ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 13

 - Jacques Lacan in Theory


In this lecture on psychoanalytic criticism, Professor Paul Fry explores the work of Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s interest in Freud and distaste for post-Freudian “ego psychologists” are briefly mentioned, and his clinical work on “the mirror stage” is discussed in depth. The relationship in Lacanian thought, between metaphor and metonymy is explored through the image of the point de capiton. The correlation between language and the unconscious, and the distinction between desire and need, are also explained, with reference to Hugo’s “Boaz Asleep.”

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 13 - Jacques Lacan in Theory

Chapter 1. Peter Brooks and Lacan [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Well, I’d really better start. I can infer, I think, from looking around the room that there is either post-paper depression at work or that having written the paper, you scarcely had time to read a fifteen-page labyrinthine essay by Lacan. That’s unfortunate, and I hope you’re able to make up for it soon. Those of you who are here today can take such notes as you can figure out how to take and then go back to the text of Lacan and try to make use of them. It is a pity that not everyone’s here, but we’ll fare forward nevertheless.

Now there is an obvious link between the work of Peter Brooks that you had last time and this particular essay of Lacan which, of course, I’d like to begin by underlining. It has to do with the part of the argument of Lacan which probably is most accessible to you after your tour through structuralism and related “-isms” and which, in a way, I think really can be used to anchor a certain understanding of Lacan. It’s something I am going to want to spend a lot of time with in the long run today.

In any case, Brooks understood the fictional text and the completed fictional narrative as a sustaining of desire through a series of détours, detours, inadequate and improper endpoints overcome, resulting in a continuation of desire, resulting in a proper ending–that is to say, something corresponding to what Freud understood as the desire of the organism to die in its own way and not according to the modification or pressure of something from without. This sequence of détourin the elaboration of a narrative plot Brooks called metonymy, in a way that by this time we ought to recognize as what happens in the putting together of signs along the axis of combination as it’s described by Jakobson. But Brooks remarks also that at the same time, there is a binding of this sequence of signs–of events in the case of a plot–there is an effect of unity, a feeling that the experience one has in reading a fictional plot is an experience of unity. This effect he calls “metaphor”: that is to say, our sense of the unity of a fictional plot we understand as metaphoric. Some kind of identity, self-identity, or close correspondence in the meaning of the variety of events that we have encountered results in a unity that can be understood in metaphorical terms. In other words, something like what Jakobson calls the “poetic function” has been superimposed on the metonymic axis of combination in such a way that the feeling of unity, the sense of the recurrence of identity in the signs used, is something that we can come away with. This, Brooks argues, accounts for our sense of the unity of the plot even as we understand it to be a perpetual form of the delay of desire. I speak of the delay of desire: That’s most obvious, of course, in a marriage plot, the marriage plot being the heart of fiction, perhaps, and most immediately intelligible–but of course desire takes many forms. There are many sorts of plot, and they always do in one form or another have to do, in Brooks’ sense, with desire.

Now I pause in this way over Brooks because I think you can see–whatever frustration you may also be feeling in encountering Lacan–I think you can see that the same basic movement is at work in Lacan’s understanding of the unconscious. The discourse of desire for Lacan, the perpetual deferral of bringing into consciousness, into being, into presence, the object of desire–Lacan, too, harkens back to Freud as Brooks does, harkens back to the connection made in Freudian thought and picked up by Jakobson between condensation in the dream work and metaphor in the dream work, and displacement in the dream work and metonymy in the dream work–this is central as well to Lacan’s argument. The deferral of desire, and for Lacan the impossibility of ever realizing one’s desire for a certain kind of “other” that I’m going to be trying to identify during the course of the lecture, is understood as metonymy, just as Brooks understands the movement of metonymy as not a perpetual but as a plot-sustaining détour or deferral of the end.

So this, too, one finds in desire in Lacan. Metaphor, on the other hand, he understands to be what he calls at one interesting point “the quilting” of the metonymic chain, the point de capiton or “quilting button” that suddenly holds together a sequence of disparate signifiers in such a way that a kind of substitution of signs, as opposed to a displacement of signs, can be accomplished. We’ll come back to this later on in attempting to understand what Lacan has to say about that line from Victor Hugo’s poem, “Boaz Asleep,” the line: “His sheaves were not miserly nor spiteful.” We’ll come back to that.

In the meantime, the point of Lacan and what makes Lacan’s reading of desire different from Brooks’s, and indeed what makes his reading of desire different from that of anyone who thinks of these structuralist issues in psychoanalytic terms, is that Lacan really doesn’t believe that we can ever have what we desire. He has no doubt that we can have what weneed. He makes the fundamental distinction between having what we desire and having what we need. The distinction is often put–and when you read Slavoj Žižek next week–who makes a much more central point of this, it’s often put as the distinction between the “big other”– [laughs] and later on we’ll talk about why it’s big–the “big other,” which one can never appropriate as an object of desire because it is perpetually and always elusive, and the “objet petit à,” the little object of desire, which is not really an object of desire at all but is available to satisfy need. Sociobiologically, you can get what you need. Psychoanalytically, you cannot get what you desire.

Now the obvious gloss here, I think, is the Rolling Stones. If Lacan were the Rolling Stones, he’d have slightly rewritten the famous refrain by saying, “You can’t ever ‘git’ what you want,” right: “but sometimes if you try”–and you got to try. Even for what you need, you got to– [laughter] right? [laughter] You can’t just sit there–“Sometimes if you try you ‘git’ what you need.” I’m sure that Mick Jagger had many sticky fingers in the pages of Lacan in order to be able to make that important distinction, but I think it’s one that perhaps you might want to salt away the next time you feel confused about the distinction between desire and need.

Chapter 2. Lacan and Freudian Scholarship [00:09:03]

Now obviously, it’d be great if we could just stop there, but we do have to get a little closer to the text and try to figure out why in these terms given to us by Lacan, terms both structuralist and psychoanalytic–we have to figure out why this distinction prevails and what it amounts to, so we soldier on. First of all, let me just say a couple of things in passing. There is for humanistic studies more than one Jacques Lacan. There is the Lacan for literary studies who, I think, is very well represented by the text we have before us, even though some of his most important ideas are only hinted at in this text. For example, we hear nothing in this text about his famous triadic distinction among the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. This is something we can’t really explore with only this text before us. There is only the slightest hint at the very end of the essay on the last page of the distinction I have just made between the “big other” and the “objet petit à.” We’ll have lots of time to think about that because it’s central to the essay of Žižek that you’ll read next week, but for literary studies focusing on the structuralist legacy for Lacan, this is an exemplary selection.

But there’s also the Lacan, perhaps a more current Lacan–one better known, perhaps, even to some of you in film studies: the Lacan of “the gaze,” the complicated dialectic of “the gaze” which does very much involve negotiating the distinctions among the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. As I say, this Lacan we’re obliged largely to leave aside if only because of the selectivity of what I’ve given you to read, but as I say these are Lacans with quite different emphases overlapping only to a certain degree.

Now the other thing I want to say in passing explains some of the rather strange tone of this essay. You notice that Lacan is just sort of bristling with hostility [laughs] and, of course, as well, condescension. Of all the big egos in our syllabus, this is by far the biggest. It’s just something we have to live with and come to terms with, but the condescension isn’t just toward the natural stupidity of all the rest of us. It’s toward, in particular, what he takes to be the distortion of the legacy of Freud by most of his psychoanalytic contemporaries, particularly the International Psychoanalytic Association, many members of whom were the so-called American “ego psychologists.”

Now what is an ego psychologist? It’s somebody who begins as Lacan does–and this is something we’ll want to come back to–somebody who begins with Freud’s famous proposition, “Wo es war soll ich sein”: “Where it was, there I should be.” In other words, out of the raw materials of the id–it, es–in the unconscious, the ego–that is to say, the capacity of the human organism to develop into its maturity–should arise. In other words, the relationship between instinctual drives and the proper inhibitions of human or adult consciousness should be a progressive one, and the purpose of psychoanalysis, the purpose of bringing people beyond their entrapment in the various infantile stages or beyond their entrapment in some form or another of neurosis, the idea of progress or development in psychoanalysis–it has to do with the emergence and reinforcement of the ego. Lacan hates this idea, and the reason he hates it is because that idea of the emergence of a stable and mature ego is presupposed by the idea that there is such a thing as stable human subjectivity: in other words, that there is such a thing as consciousness from which our communicative and linguistic and other sorts of systems derive.

Lacan takes a completely different view of consciousness. This, of course, is something to which we will turn in a moment, but the basic disagreement and the source of his most intense hostility throughout this essay concerns the question whether or not there is for each of us a stable and by implication unique subjectivity. We are not each other. We suppose ourselves–indeed, we complain when we think about ethics, about our isolation from each other–we suppose ourselves to be altogether [laughs] individual whereas for Lacan, there is a kind of continuousness in consciousness, the reason for which I’ll explain, which is not absolute. In the long run, in this essay you will find–and I hope to be able to understand this as a kind of turn in his argument–you will find that Lacan does actually hold out a limited sense of individual subjectivity, not really as autonomous subjectivity, not something that can authorize a sense of free will or power of agency, but a way in which, owing simply to the complexity of the unconscious, each of us, as it were, inhabits a slightly different form of that complexity. Lacan goes that far in the direction of the subject, or of subjectivity, but refuses the idea that the subject is something that can emerge from analysis or–in the case of, I suppose, most of us–simply through maturation as a stable, coherent, well-organized sense of self and identity.

Chapter 3. The Mirror Stage [00:15:51]

All right. Let’s start, then, with the one piece of really solid clinical work that Lacan ever did. Lacan’s psychoanalytic philosophy is, as he would be the first to admit and even sort of cheerfully to endorse, largely speculative. That is to say, he works in depth with philosophical and literary materials. He is not glued to the analyst’s chair. He is notoriously impatient with his analysands and is very interested in matters of analysis either in, on the one hand, shortcuts or, on the other hand–championing Freud’s late essay, “Analysis Terminable or Interminable”–taking the side that analysis is, just obviously, such is the complexity of the thing, interminable. But the one really solid piece of clinical research that Lacan did and that is accepted as part of the psychoanalytic lore is the work that he did in the 1930s on the mirror stage. That work actually does generate the system of ideas that Lacan has to offer.

So what is the mirror stage? A baby in the anal phase–that is to say, no longer identifying with the breast of the mother, but aware of a sense of difference between whatever it might be and that otherness which is out there–a baby views itself in the mirror, and maybe it views itself like this [turns towards board with hands up]. Right? It can only crawl. It can barely touch its nose. It can’t feed itself, and the actual nature of its body is still fragmented and disorganized. It lacks coordination. In fact, it lacks, in any ordinary sense of the term, “uprightness.”

But let’s say it’s looking at itself in the mirror like this [turns towards board with hands up], and so what it sees is something like this [gestures towards diagram on board]. In other words, it sees something which is coherent, coordinated, and really rather handsome. “Oh,” [laughs] it says, “Wow, you know, I’m [laughs] okay.” [laughter] It acknowledges itself to be, it recognizes itself to be–it’s the object of the mother’s desire. Right? That is the moment in which it no longer identifies with the breast but thinks of itself as the object of the desire of another because it’s so pleased with itself. “Somebody’s got to desire me. It’s probably Mom.” So [laughs] there it is, and this is the moment of the mirror stage.

Now what happens after that–and by the way, the rather wonderful epigraph from Leonardo da Vinci which begins your essay is all about this–what happens after that is rather tragic. The baby falls into language, and in the moment–and I’m going to come back in a minute to the whole question of why it is language that does this–in the moment at which it falls into language, it no longer sees itself as the ideal I–”das Ideal-Ich” in Freud’s language. It comes into the recognition that it doesn’t even have its own name, let alone an identity. It has “the name of the father,” but it doesn’t have the phallus of the father, and it begins to recognize competition in desire. It begins to recognize that what it itself desires is not accessible in a kind of mutuality of desire and that it has no choice but to admire–while at the same time envying and indeed forming as an object of desire because that’s what it lacks–the father. That’s the sense in which–but it’s the father only in a phantasmagoric sense. In Lacan the object of desire can be just absolutely anything depending on the course of the unraveling of the metonymic sequence that desire follows; but this is what Lacan associates with the Oedipal phase; that’s why I say, in passing, “the father.”

It does have something to do with Lacan’s revision of Freud in saying that the object of lack that perpetually motivates desire, the desire for what one lacks, is not at all physical. If you make that mistake, you’re right back in sort of mindless Freudianism. You know, it’s not the penis! It is, on the contrary, something which is by nature symbolic, something which is an ego ideal but no longer oneself–that is to say, no longer what one has but what, through the gap opened up by language, one recognizes that one lacks. So it takes a variety of, let’s just say, phallogocentric forms. In film criticism, some of you may know the essay, the Lacanian essay of Laura Mulvey in which the female object of the spectator’s desire or gaze, dressed in a sheath dress, is actually just like the baby, just like anything else that’s upright, it is this[points to the vertical axis on the board]. In other words, it is, despite being obviously an incredibly different kind of thing, nevertheless. in symbolic terms, the phallus.

Chapter 4. Language and the Unconscious [00:22:18]

All right. Now the question then is: why is it that it’s language that does this? Lacan speaks of the impossibility of realizing an object of desire, because the metonymic structure of desire follows what he calls “an asymptotic course,” “asymptotic” meaning the line which curves toward the line it wants to meet but never reaches it. There’s a kind of an underlying punning sense in that word of the metonymic course of desire not revealing the symptom. It’s asymptotic in that sense as well. The only thing that can reveal the symptom is those moments of quilting, the moments at the point de capiton when metaphor, as Lacan says on two different occasions in the essay, reveals the symptom. So this is what happens when you can’t “git” ever–when you can’t ever “git” what you want. But don’t worry, because you can always have what you need as long as you try.

So the question is: why does language do this? What is it about language that introduces this problematic beyond repair? Lacan begins the essay with a claim about the Freudian unconscious, a claim which he takes, he says, from The Interpretation of Dreams where Freud speaks of the relationship between condensation and displacement in the dream work. Lacan says, “The unconscious is structured like a language.” That’s perhaps the single expression that people take away from Lacan, and rightly so, because it is, again, foundational for what we need to understand if we’re to get along with him: “the unconscious is structured like a language.” Now what does this mean? He doesn’t say, “The unconscious is a language,” by the way, and he doesn’t say that he means the unconscious is structured exclusively like human language. He means that the unconscious is structured like a semiotic system. In fact, he draws from Freud’sInterpretation of Dreams the idea that the way the dream work works and the way everyday life, in Freud’s sense of the psychopathology of everyday life, works is like a rebus–in other words, one of those puzzles in which you can find an underlying sentence if you figure out how to put together drawings, numbers, and syllables: in other words, a sequence of signs taken from different semiotic systems that can put themselves together into a meaning. That’s how Lacan understands the dream work and the movements of consciousness to unfold. The unconscious then is structured like a language, which is not the same thing as to say it is a language.

Okay. Structured like a language. This means–and this is where there is this enormous gulf between Lacan and most other practitioners of psychoanalysis–the unconscious is not, in that case, to be understood as the seat of the instincts. It’s not to be understood as something prior, in other words, to those forms of derivative articulation, those forms of articulation emerging through maturity that we’re accustomed to call “language.” If the unconscious is structured like a language, then it–the id, es–itself is precisely the signifier, the signifier that emerges as language: not that it is foundational to language, because Lacan’s point, like the point of many other people in our syllabus, is not that language expresses thought. It’s not at all that language expresses thought, but that language constitutes thought, that language brings thought, consciousness, or a sense of things into being, and that this is articulated through language.

Now this, of course, brings us immediately to certain issues of conflict that Lacan has not just with other forms of psychoanalysis but with a whole philosophical tradition. If you are a materialist–in other words, if you believe that things come first and consciousness comes second: that is to say, if you’re a Marxist, if you believe that consciousness, ideology, or call it what you will, is determined by existing material circumstances–as one says–you can’t very well think that existing material circumstances are produced by language. Whoa. If by the same token you’re a positivist, if you believe that the meaning of things is something that is expressed by language, something that language is brought into being to express: then also you are giving priority to things, to that which is behind language, to that which gives rise to language–rather than, as Lacan does, giving priority to language. He actually attacks both the Marxist tradition and the positivist tradition at various points in your text. The sideways blow at Marxism is on page 1130, the right-hand column. The sideways blow at positivism is on page 1132, the right-hand column. I don’t want to pause to quote them but you can go to them in your text.

So what is it, id, or es? What is that which is normally called “the instinctual drives,” the id, the unmediated wish for something? Well, Lacan says it is nothing other than the signifier. He says, “What do I mean by literalism? How else can I mean it except literally? It is the letter.” That is to say, consciousness begins with the letter. Remember Levi-Strauss saying in the text quoted by Derrida that language doesn’t come into being just a little bit at a time. One day there is no language, and the next day there is language: which is to say, suddenly there is a way of conferring meaning on things, and that way of conferring meaning on things is differential. That is to say, it introduces the arbitrary nature of the sign and the differential relations among signs which are featured in the work of Saussure. So it is for Lacan. The letter is not that which is brought into being to express things, not that which is brought into being in the service of the ego to discipline and civilize the id, but rather is “it” itself. That is to say, it is the beginning. “In the beginning was the word.” In the beginning was the letter, which disseminates consciousness through the signifying system that it makes available.

Chapter 5. Metonymy, Metaphor, and Desire [00:30:25]

Now actually I’m hoping that in saying these things you find me merely and rather dully repeating myself, saying things that I’ve said before, because it seems to me that this is the part of Lacan which is accessible and which is central to the sorts of things that we’ve been talking about, which I rather imagine you must be getting used to by this time. Lacan shares a structuralist understanding of how the unconscious discourses. He accepts Jakobson’s distinction between metaphor and metonymy and he sees the cooperative building-up relationship of metaphor and metonymy in the discourse of the unconscious and of the psychopathology of everyday life in much the same way that Jakobson does. Remember Jakobson associates metaphor and metonymy not just with poetry and prose, not just with certain kinds of style, but actually with pathologies. In its extreme forms, metaphor and metonymy as manifest in linguistic practice take the form of aphasias, as Lacan points out; and so Jakobson, too, is concerned with something sort of built-in, hard-wired in the way in which language works in and as the unconscious that, in its extreme forms, is aphasic and always expresses itself in tendencies either metonymic or metaphoric.

Now, of course, he also draws on Saussure but–as your editor rightly points out in a footnote–the way in which he reads Saussure [draws on chalkboard], the signifier, the big signifier over the little, rather insignificant signified–because after all, what does the signified matter? You can never cross the bar–right?–to get to it. You are barred from it. The signified is that from which you are forever excluded, and we’ll go into Lacan’s examples of this in a minute. This is actually quite different from Saussure’s [draws on chalkboard] “signified over the signifier,” anchored by a kind of mutuality whereby it’s never a question what generates what, but rather a question which has in common, I think, with Lacan’s so-called algorithm only in fact the bar itself; the fact that the relationship between signifier and signified, or signified and signifier, is an arbitrary one that can’t be crossed by evoking anything natural in the nature of the signified that calls forth the signifier. There they agree, but as to what produces what: Saussure is agnostic about it and Lacan insists that the big Sis that which generates the signified–that from which any possibility of grasping a signified arises and derives. So Lacan’s algorithm is, in fact, rather different from Saussure’s diagram.

Okay. Let’s exemplify this by going back to what I said about the red light [gestures to the board repeatedly throughout this paragraph]–right?–because here, too, I think we’ll have continuity. The red light over a door is a signifier which has a great deal to do with desire, right? This we take for granted. The red light in other contexts has nothing to do with desire, but the signifier, “red light over a door,” suggests desire–but desire for what? Well, we think we know “desire for what,” but look at the signifier. “Desire for the door,” right? What is the relationship between the signifier and what would seem to be the signified? That’s not what you desire. You don’t desire the door, and it’s the same with hommes et femmes, right? What is this hommes et femmes? Well, okay. The little girl says, “We’ve arrived at Gentlemen,” and the little boy says, “We’ve arrived at Ladies.” Well, that seems to be quite healthy, right? We’re on our way to something like hetero-normative desire–great, terrific.

But wait a minute. This hommes here: what is hommes? What does that have to do with the price of–the only thing you can do even behind this door is restore your personal comfort. It has nothing to do with hommes, right, or anything else for that matter. If the visible signified is in question, well, in what sense can we call this door hommes? Right? It’s the same with femmes. There is, in any case, in Lacan’s anecdote the wonderful existence of the railroad tracks, which for him constitutes the bar: that is to say, that owing to the nature of language, owing to the arbitrary relation of the signifier to the signified, the little boy and little girl–who are wonderful characters right out of Nabokov’s Ada–I don’t know if any of you know that novel, but the little boy is sort of a little genius, obviously Lacan, but his sister is even smarter than he is. “Idiot,” she says, just like a character in Nabokov, but both this little boy and little girl are barred from desire–from their desire–because they are already putting up with a substitute precisely insofar as they seem to be on track toward something like the hetero-normative expression of desire. It’s not an expression of desire at all. It’s an expression of need because they are not able to bring into being, consciousness, or before themselves the object of desire indicated by the signifier. The signifier is always displaced from the object of desire in precisely the ways that are borne out diagrammatically in these formulas.

Chapter 6. What Is Desire? [00:37:03]

All right. So what then is desire? Well, perhaps we’ve covered it: it is the endless deferral of that which cannot be signified in the metonymic movement of discourse, of dreaming, or of the way in which the unconscious functions. Lacan is very ingenious in, I think, convincingly showing us how it is that we get from one signifier to another: in other words, how what he calls the chain of the signifier works. You have a series of concentric rings [gestures to the board], but each concentric ring is made up of a lot of little concentric rings which hook on to associated surrounding signifiers in ways that could be variable. This, I think, very nicely re-diagrams Saussure’s sense of the associative structure of the vertical axis: that is to say, of the synchronic moment of language, the way in which some signifiers naturally cluster with other signifiers, and not just with one group of signifiers but a variety of groups of signifiers. But they don’t at all naturally cluster with just any or all signifiers, so that you get associative clusters in the axis of selection, and they are indicated by this [gestures to board]. As the chain of signifiers unfolds, the one or another of these possible associations links on–and remember all of these signifiers are made up, in turn, of a chain of concentric circles. So I think this is a rather good way of understanding the unfolding of metonymy.

Now every once in a while you get metaphor–whoa!–and it’s a moment to be celebrated in Lacan because it’s, as he says, “poetic” and it is also, as he says, in a number of places the manifestation, the only possible manifestation, of the symptom. What is the symptom? It is the awareness of the lack of an object of desire expressed in a displaced manner–that is to say, expressed in a manner which is not, however, completely obfuscatory of the lack of the object of desire, just sort of caught up in my endless babbling; but rather is that moment of pause in which there is a gathering together of signifiers and, ultimately, a substitution of one signifier for another in such a way that one says, “Aha. I see it. I can’t grasp it, I can’t have it, but I see it. I see the object of desire. I see what has been displaced by the very act of signification.” That’s what he calls “metaphor,” and he sees metaphor as appearing at these points de capiton. Think of this as a quilt. You know what I’m talking about: quilting knots, pins–no, not needles. That’s what you make a quilt with. [laughs> Those little buttons, quilting buttons, right? That’s what a quilt is like. It’s filled with something and then the stuffing is held in place by buttons. Right? So the stuffing of metonymic signification is held in place usefully for the analyst, for the reader, and for the interpreter by these quilting buttons or points de capiton.

So the example that Lacan gives is–as I say, he gives several examples. There are wonderful, dazzling readings, both with four lines from Valéry and of the one line from Victor Hugo. I focus on the Hugo because it’s a little easier, just the one line. He says, “There is something that happens in this line which is metaphoric,” and I’m delighted that he uses the word “sparks.” In other words, the metaphoric, the presence of the metaphor, is a spark. Remember I was talking about, in Wolfgang Iser, the need to gap a sparkplug: in other words, the need to have a certain distance between two points in order for the spark to happen. If it’s too close, it doesn’t happen; you just short out. If it’s too distant, it doesn’t happen because the distance is too great. So the spark that Lacan is talking about is the relationship–“his sheaves were neither miserly nor spiteful”–between Boaz and his sheaves; because the sheaves themselves which give of themselves–just as certain other things we could mention give of themselves–the sheaves themselves which give of themselves, and certainly are not miserly or spiteful for that reason–they’re generous, they’re open, they give, they feed us, etc., etc., etc.–are supposed, in metonymy, to indicate that Boaz is like that.

Look at the munificence of Boaz’s crop. It’s neither miserly nor spiteful, but as Lacan points out, the miserliness and spitefulness comes back in an unfortunate way precisely in that word “his”: [laughs] because if he is a possessor of the sheaf, he is–this involves the whole, as it were, structure of capitalist or Darwinian competition and involves, at least in an underlying way, all the elements of thrift, if you will, and competitive envy or spite, if you will, that seem to have been banished from the sentence. In other words, metaphorically speaking, Boaz returns in his absence. He substitutes. He is substituted for by the expression “his sheaves.” The possessive means that he is not the things that he’s said to be, metonymically speaking, and the sheaves themselves are precisely what he is in the Oedipal phase: that is to say, precisely what he is if he is objectified by a baby looking at him; but at the same time, not at all what or where we expected him to be. In other words, the point de capiton of the sentence, of the line, is the substitution of Boaz for his sheaves and his sheaves for Boaz. So the line has both a metonymic reading and a metaphoric reading.

Here I think you can see Lacan’s sense of the relation between metaphor or metonymy hovering between that of Jakobson or Brooks and that of de Man, because there seems to be an underlying irreducible tension between reading the line as though it says that Boaz was generous and free of spite, and reading the line as though it said that Boaz just necessarily–because he’s one who possesses something–is a person who has the characteristics of miserliness and spitefulness. The tension, in other words, seems to me to be in Lacan an irreducible one so that, at least in that regard, we can place him closer to de Man than we have to, say, Brooks or Jakobson; which isn’t to say that Jakobson is not the primary and central influence on Lacan’s way of thinking about the axis of combination. The appearance of metaphor on the axis of combination, the way in which we can identify these quilting buttons on the axis of combination, is nothing other than what Jakobson said and meant when he said that the poetic function is the transference of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination, right? I’m not saying–in speaking in passing of the sort of irreducible conflict one senses between metonymy and metaphor here–I’m not saying that Jakobson is not the primary influence behind Lacan’s thinking in this regard.

All right. Now Lacan says language is a rebus, as I’ve said, and he says the movement of the signifier, which is the movement of desire, is the articulation of a lack. That is to say, it is in the impossibility, as certain kinds of language philosophers would say, of making the signifier hook on to the signified or, as we might say, hook up with the signified–in the impossibility of doing that is precisely the impossibility of realizing an object of desire. So all of this should I hope now be clear.

So some of the consequences are that language–the most obvious consequence is, and this isn’t the first time or last time that we will have encountered this in various vocabularies and contexts–that “language thinks me.” On page 1142, the right-hand column, for example: “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” That is to say, that which brings my thinking into being is not present to me. It is it. It is the letter. It is the signified which perpetually evades us and which cannot possibly be present to us. I am not present to myself. I cannot be present to myself because what is present is the way in which my self comes into being in discourse which cannot identify me. It cannot identify me either as subject, or, in a phase of narcissism, supposing I can somehow or another re-imagine myself in the mirror phase, as an object of desire.

Chapter 7. Slavoj Žižek [00:46:50]

All right. So I actually think that without quite having meant to, I have pretty much exhausted what I have to say in outline about Lacan. I haven’t said nearly enough about the relationship between desire and need as it plots itself in our actual lives and in fiction, because the extraordinary thing about it is it’s not just a slogan from the Rolling Stones or from Lacan. As we think about it, it’s not that we’re not happy with our relationship with the things that we need: obviously we are, but the extraordinary thing about it is that we recognize in our lives, in the magical world of film–that is to say, the world of illusion deliberately promoted by film and in fiction–we recognize the absolutely central significance of this distinction.

That’s what’s so wonderful and amazing about the essay by Žižek you’ll be reading for next week called “Courtly Love,” which I love and which headlines, which features readings of a series of films in which the Lacanian distinction between the impossibility ever of achieving the Big Other–by the way, there are times in various kinds of fictional plots in which you can actually have the object of desire, but what always happens in plots like that is that the unconscious, the psyche, finds ways of rejecting it. I can’t have that–it’s my brother; or I can’t have that–it is in one form or another forbidden. In other words, in actuality, in the way in which the psyche works according to the structure of the films Žižek undertakes to analyze–and he’s so profuse in examples that he really does leave us feeling that there’s a kind of universality in what he’s saying–yeah, there are all kinds of object choices that can happen and do happen and may even seem satisfactory, but those are all objects, objets petit à; whereas the Big Other, that which is the true object of desire, is something that will perpetually evade possession.

Okay. So next time we’re actually talking about the anxiety of influence in Harold Bloom, and then in the ensuing lecture we’ll return in a way to Lacan when we take up Deleuze, Guattari and Slavoj Žižek. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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