Curated by Alejandra Seeber

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

Olaf Breuning

Author’s Bio


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

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

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

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


breuning_olaf2 Olaf Breuning

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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