Introduction and Caveats
There are two things you must always remember when discussing Lacan:
- Lacan is an asshole.
- Lacan is (almost) never making a metaphor or speaking with poetic devices.
There are also two major phases of Lacanian thought that you must consider:
- Pre-Seminar X – or, Lacan the clinician.
- Post-Seminar X – or, Lacan the philosopher. See the opening chapter “Excommunication” of Seminar XI if you want to grasp the importance of said ‘excommunication’ in Lacan’s life.
I will focus on cutting through Lacan the asshole to reveal the truth behind much of what is often perceived as ‘metaphor’ or ‘allegory’ in his work. I will keep citations minimal because (in my opinion) quoting Lacan is often an exercise in ‘tailoring the paper to the quote’ and will instead point to sections and chapters of his relevant works. I will also only discuss Lacan’s published (via Jaques-Alain Miller or Russel Grigg) works and will not discuss any unpublished seminars. I will on focus on Seminar X thru Seminar XX (primarily XI, XVII.) This is not an academic paper, nor is it intended to be. Rather, this is a brief introduction to the major concepts of Lacan’s later works.
This is not definitive, this is substantially influenced by my opinions on Lacan’s works gained over my academic career. This shouldn’t concern you, as there is not (even among the ‘elite’ of Lacanian scholars) anything definitive in anyone’s interpretation of Lacan. Please keep this in mind as I continue.
What is discourse? Is it conversation, literature, the corpus of all things said? Yes, it is all these things, but—sticking to Lacan—discourse is everything. This is not a metaphor. Reality itself is a function of discourse. Accepting this will make reading Lacan much easier as this single point serves as the foundation of all of Lacan’s later works.
Now, let us begin with Seminar XVII The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. We will completely ignore the diagrams but will try to work out the symbols before we proceed.
$ = the split subject, the subject split by language, or—in Lacanian terms—the castrated subject. The castrated subject is a paper all in itself, it must suffice to know that every speaking being becomes subject to (in both the sense of power dynamics and language) language. This is to say, $ represents the base state of every speaking being of the type ‘human.’
S1 = here I must go down an interpretive route and include a bit about how “woman does not exist.” S1 represents all signifiers, including those subject to the phallic function and those who, impossibly, have escaped it. The S1 represents literally everything with the potential of description and understanding. I did a bit of mathematical analysis on the upper limit on the number of items this set could contain, but that’s outside of my scope right now. Spoiler: the number is almost the total number of atoms in the universe.
S2 = every signifier mediated by the phallic function (i.e. everything we are capable of understanding.)
The $ is now better understood as S1 / S2 where the ‘/’ represents the ‘bar’ Lacan often talks about when talking about the phallus. Thus, the subject split by language is any subject who is also subject to the phallic function qua castration—all human beings are subject to the phallic function, but, there exists one exception; namely, woman.
Here we enter a rather controversial subject, the feminist-Lacanian conflict has been a war well fought by both sides and neither can claim victory. Let’s try to move passed this, but don’t let my ignoring this topic elide any anti-feminism on my part—we simply don’t have time. As a side note, I fall firmly on the feminist side of the equation, but I also know Lacan is there with me.
Now, when Lacan says “all determination of the subject, and therefore of thought, depends on discourse” he is not being obscure. The subject is determined by language, and all language (qua signifiers) is an effect of the phallic function. But, because not all signifiers are subject to the phallic function, a subject outside the phallic form of signification must exist, but not in any way an S2 could signify.
This ends my Cole’s Notes version of Lacanian discourse. I recommend you read chs. 2, 6, 8, and 13 of Seminar XVII if you want more info.
A note on signifiers: here I will direct you to “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” from Lacan’s Écrits or even Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not going to explain what a signifier is; if you’re not aware of a signifier this synopsis isn’t going to help you.
Do you remember Freud’s analysis of little Hans? If you haven’t read this yet, you should read it right now. Freud’s two-page introspection on repetition and the death drive is the jumping off point for most modern psychoanalytic theory. Freud had noticed Hans’ game (gone or da as Freud calls it) was focused on repetition of the painful event (his mother ‘going away’) and not the pleasurable return. Freud spent a few off-hand paragraphs musing (in the aptly named Beyond the Pleasure Principle) about how, if Hans was enacting unpleasurable situations, this must also mean the pleasure principle isn’t the be-all-end-all of human subjectivity. If human beings only seek pleasure (and this is the motivation for all actions) then why does Hans want to role-play his mother’s painful departure more than her pleasurable return?
Because of the death drive, which is not a suicidal impulse. It is more of a biological drive toward its initial inanimate resting state, but this is a complex subject out of our scope. So, let’s move on to Seminar XI.
Lacan’s focus (around repetition) is one’s desire for the Other, and how repetition drives us to enact (and repeat) non-pleasurable (masochistic) and non-procreative (i.e. a foot fetish) sexual acts and fantasies. This has to do with the displacement of desire, but we can skip all the middle ground here and jump right to the end. Everyone wants to fuck their mother, but not in a weird creepy way—if we take this as a simple imperative, we’re missing the point (Lacan is aware of gays, lesbians, asexuals, etc.). So, in more nuanced terms, everyone wants to return to the limitless pleasure (AKA jouissance) they, as pre-mirror-stage infants, obtained from their mother. This has very little to do with one’s actual mother outside extreme oedipal edge cases, and is rather an idealized form of pleasure without limits from a time when our minds weren’t capable of ‘grasping’ the concept of our own physical boundaries.
This repetitive misconnaissance (misrecognition) of one’s desires forms the first fundamental concept of psychoanalysis. The displacement of one’s initial experience with limitless jouissance onto other objects forms the basis of all human sexuality. Even missionary, eyes closed, only when she’s ovulating sex is still misplaced—there is no normal sexual practice. Displacement is the foundation of all forms of hysteria, and the separation from limitless jouissance is usually called castration.
A note on jouissance: this literally translates as ‘joy’ or ‘enjoyment,’ but includes the connotation of ‘to cum’ (or orgasm.)
A note before I go on: I’m not going to talk about the unconscious, conscious, preconscious, ego, superego, and so on. Strangely, this has very little application to what I’m talking about. If someone needs a Cole’s Notes version, I suggest you go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Google it, it’s online.)
Objet Petit a
Žižek provides a very concise run down on the object a in Coke as Objet Petit a (or a for short):
It was already Marx who long ago emphasized that a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume. A commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical, niceties. Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence. And the classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible, quality. Coke is the “real thing,” Žižek argues, foregrounded by Coke commercials that urge consumers to “enjoy.”
It’s not just a positive property of Coke, something that can be described or pinpointed,” he continues. “It’s the mysterious something more. The indescribable excess which is the object cause of my desire.
We are obliged to enjoy. Enjoyment becomes a kind of a weird perverted duty. The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty, you drink it, but as everyone knows the more you drink it the more thirsty you get.
What Žižek says about a commodity is the definition of the a. It is nothing. Your desire (remember repetition) is not for the thing you want, it is for a return to your infantile state. The closer you get to the object of your desire (or a) the further you find yourself from it (“the more Coke you drink, the thirstier you are”—this works even better with the new meaning ‘thirsty’ has taken on.)
So, in simple terms you think you want a but you really want your mom (please, I know how weird this sounds, but this is not about fucking your mother. Whomever decided to use the Oedipus complex to describe human subjectivity screwed up badly and we analysts have been fighting it ever since—thanks Freud…)
See: the pervert’s guide to ideology (on Netflix) and/or section two of Seminar XI for more info.
Transference and the Drive
We covered a bunch of this in repetition, and Lacan goes into a tonne of repetitive detail in section three of Seminar XI, but there are a few important points to bring up here. First, I will return to Žižek’s awesome Marx metaphor and talk about “economies of desire.” The thing about having what you want is the inevitable counter-desire to squander it. The one paradoxical, factual problem with desire is that no one wants to keep it. Having what you want is not the goal, getting what you want is. So, what do you do when you’ve got what you want? Suddenly, you want something else. Suddenly, you transfer your desire onto another objet a. In fact, should you ever get what you actually desire, you probably wouldn’t survive the encounter, but this is a bit of a poetry joke (for the philologists in the room.)
There are several other points in section three that are of middling importance, but (in my opinion) don’t have a massive effect on Lacan’s overall philosophy (this is his first departure from Lacan-the-clinician, and there is a lot of material here that falls under the clinical banner.) If you want to know more, read section three of Seminar XI.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t lost on Lacan, but sections two three and four of Seminar XI can be condensed into two sections. Remember when I said Lacan’s an asshole? Well, now you know why I said that. Lacan was famous for being shocking. People came to his seminars with the expectation he would say something crazy (yet somehow correct) enough to top his last crazy statements. (See, “woman is not real,” “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” “the only source of truth is the hysteric,” and so on.)
Note: There is also “the transference” which refers to a clinical process by which the psychoanalyst ‘stands in’ for the source of the analysand’s neurosis. This is not what is being discussed here.
There is so much I would like to say about the topologies and mathemes, but I’m running out of word count for this summary. So, I’ll provide the oft-used tldr;
- Repetition – why do people do unpleasurable things? Because every pleasurable thing is a shitty stand-in for the true pleasure of our pre-mirror-stage being.
- Split subject – everything is a subject of (and subject to) language. Reality is literally a linguistic construct. But, woman (who’s existence is not possible, yet also must be) can perceive things beyond the scope of the phallic function (and, moreover, a woman—in Lacanian philosophy—has nothing to do with one’s penis/vagina; anyone could be classified / sexuated under Lacan’s definition of woman.)
- Phallic function – the ultimate patriarchy, all language—and therefore all being—is subject to the phallic function (except the woman who does not exist.)
- The death drive – complex, but can be used to explain why people do destructive things and/or things outside the scope of ‘biological (or instinctual) needs’ qua procreation. If fucking is an instinct, why do people gain pleasure from things that aren’t purely procreative sexual pursuits?
- Objet a – the target of one’s misplaced desires. The non-existent ‘thirst quenching’ capacity of Coke.
- Transference – the inevitable process one undergoes in locating their objet a (i.e. deciding what to put their dick in) and the process one undergoes when one ‘obtains’ or get’s too close to their desire. This is also fundamental to the inherent squandering of desire (I didn’t mention this above, but this is called the jouissance imperative—an obvious play on Kant’s categorical imperative.)
There is a 0.1% coverage of Lacan’s later philosophy with a focus on the foundational concepts in Seminar XI. It ignores so much I hesitate to post it, but I hope it provides enough illumination to make further Lacanian studies a bit easier.