Jacques Lacan

Authored by: Dominiek Hoens

Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalytic Political Theory

Print publication date:  September  2019
Online publication date:  September  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138696310
eBook ISBN: 9781315524771
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In this introductory chapter, Lacan’s central theory of the subject is expounded via a detailed discussion of two of his early texts, Logical Time and Number Thirteen. The chapter argues that the Lacanian subject is ‘not without others’ and the collectivity supporting any individual identity is based on an immanently shared property. From the perspective of later phases in Lacan’s theorizing, these others are to be considered as imaginary and to be supplemented by the notion of the symbolic Other and the real objet a. In that sense, the chapter tackles the major conceptual innovations of Lacanian teaching from a point of view highlighting the sociopolitical conditioning of the subject on which psychoanalysis operates. Regarding politics, one of the crucial issues concerns the constitution of a symbolic universality, providing the meaningful framework within which politics is played out, that is whether this universality is One or rather fundamentally incomplete. The chapter argues, on the one hand, that the universality of the Other is always partial, producing significant leftovers. On the other hand, within the Other there occur moments when the signifying effect of a signifier is suspended, thus creating dilemmas for subjective positioning (identification) and political action.

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Jacques Lacan

If a political scientist were to look in a rather naïve way for a theory of the human being in Lacan’s works—for example, to obtain a precise idea of what that being that lives in common with others is—he or she may end up with both less and more than expected. Less because as Lacan once put it in unambiguous terms, ‘If there are people who do not know what man [l’homme] is, indeed they are psychoanalysts’ (Lacan 1967–1968: lesson of 6 March 1968; see also Lacan 2007: 63). There is a simple reason for this absence of knowledge about the human being in Lacanian psychoanalysis, namely it does not treat ‘man’, the human being, the individual, not even the psyche (as one may expect from a discipline named ‘psychoanalysis’), but rather the subject. Although in colloquial language, the latter notion is often used interchangeably with the former ones, the Lacanian subject has to be distinguished from them. A large part of Lacan’s contribution to the psychoanalytic field consists precisely in making this distinction and in explaining why and how the subject is neither a universal human being nor a particular individual. This also suggests why one may get more out of Lacan regarding politics than expected, because this subject, as we shall see, is conceived as intrinsically social and political. Succinctly put, the subject’s social and political life is not a layer on top of a supposedly apolitical way of being; on the contrary, from a Lacanian point of view, only when taking into account a sociopolitical context does it make sense to refer to a subject.

Not Without Others

If the crucial point about Lacanian theory is to approach it as a theory of the subject, to be distinguished from the human being, then it is all the more surprising to observe that this ‘subject’ does not appear in the early stages of Lacan’s work; instead, it is enquiries about the ‘human being’ that take the central place. Indeed, before introducing the notion of the subject, most of Lacan’s first contributions to psychoanalysis raise the question of what it means to be a human being or, more precisely, how one ends up taking oneself for a human being. This question is particularly prominent in two of his early texts, The Number Thirteen and the Logical Form of Suspicion (Lacan 2001: 85–99) and Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty (Lacan 2006: 161–175). The reader may wonder why one should pay attention to two texts that do not belong to what is generally considered as the more mature period of Lacan’s thought 1 and that were originally published in the non-psychoanalytical and non-academic art journal Cahiers d’Art. Yet there are two reasons to do this here. First, the texts are marked by and expressly refer to the political, (post-)World War II context during which they were written, and second, they not only reveal at what point Lacan situates the subject but also anticipate and orient later developments of his thought.

Although Number Thirteen got published one year after Logical Time, in 1946, we will start our overview with this text, because it is considered by Lacan as anterior (Lacan 2001: 86). The problem that Number Thirteen discusses in detail concerns, generally put, the identification of a false coin among a variable number of coins, with a balance one can use only a limited number of times. More concretely, if given 13 coins, how can one find the false one, using a balance three times? This coin-weighing problem is well-known among mathematicians, and although it is most interesting in itself, we will engage with only a fragment of its solution. 2 The first step consists in weighing four coins against four others. There are two possible outcomes: equilibrium or not. If there is an equilibrium, one knows the false coin belongs to the five remaining pieces. How to find this odd piece in two remaining weighs only? The following weigh is done with three remaining pieces and one good coin, that is, one that belongs to the eight tested before—which turned out to be of equal weight and therefore OK. Lacan names this method ‘3 + 1’, because to three suspect coins one good coin is added, which helps to eventually discover the false weight among the suspect. For our purposes, the question of how this is done is not relevant, but Lacan’s comments on this procedure need to be spelled out. The inserted coin, Lacan argues, does not function as ‘specified or specifying norm’ according to which the other suspect coins are either in conformity or not (Lacan 2001: 98). Inserting the coin is merely part of the general operation of weighing coins against each other, the inserted coin included, which is considered ‘good’ only because it has been weighed against others before. The coins, therefore, do not belong to the same species, which would imply that their identity relies on an externally chosen quality—for example, ‘weighs 21 grams’—but belong to a collection based on being uniform. The coins, therefore, do not form a class—to which one belongs on the condition of having a certain quality—but become part of a collection through the weighing of every piece against the others. The interrelated processes of becoming a one among equal others and of the formation of a collection by testing the items one by one results, according to Lacan, in a synthesis of the particular and the universal (2001: 99).

Lacan’s interest in this dialectic between a group and its individual members was piqued during a five-week stay in England in September 1945 (Roudinesco 1997: 172). 3 In a text recounting his experiences and observations, English Psychiatry and the War, Lacan discusses the work of, among others, Wilfred Bion and John Rickman and praises the way one managed to treat large groups of patients during the Second World War (Lacan 2001: 101–120). Lacan’s main conclusion is that a group does not need to depend on a leader or an external ideal to show coherent organization. Freud had discussed this issue before in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1981 [1921]), in which he argued that horizontal, mutual identifications and emotional ties depend on an anterior, vertical identification with a leader or a more abstract ideal. Lacan reverses this order—‘horizontal’ collection/collectivity before ‘vertical’ class—and emphasizes the logical forms, like ‘3 + 1’, that define the relations between the individual and the group. Considering the horizontal relations as primordial may serve well as a way to avoid an authoritarian conception of group psychology, but this is not without problems of its own. As already mentioned, the individual finds its identity solely through its relationship with others, yet this also implies that this identity is far from particular, let alone singular, since all the members of the collection are uniform. However, this does not seem to bother Lacan much, because his focus is not on the outcome of the process but on the logical process that leads to it.

The emphasis on logic and its intertwinement with individuality is made more poignant in another contemporaneous text, Logical Time (2006: 161–175). Here, logical reasoning is required to determine the color of a disk put on one’s back by a prison warden. What one sees are two fellow inmates who have white disks on their backs and what one knows is that (1) there are three white disks and two black disks at play and that (2) one will only be released if one presents a logical reasoning leading to the identification of the color of the disk on one’s back. 4 Strictly speaking, nothing can be concluded from what one knows to be the situation. One can consider it to be more probable to have been adorned a black disk—after eliminating the two white disks that one can actually see, there remain two black disks (out of two) and only one white one (out of three)—but that is having to resort to probability, not to the required conclusive, logical reasoning.

There is only one situation in which the solution could be seen at once, namely if the two other prisoners were to wear black disks, then the third prisoner would not doubt for a second about the color of his own disk—but this is not the case. That is why the prisoners are standing still. Yet at a certain moment, all three move toward the exit, convinced that they know the answer to the question. 5 To understand how this is possible, let us follow one prisoner, A, and observe how the situation changes when he or she adds a hypothesis, H1, to it: ‘what if I would be wearing a black disk?’ Within H1 he or she may attribute a second and similar hypothesis to B (= H2). If H1 and H2 are the case, however, then C, hypothetically facing two black disks, would know the solution at once and be leaving immediately. Yet, because C does not move, H2 must be false. If H2 is false, then B knows the contrary to be true: he or she is not wearing a black disk but rather a white one. Yet, because B does not move either, A can conclude only that his or her initial hypothesis, H1, is false and that a white disk has been pinned on his or her back.

The originality of Lacan’s presentation of this riddle resides in his distinction of three so-called logical times. The first one is the instant of the glance, which is actually the non-time required to conclude that ‘being opposite two blacks, one knows that one is a white’ (Lacan 2006: 167). The important word here is ‘one’—that is, the third person singular or an undifferentiated anyone. The second time is the time for comprehending, which starts as soon as one has formulated H1 and should conclude that ‘were I a black, the two whites that I see would waste no time realizing that they are whites’ (Lacan 2006: 168). Here the subjects involved are undefined except by their reciprocity: I am what I think you think that I am, et cetera. This time can either lead to error—I conclude myself to be black (which is not the case)—or open up a third time, the moment of concluding, which introduces a third kind of subjectivity implied in a logical formula of the form ‘I hasten to declare myself a white, so that these whites, whom I consider in this way, do not precede me in recognizing themselves for what they are’ (Lacan 2006: 168). The third formula has the remarkable quality of inserting the subjective dimension of haste into the domain of logics, usually considered as the most desubjectivized kind of reasoning human beings are capable of. Haste, here, is not motivated by the circumstances of the situation—the prisoner may lose the game—but by realizing that the time for comprehending can reach its conclusion, and therefore its telos, only if one concludes before it is too late to do so. The conclusion is preceded and supported by sound reasons, but the prisoner realizes that if he or she does not hasten the conclusion, he or she will never be able to conclude anything at all, because the entire reasoning is based on the others’ standing still (which proves that H1 and H2 are false). The subject of this assertion is qualified as ‘the personal subject’, which is neither the impersonal one of what one knows or sees nor the I or ego dependent on what others reflect about his or her identity. This subject is not so much a substantial person but rather indicates the lack of support marking any identity to be acquired. This lack of being or indeterminacy resonates heavily with the existentialist theme of an existence preceding essence (Sartre), which Lacan seems to be very much aware of, as he uses exactly the same terms: existence and essence. Yet in both Number Thirteen and Logical Time, Lacan emphasizes that psychoanalysis deals with the primordial ‘logical essence’ of the subject, rather than its ‘existence’ (Lacan 2001: 86 and 2006: 170).

Parallel to these logical excursions, Lacan developed his theory of the mirror stage (2006: 75–81) during which the prematurely born human being acquires an identity through the identification with an image reflected by a mirror (or a peer functioning as such). This identity provides it with an ego and a sense of coherent oneness—which the young child cannot derive from its incoherent bodily sensations—but this identity is far from stable. It is, to start with, tragically alienating in that one finds oneself in an image outside oneself—hence, the narcissistic mixture of love for this personal life-giving image and hatred for it, as it also signals the death of the ego, possibly reduced to a mere lifeless image. The gist of Logical Time, however, concerns an element arising from and supplementing this imaginary deadlock, namely a subject of a logical statement that defines its identity beyond specular reflections.

Here it is important to pay attention to the logics supporting the process of subjectivation. In Number Thirteen and in Logical Time, a logical operation is required to arrive at an identity determined within a collectivity. This identity does not exist before or outside any reference to others involved, which allows Lacan to qualify this process as a ‘collective logic’. Yet, there are two more crucial aspects. First of all, although one may be tempted to reduce the moment of concluding to an existential, heroically ‘performative’ moment, one should not overlook the fact that the required formulae exist independent of any subject. The formulae function as text balloons awaiting a subject—be it the impersonal one of the instant of the glance, the specular ego of the time for comprehending, or the subject of haste in the moment of concluding—to formulate them or, more precisely, to occupy the different subject positions implied. That is why, as noted before, Lacan refers to the formulae as essential—that is, as determining and expressing their subject. Second, these logical operations are eventually forgotten by the one who considers herself or himself to be white like the others or of ‘equal weight’ (Number Thirteen). One considers oneself to be a human being not unlike fellow human beings, yet one also becomes oblivious of the logical and collective process that leads to this seemingly evident identity. This is aptly summarized by Lacan as ‘the collective is nothing but the subject of the individual’ (2006: 175), meaning that any personal and social identity is supported by an unconscious collective process that includes the meanwhile forgotten possibility that one would not be considered as a human being. As Lacan puts it in the concluding paragraphs of Logical Time, the seemingly unshakable conviction that I am human is based on an unconscious fear—compare the shift from time for comprehending to moment of concluding—that the others would convince me of the opposite (2006: 174).

By way of intermediate conclusion, let us enumerate the basic qualities of individual identity:

  • Social, in that one acquires it only with others.
  • Collective, in that it is based on an immanently shared property. 6
  • False, in that it involves the repression of both the logical process and the subjective moment of anxious haste. 7

The social dimension could be explored in closer detail—the paranoid universe in which the imaginary other has a ‘fuller’ identity than I myself could ever obtain, the crucial post–World War II question—what is a human being?—provoked by the atrocities of the concentration and extermination camps, the promises and dangers of masses, and so on. 8 But following Lacan, the most important aspect is the unconscious logical process that supports any formation of subjectivity.

From the Others to the Other

In Logical Time, one reads about the thorough social determination of the individual and its threefold appearance as an impersonal one, as an imaginary ego, and as a subject. The difficulty, however, remains to know what exactly accounts for this subject: is it indeed the collective logical reasoning or something else? The answer is to the extent that the question revolves around the subject, to be understood literally as ‘underlying support’. On the one hand, the subject involves the collectively shared logics required for and supporting any individual identity; on the other hand, the subject forms the base of this logic. This latter subject emerges only at the point where the logical process shows a gap in its movement from premises to conclusion. In that sense, the subject is the linking of a logical reasoning to its conclusion. Later on, Lacan will more clearly distinguish these two, naming them Other and subject, respectively. The Other is the grounding logical process—the ‘speech balloons’ surrounding, preceding, and awaiting the individual—needed for the formation of an individual ego, and the subject is the ground of this grounding, situated at the point where this Other is lacking, where the logic shows a gap and where a performative auto-insertion of the subject into the field of the Other is required (cf. the moment of concluding).

In Lacan’s seminars and texts of the 1950s, he will develop this and distinguish between the registers of the imaginary and the symbolic, between the (conscious) ego and the subject (of the unconscious), between mirroring demands and triangular desire, between the frustrated aspiration to fullness and the assumption of one’s castrated lack of being, between the other and the Other, and so on. Lacan not only makes these crucial distinctions but also argues that the symbolic precedes the imaginary and functions as its hidden—that is, unconscious—condition of possibility. Lacan’s Other or ‘the symbolic’ involves a rearticulating of Freud’s famous depiction of the unconscious as the other scene (andere Schauplatz)—that is, as an unconscious dimension that adds itself to the conscious domain of signification and mutual recognition. This Freudian ‘other scene’ is understood by Lacan as the Other—that is, as a space containing the signifiers that precede and determine any subjectivity. In that sense, one could imagine the Other existing without a subject, but—and this is Lacan’s point in the 1950s—psychoanalysis can take place only when a subject is supposed to the Other, as support and bearer, not to be confused with the patient’s ego (moi).

Yet if the Other is the support of and determines one’s identity, what then is the subject properly speaking? As we have seen, the subject in Lacan’s work needs to be taken literally as a hypokeimenon, in the Aristotelian sense of ‘what lies under’. This means that the subject should not be conceived of as a conscious, more or less self-transparent agent but rather as the bearer of collective statements—‘signifiers’, as Lacan, inspired by structuralist linguistics, will call them from a certain moment onward—that precede and exceed the subject they imply. The subject emerges out of a logic belonging to the field of the Other, where it is invited to leave behind a position of exception and exclusion—the odd piece or the one wearing a black disk—and to find support in formulae (or signifiers). These formulae, however, are qualified as sophistic, because there is no sufficient ground to them, and it is precisely at this gap within the logical reasoning that one should locate the subject. The subject, therefore, is on the one hand a lacking signifier—$, as Lacan prefers to notate it—a mere void or the missing element within the field of the Other and is on the other hand the unconscious exception to the presumed universality of the Other. This basic conception of the subject as divided between a ‘nothing’ within the realm of signifiers and a ‘something’ beyond the signifier determines the future development of Lacan’s teaching. In the following section, this will be illustrated by Lacan’s commentary on three tragedies in his seminars from 1958 to 1960. 9

In the seminar on Desire and Its Interpretation (2013: 279–419), several sessions are devoted to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To answer the question the play raises—why does Hamlet procrastinate?—Lacan initially uses the distinction between the imaginary ego and the subject (of the unconscious). 10 Hamlet, the ego, avoids the dimension of desire, an avoiding which is revealed in the relation toward Gertrud, his mother. She testifies to a desire that does not concern Hamlet, yet he remains puzzled by the question of what directs and limits this desire when it is obviously no longer his father who is able to function as the third element in the oedipal triangle. That explains why Hamlet mercilessly denounces this desire, as much as he needs it within the quest for his own position as a subject. Here Lacan points out that Hamlet seeks to be the imaginary phallus of the Other’s desire, namely the object that would undo the lack inherent to the dimension of desire. This positioning oneself as the imaginary phallus implies the misrecognition of lack as structural and an interpretation of desire as a demand (for love). This, however, can barely be considered as a stable solution, as is made evident by the play and condensed in the famous line to be or not to be. If Hamlet has lost his position as a subject and therefore ends up as entirely dependent on the others whom he actually despises, criticizes, and ridicules, the obvious question is if and when Hamlet can leave this fatal, imaginary dialectic and become the subject of desire. Or, using the terminology used in Logical Time, when will Hamlet end the time for comprehending with a moment of conclusion?

The shift to becoming a subject of the symbolic—that is, when confronting the dimension of desire—occurs near the end of the play at the famous graveyard scene, in which people gather around the grave of Ophelia, who took her own life. Hamlet witnesses Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, mourning and engages in a competition on the magnitude of their mourning. Ophelia, whom he rejected in a most callous way, becomes the object of rivalry, not as a positivity—something that one could enjoy or that would make one more complete—but as a lost love. Although Hamlet enters the competition with Laertes in an imaginary way, which usually entails the jealous supposition of a fullness that the other enjoys, the aspect of Laertes that he identifies with is a lack and Laertes’s mournful expression of it. Bidding against Laertes, what Hamlet discovers is not a supposed plenitude but a lack that he identifies with and eventually considers as a sum ‘forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love’ make up (5.1.259–261). Lacan relates this to Hamlet’s sudden ability to exact the postponed revenge on his uncle, Claudius, and to act in his own name, as he exclaims ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane’ (5.1.246–247). For the first time, the subject of a signifier appears—to be a Dane or a Danish prince is a symbolic identity which is granted, not chosen—a subject that came into being based on the recognition of a fundamental nonbeing.

This reading is one of the best examples of Lacan’s structuralist reinterpretations of Freud, and in it, no recourse is made to ‘unconscious motives’ to account for Hamlet’s lack of decisiveness— for example, an identification with Claudius, the one who actually did what Hamlet-the-neurotic can only dream of, killing his father and sleeping with his mother. 11 Lacan’s reading introduces the Other as a symbolic system in which a subject (Hamlet) needs to find its allocated place (prince of Denmark). This is made possible only via Ophelia as the structurally lost object—neither the Other nor Hamlet ‘has’ her. Although the focus is on desire and its intimate connection with subjectivity, the reader cannot but be struck by the implication of this line of thought: to be a subject, to imply desire as a dimension that decenters the ego from its safe yet problematic place, one ends up becoming what one always already was for and within the Other. Doesn’t this seal off any possible connection between psychoanalysis and even the most modest idea of liberation or emancipation? Does this allow for any difference between Lacanian psychoanalysis and its elective enemy, namely a psychotherapy aiming at an adaptation of the individual to his or her ‘proper’ place, allocated by society and its most important apparatus of self-reduplication, the family? From Lacan’s take on Hamlet we have seen that non-imaginary subjectivity is to be situated beside the identification with the other (as both an image of myself and an image that makes any ‘selfhood’ impossible), that this implies an anticipatory act concluding the time for comprehending, but also that the conditions of possibility for such an act ultimately depend on a signifier granted by the Other. The kind of act involved is not unlike the one performed by the prisoners in Logical Time: they choose to be what the Other always already had decided about their identity: ‘white’, ‘the Dane’. If ‘the unconscious’, as Lacan once famously stated, ‘is politics’ (1966–1967: lesson of 10 May 1967) then here the question is indeed whether this politics amounts to anything other than an invitation to accept the Other’s decision on the subject’s representation within the symbolic order.

This is clearly a possible way of reading Lacan, which is, however, only possible if one overlooks the other dimension to the Other: its lack. As much as symbolic identity may be an inevitable result, Lacan’s focus concerns the unconscious, logical operations required for it. This may be the reason why, immediately after the lessons on Hamlet, Lacan returns to the question of desire. At the end of the tragedy, as soon as ‘Hamlet is Hamlet’, ‘he is abolished in his desire’ (2013: 488) and as tragic hero is no longer useful to detail the logic of desire. Although Lacan had introduced the notion of desire years before Seminar VI, the emphasis was put on its symbolic determination and attention focused mainly on the laws governing this symbolic dimension. The concluding sessions of Seminar VI—that is, after the commentary on Hamlet—however, discuss another aspect of this Other—that is, the Other not as the field where the subject is offered a symbolic identity but as lacking, as testifying to desire. Lacan describes the position of the subject with regard to the desiring Other by using a term borrowed from Freud, helplessness (Hilflosigkeit), and it is precisely to this paradoxical relation of both dependence and being left without recourse (2013: 502) that the subject needs to invent an answer, beyond the signifier—that is, made of a material neither borrowed from nor offered by the Other.

Not Without an Object

In the two years after Desire and Its Interpretation (2013 [1958–1959]), in the seminars The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992) and Transference (2015), two other tragedies play a pivotal role. In his analysis of both Sophocles’s Antigone 12 and Paul Claudel’s early-20th-century trilogy The Hostage/Stale Bread/The Humiliated Father, one can discern Lacan’s preoccupation with the precise articulation of, on one hand, the dialectic of desire and the symbolic law and, on the other hand, the element that escapes this. The tragic fate of Antigone is well-known: against the prohibition of Creon, king of Thebes, she decides to bury her brother Polynices, who died during the battle he raised against Thebes. Not only is Polynices dead, but Creon wants to erase any memory of this traitor and enemy of the polis as well. 13 In this way Creon, ‘who exists to promote the good of all’, makes a fatal error in judgment, because human laws are limited by unwritten, divine laws (Lacan 1992: 258). And, indeed, Antigone refers to a divine law, which permits her to ignore Creon’s and take care of Polynices’s burial. Does this mean that Antigone, according to Lacan’s reading, boils down to the tragic conflict between two sorts of law, a human and divine one? Not at all. Creon’s decision may run against an unwritten law, but Antigone herself is presented as autonomous, not in the sense that she would subject herself (auto) to another, divine law (nomos) but as a figure who positions herself at the place where the law originates from—that is, where it constitutes a break with any natural or ‘real’ foundation and becomes the law because … it is the law. 14 This arbitrariness of the law or the symbolic order, the ‘nothing’ on which it rests, is what Antigone reveals to us in an aesthetic way. The tragedy is ancient in that respect that one may consider Antigone as performing an act according to a divine will, but Lacan crucially adds that in our modern times ‘the whole sphere of the gods’ has been erased (1992: 260). This suggests that a psychoanalytic approach to tragedy does not focus on the Other (the gods, law, etc.) as something that may or may not exist, but first and foremost as a desire, a will (volonté), or, in Lacanian terms, a lack or desire of the Other that concerns the hero as a subject.

This becomes particularly clear in the sessions devoted to Claudel’s play (1972). In the first part, The Hostage, set in Napoleonic France, the tragic fate of Sygne de Coûfontaine, who lives by and for the aristocratic name ‘Coûfontaine’, unfolds. After years of sacrifices to restore the family estate, one asks her to marry Toussaint Turelure, one of the family’s former servants and the assassin of her parents. This demanding sacrifice will save the pope from being kept hostage and allow him to return to Rome. At the end of the first part—actually, in an originally unpublished version of this ending, nonetheless extensively discussed by Lacan—she takes a bullet destined for her husband, Turelure. Just before dying, he asks her why she saved his life and whether she did this out of love for him. Sygne does not utter a single word, she only gives ‘a sign of no’ (un signe que non). Before discussing the import of this ‘sign of no’ for Lacan’s subsequent elaborations of the subject, let us note that in the third part of Claudel’s play, The Humiliated Father, the enigmatic Pensée, a distant relative to Sygne de Coûfontaine, attracts all the gazes to herself, yet without being able to return them, because she is blind. She will eventually give birth to a child and therefore, after the complete dissolution of the Coûfontaine family to Sygne’s negating twitch of the head, stands at the beginning of a new symbolic universe.

The three tragedies teach Lacan that the symbolic is not without its nonsymbolic exception. In Hamlet this role is fulfilled by Ophelia, in Antigone by the (empty) field of the gods, and in the Coûfontaine trilogy by Pensée. This leads Lacan to formalize this exception as objet a, the nonsymbolic and non-specular supplement that functions both as an indication of the Other’s desire and as a specific reply to this desire. 15 In general, this applies to the three tragedies, but when looking at the details—and Lacan’s later teaching—important differences become clear. Before paying attention to these, we should add to our list two more aspects of subjectivity:

  • Beyond specular identification with fellow human beings (‘the other’) and reliance on a consistent Other, one is the subject of the latter’s lack and desire.
  • Symbolic identity requires the invention of a reply to the Other qua desiring Other.

The One and the Other

In Hamlet the misrecognition and eventual abolition of desire is at stake; in Antigone the hero identifies with desire as the foundation, the lack of the Other; and in Claudel’s play these issues return under the guise of Sygne as a figure completely crushed by the signifier and of Pensée as the extra-symbolic element initiating a new symbolic universe.

The differences, however, are important and thoroughly determine Lacan’s future elaborations. These changes are twofold: one concerns the effect of the signifier beyond granting a preformed place within the symbolic and the other consists in making the extra-symbolic element, the objet a, operational.

The One

Sygne’s sign of no teaches Lacan that the insertion of the subject within the symbolic order is performed by a first signifier, S1, which is meaningless as such, because as a pure (negating) mark, it does not position the subject within a preexisting genealogy or narrative. It is only in combination with the other signifiers—formalized as S2—that the subject gets represented by and within the symbolic. 16 This is a crucial differentiation between the signifier as a symbolic element relating to other signifiers and as a trait isolated from and repressed by the other signifiers. The importance of this becomes particularly clear when, years later, Lacan, in the midst of a discussion on Aristotelian logic, exemplifies the difference between a subject as represented (from S1 to S2) and the subject as marked by one signifier (S1). This is the whole difference, he explains, between the word ‘worker’ in the paternalist phrase ‘they are good workers’ and in ‘workers of the world, unite’, the famous line from Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. In the first phrase, a predicate (good) gets connected to a subject (worker), and thereby the latter is identifiable (and disappears under) the combination of the two signifiers: good and worker. In the second phrase, however, no external instance differentiates the class of workers from other classes; one is merely invited to identify with one signifier, which has no precise meaning and of which it is unclear who and how many will obey the summons (Lacan 1967–1968: lesson of 7 February 1968). 17 Here the signifier acts like a proper name—compare Hamlet, Coûfontaine—that is, without a direct meaning and isolated from other signifiers, yet unlike the proper name, it lacks any reference to a specific place one is invited to occupy within a family or other social structure. ‘Worker’ in this sense is, on one hand, an affirmation of the primacy of the Other—there is no pure, authentic subject, because any subject is a subject of the signifier—yet, on the other hand, as a mark, it suspends all meaning that is automatically produced as soon as there is an interplay between two or more signifiers. As an empty signifier, it both singularizes (this is what you are) and universalizes (the subject of the word ‘worker’ is the collection of those who identify with the word).

The Other

Here ‘the other’ does not refer to the imaginary other, the fellow human being. It instead indicates the issue of how the Other qua symbolic order is not ‘one’ but ‘other’. The Other’s incompleteness or lack of unity (i.e., its desire) is guaranteed by an element that is nonsymbolic, the objet a. Within the context of this chapter, Lacan, interestingly, gradually made the objet a into an operative notion. We have seen this already with Pensée, who occupies a certain position and is capable from that position to initiate a symbolic order. Simply put, after the imaginary other as a means to constitute a collectivity and the symbolic Other allocating anyone to his or her proper place within a socio-symbolic structure, the other returns qua objet a, fulfilling another social and political role. This role can take on different concrete appearances and functions, including the excluded other allowing the formation of a collectivity (see Number Thirteen); 18 the surplus-jouissance that the capitalist extracts from the proletarian’s work (which then gets returned to the consumer by way of the commodity, which in many ways is more and different than a mere object satisfying a certain need); and the enigmatic presence of the analyst, occupying the position of the object, the cause of the subject’s desire. The latter instantiation of the objet a is made evident by the analytic discourse, as formalized by Lacan, next to the master, the hysteric and the university discourses (Diagram 3.1). 19

In the figure of the analytic discourse above, the objet a takes in the upper-left-corner position of the agent, producing the S1 discovered during the analysis of Claudel’s The Hostage. From the formula, we can derive that this S1 is barred from any access to an S2, which implies that the inevitable effect of meaning—as soon as the interplay between two signifiers would take place—is suspended. That is why Lacan qualifies the work of analysis as a production of bêtises, stupidities, to be taken literally as mute signifiers (Lacan 1998 [1972–1973]: 12–22).

Diagram 3.1   Lacan’s Four Discourses

Source: Diagram adapted from Lacan, Jacques (2008) [1969–1970] The Seminar, Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by Russell Grigg, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. 29.


It will be clear that Lacan’s work contains many useful elements for political theory; less clear, however, is if and how these elements can be synthesized into a coherent ‘political Lacan’. Referring to Lacan, one can emphasize the necessity of a primordial Other and end up deploring the current dissolution of symbolic structures known as ‘family’, ‘society’, and ‘community’. Or one can point toward the lack in the Other and take it to be the principle of liberal democracy, as a political thinking according to which the place of power needs to be kept structurally empty and no one claims to possess or to speak the truth. These two options belong to what one can call the symbolic Lacan.

Next to this, one may want to focus on the extra-symbolic objet a. This notion raises the question of what functions as the exception to the symbolic universe and how it does this. Should one consider it as the exclusion inherent to the formation of any collective identity and as the reason to persistent racism and sexism, or should one consider it more structurally as the place of the exception out of which existing (unconscious) symbolic formations can be questioned, analyzed, and eventually created? The latter question seems to be the most important one, in the sense that it is closest to Lacan’s psychoanalytical purposes—what can psychoanalysis do and what happens when one person is speaking and the other is listening with and from the hypothesis of the unconscious?—and that it resonates with the fundamental problem, sketched earlier in this chapter, that preoccupies Lacan from the beginning to the later phases of his teaching. This problem is the problem of the subject as both situated within the Other and at an eccentric point outside of it (objet a). The wager of psychoanalysis consists in a confrontation with this abject object (the position of the analyst) and the promise that it will reveal a signifier, not so much determining or identifying the subject but rather singularizing it. Therefore, we can conclude that Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches us to look for the unconscious, logical operations required for politics ‘as what links people together’, to axiomatically consider the Other as primordial, collectivizing, and burdening its subject with an opaque desire and a structural lack and to conceive possible change in politics as a passing from the position of the excluded object to the singular and stupid yet potentially universalizing signifier S1. If this is the case, then we can add to our list one final characteristic of our Lacanian subject:

  • An ‘objective’ exception reveals a signifier inserting the subject into the field of the Other, a signifier beyond the individual and with the potential to create a non-totalizable collectivity.


The start of this period is usually identified with the original publication of the paper The Function and the Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (Lacan 2006: 197–268) and the opening of his public seminar, both in 1953.

See Khovanova (2015) for a recent review of approaches to this problem. Interestingly, Lacan, informed about this mathematical puzzle by François Le Lionnais, must have been on an international level among the first to publish a sound solution. For a detailed account of Number Thirteen, see Copin (2016: 41–57).

Even 20 years later, when Lacan famously states that ‘the unconscious is politics’, he identifies politics with what ‘links people together and opposes them’ (1966–1967: lesson of 10 May 1967). This echoes Freud’s statement:

In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well.

(Freud 1981 [1921]: 69)

This is another well-known puzzle, of which many variants exist, with names like ‘the muddy children’ and ‘the three wise men’, among others. The internet offers several detailed discussions of them. For further comments on Lacan’s text, see Hoens (2020).

This may sound odd, but one needs to take into account that the situation is the same for the three prisoners—each of them sees two white disks on the others’ backs—and it is supposed that each of them is capable, and motivated by the prospect of freedom, to perform the same logical reasoning.

This can be related to Lacan’s early statements on the decline of an external point of identification, the so-called paternal imago (2001: 60).

Here, of course, Lacan situates himself within a French tradition, starting with 17th-century moralists such as Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, of critiquing the ego or self as a vain illusion.

Not to mention Lacan’s critique of the increasing and misleading reduction of anything subjective to the individual or the ego; see, for example, Lacan 2006: 99.

Lacan’s seminars took place, at different locations, from 1953 to 1980. These yearly seminars are considered to be more accessible than the condensed results stemming from them, to wit the articles included in his Ecrits (2006 [1966]) and Autres Ecrits (2001). Many volumes of the seminars have been edited and published by his son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller, although some important seminars, especially those belonging to the years 1964–1968, are available only as more or less reliable yet unofficial transcripts, such as at http://staferla.free.fr.

The following paragraphs on Hamlet are borrowed, with minor changes and a different emphasis, from Hoens (2016).

An analysis along those lines would be Freud’s, but Lacan takes care to criticize him indirectly, via his pupil Ernest Jones.

Lacan’s discussion of Antigone (1992: 243–283) provoked a wealth of secondary literature, too abundant to list it here. For a discussion of Antigone’s tragic act as a model of revolutionary action, and for further references, see the detailed account of a debate between Yannis Stavrakakis and Slavoj Žižek in Stavrakakis 2007: 109–149.

Creon wants to erase Polynices as a signifier—to strike him with a ‘second death’, as Lacan qualifies it. For more about this ‘second death’ and its background, see Nobus 2017: 47–72.

This reading of Antigone’s ‘autonomy’ is inspired by Marc De Kesel (2009: 223–225).

For more about the notion of objet a, see Hoens (2016).

Discussions of Lacan often equate ‘the symbolic’ with ‘the signifier representing the subject’, but this kind of equation overlooks the fact that the symbolic is a notion one can already find in texts belonging to the early 1950s, whereas the famous formula ‘a signifier is what represents a subject for another signifier’ is proposed by Lacan not before the end of 1961, during the unfortunately still unpublished seminar in which, significantly for the first time as well, Lacan tries to conceptualize the objet a; see 1961–1962: lesson of 6 December 1961.

The question of what ‘is’ a psychoanalyst and what unites psychoanalysts provides the background to Lacan’s question. Although obviously crucial, here we cannot explore Lacan’s articulation of the political question about what makes an analyst into an analyst and whether analysts can(not) or should (not) form a collection, class, group, or school.

For a Lacanian enquiry of a universality that is non-segregationist, see Šumič 2016.

Lacan’s four discourses—the master, hysteric, analytic, and university—cannot be discussed here. The reader may want to consult Lacan (2008 [1969–1970]) and Verhaeghe (1995) and various contributions to Clemens and Grigg (2006) and Tomšič and Zevnik (2016). For recent accounts of Lacan’s development of a fifth discourse, the capitalist one, see Tomšič (2015: 199–229), Vanheule (2016), and Žižek (2017: 197–223)


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