands by accident is of Swiftian inspiration. You know Swift’s A Modest Proposal: “how to ease parents and the nation of their charges and use these children for the public good?” Swift’s text proposes that one year old children contribute to the public good, to the diet and in part to the attire of several thousand people. He proposes that they be eaten. Swift’s work is a satire on the cynicism of the wealthy of his time; it is strikingly similar to the American essay which seriously approaches such action.
For the Public Good and the Individual Good
Thus we announce the emergence of the body in pieces. We can sayau revoir to what has been the celebration of the unity of the body, since what is in progress is the contrary, its cutting up, evidently for the greater good. Every day we have news of the body in pieces. A more amiable form of cutting up permitted by genetic genius. We speak of genetic genius because we cannot stop at the image of the beautiful form of the body, since we know how to operate on the real of the body. Tissues can be engineered. Skin has been made and sold since May of 1998. Last year fabricated skin was approved for sale. Cartilage and bone can be produced with the help of semi-synthetic material. Ligaments and tendons are at the ready, but the great object of study now is the creation of complete internal organs, neo-organs.These phenomena impart a special seriousness to what we can articulate about our relationship to body, which is not transh- istoric, and our work will be more and more conditioned by this emergence of the body in pieces. It is no longer a matter of the nasty Marquis de Sade who is going to cut up poor Justine. It is evidently for the public good and the individual good, that is to say it is irresistible.
The assemblage of some elements of Lacanian biology should be useful here. Let us take a look at the algorithms of life.
The Cartesian element here is what is anti-Aristotelian. The former proceeds from a perspective that dissects the unity of the living, while the Aristotelian view emphasizes the unity of living, the soul as a form of the body. In his Seminar Encore Lacan contrasts these two perspectives by referring repeatedly to Aristotle’s On the Souland at the same time measuring developments in biology whichinfluence the philosophical form of our imaginary of the body,already out of date because of the effects of the algorithms of life.
This Aristotelian perspective is hopelessly dated. Lacan considered, regardless, that a whole branch of contemporary phi-losophy was devoted to reinflating, to redesigning this Aristotelianperspective for current consumption. Gestalts, the psychology of form, Goldsteinism, and even being-in-the-world, or the phe- nomenology of perception, consistently attempted to return to the harmony of the soul and its body. Descartes in other words was a brute to have made two separate substances and they were going to occupy themselves sewing it up to recover the unity of life.
Lacan, neither progressive, so he says, nor nostalgic, knows that one will go always too far in the Cartesian sense, that is to say to operate on the body, to dismantle it like a machine.
Following his Seminar II, he underlines the decisive char- acter of reference to the machine as the foundation of biology. This dismantling, this cutting up proceeds essentially from distancing what is the marvellous harmony of the living organism in its milieu in order to operate and dislocate, dismember and disarticulate.
Surprisingly François Jacob writes: “Molecular biology corresponds to a new mechanical age.” Conceptually, we are not in this mechanist scheme because we have new information or because we are operating on the molecular level. There are sensational changes in biology, but at the same time some phenomena have persisted for a long time and this scheme is one of them. Something proceeding from Descartes’ animal-machine is still there.
We will see how Freud oriented his biology in essential background research. The facts of dismemberment question the identity of the body in a much more probing way than the hylozoist lucubrations or the Aristotelian soul which is only, as Lacan says on page 110 of Encore, the supposed identity of the body.
We have learned something fundamental about the status of the body, of this body which gives the imaginary model of One. We identify the body and the being of life in some spontaneous, imagi- nary way. Lacan describes this in passing while talking about the rat in the labyrinth in the last chapter of the Seminar Encore. We can identify there the body and the being (être). This identificationis in Aristotle’s initial analysis of being. Today, on the contrary, we try to confuse the poor little rat, immersing it in the knowledge of the experimenter, a knowledge which has nothing to do with its life.
If we can identify being and body for the animal, we cannot do the same for the human species. As far as the speaking body is concerned, it does not emerge from being but from having.
Lacan puts a surprising touch on the formula “man has a body,” which is incarnated in English law under the formula of habeas corpus. He expounds on “man has a body” in one of his last texts, “Joyce-the-symptom,”6 but you find it already in Seminar II, page 73. He notes moreover that one has always had a body, but itis clearer today, because we have gone very far from the identification of man with his knowledge.
Here we can make sense of the background of Cartesian dualism. The dualism here is of knowledge and of body. The ques- tion of being for “man” is posed on the side of knowledge, whilethe body is on the side of having. This identification of man withhis knowledge is what made Lacan culminate with the concept of the algorithm of the subject. His position is on the order of being, even if it is formulated as lack-in-being.
One can say again more simply that the subject, from themoment in which it is subject of the signifier, cannot identify itselfas its body, and it is precisely from there that its affection for the image of its body proceeds. The enormous narcissistic bombast, characteristic of the species, proceeds from this lack of subjectiveidentification with the body. The lack of corporeal identificationis especially in evidence in hysteria. Lacan constantly critiques, implicitly or explicitly, the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty who tries to restore the co-naturalness of man to his world, who centers on the corporeal presence, who studies presence in the world in, by, and through a body. This presence is also evident in Heidegger’s philosophy of the Dasein, where it is displaced in accordance with what it has circumvented. The presupposition, as Lacan says, for Merleau-Ponty, is that there is somewhere a place of unity, whichis the identification of the being and body, and which has as resultthe effacement of the subject. If one sees things in this perspective, behaviorism is susceptible to the same critique. Even if the phe- nomenalists and the gestalt psychologists make sport of Watson, the idea of describing behavior in terms of stimulus-response, leavingaside all introspection, rests finally on an equivalence of being and body. Psychoanalysis makes its space in the lack of this identifica- tion between being and body, in maintaining that the subject has a relationship of having with the body.
3. Freud’s Biology
Freud put a lot of hope in biology. I quote: “Biology is truly a land of unlimited possibilities. We may expect it to give us the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years to the questions we have put to it.”7
THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE OPEN TO THE SPEAKING BODY
What is specifically of man must last, not in the form of molecules, but in the form of signifiers. Sade wanted to attain thissignifying margin on the other side of life and disappear. Sade’s demand, and even his injunction, his death drive, has a bearing onthe signifier and has nothing to do with biology.
WEISMANN’S CONCEPTUAL SCHEME
But Freudian biology is all the same a biology. At least it supported its speculation with biology, and it did not make a bad choice with Weismann and his theory of germ plasm. The great reference is chapter VI of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
We must recognize the relationship between Weismann’s germ and the present-day genome. Doubtless the germ and the genome are inscribed in different discourses. Weismann’s is pure speculation and Freud is interested in the attempts to show Weismann’s theory as experimentation. Watson and Crick are truly inscribed in a science, molecular genetics. The science leads to practice and emerges with genetic genius. The same scheme be- tween Weismann’s germ and Watson and Crick’s genome is of no hindrance to us. The same conceptual scheme is at work between the research that Freud chose in biology, our present biology, and that of the future.
I found this fact pleasantly confirmed in the beginning ofa reading of a slightly iconoclastic epistemology, André Pichot’sL’histoire de la notion de gène. Weismann had no idea that mutatis mutandis the substance which transported heredity, the chromo- somes, would be part of the same conceptual scheme that remains in the work of biology decades later. After some purely physical considerations on statistical laws, Erwin Schrödinger, in a small popular book of 1944, What is life?, anticipated exactly the con- cept of molecular genetics. Pichot says that Schrödinger gives the theoretical basis ten years before the elaboration of the structure of DNA. Departing from Weismann, enriched by chromosomal theory, Schrödinger deduces what will take form in 1953 in the double helix of Watson and Crick, putting us in the perspectives of the next century in which the relationship of the body and its dismemberment will be expanded.
Freud is brought to the central axis of biology as if by divination. Even the neo-Darwinists of today refer to Weismann. The talented popularizer, Richard Dawkins, the author of The Self- ish Gene, writes at length: “The central idea that I have used has been outlined by Weismann.” What Freud deduced is truly the point of departure of the central route of biology today. In chapter VI of Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud explains the theory of the two categories of drives: the death drive seeking to restore the inanimate state and the life drive, or sex drive, tending toward sexual conjunction and to “the coalescence of two germ-cells which are differentiated, tending to assure reproduction, to prolong the cell’slife and to lend it the appearance of immortality.” He finds an analogy of Weismann’s to support his elaboration of the life drive and death drive. “The greatest interest attaches from our point of view to the treatment given to the subject of the duration of life and the death of organisms in the writings of Weismann. He was he who introduced the division of living substance into mortal and immor- tal parts. The mortal part is the body in the narrower sense—the soma—which alone is subject to natural death. The germ-cells, on the other hand, are potentially immortal, in so far as they are able, under certain favorable conditions, to develop into a new individual, or, in other words, to surround themselves with a new soma.”8
What is the notion in question? There are two kinds of differentiated cells, those specializing in reproduction, the others developing into individual bodies. On the one hand, the germ cells of reproduction persist and are transmitted in some way as an autonomous lineage.
Jacob himself says: “The reproduction of unicellular beings is by simple fission, and each is capable of giving birth to a body, of encompassing an individual body, a soma, which is in some way an end in itself.” A lineage is perpetuated while the individual body is grafted in some way on this lineage:
This is intuition along with Weismann’s conceptual scheme, with reproduction entirely dependent on nature and the properties of the germ. And everything that happens to the individual body in the point of view of heredity is completely indifferent to lineage and disappears with it, while “natural selection operates on the hidden dispositions of the germ cell.” Heredity appears here separated from any incident, and, adds François Jacob, “from all desire.”
The royal road of biology proceeds from this simple scheme. It is surrounded by Weismann’s philosophy, a philosophy of biophore (he thinks there are particles carrying life in germ-cells) but these are just flourishes which add nothing of force to the scheme. In effect, in a whole other context, what one finds as the structure of DNA comes from Weismann’s germ.
THE NARCISSISTIC GERM-CELL
What interests Freud here is the analogy which has him impose the life drive on the germ and the death drive on the soma. He situates his theory of the drives here. Of course he notes that psychoanalysis is not interested in the life substance but in the forces that operate in the life substance, and these are the drives. He presents the theory of the drives as the dynamic that completes Weismann’s morphology. He is interested in detail in the trials of experimental demonstrations of this thesis. What disturbs him is very striking. What disturbs him is that Weismann shows unicellular organisms in which the soma and the germ are not different, are potentially immortal. It is a well supported concept today: the immortality of the initial bacteria, of the mother of all bacteria. What disturbs Freud is that the somatic death only intervenes in the pluricellular, that is to say that death is a late acquisition. He says: “There can be no question of there having been death drives from the very beginning of life on this earth.”9
We must follow in this chapter Freud’s really hair pulling reasoning to try to show that the protozoans could very well sus- tain the death drives from the beginning without being perceivedas doing so. It is a truly refined demonstration, but it shows thatwhat counts for him is the doctrine of life itself. The question ofjouissance which inhabits this matter of the death drive has to be linked for him to life as such. Thus the importance of remember- ing, with Lacan, we are interested in jouissance as linked to life but under the form of the body.
Freud’s whole effort wants to show that these drives are already present independent of the constitution, not only of a body,but even of a multicelled organism. He manages finally, maneuver- ing, to validate his analogy with Weismann. He invents the egoist gene. He invents neo-Darwinism. The idea of the potentially im- mortal gene which uses individual bodies to self-perpetuate the chicken appears as the means the egg has found to produce another egg, according to the philosopher Butler quoted by Jacob—is such a Freudian framework that he even speaks of the narcissism of the germ: the germ cells act in an absolutely narcissistic way in the sense of psychoanalysis. The notion of the narcissistic germ is the prefiguration of contemporary neo-Darwinism found in Dawkins’ bestselling The Selfish Gene.
What is the idea of the selfish gene? Dawkins has the genespeak. The gene tries to survive and to reproduce, so it programs bodies to that end. So far, so good. But, it becomes startling when the genetic population is dispersed throughout numerous individu- als, creating a genetic solidarity. He then studies the behavior of the body while deducing from it the egoism of the gene. If parents protect their children, it is in order to protect the genes. And on from there to love and social life. The gene that moves everything to self-perpetuate and achieve its goals is everywhere. In the same vein, you have, after the 70s sociobiology.
In a short circuit, in his introduction to what would becomethe Department of Psychoanalysis, Lacan curiously qualifies theimaginary and the real as “space of life” (lieu de la vie): “My imaginary and my real, through which are distinguished two spaces of life that science to this date strictly separates.” How can one say that the imaginary and the real are spaces of life? The concept rests on the distinction germ/soma. The imaginary is tied to the individual body, while the germ, and especially the genome, is the space of life, the real of life.
Perhaps even more startling as a short circuit is Lacan’s analogy found on page 90 of Encore: “The function I give the letter is what makes it analogous to a germ.” Lacan reworks the following scheme, making the letter analogous to the germ. It is Weismann’s germ Lacan brings to molecular physiology. It has surpassed this term “germ” since he speaks of the germ separate from the bodies for which it is the vehicle for life and death together.
This analogy of the letter and the germ is evidently made to give us the notion of a reproduction of the letter, but which supposes the exteriority of knowledge (savoir) in relationship to being, in relationship to body. It is a transmission of the letter, but in a posi- tion of exteriority. Thus Lacan says: “Knowledge (savoir) is in theOther. It is a knowledge which is supported by the signifier andwhich owes nothing to the knowing (connaissance) of life (vivant).”