From Das Ding to Objet Petit a, and Back Again

I was very privileged to have received a short comment (on my facebook wall) to my post on hysteria and Object Oriented Ontology from a colleague from the European Graduate School. I respect this individual’s opinion because she was very active and engaged during Slavoj Zizek’s seminars and her questions to Zizek seemed relevant to my own interests. In any case, she asked me, among other things, to locate the place of the psychoanalytical concept of das Ding within (or against) Badiou’s system. I am in fact much more interested in the place of the psychoanalytical concept of das Ding within Lacan’s own system. It seems to me that das Ding has always had the curious status of being a less mature version of objet petit a. But is this necessarily the case? Perhaps speculative realism allows us to re-read Lacan’s thinking on this concept in order to open up a wound in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Therefore, If I begin with Lacan, rather than with Badiou, then perhaps I will be better prepared to answer the original question.

Lacan benefited from Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic system by referring to signification as crucial to any understanding of psychical life. However, both Lacan and de Saussure excluded any sustained investigation of the referent. A referent, unlike the signifier or signified, occurs outside of the human animal and in the real world. Moreover, a referent exists beyond signification, beyond the place of signifiers and signifieds. If we follow Lacan’s teaching then we know that the only thing beyond signification is the Thing, that is, das Ding. Lacan made this claim numerous times in his 1959-1960 seminar on Ethics. However, little reference was made to Freud’s earliest attempt to distinguish between Thing (Ding) and Thing-presentations (Sache). In 1891, in On Aphasia: A Critical Study, Freud began to distinguish between Thing-presentations (Sache-Vorstellungen) and word-presentations (Wort-Vorstellungen). His claim was that any word acquires meaning only by becoming linked to the presentation of a Thing (Sache) rather than to the Thing itself (Ding). What is of interest for us is that Freud’s thinking about the Thing referred to something in the outside world. It was something like a referent; however, there was no other way to refer to things in the outside except by way of Sache – things as they are presented to our psyches – which was barred from the external world. Yet Thing-presentations, or Sache-Vorstellungen, weren’t necessarily faithful to the Thing of the outside world. There is thus a paradoxical disconnection between Things (external to the psyche) and Thing-presentations (internal to the psyche).

In 1915, in a text called “The Unconscious,”, Freud revived his discussion of the Thing but he placed it firmly within the unconscious, allowing no referent whatsoever. By far, this has been the most typical understanding of the Thing within the Freudian field. Thus, the Thing became entirely reduced to the psychical economy and acquired its status as one of the unique objects of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was certainly not supposed to be a philosophy, at least not entirely. Lacan was fond of calling philosophers his allies, but hardly were they his colleagues. Psychoanalysis did not care, as did philosophy, with the radical exteriority of the outside world. In any case, psychoanalysis was concerned with strictly human troubles and, more particularly, with the neuroses, perversions, and psychoses as clinical structures. And these human troubles were delimited by the parameters of the unconscious presentation of the Thing itself (Sache) and paired with the conscious presentation in the word (Wort). Freud’s thinking on this point is no doubt striking to keen students of Cultural Studies because of its resemblance to de Saussure’s linguistics. Freud wrote such prophetically Saussurean sentences as: “We learn to speak by associating a sound-image of a word with a sense of the innervation of a word.” Freud’s work can therefore be split between an early and perhaps somewhat naive version of the Thing as something that exists independent of the human animal (das Ding) and a more mature version which reduces the Thing to something that exists purely within the unconscious (die Sache). It was the later version of the Thing that helped psychoanalysis gain some ground as a unique discipline of thinking. Thus, the Thing of the unconscious fittingly received more attention and it was developed most credulously.

Unlike Freud, Lacan lived through the semiotic turn and was quickly seduced by the writings of de Saussure, Jakobson, and others. As a result of this seduction his formulation of the Thing eventually came to rely upon Freud’s later psychoanalytical understanding which brought Wort and Sache into some relationship with one another. In other words, Lacan eventually stopped teaching about the “secrets” of das Ding. However before dropping the concept he dedicated a significant portion of his 1959-1960 seminar on Ethics to this strange etymology of Wort, Sache, and Ding. He was most interested in the etymological distinction between the original German words for Thing: das Ding and die Sache. By way of his German-to-French translation, the closest word that he could come up with for either Ding or Sache was la chose. This French word seemed best because it related to the law in a way similar to that of das Ding and die Sache. La chose also related to something more concrete. More importantly, the Thing, in all of these variations, seemed to relate somehow to judicial matters. La chose, die Sache and das Ding were all etymologically connected to legal proceedings but das Ding also carried with it an understanding of the assembly itself insofar as it made any legal proceeding possible in the first place. Die Sache, on the other hand, referred to the Thing that was up for questioning. Lacan had a wonderful way of describing the Sache, he believed that it referred to “the transition to the symbolic order of a conflict between men.” He summed up all of these distinctions formally by writing: “Die Sache ist das Wort des Dinges [The affair is the word of the Thing].” Here we can see clearly that the different German words for Thing can not be used interchangeably precisely because the Thing is represented by the unconscious presentation of Die Sache precisely through consciousness as a Word [Wort].

All of this background is simply to provide you with the context for Lacan’s claim that das Ding and die Sache are not equivalent terms in their original German language. During the Ethics seminar Lacan made frequent reference to some earlier remarks by Mr. Lefevre-Pontalis whom seemed to conflate Sache and Ding into a similar Thing (most likely because of a poor translation of Freud’s 1915 text on the unconscious). Recall that Freud’s own understanding of the Thing was adjusted somewhere between 1891 and 1915. By 1915, the Thing no longer had any relation to the Thing of the external world because it existed within the unconscious (Sache) and in some relation to words (Wort). Lacan also claimed that words, or rather word-presentations (wort-vorstellungen), are linked to Sache (sach-vortstellung) at some level. The psychoanalytical understanding of the relation between a Thing and an object of the human world is therefore best described as the relation between Sache and Wort and not between Ding and Sache/Wort. In other words, for Freud all of psychical life can be reduced to the pairing of Sache and Wort. But the Ding is some-thing else altogether because it exists outside of the psychical life of the human animal. And this, precisely, is its power.

Yet we are led to believe that symbolic is the flower of the world for Lacan. This systematic reading obscures the disjunctions inherent to Lacan’s own thinking. Lacan made a statement in his Ethics seminar which at first appears paradoxical: “it is obvious that the things of the human world are things in a universe structured by words, that language, symbolic processes, dominate, govern all.” This would certainly seem to indicate that the symbolic is the pinnacle of Lacan’s thinking about the world, that the world is immediately within the symbolic and absolutely disconnected from the world of ding. Our first step must be to understand the logical priority in the preceding sentence: first, we begin from the human world and then we see that the symbolic processes of the human world govern things. It is the things of the human world that are structured by words. We are thus dealing with die Sache at this level and not das Ding. We can therefore rewrite the sentence to read: “it is obvious that the Sache of the human world are things in a universe structured by Wort, that language, symbolic processes, dominate, govern all.” One can only begin to wonder what happened to the original Ding, where did it go?

Symbolic processes dominate the external world but only from within the human world. We shall see that this ostensibly paradoxical position is made clearer by understanding the nature of this external world vis-a-vis the external world of the ding. The question of the animal world, that is, the question of the world of the Ding, is entirely bracketed by psychoanalysis proper. This bracketing is most apparent when Lacan claimed that: “When we seek to explore the frontier between the animal and the human world, it is apparent to what extent the symbolic process as such doesn’t function in the animal world – a phenomenon that can only be a matter of astonishment for us.” Of course we are entirely astonished by this, we are astonished with all of our being. We really are entirely caught up into symbolic processes, and human animals by their very nature seem to bracket the question of what it is to be a Ding or what it is to be an animal. Lacan spoke eloquently about this: “That man is caught up in symbolic processes of a kind to which no animal has access cannot be resolved in psychological terms, since it implies that we first have a complete and precise knowledge of what this symbolic process means.” We can not understand the animal world – a world that Lacan seems happy to unite with das Ding – precisely because it implies that we have the symbolic means to understand that which we are not; and this symbolization is precisely what is missing for the human animal.

And so it is not only psychoanalysis but also, ultimately, humanity as such that has for so long bracketed the question of the animal world. We can not understand the animal world or the world of Ding precisely because we can barely understand our own limitations as human animals. And so we are left with only the Sache which exists as a substitute for the Ding within the unconscious and which provides the foundation for our neuroses. Die Sache is a product of the phallic function and exists relative to the symbolic order as its inherent limitation: “The Sache is clearly the thing, a product of industry and of human action as governed by language.” The Sache is the object of our unconscious desire. We bring it to consciousness only by paying attention to it, learning to recognize it, taking notice of it; in other words, the Sache surfaces through analysis. Let us therefore reduce all of this to a fundamental claim that Sache and Wort are closely linked and form something like a couple for psychoanalysis. They are the key ingredients of psychoanalysis since the time of the linguistic turn. Das Ding once again is found elsewhere.

Freud linked das Ding to the reality principle from the very beginning of his thinking. Lacan believed that the reality principle was fundamentally linked to the pleasure principle and therefore had little to do with reality as it existed independent of the human animal. Surely, some connection existed between the reality principle and reality itself but the relationship was somewhat obscure in Lacan’s own teaching. Lacan therefore claimed that Ding was not entirely in a relationship to the reality principle. Ding was the true secret, it existed at the margin of thinking and at the margin of the reality principle. To be sure, the reality principle was thought to be triggered by the outside world but it was nonetheless entirely within range of the pleasure principle. The Ding withdraws from the reality principle precisely because the reality principle depends upon the pairing of Wort and Sache as the ingredients of psychical life. Lacan put it like this: “As soon as we try to articulate the reality principle so as to make it depend on the physical world to which Freud’s purposes seems to require us to relate it, it is clear that it functions, in fact, to isolate the subject from reality.” Thus, the reality principle exists for the benefit of the pleasure principle, its relationship to the outside world is one of withdrawing such that the outside world and the inner world of the psyche do not speak to one another in any clear way. This is therefore the true secret of das Ding: it withdraws from the human animal and has an existence outside of his symbolic processes, just as the human animal withdraws from the outside world by means of the reality principle such that the inner world is confirmed ever more vigorously. The Ding withdraws such that the subject of the phallic function becomes ever more isolated from it and its concomitant reality as such. The subject and the Ding are each something like windowless mirrors because they each reflect back, respectively, that which appears only in the other’s world.

The ding is therefore radically external to not only the human animal but also to the reality principle. Indeed, reality itself is radically external to the externality of the reality principle. The reality principle is thereby intimately connected to the pleasure principle in a way which allows for the delay of the impetus of the latter. The reality principle is nonetheless provoked by some-ding which alerts it to a change in the physical world. It brings forth something like a sign, in Lacan’s thinking, “to the extent that it alerts us to the presence of something that has, in effect, to do with the outside world; it signals to consciousness that it has to deal with the outside world.” We have learned that the subject is nevertheless barred from this outside world and so has to make do with the materials fashioned by its own psychical and sensual life. Lacan has even claimed that this coming to terms with the outside world as that which is within the subject’s purview as the reality principle is itself an outside world. In other words, the reality principle does not have much to do with the outside world qua reality but it is nonetheless something like an outside world qua inner-world of the human animal. The reality principle is the human animal’s unique manner of coming to terms with the outside world by only from within its own symbolic coordinates. We thus note that Lacan was not naive in his understanding of the centrality of symbolic processes in the life of the human animal, he did not naively believe that the world was reduced to man’s relation to it. Rather, he simply bracketed the question of the world’s existence independent of the human animal probably in order to found his new school of psychoanalysis (or, at least, to maintain the fundamental decisional structure of Freudian orthodoxy). Moreover, he realized that there really was something about being a human animal that can be fundamentally isolating in terms of its experience vis-a-vis the outside world.

What was truly alien to Lacan’s decidedly psychoanalytic work was the radically external world of the Ding, the world of animals, rocks, doughnuts, flutes, cookies, guitars, and trees. However, he did admit that the Ding was to be regarded as fundamentally alien to the human animal. Lacan claimed that “[t]he Ding is the element that is initially isolated by the subject in his experience of Nebenmensch as being by its very nature alien, Fremde.” And, of course, the concrete and material world has always been somehow alien to human animals. We’ve only ever been able to relate to things the way we relate to words or to our unconscious presentations of them. I suppose that if we are to understand what is alien we must begin by asking ourselves – “What is an Alien or the Ding?” or “What are we, as human animals, to aliens or the Ding?” This is quite different than the question which has motivated most of Lacan’s work, which can be summed up as: “What is reality for the human animal?” As I have demonstrated, that which was decided as the ultimate reality for the human animal within Lacanian psychoanalysis has been related to that which reigns from within the place of the unconscious. The clever reader will have noticed that these questions are similar in form to the traditional hysterical questions. I shall return to this point at a later time, for now what is important is that subjectivity is first of all related, and has its entire orientation, around the alien Ding. Lacan even went so far as to call it the first outside. Well, if there is a first then there must be a second! The first outside would be forever lost to the symbolic processes of subjectivity and replaced by another human reality called objet petit a. But the Ding has it within its purview to remain lost whereas the objet petit a allows itself to be put to use for the symbolic processes. Indeed, the symbolic processes depend upon objet petit a. On the other hand, the ding can not be organized in any satisfying way for the human animal, the belief that it can be organized for the human animal constitutes humanity’s fundamental hallucination, the objet petit a.

The nature of subjectivity is such that it always keeps its distance from Ding. Ding is prior to repression as such and hence prior to the phallic function. Indeed, Lacan claimed that Ding is its own primordial function: “As far as das Ding is concerned, that is something else. Das Ding is a primordial function which is located at the level of the initial establishment of the gravitation of the unconscious Vorstellungen.” Thus, the first choice of subjectivity, the failure of which can only invite psychosis, is a choice made in relation to the Ding but on the side of the neuroses. It is the primordial choice: “Right at the beginning of the organization of the world in the psyche, both logically and chronologically, das Ding is something that presents and isolates itself as the strange feature around which the whole movement of the Vorstellung turns.” The whole movement of the Vostellung revolves around the Ding precisely because the Ding is that which governs the symbolic apparatus from a distance. This is the nature of the Dingifying function. Thus, whereas the reality principle is fundamentally linked to the pleasure principle, the ding function is at a distance from the pleasure principle and the reality principle, thereby offering a new gravity which is not reducible to the phallic function. This is the invisible law of pleasure, invisible precisely because it has been bracketed. Again we meet the paradox that the ding function sustains the integrity of the pleasure principle insofar as the pleasure principle is pulled by the gravity of the ding but it is moved by the ding only through its own principle of pleasure, through its reality principle. The ding has a power but its power exists precisely in its absence. From the standpoint of the pleasure principle and of the Vorstellungen, the ding is absent and strange. It is the alien of psychoanalysis itself.

Lacan notes that the Ding exists within a place and that place is what he calls the real. The power of the ding is manifested through its absence in relation to the human animal and this absence is one that always returns to its place in the real. In other words, nothing overcomes this absence, not even the objet petit a. Much like Quentin Meillessoux’s arche-fossil, the ding is “posited as exterior, as the prehistoric Other,” insofar as it is exterior it is absolutely external to the human animal, and insofar as it is pre-historic it is before the Symbolic processes of human life. If it is before the symbolic order, and therefore before the phallic function inaugurating human life. The ding is therefore not the objet petit a. The reason for this is actually quite simple: objet petit a is what is left of the ding-relation, its residue, after the constitution of the symbolic order. Something insists from the place of the real and it is an insistence which limits the symbolic order from its own presentations. Recall that sexuation is always in relation to the phallic function at some level for both human animals (masculine and feminine) and that, in the case of masculine sexuation for example, we can write in good faith S2/a←∀xΦx,which reads every human animal is submitted to the phallic function on the condition of his having some knowledge, but this knowledge is always cut by the object cause of desire. The objet petit a is therefore an object that occurs as a consequence of the ding’s relation to the phallic function and to the constitution of the symbolic order as such.

Before the demand of the human animal toward his or her master there is the demand of the ding. It is the arche-fossil of the psychoanalytic field.For Meillessoux, an arche-fossil demands that the human animal begin to think about the possibility of a world of things pre-existing human life. The arche-fossil is a material trace that, while existing prior to the symbolic order of human life, invites the human animal to consider that the world is not always the way in which we relate to it, as if through the Lacanian reality principle. It is a demand that persists, repeats, and returns. It therefore seems to relate fundamentally to the law inasmuch as the law is symbolic and insists on meaning. But the thing is not the law, it is not the father precisely because it has absolutely nothing to do with the real qua symbolic. It exists within the real qua real and, if you like, the symbolic qua real. Certainly, the law becomes possible by means of theding but the ding exists independent of symbolic law. It is both relative to the law and yet also some-ding outside of the it. The question which opens itself up here, like a wound in Lacan’s and Freud’s early discourses, is the extent to which the ding exists independent of the human animal. In this wound of Lacan’s teaching, opened up by das Ding, I note a necessity to articulate this non-psychoanalytical concept which has since dropped from usage in Lacanian circles. In other words, the Ding opens psychoanalysis up to something else.

This question opens itself up precisely because ding is not entirely reducible to objet petit a. At one level, I have attempted to demonstrate that these are fundamentally different concepts. The ding is radically external, non-human, and primordial. The objet petit a is intimately external, humanly non-human, and relative to the symbolic order. The ding swallows the subject and yet also constitutes him as such. The objet petit a swallows reality in order to constitute it for the subject. In discussing ding we note the repetition in the form of an insistence through Lacan’s teaching which marks it as primordial, primitive, at the very beginning. I believe that it was not by accident that Lacan continuously qualified the Ding in this way. However, as far as I am aware, he did not do the same for objet petit a. Das Ding thereby swallows objet petit a insofar as it exists as the remnant of the Thing after humanity’s birth via the phallic function. Zizek put this distinction very well at one time, he wrote: “das Ding is the absolute void, the lethal abyss which swallows the subject; while objet petit a designates that which remains of the Thing after it has undergone the process of symbolization.” Das Ding is much more obscure than objet petit a precisely because it swallows the subject into the world of things – it is the true secret of psychoanalysis. To ask the question “What am I as a ding?” reveals the answer that humanity is perhaps not prepared to accept: they are things just as much as any other thing. The ding about the human animal is that, at base, he is a thing among things. The ding function is therefore next to the subject and yet also at the very core of subjectivity.

I have thereby noted that das Ding has several characteristics. First, das Ding is beyond signification and therefore beyond the signified. Second, das Ding is neither the word-presentations (Wort-vorstellungen) of consciousness nor the thing-presentations of the unconscious (Sache-vorstellungen). Third, das Ding was an early and more philosophical version of the Thing and was originally posited by Freud and Lacan as external to the human animal in some sense; the concept was therefore dropped as psychoanalysis made its decision to become a unique formulation about the human animal and his neuroses, perversions, and psychoses. Thus, the animal world, and indeed the world of Things, was bracketed as a question. Fourth, the Ding was not entirely tied up with the reality principle for Lacan precisely because the reality principle was too intimately tied up with the pleasure principle. The Ding was radically external to even the unconscious. Fifth, the Ding was primordial, primitive, per-historic, radically Other, pre-symbolic, and so on. It was like the arche-fossil insofar as it forced us to imagine a world outside of us living in it. Sixth, the ding, like the phallus, can also be understood as a function. Finally, I want to add that there was only the Ding, in the singular – not Things in the plural.

All of this returns me to the most fundamental point: a decision was made in Lacanian psychoanalysis to bracket the outside world of Things. Jacques-Alain Miller, one of Lacan’s most respected disciples, made this decision most clear in his introduction to Lacan’s Television:

One can, however, by means of something which is not reverie but rather a metaphysical method, suspend one’s belief in external reality, lending credence to an entirely inner one—that of Descartes’ cogito. And in fact it was upon the basis of this cogito, the residue of this hyperbolic disaster, that Lacan came up with the idea of grounding the subject to which psychoanalysis applies: the subject of the unconscious. [...] You recall that, confronted with the Wolf man, Freud stubbornly tried to coordinate statements with facts; indeed, he wanted to establish what was the case, and hone in on—in external reality—the primal scene in which he saw what his patient could not say. But hasn’t it been established that he gave up that method? And that no analyst since has had recourse to it? And that if there is such a thing as verification in analysis, it is within the patient’s statements? This accounts for the fact that the kind of speech involved in the experience which stems from Freud’s work has no outside.

What did this decision to bracket external reality leave for psychoanalysis? Precisely the objet petit a as the human partof the Ding situated uniquely within the place of the real which I shall call the second-order real. The second order real is the real situated uniquely as a gap or impasse within the symbolic order. Again, Miller wrote: “[...] when you thus encounter impossibility, you encounter reality – not ‘external reality,’ but a reality in some sense within discourse which results from its impasses. This impasse-reality is what Lacan, in his terms, calls the ‘real.’ [...] The real depends upon the logic of discourse, the latter delimiting or closing in on the real with its impasses; thus the real is not a ‘thing-in-itself’” Miller’s real is the real we’ve understood for so long within the Lacanian field – it is the ground upon which Lacanian analysts walk. It is the result of a decision that we made when we became Lacanian psychoanalysts. It is a real which is situated within the human animal (situated within external reality). Already it becomes necessary to use brackets to refer to the real. On the one hand, there is the subject bracketed by the first order real, the place within which the ding is located. On the other hand, the objet petit a of the second order real is bracketed by the human animal as the decided subject of psychoanalysis.

Note: Vorstellung roughly translates from German into idea-image or (re)presentation. However, this translation is problematic for the purposes of the seminar we are currently dealing with. I much prefer to use the definition that Jacques-Alain Miller has used: “In The Ethics [Seminar VII], Vorstellung is the Symbolic itself – what Lacan will formalize a few years later with the representation of the subject by the signifier. The definition, in the Lacanian sense, of Vorstellung refers thus to the Symbolic and not to the Imaginary.” Jacques-Alain Miller. (2008) “Extimity,” The Symptom, No. 9. As Retrieved on April 6th, 2013 from <http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=36&gt;

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2 thoughts on “From Das Ding to Objet Petit a, and Back Again

  1. Pingback: An (Ostensibly) Ridiculous New Contradiction | dingpolitik

  2. Pingback: Hypertranscription: Alain Badiou, Localizing the Void | dingpolitik

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